NBA Power Rankings: Where Teams Look Ahead To The All-Star Break

Last week, I mentioned how we've finally seen the eradication of the mediocre tier. For the first time all season, it appeared like the league was truly separated into haves and have nots. 

That officially lasted just one week. Thanks to the struggles of the Bulls, Bobcats, Hornets, Grizzlies and Heat, we have a mediocre class once again. I guess it was inevitable, but it's still too bad. Nobody likes a mediocre team. We want greatness, or we want train-wrecks. Those teams in the middle are just too tough to analyze.

I blame it on the All-Star break. Players and coaches alike are looking ahead to finally getting a breather in this long season. How can you not? If you had to go through the same daily routine for three and a half months, wouldn't you slack off by the end with a vacation in sight? Of course you would. NBA players and coaches are no different.

That's not to say they're not trying, but during a time when teams in the middle were poised to take the next step, their concentration is lacking. How else can you explain a team like Memphis losing a home game to Houston and then a road game to Minnesota? How else do you explain Dallas losing at home to Minnesota, or Houston following up their road win over Memphis with a home loss to Philadelphia? What about Orlando losing at home to Washington? Charlotte losing at home to New Orleans? Miami losing twice in a row to the Bucks? 

It's the Curse of the Impending All-Star Break. And since that's a really lame name for a lame-ish theory, let's just get to the rankings.

(To see last week's rankings, click here).     

STILL IN THEIR OWN CATEGORY

30.  New Jersey Nets: 4-46 overall, 0-4 last week

SBN Blog: NetsDaily

Last week: 30.

The Nets had two golden opportunities to get a win, but they couldn't finish in either game against the Pistons down the stretch. Now, they're officially on pace with the 1972/73 76ers for the worst record of all time. The good news for Nets fans is that they have 18 of their last 32 at home, but the bad news is that everything that could possibly go wrong usually does. Fast forward to the 1:30 mark of this video to see what I mean.

 

Ouch.

DREGS OF THE LEAGUE

29.  Golden State Warriors13-37 overall, 0-4 last week

SBN Blog: Golden State of Mind

Last week: 28.

I love the NBA Developmental League. Really, I do. It's fun reading about players who so badly want to make the NBA that they'll take severe pay cuts and basketball obscurity just because of the off chance some team calls them up. 

Apparently, the Golden State Warriors also love the D-League. Earlier this year, they cut Mikki Moore and his $1.3 million expiring contract to keep D-League callup Chris Hunter on the roster. This week, they cut an even bigger trade chip -- Speedy Claxton and his $5.2 million expiring contract, which is being paid by insurance -- to make room for another D-League callup, Anthony Tolliver. That effectively closes the door on Golden State trading for a star player like Amare Stoudemire, because they would have needed Claxton's contract to help make the salaries match.

Warriors GM Larry Riley defended the decision by basically saying "Well, we talked with other teams and figured we couldn't get that kind of star player anyway." Apparently Riley forgot that the trade deadline was still 12 days away. Nicely played, sir. SB Nation's Golden State of Mind was a bit less subtle.

I'm sorry, but this franchise is just hopeless. This move reeks of the worst owner in all of sports Chris Cohan's continued incompetence. Given Larry Riley's past eloquence and reasonable logic, I have a hard time believing this was his move. Again this just wreaks of Cohan. It's a pure financial, cost-cutting move. It has nothing to do with basketball. It's cheap and...

Dumb.

Dumb.

and...

DUMB.

Who seriously cuts a potentially valuable $5.2 million dollar expiring contract 12 days before the annual NBA Trading Deadline?

Chris Cohan's Warriors.

That's who.

To be fair to the Warriors, Isiah Thomas did the same thing several years ago with Jalen Rose. Then again, that was Isiah Thomas.

28. Minnesota Timberwolves: 13-38 overall, 2-0 last week

SBN Blog: Canis Hoopus

Last week: 29.

Don't look now, but Minnesota has won four in a row, the last two against quality competition (at Dallas, Memphis). They're still plugging square pegs into the round holes of the Triangle Offense, but they're slowly picking it up and it's showing. Coach Kurt Rambis has also cut down his rotation -- only nine guys played in both the Mavericks and Grizzlies games -- and everyone's buying into their role. It's the classic case of a young team taking time to figure things out and only now showing promise. I doubt this is sustainable, but it's the first step in a long, necessary rebuilding project.

27.  Sacramento Kings: 16-34 overall, 0-3 last week

SBN Blog: Sactown Royalty

Last week: 26.

