As we approach the trade deadline, the NBA is folding nicely into the haves and have nots. If you're an advocate of this (like Bill Simmons), this should make you happy. If you like more parity, well, watch another sport.
January was the month where the teams in the middle of the pack separated themselves from those beneath them. In the Eastern Conference, five and a half games separate the eighth-place team (Miami) from the 10th-place team (New York). Milwaukee kind of remains in the playoff picture, but everyone below them looks like they're out of the picture. In the West, there's a nice four-team battle for the final playoff spot, but after that, five games separate the 11th-place Rockets from the 12th-place Clippers.
In other words, January provided the clarity we needed this season. When we began this month, it was tough to place teams in the tiers I presented. Now, we have a pretty good idea where everyone stands. That tends to be what January does in the NBA, so this isn't too surprising, but it's nice that we have a good idea of the NBA's hierarchy as we get closer to the trade deadline.
Therefore, I've completely dumped the "mediocre clubs" category and instead put those teams into the "dregs of the league" tier. Here's hoping I won't need to reinsert a fifth tier into these rankings in the future.
(To see last week's rankings, click here).
STILL IN THEIR OWN CATEGORY
30. New Jersey Nets: 4-42 overall, 1-2 last week
SBN Blog: Nets Daily
Last week: 30
All things considered, this was a pretty good week for the Nets. They got a win, beating the Clippers on Wednesday. They nearly got a second win on Friday, losing by two to the Wizards in what was probably the ugliest game of the entire season. Finally, they were actually able to bring someone before the players that's more troubled than them.
The last accomplishment is probably the most impressive to me. It's hard to find a motivational speaker who inadvertently makes his audience feel good about being 4-42. Even this guy probably would fail.
DREGS OF THE LEAGUE
29. Minnesota Timberwolves: 11-38 overall, 2-2 last week
SBN Blog: Canis Hoopus
Last week: 29.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winning streak! It's just two games, against two very bad teams, but it's a winning streak! The winning streak also apparently means the Timberwolves love their team so much that their GM is saying they're going to stick with what they've got for a playoff push. Okay, I was kidding about the last part -- they're just not expected to make any big moves -- but there comes a time for every bad team to have a decent stretch to provide their fans hope. Minnesota had that stretch last week.
28. Golden State Warriors: 13-33 overall, 0-4 last week
SBN Blog: Golden State of Mind
Last week: 28.
I'm at the point where I'm ready to petition the NBA to stricken all Warrior games from the record books. Statistics from Warrior games officially mean nothing anymore. The Warriors are playing at a ridiculously fast pace (over 100 possessions per game, two possessions faster than last year's team), and they're the third-worst defensive team per-possession in the league. In other words, the Warriors not only give teams extra offensive possessions to pick up stats, they also defend those extra possessions extremely poorly.
This is a long way of saying that, as much as I enjoyed watching Kevin Durant drop 45 points on 21 shots against the Warriors the other day, I can't say the performance carries as much statistical weight as it would seem. Nothing against Durant, but that's what happens when you play the Warriors.
27. Detroit Pistons: 15-31 overall, 0-3 last week
SBN Blog: Detroit Bad Boys.
Last week: 26.
When I wrote that article back in December ranking the NBA teams in terms of entertainment value, I had the Pistons way down the list. A number of Pistons fans told me at the time that they enjoyed watching the scrappy, hard-working Pistons and felt the ranking was very undeserved. Well, Pistons fans, I submit last week's games as evidence for putting Detroit 26th. Frankly, with the way they've played recently, they should probably be 30th.
26. Sacramento Kings: 16-31 overall, 1-3 last week
SBN Blog: Sactown Royalty
Last week: 24.
The Kings keep playing hard, so what's to blame for their extended skid? Tyreke Evans' nagging injuries obviously hurt (ha ... ha), and you have to think the Kings beat the Nuggets last night if Evans is playing.
But otherwise? One of the consequences of having so many young guys is that it's hard to get everyone playing well at the same time. We've already seen that with Evans and Kevin Martin, but now, we're seeing it with the young frontcourt tandem of Jason Thompson and Spencer Hawes. As Hawes' play has picked up, Thompson's has fallen off. Paul Westphal obviously wants to reward Hawes for his improved play, but he also runs the risk of killing Thompson's confidence by playing him fewer minutes. It's dilemmas like these that convince me I'd be a terrible NBA coach.
