The Warriors have solidified their place at the top of these rankings, but from about 10-20 I feel like any team could get hot and make a leap — or get cold and fall fast. Also, Brooklyn is the Bizarro Warriors, having solidified their spot on the bottom of these rankings.
1. Warriors (38-6, Last Week No. 1). This was supposed to be a rough week, a test of the Golden State’s toughness — then they went out and beat the Cavaliers by 35, the Thunder by 21, and Rockets by 17. Golden State now has the top rated offense AND defense in the NBA for the season. And as much as they aren’t trying, they are on pace to win 70 games. So yes, they have set the bar to clear this season, again. Five of their next seven games are on the road.
2. Spurs (34-9, LW 2). The loss of Pau Gasol for a couple months (give or take) is a setback, but this team just keeps on rolling — see the win over the Cavaliers. Is it time we started mentioning this team as a real contender? I still have questions about their athleticism and if that haunts them in a seven-game series against elite teams, but the Spurs just know how to win, and they are going to be there deep into the playoffs. If we get a Spurs/Cavaliers NBA Finals, their Sunday night overtime thriller showed that would be plenty entertaining.
3. Rockets (34-13, LW 3). They have dropped four of their last seven, and while you can understand losses to Golden State and a split with Memphis, losses like Miami sting. More alarming is that in their last seven games that vaunted offense has dropped out of the top 10 in the league (11th for that stretch). It should help that Clint Capela is back from injury and Ryan Anderson should be as well this week. They are on a four-game road swing through the East this week, including the Celtics and Sixers.
4. Cavaliers (30-12, LW 4). They got crushed by the Warriors — in a game they clearly didn’t take all that seriously — and fell to the Spurs on Saturday, meaning they have lost 4-of-6. That said, they have a 2.5 game cushion in the East and LeBron-led teams always seem to have these mini-slumps during the season, then they flip the switch back to “on.” Look for the Cavaliers to get right this week with games against Pelicans, Kings and Nets.
5. Jazz (29-16, LW 8). Utah has not had an All-Star representative since 2011, but that should change this week when at least one of (if not both) Gordon Hayward or Rudy Gobert get picked (Gobert having a 25/25 game recently has to help his cause). Utah has won six in a row — and that includes beating Cleveland. As the Clippers fall down the standings due to injury, the Jazz will be the four seed, and their goal should be to hold on to that spot and have home court in the first round.
6. Hawks (26-18 LW 11). They are 9-2 in January and are just half a game back of the Celtics for the three seed, which is why in these rankings they have made the leap — they may be the hottest team in the East. Will that be enough to get Paul Millsap an All-Star nod? He deserves it with his play and numbers, but he’s certainly on the bubble in the East with so many good guards and Joel Embiid playing well. As an aside, nobody seems to think Millsap is really off the trade market, but also nobody thinks anyone will put together an offer that will really tempt the Hawks.
7. Raptors (28-15, LW 6). They have lost three games in a row (and 8-of-14, if you go back), and now they will be without DeMar DeRozan for at least the first two games of this week. No Patrick Patterson is certainly part of that, they are already thin at the four, but more so they miss the Kyle Lowry’s shooting (he has shot 35.6% overall and 25.9% from three in those games), plus they have struggled to contain penetration on drives. Despite his recent struggles, Lowry should be selected as an All-Star reserve by the coaches.
8. Celtics (26-17, LW 7). He’s not going to be a starter like he arguably should have been, but Isaiah Thomas will be picked by the coaches and play in the All-Star Game next month. Thomas averaged 38.3 points a game last week — but the Celtics still lost to the Knicks and Trail Blazers. They miss Avery Bradley. That is why they haven’t moved past the Raptors on these rankings… yet. Not that anyone in Boston will notice or care too much about anything Celtics until after the Super Bowl.
9. Clippers (29-16, LW 5). Chris Paul needed surgery on his right hand and will be out until March, which is a huge blow as they are +15.9 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court (and have been outscored when he is off it, although there is a lot of noise in those numbers). On the bright side, Blake Griffin should return to the lineup this week or next. Still, the goal for the Clippers needs to be not to fall too far then climb back up to the four or five seed in the final month of the season — and stay healthy for the playoffs.
