The NBA's injury train keeps chugging down the track and unfortunately has been picking up new passengers at nearly every stop.
This past week alone saw: Chris Paul succumb to a shoulder injury; Eric Bledsoe, his former understudy, learned that he'd be out indefinitely following knee surgery; and Deron Williams fell victim to further complications with his chronically creaky ankles.
Not to mention the setbacks suffered in Lance Stephenson's knee, Mario Chalmers' Achilles tendon, Shawn Marion's shoulder and Manu Ginobili's hamstring.
Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game, but with the way they've been piling up around the Association, one can't help but wonder whether the basketball gods are messing with all of us and, if so, why.
Whatever the case may be, it's clear that the injuries have had an impact on these here power rankings. Several teams saw their positions shift from the first edition of 2014 on account of their wounded and the impact of the associated absences.
Click/swipe through to see which teams moved where and why, and be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below!
It's official: The Milwaukee Bucks will be the last team in the NBA to hit double digits in the win column this season.
Assuming they get there at all. They've emerged victorious just seven times in 2013-14 and are already in the midst of their fourth losing streak of three games or more.
The return of Larry Sanders doesn't seem to have alleviated Milwaukee's misery at all. If anything, Sanders' presence has only exacerbated the latent dysfunction within the Bucks' locker room.
They've dropped five of six since Sanders returned, including a 116-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns that was followed by a shouting match between Sanders and Gary Neal in which Neal, according to Charles F. Gardner of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, told the Bucks' big man, "I earned my money. Why don't you try it?"
A week of games against the Miami Heat, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Portland Trail Blazers went about as well as you would've expected for the Orlando Magic. They lost all three games by an average of 14 points to extend their current slide to five games.
It didn't help matters that Nikola Vucevic was available only briefly.
The Montenegrin big man returned from a sprained ankle against the Clips and subsequently suffered a concussion that prompted the Magic to send him back to Orlando before the end of the team's current Western Conference road trip.
All of which puts the Magic right on track to land one of the top talents in the 2014 draft class that they so covet.
It's a good thing the Los Angeles Lakers snapped that six-game skid of theirs with a 110-99 win over the Utah Jazz last Friday. Otherwise, we'd be talking about the Purple and Gold being in the midst of a 10-game losing streak.
Not that losing nine out of 10 is much better. A 14-point loss to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday dropped the Lakers to within two-and-a-half games of last place in the Western Conference, with only the Sacramento Kings and the Jazz standing between them and the cellar.
Speaking of once-proud franchises that have lost nine of 10, how 'bout them Boston Celtics?
The C's were surprisingly competitive in their 111-105 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday, but they still came up shy after a mad scramble at the end of the fourth quarter. The loss was their third in three tries to start their current five-game swing through the Western Conference, wherein they've given up just under 120 points per game.
That number could swell considerably before the team returns home to Boston. The C's will face the Golden State Warriors on Friday and the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday before welcoming the Houston Rockets to Beantown on Monday.
The Philadelphia 76ers' season-long fluctuations between competent and calamitous have been nothing short of fascinating. How many other teams are there in the NBA that could realistically go from winning four straight on the road, including a two-point thriller in Portland, to getting blasted at home by the Minnesota Timberwolves and by the Cavaliers in Cleveland?
Keep in mind, this happened in the last week without Brett Brown making any substantive changes to his rotation.
Perhaps the unpredictability of Philly's up-and-down campaign is merely reflective of its new sponsorship deal with BWin.
After all, if you're going to be one of the first major professional sports franchises in the U.S. (along with the New Jersey Devils of the NHL) to partner up with an online gambling company, wouldn't it make sense for your on-court results to be as wonky as those found at a casino in Atlantic City?
Apparently, the Detroit Pistons are easier to unravel than Greg Monroe's shoelaces. The Pistons have dropped a season-worst six games in a row, capped by a 21-point road loss to the Toronto Raptors.
The defense has been bad since Day 1, though the offense is quickly catching up in that regard. Detroit now ranks among the bottom 10 in the NBA in offensive efficiency, due in no small part to the league's worst marks from three-point range (31.3 percent) and the free-throw line (66 percent).
It's no wonder that space has been so tough to come by in the Pistons offense. Between their lack of shooting on the outside and their overabundance of bulk on the interior, the Pistons lack any means of stretching opposing defenses from game to game, quarter to quarter, possession to possession.
As a result, Detroit now finds itself a half-game out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. If this slide continues for much longer, the Pistons could soon find themselves right back in the lottery, with Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings looking more and more like the second comings of Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon as each day passes.
