Things seem back to normal, or at least back to what we expected, with the Golden State Warriors back on top of the rankings. Their biggest threats in the playoffs probably come more from teams in the East, not the West.
1. Warriors (33-14, last week No. 3). Golden State has won eight in a row, so are we done with the “what’s wrong with the Warriors” stories? DeMarcus Cousins is now the starting center for Golden State, and while he’s still shaking off the rust and adjusting after a year off (to recover from a torn Achilles), he already brings a lot to the table. His three-point shooting, his playmaking out of the midpost, his solid screens, and his ability to be a big body in the way on defense all give the Warriors a dimension they have not had since Andrew Bogut during the first title run (but Boogie is a better version of that player).
2. Bucks (34-12, LW 2). Winners of five in a row, due in part to the fact Eric Bledsoe getting hot in those games — 21.6 points per game on 57.7% shooting, plus he’s dishing out 5 assists a night and is +16.4 per game in those contests. Can Bledsoe take that show on the road? Starting Sunday the Bucks head out for 8-of-10 away from their new arena, where they are 13-8 on the season with a +5 net rating — they are still good away from home, but not the same dominant force.
3. Raptors (36-13, LW 1). The Raptors are 25-11 in games that Kawhi Leonard has played this season, but maybe more impressive is they are 10-2 when he rests. Which he has done a lot of this season as Toronto tries to keep him happy and healthy. Leonard will be an All-Star, and it’s possible (despite a slightly down season) that Kyle Lowry will be in Charlotte, but what about Pascal Siakam? He has risen to a spot of vital importance in the Raptors’ rotation, so much so that with the game on the line Nick Nurse called an isolation for Siakam. And it worked.
4. Nuggets (31-14, LW 5).. It’s not going to be fair to the team with the second best record in the West, but likely Nikola Jokic will be their only All-Star. Yes, Jamal Murray has a strong case, but the West is just so stupid deep with good guards that quality players are just not going to make the cut (Curry, Harden, Lillard, and Westbrook are locks, that leaves maybe one spot for Murray or Conley or Thompson or Booker or Fox… the West is so deep). Denver deserves two but may not get it.
5. 76ers (31-17, LW 8). This feels a little high for Philly, but they have won 4-of-5 and that includes blowout wins over Indiana and Houston. The Sixers have hit their offensive strides in those last 5 games, and their defense remains strong. Joel Embiid should be a lock as an All-Star Game starter in the East, but it will be interesting to see if Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons get voted in by the coaches. Will the coaches punish Butler for torpedoing Minnesota at the start of the season?
6. Pacers (31-15, LW 4). Victor Oladipo deservedly will make the NBA All-Star Game as a reserve voted in by the coaches, but do the surprising Pacers deserve two players in Charlotte? It’s tempting to say yes, but who is their second best player? Myles Turner? Does he really deserve to go? Domantas Sabonis is probably their second best player and could win Sixth Man of the Year, but does a reserve deserve to be an All-Star? Tough stretch coming up for Indy, 5-of-7 on the road ant the two home games are the Raptors and Warriors.
7. Celtics (29-18, LW 9). Winners of four in a row and 8-of-11 (although the only road win in the group was at Atlanta). The most impressive of those wins was against Toronto, and Boston went on a clutch 17-2 run late to make it happen. The Celtics have played up and down all season, but they have risen to the level we expected of them in recent wins against Indiana and Toronto, now they need to sustain it as the home stretch continues for 5-of-6. Saturday they can measure themselves against the red-hot Warriors.
8. Thunder (29-18, LW 7). Oklahoma City gets a lot nightly out of its starters — Russell Westbrook, Terrance Ferguson, Jerami Grant, Paul George, Steven Adams — as they are +14.3 per 100 possessions this summer. Sub Dennis Schroder in for Westbrook and that lineup still thrives. After that things get more inconsistent, but when they get big nights from the bench like they did Tuesday against Portland this team can hang with anyone. Interesting test Sunday night at home against the Bucks.
9. Trail Blazers (29-20, LW 10). Portland has gotten strong play out of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic of late, but after them things drop off fast. Evan Turner and the strong bench that carried the team early in the season does’ show up nightly, especially on the road right now. Despite that Portland has the fourth best offense in the NBA over the last 10 games (119.4 offensive rating) and when the team can get just a few stops it can rack up wins.
