How does an Atlanta vs. Golden State NBA Finals sound? It’s not out of the question, the Hawks are for real and with Andrew Bogut back the Warriors may well be the best of the West. Of course, there’s a lot of basketball to play and with the arms race in the West the balance of power could shift again out there.
1. Hawks (29-8, Last Week No. 1). They have won eight in a row and last week that included wins over the Clippers, Grizzlies and Wizards. In their last five games they have outscored their opponents by 14.2 points per 100. On the season they are fifth in the league in defense, sixth in offense. Tell me again why can’t this team come out of the East?
2. Warriors (29-5, LW 2). They have won six in a row and now they have Andrew Bogut back in the rotation to strengthen their defense. More scary than that, the Warriors are really starting to find their groove on offense — they have the best offense in the NBA over the last 10 games.
3. Trail Blazers (30-8. Last Week No. 4). Coach Terry Stotts said after they beat the Clippers Sunday that he sends quotes to his players almost every day from famous people and that the last few have been about process — to take things day-to-day. That as well as they are playing now they need to be better by May. To a man believe they are legit title contenders now.
4. Bulls (26-12, LW 3). That Derrick Rose had to sit out a game with a sore knee is a concern, even if Pau Gasol did carry them to a win. Also of concern is Mike Dunleavy’s slow recovery from a sprained ankle. Fun showdown with Atlanta on Saturday night, too bad it’s the second night of a back-to-back for the Bulls.
5. Spurs (23-15, LW 8). Even with all the injuries — they are still without Kawhi Leonard — and juggled lineups the Spurs have won four of five and are 23-15 this season. It still feels to me like they will string together a run soon.
6. Rockets (26-11, LW 9). James Harden is a legitimate MVP candidate putting up 27-6-6 a game (and before you say something about his defense, he starts on the second best defensive team in the league, it’s improved). When he gets more help on offense this team is scary.
7. Clippers (25-13, LW 7). Sunday seemed to sum up the Clippers — they should have been able to beat the Heat but a combination of a lack of both bench play and consistent defense from their bigs did them in. If the regular season is about building good habits for the playoffs then the Clippers are behind a lot of other top six teams in the West.
8. Mavericks (26-12, LW 5). Lakers coach Byron Scott on the late Roy Tarpley, who passed away last week at age 50: “The thing that stood out about Roy is he was an unbelievable athlete and a great basketball player. Hell of a rebounder. He gave us fits, he was a tough cover for everybody. Obviously we’re all saddened that he passed away.”
9. Grizzlies (26-11, LW 6).
In their last 10 games the Grizzlies they are allowing 104.2 points per 100 possessions, 21st in the league and about seven more per 100 than they did in the first month of the season. I like the pickup of Jeff Green, he gives them more athleticism on the wing, but this team has to start to defend again (it did better Sunday vs. Phoenix).
10. Raptors (25-11, LW 10). They snapped their four-game losing streak against the Celtics over the weekend, which is nice but this team still misses DeMar DeRozan. Interesting tests this week against the improving Pistons and the red-hot Hawks.
11. Suns (22-18, LW 13). The pick up of Brandan Wright was a great fit — he’s athletic, can run the floor as well as the pick-and-roll with all those guards, and he gives them another shot blocker. Just don’t think he’s a stretch four. This is an upgrade behind Alex Len. If the Thunder want the eighth playoff spot they need to catch Phoenix, this team is not going to just roll over.
12. Wizards (25-12, LW 12). Quality win over the Bulls reminds us that the Wizards, when healthy, can look like a team that can do damage in the playoffs. Then on Sunday they got just thumped by the Hawks and looked like a team well back of the best in the East. Is this team still maybe a second round playoff team at best?
13. Thunder (18-19, LW 11). They lost both games on the road last week and are 7-12 away from home this season, which isn’t ideal with 6 of their 7 seven on the road (and their one home game is Golden State). They are 2.5 games out of the playoffs, and with Phoenix picking up some wins and Russell Westbrook slumping the “could OKC miss the playoffs?” questions are out there.
