We saw a couple big moves in the run-up to the trade deadline, and there were plenty of rumors, but when the dust settled it still looks like a Golden State/Cleveland Finals rematch, so long as everyone can just stay healthy.
1. Warriors (49-9, Last Week No. 1). Here’s the only question that matters with the Warriors: Are they better than last year’s team? It’s a question answered in the postseason, but they are not going to win as many games. However, as of right now they have a better net rating (beating opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions) than last season (11.8). I think this team can hit higher highs than last season, just ask the Clippers who watched the Warriors drop a 50-point quarter on them last week.
2. Spurs (45-13, LW 3). They are pretty locked in as the two seed in the West, 4.5 games behind the Warriors and 3.5 games up on the Rockets. We keep looking past a team about to win 50 games for a 20th straight non-lockout season. Also, we need to enjoy the final ride of Manu Ginobili, he is going to be missed.
3. Cavaliers (40-17, LW 2). No Kevin Love now until around the start of April but the Cavaliers are filling out their depth nicely with the expected signings this week of Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut off the waiver wire (two guys who can still contribute plenty). That depth helps but it’s LeBron James carrying this team — with a heavy minutes total — and that’s not going to let up as they battle to keep home court. Kyle Korver returns to Atlanta on Friday night, he should get a warm greeting from those fans.
4. Rockets (42-18, LW 4). Houston is averaging a league-best 40.3 three-point attempts per game, but they hit 50 fairly regularly now — and the addition of Lou Williams is going to only up that number. Admit it, you want to see a Rockets/Warriors Western Conference Finals just like I do, not because Houston can beat a healthy Golden State team, but because it would be so damn entertaining.
5. Jazz (37-22, LW 7). They are the anti-Rockets — they want to play slow and they have won three in a row keeping their opponent under 100 points (actually, their last nine wins they opponent hasn’t cracked triple digits). They have the point differential of a team a couple games better than their record (the rash of injuries early caused that), and come the playoffs Utah could make the second round and be a tough out.
6. Celtics (38-21, LW 6). It was one of the NBA hot topics after the trade deadline: Should the Celtics have stood pat at the trade deadline? It’s not a simple question. For one, you’re assuming that Paul George or Jimmy Butler could be had without a gut-the-assets deal, which would be a mistake (Indy, in particular, wasn’t that interested in a deal). Second, they can revisit those trades this summer. Of course, we all know this decision will ultimately be viewed through the revisionist history lens of whatever comes in the next several years for Boston.
7. Wizards (34-23, LW 5). Nice pickup landing Bojan Bogdanovic for a little depth help, but this team is still heavily dependent upon its starters. Scott Brooks has done a great job lightening up the practice schedule to keep guys fresh, but they have a lot of road games and a tough schedule remaining, can they hold off Toronto for the three seed? They have a home-and-home with the Raptors this week that will be telling.
8. Thunder (36-25, LW 11). OKC made strong moves for this season at the trade deadline, grabbing Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott (although they clearly have not figured out how to use the latter guy yet). The Thunder went 4-6 with Ends Kanter out and have won three in a row, the last two since his return. Key games with Utah, then at Portland and Dallas this week.
9. Raptors (35-24, LW 12). They are 2-0 since the All-Star break, where they made bold moves landing Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. Often these moves get cast in the light of the Cavaliers, but first and foremost these moves need to get them back past the Wizards and into the three seed, so they avoid Cleveland in the second round. They have six of seven on the road, the one home game part of a home-and-home with the Wizards that will be key in getting the three seed.
10. Grizzlies (34-25, LW 8). In a league where versatility is a buzzword, the Grizzlies are what they are — big, physical, grinding — and it works for them. The Grizzlies also are one of the better fourth quarter teams in the NBA because they execute well. Memphis remains a squad that the teams near the top of the West would prefer to avoid in the first round of the playoffs, just because of the physicality.
11. Clippers (35-23, LW 13). Chris Paul is back, and with that Blake Griffin is going off (72 points in his last two games). Still things are not smooth, they needed overtime to get by the Hornets, and with a tough schedule and a lot of back-to-backs left it will near impossible for them to get out of the four/five matchup in the first round of the playoffs (they are 5.5 games back of the three seed Rockets) and that means a tough Utah team in the first round, win that and get the Warriors.
12. Heat (27-32, LW 14). They came out of the break and smacked around Indiana and Atlanta — the Heat have won 16 of 18 and are just one game back of Detroit for the final playoff slot in the East. Waiters Island has more visitors than Hawaii right now. Miami has winnable games this week (Dallas, Philadelphia, Orlando) followed by the Cleveland in what could be a fun showdown.
13. Hawks (32-26 LW 9). The Hawks looked more than rusty in the two games since the All-Star break, shooting 38 percent in them combined with an average of 17.5 turnovers. It didn’t help that Dennis Schroder was suspended for one game (visa issues getting back into the country after the break) then didn’t start the next game because he missed a team bus. They are poised to face a team like Toronto or Washington in the first round, I don’t see the consistency from the Hawks to think they could threaten in one of those series.
14. Bulls (30-29, LW 15). The Bulls front office insists there is a plan, but it remains hard to see it. They kept Jimmy Butler at the trade deadline as the core guy to build around, but moved Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, who were key rotation guys. That said, they have won four in a row including over the Raptors, Celtics and Cavaliers (without LeBron). Fun Thursday night showdown withe Warriors on national television.
15. Pacers (30-29, LW 10).. While they tested the market, the Pacers didn’t really want to move Paul George at the deadline, so they didn’t. That said, if he doesn’t make an All-NBA team this year (allowing the Pacers to offer him a Designated Player contract worth $210 million) expect them to revisit trade talks over the summer. They have five of their next six on the road and a little losing streak could have them scrambling to hold on to a playoff slot in the East.
