Here comes the NBA All-Star break, a goofy intermission to a grueling season. It's a quirky All-Star celebration this year, what with the woeful Lakers claiming two All-Star starters and the Boston Celtics playing so much better after they lost one of their All-Star starters to injury.
Part of the ASG fun is how the league congregates to become one whirlwind of trade rumors. Also, the Dwight Howard drama should be at peak levels with both he and Kobe Bryant playing in the main event. Expect to be entertained by more than the game itself.
The All-Star Game is also a reminder of how quickly a reputation can change. Last year, LeBron was criticized for a turnover at the end. If that happens again, nobody will cite it as evidence of weakness.
The Charlotte Bobcats have traditionally played the Lakers tough. They again had a chance to best Los Angeles while melting Twitter on Friday.
Again, Charlotte came up just short. It's almost as if an offense reliant on Byron Mullens struggles to best a team over a long, grueling NBA game.
Though Mullens had a fantastic game (for him) with 20 points, one wonders why he gets so much leeway. He's a defensive minus, doesn't draw fouls and is currently shooting .377 from the field.
So why give this guy over 12 shots per game? Besides the tanking, I mean.
I'd like to formally congratulate the Orlando Magic on breaking that losing streak. After failing in 12 consecutive games, Orlando found a way to beat the Blazers and begin a winning streak of "one."
In other positive Magic developments, Andrew Nicholson got an invite to the Rising Stars game at All-Star weekend. Sure he's an injury replacement for Andre Drummond, but the Magic big man deserves a spot amid the ascendent young.
So why does the Power Ranking remain stagnant? Because we're talking about one home win vs. the 12 losses that preceded it. It's a bit unclear as to whether Orlando wants to win these games, considering the "strategy" they employed when trading Dwight Howard away for Arron Afflalo.
On Sunday night, we were treated to a classic, "DeMarcus Cousins is worth the risk" performance. The big man bludgeoned the Houston Rockets for 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting. Subjectively, it feels as though Cousins plays better after negative publicity.
Those two home wins are nice, but the Sacramento-Seattle situation is a circus. It's hard to believe, under the circumstances, that sustained success is even possible. That, and the next Cousins incident is always just around the corner.
Kendall Marshall is playing more. Given his play, I'm not sure why this is happening, but at least it will provide a chance to scout the (balding) kid.
As noted by ESPN's Amin Elhassan, this means less time for Jared Dudley. The Phoenix offense isn't good at shooting threes, and Dudley is one of the few guys on the roster who's proficient at the shot. This would seem to make a bad problem worse.
It's hard to punish the Suns too severely for consecutive losses against Oklahoma City, but the offense looks wretched. On Sunday, the Suns managed 69 points to the Thunder's 97. Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash must be rolling over in their (Los Angeles) graves.
Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson live to make your League Pass excusable. I'm not sure if this is worth celebrating, but the Cavs are finally out of the bottom third on offense. They're still rancid defensively, but the O is humming.
Dion Waiters continues to tantalize—and largely frustrate. He was awesome against the Bobcats (then again, who isn't?) but later suffered a terrible 1-of-6 game against Denver.
Waiters can seemingly get to the rim whenever he wants, but for whatever reason, he prefers low-percentage tries. The kid has potential, but one worries that he lacks the sense to harness it. I certainly hope he does, because there are so few quality 2-guards in the league.
Eric Gordon continues to appear palpably upset over his New Orleans lot in life. Because the perception is that he's pulling a mini-Vince Carter act, Gordon's trade value is still likely high. That's just something to think about as we roll into the deadline.
Greivis Vasquez has proven to be a competent point guard this year, and Vasquez-Gordon-Anderson-Davis should be a theoretically awesome core. I can't say that I expected the plodding PG to challenge for 10 assists per night.
Anthony Davis has been quiet in limited minutes lately. The dearth of minutes might be for the best, given his ankle issues.
Right now, the Wizards are beating the New Orleans Hornets for "best bad team." The surprisingly good defense has only gotten better since John Wall came back from injury, and the Wiz have taken three consecutive games.
Washington is a healthy eighth rank in defensive efficiency right now. The post-JaVale era has its benefits. That, and Emeka Okafor is an unsung defender.
John Wall continues to pass well and shoot terribly. If he ever even becomes mediocre at the latter, he's an All-Star. Here's a reminder of just how talented the kid is:
As previously mentioned in this space, it's a joy to have Ricky Rubio back and playing at a high level. On a down note, rookie Alexey Shved is struggling mightily.
