I may be a huge NBA fan, but I'm also realistic. I understand that lots of people are bugged by the NBA because of the perception that the players don't play hard or cohesively. It's out there, and I get where people are coming from.
But here's the thing: how can NBA players not sometimes struggle with effort and cohesiveness from time to time? They play 82 games in about six months, for crying out loud. Some of those games are on consecutive days. Some of those games are the players' fourth in five days. It's tough for any human being, even a professional athlete, to get up for every single one of those games. Throw in playoffs and offseasons that barely have any breaks anymore, and it's a grind.
And then, there are the trades.
We seem to take the short-term effect of trades for granted. New pieces, even if they are significantly more talented than the ones being replaced, don't always slot in seamlessly in basketball. Of all sports, basketball is the one where player interaction is so diverse. A power forward on the Wizards doesn't do the same things as a power forward on the Cavaliers. The holdovers need a few games to figure out how their new pieces play, and the new pieces need a few games (or maybe more, depending on their frame of mind) to adapt to their new team's style. Sometimes, we forget this and rush to judge trades after just a small sample. I'm guilty of it too.
Think of which good teams had bad stretches, both at the beginning of the year and after the trade deadline. Cleveland started just 3-3 after six games as they tried to integrate Shaquille O'Neal and Anthony Parker, eventually ripped off a 13-game winning streak as the pieces gelled, then lost their first two games after making the move for Antawn Jamison. Orlando is still trying to get some cohesiveness after bringing in five new players in the offseason. Houston has lost their first two games with Kevin Martin. Portland's lost their last two games since the Marcus Camby trade (not to mention the return of Brandon Roy from injury). Dallas has been winning, but it hasn't been pretty, with Caron Butler shooting blanks for five games now. This stuff happens.
All this is a long way of saying we have a new number one this week, but that doesn't mean it'll last. Let's enjoy the journey without having to judge it.
(As a reminder, we do these rankings in tiers to separate the teams).
STILL IN THEIR OWN CATEGORY
30. New Jersey Nets: 5-51 overall, 1-3 since the break.
SBN Blog: NetsDaily
Last week: 30.
I realize it's not so hard to come up with reasons for why the Nets are so bad, but the way their ten-point loss to the Grizzlies on Sunday unfolded tells the whole story. The Nets raced out to an 18-point lead, only to completely melt down with turnover after turnover in the third quarter. Devin Harris, the Nets' supposed star, had eight alone, and when he sat down, nothing improved. The Grizzlies turned up the pressure slightly and the Nets wilted without a fight.
Listening to YES Network commentator Mike Fratello just kill the Nets drove the point home. As the Nets' own color commentator, Fratello's supposed to be pretty upbeat, but he was instead grumbling about every little thing the Nets did, whether it was their inability to get into the paint, their sloppiness with the ball, their inability to make quick decisions or their lack of hustle. It was like Fratello said "Screw it, these guys need me to bash them, TV ratings be damned." Maybe the Nets lost some TV viewers, but it was at least accurate.
DREGS OF THE LEAGUE
29. Minnesota Timberwolves: 13-44 overall, 0-4 since the break.
SBN Blog: Canis Hoopus
Last week: 28.
Darko Milicic has been freed! Did you know the Timberwolves outscored the Thunder by 35 points on Sunday with Darko in the game? Is David Kahn an evil genius after all? Maybe, maybe he is.
The best part? Timberwolves fans love the guy (Darko, I mean). Why? SB Nation's Canis Hoopus explains it well.
Whether he is aware of it or not, Darko knows exactly what it is like to be a Wolves fan. We know traumatized and distraught. We know it like the backs of our hands. Most of us who are still fans have probably had the conversation with ourselves about what it would take for all of the bad stuff to add up to a one-way ticket off the bandwagon. Like Darko, we constantly wonder if we should just give up and head off to our own personal Europe: Thunder fandom. We stick around for the hope of redemption. We stick around for the hope that, one of these days, the Wolves will land an A1 player in the draft and/or get lucky in free agency with a yet-to-be-developed gem. We do this year after year, despite the lotto balls never landing in our favor or the useful free agents never landing in our airport.
