Golden State (32-6): The Warriors are on a near-record setting pace as we close in on the
season’s halfway point. It seems like they’re clicking on all cylinders, whether it is offense, defense, bench or coaching. Demolishing fellow contenders Houston by 25 points shows why they’re on top here.
Atlanta Hawks (33-8): After years of one and done limbo, the Hawks have made the leap into elite territory and are riding a 12 game winning streak. Credit goes to Jeff Teague’s All-Star play, Al Horford’s health and Mike Budenholzer’s stellar coaching.
Portland Trail Blazers (30-11): They failed to win against San Antonio and Memphis but Portland still played stellar so far despite losing Robin Lopez to injury. The Blazers have arguably the most clutch player in the league in Damian Lillard and they’ve proven that last year was no fluke.
Dallas Mavericks (28-13): Getting Rajon Rondo for next to nothing has been a masterstroke for Mark Cuban’s Mavs, who now have the most talented starting five in the NBA. They’ve been stellar against the East, but they do need to improve on their middling 12-9 conference record.
Los Angeles Clippers (27-14): The Clippers are talented at the top end with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan playing as well as ever. However, they need a starting small forward and someone good on the bench apart from Jamal Crawford. Expect them to make significant adds on the trade market.
Memphis Grizzlies (29-11): Memphis seems to be the only team that has a good chance to beat Golden State in a series, and that’s due to their defense and frontcourt depth. Getting Jeff Green via trade gives the Grizzles an offensive weapon on the wing, but will he push them into the promised land?
Houston Rockets (28-13): James Harden is putting up MVP numbers and the much maligned Houston defense is turning things around, allowing only .92 points per possession. They’re playing very efficient basketball despite Josh Smith, who’s found a niche as a Rocket coming off the bench.
Toronto Raptors (26-14): After a very hot start, the Raptors have hit a wall as of late, going 3-7 in their last ten games. Returning swingman DeMar DeRozan has played well though, and with their body of work, expect Toronto to turn it around, improve its wing defense, and limit turnovers.
San Antonio Spurs (26-16): The Spurs haven’t played as well as they usually have. However, these veterans save their best for the playoffs, and also had “The Assassin” Kawhi Leonard return to lead them to a win over the Trail Blazers.
Washington Wizards (28-13): The Wizards were a dark horse candidate to make the playoffs last year, and now they are a dark horse candidate to win the Eastern Conference. John Wall and the Wizards are a top-4 team in the East, which is good for playoff purposes, because they’ve been dominant at home.
Chicago Bulls (27-15): As if having Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah wasn’t enough, Chicago has two more stars to turn to with the emergent Jimmy Butler and the resurgent Pau Gasol. The Bulls are even better than their record suggests and they have very good depth.
Phoenix Suns (24-18): The three point guard system of Phoenix has to have turned the corner in 2015, but it has been Alex Len’s emergence as a defensive stopper and rim protector that has kept the Suns in the fight for a playoff spot in the West.
Oklahoma City Thunder (20-20): After a nightmare injury-filled start to the season, the Thunder are back in the playoff chase and had a signature victory against the LA Clippers. They will have to make some moves to get ahead of the Suns, which could mean moving Reggie Jackson for a defender.
Milwaukee Bucks (21-19): It is remarkable how a team worse than the Sixers last year could be in solid playoff contention despite losing their best player in rookie Jabari Parker. Coach Jason Kidd and his deep rotations have been key, and he’s clearly gotten the last laugh against his old team.
New Orleans Pelicans (20-20): Truly speaks to the depth of the West when the Palicans are firmly out of the playoff race. They do have the rapidly developing Anthony Davis, who is already the best player in the NBA. But we will likely have to wait until next year to see The Unibrow in the playoffs.
Cleveland Cavaliers (21-20): They’ll probably turn it around, they’re too talented not to. But there are real concerns with this team. Coaching and lack of defense are only part of the problem, as even their Big Three, LeBron James included, have played noticeably worse than usual.
Detroit Pistons (16-25): Who would have thought that the sans-Josh Smith Pistons would the hottest team in the league? After winning five games in the first third of the season, Detroit is riding Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Brandon Jennings on an improbable playoff surge.
Denver Nuggets (18-22): The Nuggets are the anti-Atlanta Hawks, as they are a one and done playoff team trending down. Despite a recent winning streak, Denver is still out of the playoff race and Timofey Mozgov may not be the last Nuggets starter getting traded this season.
Charlotte Hornets (16-25): The Charlotte Hornets had a very bad start to the season, but Kemba Walker has led a Detroit-lite type of resurgence in Charlotte. Once Al Jefferson eventually comes back, Hornets could make a solid playoff push. They still have to decide what to do with Lance Stephenson though.
Sacramento Kings (16-24): The Kings looked very promising early this season, but coach Michael Malone was bizarrely fired, and they haven’t been the same. They have been dominant defensively, but with trade rumors surrounding rookie Nik Stauskas, it appears the Kings are still mired in dysfunction.
Brooklyn Nets (17-24): The Nets are in the East’s playoff picture for now, but it looks like that may change with owner Mikhail Prokhorov looking to sell the team. This could mean a firesale at Brooklyn and the departure of its biggest stars, thus halting their playoff push.
Indiana Pacers (15-27): The Pacers may be the most unlikely playoff contender in the league. But with a very easy second half schedule, the impending return of George Hill and potential moves via trade, a playoff berth isn’t necessarily impossible.
Miami Heat (18-22): The Heat were still supposed to be playoff contenders, but they’ve had injuries and inconsistencies that put their postseason hopes in jeopardy. However, they did have a great victory over the Clippers recently, and Hassan Whiteside has stepped up and could be the answer at center.
Utah Jazz (14-27): The Jazz are no playoff contenders, but they’ve played well as of late and Gordon Hayward and Darrick Favors have leaped into elite status. The same can’t be said for Enes Kanter, who may be usurped by the improving Rudy Gobert for the starting center job.
Orlando Magic (15-29): It seems like each of the Magic franchise players has taken a big step forward this year, so it makes no sense for the team to fire coach Jacque Vaughn. However, with Orlando’s offensive woes and a recent shellacking against the Thunder, the possibility can’t be ruled out.
Boston Celtics (13-25): The Celtics are clearly tanking the year, as they Rajon Rondo for almost nothing and moved Jeff Green and Brandan Wright for picks. However, they do have a lot of good prospects they can develop in addition to eight draft picks in the next four years. The Celtics have direction.
Los Angeles Lakers (12-29): Kobe is clearly on his last legs and may be a shut-down candidate later on in the season. Not all is lost for the Lakers however; as Jordan Hill is having a career year and Tarik Black could be a diamond in the rough. And there is the silver lining of their top-five protected first rounder.
Minnesota Timberwolves (7-32): The Wolves have far more promise their record suggests. With Andrew Wiggins’ recent surge (22 ppg in January), it seems like Minnesota already won the Kevin Love trade. Additionally, the young Gorgui Dieng has played very well, making Nikola Pekovic expendable.
Philadelphia 76ers (8-32): It seems like the Sixers can’t even tank right, as the Wolves and Knicks “lead” them in the loss column. They’ve surprisingly established a decent defensive identity with Nerlins Noel in the middle. The elephant in the room is what to do at the 5 next year with Joel Embiid coming in.
New York Knicks (5-36): If you think the Knicks are bad now, wait until they shut down Carmelo, who actually played decently. The Knicks are a classic case of what happens when a coach forces down a scheme that the players don’t fit in. At least they have their first rounder, so it COULD be worse.