Shved has shot 33.7 percent in the new year, including 25.4 percent from three-point range. You almost can't justify keeping a guy on the court when he's shooting like that, but Shved has averaged 28.7 minutes in this span.
Shved isn't all that different from his teammates, I suppose. This was supposed to be a thrilling offense, but it's given way to injuries and horrid shooting. What a bummer of a story out in Minnesota this season.
Rudy Gay looks better on the Toronto Raptors, but he's still not great. Since arriving in Toronto, Gay is averaging better than 23 points, but he's doing it only on .411 shooting.
The good news is that Toronto seems willing to play Gay in small-ball lineups as a power forward, thus allowing him more space than he was accustomed to in Memphis. This shows that the Raptors didn't blithely mistake Rudy's Memphis production for a helpful boost; they're trying to tease productivity out of the high-leaping swingman by other means.
It's hard to envision such a strategy resulting in good defense, but defense is Dwane Casey's calling. The Raptors had better figure this out quickly before the playoff window closes.
Andre Drummond suffered a stress fracture in his back and will miss four to six weeks. Drummond's potential is immense, but it's debatable as to whether such a loss will impact the wins column for Detroit.
Drummond is still a rookie, and he's just starting to grasp defensive principles, so his presence might be less conducive to victory than you would think.
Still, I'm downgrading Detroit because the Calderon-Drummond pick-and-roll could have been incredible. Just look at what Calderon is already doing without such a weapon:
With Calderon on board, the Pistons have a promising roster when Drummond returns. For now, they're a bit short on bigs.
We're nearing "last rites" territory here. It's less the road losses against Boston and Miami—those are good teams, and losses happen.
It's more that they're already too far behind to suffer a major injury to Pau Gasol. He and Dwight Howard might not mesh well, but the Lakers need a backup big man, at the very least.
Also, Howard isn't exactly healthy. He's wearing a protective shell to cover his torn labrum and getting peer-pressured onto the court.
One suspects that Dwight will miss time in the future. Opponents are karate chopping that shoulder, and he's already reaggravated the injury once.
J.J. Hickson has had an excellent offensive season, but the Portland faithful are starting to turn on his defense. This Ben Golliver tweet epitomizes the sentiment:
Hickson tried to defend himself from questions about his defense but the questions cut through the paint for an uncontested lay-up— Ben Golliver (@blazersedge) February 11, 2013
That's the kind of pointed tone you'd expect when Portland has lost three consecutive games amid Hickson's poor defense outweighing his good offense. Defense in general continues to plague Portland, and they're in a battle with Utah, Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles for "lower-seeded Western Conference playoff team with a bad defense."
On the bright side, LaMarcus Aldridge has been rolling. I wasn't in favor of his All-Star selection, but he's certainly earned it since the announcement.
The Dallas Mavericks are still in this awkward phase where we never quite know how much of Dirk Nowitzki will show up. They managed it well this week, beating playoff hopefuls Portland and Golden State in games that Dallas desperately needed.
Shawn Marion has been a monster lately, combining efficient offense with savvy, opportunistic defense. Perhaps nobody cares, but he's been this team's MVP in 2012-13, if you ask me.
Speaking of MVPs, it's sad to see Dirk Nowitzki play like he's average. I'm starting to fear that we're closer to the end of this career than anticipated in the preseason.
A 1-of-10 performance (vs. Indiana) from Evan Turner reminds us of how that experiment's going. By the raw numbers (13.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists per game), young Turner isn't that bad.
The problem is that Turner doesn't get to the line with all that high dribbling he does. It's hard to help your team at 43 percent shooting when you rarely visit the stripe. That is, unless you're Steph Curry and you're slinging three-pointers from all over.
The 76ers are up a tick after beating two teams last week. There is a reason to temper enthusiasm, though: Those teams were the Charlotte Bobcats and Orlando Magic.
The Monta Ellis watch continues. He's .398 from the field, .241 on threes. It'd be one thing if he were a good defender, but he actually might be the worst at his position.
So why do the heavy minutes continue? Obviously, Ellis has talent, and perhaps the hope is that he turns it around. There's also the strong chance that this team and roster is just woefully mismanaged.
In other bad news, Larry Sanders missed the last two games with a back issue. The losses aren't surprising, given that.