We want Darko to make it on the Wolves. I won't go as far to say that we needhim to succeed and stay, but him doing so as a productive player would be a victory not only for the team and its roster, but for its fan base. Here is a guy that was left for NBA dead, a guy who was all set to head back home before he found a new place to play with a franchise that has never before polished up an unproven gem or attracted anything worthwhile. If he makes it here, the team we root for will have finally pulled something out of the fire instead of the other way around. This is why there is so much interest in Darko. This is why fans are so quick to embrace him and hope for the best. We like reclamation projects because we are hopeless Wolves fans who are reclamation projects all unto ourselves. If you don't believe me, wait until your ticket rep calls with an offer of 50% discounted 2010 season tickets. Darko making it back with the team as a whole would make a lot of this nonsensical hobby worthwhile...at least more than the modest amount of joy we get with late-season victories over teams who are resting their best players.
Is this hyperbole? Perhaps, but this is a fanbase on its last few straws and we'll grasp for any sign of hope. Darko is at a similar place in his NBA journey. Here's hoping that we all find something we can hang on to and pull ourselves up.
You know what I want? I want Darko to do this at some point. And no, that's not hyperbole.
28. Golden State Warriors: 16-39 overall, 2-2 since the break.
SBN Blog: Golden State of Mind
Last week: 29.
As a rational person, I'm having trouble figuring out just how good Stephen Curry is. Is there some sort of reason to think that the Warriors play better with Curry than their supposed star Monta Ellis? Actually, there is, but that's besides the point because clearly Curry has some limitations he'll never overcome.
As a basketball fan, though, I love watching Curry. Maybe not as much as Warriors play-by-play man Bob Fitzgerald, who thinks he walks on water, but I still love him and will forever be bitter that the Wizards didn't draft him at No. 5 in the draft last year.
27. Sacramento Kings: 18-38 overall, 0-4 since the break.
SBN Blog: Sactown Royalty
Last week: 27.
I'm actually very sad that Tyreke Evans and Kevin Martin didn't work out. That doesn't mean the Kings made a mistake in getting Carl Landry for Martin, because anytime you can get a hyper-efficient post player for a hyper-efficient two-guard making four times as much money, you do it. After mulling it over for a while, I have to say that Geoff Petrie made a good trade.
But if I'm a Kings fan, I'm a little scared that pairing Evans with another perimeter scorer worked out so poorly. In his annual trade value column, Bill Simmons coined the phrase "zero guard" to describe a guy like Evans. Simmons writes that a "zero guard" is someone who "handles the ball all the time, looks for his own shot, gets to the rim at will and operates best if his teammates spread the floor to watch him." You can win with those guys, but they also have to be able to demonstrate some ability to play off others. Brandon Roy, for example, has dilligently worked on his catch-and-shoot ability, which has allowed him to succeed a little better with ball-dominating Andre Miller.
Evans, though, hasn't really gotten anywhere close to that yet, and worse, the Kings haven't really pushed him to develop an off-ball game. They gave him the ball right away and have only put it in his hands more over the course of the season. He has plenty of time to figure things out, but he's heading down a path where the only way he and the team knows how to play is to turn Evans into Steve Nash and have almost nobody else dribble.
How does this have to do with Kevin Martin? Put it this way - Martin doesn't need to dribble a lot to score his points. He needs to sometimes, but not often. In theory, an Evans/Martin backcourt should lead to a lot of team success as long as Evans lets everyone else play off Martin on occassion. But if Tyreke Evans can't maximize his team's output playing with a guy like Kevin Martin, is there any wing scorer in the league he can do it with? Probably not, which would make it all the more difficult to build a team around him.
