Here’s my latest crack at ranking the NBA clubs in a season of pure madness (and huge profits for the men who made it madness).
1. Chicago Bulls (40-10): Still an unchallenging schedule. Still keep playing great without Rose. Can they win if they face a good club multiple contests in a row? We won’t know until the second-round of the playoffs because their schedule is a relative cakewalk.
2. San Antonio Spurs (33-14): Still looking like the best in the West. Still not playing at full strength. Jackson and Diaw were great pick-ups since they provide versatile frontline defense and can be motivated by Pops.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (37-12): The Thunder showed the importance of strong support and depth behind your superstars against the Heat. Starting Thursday, they get LAL, Chicago, Memphis, and Miami within a week.
4. Miami Heat (35-12): Was their depth exposed against OKC, or were the bizarrely high amount of turnovers and Durant 3’s to blame?
5. Los Angeles Lakers (30-19): Bynum, Gasol, and Sessions are providing a lot of efficient value to this club, but the Lakers still can’t win on the road or consistently over half-decent clubs.
6. Orlando Magic (31-18): Will always be a topsy-turvy club since they rely so heavily on 3’s, but losing by 26 to the Bulls at home is a bit much for a team that wants to be a contender.
7. Philadelphia 76ers (27-22): Without the great center play they had earlier in the season, the Sixers are more a pain than a problem for Miami and Chicago.
8. Phoenix Suns (25-24): You’re missing one of the best feel-good stories of the year as company man Steve Nash pushes the Suns back into playoff contention in a season in which they weren’t supposed to have a chance. Unfortunately, their schedule gets really hard from this point forward.
9. Atlanta Hawks (30-20): Beating Utah in 4OT counts as one of their few “good” wins in a while.
10. Indiana Pacers (28-19): You have to respect how they play, but you also have to recognize that they have a lot of trouble beating good clubs and that their record is no indication of how good they are (much worse).
11. Memphis Grizzlies (26-21): Oh Zach Randolph, why do we continue to pretend you make this team better? Notice it took him being back on the bench, avoiding the Lakers’ great frontcourt, to have a good game that corresponded with a win.
12. Boston Celtics (26-22): Everyone’s going to make an Alamo-like last stand in what’s likely this group’s last season together, but if I remember my history correctly, that battle didn’t have the best ending for the Americans.
13. Denver Nuggets (26-23): I’m not sure how well headcase McGee is supposed to make up for Nene and now Gallinari. They’re one of about 7 teams in the West that look like they’re sliding out of the playoffs, but someone’s gotta stick for OKC and SanAn to kill in the first round.
14. Houston Rockets (26-23): Somehow I feel like we should have known Goran Dragic would be this good as a starter in Lowry’s absence (17 ppg, 9 apg, Houston is 5-4). I’m still not sure why they didn’t keep Fisher as his backup.
15. Utah Jazz (26-23): Pretty much everyone stepped up during consecutive wins over LAL and OKC. Special shout-out to Derrick Favors’ game vs. the Thunder: 7 points on 2 shots, 9 rebounds (3 offensive) and 3 blocks, all in 21 minutes off the bench.
16. Los Angeles Clippers (27-21): I hate to keep this going, but it’s so telling: they’re 12-14 without Billups. Are very close to slipping out of the playoffs.
17. Dallas Mavericks (28-22): Are they serious about being party crashers in the playoffs this year? Let’s find out when they play back-to-back in Miami and Orlando later this week.
18. Minnesota Timberwolves (24-26): Not only are they gone from playoff contention for good, but they don’t even get a pick in this year’s loaded draft lottery as it was traded to the Clippers 7 years ago.
19. Portland Trail Blazers (23-26): It’s quite funny to see the players try so hard to prove it was the coach and not them who screwed up chemistry, while at the same time it’s clear the front office wants them to lose but can’t outwardly say so. Yeah, this is one dysfunctional family.
20. Milwaukee Bucks (22-26): Tonight is a very important game if the Bucks are to overtake the Knicks for the East’s 8th playoffs spot. I will say, though, that no matter what happens tonight, I still expect Milwaukee to do it (see below).
21. New York Knicks (24-25): They’re talking championships, but maybe they should be noticing that their schedule is about to get much harder while the Bucks’ is about to get much easier.
22. Golden State Warriors (20-27): I’ve only been talking up Charles Jenkins for a year now, just saying. Doing our weekly check-in on Mark Jackson’s effect on the team: They were 20-27 at this point last year and were 30-36 after 66 – can he go 10-9 the rest of the way?
23. Toronto Raptors (16-33): Gotta respect the valiant fight and effort we’re seeing from Toronto, a club that could have simply packed it in and tanked for the best draft pick possible.
24. Cleveland Cavaliers (17-29): Are so low on talent and energy at this point, no one would even be able to tell if they were tanking.
25. Sacramento Kings (17-31): They need only 3 more wins the rest of the way to finish with a higher winning percentage than last year (.293), but the schedule is much harder moving forward. Thankfully they still face the Nets, Bobcats, and Hornets once each.
26. Detroit Pistons (16-32): Their home-road effect makes them the really bad version of the Lakers: 12-12 at home, 4-20 on the road.
27. New Orleans Hornets (12-36): Their win over the Clippers is this group’s best victory from last week.
28. Washington Wizards (11-37): You have to love Coach Randy Wittman’s decision to bench Andray Blatche until he’s in game shape.
29. New Jersey Nets (16-34): They do know they’re not going to be able to simply tank themselves into a top-3 pick, right? Even assuming they finish with the 4th worst record in the league (could easily by 8th), that gives them only a 38% chance of a top-3 pick, barely better than the odds of picking 5th (35%). Remember that their pick goes to Portland if it’s not top-3.
30. Charlotte Bobcats (7-39): I can’t agree with Charles Barkley that Kentucky could beat the Bobcats, but a team comprised of Kentucky and UNC’s best players almost certainly would. Just for fun, my lineup is C Tyler Zeller (UNC), PF Anthony Davis (Kent), SF Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Kent), SG Doron Lamb (Kent), PG Kendall Marshall (UNC), with a bench of PF John Henson (UNC), PF/SF Terrence Jones (UK), SF/PF James Michael-McAdoo (UNC), SF Harrison Barnes (UNC), SF/SG Reggie Bullock (UNC), SF/SG Darius Miller (Kent), G Dexter Strickland (UNC), and any other PG not named Marquis Teague (probably UNC’s Stillman White, who had 14 assists and 1 turnover in the tourney).