Ersan Ilyasova looked awful on defense while trying to soak up some of those minutes. There exists the possibility that Larry Sanders, of all people, is Milwaukee's most valuable player.
The Atlanta Hawks have hardly impressed, but their week was slightly better. Atlanta beat its Western Conference soulmate (the Memphis Grizzlies, of course) on Wednesday to serve as the sandwich filling between stale losses to Indiana and New Orleans.
One wonders if the Josh Smith trade rumors might have a negative effect. He's on the final year of his contract, and Atlanta will probably soon choose between Smith and Horford.
The smart money's on Big Al. Even though Smoove is the hometown kid, his propensity to jack and miss jumpers has continually frustrated. Also, I doubt that Danny Ferry will pay Smith the max contract he seeks.
Poor week for Brooklyn, and had they gotten a bit unlucky against Detroit, it would have made for a four-loss jaunt. In the past four games, the Nets have managed just 38.9 percent from the field and 30.3 percent from three-point range.
The Deron-Gerald-Joe triad of free-agent underwhelm has shot badly during this offensive dearth. Among them, the most curious decline this season has been that of Gerald Wallace.
"Crash" has only attempted 16 shots in the last three games, and he's been off with his jumper this season. I didn't think Wallace would be averaging only nine points per game at age 30, but here we are.
What happened to this guy? It wasn't long ago that he was an All-Star-caliber force.
The Utah Jazz could really use Gordon Hayward (not that they were ever really using him properly). The athletic, slashing wing is out with a sprained shoulder, and Utah's lack of perimeter depth shows.
As was mentioned on NBA Countdown, the Jazz have so many bigs that they could address such a concern. Knowing Utah, though, it'll probably just keep hoarding without addressing its backcourt until after the season.
Utah's defense is its ceiling. Right now, it's a bottom-tier unit, and it makes the Jazz's chances of upsetting another Western Conference playoff team almost nonexistent.
Having lost their last four games, the Golden State Warriors are in some turmoil. The Western Conference road trip started poorly when they gave up 23 three-pointers to the Rockets, and they continued to face torrid shooting from Oklahoma City, Memphis and Dallas.
Currently, Golden State gives up the most three-point attempts of any team. Early in the season, those shots weren't falling. Over the last 10 games, teams are shooting 40 percent against the Dubs.
If the Warriors can fully incorporate Andrew Bogut, they might look towards revamping the defense. A D that cedes so many three-pointers will come back to haunt a team.
On Sunday, the Celtics won what Kevin Garnett might call "a bar fight" against the Denver Nuggets. The two hottest teams in basketball scratched and clawed over the course of three beautiful overtimes.
Boston has won seven games in a row, and with the exception of Sunday's game, the C's have appeared more offensively fluid. It's too early to make sweeping judgments on whether they're better off without Rajon Rondo, but it's clear that Boston is a playoff team to be feared.
This remains an excellent defense. The offense is starting to catch up.
Really, Houston? You're going to end a week in which you tied the three-point record by losing to the Sacramento Kings?
A game in which you hit 23 three-pointers will give you the Power Ranking benefit of the doubt, but a Sunday loss to Sacramento demonstrates this team's high-variance approach. When you shoot a lot of threes, the offensive successes are higher and the failures are sometimes lower.
You can't pin the most recent loss on James Harden, who's been absurdly good of late. The Beard has shot nearly 60 percent over the past five games while averaging 28 points, 7.6 rebounds and eight assists per contest. The trade remains fantastic for Houston.
I would encourage every sentient being to read Zach Lowe's analysis of the incredible Chicago Bulls defense. Like Indiana, Chicago combines an elite defense with an offense that could get markedly better soon. That improvement should come in the form of Derrick Rose's return.
Speaking of Lowe and the Bulls, I found this to be an interesting bit about the league:
Have been randomly asking execs around NBA who in East poses biggest threat to MIA: NY, CHI, IND, or other. By far most popular answer: CHI.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) February 8, 2013
Personally, I believe that New York has the best shot of besting Miami. The three-point barrage is capable of getting any opponent, and the Heat have shown themselves vulnerable to it.
But I also believe that Chicago would probably beat New York in a series. The Knicks dominate opponents with spread pick-and-roll, but Chicago seems tailor-made to thwart such an approach with its fast-hedging D.