There's still time, but as a fan of Evans, I don't want him to go down the Allen Iverson/Steve Francis path where he never changes his game and his team searches for years trying to find the right pieces around him, only to fail. (I would have also thrown Gilbert Arenas in there, but that's too painful).
26. Indiana Pacers: 19-37 overall, 1-3 since the break.
SBN Blog: Indy Cornrows
Last week: 24.
Ford was so certain he was going to be traded that he was dancing around in front of his teammates with a big smile on his face before getting on the plane.
You stay classy, T.J. Ford.
25. New York Knicks: 19-36 overall, 0-4 since the break.
SBN Blog: Posting and Toasting
Last week: 22.
Tracy McGrady, paired with Mike D'Antoni. Hooray, the Knicks just got interesting again!
24. Detroit Pistons: 20-35 overall, 2-2 since the break.
SBN Blog: Detroit Bad Boys.
Last week: 26.
The trade deadline came and went, and Rip Hamllton is still a member of the Pistons. Get ready to hear that phrase a lot for the next couple years.
23. Philadelphia 76ers: 21-34 overall, 1-2 since the break.
SBN Blog: Liberty Ballers
Last week: 21.
The 76ers are losing money, have a talented roster that's not producing, employ a coach whose style doesn't fit the personnel and will be paying Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala and Samuel Dalembert a combined $41 million next year... and yet their only move at the trade deadline was to acquire Jodie Meeks for a second-round pick. Even though they have a better record than the Wizards, I'm putting them down here for not understanding that they needed to whip out the dynamite on this team. Shame on you, Ed Stefanski.
22. Washington Wizards: 20-34 overall, 3-1 since the break.
SBN Blog: Bullets Forever
Last week: 25.
This is why the NBA is hard to figure. The Wizards dumped all their best guys, brought in four new players that very likely won't figure into their long-term plans and turned their offense over to Andray Blatche of all people ... and suddenly started playing more cohesively. Yeah, I don't get it either.
Because I have no rational explanation, I'll just say it's all because of "Big Game" James Singleton.
21. Los Angeles Clippers: 23-33 overall, 2-2 since the break.
SBN Blog: Clips Nation.
Last week: 22.
It's really cute that the Clippers think they can get LeBron James this summer. Really, what's not to like? They have a talented roster, a very real hole at small forward and they don't have Mike Dunleavy anymore.
Wait, what's that? They'll always be second fiddle to the Lakers and Kobe Bryant in this city? They still have Donald Sterling as their owner? Dunleavy is still their GM?
Oh well, Joe Johnson works then.
20. Charlotte Bobcats: 27-28 overall, 1-3 since the break.
SBN Blog: Rufus on Fire
Last week: 17.
Tons of people are talking about the Bobcats as a potential nightmare matchup in the first round of the playoffs. Here's the problem: will Charlotte actually make the playoffs? They're tied with the Bucks right now, but the Bucks are surging just as the Bobcats are reeling. Charlotte's inability to create offense reared it's ugly head last night against the Clippers. Their crunchtime scorer was Stephen Jackson, who ended the game shooting 1-16. Once Jackson fouled out, their pet play was a Raymond Felton/Boris Diaw pick and pop, which would work if Diaw could actually hit three-pointers with any sort of consistency (he can't). If you can't score in a midseason game against the Clippers, how can you score against the great defenses of Boston, Cleveland and Orlando come playoff time?
On the flip side, I am looking forward to the Tyrus Thomas era. I can't think of a more perfect team for him.
19. Houston Rockets: 28-27 overall, 1-3 since the break.
SBN Blog: The Dream Shake
Last week: 14
Kevin Martin's still cold, even though he's on a team that in theory should be perfect for him. There are no other scorers, so they can run plenty of sets to get Martin open looks. The shots Martin's getting now are open, but the timing is still a bit off because he's with a new team. Don't worry, Rockets fans. It'll work out.
Losing Landry hurts in the short-term, though, even if Jared Jeffries is actually halfway decent (which he is).
