Traditionally when you get to Christmas and look at the standings, at least six and maybe seven of the teams in playoff position will be there when the season ends. This season — with crazy parity through the middle of the league — it could be different, a lot of teams and slots are in play. Here’s where we rank teams for the final time in 2015.
1. Warriors (28-1, last week No. 1). They got the win on Christmas Day over Cleveland in a game where it didn’t feel like they played their best. It starts with Stephen Curry, who is shooting just 28.1 percent from three in his last five games. The Warriors have had a lot of time off the last couple weeks, that’s about to change, but the schedule isn’t filled with the toughest teams.
2. Spurs (26-6, LW 2). They struggled and fell to a frisky-for-a-day Rockets team on Christmas, but when most people weren’t watching they comfortably won their other three games last week. They are outscoring their opponents by 17.3 points per 100 possessions their last 10 games.
3. Thunder (21-10 LW 4). Another team that lost on Christmas Day when a struggling team (Chicago) played their best game of the season. OKC seems to be looking past the teams in the East, they are 6-8 against them and 15-2 against the West.
4. Cavaliers (19-9, LW 3). The loss to Golden State on Christmas is understandable, that’s an elite team at home. The blowout loss the next night to Trail Blazers without Damian Lillard is harder to explain. Cleveland is still struggling to find its rotations with Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert back in the lineup, but look for coach David Blatt to settle on something sooner rather than later.
5. Hawks (20-12, LW 9). Winners of six in a row, and it’s come because of their depth and ability to match up with different teams and lineups. Their starters have been just okay. Tough tests this week on the road: Indiana, Houston, and New York.
6. Raptors (19-12, LW 12). They got DeMarre Carroll back last week and Jonas Valanciunas returns to take on the Bulls’ Monday — the Raptors outscore opponents by 4.4 points per 48 minutes when Carroll and Valanciunas are on the court together. Kyle Lowry was third in Eastern Conference guards in All-Star voting, look for Raptors fans to make a push to get him to start as Toronto hosts the event this February.
7. Celtics (18-13, LW 15). Winners of four in a row as they enter the soft part of the schedule (Lakers and Nets this week). They are doing it mostly with a defense that is second only to San Antonio this season, plus enough offense (hello Kelly Olynyk) to get the job done.
8. Clippers (18-13, LW 8). Blake Griffin is out for 2-3 weeks with a quad injury, and the Clippers lack the depth to replace him with anyone other teams fear. Doc Rivers tried Josh Smith on Saturday, but that didn’t last long. Look for Paul Pierce as the small ball four to get more run, but when the Clippers don’t have all their starters they are vulnerable.
9. Heat (18-11, LW 5). On Christmas the Heat showed why it’s good to have stars to lean on — Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade dominated the overtime (13 of the Heat’s 16 points). We’re still waiting for Goran Tragic to join that group and play like the third start that puts Miami over the top and helps them break out of the pack in the East.
10. Hornets (16-13, LW 6). Al Jefferson is back — the Hornets were 5-6 while he was out injured and suspended — but he showed his rust shooting 1-of-8 in his return (if he’s not scoring he hurts this team). If Steve Clifford is not near the top on your early Coach of the Year ballot, you’re doing it wrong.
11. Mavericks (17-13, LW 13). Deron Williams is out injured and in his place J.J. Barea is putting on a show — 32 points against Brooklyn, 26 against Chicago (both games Mavs’ wins). Dirk Nowitzki passed Shaq on the All-Time scoring list, just a reminder that he will go down as the greatest shooting big man in NBA history.
12. Pacers (17-12, LW 7). Their defense keeps them in games, but the loss to the Kings this week showed that if a team can bottle up Paul George the Pacers struggle to score. Myles Turner is nearing a return, they are better when that rookie is playing and developing.
13. Bulls (16-12, LW 11). They played their best game of the season on Christmas Day against Oklahoma City, but that is the only win in five games for arguably the league’s most consistent team. With the Raptors twice, the Knicks and the Pacers on the schedule this week, it feels like the Bulls could go 0-4 or 4-0 and it wouldn’t be a shock.
14. Pistons (17-14, LW 10). Brandon Jennings could be back at the end of this week (or the following week) and then things get interesting. Jennings will get showcased, Stan Van Gundy will see if he can play with Reggie Jackson, and the Pistons will listen to trade offers for him.
15. Magic (15-12, LW 14). This week marks the anniversary of an NBA record game: The most assists dished by one player in a game, 30. The record holder? Scott Skiles. The Magic are the current eight seed in the East and seem to be finding their footing, which is a credit to Skiles the coach getting the most out of this roster.
