Ranking the Association from first to worst…
1. Boston Celtics (58-15) — Holding onto the top spot by virtue of 20-piecing the Suns and Hornets last week. Kevin Garnett stays in the MVP discussion by hanging 30 points on Phoenix, then giving N.O. 21 and 13 boards while shutting down David West. One thing to keep an eye on: Rajon Rondo’s been so good that Sam Cassell doesn’t have to/isn’t getting to play a lot of minutes. Sam probably isn’t too worried about it right now, but what about when the playoffs come around and he’s feeling misused?
2. New Orleans Hornets (47-21) — In his first four games back, Chris Andersen has averaged less than a point, less than a rebound and less than a block in only about 7 minutes per night. So far his most memorable moments include getting crammed on by Chris Bosh, then nearly shook out of his headband by LeBron. For that kind of production, wouldn’t it have made more sense for the Hornets to sign a less-risky veteran? What’s Tony Massenburg doing these days?
3. Detroit Pistons (52-21) — Would they beat the Hornets in a 7-game series? Definitely. But as of this moment, the Hornets are playing better. More importantly for the Pistons, they’re still in the mix to get home court advantage should they make the Finals, and they’ve figured out a way to contain LeBron.
4. San Antonio Spurs (51-23) — Did you even realize they’re on a seven-game winning streak? Sunday’s destruction of the Rockets showed the defending champs at their best; one of those games where Tim Duncan’s stat line doesn’t reflect his impact.
5. Phoenix Suns (50-24) — In 33 games with the Heat, Shaq averaged 14.2 points and 7.8 boards while shooting 58% from the field. In 21 games with Phoenix, The Godfather has been good for two fewer points (on significantly less touches), 10.3 boards and has connected on 61% of his shots. So is it that Mike D’Antoni’s just a better coach than Pat Riley, D-Wade isn’t as good of a sidekick as Steve Nash/Amare, or that Shaq’s play is effected by his mood (and his team’s record)?
6. Los Angeles Lakers (50-24) — Kobe’s free throws and Nick Young’s inexperience and over-eagerness saved the Lakers from an inexplicable three-game home losing streak against the Bobcats, Grizzlies and Wizards.
7. Denver Nuggets (45-29) — Crazy how a team with the NBA’s #3 (Iverson) and #4 (‘Melo) scorers is in very real danger of missing the playoffs. Of course, it could be because they make everyone they play against look like prime-time scorers.
8. Golden State Warriors (45-28) — One of our readers came up with a great moniker for the Davis-Ellis-Jackson trio: Run-DMC (Davis, Monta, Captain Jack). With a nod to the old-school Warriors’ Run-TMC squad and to the Nellie-ball style being back in effect, it just works on every level.
9. Utah Jazz (49-26) — The road woes are growing more and more problematic as the playoffs approach. In the last two months the Jazz have dropped games in Chicago, New Jersey, Sacramento, L.A. (Clippers) and Minnesota (twice), and barely won in Milwaukee.
10. Houston Rockets (49-24) — Who else but T-Mac can give you 40 points one night and 11 the next? On the season McGrady has 13 games where he’s scored 30-plus points, next to 19 games where he’s had 15 of fewer points.
11. Dallas Mavericks (46-28) — You think Josh Howard isn’t loving the NBA Superstar Experience? Since taking over as Dallas’ #1, he’s getting up almost 25 shots a night while dropping 30 points per.
12. Orlando Magic (47-27) — Looks like Dwight and Co. will end the regular season as a 3-seed that no one gives a realistic shot at even getting to the Finals, let alone winning the whole thing. The likely Eastern Conference 4-seed (Cleveland) will be a bigger favorite than Orlando.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers (41-33) — We still can’t get over how the Cavs left David West wide open in his sweet spot to hit a game-winner on them. We know you’re new there, Joe Smith, but you should have known better.
14. Philadelphia 76ers (37-37) — Remember when panned the Sixers for taking Thaddeus Young over Julian Wright? Now Thad (7.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg) is looking like he’ll be a solid pro, and Cavs announcer Austin Carr was officially impressed when Philly played in Cleveland over the weekend. However, we still can’t defend Thad being taken over Al Thornton.
15. Portland Trail Blazers (38-36) — They made a good run at it, but the West is just too strong this year. Can you imagine if they luck out in the Lottery and end up with someone like Derrick Rose or Mike Beasley? Would David Stern even allow that to happen?
16. Washington Wizards (38-36) — Caron Butler’s 17-12-12 triple-double, which included a huge game-tying three late in regulation, was People’s Exhibit Z that Caron-for-Kwame was one of the worst trades ever.
17. Toronto Raptors (38-36) — If he wasn’t so aggravating to watch sometimes, T.J. Ford coming back from the Al Horford Incident to reclaim a starting spot on a playoff team would be one of the best feel-good stories of the year.
18. Atlanta Hawks (34-40) — Big week ahead, with Eastern Conference playoff squads Toronto and Philly (twice) on the schedule.
19. Indiana Pacers (31-43) — Jermaine O’Neal comes back right in time for a last-gasp playoff push. But not having played since mid-January, can J.O. step right in and help the team or will he throw off the chemistry and do more harm than good? Or will he not make it to the end of Wednesday’s game against Boston and none of this will be an issue?
20. Sacramento Kings (33-40) — Remember earlier in the season when Kevin Martin was hurt and John Salmons was killing? Now Salmons is just another guy on the Sacto bench.
21. Chicago Bulls (29-44) — Joakim Noah could make the All-Rookie Team. Now is that a compliment to Noah (6.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg) or an indictment of this year’s rookie class?
22. New Jersey Nets (31-43) — The press conference following the Phoenix loss was kind of sad; Vince and RJ talking about how they have to win every game from here on out to make the playoffs, and neither one of them sounding the least bit confident that they could pull it off.
23. Charlotte Bobcats (28-46) — We understand Jason Richardson initially wasn’t happy about getting traded to the ‘Cats last summer. Has his opinion changed since he’s taken a League-high 525 three-pointers through Monday’s schedule while hitting a League-high 211 beyond the arc?
24. Minnesota Timberwolves (19-53) — Apparently the Wolves own division foe Utah at home, dropping 110.5 points per game while going 2-0 against the Jazz in the Twin Cities.
25. Milwaukee Bucks (24-48) — There was a time a few months ago when holding onto Yi, re-signing Mo Williams, getting Bobby Simmons back healthy, and re-signing/appeasing Charlie Bell seemed very important in Milwaukee. Not so much anymore.
26. Los Angeles Clippers (22-52) — Saturday’s win over the Griz snapped a 10-game skid. Brevin Knight dropped 11 assists in that game, marking just the second time all year when the Clippers had a double-digit scorer, rebounder and distributor all in the same game.
27. Memphis Grizzlies (19-55) — Darko follows up his best game of the season (22 pts, 12 rebs, 4 blks vs. the Lakers) by getting dominated by Chris Kaman and Al Horford, putting up just four points against Atlanta.
28. Seattle Supersonics (17-57) — MICHAEL
29. New York Knicks (20-53) — BEASLEY
30. Miami Heat (13-61) — SWEEPSTAKES.