The truth about it? The NBA regular season, at least for the teams that hold visions of championships, is just an 82-session practice for the playoffs. So rather than worry about who is the unofficial “best” or “worst” team in the League right now, let’s look at which team is most equipped for the truly important games.
In other words: Who is the last team you’d want to see in a seven-game series to decide it all? In this case, the last shall be first (in the rankings), while the first (as in the easiest series fodder) shall be last. If that makes sense.
30. Cleveland Cavaliers (8-39) — Twenty losses in a row, 3-24 on the road this season, and whatever talent they do have left is about to become spare-parts material for the real contenders.
29. Toronto Raptors (13-35) — A strong frontcourt in the NBA is like a strong defense in the NFL. You cannot expect to win without it. The Raptors front line consists of Andrea Bargnani (guard trapped in a center’s body), Amir Johnson (poor man’s Andray Blatche), Ed Davis (21-year-old rookie), Alexis Ajinca (gets traded more than Fritos at 4th-grade lunch) and Solomon Alabi (22-year-old rookie). Forget Blake Griffin and Kevin Love: Blake Lively and Kevin James could post a double-double against Toronto.
28. Washington Wizards (13-33) — Still looking for their first road win.
27. Minnesota Timberwolves (11-36) — Were it not for the Nets, Wizards and Raptors (all at home), the Wolves would have gone 0-for-January.
26. New Jersey Nets (14-34) — Brook Lopez had 28 points and ONE rebound in a loss to Indiana last week. Deena from “Jersey Shore” catches more loose balls on accident than Brook catches on purpose.
25. Indiana Pacers (17-27) — Interim coach Frank Vogel promises immediate changes, which surely includes more PT and opportunities for Roy Hibbert.
24. Sacramento Kings (12-33) — Just when they get on a hot streak, having won three of their last four while taking down the Lakers and Hornets in the process, the schedule becomes Murderer’s Row: Celtics, Spurs, Jazz, Mavs, Thunder at home, then on the road for Phoenix, OKC, Dallas, Miami and Orlando.
23. Golden State Warriors (20-27) — For late-night NBA League Pass entertainment, the Warriors are at the top of the list. For actually having the pieces to beat good teams consistently, not so much.
22. Milwaukee Bucks (19-26) — The return of Brandon Jennings gives some bite to their pick-and-roll options, but he’ll need time to work himself back into game shape.
21. Detroit Pistons (17-31) — The offense has moved more smoothly since Tracy McGrady took over at point guard, cracking 100 points seven times in his last 15 starts. But this is still a group that just doesn’t seem to get along or have each other’s backs.
20. Houston Rockets (22-27) — Contenders need depth, and the Rockets, despite their notable injuries, do have a young and talented bench. Aaron Brooks (for now) leads the second unit with Courtney Lee, Chase Budinger, Patrick Patterson and Jordan Hill.
19. Philadelphia 76ers (21-26) — Andre Iguodala isn’t going out to score 25 points every night, but he’s stepping up as a leader lately and making plays all over the court.
18. Charlotte Bobcats (20-26) — Kwame Brown has six double-digit rebound games in January, to go with four double-doubles.
17. Phoenix Suns (22-24) — Steve Nash, Vince Carter and Grant Hill have seen it all (except the NBA Finals), but can their legs hold up through a grueling postseason?
16. Los Angeles Clippers (18-28) — Why does Rick Carlisle gotta be Buzz Killington? Ever since the Mavs figured out a way to neutralize Blake Griffin last week, the R.O.Y. front-runner is shooting just 41% from the field.
15. Utah Jazz (28-20) — Seven losses in their last eight games, with the only win coming against the Wolves. Injuries are killing them.
14. Memphis Grizzlies (24-24) — Put it this way: I do think these Grizzlies can make it to the playoffs. I don’t think they’ll change the franchise’s winless postseason record.
13. Portland Trail Blazers (25-22) — As brightly as LaMarcus Aldridge has shined, without Brandon Roy, the Blazers don’t have a go-to scorer on the perimeter. That will cost them games down the stretch.
12. New York Knicks (25-22) — When Danilo Gallinari is knocking down his threes, the Knicks may be the most dangerous offense in the League.
11. Denver Nuggets (28-19) — It seems like a weight was lifted from Chauncey Billups’ shoulders after the Nets/Nuggets/Pistons trade fell through. He’s averaging 18.2 points over his last five games, hitting 57% beyond the arc and 100% at the line.
10. Atlanta Hawks (30-18) — Joe Johnson probably won’t get any MVP votes at the end of the day, but he is as valuable to his team as anybody in the League. In January he averaged 26.0 points on 50% shooting from the field while the Hawks went 9-4.
9. New Orleans Hornets (31-18) — Defense wins, and the Hornets currently have the 2nd-best defense in the League. Emeka Okafor and David West protecting the rim allows Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza to gamble for steals.
8. Dallas Mavericks (31-15) — Following tune-up wins over the Nets, Clippers and Rockets, the Mavs seemed to find their swagger in Saturday’s win over the Hawks. Jason Terry is averaging 20.3 points in his last three games, and handed out 11 dimes against Atlanta.
7. Oklahoma City Thunder (30-17) — Running a two-man offense with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is working now, but what happens in a seven-game series when the opponent can adjust from game to game? A third option needs to step up, whether it’s James Harden or Jeff Green.
6. Orlando Magic (31-17) — We already know their style does work well enough to make the Finals, and Dwight Howard has never been better. So why couldn’t they go all the way?
5. Chicago Bulls (33-14) — The silver lining is that Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah’s legs will be fresh down the stretch. But then how will Derrick Rose hold up after having to carry the team since Opening Night?
4. Los Angeles Lakers (33-15) — Even the most cocky L.A. fans have to be getting a little concerned that the Lakers can’t seem to beat any elite opponents. The Celtics, Spurs, Heat and Mavs have all beat L.A. convincingly in their most recent meeting.
3. Miami Heat (33-14) — Take away two or three points per game (26.1 ppg), and LeBron is putting up pretty much the exact same numbers he put up in each of his last two MVP seasons.
2. San Antonio Spurs (40-7) — No team is playing better basketball right now, but the Spurs have proven to be vulnerable in the playoffs recently even when they are healthy. Tim Duncan is either doing an excellent job of pacing himself, or he really can’t take over at will anymore. I lean towards “A,” but it could be “B.”
1. Boston Celtics (36-11) — The No. 1 defense in the League, the No. 1 playmaking point guard in the League, the No. 1 shooter in the League, arguably the most reliable clutch scorer in the League, and they just got their best 1-on-1 post defender back from injury. The C’s are built to beat anybody when it matters most.