The Golden State Warriors reminded everyone Tuesday night what they are capable of, but the top two spots still belong to the top teams in the East. They have been more consistent.
1. Raptors (33-12, last week No. 1). Things are coming together for the Raptors. They have won five in a row, the last four of those with Kyle Lowry back in the lineup returned from injury, Kawhi Leonard has moved the ball better in those five wins (26 assists), Pascal Siakam is getting more run at center, and Serge Ibaka has slipped up a few times but is still having a renaissance season playing center. Raptors fans, enjoy the journey, this may well be the best Toronto team ever, try to ignore that cloud over the team about Leonard and July. Teams like this don’t come around often. Savor it.
2. Bucks (31-12, LW 2). They had a statement win against Houston — where Brook Lopez’s defense in the paint was the surprising key (after they overplayed Harden and forced him right and into Lopez) — and while the Bucks then turned around and lost to the Wizards a couple of nights later it was without Giannis Antetokounmpo so we’re not holding that against them. The other interesting thing out of the win over Houston: How well Eric Bledsoe did on James Harden. Yes, Harden had 42 points on 30 shots, but Bledsoe made him work for his buckets and that bodes well for the Bucks heading into the postseason. Milwaukee has 7-of-9 on the road coming up.
3. Warriors (30-14, LW 5). The reports of the troubles/demise of Golden State have been greatly exaggerated — despite the injuries, lack of depth, infighting and everything else they currently have the best record in the West. They took control of the conference with an emphatic win over Denver, a game that was a reminder of how good they can be. Friday night against the Clippers the DeMarcus Cousins experiment begins and should be one of the more interesting stories of the second half of the season (when you hear rumors of the Warriors’ interest in Robin Lopez on the buyout market, that’s really just Cousins insurance, nobody knows how this is going to go).
4. Pacers (29-13, LW 3). Myles Turner returned from injury against Phoenix Tuesday, which was good news because their defense when he was out was not the same — and the Pacers are second in the NBA in defensive rating. It’s a credit to coach Nate McMillan how well he has this team defending, that end of the floor has become their calling card. Indiana went 3-2 on a recent road trip but the losses were to Toronto and Boston, two of the other teams at the top of the East, and that’s a cause for some concern.
5. Nuggets (29-14, LW 7).. Will Barton is back in the lineup — he played in just the first two games of the season before injuring his groin — and that is a big boost for Denver and it’s wing depth and rotation. Just ignore the Warriors game, Golden State does that to teams a couple times a season, except that it was another rough defensive outing. While the Nuggets on the season have a top-10 NBA defense, that has slid to the second worst in the NBA in their last 10 games. The defensive slippage has been covered up because Nikola Jokic can do things like this.
6. Rockets (25-18, LW 4). Clint Capela is out 4-6 weeks with an injured right thumb, and the pressure just mounted even more on James Harden — he responded with 57 points in the first game without Capela, but can he sustain this? The Rockets are 3-3 in their last six with an elite offense covering up for a bottom-10 defense, and that defense is not likely to improve with Capela out. Look for Daryl Morey to try and find some help at the five because the only real center on the roster now is Nene and he can give them maybe 15 minutes a night, tops.
7. Thunder (26-17, LW 6). The Thunder have the best defense in the NBA on the season, allowing 103.6 points per 100 possessions (via NBA.com stats), but in the last five game that has slipped to 119.7 per 100 (28th in the league in that stretch). While teams have bad runs of games over the course of 82, the Thunder are built on defense and they can’t afford for the defensive issues to last much longer, or there will be more ugly losses like Tuesday’s one to Atlanta.
8. 76ers (29-16, LW 10). Philadelphia is 20-10 since trading for Jimmy Butler, and the way the Sixers looked and the way the Timberwolves rolled over in that game Butler looked prophetic. That said, all is not just puppy dogs and rainbows with the Sixers — After an Embiid-less loss at home to the lowly Hawks, Ben Simmons called his team out as soft (Atlanta was the more physical team in that game). That Simmons would go there speaks to the struggles still going on trying to get Butler/Embiid/Simmons on the same page.
9. Celtics (25-18, LW 9). Terry Rosier said this week this team is “too talented” and that has been a popular theory — too many mouths to feed, too many players who want touches and shots, and it leads to a crowded rotation and guys pushing for larger roles. Is it too much talent or that talent not fitting together? The Celtics can rise up and look like one of the best in the East — they did it in the win over Indiana — but they don’t consistently. Brad Stevens also needs to be thinking about who will be in his 8/9-man playoff rotation, and which current rotation guys (likely Robert Williams, Daniel Theis, and Semi Ojeleye, maybe others) will be relegated to the bench.