You knew the Cleveland Cavaliers were going to make a "win now" move at some point. As Grantland's Zach Lowe was quick to remind us, the Cavs made clear their intention to avoid yet another trip to the lottery after landing the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft.
Luol Deng won't drag Cleveland to its first post-LeBron playoff berth on his own, though he should help to set the tone for his young, new teammates. Upon arrival in Rock City, Deng will become not only Cleveland's most accomplished individual defender and best sidekick for Kyrie Irving to date, but also its most veteran voice in the locker room.
Next to Anderson Varejao's, anyway.
With Detroit and Boston tumbling out of the playoff picture and the Chicago Bulls, to whom Cleveland sent Andrew Bynum and a package of picks in exchange for Deng, likely to follow suit, there should be room enough in the awful East for the Cavs to sneak their way into the postseason.
And if all goes well, the Cavs may yet be able to retain Deng, who'd otherwise double as one of the most coveted free agents on the market this summer.
In a way, the Sacramento Kings' decision to jump into the Andre Miller sweepstakes, per Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee, makes perfect sense.
The Kings are thin at point guard after sending Greivis Vasquez to the Toronto Raptors in the Rudy Gay trade, with Jimmer Fredette serving as Isaiah Thomas' primary backup.
Miller, then, would give Sacramento some depth at a key position while also serving as a veteran voice and a mentor of sorts on a roster that severely lacks both.
You could argue that Miller would make the Kings better—which is to say, good enough to escape the NBA's bottom 12, at which point their 2014 first-rounder would become Chicago's.
But with his 38th birthday fast approaching, Miller isn't exactly equipped to boost the Kings out of the cellar in the Western Conference by himself.
More importantly, if these Kings are ever going to escape the remnants of the Maloof-created quagmire, they'll have to start winning games at some point, if only to get a sense of how to do so consistently.
There are plenty of nits to pick from the Utah Jazz's 112-101 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday. Two of OKC's top three players were inactive, with Perry Jones III doing diddly-squat during his 15 minutes starting in place of Serge Ibaka.
That being said, with the 2013-14 season being as tough as it has been for the Jazz, they have every reason to take heart in this victory. Utah survived a 48-point explosion from Kevin Durant by holding OKC under 40 percent shooting from the floor as a whole.
As for the Jazz, they torched the Thunder's vaunted defense for 58.8 percent shooting, with six players scoring in double figures, led by Gordon Hayward's career-high 37 points.
"How about Gordon!" head coach Tyrone Corbin exclaimed after the game, via ESPN. "He was huge. I mean we needed every last basket he made for us."
One win like this doesn't change much in the big picture for the tank-tastic Jazz, though at the very least, it gives their players, coaches and fans alike something to appreciate as this season of misery rolls along.
I'm not quite sure which was more surprising: that the New York Knicks upended the Miami Heat on Thursday night while J.R. Smith sat tethered to the bench or the extent to which Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports slammed Smith in his postgame column.
Either way, it seems as though forlorn Knicks fans everywhere can finally stop with the Chicken Little shtick and start enjoying their team again. The Knicks have now won four of their last five games, with the lone loss coming by two points in Houston.
The reason for the turnaround? Who else—Carmelo Anthony.
The All-Star forward has been on a tear since returning from injury in San Antonio. In his five games back, Anthony has averaged 26.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting 47.7 percent from the field and a blinding 53.8 percent from three.
Perhaps those calls for the Knicks to unload 'Melo and start over were a bit premature, especially now that New York is just a game back of the rival Brooklyn Nets for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.
Avert your eyes, Charlotte Bobcats fans! Another post-honeymoon slide seems to be afoot. They've now lost six of seven dating back to late December, with road games against the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Chicago Bulls coming up.
You may recall the 'Cats starting 7-5 in 2012-13 before winning just 11 times in 67 outings following that surprising start.
Charlotte isn't likely to slip that hard this time around, though. The 'Cats have a solid defensive foundation in place, thanks in large part to first-year head coach Steve Clifford.
One to which Michael Kidd-Gilchrist should soon return. According to Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer, the 'Cats have pegged Tuesday's game against the Knicks as MKG's debut in the wake of a hand injury.
Kidd-Gilchrist is no savior, though having him back in the lineup should help Charlotte avoid yet another complete collapse.
Just when the New Orleans Pelicans seemed to be getting in a rhythm with their core group, Gerald Wallace had to (accidentally) collide with Ryan Anderson and send the team into a tailspin. According to Jim Eichenhofer of Pelicans.com, New Orleans will be without its leading scorer indefinitely on account of a herniated disc in his back.