18. Milwaukee Bucks: 27-28 overall, 3-1 since the break.
SBN Blog: Brew Hoop
Last week: 19
The Bucks currently employ a fomer number one pick that has a 20.6 PER, is averaging double-digit rebounds and over two blocks a game as the leader of one of the best defensive teams in the league ... and he can't get any love, for some reason. Why is it that we continue to overlook Andrew Bogut? He's a high draft pick with personality and game, yet he always slips under the radar. It's unbelievable.
I'm convinced that if Dwyane Wade went to Milwaukee, he'd lose all his endorsement deals.
17. Memphis Grizzlies: 28-27 overall, 2-2 since the break.
SBN Blog: Straight Outta Vancouver
Last week: 15
I think it's finally time to admit that Mike Conley is not a good basketball player. I'll give up the dream. Of course, that doesn't change the fact that I'd trade Randy Foye for him 100 times out of 100. But seriously, can O.J. Mayo get some more opportunities please? Thanks.
While I've got you, I don't think any song goes better with a Zach Randolph Memphis Grizzlies mix than this one.
16. Miami Heat: 29-28 overall, 2-1 since the break.
SBN Blog: Peninsula is Mightier
Last week: 20.
It was really funny how the Heat put out some last minute PR campaign to make it seem like they were making a move for Carlos Boozer. I wonder if Dwyane Wade got fooled by it.
Are you concerned the Heat don't have enough pieces around you?
[Wade]: (Laughing) Yeah, we need to add pieces. There ain't no question about that. We're not one of the top teams in the league. You want to have an opportunity every year to compete for championships. We haven't had the opportunity since '06, so I want to get back there while I'm in my prime, before my prime leaves me in four or five years.
That doesn't sound like someone who got fooled.
15. New Orleans Hornets: 30-26 overall, 2-1 since the break.
SBN Blog: At the Hive
Last week: 19.
With Darren Collison playing out of his mind right now in place of Chris Paul, it's high time to wonder whether New Orleans' point-guard-heavy system inflated Paul's numbers to a degree. Look, none of this is to take away from Chris Paul, who somehow carries a heavy offensive load while barely committing any turnovers, but the Hornets have their point guard control the ball a hell of a lot. It's easier to put up big counting stats when you always have the ball in your hands (as opposed to Deron Williams with the Jazz, for example). If Darren Collison -- a nice player, but not a special one -- can regularly come close to getting double-doubles in points and assists, maybe we need to give the system some credit.
The system cannot be credited with Collison getting a triple-double, though.
14. Chicago Bulls: 29-27 overall, 3-1 since the break.
SBN Blog: Blog A Bull
Last week: 15.
There's something about Sam Smith's writing nowadays that's hilarious, in a curmudgeonly, grumpy old-man way. (Note: this is not to say Smith is an old man, because I would never say something about one of the best basketball reporters of all time). Why? It takes guts and a real "what the eff" attitude to write a column suggesting that Taj Gibson be rookie of the year.
Gibson not only ranks first among rookies in rebounds and blocks, he and Toronto's DeMar DeRozan are the only rookies starting for teams with a winning record and in the top eight in their conference. And Gibson has better statistics in just about every category, including scoring, than DeRozan.
Plus, in the four games since returning from the All-Star break where he participated in the Rookie Challenge game and his team won, Gibson-with Joakim Noah ailing-is averaging 13.5 points, 12 rebounds (five offensive), 2.25 blocks and shooting 62.5 percent.
Coaches always talk about rewarding players from winning teams, which usually is the criteria for MVP and All-Star voting. Why not for Rookie of the Year?
I'd get angrier, but I sense that Smith doesn't even believe what he writes. If so, that's pretty awesome. I mean, come on, this dude as Rookie of the Year?
GOOD, BUT NOT GREAT
13. San Antonio Spurs: 31-23 overall, 1-2 since the break
SBN Blog: Pounding the Rock.
Last week: 11.
This week, the Spurs lost by to the 76ers (by double digits) and the Pistons. It's over, it was fun, now it's time to rebuild.
