By Joe Manganiello and Dave Holcomb
1. Oklahoma City Thunder: Without Russell Westbrook, the Thunder climbed to the NBA’s best record. In Westbrook’s first game back on Thursday, they got blown out by the Heat. But we are not worried; there is no way a team’s title odds decrease when adding a perennial All-Star.
3. Houston Rockets: The Rockets may or may not be a title contender this season, but the current Dwight Howard/James Harden/Chandler Parsons nucleus will now always be compared to what could have been with Rajon Rondo.
4. Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are scoring under 100 points per 100 possessions over their last fifteen games (9-6), well below league-average. Some suspect this was the motivation behind trading former All-Star and fan favorite Danny Granger for Evan Turner. Whether or not Turner can shore up the offense on Indiana’s second-unit will become a major storyline over the next four months.
5. Los Angeles Clippers: When are we going to see this team’s best five play? J.J. Redick’s latest injury setbacks take the air out of Chris Paul’s recent return. So can Blake Griffin lift this team in March like he has in January and February – when he averaged 28.2 points, 9.0 rebounds and 4.2 assists?
6. San Antonio Spurs: They are really dinged up, but they are 7-2 in February, and clinging to the No. 2 seed in the West. Now without Tony Parker, Patty Mills will have to keep up the best stretch of basketball of his career; the Australian point guard is scoring 18.6 points with two 3-pointers per game in February.
7. Chicago Bulls: Speaking of great stories, Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls press on without Derrick Rose or Luol Deng, having won 16 of 23 games in 2014 – the game’s fifth-best record over that stretch. Firmly the No. 4 seed in the East, the Bulls have expressed zero remorse for the many who wrote them off following the Deng trade. They remain an elite defensive team, and have found surprising result in handing the keys to their offense to D.J. Augustin, who is scoring 15.5 points and shooting 44.7 percent from behind the arc in 2014.
8. Memphis Grizzlies: Memphis is charging back into the playoff picture with Marc Gasol back in the lineup. They have the NBA’s top defensive efficiency over most of the that stretch, and Mike Conley’s career year allows them to score just enough to win games. It’s difficult to imagine this team outside the playoffs come April.
9. Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard competed in every skills competition during All-Star weekend, but did not take away much hardware. Even the heavily-favored West lost to the East on Sunday. Well, in Lillard’s defense… Oh, wait, he doesn’t have any defense.
10. Dallas Mavericks: Simply one of the stronger offensive teams in basketball, Dallas knows what it can do (Dirk isolations from mid-range, Jose Calderon three-pointers, Monta Ellis pick-and-rolls) and what it can’t do (play uptempo – Dallas lives in the low-90s for possessions per game).
11. Phoenix Suns: The best story of the season carries on, as the Suns have improbably won nine of their last thirteen games, and have the twelfth-most wins in the NBA since Eric Bledsoe’s season-ending injury on December 31. Goran Dragic has become an “It” player under first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek; he would win the Coach of the Year award if the season ended today.
12. Golden State Warriors: Steve Blake is hoping to provide what Jordan Crawford could not: competency from the backup point guard position, and a decent shooting percentage. It’s too bad Cleveland overpaid Jarrett Jack, then proceeded to remove him from NBA relevancy; Jack was the ideal second-unit guard for Golden State.
13. Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry might not be in Toronto for the long haul, but he has been universally accepted as this season’s actual All-Star snub (seriously: Joe Johnson?), and has Toronto in good position for the No. 3 seed and Atlantic title.
15. Brooklyn Nets: Enter Marcus Thornton – yeah, the same player who is No. 11 on this list – to one of the strangest, and most expensive, rosters in the history of professional athletics. (The fact that we can say that and not sound sensational is ridiculous.)
16. Minnesota Timberwolves: Kevin Love has become Virtual Kevin Love – he is a walking, talking, trade rumor – despite being under contract with Minnesota through next season. As long as the T’Wolves remain perfectly in NBA no-man’s land – they are several games out of ninth place in the West, and further from eighth place – talk of Love to Los Angeles or New York will ramble on.
17. New Orleans Pelicans: Judging by how far out of the playoffs they are, and how injuries have plagued their roster, and that they’d have to lose a ridiculous amount of games the next two months in order to keep their first-round pick, fun in the The Big Easy may have peaked for the 2013-14 season.
18. Charlotte Bobcats: Charlotte fans get to boo their old Hornets when they come to town on Friday. Of course, their old Hornets are now the Pelicans. And we still think Utah should give the Jazz nickname back to New Orleans… Man, NBA nicknames are so complicated.
19. Cleveland Cavaliers: The Deng trade looks really bad for the Cavaliers. So bad, in fact, that they have now thrown two draft picks at the 76ers for two months of Spencer Hawes. Quick, look Cavs fans, the word desperate is written on the ceiling!!!
20. Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks continue to fall after losing to Washington after the break – their seventh straight loss. Can they get on track this weekend against Detroit and New York? Will acquiring Antawn Jamison help? (We’re skeptical.)
21. Denver Nuggets: Denver officially waved the white flag on Trade Deadline Day: they shipped Miller to Washington and Jordan Hamilton to Houston, and also announced Javale McGee is done for the season to have surgery on his tibia. It’ll be interesting to see what the future in Denver is like for Ty Lawson, who is quietly having a really strong season.
22. Orlando Magic: After being remarkably quiet on Trade Deadline Day – Arron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson remain in Orlando – the Magic agreed to buy out Glen Davis‘ contract. Davis might end up in Los Angeles, while the Magic will continue on their way to the lottery.
23. Boston Celtics: Rondo remains in Boston… for now.
24. Los Angeles Lakers: We love Kent Bazemore going to the Lakers. LOVE it.
25. Utah Jazz: No major moves out of Utah at the deadline… So, uh, let us continue ignoring Utah?
26. New York Knicks: It’s kind of hard to trade Iman Shumpert a day after he sprains his knee, but reportedly the Knicks and Clippers got pretty close to working something out. (Joe was particularly frustrated that they did not work this deal out.)
27. Detroit Pistons: The Pistons had a chance to take over the No. 8 seed with a home-and-away series against Charlotte this week… And then the Bobcats swept them.
28. Sacramento Kings: Yeah, the Kings keep losing games, but they finally got somebody to take Thornton’s contract off their hands! That’s a moral victory at the very least!!
29. Milwaukee Bucks: Things are looking up in Milwaukee… Brewers spring training just started!
30. Philadelphia 76ers: The All-Star break apparently didn’t help. The 76ers dropped their ninth straight on Tuesday in loss to Cleveland. We’re just glad that Spike Eskin didn’t die of sadness.