Not surprisingly, the Pellies have dropped their last three without Anderson in the lineup. Granted, two of those defeats (at Indiana and at Miami) probably would've happened anyway, but they might've otherwise avoided a six-point home loss to the Washington Wizards.
In the meantime, the onus falls to the rest of New Orleans' young nucleus (i.e. Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans) to pick up the slack if the team is to remain within striking distance of the No. 8 seed out West.
Don't look now, but the Brooklyn Nets are starting to resemble an honest-to-goodness basketball team, even without Brook Lopez and Deron Williams. They're the only team that's yet to lose in 2014, winning four in a row since the start of the new year.
The Golden State Warriors had been undefeated since the turn of the calendar until their 10-game winning streak ended on the second night of a back-to-back in Brooklyn.
So what's behind this apparent turnaround? Is it Joe Johnson's clutch shooting? Shaun Livingston's solid play in place of D-Will? Andrei Kirilenko's return to action? Jason Kidd's decision to lose the tie and go business casual on the sideline?
Maybe it's a little of everything, with a pinch of time for this team and its coach to finally figure out what works and what doesn't.
No Derrick Rose? No Luol Deng? No problem for the Chicago Bulls.
So far, anyway. The Bulls' 92-87 win over the fascinating Phoenix Suns on Tuesday read like a big, fat middle finger to the face of GM Gar Forman, who's long been at odds with head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Deng was one of Thibs' personal favorites, in addition to being one of the longest-tenured players in franchise history.
Chicago should come crashing back to Earth at some point, especially if Forman's fire sale persists. For now, though, the schedule is soft enough to keep the Bulls afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They won't face a team that currently owns a winning record until Jan. 24, when they host the Los Angeles Clippers at the United Center.
Can anyone explain why the Memphis Grizzlies traded for Courtney Lee?
Has the team's vaunted brain trust outsmarted itself? Were the higher-ups really that interested in acquiring a second-round pick in 2016 that they were willing to add future salary to their already clogged cap sheet?
Or were the Grizz just that desperate for three-point shooting?
That last point probably explains it. Memphis ranks among the bottom half of the league in three-point accuracy at 34.9 percent and is currently dead last in attempts at just 14.1 per game. The addition of Lee, a career 38.7 percent shooter from range with four seasons of hitting more than 40 percent of such attempts, should help in that respect.
But the Grizzlies will need much more than a bevy of bombs to get back into the Western Conference playoff race. First and foremost is the return of Marc Gasol, who was cleared for light basketball activities earlier this week, according to Ronald Tillery of The Memphis Commercial Appeal.
Hey, Kevin Love. I think it's time we had a heart-to-heart.
I'm not afraid to say that I'm a fan of yours, not just because we both arrived at UCLA as freshmen in 2007 (and you left for the NBA one year later), but also because I enjoy watching you play. Your combination of strength, shooting, skills and smarts has allowed you to thrive as one of the top power forwards in the game despite a glaring lack of size and athleticism. Kudos to you for that.
I understand you're frustrated, what with your Minnesota Timberwolves blowing a nine-point fourth-quarter lead to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday and generally struggling to find any semblance of consistency. You're into your sixth season as a pro and have yet to so much as sniff the playoffs, and a loss like this one doesn't make a trip to the postseason any more likely.
But, c'mon, man. Did you really need to go off on J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham, veterans both, for not jumping off the bench during timeouts?
"We can't have two guys sitting at the end of the bench that play good minutes just sitting there and not getting up during timeouts," you said in calling out your teammates after the game, via ESPN.
Pro tip: Don't project the frustrations of your own 4-of-20 shooting night onto your teammates. That's not what elite franchise leader types do.
Let's put it this way: Your T-Wolves aren't 0-10 in games decided by four points or fewer on account of the lack of a cheer squad at the end of the bench.
It looks like we've finally discovered the source of Bradley Beal's brilliance as a three-point shooter and backcourt buddy for John Wall: Nelly.
Not the Furtado Nelly or the Belly Nelly, but the rapper Nelly.
OK, so maybe Beal's studly sophomore season has little (if anything) to do with "Country Grammar," but that does little to diminish the awesomeness of the connection between the two.
According to Michael Lee of The Washington Post, Cornell Haynes (Nelly's real name) used to walk Beal to school when Bradley was a child. Haynes had been a star athlete at University City High in St. Louis, where Beal's mother, Besta, was a P.E. teacher.
This world is so small sometimes, isn't it?
Kudos to the Atlanta Hawks for taking advantage of a sleepy, banged-up Indiana Pacers squad to stem the tide of futility that'd constituted the aftermath of Al Horford's season-ending pectoral injury.
