1. Golden State Warriors (29-2): So much for a post championship hangover. With a 29-2 start, this Warriors team could easily break the record for most wins in a season. The Warriors seem a little more human after a loss to Dallas, but with Steph Curry playing better than ever, the NBA is once again at the mercy of what could be a rising dynasty.
2. San Antonio Spurs (28-6): The dominance of the Warriors has taken attention away from a really dominant Spurs team. Not that San Antonio is complaining of course. The Spurs are at their best when they’re under the radar, and the combination of their traditional big three, and their new superstars in LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard could make them a candidate to knock off the Warriors.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (22-10): This is arguably the most critical season in the history of professional sports in Oklahoma. A bad season would mean the departure of Kevin Durant and a domino effect that leads to Russell Westbrook leaving and OKC being a perennial lottery team that wonders what could’ve been. So far, however, the Thunder are passing with flying colors, and have established themselves as solid title contenders with Durant and Westbrook both playing like top-5 superstars.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (21-9): The Cavs are still leading the East despite playing without Kyrie Irving during most of the early games. It helps that Kevin Love has finally meshed in with the rest of the offense and even helped take pressure off of LeBron James. The Cavs are playing better than they did last year, but could they beat the top three of the west in a seven game series?
5. Indiana Pacers (18-13): The Pacers showed a lot of heart last year in their fight for a playoff spot despite losing Paul George for most of the year. Despite not making it, that positive momentum and the full recovery of Paul George has brought the Pacers back to the upper echelons of the East. The frontcourt isn’t the same as it was a year ago, but the addition of Monta Ellis has brought a new scorer to help Paul George.
6. Boston Celtics (18-14): The team of walking trade chips hasn’t gotten a superstar, but they have solidly entrenched themselves as a playoff team at this point. Brad Stevens has engineered a team with a rock solid defense, and Isaiah Thomas is a candidate for Most Improved Player. Best of all, the Celtics own the Nets’ unprotected first rounder, and based on how Brooklyn has been playing, Boston might get its superstar, whether via draft or by trading the pick.
7. Toronto Raptors (20-13): In typical Raptors fashion, Toronto has started off hot, as they have for the previous two years. Question is, will this time be different? They continued to win games while Jonas Valanciunas has been injured and Kyle Lowry continues to outdo himself each year. The DeMarre Carroll signing has also panned out, so perhaps the Raptors could stay consistent this time and claim a top-3 seed in the East.
8. Atlanta Hawks (21-13): These Hawks aren’t as good as last year’s incarnation, but they’re still a high end contender in the East. The Hawks miss DeMarre Carroll, and sharpshooter Kyle Korver has been struggling. However, the bench has stepped up this year, and Dennis Schroder is a contender for Sixth Man of the Year. It’s too early to say whether the Hawks are a title contender though.
9. Miami Heat (18-13): Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade have turned back the clock, and Miami has avoided the cold start that endangered them last year. Despite the inconsistency of Goran Dragic, Miami is a shoo-in for the playoffs. The long term prognosis is different however, with the free agency of Hassan Whiteside, the lack of draft picks, and the lack of youth on the team.
10. Orlando Magic (19-13): It looks like the post-Dwight rebuild of the Magic has come to an end. Nikola Vucevic has played like an All-Star this year, and Elfrid Payton has taken a developmental leap. Victor Oladipo has regressed, but with the amount of momentum and young talent the Magic have, there is no way they should miss the playoffs.
11. Charlotte Hornets (17-14): The Hornets seemed like they lacked direction leading up to the season, but now its clear that they are a playoff team, and one that could make a run to the Conference Title. They have plenty of decisions to make this offseason, however. Trade acquisition Nicolas Batum becomes a free agent, and so will Al Jefferson and Marvin Williams. If they don’t play their cards right, Charlotte could head right back to the lottery next year.
12. Los Angeles Clippers (20-13): Yes, the gap between the top 3 in the West and everyone else is that big. Chris Paul is getting hot again and the team has still played decently despite the absence of Blake Griffin. However, DeAndre Jordan has regressed this year, and they don’t seem like a title caliber team this year, especially after seeing their mediocre start to the year. They will need Paul Pierce to do for them what he did for the Wizards last year, and take over in the clutch.
13. Dallas Mavericks (19-13): Losing out on DeAndre Jordan seemed like the end of the world to the Mavs faithful. However, instead of wilting, Dallas has put itself in contention for the all too important four seed in the playoffs. Dirk Nowitzki has gotten better with age, and continues his jumpshot mastery. Now we just need to pray they get a 7 game series against the Clippers. Now that would be good TV.
14. Detroit Pistons (17-15): The Pistons are off to a respectable start, just like last year. Coach Stan Van Gundy has leaned heavily on his starting lineup to produce, and so far, they’ve delivered. A major injury could have a catastrophic impact on the Pistons’ playoff chances. There is also the Brandon Jennings question. Reggie Jackson is the franchise point guard, so Jennings could be a name to watch when the trade deadline approaches.
15. Chicago Bulls (18-12): The coaching change from Tom Thibodeau to Fred Hoiberg has proven itself to be a bust. The Bulls have have a tough schedule coming up, and the regression of Joakim Noah has worsened the team. There is also some tension in the locker room, as some players are unsatisfied with Jimmy Butler and his leadership. Still, the Bulls should be a solid playoff team going forward.
16. Washington Wizards (14-16): The Wizards are recovering from their horrible start to the year, but its no exaggeration to say they’ve been a massive disappointment. This was the year where they were supposed to make a major run and convince Kevin Durant that they have the core needed to get him a title. At this point, they should be more concerned about making the playoffs.