Three more losses drops the Kings' record to 2-16 since the calendar turned to 2010. Kevin Martin and Tyreke Evans continue to play awkwardly together, and it's now affecting the rest of the roster. Martin's only shooting 38 percent from the field and his true shooting percentage is way down to 53.1%. Bad times, indeed.

But Kings fans at SB Nation's Sactown Royalty are still keeping the faith with Martin, and they're turning to visuals to prove their point.

Kmart-tz_medium

 

Point taken.

26.  Detroit Pistons17-32 overall, 2-1 last week

SBN Blog: Detroit Bad Boys.

Last week: 27.

Joe Dumars gave Rip Hamilton a needless extension, traded Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson, blew all his cap space on Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon, drafted Darko Milicic and still hasn't been able to trade Hamilton or Tayshaun Prince. But at least he drafted FUTURE STAR Jonas Jerebko.


 

25.  Washington Wizards17-32 overall, 1-1 last week.

SBN Blog: Bullets Forever

Last week: 23.

Ernie Grunfeld's probably thanking Caron Butler for his turn-back-the-clock-to-2008 performance against the Orlando Magic on Friday, because now Grunfeld may have a chance of getting something of value for Butler in a trade.

 

No word on whether Butler broke the play to get that game-winner. 

24.  Indiana Pacers18-33 overall, 2-1 last week

SBN Blog: Indy Cornrows

Last week: 24.

The Pacers suffered a devastating loss when rookie A.J. Price suffered a concussion in a loss to Milwaukee earlier this week. No disrespect to A.J. Price, but read that sentence again. More than anything, that explains why Indiana continues to stink.

23.  Los Angeles Clippers: 21-29 overall, 1-2 last week

SBN Blog: Clips Nation.

Last week: 22. 

Just days after new interim coach Kim Hughes admitted that the players may have tuned out old coach Mike Dunleavy, the Clippers laid an egg in a blowout home loss to San Antonio. Not exactly the kind of start the Kim Hughes era had in mind. Hey, Isiah Thomas is available!

22.  New York Knicks19-31 overall, 1-2 last week

SBN Blog: Posting and Toasting

Last week: 22.

I know, I know, I railed against those who go crazy over little players doing things normal players do all the time in last week's rankings. I also know that Nate Robinson has done this before. But since this came against Cleveland (and Shaq, no less), I had to post it.

 

Also, please introduce yourself to Chris Duhon, the Knicks new assistant coach. Well, sorta. 

MEDIOCRE CLUBS

21.  Philadelphia 76ers19-31 overall, 3-0 last week.

SBN Blog: Liberty Ballers

Last week: 25.

Four wins in a row for the 76ers, and yet, all everyone can talk about is trading Andre Iguodala. (Two good articles on that front can be found here and here). It makes sense, of course, because he's paid a lot of money and this mix isn't going anywhere. But on paper at least, the Sixers have a lot of talent, both veteran and young. Elton Brand's getting his game back, and Samuel Dalembert is playing better than ever. Sprinkle in Iguodala and some young guys with up up up upside (Lou Williams, Marreese Speights, Thaddeus Young, Jrue Holiday) and ... okay, I'm getting a little carried away. It's the same refrain that we've heard the last few years with these guys. 

Too bad. I really wanted these guys to succeed. If/when the team gets broken up, I'm thinking all the players will prosper elsewhere. They all bring a ton to the table, but not when they play together. We'll understand how valuable they are when they're in a better situation.

20.  Miami Heat24-27 overall, 0-3 last week.

SBN Blog: Peninsula is Mightier

Last week: 18.

Yes, they've lost five in a row, but none were particularly horrible losses. Four were road games, and three were against current playoff teams (Boston, Cleveland, Chicago). They're just not a good enough team to win those kinds of games consistently. That's the bottom line. 

19.  Milwaukee Bucks: 23-26 overall, 2-1 this week

SBN Blog: Brew Hoop

Last week: 20

On the other hand, Milwaukee's won five of six to pull even with Miami for the eighth spot in the East. But before you go crazy, consider the Bucks' five wins came against the following teams: Philadelphia, Miami, Miami, New York, Indiana. The two wins over Miami are nice, and they're why I'm putting them ahead of the Heat, but that's not exactly a murderers row of opponents. I'd expect them to fall back again when the schedule gets tougher.

18.  Chicago Bulls: 24-25 overall, 1-3 last week

SBN Blog: Blog A Bull

Last week: 15.