12. Portland Trail Blazers: 32-26 overall, 1-2 since the break.
SBN Blog: Blazers Edge
Last week: 12.
Portland had to make the Marcus Camby trade, especially because it only cost them Travis Outlaw and Steve Blake. As long as everyone had an expiring contract, you have to try to get better. Still, these last two losses to Boston and Utah show me that they're just not good enough to make much of a dent in the playoffs. They will get better if only because they'll all learn to play with each other, but the bottom line is that Brandon Roy isn't himself, the guard depth is barely there and their frontcourt is shallow even with Camby.
I do know this: next year is going to be a good one for Portland, because their young guys are so impressive. Especially Nicholas Batum.
11. Toronto Raptors: 31-24, 2-1 since the break.
SBN Blog: Raptors HQ
Last week: 13.
Are the Raptors playing well? Absolutely. They've been among the best teams in the league since December. But I can't really take them seriously as long as they're going down 16 points in the first quarter and eventually blowing five-point leads with 30 seconds left to the Grizzlies, a team that had lost five in a row. You can't be a good team and play unevenly like that at home against a reeling team. You just can't.
10. Phoenix Suns: 34-23 overall, 3-1 since the break.
SBN Blog: Bright Side of the Sun.
Last week: 8.
Phoenix's resurgence has been lost in the shuffle with all the Amare Stoudemire stuff, but the Suns have quietly gone 8-2 in their last ten games. One big reason has been Robin Lopez, who has emerged as a competent (and maybe even effective!) NBA center. A poster on SB Nation's Suns blog Bright Side of the Sun crunches some numbers and finds that while Lopez himself is a below-average rebounder for a center, the Suns as a team grab a significantly higher percentage of available rebounds with Lopez in the game.
If Lopez keeps this up, he'll become the second Suns youngster that developed into a solid player after being terrible to begin his career (the other being Goran Dragic). Maybe it's time to give Phoenix's player development system some credit.
9. Atlanta Hawks: 35-20 overall, 2-2 since the break.
SBN Blog: Peachtree Hoops.
Last week: 5.
I dropped them down four spots, which may seem a bit harsh considering their record. However, I'd say the collapse against Golden State was revealing. The Hawks alternated between relying too heavily on Joe Johnson and not relying on him enough. In the mid stages of the fourth quarter, when they still should have tried to get everyone involved, they instead gave the ball to Johnson and got out of the way as he forced bad shots. Then, with the game on the line, they ran a terrible out of bounds play that resulted in Josh Smith of all people hoisting an impossible three-point attempt. Johnson never touched the ball then.
Did their general strategy work the next night in Utah against a tired Jazz team playing without Deron Williams? Sure. But it doesn't mean it's good strategy. The Hawks may be talented, but they're going to have to do a better job of striking a balance between ISO Joe and running their offense down the stretch. Seeing as they've failed at that balance for the last three years, I'm not holding my breath expecting it'll happen.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder: 33-21 overall, 3-0 since the break
SBN Blog: Welcome To Loud City
Last week: 10.
Everyone talks about Kevin Durant. Let's talk about Russell Westbrook. Westbrook's balling right now, and the Thunder are winning. If he keeps up this play, this long winning streak won't be a mirage. As a Thunder admirer, I hope he keeps it up.
7. Boston Celtics: 32-18 overall, 3-1 since the break
SBN Blog: Celtics Blog.
Last week: 7.
They're not out of the woods yet, but the wins at Portland and LA were very impressive, even if the Lakers didn't have Kobe Bryant. Of course, with every good stretch comes an obstacle, the latest being Paul Pierce's injured thumb. But I have a lot more faith the Celtics will bounce back than I did a couple weeks ago.
Also -- call me crazy, but I think Nate Robinson helps this team a lot. He's a bit of a lunatic, but the Celtics need someone who can make plays on their second unit, even if those plays are for himself. Say what you want about Eddie House, but he can't create his own shot. Nate Robinson can. Can I get a word aapp to that?
