NBA Power Rankings: Who's Hot and Who's Not at All-Star Break
I think I speak for most of the NBA when I say that All-Star Weekend comes as a welcome reprieve from the status quo.
Not that I don't enjoy watching meaningful basketball as much as the next hoophead. But it has become clear that teams across the Association, especially those battling for playoff positioning, were (and are) in dire need of a break. That extra rest should allow those players dealing with injuries to heal and those who are simply fatigued to recover from a grueling 50-plus games to start the 2013-14 campaign.
In the meantime, watching the best ballers in the world dribble, pass, shoot and slam their way through the festivities in New Orleans should suffice. So, too, should a fresh set of power rankings...
OK, so maybe the Slam Dunk Contest, the Three-Point Contest and the All-Star Game itself are more entertaining, but that's not really a fair fight, now is it?
In any case, if you'd like to see how all 30 teams stacked up last week, click here. Otherwise, click/swipe ahead to find out where your favorite team(s) stand as the basketball world converges on the Big Easy.
30. Milwaukee Bucks
Welcome back to the bottom of the barrel, Milwaukee Bucks! A four-game losing streak, in conjunction with a four-game spurt from the Cavaliers, last week's biggest loser, all but necessitated the Bucks' return to dead-last place in the NBA.
Not all is lost, though. Aside from Milwaukee's obvious place among those jostling for the No. 1 pick in a loaded 2014 draft, the team might soon parlay its putrid campaign into another positive. According to Gery Woelfel of The Racine Journal Times, the Bucks have taken a shine to New Orleans Pelicans guard Eric Gordon and could move to acquire him prior to the Feb. 20 trade deadline.
Gordon's knees have been problematic in the past, though the 2013-14 season is proving to be his healthiest since he was a rookie. For the Bucks' part, they could certainly use a quality shooting guard to slot next to Brandon Knight, especially in light of O.J. Mayo's struggles since arriving in Milwaukee.
29. Philadelphia 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers are doing a fine job of tanking, to say the least. They've now lost eight in a row and 18 of 21 dating back to early January.
This past week was particularly indicative of just how committed the Sixers are to stinking this season. In between sorry losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz, Philly wound up on the wrong end of the biggest margin of victory in Los Angeles Clippers franchise history (45 points) and suffered a 43-point defeat against the Golden State Warriors.
Those two beatdowns made these Sixers just the second team in NBA history to lose consecutive games by 40 or more points. The other one? The 1993-94 Sixers, who went 25-57 before drafting the "incomparable" Sharone Wright.
28. Los Angeles Lakers
Say this much for the Los Angeles Lakers: As terrible as they are, they haven't thrown in the towel just yet. Mike D'Antoni still has this ragtag band of D-Leaguers and scrapheapers playing hard and competing on most nights, even if the results suggest otherwise.
That much was clear on Thursday night. The Lakers outplayed the Oklahoma City Thunder for most of the game, even going so far as to build up a 15-point lead late in the third quarter.
But as has been the case all season, the Lakers were simply no match for their opponent. Kevin Durant poured in 19 of his 43 points in the fourth quarter, and with a 12-0 run at the start of the final frame, the Thunder were back in the running in no time flat.
That slippage merely added to L.A.'s season of misery. The loss marked the Lakers' seventh straight at home—a franchise record, according to The Associated Press, via ESPN.com—and dropped the Purple and Gold, at 18-35, into a tie for dead last in the Western Conference.
You could say, then, that the Lakers need the All-Star break, if only as an opportunity to get away from their quagmire for a bit.
27. Sacramento Kings
I'm not sure how redemptive a win over the New York Knicks is these days, though the Sacramento Kings pulled one out at Madison Square Garden nonetheless.
Surprisingly enough, it was Jimmer Fredette—not Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins or Isaiah Thomas—who stole the show in the 106-101 overtime win. The former BYU standout scored a career-high 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting (6-of-8 from three) in just 27 minutes off the bench.
"It was a lot of fun," Fredette, a native of Glens Falls, N.Y., said after the game (via The Associated Press). "You dream about this, growing up not too far from here, and this is the best arena in the world. It was an amazing experience tonight. But I was just happy we got this win and go into the All-Star break on a high note."
Also surprising: Fredette now leads the NBA in three-point percentage (.493). Perhaps, then, the Kings can use Fredette's marksmanship to land something of value at the trade deadline. According to Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee, that could include another point guard.
26. Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic have had a habit of playing fantastic basketball in short spurts over the last two seasons. Case in point: this past week, when the Magic beat the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Indiana Pacers and came within a handful of points of pulling the same trick on the Memphis Grizzlies.
Say what you will about Orlando's awful record, but Jacque Vaughn has done well to get his players, both young and old (but mostly young), to play hard and compete despite their lottery destiny. As soon as GM Rob Hennigan upgrades the quality and fit of the players at Vaughn's disposal, the Magic should get back to the business of beating elite teams without inspiring shock and awe across the Association.
25. New York Knicks
Gun, meet foot. Foot, meet the New York Knicks.
