For the first time this season we are seeing some life out of the Eastern Conference in these rankings — they have three of the top six teams in the Rankings. However, the top spot still goes to the West and it’s a new team — Portland. They are top 10 in offense and defense and that’s the ultimate sign of being legit.
1. Trail Blazers (26-7. Last Week No. 2). They have won nine of 10 and are 2-1 in games that LaMarcus Aldridge has missed recently. They are 15-2 at home — if they can hold their ground in a deep West home court could be huge for them in the playoffs. UPDATED: They passed a big test Tuesday night against Toronto and and there is another once coming against Atlanta on Saturday.
2. Bulls (21-9, LW 10). They have won six in a row and what should really scare teams is they are doing it with offense more than defense. They have looked like the best team in the East of late, they are healthy, and if they can stay that way the road to the Finals out East will go through the Windy City.
3. Warriors (24-5, LW 1). They lost both games in Los Angeles last week — without Andrew Bogut teams have found you can go at them and get shots in the paint. Bogut is going to miss a couple more weeks at least but the good news is the Warriors are home for six of the next seven.
4. Rockets (21-8, LW 8). What the Rockets hope Josh Smith brings them is depth and versatility up front. They got that in his first game as a Rocket — they fed him heavily late in the game and in overtime because Vince Carter was trying to guard him. Smith wasn’t efficient (9-of-21 shooting for 21 points) but it got the job done and the Rockets won. However, against the Spurs Sunday he was 2-of-7 shooting and largely a non-factor. The jury is still out on this pickup, but it was low risk (only $2 million).
5. Raptors (24-7, LW 6). They picked up a quality win on the road against the Clippers, plus they got 61 points out of Lou Williams and Kyle Lowry against Denver. They are a very impressive 11-4 without DeMar DeRozan and have the best offense in the NBA so far this season.
6. Hawks (22-8, LW 7). They are 15-2 in their last 17 and that includes wins over the Clippers, Mavericks, Rockets, Bulls and Cavaliers. Good test against Portland this week, but the Hawks are showing they are legit.
7. Mavericks (22-10, LW 4). It’s small sample size theater but the Mavericks are defending better since Rajon Rondo arrived, which is what they needed most out of him. What is evident is they need another big behind Tyson Chandler — Jermaine O’Neal may be that guy but he’s undecided about coming back. Even without Chandler that was a quality win Sunday over the Thunder.
8. Grizzlies (22-8, LW 3) They dropped four in a row before beating the Heat on Saturday, and their defense hasn’t been the rock it was. The good news for them is that after the Spurs this week the schedule softens up for a short while (as much as it can in the West, anyway.
9. Clippers (20-11, LW 5). Yes, they picked up a quality win over the Warriors on Christmas Day, but the best thing any Clipper did last week was Spencer Hawes’ suit on Christmas Day. That was real and it was spectacular.
10. Suns (18-14, LW 12). Winners of six in a row, but that is how the Suns seem to run — red hot then ice cold (they had lost six in a row before this). You’d like to think this latest streak means they found their groove, but I’m not convinced yet because the defense still isn’t that great, just average, and the offense will only carry them so far.
11. Spurs (19-13, LW 9). They have dropped six of their last eight games and may be without Tony Parker — the catalyst for their offense — for “a while” due to his recurring hamstring injury. Still, good luck finding anyone around the league willing to write off the Spurs, we’ve all seen their obituaries before only to watch them rise up.
12. Wizards (21-8, LW 11). Sure, it was only beating the Knicks, but Washington’s win on Christmas Day showed why this team has a legitimate chance to make the Eastern Conference Finals. The reason is their defense — at 99.2 points per 100 possessions it is the best in the East (and fourth best in the NBA overall). That and John Wall can carry them a long way.
13. Thunder (15-17, LW 15). It’s not easy to string together consistent wins in the West, especially with Kevin Durant missing time with a sprained ankle. A few losses has them now three games back of the red-hot Suns in the race for the final playoff spot in the West, four back of the seven seed Spurs. I still expect the Thunder get there, but the path is not that easy.
14. Cavaliers (18-12 LW 11). The finger pointing at coach David Blatt has begun, and there are legit questions about if he can reach this team. That said, the best player in the NBA said he was in “chill mode” against Orlando until Tobias Harris trash talked him. The Cavaliers can’t win with LeBron in chill mode, they need him to step up and be a real leader. And that might start with hustling back on defense.
