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It's official: we have an NBA Middle Class that's getting larger on both the top and the bottom. Championship contenders are struggling and formerly-mediocre teams are thriving. If you're big on parity, you absolutely love this development.
I'm personally not big on parity - if I was, I'd like football more than I do. Still, it's mighty nice to know there are several teams out there that are somewhere between good and super elite. It makes the next few weeks very, very interesting. Which teams try to make a big move to jump to super elite status? Which teams decide the path to super elite status is to stand pat and not ruin their chemistry? Which teams give up the fight to be super-elite altogether? Combine this with the current economic climate and the 2010 free agent sweepstakes, and we're probably heading towards one of the most interesting trade deadlines ever. There could be tons of player movement, or there could be none, but there will be a ton of trade talk. That's for sure. Hell, we've already seen some.
I'm excited. Be excited too. The NBA is going to be very interesting over the next month. I promise.
(To see last week's rankings, click here. We'll use the same categories to separate the teams into tiers).
STILL IN THEIR OWN CATEGORY
30. New Jersey Nets: 3-37 overall, 0-3 last week
SBN Blog: Nets Daily
Last week: 30
The whole "path to 9-73" I've professed in previous power rankings was admittedly kind of a joke. I didn't actually expect the Nets to get there. But as the Nets continue to lose -- 16-point losses at home to Indiana are pretty pathetic -- there's actually kind of a chance. At least enough of a chance for the New York Times' Howard Beck to go to Fred Carter, the leading scorer on the 1972-73 76ers, to get a quote about how much he'd hate to see the Nets break that record.
But since Nets fans are tired of all the negativity, allow me to point them toward yet another article about Yi Jianlian's emergence. The Nets, where small rays of hope happen.
DREGS OF THE LEAGUE
29. Minnesota Timberwolves: 9-33 overall, 1-2 last week
SBN Blog: Canis Hoopus
Last week: 29.
You have to hand it to Minnesota for at least being entertaining while they stink. To prove this, let me throw this stat out there for you. The top five teams in pace, i.e. most number of possessions per game? Phoenix, Golden State, Indiana, Minnesota and Denver. One of these teams is anchored by the slow-footed Al Jefferson and Kevin Love, so obviously they're totally fit to run. Nice team-building strategy, guys!
(I can't go any further without making reference to one of the games of the week, the Houston-Minnesota double-overtime tilt last Wednesday in which this happened. If only Corey Brewer could shoot 15-footers as well as he shot 50-footers).
28. Philadelphia 76ers: 13-27 overall, 1-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Liberty Ballers
Last week: 26.
I'm only ranking them this low because they lost what SB Nation's Liberty Ballers dubbed "The Battle Of Who Could Care Less" against the Timberwolves. If you're looking for a team that's going to sell, sell, sell at the trade deadline, you best look in this direction. They're underachieving as much as the Wizards and are losing way more money as an organization. Just you watch.
27. Golden State Warriors: 12-27 overall, 1-2 last week
SBN Blog: Golden State of Mind
Last week: 27.
Remember last week when we posted this link from NBA D-League blog Ridiculous Upside that argued that a team of D-League players could beat at least two NBA teams? Well, the Warriors played three D-League players -- Anthony Tolliver, Cartier Martin and Chris Hunter -- and blew out the Bulls by 17 points. Maybe there's actually something to Ridiculous Upside's claims.
26. Indiana Pacers: 14-26 overall, 2-1 last week
SBN Blog: Indy Cornrows
Last week: 26.
How do you not move up after a 2-1 week? Well, one of those wins was against the Nets, which doesn't count. In addition, the two teams that are tied with the Pacers in the standings (Detroit, Washington) also had decent weeks. Still, you have to give Indiana some credit for their amazing 24-point comeback against the reeling Suns last Wednesday.
This isn't the first time recently that these two teams played a thriller. Anyone remember this game last year?
You want to know why I love the NBA? Because some teams randomly always play in thrillers when they play each other. Indiana-Phoenix is one of those random matchups that always produces good games.
25. Washington Wizards: 14-26 overall, 2-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Bullets Forever
Last week: 24
They sort of resemble an NBA team now, which is nice even though their two wins were against Sacramento and a massively depleted Portland club. Of course, this is going to convince people that it was all Gilbert Arenas' fault, and this line from Flip Saunders ("We've been more coachable" recently) will just fuel those voices. So when the Wizards stand pat at the trade deadline when they're 15 games under .500 and blatantly need to blow it up, you shouldn't be surprised.