10. Rockets (26-20, LW 6).
Clint Capela has missed four games, and in those games James Harden has scored 200 points, and the Rockets have gone 2-2. Houston has got 3-4 in their last 7 as teams are starting to give Harden a version of the defense used against Jordan and Steve Nash — let him score a lot, just don’t let him get anyone else involved and they’re vulnerable. The Rockets need other stars to step up. Chris Paul is expected to return this week, that will be a huge boost for Houston.
11. Jazz (26-22, LW 11). Ricky Rubio has returned from injury (he came off the bench Monday against Portland) and he is needed with Dante Exum and Raul Raul Neto still out). Donovan Mitchell has found his groove again, in his last five game he’s score 30 points a night average with an impressive 58 true shooting percentage, all with an increased usage rate (35.6%). Friday and Sunday it’s a home-and-home against Minnesota, which leads to the always fun Nikola Jokic vs. Karl-Anthony Towns matchup.
12. Spurs (27-21, LW 12). Most teams count on their starters to get them a lead and hope the bench can hold it, but for the Spurs their starting five — Bryn Forbes, Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge — are +0.4 in their last 15 games, basically playing other starters to a standstill. It’s the bench and its three-point shooting that give the Spurs the lead. After a tough game Wednesday against Philly, San Antonio hits a soft part of the schedule for the next week plus (not all gimmies but winnable games) and they need to rack up wins to pad their record in a deep West.
13. Nets (25-23, LW 18). One of the biggest changes in Brooklyn this season (especially the past month as the team has pushed above .500) is the ability to close out games. The Nets were terrible at it a season ago but are 10-9 in games within three points in the final three minutes this season (despite a -10.7 net rating). D’Angelo Russell has had big games lately: 34 points against Boston, 40 vs. Orlando, 31 against Sacramento, but in all those games combined he shot two free throws. Russell does not attack the rim and does not draw fouls, and that’s hurting his stock some coming into next season.
14. Clippers (25-22, LW 14). While the Clipper defense has struggled for much of the season (22nd ranked), it was bailed out by the offense. Until recently. In the last five games, the Clippers have scored just 102.8 points per 100, 25th in the league. Injuries that sidelined Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari have plenty to do with that, but the Clippers need to find their offense quickly. Los Angeles has started 1-1 on a stretch of 11-of-15 on the road that will decide its season, can the Clippers hang in playoff contention through all of this.
15. Lakers (25-23, LW 15). The Lakers have gone 5-9 without LeBron James but were finally going to get healthy — LeBron could be back this weekend, Rajon Rondo sooner — when Lonzo Ball went down with a sprained ankle that will have him out 4-6 weeks. Ball had been playing well without LeBron — 12.9 points, 6.9 assists, 6.2 rebounds a game shooting 38.9% from three — without LeBron and seemed ready to maybe step up. Now that is on hold. The Lakers are home this week but starting Jan. 29 hit one of their toughest stretches of the season.
16. Kings (24-24, LW 13). Buddy Hield has a surprisingly strong All-Star case. He’s averaging 20.2 points per game to lead the rings, is shooting 45.5% from three, and is the team’s go-to scorer in the clutch (just ask the Pistons, or watch the video below. Hield isn’t going to make it this year — the West is so deep with guards with Curry/Harden/Lillard/Westbrook as locks for the game — but it would be good to at least see him in the three-point contest. The Kings are 1-3 so far on a six-game road trip.
17. Heat (22-23, LW 16). Dion Waiters wants to play more — he got fined publicly complaining about it — and since his return he’s been solid but not blowing anyone’s doors off at 9.5 points per game, shooting 31.6% from three. He could get his chance to starts soon just because with Goran Dragic out and Josh Richardson running the point the Heat meed all the scoring they can find. The Heat went 1-3 on a recent road trip and still have 8-of-12 coming up away from South Beach.
18. Timberwolves (23-24, LW 19). The fans are trying to vote Derrick Rose into the All-Star Game, and while it’s unlikely the media and players go along with that Rose does remain one of the best stories in the league this season. That leads to a bigger question: If the All-Star Game is an exhibition for the fans, why not give them what they want? Why not put Rose and Dwyane Wade in the game? Rose is still making plays, just ask the Suns.
19. Pelicans (22-25, LW 17). Anthony Davis is out for a while and is seeing a specialist, which is never a good sign (not that anyone in New Orleans is noticing, they are still angry about the no PI call at the end of the Rams/Saints game). The Pelicans are 7.2 points per 100 possessions better with their MVP candidate on the court and they need to find wins without him, as they did against the Grizzlies. The Pelicans are three games out of the playoffs and three games below .500, but if Davis misses much time that could get worse.
