10. Orlando Magic (9-3)
LW: 12, +2
Before we go jumping on the bandwagon after their fourth-straight win yesterday in New York, slow down and realize the Magic have played nine of 12 against teams under .500. and the last eight squads they’ve beaten are a combined 31-69. Ryan Anderson can throw up all the 30-point gems that he wants to, but it won’t hide the fact that Jameer Nelson and Big Baby couldn’t get minutes on any contender with the way they’re playing right now.
9. Atlanta Hawks (10-4)
LW: 8, -1
Since Al Horford went down, the Hawks are 3-0. The problem: They’ve played Charlotte, Minnesota and Toronto. All at home. That’s like jumping a bunch of elementary school kids at recess and stealing their trapper keepers. ATL still has another two weeks of snuggling before their real season kicks in. Hopefully Joe Johnson is still playing as well then as he is now (scored 22-plus in four of the last five).
8. Indiana Pacers (9-3)
LW: 11, +3
Balanced? Their leading scorer and “best player” (Danny Granger) is only seventh on the team in PER (14). I’m not sure there’s a more interesting team in the Eastern Conference. They could conceivably end up in the top four for the playoffs given all the problems going on in Boston and New York, and most of that has to do with a defense that is barely behind Chicago (92.7 to 94 in defensive efficiency). They’re athletic, long and gaining confidence with every big win (Atlanta and Boston).
7. L.A. Lakers (10-5)
LW: 10, +3
When will someone finally call out Pau Gasol? Lost in Kobe‘s monster start and Andrew Bynum‘s emergence, no one seems to notice that Gasol isn’t even playing like an All-Star anymore. His points (15.9), rebounds (9.5), assists (2.3) and shooting (52 percent) are all the lowest they’ve been since Memphis wrapped and sealed him to Hollywood. I swear if the coaches vote him into the midseason showcase based off reputation, I will go crazy. Even as Bryant and Bynum carry the Lakers through awful showings from all of their point guards and small forwards, the Lakers have no chance to win in the playoffs as long as Gasol keeps up his sad face.
6. Miami Heat (8-4)
LW: 1, -5
Shouldn’t they be lower after losing three consecutive games? I can’t bring myself to drop them any lower. They’re No. 7 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and are still sporting a plus-6.8 point differential. They lost one bad game – to Golden State. The Clippers are one of the four best teams in the league, and it took them overtime to win at home. Denver’s homecourt advantage is one of the best in the league, and they didn’t really take it to Miami until the second half. The Heat’s next three games are against San Antonio, the Lakers and Philly, all at home. They’re about to get their swagger back.
5. San Antonio Spurs (9-4)
LW: 7, +2
They lead the league in assists nowadays, and basically have to because there isn’t one player, outside of Tony Parker, who can create any offense on their own. But the largest change in the last week is the defense. It’s starting to climb back to respectability (now up to No. 20 in the league). Some of that most definitely has to do with Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs are a better team when he’s in there.
4. L.A. Clippers (7-3)
LW: 9, +5
Once Blake Griffin stops breaking backboards with his free throws (5-for-13 last night) and gets back to simply breaking things (like Kris Humphries‘ face), the Clippers might go all the way to the Finals. I’m already looking ahead to the playoffs, and have one major question mark on this team: They don’t seem to match up well with OKC. Westbrook and Paul will be a wash. But no one here can guard Harden, and no one has a chance in Hell of checking Durant.
3. Chicago Bulls (12-3)
LW: 2, -1
For the Bulls to be playing this well even though Carlos Boozer hasn’t picked up his game from the playoffs, even with Richard Hamilton out and even with Joakim Noah‘s mind stuck wherever Joakim Noah’s mind wanders to, has to feel great for Chicago fans. And who said Rose wasn’t a great distributor? His assists have climbed to 8.7 a game.
2. Philadelphia 76ers (10-3)
LW: 6, +4
A fall from No. 1 to No. 3 in offensive efficiency won’t matter as long as they keep suffocating everyone on defense. They’re still way out in front of defense, ahead of even the Bulls, and no one realizes that. It’s also crazy how their leading scorer (Lou Williams) doesn’t even start. The first few weeks of the season should be titled “The Philly Chainsaw Massacre” because this team has literally destroyed pretty much everyone they’ve played.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (12-2)
LW: 4, +3
I’m still trying to figure out how OKC is second to Orlando in offensive efficiency. Doesn’t anyone realize they have three players who can play on that end? Boston basically lost – at home – to two guys last night. Still, this team has won seven games in a row, James Harden (16.5 points, 22.7 PER) is the odds-on favorite for Sixth Man of the Year, and Russell Westbrook (19.4 points and 5.4 assists a night) hasn’t even picked it up yet. They’ll be there in the end.
By the way, they could easily be riding an 11-game win streak going into their Jan. 30 matchup with the Clippers. They have a pillow-soft schedule until then.
What do you think? Did we get it right?
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