24. Detroit Pistons: 14-26 overall, 3-1 last week
SBN Blog: Detroit Bad Boys.
Last week: 28.
After losing 13 in a row, Detroit won three straight this week over Washington, New Orleans and the Knicks. In a related story, several key players (this week, it was Tayshaun Prince and Ben Gordon) sat out. Once again, the Pistons played better when they weren't at full strength. This is what happens when you extend Rip Hamilton, don't trade Prince and still go out and use your precious cap space on Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. The lesson, of course, is, don't use your cap space just because you can. Don't be surprised to see several teams sign nobody in the 2010 sweepstakes because of Detroit's issues.
23. Sacramento Kings: 15-25 overall, 0-4 last week
SBN Blog: Sactown Royalty
Last week: 21.
Kevin Martin returns, and the Kings promptly lose three straight to the 76ers, Wizards and Bobcats. Yuck. Kevin Martin is also shooting under 40 percent since his return. Double yuck. Kevin Martin's return has also in part threatened the goodwill of the team. Already, Omri Casspi has gotten into an argument with Paul Westphal over playing time. Triple yuck.
So is it safe to say Martin and Tyreke Evans can't play well together? I'm with Tom Ziller - can't we just wait and see a little longer? The Kings weren't supposed to be a playoff team anyway, and in part rode a home-heavy schedule to relative success without Martin. Is it fair to scapegoat Martin for every problem the team has? I say no. Evans and Martin can, in theory, work. Martin's a great shooter, Evans is a great playmaker. It makes sense. Obviously, that chemistry will take time to develop, because Martin hasn't played with anyone close to as good as Evans in two years (possibly ever). Sacramento has time. Let them use it before rushing to judge.
(This public service announcement was brought to you by the Kevin Martin fan club, of which I'm the vice president, with Ziller as the president. And now, some Speedracer highlights).
22. Milwaukee Bucks: 16-23 overall, 1-3 this week
SBN Blog: Brew Hoop
Last week: 20
A part of me wants to stick a fork in the plucky, overachieving Bucks after their 1-5 West Coast road trip, with the only win coming against the Warriors. But then, a part of me says they just had a tough West Coast swing and they'll be back once they get more home games.
It would help if Milwaukee drew more fouls. As a FanPost on SB Nation's Brew Hoop points out, Milwaukee has lost the free-throw battle (i.e. attempted less free throws than their opponent) a whopping 84.2% of the time this season, a mark that's second-worst of all time. Second worst of all time. There, I just said it again for added effect. It's a literary technique.
21. New York Knicks: 17-24 overall, 2-2 last week
SBN Blog: Posting and Toasting
Last week: 23.
Well on their way to 33 wins and a late-lottery selection, which would be terrible normally, but is actually good since the Knicks don't have their first-round pick because they traded it to the Jazz. Imagine the outcry that happens if the Knicks somehow win the lottery, only to give Utah their lottery pick. Talk about poetic justice.
Speaking of the lottery, Jordan Hill, the Knicks' most recent lottery pick, might actually get more of a look going forward. That's good news, I guess. I mean, they could have drafted Brandon Jennings, who scored 55 points in a game earlier this year, but LA LA LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU JORDAN HILL IS AWESOME LA LA LA!
20. Chicago Bulls: 18-21 overall, 2-1 last week
SBN Blog: Blog A Bull
Last week: 22.
Just when you think the Bulls have turned the corner, they go out and lose to the Golden State D-Leaguers by 17 points on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Remember when they beat the Celtics by 13 in Boston? Yeah, me neither. Funny how a terrible loss has a way of totally eliminating the good feeling of a big win.
The good news? Derrick Rose finally hit a game-winning shot. Somewhere, Vinny Del Negro is saying, "See, Derrick, this is what happens when you ATTACK. DERRICK, ATTACK!"
19. Los Angeles Clippers: 18-22 overall, 1-4 last week
SBN Blog: Clips Nation.
Last week: 15.
What a sad, sad week for the Clippers. First, a broken water pipe causes a 30-minute delay and enables a crazy Grizzlies comeback win on Tuesday. Then, they learn that Blake Griffin is out for the season with the same knee injury that was supposed to allow him to come back in six weeks back in October. Finally, they play the Lakers when the Lakers smell blood and lose by a hundred gazillion points. It's seriously cruel. Just when the Clippers get something going, it all gets taken away from them brutally. I give a ton of credit to Clippers fans for not getting fatalistic in the face of all of this. Lord knows I would.