25. Philadelphia 76ers: 16-31 overall, 1-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Liberty Ballers
Last week: 25.
In speaking with lots of Washington Wizards fans like myself, I'm often told that the Wizards made a big mistake firing Eddie Jordan. Such fans want EJ back because EJ brought far more success to the Wizards than anything they've experienced this year. Technically, that may be true, but take a two-hour trip up north to Philadelphia, and you'll find that 76ers fans are pretty fed up with Jordan themselves.
How fed up? Check out these new shirts from SB Nation's 76ers blog Liberty Ballers.
Do 76ers fans have case for wanting Eddie Jordan fired? I have a hard time believing a coach should be fired during his first year on the job. At the same time, the 76ers have talent. Elton Brand may have a huge contract, but he's starting to get his game back a bit. Andre Iguodala is an awkwardly-shaped peg that doesn't fit into too many holes, but he's also uniquely talented and does all sorts of unnoticed things to help teams win. Samuel Dalembert is having a career year, all while dealing with the devastation in his native Haiti. The young guys (Thaddeus Young, Jrue Holiday, Marreese Speights, Louis Williams) are all very talented players.
And yet, the 76ers are among the worst teams in the league. Unlike the Wizards, for example, they haven't had a ridiculous amount of off-court drama to deal with (Allen Iverson doesn't count). They just aren't as good as the sum of their parts. That falls on the coach. So, while I can support firing Jordan, I can support 76ers fans feeling frustrated with his performance as head coach. Wizards fans, you sure you want him back?
24. Indiana Pacers: 16-32 overall, 0-3 last week
SBN Blog: Indy Cornrows
Last week: 23.
Because I don't think about the Pacers nearly as much as I should, I'll just throw a theory out there that might partially explains their struggles.
SB Nation's Indy Cornrows argued that the Pacers strongly miss Jarrett Jack's leadership skills this season. They showed little interest in re-signing Jack last offseason, and Jack bolted to the Raptors for the full mid-level exception, where he's been credited as a leader in their clubhouse and a huge key to Toronto's turnaround. Meanwhile, T.J. Ford's whined his way through another season, and Dahntay Jones, who took some of the money the Pacers would have paid Jack, has struggled after a fast start. Maybe Jack's presence wouldn't have made Indiana a playoff team, but it probably would have helped.
23. Washington Wizards: 16-31 overall, 2-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Bullets Forever
Last week: 27.
As a Wizards fan that's attended pretty much every home game this year, one thing that's bugged me is the way 5'5'' Earl Boykins has morphed into a fan-favorite. Having dealt with many Wizards fans, I can honestly say that they (we?) are among the most sophisticated in sports. We understand the little things, give credit to our opponents and rarely get caught up in the hype. That's why it's so disconcerting to hear the crowd go ga-ga every time Boykins scores, just because he's such a small guy. I thought we were above that kind of fandom.
At the same time, it is kind of amazing that this guy can score at all, considering his size. You wonder how he even gets off game-winning shots like this one, much less make them.
22. Los Angeles Clippers: 20-27 overall, 0-3 last week
SBN Blog: Clips Nation.
Last week: 20.
It's hard to have a worse week than the Clippers just had. They lost to the Nets and Timberwolves in consecutive games, and followed it up by allowing the Cavaliers, hardly an offensive juggernaut, to score 46 points in one quarter. Cleveland's effective field goal percentage in that first quarter, which gives 1.5 times the amount of weight to three-pointers, was 102 percent. Nice defense, guys.
21. New York Knicks: 18-29 overall, 1-3 last week
SBN Blog: Posting and Toasting
Last week: 22.
The depressing Knicks season continues on. Normally, a bad team like the Knicks would focus on developing their young players and putting themselves in a good position to get a higher lottery pick, but of course the Knicks can't do that because they don't have a lottery pick this year. Instead, they have to try winning as many games as possible to make that lost lottery pick less attractive, all while dealing with nearly their entire team being a free agent after the season. It's times like these where guys like Wilson Chandler posterize their own teammate in a game.
20. Milwaukee Bucks: 21-25 overall, 3-1 this week
SBN Blog: Brew Hoop
Last week: 21
Milwaukee's not pretty, but they did win three of four this week to keep their fleeting playoff hopes alive. If you're a team below the Bucks in the standings, how do you not look at their roster and wonder how they're better than you? I guess that's a testament to Scott Skiles, who continues to have these guys ready to play. Either way, for the sake of good basketball, here's hoping they stay out of the playoffs.