17. Houston Rockets (16-17): If the Wizards had a bad November, the Rockets had an absolutely catastrophic one that led to their coach’s firing. They’ve improved since then, and even managed to get a signature win against the Spurs on Christmas. James Harden is still a star, but Ty Lawson is a massive disappointment and Dwight Howard has said he will leave Houston after this year.
18. Memphis Grizzlies (18-16): By benching Zach Randolph and going with a stretch four, the Grizzlies have succumbed to the trends of the rest of the NBA, and embraced the faster and more flexible nature of the modern NBA. Unfortunately, they’ve also lost out on the physicality advantage that enabled them to succeed in past years, and the offense is still struggling to adjust.
19. Portland Trail Blazers (14-20): Despite being hollowed out by trades and free agent losses this offseason, the Trail Blazers aren’t completely out of the playoffs. They also have the same strengths and weaknesses despite the talent downgrade. they can score at will, but they’re horrible at defense. They have an easy schedule to start the new year, so don’t be surprised if they’re at .500 by this day next month.
20. Utah Jazz (13-17): After an impressive finish to the 2014-15 season, the Jazz were expected to surge to a 50 win season and a playoff spot this year. They’re still in playoff contention for now, but they’ve clearly regressed record-wise. The injury bug has struck the Jazz hard, with both Alec Burks and Dante Exum out for the year. Rudy Gobert has missed a lot of time too. However, Derrick Favors has taken a leap forward, and once once Gobert returns, they could be back to winning again.
21. New York Knicks (15-18): Remember all those angry fans that booed Kristaps Porzingis after he had his NBA dream realized? I’m sure they are loving the young kid now. He has taken over this team and is living up to his superstar potential. The Knicks need to run the offense through Porzingis next year, and go with a more efficient offensive system as opposed to the anachronistic triangle system.
22. Sacramento Kings (12-20): Once again, the Kings are firmly outside the top 8 of the West. DeMarcus Cousins has taken a step back and Rajon Rondo has played inefficiently this year. Perhaps 2016 might be the year the Kings finally blow up their core start all over with the draft. It doesn’t help that the asset rich Boston Celtics have backed away from making a trade.
23. Minnesota Timberwolves (12-20): The Timberwolves have boatloads of young talent at their disposal, with defending Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins and new #1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns. However, they still struggle on defense and their offense isn’t living up to its potential either. Luke Walton will surely be getting a head coaching offer next year. Minnesota should pounce and secure a coach who could apply the Warriors model to the Wolves and build a contender.
24. Phoenix Suns (12-22): Things are getting really bad really fast in Phoenix. Eric Bledsoe is out for the year and Markieff Morris has taken the trade of his twin brother really badly. Jeff Hornacek will likely be fired this year, and Markieff Morris could be traded away if he continues to be a cancer in the locker room. This team needs a rebuild fast.
25. New Orleans Pelicans (10-21): Few expected the Pelicans to be this bad after they made an improbable run to the playoffs last year. Injuries struck early, and even Anthony Davis had to miss games. It’s looking doubtful that the Pelicans return to the playoffs this year. It’ll be interesting to see whether the core of this team will be blown up this year to get either picks or new players that can fit better next to the Unibrow. Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holliday will be players to watch at the deadline.
26. Denver Nuggets (12-21): The Nuggets are at the beginning of their own rebuild, and they need to figure out who’s staying and who’s going. Rookie Emmanuel Mudiay is a building block, and Will Barton looks like a keeper. Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari are talented but inconsistent, and don’t look like they would be retained in a long term rebuild. Jusuf Nurkic will be someone to watch in 2016. He’s a young guy with potential, but he has yet to make his season debut.
27. Milwaukee Bucks (12-21): The Milwaukee Bucks take the title for biggest disappointment in the NBA. They had a talented young core that finally got an anchor in the middle in Greg Monroe. However, Michael Carter-Williams has regressed significantly, and he was recently benched. Their defense has also been inexplicably bad this year and losing Zaza Pachulia has hurt more than fans have expected.
28. Brooklyn Nets (9-23): The Brooklyn Nets are looking pretty ugly this year. Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young have had decent seasons, but there isn’t much for Nets fans to look forward to in both the short and long run. Their first round pick goes to Boston, and they won’t have their own pick until 2019. It’s going to be a very bleak decade for Brooklyn and unless they get really lucky with lowkey prospects, they’ll be in the NBA basement for a long time.
29. Los Angeles Lakers (6-27): Last season was horrible, but the Lakers might outdo themselves this year in their levels of bad. At this point, the focus should be on developing Julius Randle and DeAngelo Russell, the core that will be the Lakers’ future. Free agency won’t save them, especially not this year. Beyond Kevin Durant, there aren’t many free agents that can transform the Lakers into a playoff team. Hopefully, the Lakers can get a Top-3 pick and fire coach Byron Scott. Perhaps they can bring Luke Walton back to their bench, this time to be their new head coach.
30. Philadelphia 76ers (3-31): Jahlil Okafor looks like he’s panning out, at least on the court, and yet the 76ers look worse than they’ve ever been. It’s clear that Nerlins Noel cannot play the 4, and he has regressed significantly, so I think he might get the Michael Carter-Williams treatment and get traded at the deadline. With the hiring of Jerry Colangelo to the front office, it seems like Philadelphia finally has abandoned its “process” with the addition of productive veterans like Ish Smith and Carl Landry. They should win enough games to not have the record for most losses in a season.