(By the way, I'd call the Clippers cursed, but they're owned by Donald Sterling, so maybe all of this is deserved in a sick, sad way).
18. New Orleans Hornets: 21-19 overall, 2-2 last week.
SBN Blog: At the Hive
Last week: 14.
Remember when we talked last week about how the Hornets weren't actually good despite a six-game winning streak? I stand by my opinion this week, especially after the Hornets lost on the road to Detroit. Good teams don't lose to Detroit on the road, not at this stage of the season. Sorry.
17. Toronto Raptors: 21-20, 2-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Raptors HQ
Last week: 18.
The Sunday curse bites again! In case you haven't read previous editions of the Power Rankings, the Raptors play a disproportionate number of home games at 1 p.m. on Sundays, which is the worst time for an NBA team to play a basketball game. They're all probably hung over from a long week and aren't used to playing early-afternoon games in other cities. It's a major unfair advantage for the Raptors, and I'm convinced they get wins they normally wouldn't get otherwise.
This Sunday, the Raptors played a 1 p.m. game against Dallas and blew them out 110-88. They've now beaten Houston, San Antonio and Dallas in Sunday matinees. If those games happened any other time, they'd probably lose. It's an outrage, I tell you!
16. Miami Heat: 20-19 overall, 1-3 last week.
SBN Blog: Peninsula is Mightier
Last week: 16.
How about the week that was for Dwyane Wade? Thirty-five points on 15 shots against Golden State, followed by 37 and 8 in a win at Houston, never an easy team to play. Then, Wade dropped only 24 on 21 shots in a loss to Oklahoma City. Mighty impressive, no? I'm happy to see this because I've been waiting for the 2008/09 version of Wade to show up. I'm talking about the electrifying, sensational Wade, not just the run-of-the-mill superstar Wade. Here's hoping we see more of the former going forward, because that's the only way this team, which features a buyout guy as its starting point guard and a guy who got traded three times this offseason as its starting small forward, is going anywhere.
SUCCESSFUL, NOT QUITE CHAMPIONSHIP CALIBER
15. Charlotte Bobcats: 20-19 overall, 4-0 last week
SBN Blog: Rufus on Fire
Last week: 19.
We've officially found January's darling, and it's ... the Charlotte Bobcats? Can't say I saw this one coming. I've been the one trying to start a "Bobcats' 35-win train" meme, but in light of what happened this week, maybe I need to revise that. Yes, the Bobcats have had a relatively soft, home-friendly schedule recently, but they also beat the Spurs and obliterated the Suns on Saturday night, in the second game of a back-to-back no less. I don't know if I've seen a greater blowout all season. That was how thoroughly Charlotte dominated.
How are they doing it? It's several things. One is that Larry Brown has realized the importance of running off missed shots. Raymond Felton, who has greatly improved this year, is pushing the ball back at teams when they miss and creating easy buckets for others in transition. That's key because Charlotte doesn't have the ability to consistently beat you in the half court. Once they get in the half court, they run most of their offense through Stephen Jackson, who has actually adapted well to his point-forward role. We always knew he had it in him, but now that he's out of Golden State, he's actually shooting judiciously. Throw in a rebound year for Nazr Mohammad and the discovery of a bunch of unknown guys (Stephen Graham, Derrick Brown) and you have yourselves a playoff team.
Oh, and I almost forgot about Gerald Wallace. Did you know Wallace is still averaging 11.3 rebounds per game? Did you know he plays almost 42 minutes a game and never slows down? Hopefully you do now. It's only fitting for the Eastern Conference coaches to name him an all-star, because without him, Charlotte is nothing. He's already in the dunk contest, now put him in the all-star game too. VOTE GERALD!
14. Phoenix Suns: 24-18 overall, 0-4 last week
SBN Blog: Bright Side of the Sun.
Last week: 9.
This might be a premature. Okay, it's DEFINITELY a bit premature, but whatever. Still, when you go 0-4 like the Suns did last week, it's worth doing.