Here's the problem with the Bulls: they have literally no depth beyond their top eight (top seven now that Tyrus Thomas and Vinny Del Negro are acting like a married couple that's about to divorce). Despite being the most profitable team in the league, the Bulls went cheap in filling out their roster. That means that when someone gets injured, like Joakim Noah, they don't have the depth to withstand it. Brad Miller has to play more minutes, which means Taj Gibson has to play more minutes, which means that, well, someone else that has no business playing on an NBA team has to play more minutes. Noah's a very important player, don't get me wrong, but if the Bulls had more depth, they wouldn't feel his absence this much.

On the bright side, Derrick Rose is awesome, and a point guard.


 

17.  Charlotte Bobcats24-25 overall, 0-2 last week

SBN Blog: Rufus on Fire

Last week: 17.

I originally thought the road would be Charlotte's undoing, but they actually won two of their six games on their recent road trip. Not great, but not an epic fail like I expected. But to lose to the Hornets without Chris Paul at home, when you're well rested? Come on son.

16.  New Orleans Hornets27-25 overall, 1-3 last week.

SBN Blog: At the Hive

Last week: 19.  

Chris Paul's injury has allowed us to see just how good rookie Darren Collison actually is. Collison had 17 points against Philadelphia on Friday, 24 against Charlotte on Saturday and 27 (with nine assists!) against Orlando last night. It's unfortunate that Collison will once again get buried to the bench when Paul comes back, because he can really play. He also does an awesome rendition of Beyonce.


 

GOOD, NOT GREAT

15.  Memphis Grizzlies26-24 overall, 0-3 last week.

SBN Blog: Straight Outta Vancouver

Last week: 13

Here's hoping the Grizzlies get over the Curse Of Unexpected National Media Attention. What's that? So far this year, every times national media members dub a team a "surprise team," they've fallen off. Just as the national media noticed the Kings' run in December, they fell off. Now, everyone's starting to notice Memphis, and they've lost three straight. 

I've heard of many Grizzlies fans directing their ire toward Mike Conley. After a torrid shooting stretch in January, Conley's been in a slump, and his defense is no good. But the real problem to me isn't Conley, it's how Conley is used. There's an intangible quality to Conley that I think gets missed, which is reflected in how much better the Grizzlies play offensively when Conley is in the game (alright, fine, it's not intangible). His shooting stretches the defense, and he's an excellent entry passer from the perimeter.

The problem is that Conley is awful at creating once he gets into the lane, because of his lack of height. Despite this, Memphis has been running him on many pick and rolls instead of O.J. Mayo, who has Conley's creativity, but is more of a scoring threat. A simple solution would be to make Mayo the perimeter creator, with Conley doing more spotting up on the perimeter. I'm pretty sure that would get people to appreciate Conley's strengths rather than rail on his weaknesses.

14.  Houston Rockets27-23 overall, 1-2 last week

SBN Blog: The Dream Shake

Last week: 16

I almost never get on my plucky overachievers, but it's not a good sign when you follow up a big road win in Memphis with a bad home loss to Philadelphia. Underachieving teams do that. Please don't turn into underachievers, Rockets!

(Okay, okay, the additional injury to Kyle Lowry hurt too. Fine, Rockets fans. You win).

13.  Toronto Raptors28-23, 2-1 last week.

SBN Blog: Raptors HQ

Last week: 14.  

So I watched these guys kind of closely this week, since they're sneaking up in the East. One key to their improvement? Hedo Turkoglu, mask and all, is playing better. Why's that? 

Ball. Or, to be more specific, the Raptors have done all they can to make him the primary playmaker. They benched Jose Calderon for Jarrett Jack because Calderon is not a good off-ball player. The Calderon/Turkoglu dynamic was messing up their chemistry, because neither is adept at playing off others. Coach Jay Triano found a simple solution, and now it's working for Turkoglu and the team. 

It's the same conclusion Stan Van Gundy made prior to the 2007/08 season, when he made Turkoglu a point forward and the league's Most Improved Player. The brilliance of Turkoglu is that he's a playmaker from the small forward position, but the annoying thing about Turkoglu is that he needs to be a playmaker to be involved. It's one reason why Orlando opted for Vince Carter over him -- the logic, strangely enough, was that Carter could play off the ball better than Turkoglu. This, of course, renders Calderon mostly obsolete, and now he's on the trade block despite a massive contract. 

In other words, every good thing comes with a bad thing. Hedo and Toronto are playing well, but now the Raptors are getting nothing out of one of their most highly-paid players. 

12.  Portland Trail Blazers: 30-23 overall, 1-2 last week

SBN Blog: Blazers Edge

Last week: 9.     

Every time you think the injuries are catching up with them, the Blazers show they have guts and rally for a win over a team like the Spurs. I still don't understand how they're doing it.