10. Wizards (23-20, LW 12). Is Sidney Lowe their best defender? Maybe he could have boxed out Marcus Morris last week, but either way remember that this team stumbled out of the gate (3-9) and have been good ever since. The Wizards have been particularly strong against the other middle-of-the-pack teams in the East and they need to continue that with the Hornets, Celtics, and Hawks on the schedule this week. The Wizards could use Bradley Beal to break out of his mini-slump.
11. Thunder (25-19, LW 9). Russell Westbrook seemed less concerned that he wasn’t an All-Star Game starter than the NBA Twitterers was, but we all know he’s just going to use that as more motivation (I’d bet on him to win the ASG MVP now). The Thunder are 1-3 on their current road trip and 4-6 through a tough stretch in January (that doesn’t let up until the end of the month, with tough games on the road in Utah and Cleveland this week).
12. Grizzlies (26-20, LW 10). Another team with a couple guys on the All-Star Game bubble: You can make a strong case for both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. My guess is only one of them makes it in (along with one member of the Jazz, for balance). Of more immediate concern in Memphis is this team has lost 3-of-4 and the defense has been unimpressive in that stretch. Gasol’s offense has been fantastic of late, but he could use some help from Chandler Parsons.
13. Hornets (23-21, LW 17). The good news is they have won three in a row after a rough stretch (an 0-5 road trip where their defense was forgettable). Kemba Walker had a couple huge games in that stretch — will it be enough to get him named an All-Star Game reserve? He deserves it for his season, but with so many good guards and guys like Joel Embiid making a push, I fear that Walker will be the odd man out.
14. Pacers (22-21, LW 14).. The loss to the Lakers last week is the kind of game a team in a tight playoff race needs to win. As for the loss to Utah, that was just George Hill salt in the wound. Indiana is home for three of its next four, which is good because this team struggles to defend consistently on the road and is 6-16 away from the Fieldhouse, but is 16-6 at home.
15. Bulls (22-23, LW 13). Dwyane Wade is tweeting out apologies to fans for the team’s effort, and the front office is trying to find new homes for Rajon Rondo and Nikola Mirotic. Like TNT, the Bulls know drama. While the front office looks at roster tweets, the question becomes can Jimmy Butler get this team into the playoffs. They need wins against teams like Orlando, Atlanta, and Philly this week to do so, but who knows what we’ll get from the inconsistent Bulls.
16. Pistons (21-24, LW 19). The up-and-down Pistons are up again, having won three in a row — maybe all the trade rumors woke this team up (don’t look for Reggie Jackson to be moved unless some team comes up with a huge offer). Stanley Johnson has played better (and gotten more consistent run) of late, but the play of the week belonged to Marcus Morris.
17. Nuggets (18-25, LW 23). Nikola Jokic is not going to be an All-Star this year, but keep having months like he has this January — averaging 23.4 points and 10.7 rebounds a game — and we will be talking about him a year from now. If I were going to keep an eye on a guy who could get moved at the deadline, it’s Jusuf Nurkic — he doesn’t fit with Jokic but he would have real value on other rosters.
18. 76ers (15-27, LW 25). When Joel Embiid plays — particularly with new starters T.J. McConnell and Nik Stauskas — the Sixers are a good team. The big question around the Sixers is will the coaches put Joel Embiid in the All-Star Game? My guess is no, they are a little old school because of his minutes restriction. Plus if he goes, a deserving player such as Kemba Walker stays home. But Embiid in New Orleans would be fun. #raisethecat
19. Bucks (20-23, LW 13). Kris Middleton can’t get back soon enough. The Bucks have dropped five games in a row, they have the worst net rating in the NBA in that stretch, and it’s not one end of the court — in those five games the Bucks had the second-worst defense and fourth-worst offense in the NBA. It’s going to be a tough week to turn that around with the Rockets, resurgent Sixers, Raptors, and Celtics on the schedule.