10. Trail Blazers (26-19, LW 11). The Blazers are 18-7 at home and have a +7.1 net rating, but get on the road and they are 8-12 with a -5.1 net rating. The problems are on both ends of the court, the offense is 5.4 per 100 worse on the road and the defense is 6.8 per 100 worse. We saw it recently in action, the Blazers won four in a row at home then got out of Portland and promptly lost two straight. The Blazers have five more road than home games the rest of the way (but a relatively easy strength of schedule(.
11. Jazz (24-21, LW 14). The Jazz look like themselves again winning four in a row, 6-of-7, and they have allowed less than a point per possession in that stretch (best in the NBA). Utah has moved into a tie for the eighth seed in the Wes. Granted, this run has come against a softer part of the schedule (something that ends this week with the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Nuggets), but the Jazz have the second-easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way and the easiest of any team in the West. Utah is starting to look like a playoff team again.
12. Spurs (25-20, LW 8). Last Thursday’s dramatic double-overtime win against the Thunder — where LaMarcus Aldridge scored 56 — was a signature win for San Antonio. And, if that’s all you saw of them you’d say they were surging. However, they have dropped 3-of-4, including splitting that home-and-home with OKC. The Spurs’ defense, which has carried the team this season, is bottom 10 in their last 5 games, while the offense has been pedestrian. The Spurs may be coming back to earth a little bit, they need to get their defense right and start winning some road games against the West (3-12 so far).
13. Kings (23-21, LW 17). Rookie Marvin Bagley III is back in the rotation after missing 11 games and is starting to find his form again. Bagley has played fairly well, averaging 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a night off the bench before he got injured (it’s just in this rookie class those numbers get overshadowed). Coach Dave Joerger needs to get Bagley some run and bring him along, the No. 2 pick is a big part of the Kings’ future. Sacramento has won four in a row at home, but now heads out on the road for their next six.
14. Clippers (24-19, LW 12). The Clippers have regressed to the mean recently, having lost three in a row and 7-of-8. In those last 15 games the Clippers have had a top-10 offense — with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell providing a big spark off the bench — but a bottom 10 defense. The Clippers will be the focus of the NBA universe Friday night because DeMarcus Cousins makes his return against them — we all want to see Boban Marjanović matched up against him. Doc Rivers needs to make that happen.
15. Lakers (24-21, LW 13). Los Angeles has gone 4-7 since LeBron James’ groin injury, sliding down to a tie for the final playoff spot in the West, and with some ugly games in there — the loss to Cleveland at home was their worst loss of the season. Two things to be concerned about if you’re a Laker fan: 1) This recent run of games really did not help the “we can trade these guys for Anthony Davis” cause (although Brandon Ingram, when he’s facilitating still shows promise); 2) The Lakers have the second toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way. With LeBron back they should be able to handle it and make the playoffs, but it’s not going to be easy.
16. Heat (21-21, LW 15). The unlikely backcourt of Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson has started to find some chemistry, they had big games in the wins against the Celtics and Grizzlies recently, and the Heat have won 10-of-15 with them running the show (although it’s a top-10 defense that has really carried the Heat through this stretch). The loss in Milwaukee Tuesday was the first of 6-of-7 on the road as Miami enters a rough patch of the schedule.
17. Pelicans (21-23, LW 20). New Orleans finally has Elfrid Payton and Nikola Mirotic back in the rotation after extended absences due to injury, they have gone 2-1 in those games and looked much improved. Their return came at the right time, if New Orleans is going to make a playoff push — read: have any shot at all of keeping Anthony Davis — they need to survive a tough January schedule the rest of the way, with 5-of-7 on the road and much of that against West playoff teams. The Pelicans have the fourth toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way.
18. Nets (22-23, LW 19). Before the season it was expected that Brooklyn would be out of the playoff mix and with some expiring contracts — DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley, Ed Davis, Kenneth Faried — and they would be sellers at the trade deadline. But the scrappy Nets, who play hard and take smart shots, have turned their team of journeymen into the seven seed in the West with a real shot at the playoffs. With that, the fire sale is off and Brooklyn is one of the feel-good stories of the season.
19. Timberwolves (21-23, LW 16). Coming out flat against Philadelphia was ugly — they made Jimmy Butler look prophetic about Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins by showing no fire in that game. This team shows flashes — KAT was blocking Anthony Davis at the end of a win over the Pelicans — but they don’t defend or take smart shots with any consistency. Ryan Saunders is 2-2 as a coach and there are people rooting for him to do well enough to keep this job, but he has a lot of work ahead of him to just get more every night out of this roster.