The Suns are sailing away,
On a crash course to the lotter-eee,
'Cause Nash has got to be free,
Free to throw Seven Seconds Or Less into the deep blue sea,
On board, Gentry's the captain, so climb aboard,
We'll search for our sold draft picks on every shore,
And Amare will try, Oh Lord he'll try, to carry on
Kerr looks to the sea,
Reflections in the Shaq trade that sparked bad memories,
Few happy, most sad,
He thinks of his playing days and the dreams he had,
D'Antoni lived happily forever, so the story goes,
But somehow he'll miss out on the pot of gold
But they'll all try the best that they can to caaaaaaarrrrrrrrry on
(Okay, I'll stop. Sorry, Suns fans).
13. Houston Rockets: 23-18 overall, 2-2 last week
SBN Blog: The Dream Shake
Last week: 10
I'm sensing some signs of slippage from our darlings here. The Rockets did go 2-2, true, but two of those wins were against bad teams (Minnesota, Milwaukee) at home, one in double triple-overtime and one by three points when Brandon Jennings Luke Ridnour missed a game-tying three. The normally mistake-free Rockets are suffering from major defensive breakdowns (such as this one) and they can't score consistently enough to make up for it.
It makes you wonder how eager they're going to be to make a big move at the trade deadline. Without Yao Ming, we kind of all acknowledged this would be a throwaway year for the Rockets, but now that they can smell the postseason, will they still take on long-term salary for next year? Remember, they could have a real contender next year when Yao gets back. Do they want to risk adding another piece to that team, or do they want to keep the same group together? Lots of key guys (Carl Landry, Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes) are potential free agents. It's an interesting dilemma, that's for sure.
On the bright side, Luis Scola officially has his own song, which is awesome and hilarious. S-C-O-L-A Scoooollllaaaaa!
12. Memphis Grizzlies: 22-18 overall, 4-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Straight Outta Vancouver
Last week: 17
I'll go out on a limb and say the Memphis Grizzlies are why I love the NBA. Why? Just when you think you have this league figured out, something funny happens that jerks your worldview and makes you reconsider everything. Sometimes, a team you figure is going to be ridiculously dysfunctional turns into one of the most cohesive teams in the league. That's what's happened to Memphis and the national audience that tuned into yesterday's Suns-Grizzlies game on TNT finally understands that.
Are they a playoff team? That's tough, because there are so many great teams in the West. But maybe, just maybe, Chris Wallace deserves that contract extension he got. Maybe.
11. Utah Jazz: 23-18 overall, 2-1 last week
SBN Blog: SLC Dunk
Last week: 13.
SUNDIATA GAINES! That is all.
I hate to agree with Reggie Miller, but I will anyway. SIGN THIS GUY FOR THE REST OF THE SEASON. HE HAS PROVEN HIS WORTH. I yell to emphasize the truth.
10. Oklahoma City Thunder: 23-18 overall, 2-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Welcome To Loud City
Last week: 12.
I'll go with the latter. I mean, he did it at the end of the game. It sealed a win. How much better can you get than that?
9. Portland Traiblazers: 25-17 overall, 2-1 last week
SBN Blog: Blazers Edge
Last week: 11.
On the shelf at this moment: Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, Nicholas Batum, Travis Outlaw, Joel Przybila. In other words, of the Blazers' top eight players from last season, only three are healthy. And yet, Portland is 25-17 after a 2-1 week that included a win over the Magic. Bow down to the Trail Blazers for their resiliency. It's something to behold.
8. San Antonio Spurs: 25-15 overall, 3-2 last week
SBN Blog: Pounding the Rock.
Last week: 7.
We're still not at the Rodeo Trip yet, so we're allowed to just shrug at road losses to Memphis and Charlotte. It's coming, though. Gutcheck time is coming.
Until then, let's appreciate DeJuan Blair. Via Kevin Arnovitz of ClipperBlog and True Hoop, we see how he's been able to dominate without touching the ball. But clearly, every team who passed on him in the draft had a legitimate reason.
7. Orlando Magic: 26-14 overall, 1-2 last week
SBN Blog: Orlando Pinstriped Post.
Last week: 6.
Orlando is now 3-7 in January. They played better against the Lakers last night in defeat, but .... 3-7. Three wins, seven losses, for what we all thought was a championship contender. We also have a new candidate for scapegoat, and it's ... Rashard Lewis, if these numbers run by SB Nation's Orlando Pinstriped Post are to be believed. To review, we've run through Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis. Is Dwight Howard next?