14. Pelicans (15-15, LW 15). Despite the gaudy block numbers of Anthony Davis — pretty much all AD’s stats are gaudy — the Pelicans are 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. They brought in Omer Asik to solidify the defense and if that’s not happening coach Monty Williams is going to feel his seat getting very warm.
16. Bucks (15-16, LW 16). This team has had to deal with a lot of injuries and credit Jason Kidd for finding lineups that continue to work. Even Jared Dudley is having the kinds of big games (10-for-10 shooting nights) the Clippers had hoped for last season.
17. Heat (14-17, LW 18). Chris Bosh is set to return Monday, which should help the Heat’s spacing and their offense. Miami was 3-5 during a long home stand without Bosh and their offense has been three points per 100 better when he is on the court this season.
18. Kings (13-17, LW 19). Well, firing the coach has really fixed everything. The Kings do have DeMarcus Cousins back and did beat the Knicks Saturday (in overtime, thanks to 39 from Cousins) but they still aren’t defending so they still don’t win consistently. Which is what Malone had been preaching.
19. Nets (13-16, LW 21). Lionel Hollins is finding it was a lot easier to put together a quality offense around Marc Gasol than it has been with the ingredients the Nets have given him. Challenging road games vs. Bulls and Heat up for the Nets this week.
20. Nuggets (13-18, LW 17). You still see flashes from them, but nothing consistent. In fact, the weak play has been worse in the last month, this seems to be a team regressing as it moves along.
21. Magic (12-21, LW 23). Things I didn’t expect to type — the Magic are the nine seed in the East, just three games back of Brooklyn and Miami for making the playoffs. They’ve won two of three and were up on the Cavaliers (until Tobias Harris started barking at LeBron James).
22. Jazz (10-20, LW 26). More from Derrick Favors, speaking to PBT, about the improvements in the Utah offense: “That’s one of the things Quin talked to the whole team about coming in, was the spacing on the floor, particularly on the pick-and-roll with me and whichever guard is in it. It’s always open for the guard or they dish to me and I drive to the basket to make a play, or for whoever is on the perimeter they get a wide-open jump shot, a wide open three. That’s something Quin really talked to us about.”
23. Hornets (10-21, LW 22). They had played well without Lance Stephenson (coincidence?) but even a 42-point night from Kemba Walker can’t get them a win. The bigger issue for this team remains the slip in defense from top five last season to 19th so far this season.
24. Pistons (7-23, LW 27). They upset the Cavaliers and had their best offensive showing of the season and won two in a row since they waived Josh Smith. Coincidence? I think not. It doesn’t mean the Pistons will rattle off 10 wins in a row, but they are finding a comfort with the offense now.
25. Pacers (11-21, LW 24). George Hill is back and while he has been much maligned in Indy he is a needed talent with this roster. Some challenging games ahead with Chicago, Miami and Milwaukee up this week.
26. Celtics (10-18, LW 20). I expect you’ll start seeing Brandan Wright showcased more as Danny Ainge will want to trade him again at the deadline. The Celtics have lost four in a row and their offense has been the reason. It’s not pretty.
27. Lakers (9-22, LW 22). No, the Lakers are not better without Kobe Bryant. However, what they are is more predictable and easy to defend on offense — when Kobe is pounding the ball in an isolation set everyone else stands around, the Lakers become predictable. The offense needs to be less a shrine to Kobe and more about player movement — and it was on Sunday night against the Suns. But the Lakers still lost.
28. 76ers (4-25, LW 28). They have a Top 10 NBA defense. Seriously. They 10th in defensive efficiency. The fact that they have just four wins on the season speaks to just how anemic the offense is. They are on a rough West Coast road trip this week with the Warriors, Suns and Clippers coming up this week.
29. Timberwolves (5-24, LW 29). Losers of eight in a row but the cavalry may be on the horizon — Ricky Rubio is practicing a little and could be back on the floor in a couple of weeks. They play the Jazz twice and the Kings this week, it’s a good chance to end that losing streak.
30. Knicks (5-27, LW 30). They have lost seven in a row and 18-of-19. In the last game Carmelo Anthony did not return after halftime with a sore left knee, so the team leaned heavily on Tim Hardaway Jr. and Cole Aldrich for offense. That pretty much sums it up.