The top teams in the NBA seem to be getting some senioritis as All-Star Weekend approaches — but not the Houston Rockets, who keep on winning and with that move to the top spot in the rankings. Cleveland keeps on falling down the board as the Raptors and Celtics have established themselves on top of the East. Orlando is out of the bottom slot,
which sucks or Phoenix.
1. Rockets (39-13, Last Week No. 2). Houston’s destruction of the Cavaliers over the weekend was just another reminder that the Rockets are in the NBA’s elite (and the Cavs… not so much right now). The Rockets move into the top spot having gone 8-2 in their last 10, with a top-five offense and defense — while the rest of the league’s best teams struggle through the dog days of the season Houston is rolling and beating other top teams. Don’t expect any trade deadline moves from Houston, they are going to roll with the team they have.
2. Warriors (41-13 LW 1). If the Warriors repeat as NBA champions this June, everyone will credit their superior talent or how they gel as a team. But maybe it will be Karma — when everyone’s favorite halftime act Red Panda had her 7-foot unicycle stolen last week (and it devastated her), the Warriors stepped up with $25,000 to replace it. Karma isn’t helping their defense in the short term, however, which is 23rd in the NBA over last 10 games. After falling to the Thunder Tuesday, the Warriors are 1-4 vs. OKC and Houston this season.
3. Raptors (37-16, LW 3). Their win over the Celtics Tuesday — in very possibly a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals — was an impressive showing for their defense, which is third best in the NBA over the last 10 games and has been improved all season. I get the people who are hesitant to jump on board, who want to see how this new-look Raptors offense looks in the cauldron of the playoffs, the people who point to Toronto history, but I think the Raptors are legit. This is the best Raptors team of this era, and probably ever. Dwane Casey is not going to win Coach of the Year, but he should be in the discussion.
4. Celtics (39-16, LW 4). Terry Rozier was a guy Danny Ainge was always high on, even as he seemed slow to find his footing in the NBA, but recently he has rewarded that faith. He had a triple-double against the Knicks and dropped 31 on the Hawks in the past week, and he has developed into a trustworthy part of the rotation. Sunday it will be the Celtics turn to beat up on the struggling Cavaliers, and it’s also the Paul Pierce jersey retirement game.
5. Timberwolves (34-22, LW 7). The Timberwolves have the third-best offense in the NBA this season, but they do it in the half court and without the easy transition buckets most elite offenses thrive on. Minnesota plays at the 23rd fastest pace in the league and only 13.1 percent of their offensive possessions start in transition, 26th in the league (stats via Cleaning The Glass). That means their game should translate in the slower pace of the playoffs. Friday night, Jimmy Butler will face the Bulls for the first time since the trade last summer that sent him to Minnesota.
6. Spurs (34-21, LW 6). The Spurs are a very average 5-5 in their last 10 (with a -0.5 net rating), and the are 9-9 in 2018. The defense has remained top-10 (which is impressive considering they have not had Kawhi Leonard basically all season) but the offense has struggled, scoring 103.4 points per 100 possessions in the last 10 games (24th in the NBA). Rather than a trade at the deadline, the Spurs are going to count on a healthy Leonard and Rudy Gay to change the team’s fortunes around.
7. Bucks (30-23 LW 9). Jabari Parker is back and has looked solid through three games, averaging 11 points on 50% shooting in about 17 minutes a night. Already his ability to find space and knock down mid-range jumpers has helped open up an offense that can get clogged at times, and as he starts to stretch those jumpers out to the arc again all the better. Also, we can’t see this enough, Giannis Antetokounmpo dunking over 6’6” Tim Hardaway Jr.
8. Wizards (31-23, LW 12). Winners of five in a row until they ran into the Sixers Tuesday, Washington has been holding up well so far without John Wall. Washington has been active heading into the trade deadline trying to find backcourt help, and putting Marcin Gortat out there for a potential deal (especially if they can land DeAndre Jordan). However, people close to the team expect they Wizards won’t find a deal they like and will stand pat heading into the playoffs (with a healthy Wall by then).
9. Thunder (31-24 LW 5).. They had lost four in a row until Russell Westbrook went off and the Thunder put an impressive beatdown on the Warriors Tuesday. Still, OKC is just 2-4 since Andre Roberson went down injured and in that stretch the defense has been pedestrian (13th in the NBA). OKC has been active in trying to add a wing player at the trade deadline, but in a market where sellers are squeezing buyers, the Thunder may decide to ride it out with the guys they have.