THE ASTOUNDINGLY LARGE MIDDLE CLASS
19. New Orleans Hornets: 26-22 overall, 2-2 last week.
SBN Blog: At the Hive
Last week: 16.
This is really a preemptive ranking for the inevitable fall they'll take with Chris Paul injured, so don't flip out, Hornets fans. Then again, last time Paul got hurt, the Hornets discovered what they had in Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton and turned their season around, so maybe they'll be fine. Thornton in particular needs to shine now, and he's shown he's capable. He's certainly come a long way since this moment.
18. Miami Heat: 24-24 overall, 1-3 last week.
SBN Blog: Peninsula is Mightier
Last week: 13.
The Heat remain a simple team to analyze. When they're hitting their jump shots, they're really tough to beat. When they're not, they're capable of losing to anybody. This week, they weren't hitting their shots, so they lost twice to the Bucks. Sorry if you were expecting more analysis.
17. Charlotte Bobcats: 24-23 overall, 3-1 last week
SBN Blog: Rufus on Fire
Last week: 19.
Charlotte actually won three road games this week, which is exactly as many as they had won all season to this point. Very impressive, folks. Lest you think I'm being sarcastic, I am, but I'm not being too sarcastic. The Bobcats did get their first all-star this week, so it'd be wrong to be too mean to their fans.
16. Houston Rockets: 25-22 overall, 1-2 last week
SBN Blog: The Dream Shake
Last week: 15
Not a good January for the little team that could. Houston went just 5-9 this month, despite playing nine of 14 games at home. All their limitations are beginning to show. Trevor Ariza just isn't equipped to be a first option on offense. Chuck Hayes, bless his soul, might be too small. Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry are just too limited. It's unfortunate, because Houston had a great chance to get some separation this month and completely squandered it. Now, they're on the outside looking in on the playoffs, with two blossoming young teams (Memphis and Oklahoma City) ahead of them.
On the bright side, Yao Ming is now shooting free throws. He'll be back any day now, Rockets fans! Don't fret!
15. Chicago Bulls: 23-22 overall, 2-0 last week
SBN Blog: Blog A Bull
Last week: 17.
Speaking of teams getting their first all-star in a while, did you know Derrick Rose is the Bulls' first all-star since ... wait for it ... Michael Jordan? I guess it makes sense, considering the Bulls' last decade, but to actually put two and two together is pretty jarring.
And while I know some people have called Rose's selection into question because he's only gotten it done in the last few weeks, these have been some damn impressive weeks. The Bulls just completed a stretch where they won five straight road games against winning teams (!), and they're basically doing it exclusively because of Rose. The Bulls still have no offensive system, but as long as Rose plays this well, it doesn't matter. Nobody can guard him off the dribble. Not even Thabo Sefolosha, one of the league's best defensive players.
It's hard to appreciate Rose's entire season because he only emerged recently, but like Deron Williams last year, Rose is quietly having an insane year. Williams struggled early on last year with ankle injuries before really turning it on in the second half. Rose is now doing the same, and in the process, he's lifted a completely dysfunctional Bulls team into the playoffs.
14. Toronto Raptors: 26-22, 3-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Raptors HQ
Last week: 18.
The Raptors still don't play defense, and they need more quality road wins before I can take them seriously, but they've also won five in a row, so I have to move them up. Plus, we learned this week that one of their stars was born in the stone age, where full sentences were frowned upon.
13. Memphis Grizzlies: 26-21 overall, 2-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Straight Outta Vancouver
Last week: 11
Behind Oklahoma City again this week, which should invite yet another Twitter war with Grizzlies fans. (Bring it on, guys!). The Grizzlies won another game against a good team last night, beating the Lakers 95-93 in a possible playoff preview of a series I'd pay good money to see. They're shockingly among the most proficient half-court offensive teams in the league, and that, along with their size, gives good teams problems.
Still, I can't shake this stat out of my head. In their last nine close games (defined as games decided by five points or less), the Grizzlies are 7-2. The luck of the draw indicates this won't hold up. Having watched the 2006/07 Wizards closely, a surprising team that initially raced to the top of the East on the strength of their record in close games before crashing and burning, I'm wary of heavily endorsing teams that constantly win those coin-flip type games. Those start going the other way after a while, because you start believing your only job is to keep games close and steal them at the end. Inevitably, you fail and your record takes a tumble. I'm not saying there's a 100-percent chance this will eventually happens to Memphis, but it's a possibility, which is preventing me from ranking them any higher.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder: 26-21 overall, 1-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Welcome To Loud City
Last week: 10.