14. Pelicans (18-18, LW 14). I love that the fans are voting Anthony Davis in as an All-Star Game starter, he’s more than earned that with his play this season. I just wish the rest of his team were more consistent, they really can beat or lose to anyone on any given night.
15. Bucks (20-19, LW 15). Are we trying to punish England? This week the Bucks — playing fantastic defense of late — will take on the offensively anemic Knicks in London. That could get ugly. At least the fine people of Europe can get an up close look at how Giannis Antetokounmpo has developed.
16. Cavaliers (19-19 LW 16). They have lost five in a row and are now 1-8 on the season without LeBron James. This team relies on him like the Cavs of old used to. That didn’t work then and will not now, this team needs defense and an identity. All the trades — getting J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and particularly Timofey Mozgov — brought upgrades to the roster, but it doesn’t solve the bigger problems.
17. Heat (16-21, LW 17). They may have found something in Hassan Whiteside, who fits in their system well because of his hustle and energy — he outplayed DeAndre Jordan Sunday. The Heat split the first two games of the rough West Coast road swing they are in the middle of.
18. Pistons (13-24, LW 21). . The Pistons in the playoffs? Don’t laugh. They are just three games back of the Nets and Heat (tied for the 7/8 seeds) and Detroit is 8-2 in their last 10. They could make up this ground, which would be a huge story.
19. Nuggets (17-20, LW 23). As their backcourt goes so goes Denver and recently Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo have played well, so the Nuggets have won four in a row. Trading Timofey Mozgov has opened up minutes for Jusuf Nurkic and he has been a player to watch.
20. Hornets (15-24, LW 25). They have won five in a row and now are just two games out of the playoffs in the East, which is pretty amazing considering their start. It also speaks to just where the bottom half of the East is at.
21. Pacers (15-24, LW 20). Another team just two games out of the playoffs and with hope to climb in thanks to their defense. Still that loss to Philly felt like a setback. If they want to make it in they need to beat other teams trying to climb that ladder like Detroit and Charlotte, both of whom are on the docket this week.
22. Kings (16-21, LW 22). They beat the Thunder and Cavaliers last week, but lost to the Nuggets in between. DeMarcus Cousins should make the All-Star team in the West, but the conference is so overloaded that some very deserving players will be on the outside looking in.
23. Jazz (13-25, LW 19). I loved Trevor Booker’s shot of the year. More than that, I loved that Enes Kanter returned from injury and Quin Snyder left Rudy Gobert in the starting lineup.
24. Nets (16-21, LW 18). They have lost five in a row and it’s not like they were playing a murder’s row — it’s just that the Nets are playing poorly. That gives the Hornets, Pacers and Pistons real hope they could make the postseason.
25. Lakers (12-26, LW 26). There’s a lot of speculation around the Lakers that there is something more wrong with Kobe Bryant than just needing rest (he has missed 3-of-4 and 6-of-11), but Byron Scott denies it. What can’t be denied is Nick young’s slump, he is shooting 25 percent in his last five games and 17.2 percent from three. They need his points.
26. Magic (13-27, LW 24). They have lost six in a row and their offense has gone AWOL, which is bad news with the Bulls, Rockets, Grizzlies and Thunder coming up this week.
27. Celtics (12-23, LW 27). The Celtics fire sale gives them a lot of picks. This next draft they have theirs (which is going to be quite high), the Clippers first, and three second rounders (and two of those are high second round). Celtics fans will be watching a lot of college ball for a while.
28. 76ers (7-29, LW 28). They have won two in a row and three of four, and they are doing it playing solid defense. The offense is still a work in project, but with the game on the line last week Michael Carter-Williams made plays.
29. Timberwolves (5-31, LW 29). Andrew Wiggins is going to be the Rookie of the Year. The only other guy really in the conversation is Nikola Mirotic of the Bulls — he’s playing key rotation minutes for one of the East’s best teams — but I have a hard time seeing voters giving it to the experienced European.
30. Knicks (5-35, LW 30). They head to London for a game this week against the Bucks. Go ahead and insert your “why should we subject the English to this torture” joke here. That said, this is good for Derek Fisher and his team because it’s not many games with extra practices. This team could use that.