The East remains a caste system — very good teams at the top, including the top three in this ranking and five of the top 10 — but after that it drops off a cliff. In the West the Warriors keep coasting and after that things are tight and hard to predict.
1. Bucks (26-10, last week No. 1). Giannis Antetokounmpo is shooting just 28.5% outside the restricted area this season, which sounds like a problem except nobody can stop him from getting to the rim — 59.4% of his shots come in the restricted area. Just ask Jon Leuer (see the clip below). The Bucks have the best net rating in the NBA and are on a four-game winning streak, the questions of their legitimacy will be answered in the postseason but the Bucks look like a contender. They’ve got an interesting test Saturday night against Toronto.
2. Pacers (25-12, LW 4). Guess which team has the second-best net rating in the NBA on the season? Yup, the Pacers. Indiana has won five in a row and in that stretch have had a ridiculously good offense (117.1 points per 100, better than the Harden-led Rockets) and a top-four defense. You can argue the Pacers have had their good start this season against an easier schedule (third softest in the NBA so far) but that’s about to change, starting with a five-game road trip through the East starting Friday night in Chicago.
3. Raptors (28-11, LW 2). The Raptors are 7-4 in their last 11, which is impressive considering they have been without either Kyle Lowry or Kawhi Leonard for each of those games. As much as they miss Lowry (the offense is 16 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court) the injury to Jonas Valanciunas has hurt the bench and the rebounding of the Raptors and cost them games of late. Thursday night Kawhi Leonard returns to San Antonio to take on the Spurs and fans there will not exactly greet him warmly after he forced his way out of town.
4. Warriors (25-13, LW 3). Golden State remains inconsistent, and the big question remains “when do we start to worry about that?” Steve Kerr should worry about it, although he wouldn’t say it publicly, but do we really think they are not just going to flip the switch? It’s too early to actually worry. It was good to see Klay Thompson break out of his shooting slump with a 32-point game against Portland, when told his right hand how much me missed it.
5. Nuggets (24-11, LW 5).. The Nuggets enter 2019 as the top seed in the West, which for a team that missed playoffs by one game each of the last two seasons is a big step forward. Nikola Jokic is playing at an All-NBA level as a center, but it’s Jamal Murray breaking out as a consistent scoring threat that has propelled the Nuggets to the top of the West. Denver is 2-2 in a stretch of 7-of-11 away from home. They got the win over the Knicks in spite of Mason Plume’s “help” on defense.
6. Rockets (21-15, LW 8). It’s hard to get your head around just how well James Harden has played the past few weeks. He’s had at least 35 points and five assists in eight straight games, breaking an NBA record held by Oscar Robertson. He has scored more than 400 points in a 10-game span, becoming the third player in the last 30 years to do that (Kobe and Jordan). Harden has hit at least five threes in seven straight games, the only other person to do that is Stephen Curry. Houston has won 10-of-11 and become a playoff team again because Harden has been transcendent.
7. Thunder (23-13, LW 9). While Paul George has put up the better numbers this season, Russell Westbrook still has 10 triple-doubles this season — that’s five straight years he’s had double digits in triple-doubles, only Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson have done that. Westbrook’s numbers, however, is not the best sign the Thunder may be the second best team in the West at the end of the season. Consider this from John Schuhmann of NBA.com: Only one of the Thunder’s 13 losses hasn’t been within 5 points in the last 5 minutes. Meaning they have been in every lost game but one, no other team has less than three of these “non-clutch” losses.
8. 76ers (24-14, LW 7). The NBA Draft can be as much about fit as talent. Philly’s Landry Shamet is the perfect example: Sure, the rookie out of Wichita State is talented, but more importantly is he is a shooter and the Sixers need that, so his role just continues to grow. The Sixers are 2-2 on a tough five-game road trip, the good news is after the trip they have six games in a row against teams below .500.
9. Spurs (21-17, LW 12). San Antonio went 11-5 in December with the best offense in the NBA, scoring 116.6 points per 100 possessions for the month. The Spurs defense was also top 10 in December. In recent games they have beaten the Nuggets (splitting a home-and-home), the Clippers, and the Celtics. Considering the massive roster turnover and injuries this team has had to overcome, it’s time to put Gregg Popovich in the Coach of the Year conversation. Again.
10. Celtics (21-15, LW 6). This is not encouraging: The Celtics went 3-3 through a tough stretch of games, and even in the wins they had to come from behind (five in OT vs. the Sixers and 19 to the Grizzlies). More concerning: In their last 10 games the Celtics defense has struggled, they are 20th in the NBA allowing 111,6 per 100 in that stretch (the offense is sixth best in the league in those 10, with Kyrie Irving taking charge and covering up some of the defensive mistakes).