20. Wizards (20-26, LW 23). The Wizards are trying to make a playoff push (they are the nine seed currently, just two games out of the postseason) and to get there they are finding some success with their small-ball lineups that have Otto Porter or Sam Dekker at center. Bradley Beal is thriving in those smaller lineups. Washington got the win in London — and Thomas Bryant got his first game-winner in the NBA — on one of the strangest endings to a game ever, a goaltend with 0.4 on the clock.
21. Hornets (22-24, LW 22). Expect to hear a lot of Kemba Walker trade rumors the next couple of weeks, but I have yet to hear anything credible that the Hornets would be open to a trade — they want to make the playoffs then re-sign Walker next July. Charlotte has gone 4-6 without Cody Zeller (and are lucky to be doing that well, considering the -7.5 net rating in those 10 games) but has won 3-of-4 and need to keep winning to hold off charging Washington for one of the final playoff slots in the East.
22. Mavericks (21-26, LW 20). How much does Dallas miss J.J. Barea? The Mavericks are 20-18 when he plays and now 1-8 without him, including losing 4-of-5. Getting Dennis Smith Jr. back will help mitigate some of that, he showed how much he could help against the Clippers in his first game back, scoring 17 points (on 17 shots, but he was a +9). Dallas has its next seven games against teams from the East.
23. Pistons (20-26, 24). Blake Griffin should be a lock as an All-Star Game reserve voted in by the coaches. Detroit remains just two games out of the playoffs in the East and wants to make a push (the loss to Washington Monday didn’t help) but they need more consistent play out of their guards and wings — Luke Kennard and Reggie Bullock have to step up.
24. Magic (20-27, LW 21). Are the Magic going to be sellers at the trade deadline? There would be a lot of interest in Terrence Ross, some in Nikola Vucevic (teams love his game but he is a free agent come July, teams are not going to pay much for a rental), and there even is some Aaron Gordon buzz. However, that requires management and ownership to decide to throw in the towel on the season. The Magic are just 2.5 games out of the playoffs and may not do that, thinking they would rather make a push for the eighth seed instead.
25. Hawks (14-32, LW 25). John Collins has been spectacular this season — like consider him for an East front court All-Star Game slot good. He’s averaging 18.8 points a night, is shooting 57.9% overall and 33.8% from three, is grabbing 10.4 boards a game and has a PER of 21.2. He has taken a leap forward this season. Collins probably won’t get the nod because he plays for the Hawks, but he has earned consideration.
26. Grizzlies (19-28, LW 26). The Grizzlies — losers of 12-of-13 — are finally open to the idea of trading Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, something that became public days after the two starts met with owner Robert Pera to talk about the future. That makes the trade deadline more interesting, but actually pulling off a deal for Gasol (declining skills and with a player option for $25.6 million next season) or Conley (All-Star level player but with $67 million guaranteed after this season) will be tough to do before the deadline. These could be July trades, but the buzz will be out there.
27. Suns (11-38, LW 27). The Suns will be an interesting team to watch as they move into the trade deadline, they are willing take on salary now for picks and players who can help with their rebuild. However, teams are not giving up young talent easily, which is one reason the deadline likely will be so quiet. Phoenix’s offense has had its moments since the return of Devin Booker, but that hasn’t translated to wins as the Suns have dropped five in a row.
28. Knicks (10-35, LW 28). Enes Kanter (who did not travel to London for safety reasons) was back in the starting lineup with Luke Kornet out with a sprained ankle for a couple of weeks. That will make Kanter happy, but it doesn’t make the team better — sub Kanter in for Kornet with the regular starters and the Knick offense gets 3.8 points per 100 possessions better, but the defense gets 4.3 per 100 worse. Bottom line, the Knicks have lost six straight and 14-of-15.
29. Bulls (11-36, LW 29). Wendell Carter has played well and looked like part of the future in Chicago during his rookie season, which is why it’s such a blow he’s out most if not all of the rest of the season due to thumb surgery (he could return for the final few weeks of the season but don’t expect the Bulls to rush him). Chicago had lost 10 games in a row before Monday, when they took on the one team they can beat, the one team below them in these rankings.
30. Cavaliers (9-39, LW 30). How many players will the Cavaliers move a the trade deadline? Kevin Love is their best player, but he’s not back on the court yet from his foot issue and no team is taking on his massive contract without seeing him play. Could Tristan Thompson get moved? J.R. Smith, or is he more of a buyout candidate? The Cavs are rebuilding and should look to move any veteran for picks or young players. The Cavs have lost 16-of-17 games.