 

Still, with tons of teams in the West playing well, Portland runs the risk of getting passed by, especially now that Brandon Roy is out until the All-Star game with that hamstring injury. It'll be interesting to see what happens when Roy comes back healthy. With Roy out, Andre Miller dominated the ball and has been extremely effective. Can he be that effective when Roy comes back and takes some of his touches? I'm not so sure. 

11.  San Antonio Spurs29-21 overall, 2-2 last week

SBN Blog: Pounding the Rock.

Last week: 10. 

Okay, so when do we say that the Spurs aren't going to compete for a title this year? Now sounds about right. The Spurs are halfway through their annual Rodeo road trip, and they're just 2-2, with losses to the Trail Blazers without Roy and the Lakers without Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum. Those are bad losses. 

It's also the way the Spurs lost that's disconcerting. In the Portland game, they had a late fourth-quarter lead, but blew it. That's not what good teams do. They also surrendered tons of fast-break points to the Blazers (see the above video), which is noteworthy because Portland is the slowest-paced team in the league. If you're surrendering easy fast-break buckets to the most half-court oriented team in the league, your defense stinks and you aren't a contender. 

Honestly, I think we all took the Spurs culture for granted. We all believed that it would allow for a seamless integration of several new parts, like Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair and others. In particular, nobody really questioned that Jefferson, who developed into a bit of a shot-jacker while on losing teams in New Jersey and Milwaukee, would fit in. Well, Jefferson hasn't fit in at all. He's having the worst season of his career, and the Spurs are a better team when he's on the bench. Perhaps the truth is that the previous players who ran through San Antonio created the culture, rather than the culture creating the player. Jefferson clearly does not fit the Spurs' culture, even though he's trying. This is not to blame everything on Jefferson, but maybe the conclusion here is that the Spurs were wrong for getting so many new pieces that didn't necessarily fit their style of play.

10.  Oklahoma City Thunder29-21 overall, 3-0 last week.

SBN Blog: Welcome To Loud City

Last week: 12.

For all the talk about Kevin Durant, the Thunder really go as young point guard Russell Westbrook does. Westbrook's had some major growing pains during his first two years, but the Thunder have stuck with him because there are times when he puts it all together. One of those times was this week. Westbrook won Player of the Week honors and averaged 19.7 points, 9.7 assists, eight rebounds and 3.3 steals. Naturally, the Thunder have won five straight games. 

Oklahoma City needs Westbrook, because other than Durant, they have no playmakers. Jeff Green too often fades into the background. Nenad Kristic doesn't create any offense for himself. Thabo Sefolosha is a defensive specialist. James Harden is getting there, but he's just a rookie. In many games, Durant's been the only guy who has been able to create offense. But when Westbrook is on, now the Thunder suddenly have a second playmaker that defenses need to worry about. The one-two punch of Westbrook and Durant, combined with the Thunder's stingy defense, makes them really, really tough to beat. Without Westbrook playing well, they're much more ordinary.


 

9.  Dallas Mavericks32-19 overall, 2-1 last week.

SBN Blog: Mavs Moneyball

Last week: 8.

The Mavericks continue to sleepwalk, losing at home to teams like Minnesota and Portland. There's no magical fix on the horizon, to be honest. The mix is just stale, which is probably why rookie Rodrigue Beaubois is being promoted in the rotation. But as good as Beaubois could be, how much of a spark can he really provide? Can he elevate the Mavericks to championship contender status? There's no way.

The Mavericks need a trade, and they need it badly. Otherwise, they'll again win their 50 games and get bounced before the Western Conference Finals. 

8.  Phoenix Suns: 31-21 overall, 2-0 last week

SBN Blog: Bright Side of the Sun.

Last week: 11.

Remind me never to write a Steve Nash team off again. That's all.

Also, Earl Clark, hold onto the ball!


 

7.  Boston Celtics32-18 overall, 2-1 last week.

SBN Blog: Celtics Blog.

Last week: 6

Blah blah blah they're old blah blah blah they commit too many turnovers blah blah blah no depth blah blah blah they need to trade Ray Allen blah blah blah they think they're better than they actually are. I think that about covers it, no?

6.  Utah Jazz: 31-18 overall, 2-0 last week

SBN Blog: SLC Dunk

Last week: 7.

No team made a bigger jump in January than the Jazz. At the beginning of the month, I was wondering whether they were beginning to tune out Jerry Sloan. Now, they're third in the West and pushing second-place Denver. 