11. Trail Blazers (22-16, LW 11). Portland has gone 4-3 in its last seven (including splitting a home-and-home with Golden State) despite it’s offense being the third worst in the NBA in that time. It seems everyone outside of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is struggling with their shot. What has saved the Blazers is a top 10 defense in that stretch, but they need to get the offense right during the upcoming five-game homestand (which starts with tough ones against the Thunder and red-hot Rockets).
12. Clippers (21-16, LW 14). Los Angeles has come back to earth some after their hot start, with their defense bottom four in the NBA over their last 10 games. The Clippers are struggling to consistently defend the pick-and-roll. The offense has been up and down as well, but the Clippers can count on one thing — getting to the free throw line. Los Angeles leads the NBA in free throw rate, and average a league best 29.2 free throws a night. That ability to attack and draw fouls has kept them in games.
13. Lakers (21-16, LW 10). The Lakers are 1-2 without LeBron James (no timetable on his return, but they are not going to rush him back from that groin injury) but the hope was some of the other Lakers would step up with LeBron out. Brandon Ingram did that against the Kings with his best game of the season — it wasn’t the 21 points and 7 rebounds that impressed as much as his quick decision making. Ingram has tended to stop the ball and survey too much, which doesn’t fit next to LeBron (who is allowed to do that, because he’s LeBron) but against the Kings Ingram was decisive. That’s the Ingram the Lakers need.
14. Kings (19-18, LW 13). The Kings remain a bottom 10 defensive team this season, and De’Aaron Fox thinks he knows why: “A lot of times we’re giving up straight line drives, myself included, and sometimes it’s just not finishing a possession. We get a good possession on defense, we get a good contest, and then we just give up a rebound. Whether it’s a guard or a big or whatever, we’re giving up rebounds — and that’s when it’s hard. You’ve got to scramble. You give up shots.”
15. Hornets (18-18, LW 16). While Charlotte hangs on to a playoff spot in the East, three things hold them back from climbing up the ladder. One is injuries and now Cody Zeller will miss time with a fractured hand. Second, is the often-discussed trouble in close games (they are 5-11 in games within three points in the last three minutes). Third, and less discussed, is the Hornets trouble away from home: the team is 14-7 at the Spectrum Center but 4-11 on the road. Which is trouble because starting Saturday in Denver is a six-game road trip against teams in the West.
16. Grizzlies (18-18, LW 17). Memphis’ starting lineup — Mike Conley, Garrett Temple, Kyle Anderson, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Marc Gasol — is the third most used five-man lineup in the NBA this season, having played 371 minutes across 34 games. The lineup works because it defends — teams score just 90.3 points per 100 possessions against that group. The Grizzlies don’t score a lot with that group, either, but so long as they keep defending like that they will win enough games to hang around the playoff chase.
17. Jazz (18-20, LW 15). Utah is back to playing elite defense. They have been best in the NBA in the last 10 games giving up just a point per possession (and it was below that mark before Kawhi Leonard torched them for 45 on Tuesday). The Jazz offense has been stagnate and pedestrian in those 10 games, but the Jazz are still +8.1 per 100 in the last 10 — and they have a 5-5 record. Utah has the point differential of a team that should be 21-17 this season, they have played the league’s toughest schedule, but they just need to string together some wins to get back in the middle of the playoff mix, and they can’t seem to do it.
18. Heat (17-18, LW 18). Forced to play point guard because Goran Dragic is out and they don’t have other options, Justise Winslow has stepped up to the challenge: He has averaged 17 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game through his last five, and is +15.8 per game in those. The problem is when he sits the Heat just come apart. Miami has stayed in the East playoff race (they are the 7 seed as I write this) because of a top-10 defense of late that has been a fascinating mix of zone and man-to-man where Hassan Whiteside protecting the rim has been featured.
19. Mavericks (17-20, LW 20). Did you know there are other players on the Mavericks not named Luka Doncic? One of them is Dennis Smith Jr., the second-year guard who has struggled at times to move to more of an off-ball role next to that rookie everyone is talking about. One question for the second half of this season in Dallas is if Smith can play with Doncic in that role, or if he should be traded (he’ll be available at the deadline but reportedly with a high price, the more likely move, if he’s traded, is in the summer).
