1. Golden State Warriors (57-13): Once again, the Golden State Warriors are atop our NBA rankings heading in to the stretch run of the NBA. Not only are the Warriors atop the NBA in both offensive and defensive efficiency, but they are also the deepest team in the league, They beat the Atlanta Hawks handily without Klay Thompson, and have the luxury of stuffing their highest paid player, David Lee, deep inside their bench. The road to the title will run through the Bay,
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (46-26): The Cavs’ championship aspirations were in serious doubt in January. However, Cleveland has skyrocketed up the Eastern conference standings in these last few months and are giving the Hawks a run for their money for the #1 spot in the East. With the Cavs’ dominance combined with Atlanta’s recent loss of form, getting the top spot is not completely inconceivable for Cleveland.
3. San Antonio Spurs (44-26): The playoff positioning in the West after Golden State is very close and muddled, and in these last few weeks of the season, it may be the Spurs’ pedigree and experience that could bring them favorable positioning for the playoffs. The Spurs have gone 8-2 in the last ten games, and apart from a loss to the Bucks, they’ve been convincing as the defending champs. Surely we know better than to count them out at this stage.
4. Atlanta Hawks (53-17): The Atlanta Hawks have not been doing so hot recently, and the loss of sharpshooter Kyle Korver may have been the reason why. Thankfully for the Hawks, he’s due to be back this week. With Korver’s return, the Hawks should be able to hold off the Cavs and retain the one seed. The usual one and dones in the East’s playoffs will find themselves in a different position this year as title contenders.
5. Los Angeles Clippers (46-25): Despite the loss of Blake Griffin, the Clips did a fine job of holding their own in this last month. DeAndre Jordan was a machine in Blake’s absence, and he’s played himself into a max contract with the barrage of 20 point 20 board performances. With Blake Griffin back, the Clippers could reach the next level, and be seen as genuine contenders. However, depth is still a concern, and the bad news about Jamal Crawford’s health won’t help.
6. Memphis Grizzlies (50-21): Memphis is the current two seed in the West, but with only six games separating the 2 seed and the 7 seed, that doesn’t mean much. Memphis lives and dies by defense, especially in their very deep front-court. If new acquisition Jeff Green can lead the wing players offensively and take some pressure off of the bigs, the Grizzlies should be able to secure their first ever Division Title.
7. Houston Rockets (47-23): James Harden showed why he is a top shelf MVP candidate with a an impressive 50 point showing Denver. Harden’s surge plus Dwight Howard’s upcoming return could be the boost Houston needs to make a deep playoff run. Additionally, role players like Donatas Motiejunas, Josh Smith and Corey Brewer stepped up in Howard’s absence, and may play crucial roles in the playoffs.
8. Portland Trail Blazers (44-24): Shooting guard Wesley Matthews is one of the most durable players in the NBA, so it was shocking to see him go down for the year. Thankfully, they had traded for Arron Afflalo, an experienced starter who fits their three pointer based offense. However, moving Afflalo to the starting lineup has hurt the bench considerably, and that can be reflected in Portland’s recent four game losing streak.
9. Dallas Mavericks (44-27): The much hyped Rajon Rondo to the Mavs trade may not have worked out as well as Dallas would have hoped, but there is reason for hope now that Rondo and coach Rick Carlisle have simmered their disputes. The Mavs have had some offensive problems recently, but they also had big wins over the Clippers and the Thunder, and they are in play for any of the 2-7 spots in the West.
10. Oklahoma City Thunder (40-30): If the OKC Thunder make it to the playoffs, surely Russell Westbrook has to receive some MVP considerations. Rarely is one player asked to do as much as Russ has been doing this season, and his already sky high 37.9 usage rate could burst even higher with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka missing the rest of the regular season. I would expect at least four more triple doubles before the year is done.
11. Toronto Raptors (42-28): The Raptors have been doing their best 2014 Pacers impression after their roar of a start to this season. DeMar DeRozan has been playing well, but there are still issues to resolve on both sides of the ball before playoff time. The Raptors need to figure out who will start at both forward positions and they need point guard Kyle Lowry back healthy if they wish to make some noise in the playoffs.
12. Chicago Bulls (43-29): The Bulls have been a disappointing 4-6 in their last ten games, but they have reasons to be optimistic. Both Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson have returned recently and Derrick Rose is closing in on a return to the court With the emergence of European import Nikola Mirotic (Nine 20 point games this month), a healthy Bulls teams is one that is capable of challenging anyone in the East.
13. Washington Wizards (40-31): The Wizards have hit their stride recently, with good wins over the Trail Blazers and Grizzlies. John Wall and the Wizards are firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, but this next week will likely determine whether they will get home-court advantage in the first round. Their showings against the Clippers and Warriors this week will determine whether they are contenders or pretenders in the East.
14. Phoenix Suns (38-33): The Suns had a bizarre trade deadline, overhauling the three point guard experiment by shipping away Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, and getting Brandon Knight. So far, the Suns have not been the same offensively, but the defense has improved to sixth since the All-Star break. The Suns are alive for the last playoff seed, and while they won’t beat the Warriors, that series will sure be fun to watch.
15. New Orleans Pelicans (37-33): When fictional football star Thad Castle described his will as being “stronger than 10,000 pelicans”, surely he had Anthony Davis in mind. The Unibrow has been unstoppable this year, and is making basketball look easy with 24.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.9 blocks and his league leading 31.46 player efficiency rating. With the Pelicans falling apart health wise yet still in contention, leading New Orleans to the playoffs seals the MVP for Davis.
16. Milwaukee Bucks (34-36): Going from Brandon Knight to Michael Carter-Williams was a downgrade, and injuries have thinned what was once a very deep rotation. The Bucks are a league worst 4-13 since the All-Star break, and coach Jason Kidd needs to make some adjustments, or else Milwaukee may slip out of the sixth seed and find itself facing Atlanta or Cleveland in the first round.