The Hawks managed to sprint out to a 12-point lead and hold on for a 97-87 victory, even though Paul Millsap missed nine of his 10 attempts from the field. Atlanta's depth shone through in a big way, with five other guys scoring in double figures.
That's how it's going to have to be for the Hawks from here on out. They have more than enough talent on their roster to hang on to a playoff spot in the awful Eastern Conference.
And if coach Mike Budenholzer can coax consistent contributions out of the likes of Pero Antic, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll and Louis Williams, Atlanta may yet be able to sneak its way into the second round.
It's official: The Denver Nuggets are the streakiest team in the NBA.
Last week, the Nuggets had slipped toward the cellar out West by way of an eight-game slide. Now, they're climbing back within striking distance of a playoff spot, thanks to a four-game spurt that they extended with Thursday's 101-88 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Don't forget that Denver slapped together a seven-game winning streak between late November and early December and that Brian Shaw's squad was five games above .500 before that aforementioned collapse.
Strangely enough, the Nuggets' latest turn of fortune has come on the heels of Shaw's shouting match with Andre Miller in Philly. With the Professor on the pine, Shaw has turned to Evan Fournier to soak up some key minutes in the backcourt.
And so far, Fournier has delivered. He's hit double digits three times in his last four games—including a season-high 19 against OKC—after having scored 10 or more points just four times through his first 25 games of the 2013-14 campaign.
All is not well with the Dallas Mavericks these days. They'd dropped four straight at home before taking out the sad-sack Lakers, but they lost the services of Shawn Marion to bruises in his shoulder and ribs in the process.
It's a good thing the outskirts of the Western Conference playoff picture aren't exactly teeming with contenders. Otherwise, the Mavs losing three times in four games over the past week would've been much more of a punch to the gut in the standings.
Back-to-back losses to the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat this past week suggest that the Toronto Raptors aren't entirely ready for prime time, though they're not as far off as you might think.
They played both of the East's top two teams tough on the road. Toronto lost by five in Miami after owning an advantage of the same size heading into the final frame, and it fought back valiantly in Indy against a Pacers squad seeking revenge for a loss in Canada on New Year's Day.
Even with the Nets' recent surge, the Raptors remain the clear favorite to take the Atlantic Division. For now, at least.
With the way the Eastern Conference has fluctuated this season, who knows how things will shake out in the weeks and months to come?
The feel-good story of the 2013-14 NBA season has hit its first snag.
According to ESPN's Marc Stein, Phoenix Suns sensation Eric Bledsoe is out indefinitely on account of a right knee injury. The team won't know just how severe the damage is until Bledsoe goes under the knife, though Stein's sources suspect he hurt his meniscus during his return to the Staples Center to face the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 30.
The news comes as a serious blow to the Suns, whose shocking success to this point had been fueled largely by the somewhat unorthodox pairing of Bledsoe and Goran Dragic.
Not all is lost for Phoenix, though.
The Suns have split the 10 games they've played without Bledsoe this season and, according to NBAwowy.com, have outscored the opposition by a whopping eight points per 100 possessions during the 609 minutes that Dragic has played without his backcourt buddy.
That is slightly better than the advantage of 7.7 points per 100 possessions that the Suns have racked up when those two have played together.
As it happens, the man under whom Eric Bledsoe once plied his trade isn't doing so hot as far as his health is concerned either.
Chris Paul separated his shoulder during the Los Angeles Clippers' 119-112 win over the Dallas Mavericks last Friday. Luckily for him and his team, the injury won't require surgery. More importantly, the ailment wasn't in his perennially problematic knees.
As devastating as it is for the Clips to lose their best player for the next month or so, they should be able to weather the storm with the talent they have on hand.
Darren Collison has settled in nicely after a shaky first game in CP3's place (116-92 loss to the San Antonio Spurs), and Blake Griffin (14 assists combined in his last two games) has stepped up his game as a facilitator for L.A.
James Harden's going to need a breather at some point. He's currently second in the NBA in minutes at 38.7 per game, with four games of 40 minutes or more in his last seven and 13 overall for the Houston Rockets this season.
You can't really blame Kevin McHale for riding his leading scorer so hard this season, though. According to NBA.com, the Rockets are 8.1 points per 100 possessions better than their opposition when Harden plays, but they have been outscored by 1.6 per 100 possessions when he's sat.
In other words, Harden is still Houston's MVP, even with Dwight Howard manning the middle. But you don't need advanced stats to tell you that. Just check the box scores, where you'll find The Beard chipping in 38, 37 and 38 over his last three, with double-digit free-throw attempts in each of those games.