6. Dallas Mavericks: 36-21 overall, 4-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Mavs Moneyball
Last week: 9.
As a Wizards fan who grew tired of Caron Butler this year, I am contractually obligated to inform you that he's already taken 73 shots in his first five games, making only 27. That's 37 percent, mind you. A part of me wants to say he'll figure out how to fit in eventually, but he didn't fit in after 47 games in Washington this season, so it's possible he just isn't good anymore. Don't say I didn't warn you, Mavericks fans.
Also, he can dunk it like this, but get ready for lots of offensive fouls.
5. Utah Jazz: 36-20 overall, 4-1 since the break.
SBN Blog: SLC Dunk
Last week: 6.
(cues Hubie Brown voice). You're Deron Williams. Your team is 17-3 in its last 20 games and has started so many shooting guards this year. You could plug Jeff Hornacek in as your starting shooting guard at this point and still win games. You don't ned to stroke the fire like that. You may be frustrated, but you have to understand there's nothing the Jazz are going to do about it when they're so far over the luxury tax. Your team will be fine without Ronnie Brewer, just like they were fine without Eric Maynor, Derek Fisher and all the other guards who have gone through that revolving door. You should sit back and enjoy the ride.
4. Denver Nuggets: 37-19 overall, 2-1 since the break.
SBN Blog: Denver Stiffs.
Last week: 4.
Just an impossible team to figure out. With their wins over the weekend, the Nuggets are now 11-3 against the top seven teams on this list. They've swept the Lakers, beaten the Cavaliers both times, drilled the Magic and Celtics in their one meeting and only lost to Utah when they had a bunch of injuries. However, with their loss to the Wizards on Friday night, the Nuggets are also somehow 13-9 against teams under .500 this year. Has there ever been a team in recent memory with those kind of marks?
There are two ways to look at this. One would be to say that this shown the Nuggets don't have the necessary focus to win in the playoffs. The other, which is how I choose to see this, is that Denver is a team to be feared when the calendar turns to May and June because they won't be playing those bad teams anyway. They'll also be 100 percent healthy -- Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups have missed a combined 24 games this year. In other words, Denver's a legit title contender. Believe it.
Also, when it comes to Anthony, we are all witnesses.
3. Orlando Magic: 38-19 overall, 2-1 since the break.
SBN Blog: Orlando Pinstriped Post.
Last week: 3.
Sunday's Magic-Cavs game was the first time the Magic really looked like themselves. They played great defense down the stretch and made it work by running the same play (in this case, a Jameer Nelson/Vince Carter pick and roll) until the Cavaliers stopped it. They won it with Nelson hitting big shots again. They won it by playing the disrespect card like they did throughout the playoffs last year.
We'll conveniently ignore for a second that Vince Carter did nothing in the first 42 minutes of the game. Shh ... don't mention it.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers: 43-14 overall, 0-3 since the break.
SBN Blog: Fear the Sword
Last week: 1.
They'll be fine, don't worry. Even a player like Antawn Jamison can be difficult to slot in, particularly when it means benching a young player like J.J. Hickson who has played so well for them recently. But they have lost three in a row, which means they have to abdicate their top spot for the time being.
I will say that Jamison's 0-12 debut against Charlotte does raise some questions about how exactly he gets his points against athletic frontlines. Then again, he may still be smarting from the who's who in DC media chasing after him on his last trip out of the Verizon Center.
1. Los Angeles Lakers: 42-14 overall, 1-1 since the break.
SBN Blog: Silver Screen and Roll
Last week: 2.
They did nothing special, but they'll take the top spot back with Cleveland's struggles. With Kobe Bryant out of the lineup, they went 4-1 and discovered they had too much talent to constantly rely on Kobe bailing them out offensively. Kobe's coming back tonight against Memphis, so it'll be interesting to see whether that balance remains. There's only a repeat championship at stake.