What we see in December is not always a great predictor of what we see in the playoffs, but the Clippers look very good lately. Better than their more talked about roommate in Los Angeles.
1. Thunder (19-4, Last week ranked No. 1). They are the winners of 10 in a row. I still think they lost some playmaking they will miss with the James Harden trade, but that is balanced out with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant coming back this season better players than they were. Durant is shooting 54 percent during the Thunder winning streak. Looking forward to the Christmas Day rematch with Miami.
2. Clippers (17-6, LW 4). Winners of nine in a row and playing as well as anyone in the land right now — over their last 10 games the Clippers have the second best defense and seventh best offense in the NBA. Also, Lamar Odom is playing well as he rounds into shape. Soft schedule this week (Pistons, Hornets, Kings, Suns).
3. Knicks (18-5, LW 3). Winners of four in a row (including against the Nets, who they see again this week) and they have the best offense in the land. But the Knicks defense isn’t what it was last season — 17th in league overall (in points per possession allowed) and they have struggled with the pick and roll as well as guys in isolation. Need to clean that up as the season wears on. Stoudemire may return to practice this week.
4. Heat (15-6, LW 6). They are 11-2 at home (with a home heavy early schedule) and three of their next four are at home, ending with a Christmas Day finals rematch with the Thunder. Then they head out on the road where they are a .500 team.
5. Spurs (19-6, LW 2). While their defense has been good this season, they have struggled to contain speedy point guards in the pick and roll (doesn’t everyone?) and their rotations to shooters have been a step slow (shot up shooters hitting 43.7 percent overall 39.8 percent from three, that is bottom 10 in the league for San Antonio). You expect the Spurs will clean that up.
6. Warriors (16-8, LW 8). They went 6-1 on a seven game road trip beating the Heat and Hawks — they have made their “look at me” statement. And don’t forget, this is a team that gets Andrew Bogut back and if he is near his old self that gives them a very good defensive center to add to the mix.
7. Grizzlies (15-6, LW 5). They are returning to earth as their offense slipped recently — in their last five games they are shooting 40 percent as a team. Not sure John Hollinger can help that — there are serious questions about his lateral quickness — but he is still a fantastic front office hire.
8. Hawks (14-7, LW 7). They lost to the Heat and Warriors last week, following their pattern of struggling against better teams. Thunder, Sixers and Bulls on the schedule this week to provide some tests.
9. Bulls (13-9, LW 11). Quality wins last week over the Knicks, Nets and 76ers (only loss was to the Clippers). They have four straight road wins. Tom Thibodeau has this team playing hard, defending, but at some point he does need to worry about Luol Deng and Joakim Noah each playing more than 40 minutes a game (they are 1-2 in the league in minutes per game).
10. Celtics (12-11, LW 9). Avery Bradley returned to practice Monday, which is good news. However, he is not going to help their offense, which has really been the weak link in recent weeks and the end of the court they need to get going. Start by cutting down the turnovers.
11. Bucks (12-10, LW 12). They had an ugly loss to the Clippers, but that happens when your starting backcourt shoots 7-of-27. That remains the key in Milwaukee — when just one of Brandon Jennings or Monta Ellis gets going they can win games, but if both are off they flounder.
12. Nets (13-10, LW 13). They are 1-1 with the Knicks now, with another game ahead this week. In the PBT podcast speaking with New York local and Nets legend Kenny Anderson he said that he thinks New York is now and for a long time will be a Knicks town where the Nets can carve out a niche.
13. Nuggets (13-12, LW 17). They were 3-1 last week and I’d like to think they are starting to play good defense, get out and run and they are going to find their groove. One reason to be bullish on their future — they have played 14 road games and 7 at home.
14. Timberwolves (12-9, LW 18). Three straight wins and when they got Ricky Rubio back they looked like a different team Saturday. I’d say this is where they start to go on a winning streak but this week’s schedule includes the Heat, Thunder and Knicks.
15. Jazz (13-12, LW 14). They beat the Spurs but lost to the Grizzlies last week, which isn’t bad. The ugly loss to the Suns, that is bad. They remain a bottom 10 defensive team in the league so inconsistency is what you get.
16. Lakers (11-14, LW 16). The Lakers have two wins in a row on the road, which this season actually passes for something they should celebrate. What they really should celebrate is the return of Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, both of which could come this week.
17. Pacers (13-11, LW 19). They have a three game winning streak as Paul George seems to be finding his footing as the offensive leader of this team. If he can keep playing like this when Danny Granger returns we may have something.
18. 76ers (12-12, LW 10). Three losses last week to the Bulls, Pacers and Lakers, but the bigger loss was Jrue Holiday to a foot injury — without him and Andrew Bynum they are lost on offense. Immediate concern is 10 of their next 11 are on the road.
19. Rockets (11-11, LW 20). They have lost seven straight on the road as they head into Madison Square Garden Monday night. One thing that became clear after Jeremy Lin’s 38-point outburst against the Spurs with James Harden out — Lin still can’t find his place in the offense working off the ball a little when Harden is in the game.
20. Trail Blazers (11-12, LW 21). They continue to get nights of individual brilliance from guys — Nicolas Batum with the 5×5 on Sunday, some huge nights from Damian Lillard as he tries to lock up Rookie of the Year in December. Sometimes that translates to wins. Sometimes not.
21. Mavericks (11-13, LW 15). They have lost three straight games and a peak at the schedule suggests that may continue — they play the Spurs twice, Heat, Grizzlies, Thunder and Nuggets to close out 2012. Thanks for that, schedule makers.
22. Magic (10-13, LW 22). Don’t tell anyone, but coach Jacque Vaughn has them playing really good defense lately. That’s how they beat the Warriors this week when the Heat couldn’t.
23. Suns (9-15, LW 26). They beat the Jazz and Grizzlies last week — they are not going to just roll over after a seven-game losing streak. Phoenix is 7-5 at home and four of their next five are there.
24. Pistons (7-19, LW 23). They have a four-game losing streak. What can I say Piston fans but try to find hope in the flashes of good play from Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight. There is the start of a better future there.
25. Raptors (6-19, LW 27). Raptors fans are angry and Bryan Colangelo seems to be the target. Which makes sense, do you see a plan with how they are building? That said, a couple come-from behind wins at home last week should pump the fans up a little.
26. Kings (7-15, LW 24). They got tested on the road last week and went 0-3. And they were all pretty ugly, blowout losses. Throw in the DeMarcus Cousins suspension and they are lucky to be this high in the rankings.
27. Cavaliers (5-20, LW 29). Everything changes with Kyrie Irving back in the lineup — his performances don’t always mean wins but it means the Cavs will be competitive most nights. Which is a change from when he was out.
28. Hornets (5-17, LW 28). Getting Anthony Davis back isn’t the answer, they have lost six in a row. What’s troublesome is their usually porous defense was better the last couple games and they still lost because the offense collapsed.
29. Wizards (3-18, LW 30). Passing up James Harden? Really? John Wall can start “ramping up” his workouts, but in the mean time they keep finding a way to win a game a week, which is better than the…
30. Bobcats (7-16, LW 25). They have lost 11 games in a row and now head out on a West Coast road trip that includes the Lakers, Nuggets and red-hot Warriors. Not good at all. Their defense is just dreadful.