1. Miami Heat - Since a surprising home loss to Milwaukee, the Heat have won five straight, with four of the wins coming against weaklings, and one coming against Chicago. Dwyane Wade is healthy and looks dominant, and LeBron James has been the best player in the NBA so far this season. It's amazing what can happen when you develop a post game. They play their next 11 games against Eastern Conference opponents, with eight of those coming on the road. If this is the team to beat, we'll know for sure in a couple of weeks.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder - It's looking more and more like losing on the road to the Clippers is nothing to be embarrassed about. It still sort of feels like this team hasn't really been tested. They play seven of their next nine against teams at or above .500, with five of those seven coming on the road. It's a shame that a team playing at an .800 clip will have to endure seeing Kendrick Perkins getting poster-ized on a continuous highlight loop for the rest of eternity. James Harden finally got a start and went 2 for 10 with 7 points. Go figure.
3. Chicago Bulls - The defense seems to have let up a bit of late, giving up 95 points/game over their last five. Derrick Rose can't wait to face the Pacers again, but he should be careful what he wishes for: the last time the Bulls beat an opponent with a winning record was January 6th, when they beat Orlando. Kudos for winning the games their supposed to. After tomorrow night's game in Philly, they won't face another winning opponent until February 20th, when Atlanta comes to town. It's entirely possible that this team could go six weeks without beating a playoff team. You have to wonder if they'll atrophy a bit, or if they'll just gain more confidence.
4. Philadelphia 76ers - I feel bad about moving the Sixers down two spots, but it had to be done to accomodate the Heat and Thunder. Doug Collins has done a fine job with this bunch. They're solid in every way. Younger guys like Thaddeus Young, Jrue Holiday, and Evan Turner provide a solid young core, while Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala are strong veterans looking for a Title. They're talented. They're deep. They play great defense. If someone is going to upset Miami or Chicago in the East Semis, you're looking at them.
5. Denver Nuggets - It's not hard to imagine this team making a deep playoff run. They are a veteran team with a great coach, and they have perhaps the deepest rotation in the NBA. But until they start playing defense, they'll be limited against teams like Dallas and Oklahoma City that they might not be able to outscore. Hold on tight, because the schedule is about to become very unfriendly.
6. Atlanta Hawks - As a team, they're shooting better than 40% on their 3s. That's no fluke. After all, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, and Vladimir Radmanovic are legit shooters. Jeff Teague might be the league's most improved player, and Zaza Pachulia has stepped up nicely since becomming a starter, averaging 10 and 8 over his last five games. Despite all of that and a pretty good defense, they're bottom 10 in attendance and no is talking about them. Such is life.
7. Dallas Mavericks - Since January 7th, they've gone 11-3 and started looking like the defending world champs. They won the Greatest Game Ever Played against the Spurs in OT, boarded a plane, and crushed the Suns in Phoenix the next night. Dirk Nowitzki still doesn't have it going, but you have to figure that he will soon. They're as dangerous as ever, and not they've added defense to their repertoire.
8. LA Clippers - After a tough "road" loss the the Lakers, the Clips proceded to beat three straight West foes, including the top two teams in the Conference. They are deep and talented at the guard position, and if they had one more post guy in the rotation, they might just be a legit title contender. Kudos to Blake Griffin for appealing to our baser instincts, dunking the NBA from a complex and nuanced sport into a Monster Truck Rally.
9. Indiana Pacers - This team is all over the map. They lose at home to Orlando by 19, then go to Chicago and beat the Bulls. Two days later, they can't handle the aging Celtics, but then they beat the same Magic team on the road by 21. Your guess is as good as mine (and probably better). I figure they'll lose at home to the Nets tonight, then go on the road and beat Minnesota and Dallas by a combined 80 points. They've come out of what basically amounts to a season-long road trip at 13-6, and they've beaten the Bulls in Chicago, so I guess you have to put them in the top 10.
10. Portland Trail Blazers - What can you say? They're capable of winning in Oklahoma City and losing in Dertoit. The fact is, they are 3-8 on the raod. That shouldn't happen on a team with this many veterans, especially on one that's 9-1 at home. If you want to make the playoffs in the West, you have to be competitive on the road. I can't stress this enough. 36-30 might not get you in.
11. Utah Jazz - They've played a light schedule and only six road games, but they're 12-7, so here's the props. If they're really going to make the playoffs, they'll need a youngster like Gordon Heyward or Derrick Favors to become a star pretty soon. Paul Millsap is 5th in the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating. Paul Millsap. I'm waiting for the fall, but they just keep on truckin'.
12. San Antonio Spurs - Recent losses at Minnesota and Dallas really don't really make them look bad. At this point, they seem to be treading water until Manu Ginobili gets back. His return will have a drastic impact on this teams playoff hopes. It's possible that they could get a home series in the 1st round, or finish 10th in the West. Too early to tell.