20. Timberwolves (17-20, LW 21). There are a lot of positives of late in Minnesota — Karl-Anthony Towns has found his stride and is playing at an All-NBA level again in this last few, Derrick Rose’s resurgence is one of the best stories of the season — but the team is still 3-3 in is last six and just does not look like a playoff team in the deep West. Plus, Andrew Wiggins calling out the home fans doesn’t help. There’s a lot of speculation around the league about what moves the Timberwolves make in the offseason — there’s a sense Tom Thibodeau will be out as coach/GM, which may be why Fred Hoiberg doesn’t take the UCLA job — but nobody knows for sure. This team is better off without the disruptive Jimmy Butler around, but it’s not right, either.
21. Pistons (16-19, 19). Detroit has lost 5-of-6, but more concerning is who some of those losses are to: Atlanta, Orlando, and Charlotte. The biggest problem is the offense, which is scoring just 103.8 per 100 in its last 10 games, third worst in the NBA in that stretch. While Blake Griffin is doing all he can, this team lacks secondary playmakers or any other kind of consistent scoring options. Things don’t get easier now as Wednesday night in Memphis starts a run of seven straight games against the deeper Western Conference where wins will be harder to come by.
22. Nets (17-21, LW 22). The Nets are in the playoff picture in the East (the 9 seed, just half a game out of the playoffs) but have come back to earth a little with a couple straight losses on the road following the 9-of-10 win streak. They remain an offensive force that struggles to get stops consistently, which could be an issue as the Nets have a tough stretch of games coming up for the next couple of weeks (6-of-8 on the road starting Friday in Memphis).
23. Pelicans (17-21, LW 23). The Pelicans struggles to close out games are what is keeping them out of the playoffs (and is one of the biggest differences from last season). New Orleans is 5-11 in games within three points in the final three minutes, the same record as league-worst clutch team Charlotte (last season the Pelicans were 23-16 in those three point clutch games). Elfrid Payton’s return should be a boost to the Pelicans, giving them more depth at the guard spots.
24. Magic (16-20, LW 24). If Orlando is going to stay in playoff contention in the East — they are just half-a-game out of the eight seed as I write this — they need some more road wins in the next couple of weeks. The Magic are a respectable 6-9 away from home this season and play better defense (slowing the game down) for some reason, but Monday’s loss in Charlotte was the first of six in a row on the road. The other thing they could use? Another Evan Fournier game winner.
25. Hawks (11-25, LW 25). Don’t look now, but the Hawks have won 5-of-7 with improved play on both ends of the court. The Hawks have done it with offensive balance, plus Trae Young looking more comfortable both knocking know shots (50% from three on 3.6 attempts per game in his last five) plus dishing out more assists and looking more comfortable running the offense. Monday’s loss to the Pacers was the first of 6-of-7 on the road for the Hawks.
26. Wizards (14-23, LW 26). John Wall is out for the season having surgery on his heel, pain that can be (at least partially) to blame for his underwhelming start to the season. Now the question is what do the Wizards do next? The smart basketball answer would be to tank for a good pick (the best way for the capped out team to improve for next season) but will that happen with good talent still on the roster? Will the Wizards still be open to trading Markieff Morris, Otto Porter, or maybe even Bradley Beal (probably not Beal). It’s an unpredictable time in our nation’s capital.
27. Suns (9-29, LW 27). After showing some competitive fire for a stretch (remember the four-game winning streak?) the Suns have dropped 5-of-6, including all three at the start of a seven-game homestand. The Suns’ offense, led by Devin Booker — 26.4 points and 8.2 assists per game, shooting 40.7% from three in the last five — remains respectable, but they lose because they cannot get stops (allowing 117.5 per 100 in the last six, third worst defense in the NBA in that stretch).
28. Bulls (10-27, LW 28). Where has Jim Boyle made a difference as coach? Defense. Since he took over the Bulls are actually the seventh ranked defense in the league, giving up 106.4 per 100 (better than the Celtics or Raptors in that stretch). Of course, the offense is scoring less than a point per possession in that time, so the Bulls are not going to win a lot, but there has been improvement.
29. Knicks (9-29, LW 29). Everything looks miserable in New York right now, from a rainy New Year’s Eve in Time Square to the Knicks having lost eight in a row while Enes Kanter complains publicly about not starting. There have been some mild bright spots in the play of rookie Kevin Knox and young guard Emmanuel Mudiay, but this is what it’s like to watch a rebuilding team without its best player for a season due to injury. Stay the course, struggle and let the youth learn hard lessons, get a good draft pick and think about next season and beyond.
30. Cavaliers (8-29, LW 30). They have rolled the dice signing Patrick McCaw away from the Warriors, but because it’s a non-guaranteed contract it’s not that big a gamble. McCaw showed some promise his rookie season as a wing asked to play a role on a title team, but he wanted more run and responsibility and that wasn’t happening in Golden State. So, McCaw risked his career and now is in Cleveland with a lot to prove.