Life without Russell Westbrook hasn't been so good to the Oklahoma City Thunder of late. Their 101-88 loss in Denver marked the Thunder's fourth such result in their last six games and their second in a row after a sloppy, short-handed mess in Salt Lake City.
The solution to all that ails OKC right now is simple: Get Westbrook back in the lineup. Trouble is, nobody quite knows when that will be, after Russ underwent his third knee operation in eight months just prior to the end of 2013.
The longer the Thunder are without their second superstar, the more rough patches they're likely to encounter and the farther from the top of the Western Conference standings they're bound to fall.
Any team that's involved in shootouts as often as the Portland Trail Blazers have been—and has as much trouble getting stops in key situations as the Blazers have had at times—is bound to get burned from time to time, even (perhaps especially) by lesser competition.
That's happened to the Blazers a number of times over their last 10 games, during which they've posted a 5-5 record. This past week in particular saw Portland upended at home by the suddenly streaky Sixers and ousted in Sacramento by the Kings.
Even the Blazers' blowout win over the Magic was somewhat tainted. Terry Stotts reportedly reamed his team at halftime after Rip City sleepwalked into a six-point deficit.
"He cussed us out at halftime,” Wesley Matthews told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. “First time I’ve seen that much emotion from him. And I think we fed off that coming into the second half.”
The Blazers went on to outscore Orlando by 22 in the second half, thanks to a 39-19 fourth quarter. They'll have ample opportunity to snap out of their current funk this coming week, with home games against the Celtics and the Cavs, before embarking on a treacherous four-game trip through San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and OKC.
Don't let a four-point loss to the newly competitive Nets distract you from the fact that the Golden State Warriors just ripped off 10 wins in a row. The Dubs hadn't done that since the 1974-75 season, which ended with Golden State winning the NBA title.
These Warriors should be considered no worse than a dark-horse contender for this year's crown. Their defense ranks among the top four in basketball in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions, and though their offense has slipped toward the middle of the pack in terms of efficiency, the Dubs can beat you in more ways than they could before.
Is Stephen Curry having an off night? Give the ball to Klay Thompson.
Are they both misfiring? Work from the inside out, with David Lee and Andrew Bogut.
Need some easy points? Feed Andre Iguodala on the fast break.
What about the bench? Harrison Barnes (11.4 points, .429 from three) has you covered.
Mark Jackson's squad can play big or small and beat you any number of ways on both ends of the court. If the Warriors took better care of the ball—they have the highest turnover ratio in the NBA—and weren't plagued by latent injury concerns, they'd be firmly in the mix for Western Conference supremacy alongside San Antonio and OKC.
And they might be soon enough, if they can snag a solid backup point guard before the trade deadline.
I can't penalize the Indiana Pacers too much for falling to the Hawks in Atlanta. Sure, it doesn't look good when a team falls behind 12-0 from the jump to an opponent missing its best player (Al Horford) and getting just four points on 1-of-10 shooting from its second-best (Paul Millsap).
But the Pacers weren't exactly "hunky dory" either. They were playing on the second night of a back-to-back and were absent the services of Lance Stephenson, who sat out the game with a bruised knee.
All told, Indy looked tuckered out after playing four games in five nights. It seems safe to say then that this loss was one ordained by the schedule-makers and the basketball gods alike.
And nothing more.
For the Miami Heat, there's no shame in losing to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. New York had Miami's number last season and finally rediscovered that ball-moving, three-point shooting style that was so effective against the Heat on Thursday.
That being said, a 10-point loss isn't anyone's idea of a solid start to a six-game road trip. Fortunately for the Heat, that entire swing will keep them in the Eastern Conference, with dates in Brooklyn, Washington, Philly, Charlotte and Atlanta upcoming.
The question for the Heat isn't whether they should win those games; it's whether they'll get up for them rather than succumb to the sloth that's overtaken this team amidst the midseason slog in the past.
Some more consistent play from Chris Bosh, who's chipped in 8.7 points on a paltry 30.8 percent shooting over his last three games, would certainly help.
Another week, another slew of wins for the San Antonio Spurs. They pounced on the Clippers sans Chris Paul and made mincemeat of the defenseless Mavs, with an overtime thriller against the Grizzlies sandwiched in between.
Manu Ginobili hit the winning layup in Memphis but sat out against Dallas with tightness in his left hamstring. However, he isn't sweating this particular injury.
“I didn’t want to take any chances," he told Jeff McDonald of The San Antonio Express-News. "I don’t care about missing one game. I don’t want to push it and miss a month.”
Chances are, the Spurs feel the same way. They own the best record in the West and will face a favorable schedule in the week to come before hosting the Blazers in the Alamo City.
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