6. Dallas Mavericks: 27-14 overall, 2-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Mavs Moneyball
Last week: 5.
Just moving along at a semi-elite pace, doing just enough to convince you they're elite (see last night's second-half annihilation of the Celtics) and just enough to convince you they're not (losing at Toronto by 22). Ho hum. Wake me up when they make a big trade.
5. Atlanta Hawks: 24-13 overall, 3-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Peachtree Hoops.
Last week: 4.
There's been a lot of underground buzz about Atlanta being this year's surprise contender. Our own Andrew Sharp compared them to the Magic last season. Ignoring the obvious stylistic differences between the two teams, there might be something to this. Both teams matched up extremely well with one contender (Orlando with Cleveland, Atlanta with Boston) and pretty poorly with the others. Both teams could slip into the Finals if they get good fortune, like Orlando getting to play nemesis Boston without Kevin Garnett. For Atlanta, they have to hope they get Boston in Round 2 instead of Orlando.
The thing is, though, is this: Atlanta's got their own issues. They're 5-4 this month, which isn't bad, but isn't as good as last month. They still refrain from running offense at the end of games, choosing instead to give the ball to Joe Johnson or Jamal Crawford and clear out. Sometimes it works, like the end of the Phoenix game.
Sometimes, it doesn't, like against the Thunder. Regardless, it'd be nice if there was more diversity at the end of the game.
Where am I going with this? Atlanta is talented, but flawed, which I guess makes them like last year's Magic team after all. Circular logic for the win!
4. Boston Celtics: 27-11 overall, 1-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Celtics Blog.
Last week: 2
This is one of those "for this week only" rankings. Assuming Kevin Garnett gets back fine (always dangerous), Boston will rise. But let's review their week for a second.
Not so impressive, is it? The saddest part about the Dallas loss is how difficult it was for Boston to generate offense, any offense. Kevin Garnett's strength is defense, so how much will his return help? A little, sure, but enough? Something tells me this might be a lingering problem going forward. I'm not writing them off, mind you, but I am expressing more concern than before.
3. Denver Nuggets: 26-14 overall, 2-0 last week
SBN Blog: Denver Stiffs.
Last week: 8.
Yeah, I know, too high. But what did we say about the Nuggets back when they were hurt? Wait until they get healthy, and they become dangerous. Well, they're healthy, and they're dangerous. Just ask the Magic, who got blown out in a wave of Nuggets fast breaks earlier in the week. We figured the Nuggets would self-destruct a bit this year because that's the George Karl way, but it hasn't happened yet. Maybe it's because Carmelo Anthony is so good that he won't let it happen. Regardless, if I'm a Western Conference power, I want nothing to do with these guys in the playoffs.
2. Los Angeles Lakers: 32-9 overall, 3-1 last week
SBN Blog: Silver Screen and Roll
Last week: 3
The ship's officially been righted. Three very impressive wins this week for the Lakers -- at Dallas, the Clippers at home by 40 and the Magic when they were playing inspired ball. It helps that everyone's healthy finally, though surely that's not the only thing that's helping. Umm ... home games? I dunno. Maybe that earlier stretch was just your run-of-the-mill bumps in the road during a long season. I know that's not much analysis, but what can I do?
In other news, the underground "Let Shannon Dunk" movement worked, as Shannon Brown was named to compete in the Slam Dunk Contest. I'd argue that this was classic Laker bias, but at least Brown has some skills.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: 31-11 overall, 1-1 last week
SBN Blog: Fear the Sword
Last week: 1
The Cavs keep on keeping on. Not much to say here. So let me just say this.
LeBron James, screw you. You promised us that you were going to compete in the 2010 Slam Dunk Contest. You promised us on national television at last year's Slam Dunk Contest. In other words, you upstaged the current dunk contest to promise us something about next year.
Then, you chickened out and decided not to do it after all. I may not like you as a person, but I would have thoroughly enjoyed you in the dunk contest. You would have been awesome. It's the perfect competition for you, because everyone loves you, you love getting people excited and you're a fabulous dunker. It would have been the perfect stage for you. And you still backed out. Why do you need to string us all along like that? If you aren't going to do it, don't say you will. If you are going to do it, well do it then! Don't waffle like this.
I guess I'll just have to stage a pretend dunk contest between LeBron, Josh Smith, Dwight Howard and Nate Robinson on NBA 2K10 later tonight. Thanks, jerk.
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