I've noticed two big changes in the Jazz this month. One is Andrei Kirilenko, which we covered last week. The other is the defense. Utah's quietly risen to the top ten in defensive efficiency, despite employing a frontcourt that plays awful defense. I can't really explain it, other than to say they're working so hard on that end. Kirilenko's presence helps, but guys like Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap and Mehmet Okur are doing an outstanding job. 

Better defense means more transition opportunities, which means better offense. If Chris Paul is the best half-court point guard in basketball, and Steve Nash is the best shooting point guard, then Deron Williams is the best transition point guard. His passes and decisions are always on the money. Watch a Jazz game, particularly at home, and note how many layups they get in transition. It's all thanks to Deron. And because the Jazz are forcing more missed shots, Deron is getting more chances to push the ball.

See? It's a simple game sometimes. 

5.  Atlanta Hawks: 32-17 overall, 2-1 last week.

SBN Blog: Peachtree Hoops.

Last week: 5. 

As the Hawks continue to trudge toward 53 wins and a second-round playoff ouster, the fans are finding more reasons to grumble. And yes, I call it grumbling, because they seem to understand the blessing of having a good, likeable team. Even so, they've no doubt seen the Hawks struggle in key tests (like Tuesday's game against Oklahoma City) against good teams.

They're even visualizing their grumbling too. Via SB Nation's Peachtree Hoops:

3_circle_venn_medium_medium

 

CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDERS

4.  Denver Nuggets34-17 overall, 1-2 last week

SBN Blog: Denver Stiffs.

Last week: 3. 

They're down one spot because they went 1-2, even though the one win was in LA against the Lakers without Carmelo Anthony.

Speaking of that win, what a statement by Denver. They won't ever shoot that well again, but that's now the second time the Nuggets have blasted the Lakers this season. You wish the Nuggets would get up for lesser teams like they get up for the Lakers, but that might not matter in the playoffs, when they're only playing good teams.

Much like the 2002 Kings, they have the formula for beating the Lakers. Back then, it was pulling Shaq away from the basket, dominating the power forward matchup and having your point guard be aggressive against their poor pick and roll defense. Now, the idea is to make Kobe into a volume shooter (Arron Afflalo's job), play their bigs physically, pull your power forward away from the hoop to make Pau Gasol play perimeter defense and terrorize the Lakers with your small guards. The Kings choked away their advantage then. It remains to be seen what happens to the Nuggets this year. I forsee an epic Western Conference FInals either way.

Also, Chauncey B-B-B-B-B-B-B-Billups!


 

3.  Orlando Magic: 35-17 overall, 3-1 last week

SBN Blog: Orlando Pinstriped Post.

Last week: 4.

Orlando gave us two reminders this week that, when they're on, they're borderline unstoppable. The first was on Sunday, when they blitzed the Celtics in the third quarter with an unbelievable 36-11 spurt. Their defense was lights-out, and it led to transition three after transition three. Boston had no chance, and frankly, neither would any other team in the league.

The other was last night, when Vince Carter put on a show in the second half. Yes, it was against the Hornets, but it was also on the second night of a back-to-back, where it would have been very easy to mail it in. Carter's heroics, as well as those from everyone else, served a reminder to the league that Orlando, at full flight, has more talent than anyone in basketball. How many teams can trot out four all-stars, the league's best center and a platter of great role players, all of whom are capable at defending better than anyone in basketball? Nobody can.

Of course, the Magic also fell behind by double-digits in both those games. They also blew a 21-point lead in a home loss to Washington. But the point is, when they're on, Orlando is arguably the best team in the league. The key now is being able to do that consistently. Undoubtedly, the consistency would have happened sooner if Carter got with the program, but it's looking like he has, and that means the rest of the team should soon fall in line. 

At least I hope so.

2.  Los Angeles Lakers: 40-13 overall, 3-1 last week

SBN Blog: Silver Screen and Roll

Last week: 2.

A funny thing happened to the Lakers this week. Kobe Bryant got injured, and suddenly, they ran their offense and got everyone involved. The result? A road win against a good Portland team (in a place they haven't won in nine games), and a home win against a desperate Spurs team. See, Kobe? The Triangle offense can be good for everyone.

1.  Cleveland Cavaliers: 41-11 overall, 3-0 last week

SBN Blog: Fear the Sword

Last week: 1.

One of these days, LeBron James will realize that while he's now a good jumpshooter, he's even better when he drives to the basket decisively. Until then, we'll have to settle for moments like the one he had against the Knicks. 

 

As for the Cavs, they keep winning, and J.J. Hickson keeps starring. As a Wizards fan who desperately wants him in a trade for Antawn Jamison, this makes me sad, because now Cleveland won't want to trade him. Could anything more go wrong for us this season?

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