10. Pacers (30-25, LW 11). Indiana is attacking the rim more and it has sparked the Pacer offense, which is ranked in the top 10 in the NBA over the past five games. One of the guys attacking has been point guard Darren Collison, but he is out 2-3 weeks after having his knee scoped — which may well kill the trade rumors surrounding him, too. If Collison is not dealt, don’t expect any other Pacers moves at the trade deadline.
11. Heat (29-25, LW 8). Losers of four in a row and things don’t get any easier with the Rockets, Bucks, and Raptors the next three teams on the schedule. The losses are coming because Miami keeps playing close games and the law of averages is catching up with them — 18 of their last 19 games have been within five points in the final five minutes, and they started 9-2 in those games but have gone 2-6 since then.
12. Nuggets (29-25, LW 16). Winners of three in a row, they beat the Thunder and Warriors in that stretch — a good sign as they have a tough February schedule. While Gary Harris hit the game-winner in OKC, it is the improved play of Jamal Murray at the point that has this team taking steps forward into the playoffs. He looks like a foundational piece, along with Nikola Jokic, that Denver can build around for years. Also, Will Barton has played his way into the Sixth Man of the Year discussion.
13. Trail Blazers (29-25, LW 13). Losers of three in a row (all though games on the road against some of the best of the East), and the concern remains the defensive slippage — they are 24th in the NBA over the last 15 games — which is holding back a team finally finding its offensive groove. Portland has talked to a lot of teams heading into the trade deadline and may make a “win now” kind of move, but they have shot down everyone who has called asking or C.J. McCollum. Portland is not breaking up its backcourt.
14. Clippers (27-25 LW 16). Owner Steve Ballmer doesn’t want to bottom out and rebuild, so while there has been a lot of buzz around Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan trades, L.A. was only going to do that if they got quality back, such as as a first-round pick for Williams. That didn’t materialize, so now they have extended him and will keep Williams through the end of the season. If Los Angeles doesn’t make a move at the trade deadline (keeping Avery Bradley, too), this roster still has a shot at making the playoffs (a 50% chance according to fivethirtyeight.com).
15. Pelicans (28-25, LW 10). New Orleans is 1-4 since DeMarcus Cousins went down with his Achilles injury, including a tough loss to a hot Utah team that is a threat to pass the Pelicans in the playoff chase. Anthony Davis has moved to center and, of course, played well there (he was the All-NBA First Team center last season), plus the addition of Nikola Mitotic seems to be a good fit. Can they hold on to a playoff slot? Fivethirtyeight.com says its 50-50.
16. 76ers (26-25, LW 15). The Sixers are only half-a-game ahead of surging Detroit for the final playoff slot in the East, but fivethirtyeight.com likes their chances saying they have an 88% chance of making the postseason. The win over Washington Tuesday helped with that. That said, the Sixers are active at the trade deadline looking at Tyreke Evans and other players who could be a scoring upgrade and improve this team’s chances of making the postseason dance.
17. Jazz (25-28, LW 20). Winners of six in a row, they have surprisingly vaulted back into the playoff picture (fivethirtyeight.com says they have a 74% chance of making the postseason). The Jazz are defending better but the key to the streak is the offense — they have scored 115.7 points per possession during the last six games, which is a couple points better than the league-leading Warriors on the season.
18. Pistons (26-26, LW 19). Detroit has yet to lose with Blake Griffin in the lineup and the win streak is up to four. Griffin is just being his healthy self (20.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in his new uniform) but the team passing, and defense, has been better of late and pushed them into the playoff mix. Friday night Blake Griffin faces his old team the Clippers for the first time, and you could see some of this as Griffin and Andre Drummond are developing some fast chemistry on big-to-big passes.
19. Cavaliers (30-22 LW 14). The Cavaliers are active at the trade deadline, but let’s be honest here: There is no magic bullet trade that is going to solve the Cavs’ problems right now. (And that’s putting aside the fact that nobody wants the players they are offering in trades.) The Cavaliers have been awful, their effort has been pathetic many nights (including LeBron, who carried this team early in the season), and the only way to fix all of it is internal changes. Are they capable of that?