20. Mavericks (20-23, LW 21). Why are the Mavericks shopping Dennis Smith Jr.? Because, while his shooting has improved this season, he simply has not fit with Luka Doncic (and Doncic is the future). Smith as part of the regular starting five for Dallas scores less than a point per possession, sub rookie Jaylen Brunson in for Smith and that lineup’s offense gets 16 points per 100 possessions better. Smith is incredibly athletic and should have value on the trade market, but with every other team knowing both Dallas and Smith want to part ways, it’s going to be hard to get anywhere near fair value.
21. Magic (19-24, LW 24).
Another team many around the league expected to be a seller at the deadline, but after back-to-back victories over Boston and Houston, the Magic are just a game out of the playoffs in the East and are more likely to make a push for it rather than tank. The key to making the playoffs will be more of the Aaron Gordon who showed up against Boston and Houston, scoring 28 and 22 points in those games, shooting a combined 51.7 percent, and getting to the free throw line. Orlando needs Gordon to be aggressive and the catalyst for the offense.
22. Hornets (20-23, LW 18). Charlotte wants to make the playoffs this season, owner Michael Jordan wants to make the playoffs, and their recent 2-4 road trip did not help that cause (although the Hornets remain a game ahead of Orlando for the eight seed). The bigger problem is they miss Cody Zeller, he has been out seven games (2-5) and in those games the Hornets have the third worst defense in the NBA. They need to get some stops over the next few weeks because Kemba Walker’s heroics alone are not enough to get them into the playoffs.
23. Wizards (18-26, LW 25). They beat the 76ers. They beat the Bucks. They took the Raptors to double overtime. Forget about tanking and selling off players, the Wizards are playing better and, with the third easiest schedule the rest of the way the Wizards are thinking playoffs. The Wizards are 5-4 with a +3.2 net rating since John Wall left the team due to injury, there is more balance on the offense and Bradley Beal is attacking the rim more than we’ve seen in years. Despite their horrid start to the season and injuries, the Wizards are just 2.5 games out of the playoffs and stranger things have happened.
24. Pistons (18-24, 22). Blake Griffin’s 44-point performance against the Los Angeles Clippers Saturday night was a classic revenge game — he even blew off Steve Ballmer (maybe) — and a great reminder of how good Griffin can be. It’s also the Pistons’ only win in their last six games, the team continues to struggle offensively (bottom 5 in the league over the last 10 games). The Pistons have 7-of-10 at home and if they are going to make a playoff push it needs to come now.
25. Hawks (14-30, LW 26). The Hawks have quietly gone 8-7 in their last 15 games, with an average NBA offense and a just slightly below average defense in that stretch. That included a 142-126 win over Oklahoma City. Rookie point guard Trae Young has started to show some chemistry with Kevin Huerter,, and the Thunder found out about that the hard way.
26. Grizzlies (19-24, LW 23). Unexpected stat: The Grizzlies lead the NBA in passes per game, averaging 342.1. Unfortunately, that does not correlate directly to winning, the Grizzlies have gone 3-13 in their last 16, have slid out of the playoffs, and their next four games are the Bucks, Celtics, Raptors, and Pelicans. If the losing continues for another week or two, and with Marc Gasol a free agent this summer, will we finally see Memphis talk trade and break up their core? Other teams are watching, but if they didn’t do it this summer would they now?
27. Suns (11-34, LW 27). Kelly Oubre Jr. is starting to find a comfort level in the Valley of the Sun, averaging 17.6 points per game on 50.8 shooting in his last five games. That said, the offense continues to struggle if Devin Booker is not on the floor, and that lack of consistent offense keeps them from winning games (although they are competitive most nights, they are not just rolling over).
28. Knicks (10-33, LW 29). It will be February before we get an update, but if the rumors are true that the Knicks want to hold Kristaps Porzingis out all season — against his wishes — then that is the kind of short-sighted things that leads to broken relationships. (This is providing there is not a good medical reason to keep KP out.) Only one game this week as the NBA decided to promote its game by sending the Knicks and Wizards over to London for a Thursday game (don’t they have enough problems over there with Brexit without us making them watch that excuse for basketball?).
29. Bulls (10-34, LW 28). Chicago has lost eight in a row, but Bulls management wants to show it’s committed to the old-school ways of coach Jim Boylen by giving him a raise this season and next (they had lost six in a row when that news leaked). Boylen is now 5-15 as head coach. When you’re losing like that, experimenting with Lauri Markkanen at the three — as Boylen wants to do — is worth trying.
30. Cavaliers (9-35, LW 30). the Cavaliers snapped their 12 game losing streak thanks to the LeBron-less Lakers. One bright spot, Matthew Dellavedova has played like a solid pro for the Cavaliers off the bench providing some steady play their bench units can use. Beyond that… here’s a Zion Williamson highlight to dream about.