Prediction: Pundits will conflate problems that Memphis has always had as problems incurred by the Rudy Gay trade.
Losing to Phoenix bumps this team down in the rankings, and it would appear that the front office is at odds with the coaching staff. That's a bad situation, but it's hard to mourn the loss of Gay when he played so poorly in last year's playoffs and this season.
To become a championship-level team, Memphis needs to evolve, perhaps strategically. The offense is poorly spaced and too often stops moving after the first set of screens. Don't be surprised if a coaching change comes within the year.
Are the Indiana Pacers a sleeping giant? Okay, a sleeping tall man at least?
Last season, this squad was merely "pretty good" at both offense and defense. This season, they have the top defense and a mediocre offense.
Except, that offense is climbing up the rankings, thanks in part to Paul George's march towards stardom. If Indiana can be as proficient offensively this year as it was last season, we might be looking at the second-best team in the East.
For the offensive improvement to happen, Roy Hibbert needs to find himself. I'd say that .416 shooting isn't the stuff of max contracts.
Admittedly, the Los Angeles Clippers probably should be higher here. They absolutely blitzed the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, on national television.
I just need to see some prolonged health from Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. If those two are healthy, this remains a legitimate title contender.
Speaking of Griffin, his critics would appear in better position to assail his demeanor rather than his game. His work in the post has improved considerably, and he remains an elite passer and dribbler at his position.
His shot's even improving, as he demonstrated by hitting a couple of fourth-quarter jumpers to close the Knicks out.
Wonderful offense, New York Knicks. Seriously, don't change a thing. Way to be a top-three offensive unit.
Defensively? Yeah, you've got issues. That defensive nadir for Tyson Chandler perhaps came when the Clippers were oh-so-happy to isolate Blake Griffin on last season's Defensive Player of the Year.
You can bet that Chandler isn't coming away with that award this season, not with the Knicks skirting the line between "average" and "mediocre" on defense.
While the TV pundits picked apart New York's three-point shooting style in the wake of a Sunday loss to the Clippers, giving up 102 points on 80 shots represents a larger New York concern.
The mix of "three-pointers galore" and "the kind of weak defensive personnel that shoots threes well" means that it's near-impossible for the Knicks to make the NBA Finals like this. It also means that they can win any playoff series.
It took three overtimes to end the Denver Nuggets' win streak, but Boston pulled it off. It's hard to knock the Nuggets much for ceding one on the road to basketball's new hottest team.
At home, Denver is near-impossible. The Nuggets are 22-3 in Colorado with an average victory margin of 10.0. That's more than a whopping 11 points better than how they do on the road.
Every team prefers home-court advantage, but few thrive on it as much as this transition-happy Nuggets squad.
If they can climb into an upper seed, my sympathy goes out to the first-round opponent. Nobody wants four games at the Pepsi Center in the spring.
The Spurs are coming off a walloping of the Brooklyn Nets, one in which Tony Parker was spellbinding. So why the rankings drop?
Well, it's competitive at the top, and San Antonio lost handily to Detroit. Also, while the Tim Duncan knee injury may not be serious, it's a bit discomfiting to see both him and Manu Ginobili in street clothes.
San Antonio remains a regular-season team that everyone respects. That in itself is an accomplishment. It's just difficult to envision playoff success if members of the Spurs' big three keep getting hurt.
Kevin Durant has barely had to sweat on this four-game win streak. The scorer supreme is averaging a mere 20.8 points because OKC has been blowing the competition out.
The Thunder have made great strides defensively this season, as was on display against the Warriors on Wednesday. The swarming OKC defense hungrily took 19 turnovers from the hapless Dubs, fueling what might be the deadliest fast break in the league.
There were no Russell Westbrook issues this week, and he's been playing well. Maybe Thabo Sefolosha is cutting to where he should be now.
The Miami Heat have won five in a row, and now they're 20 games over .500. That's a dry numerical explanation for their jump in the rankings, but there are some forces behind that surge.
Chris Andersen looks competent. The smart money was on the Birdman to be like Erick Dampier and every other fringe big-man addition, but it turns out that the dude can still play.
Andersen didn't score a point against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, but he demonstrated his value. In a mere 13 minutes, Andersen swatted two shots and contested a few others at the rim. Miami suddenly has a good big man, besides Chris Bosh.
LeBron James, of course, has been ridiculous of late. He's shooting .714 from the field over his last five games, while averaging 31 points.