20. Hornets (23-30, LW 21). Smart trade deadline move by Charlotte picking up Willie Hernangomez from the Knicks — he’s a solid young big man who made the All-Rookie team last season, looks like he can become a solid rotational big man who can get some buckets, and is on an affordable contract for a couple of years. Charlotte can be dangerous when Nicolas Batum is aggressive and creates, like he did against the Hawks and Pacers last week, just wish that happened more often.
21. Lakers (22-31 LW 23). Los Angeles is trying to be active at the trade deadline, they still want to get off the contract of Jordan Clarkson, and they’ll listen to offers for veterans such as Brook Lopez, but the reality is there may not be a deal for them. The Lakers don’t seem likely to land a big free agent this summer, which will lead to the question should they use some of their cap room to keep Julius Randle, who has evolved into a quality small-ball five a lot of teams could use. Randle is going to get contract offers this summer, we’ll see if the Lakers are willing to match.
22. Knicks (23-32, LW 18). It’s painful to watch Kristaps Porzingis go down with an ACL injury, knowing that not only ends the slim chance of a playoff comeback this season, but could doom next season as well. As a comparison, Zach LaVine in Chicago tore his ACL in early February a year ago and didn’t return until mid-January this season, 11 months later. If Porzingis is out the start of next season — something very possible, the Knicks will be cautious bringing him back — it could doom any playoff dreams in 2019 also. Still, the Knicks will max Porzingis out this summer with a contract extension.
23. Mavericks (17-37 LW 25). Congratulations to Dirk Nowitzki for reaching the 50,000 minutes club in his NBA career (only five others have done it, and they are all in the Hall of Fame, as Nowitzki will eventually be). Not having Seth Curry all season is one of the things that has held Dallas back, and now he is officially out for the rest of the campaign to have Tibia surgery, which should solve his issues. Curry should be back on the court for Dallas next season, which will provide some needed shooting.
24. Grizzlies (18-35, LW 22). If there is one thing to be sure of at the trade deadline, it’s that Tyreke Evans will get traded out of Memphis. The question is where (Boston, Philly, and Denver are the frontrunners) and will the Grizzlies get a first-round pick for him as they have demanded. So far that hasn’t been on the table (and if they get one it may be a “fake first” that is so heavily protected it eventually becomes a couple of seconds). Memphis is 0-6 without Evans this season, once he is moved they will fall back into a better lottery position.
25. Magic (17-36, LW 30). With Nikola Vucevic out, so has been the high-post passing offense that Frank Vogel had them running. In it’s place has been more ball movement and that has worked to get better shots — Orlando is scoring 113.4 points per 100 possessions in its last five games, sixth best in the NBA. This had earned the Magic some wins (3-2 in those five), pulled them out of the bottom of this ranking, and gives them something to build on the rest of this season and into the summer.
26. Kings (17-36, LW 26). Will George Hill get traded at the deadline? To Cleveland? Those questions hanging in the air, and while the urgency has come out of those talks it’s still on the board and could happen. The Kings rookies — De'Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Justin Jackson — are getting the start but it was a big night from Zach Randolph that helped get them the big win against New Orleans recently.
27. Nets (19-36, LW 27). Jarrett Allen has taken over the starting center spot and is showing real promise as the Nets future at that position. He doesn’t have much range, but he is efficient around the rim and provides a lot of rim protection on the other end. The Nets could take on a bad contract at the deadline if another team will throw in a good enough pick to make it worth their while.
28. Hawks (17-37, LW 28). Marco Belinelli has reportedly been told he will be traded at the deadline and Ersan Ilyasova could be out the door as well — 29 other teams could use more shooting, and both of these veterans can provide that. Expect the Hawks to make a move. Taurean Prince has played well of late, including dropping 31 on the Celtics, and is evolving into part of the future in Atlanta.
29. Bulls (18-35 LW 24).. Losers of seven in a row, the Bulls have had a bottom-six offense and defense in the league over that stretch. The move to trade Nikola Mitotic has worked — Chicago’s own pick is looking better and they picked up another first-rounder for the rebuild. Doesn’t make this team any easier to watch in the short term. Hey, Robin Lopez, how do you feel about the Bulls’ play recently?
30. Suns (18-37, LW 29). The Suns have lost 11-of-13 and have played the worst defense in the NBA during that stretch (worse than the Cavaliers or Nets). The offense hasn’t been much better at 29th in the league in those 13. If you’re looking for a bright side Devin Booker and Josh Jackson seem to be developing some chemistry. The Suns bought out Greg Monroe, and with that don’t really have the pieces for a deal at the deadline.