13. Houston Rockets - They needed three wins on their homestand and they got two. Now they'll have a stretch of 12 games in 20 days to start February, and while it's not necessarily a murderer's row of opponents, they'll have a lot of tough games. If they come out of that 7-5, you'll have to buy them as playoff contenders. If they get crushed, you'll start seeing Luis Scola and Kevin Martin in more trade rumors.
14. LA Lakers - Kobe Bryant is pitching in 30/game and Pau Gasol has looked better lately. Still, they lack depth, and as a team, they're scoring at a Mike Brown pace. You have to figure they'll make a move, but for who? Deron Williams? I don't think they have the pieces to get Dwight Howard unless they involve a 3rd party.
15. Orlando Magic - Even though they've lost four in a row and 6 of 8, I can't just ignore the fact that they're 12-9. That's why they're in the top half. Still, they seem to be in complete self-destruct mode at this point. If they don't right the ship by the All-Star Game, Howard will be on his way out of town.
16. Minnesota Timberwolves - Rick Adelman's group is sending a message to the rest of the West that they won't go quietly into that good night. Their last seven games have come against West opponents that are above .500. They are 4-3 in those games. You're looking at the future, and the future is now. I wouldn't be stunned if they crept up on the playoff picture.
17. Boston Celtics - Yeah, I know they crushed Orlando twice recently. I also know they've looked much better this last week or so. Maybe suggesting a Big-3 Breakup was just Danny Ainge trying to be motivational? It sure looks like Rajon Rondo is going to lead this team back to the postseason. It's hard to imagine them winning a series though.
18. Milwaukee Bucks - They've won 5 of 7 against a stretch that included wins over the Heat, Rockets, and Lakers. Brandon Jennings is a legit star, and this is a surprisingly deep team. They're also playing better defense lately. The loss of Andrew Bogut certainly hurts, but given the landscape in the East, I think this team goes to the playoffs.
19. Memphis Grizzlies - Sooo streaky. Bad Grizzlies have taken over. They let their 7-game winning streak end in Portland, and now they've lost 4 straight. They need Zach Randolph back right now. When tou consider their recent struggles, along with the competive level of the West, and the fact that Randolph probably won't be at 100% at any point this year, you have to wonder if Rudy Gay will become available. You never know when they'll rip off 7 in a row again, and be back to a 3-seed.
20. Cleveland Cavaliers - Closing out Boston with a 12-0 run is something that only a legitimate group of professional basketball players could do. That alone is an improvement on last year. Kyrie Irving seems to get better every night, and with apologies to Ricky Rubio, is the Rookie of the Year. They might not make the playoffs, but they'll be a tough out the rest of the way.
21. New Jersey Nets - The Nets have quietly won 3 out of 5 to sneak back into the East playoff picture. That's a sad statement since they're still just 7-14. MarShon Brooks should get some ROY votes too, as he's doing Providence proud by averaging nearly 15 PPG on 46% from the field. I wonder if they'd be close to a .500 team if Brook Lopez was healthy.
22. Toronto Raptors - They've won 3 of 4 since breaking their 8-game losing streak. I mentioned last week that they could be competitive with Andrea Bargnani healthy, and that lasted about 14 minutes. Still, anything can happen in the East. This is a very poor offesive team. For this and other understatements, please subscribe to this blog.
23. Golden State Warriors - Once you get to 20, these teams are pretty much interchangeable fluff. Monta Ellis is legit, but he is to defense as ESPN is to fair, unbiased coverage of Midwestern sports teams. There's talent here, but they've got a lot of quit in them.
24. Phoenix Suns - Losers of 4 of 5, they're officially changing their name to the "red dwarfs." Where my Science Channel viewers at? There's not even any young players to develop here. I guess Markieff Morris has a future as a rotation player. I'm starting the "trade Steve Nash" movement. I don't want to remember him like this. Hey, thanks to a solid run by Jared Dudley, they now have three players averaging in double figures. Progress, people.
25. New York Knicks - Ugh. Sorry New Yorkers, but 10 healthy Baron Davises couldn't save this bunch. They've now lost 9 of 10, with the one win coming against the Charlotte Franchise Relocation Project. The more I think about it, the more plausible it seems that Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony are just losing players. I guess you could get a little excited about Iman Shumpert. This team is about to be melted down and sold to the highest bidder.
26. New Orleans Hornets - Hey, Jarrett Jack is averaging 16 points, 7 assists, and 4 boards. No one knows when we'll see Eric Gordon again. Still, this team competes.
27. Washington Wizards - They're 2-2 since Randy Wittman took over. That's a decisive move in the right direction. There's a ton of young talent on this team. John Wall could be a superstar and guys like JaVale McGee, Nick Young, and Andray Blatche are solid. With better leadership and some experience, they could be a threat. Until then, they're awful to watch.
28. Sacramento Kings - Another team with young talent. Their top 5 scorers are all 25 or younger. Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins could be stars, but you have to wonder for which team Cousins will become one.
29. Detroit Pistons - They've won twice in a month, they can't score, and no one shows up to watch them play. Other than that, they're fine.
30. Charlotte Bobcats - Michael Jordan is as good at team ownership as he is at humility.