17. Utah Jazz (31-39): Raise your hands if you thought the Utah Jazz would have the best post-break record. The Jazz were a very impressive 12-3 since the All-Star game before losing to Golden State last Saturday. Dealing away Enes Kanter has allowed the very promising Rudy Gobert to gel with Derrick Favors and allow 95 points to opposing teams, lowest in the league. If they can get the point guard situation figured out, the Jazz can be a team to watch next season.
18. Indiana Pacers (30-40): Against all odds, the Indiana Pacers are contending for a playoff spot in what should have been a lost season. Granted, the Pacers’ momentum has been stalled by a 6 game losing streak, but they are still within a game of Boston for the 8th seed. If injured star Paul George can get healthy and return to the court with enough games left, that may be the boost Indy needs to propel itself into the playoffs.
19. Boston Celtics (31-39): The fact that the rebuilding Celtics are the current 8th seed despite losing Jared Sullinger speaks to either the coaching of Brad Stevens or the ineptitude of the East. Probably both. Despite the problems of youngsters Kelly Olynik and Marcus Smart, Boston has been playing good basketball since the break and they could make a late push once they get new point guard Isaiah Thomas back from injury.
20. Miami Heat (32-37): After a less than impressive start to the season, Pat Riley mortgaged his 2017 and 2019 draft picks to save his season and pry Goran Dragic from Phoenix. So far, it is paying dividends, as Miami is now a game within Milwaukee’s previously ironclad sixth seed. Despite this new addition and the emergence of Hassan Whiteside, much of the credit for this revival has to go to Dwyane Wade, who has scored over 20 points eight times.
21. Charlotte Hornets (30-39): The Hornets are another team who have saved their season after a disastrous start. Getting Kemba Walker back from injury is sure to help them in their late playoff push, and Michael Kidd-GIlchrist has become a much better player this year especially on defense. Two obstacles may thwart their momentum: their bottom three scoring offense, and their grueling remaining schedule.
22. Brooklyn Nets (29-40): It’s hard to believe that Brooklyn is still in the playoff picture, but with only 1.5 games separating the Nets from the 8 seed, it could happen. They’ve had a mini offensive boom recently, and Brook Lopez, who remained on the team despite the many trade rumors, did especially well, scoring 32 points against Milwaukee. However, Mason Plumlee was recently demoted and he needs to step up in order to keep Brooklyn in the playoff hunt.
23. Detroit Pistons (26-44): It must have been quite a roller coaster ride in the Motor City. The Pistons started off the first third of the season with five wins, made a playoff push after releasing Josh Smith, and have been regressing sharply ever since losing Brandon Jennings to injury and trading for Reggie Jackson. Apart from the gem that is Andre Drumming, Stan van Gundy’s squad is one that is filled with inconsistency and uncertainty.
24. Denver Nuggets (27-44): After pulling the plug on Brian Shaw’s head coaching run, the Nuggets have improved. However, they are headed to the lottery after being in the playoff bubble for the first half of the year. Jusuf Nurkic is a promising franchise centerpiece, but there is uncertainty elsewhere. Even though Denver didn’t have a firesale at the trade deadline, their resting of their best players recently does show they intend to rebuild (tank) for the near future.
25. Sacramento Kings (24-45): The Kings had a promising start to the year, but firing their coach led to yet another lottery bound season for Sacramento. George Karl is their third coach this year, and brought his uptempo offence to the Kings. Rudy Gay has responded well to this switch but the key will be how DeMarcus Cousins can fir in this offense and whether the Kings can take the next step towards playoff contention.
26. Orlando Magic (22-50): The Magic are too talented to still be this deep in the lottery. Victor Oladipo is a budding star, Nikola Vucevic is arguably the most underrated player in the NBA, Tobias Harris is a 17 point 7 rebound guy, and Elfried Payton has taken off as of late and is doing his best Rajon Rondo impression as a distributor. If Orlando could get a coach that could harness the talent of these players, Orlando could make a playoff run next year.
27. Los Angeles Lakers (18-50): This Lakers team is the worst one in its Los Angeles history, and many decisions have to be made on where the team should go from here. The Lakers are clearly in the top five for worst record, and should keep their draft pick for this year. There are many options on who to draft and who to add from free agency, but the Lakers must also decide who to keep from their current squad. Apart from Kobe and Randle, everyone else is on the bubble.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves (16-54): The Wolves have a lot to look forward to with Andrew Wiggins, who says he will be in Minnesota for a long time. Flanking him in the long run will be Gorgui Dieng and Dunk Contest winner Zach LaVine. With Ricky Rubio and whoever they draft in 2015, the Wolves could be a very exciting team to watch. The elephant in the room is the league worst defense (105.8 pts/game allowed), and it needs to be addressed ASAP.
29. Philadelphia 76ers (17-53): Despite Hinkie’s best efforts, the Philadelphia 76ers have failed to secure the worst record in the league, and they’ve also failed to get the bottom spot in these rankings. The Sixers’ deadline moves this year showed that they only want superstars, and MCW was not one. Nerlins Noel is one of the better defenders in the league, but he too could be expendable if he doesn’t improve his offense, especially if he can’t coexist with Joel Embiid.
30. New York Knicks (14-57): The Knicks are our “winners” here for the bottom spot and they are the favorite in the Jahlil Okafor sweepstakes. Without aging star Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks are now reliant on Andrea Bargnani to lead them. The Knicks are focused primarily on free agency to quickly return to the playoffs, but Melo’s max contract will hamper Phil Jackson’s flexibility. There is also the possibility of the Knicks trading the pick, which will be a story to watch.