I mean, who needs a shoe? Honestly.
In all seriousness, Oklahoma City really needs another offensive threat to complement Kevin Durant. As good as Durant's been this year, in the playoffs, teams will be able to focus all their attention on him and shut off everyone else. I realize the Thunder are in the "let it breathe" stage of franchise-building, but they need to solve this problem at some point if they're going to eventually take the next step.
11. Phoenix Suns: 29-21 overall, 3-1 last week
SBN Blog: Bright Side of the Sun.
Last week: 14.
Just when you start to count the Suns out, they roar back with a couple nice wins over Dallas and Houston. Resiliency has been their thing ever since Seven Seconds Or Less started, which is ironic because you don't expect a team that focuses so much attention on the offensive end to be resilient like this. Maybe the trade rumors have inspired them. Who knows?
10. San Antonio Spurs: 27-19 overall, 2-1 last week
SBN Blog: Pounding the Rock.
Last week: 12.
I was all set to put them higher until Sunday's stinkfest home loss to a Nuggets team missing Carmelo Anthony. Now, it's Rodeo Trip time. The season hangs in the balance.
While we're here, kudos to Wayne Vore from SB Nation's Pounding the Rock for going straight to Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer to talk about DeJuan Blair's ability to run the pick and roll. As a basketball fan, I learned a lot from that conversation. Kudos to Wayne for his work and Budenholzer for explaining things in great detail to him.
9. Portland Traiblazers: 29-21 overall, 2-2 last week
SBN Blog: Blazers Edge
Last week: 9.
With all their injuries, it's incredible they're still this competitive. Lots of coaches do great jobs, but Nate McMillan's probably done the best job of them all. No experience encapsulated this better than watching Andre Miller drop 52 points on the Mavericks on Saturday. Here's a guy who was feuding with McMillan over his role, and rather than plug a square peg into a round hole, McMillan compromised a bit and put his player in a position that made him more comfortable. Miller will never score 52 points again, but he's become a real difference maker for the Blazers. McMillan deserves a ton of credit for that.
Oh, and in case you missed Miller's 52 points, here they are again:
8. Dallas Mavericks: 30-18 overall, 1-3 last week.
SBN Blog: Mavs Moneyball
Last week: 6.
Dallas is out of the championship contenders category for the first time in a while after a 1-3 week. Why? Much like the Grizzlies, the Mavericks have been really, really good in close games this year. They usually relax until the fourth quarter, when they proceed to give Dirk Nowitzki the ball and get out of the way.
The problem is that Dirk hasn't come through recently. Against the Suns on Thursday, Dirk barely even touched the ball. Against the Blazers and Jazz, Dirk was just ineffective when it mattered most. This isn't a knock on Dirk, it's a knock on Dallas' inability to blow anyone out. You can't keep going to the same well and expect to win close games every time. Until the Mavericks play like a team that doesn't need to always pull out close games, they'll stay in this category.
7. Utah Jazz: 29-18 overall, 3-0 last week
SBN Blog: SLC Dunk
Last week: 8.
AK is a machine. Screw the fans. You're not the X factor, AK is the X factor. He's playing out of his mind and right now you could ask any Jazz fan, "Should we give AK another $15M a year after his deal is up?" and they would all say yes.
Maybe we should just call him "The Machine" now. Sasha Vujacic certainly isn't worth of that nickname anymore.
6. Boston Celtics: 30-16 overall, 1-3 last week.
SBN Blog: Celtics Blog.
Last week: 5
We said last week that this was a gut-check week for the Celtics. In that sense, they failed. Orlando: loss. Atlanta: loss. LA Lakers: loss. Three title contenders, three chances to make a statement that you're going to be a part of the title picture after all, three failures. Boston is now just 7-11 in its last 18 games, and they look, well, old. Just watch Kevin Garnett on this drive by Rashard Lewis to seal Orlando's win on Thursday.
You cannot say to me with a straight face that Kevin Garnett's knee is alright. You just can't. And if Garnett's not right, and Ray Allen and Paul Pierce continue to stay in their slump, then how can they win the title again? Honestly, the only things keeping these guys close in these games are Rajon Rondo's spectacular play and some unexpected help from Tony Allen. That's it. There's no quick fix to old age, and it's beginning to feel like the Celtics' Big 3 are just too old.