16. Rockets (16-16, LW 16). Still the most Jekyll and Hyde team in the NBA, beating the Spurs on Christmas Day then having their coach lash out at them as “disrespecting the game” after a sloppy loss to the Pelicans. They are outscoring opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possession their last 10 games, fifth best in the NBA during that stretch.
17. Grizzlies (17-16, LW 17). Look for Memphis to start climbing up these rankings and the Western Conference standings — over the next month they have a fairly soft schedule. The team still seems to be adjusting to the new rotations, well except for Zach Randolph who has put up big numbers the past few games.
18. Wizards (14-14, LW 20). Winners of four in a row thanks to an offense scoring 107.4 points per 100 possessions their last 10 games (fourth best in the NBA). Marcin Gortat is your Eastern Conference Player of the Week averaging 21.3 points and 11.7 rebounds a game the past seven days.
19. Jazz (12-16, LW 19). Another injury, this one to Alec Burks, is a body blow to a team trying to hang onto a playoff spot without Dante Exum or Rudy Gobert (and Derrick Favors of late). That this team is still the eight seed in the West with this record (which would have them tied for 12th in the East) speaks to how some things have flipped in the West this season.
20. Kings (12-18, LW 21). With all the injuries to the Suns and to the Jazz, the door has swung open for the Kings to jump into one of the final playoff spots in the West. How did they respond to that challenge. With terrible defense, 3-of-22 shooting in the fourth, and a loss to the Trail Blazers (despite 36 from DeMarcus Cousins). If this team doesn’t score in transition it can’t score.
21. Knicks (14-18, LW 18). Losers of four in a row, on the heels of a four-game win streak, which was on the heels of another four-game losing streak. Consistency is not a word in the Knicks’ vocabulary this season. Their next six games are against teams above. 500, we’ll see if they can grab a couple wins in that group.
22. Trail Blazers (13-20, LW 25). They beat the Cavaliers and Kings without Damian Lillard (they are 2-2 since he went down) and C.J. McCollum might be the early leader for most improved player. Despite everything with this team they are just 1.5 games out of the playoffs, keeping those dreams alive.
23. Nuggets (12-19, LW 24). If you blow a 21-point lead to the Lakers and lose, you have issues. Danilo Gallinari and Emmanuel Mudiay remain out, which makes watching this team a little dull (save for the occasional Will Barton show).
24. Bucks (12-19, LW 26). Their defense remains a mess and things could get ugly this week on the road at Dallas, Oklahoma City, Indiana and Minnesota. The Bucks have 11-of-15 on the road starting this week, and they are 3-of-13 on the road this season.
25. Pelicans (10-20, LW 27). There are flashes of improvement, like the good Christmas Day showing against the Heat to force overtime, but the Pelicans are not getting wins, and now come reports Mickey Loomis — the Saints GM — is going to have more say over the Pelicans. That doesn’t sound like recipe for success.
26. Timberwolves (11-19,LW 22). Losers of three in a row, but that’s to be expected as they lean on and try to develop their young stars (they very well may have back-to-back Rookies of the Year with Andrew Wiggins last season and Karl-Anthony Towns this one). The most talked about thing around this team as we head into the new year will be Kevin Martin trade rumors.
< 27. Suns (12-20, LW 23). Phoenix handed Philadelphia just its second win of the season and that seemed to set off alarm bells in the front office — ones that almost cost Jeff Honacek his job. Instead, just his assistants got the ax. The bigger problem is Eric Bledsoe’s injury, without him this team’s playoff chances drop off like a Clayton Kershaw curve ball.
28. Nets (8-22, LW 28). Not a lot of reasons for short-term hope with their next eight opponents being .500 or better. Expect a lot of trade rumors to swirl around Brooklyn as the February deadline approaches, but I’d be surprised if the struggling Joe Johnson is one of the guys who gets moved (he’s struggling with his shot AND he’s expensive).
29. Lakers (5-26, LW 29). Kobe Bryant is going to be a starter in his final All-Star Game — it’s an exhibition, so give the people what they want. We’ve seen flashes of vintage Kobe, while liking more the flashes we’ve seen from D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle (and Larry Nance, who is an underrated young player on this roster).
30. 76ers (2-30, LW 30). They are 1-0 with Ish Smith running the offense and Mike D’Antoni being on the bench. Smith clearly is their best point guard and gives them a chance to win more games. A few more. While the Sixers want to be more respectable they don’t want to start winning too many games — despite all the talk of speeding up the process this is a huge couple drafts coming up (they likely have three or four first rounders this June) and they don’t want to hurt their odds of getting top picks.