20. Trail Blazers (19-27, LW 16).. You wonder how a team with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can be out of the playoffs in the West (if they started today), then you see they got crushed by the Hornets and lost to the Sixers thanks to Robert Covington and you see the inconsistency that plagues this squad. Portland starts a five-game homestand and this is where they need to start their push to secure the eight seed (not sure they can make up the 7 games for seventh) — if it doesn’t happen now it may never.
21. Knicks (19-26 LW 20). Carmelo Anthony’s run of seven consecutive All-Star Games will come to an and this season, but that’s the least of the drama around him the past week. At least with all the Anthony trade rumor talk we stopped discussing about Derrick Rose going AWOL (he’s had a few strong games lately). It’s been a hard-luck run for the Knicks, whose last three losses have come by a total of six points. But New York has had a run of close losses all season.
22. Pelicans (17-27, LW 18). Anthony Davis is an All-Star starter for the game in his town, which is nice. It’s about the best thing you can say for the Pelicans in a week they let the Nets score 143 on them. The Pelicans are home this week and need to rack up wins to stay in the playoff chase, but with their games being against the Cavaliers, Thunder, Spurs and Wizards it’s not going to be that easy.
23. Timberwolves (16-28, LW 22). In the key stretches of games last week, Tom Thibodeau went to a lineup of Kris Dunn, Tyus Jones, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Karl-Anthony Towns — and it worked. The youth movement beat the banged-up Clippers and the Nuggets. The Wolves have won 5-of-7 and are just 2.5 games out of the playoffs, if they are serious about making a run at that spot they need wins against teams like the Suns, Pacers, and Nets this week.
24. Mavericks (15-29, LW 26). They have won 4-of-6 with Seth Curry in the starting lineup (he has shot 56 percent in that stretch), including thrashing the hapless Lakers. The Dallas offense is clicking, and that has made them a difficult out, which is good because we don’t want to see Dirk Nowitzki go out any other way (yes, I know he may well play another year, the point is valid).
25. Kings (16-27, LW 21). Losers of five in a row and it’s hard to see bright playoff prospects for this team after losing Rudy Gay for the season with a torn Achilles. The phantom call on DeMarcus Cousins on Dwyane Wade didn’t help matters. Sacramento has started off 0-2 on an eight-game road trip may for good sink Vivek Ranadive’s playoff dreams for another season.
26. Suns (15-29, LW 27). They may be hovering near the bottom of the West, but things like Eric Bledsoe’s 40 points against the Raptors, or Devin Booker’s game winner against the Knicks, give us a reason to watch this team. Booker now has 20 or more points in nine straight games.
27. Heat (14-30, LW 29). They are on a three game winning streak, and it speaks to where the Heat are that all that does is make me wonder if it helps Goran Dragic’s trade value (he had a strong game against the Rockets 21/8/8). Or, to better phrase the question, will it drive up the trade value to what Pat Riley thinks he should get? Dion Waiters dropped 33 last week in a win, just wanted to point that out.
28. Magic (18-28 LW 24). This team’s offense (already not striking fear into teams) stumbles badly without Evan Fournier in to provide spacing. Orlando can sell they are just 4.5 games out of the playoffs, but we all know they are not making it and need to make moves at the trade deadline thinking long term (such as unclogging the front court logjam).
29. Lakers (16-31, LW 28). Sunday, the Dallas Mavericks handed the Lakers the worst loss in franchise history (49 points). D’Angelo Russell is out for a couple weeks and it showed that game, they lacked his organization of the offense and the ball movement he sparks. Looking for a bright side? The Lakers lead the NBA in bench points per game at 49.6, which is the most since the league started tracking that stat in 1971.
30. Nets (9-34, LW 30). No Jeremy Lin for another month or so as the Nets cement their place at the bottom of these rankings. Which makes Boston fans happy (they swap draft picks this year). The Nets snapped their 11-game losing streak by hanging 143 on the Pelicans — in their last five games the Nets have averaged 110.9 points per 100 possessions, top 10 in the NBA. Of course, they have given up 119.9, so things are not good, but the offense is putting up points.