5. Atlanta Hawks: 30-16 overall, 1-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Peachtree Hoops.
Last week: 4.
The Hawks have a problem. While they match up extremely well with Boston, they've now lost three double-digit games to Orlando this season and have also been swept by Cleveland. They've been lights-out against bad teams, but are just 1-7 in their last eight games against teams 13 and up on this list not named Boston. SB Nation's Peachtree Hoops is not concerned about such matchup problems, but if I'm a Hawks fan, I am. Atlanta has few tradeable assets to improve their club (more on this tomorrow), and one of their best players, Joe Johnson, is a free agent after the season. As much as Hawks fans want to say they have time to keep getting better, in reality, the time is now, before Johnson potentially bolts.
Perhaps this is just the natural evolution of a franchise. Perhaps. The only problem is that rarely does a franchise evolve while their marquee player faces free agency.
4. Orlando Magic: 32-16 overall, 3-0 last week
SBN Blog: Orlando Pinstriped Post.
Last week: 6.
As badly as Vince Carter has fit in ... as poorly as Jameer Nelson has played ... as much as Rashard Lewis has disappeared ... as disappointing as Brandon Bass and Marcin Gortat have been ... the Magic have won 66 percent of their games. We hate admitting this, but they're a definite threat. They arguably have no tough matchups in the East right now. We know how they dominate the Hawks, but they've also won two of three this year from Boston, who in theory poses the most problems for them. Based on last year's playoffs, they still have an advantage on Cleveland (though Cleveland won their only meeting of the season). Out West, they have the frontline to hang with the Lakers and the size to outmuscle Denver. Sure, the pieces don't fit well, but it's possible Orlando is just so talented that it doesn't matter.
I'm just saying, don't count them out just because they're not what you want them to be.
3. Denver Nuggets: 33-15 overall, 3-1 last week
SBN Blog: Denver Stiffs.
Last week: 3.
I've said for weeks how Denver is a team LA doesn't want to play in the playoffs. Here's why.
- They have two great point guards: The Lakers' weakness for years has been defending point guards, and it's become even worse this year as Derek Fisher has slowed down. The Nuggets already have Chauncey Billups, and now, they also have Ty Lawson. Lawson's exactly the type of player that tears up LA's second unit. Denver didn't have that type of guy last year. Now they do.
- They have a Kobe stopper: You might not know the name Arron Afflalo, but you really should. He's the guy who will be asked to check Kobe Bryant, and he will do it well. Unlike Dahntay Jones, Afflalo won't display faux toughness and foul the heck out of Kobe. He'll play solid defense, contest shots and make him really work for his points. Kind of how Shane Battier defended Kobe in the second round last year.
- They have Carmelo Anthony 2.0: The Lakers got Ron Artest this summer in part to deal with guys like Anthony, so they do in theory match up better to Anthony than last year. However, this is a different Carmelo Anthony that the Lakers have to deal with. This version of Melo is stronger, more disciplined and even more unstoppable.
LA's big advantage will be their big guys against Denver's smallish big guys, and that might be enough. The problem is that Bryant's kind of ignoring Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum right now. If he does that in the playoffs, he nullifies LA's advantage. Also, while the Nuggets don't have a ton of tradeable assets, they're fully capable of acquiring another big man to help deal with LA's size. Mark Warkentien, the Nuggets' GM, is on a two-year tear that isn't receiving nearly enough attention, so if anyone can figure out a way to make a worthwhile trade, it's him.
While you ponder that argument, enjoy J.R. Smith doing this.
2. Los Angeles Lakers: 37-12 overall, 4-1 last week
SBN Blog: Silver Screen and Roll
Last week: 2.
Kobe's still shooting a bit too much, but we can still appreciate him for what he is. This shot to win the game against the Celtics on Sunday was simply incredible.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: 38-11 overall, 3-0 last week
SBN Blog: Fear the Sword
Last week: 1.
Still getting it done despite injuries in their backcourt. This begs the question: does Cleveland even need to make a trade to improve? On the one hand, they're clearly the league's best right now. On the other hand, that was their logic last year, and look how that turned out.
It's a tough call for Danny Ferry. As a Wizards fan, here's hoping he doesn't make the right one.