16. Pistons (28-31, LW 17). Does everyone on this roster being available at the trade deadline — including Andre Drummond — impact the roster chemistry going forward? The Pistons tried to move Reggie Jackson at the deadline but couldn’t find a buyer (not sure what Orlando was thinking), still expect a heavy diet of Ish Smith as this team tries to hold off Miami for a playoff slot.
17. Nuggets (26-33, LW 16). That Wilson Chandler and Danilo Galinari are still on the roster is a sign this team wanted to keep the veterans with its young core and make a push to hold off Portland and keep the eighth seed. Emmanuel Mudiay has fallen out of the rotation, which puts more on the shoulders of Jamal Murray, but he can handle it. Check back to PBT on Tuesday for more on Murray.
18. Trail Blazers (24-34, LW 19).. Jusuf Nurkic has brought some toughness — he lost two teeth and stayed in the game Sunday — it hasn’t been enough yet. The real question with Portland and Denver — and who gets the eighth seed — is which teams plays better defense down the stretch? The good news for Portland is they have a softer schedule the rest of the way.
19. Bucks (25-31, LW 22). They are 10-15 since Jan. 1 and have the 24th ranked defense in the NBA in their last 15 games, and unless that number changes (they were top 10 in defense the first couple months of the season) they are not going to climb back into the playoff mix. Seeing Khris Middleton back in the starting lineup is a good thing.
20. Mavericks (23-35, LW 18). I’m a big fan of their pickup of Nerlens Noel at the trade deadline, but they are now committed to this path because he is a restricted free agent this summer and they will have to pay him handsomely to retain him. While they are just three games out of a playoff slot this season, and Marc Cuban would never admit to tanking, waiving Deron Williams is a sign they are not going to make a huge push for the final spot. I like Yogi Ferrell as much as the next guy, but he’s part of the plan for the future not this playoff run.
21. Pelicans (23-36, LW 23). DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are still trying to figure out how to play together, the biggest sign of that was Sunday night when Davis scored 24 in the first, Cousins zero; then in the second quarter it flipped and Cousins had 19 while Davis scored zero. No other Pelican player had more than 10 points in the game. Despite the dreams it’s hard to see them really making a playoff push this season, they need to figure out how to play better together so they can make a push next season.
22. Kings (25-34, LW 20). They made the move to get away from DeMarcus Cousins, we will see how that plays out long term, but in the short term it’s hard to see them making a serious playoff push without him (despite a good win against Denver this week where Willy Cauley-Stein looked great). Maybe it’s time to see what Skal Labissiere and Georgios Papagiannis can do.
23. Timberwolves (23-36, LW 24). They have come along on one end of the court — Andrew Wiggins has scored at least 20 points in 17 straight games, and Karl-Anthony Towns has done the same in 14. The challenge remains on defense, where in their last 15 games the Timberwolves are 25th in the league in defensive rating. Tough week on the road including games in Utah and San Antonio.
24. Hornets (25-33, LW 21). I feel like we’ve said this before about Charlotte, but this time we mean it: The next couple weeks are do-or-die for the Hornets’ playoff dreams. They are three games out of the eight seed and they have a fairly soft schedule (with the exception of Miami) the next couple of weeks. They climb back into it now or focus on the draft.
25. Knicks (24-35 LW 25). I thought the potential Derrick Rose for Ricky Rubio trade made a lot of sense for the Knicks, but it didn’t make enough sense for Timberwolves and the Knicks couldn’t sweeten the offer enough to get it done. Then Kristaps Porzingis sprained his ankle and will miss time, sucking more energy out of Madison Square Garden. After hosting the Raptors Monday, the Knicks have six of seven on the road (and the one home game is Golden State).
26. 76ers (22-36, LW 26). Joel Embiid’s knee is swelling up, Ben Simmons is done for the season, and it’s hard to get excited to watch the Sixers try to up Jahlil Okafor’s trade value the rest of the season. The only question is will 31 games be enough to get Embiid the Rookie of the Year trophy? Has Malcolm Brogdon or Jamal Murray done enough to steal it away?
27. Magic (22-38 LW 28). Orlando got back what it could for Serge Ibaka at the deadline, but at least it was a move that cleared the front court logjam and will allow coach Frank Vogel to go a little smaller and try to get some versatility on the court. They had some good moments against the Blazers and Hawks since the break, maybe it can be something to build upon.
28. Suns (18-41, LW 29). They moved P.J. Tucker to Toronto and now Tyler Ulis and Alan Williams are getting the minutes that had gone to Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler in the rotation — the Suns have started looking ahead. Devin Booker is part of the future and has looked amazing. I don’t know if Derrick Jones Jr. is part of the future, but he can sure dunk.
29. Lakers (19-40, LW 27). The Lakers are far more interesting off the court right now than on it, with Magic Johnson taking over control of basketball operations and Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak getting kicked to the curb. Luke Walton is leaning heavily on youth, both because he should and that helps the Lakers odds of keeping their draft pick this year (top 3 protected). If you’re a Lakers fan, you should check out our podcast with Mark Medina of the LA Daily News breaking down the move to Magic.
30. Nets (9-49, LW 30). Losers of 16 in a row, and at the deadline the market was so glutted with bigs they couldn’t find a reasonable offer for Brook Lopez. They did move Bojan Bogdanovic for a pick, so that’s something. The Nets are 0-2 to start and eight game road trip and the only question is will they break the losing streak away from Barclays’ Centre.