Carmelo Anthony and co. racked up yet another head-scratching loss this week. The Knicks dropped their last game before All-Star Weekend at home to the Kings despite building double-digit leads in the first and third quarters. The defeat dropped New York to a stomach-turning 20-32, two-and-a-half games back of the Charlotte Bobcats for the final playoff spot in the awful Eastern Conference.
"I didn't expect us to be in the situation that we're in right now," Anthony told the media after the game, via The Associated Press. "If somebody would have told us that before the season, I'd have put any amount of money that they were lying. But we're in this situation right now and we've got to fight through it."
"Fight" is the right word for it. If the Knicks don't turn things around after the All-Star break, they could soon find themselves chasing the Detroit Pistons and the Cleveland Cavaliers as 'Melo attempts to keep his personal postseason-appearance streak alive.
24. Cleveland Cavaliers
Speaking of those Cleveland Cavaliers, they seem to have gotten the message loud and clear since team owner Dan Gilbert deposed GM Chris Grant of his duties. They've now won four in a row for the first time since March of 2010.
Back then, they had some guy named LeBron James leading the charge. Kyrie Irving's got a loooooong way to go before he can so much as sniff the sort of superstardom that's become the norm for James.
To Kyrie's credit, though, he's played well during the Cavs' latest spurt. The All-Star starter has averaged 22 points and seven assists while shooting a stunning 60 percent from three and 93.3 percent from the line (on 7.5 free-throw attempts per game) over his last four outings.
As disastrous as Cleveland's season has largely been to this point, at least the team has now put itself in position to potentially sneak into the playoffs, with just three games separating the Cavs from the eighth-place Charlotte Bobcats.
23. Boston Celtics
Conflicting reports abound about the Boston Celtics in the lead-up to the Feb. 20 trade deadline. Some, including Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News, have the C's poised to make moves.
Others, most notably Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated (via WEEI.com), seem to think that GM Danny Ainge isn't entirely serious about wheeling and dealing, given how much he's asking in exchange for some of his less attractive assets.
That sort of media misdirection from Boston's front office makes plenty of sense in light of the C's getting burned by leaks this past summer, when the Doc Rivers deal led to the team being disbarred from further talks with the Los Angeles Clippers. Moreover, it's difficult to picture the Celtics getting much in return for Jeff Green and Brandon Bass, both solid role players who are (grossly) overpaid at this point.
Really, why would the C's be pushing for another first-round pick? They already own the rights to five other No. 1s between now and 2018, in addition to their own selections over that span. And not including their right to swap picks with the Brooklyn Nets in 2017.
If anything, the C's might be wise to use some of their draft surplus to offload salary and/or bring back a quality rotation player.
22. Utah Jazz
It's a shame that the Utah Jazz seem so determined to start Richard Jefferson on the wing as part of their season-long tanking experiment. Surely, those minutes would be better spent on a young player with some actual promise—like, say, Alec Burks.
The 22-year-old swingman had himself an interesting week, to put it mildly. After failing to score a single point in the Jazz's 22-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Burks bounced back by averaging 20.7 points on 57.6 percent shooting (50 percent from three) over his next three games—all Utah W's.
And not just any W's either. The first came against the defending champion Miami Heat, the second marked Utah's largest ever over the Lakers in L.A., and the third, a five-point victory over the Sixers, gave the Jazz their first winning streak of more than two games this season.
Perhaps, then, the Jazz's tanking aspirations might be better served by keeping Burks on the bench after all.
21. New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans aren't exactly swimming in success these days. Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday are still recovering from serious injuries, and the team as a whole sits seven-and-a-half games back of a playoff spot out West, with three other hopefuls standing between the Pels and eighth place.
But that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of positives to be found around the organization right now. Pierre the Pelican is no longer quite so scary, the Pels held off the Bucks in their last outing, and best of all, Anthony Davis will represent the host team and city at the 2014 All-Star Game as Kobe Bryant's injury replacement.
Compared to last year's 27-55 debacle, New Orleans is already well on its way to assuring itself a season of improvement.
20. Detroit Pistons
The timing of Maurice Cheeks' firing was curious, seeing as how it came on the heels of back-to-back wins for the Detroit Pistons, though the move itself was anything but a surprise. Cheeks had clashed with Josh Smith and wasn't exactly on good terms with Andre Drummond, per David Mayo of MLive.com.
Not to mention Mo's failure to find a workable solution to the logjam in Detroit's frontcourt.
Granted, it's not Cheeks' fault that the Pistons signed Smith this season. Nor was the coach to blame for bringing in Brandon Jennings or failing to find shooters to spread the floor on offense.
That responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of longtime GM and franchise legend Joe Dumars. After cycling through eight coaches during his tenure in the front office, Dumars should be on thin ice right about now, especially if the Pistons fail to make the playoffs in the East under the auspices of interim coach John Loyer.
19. Atlanta Hawks
The stress of coping with injuries appears to be catching up with the Atlanta Hawks. They've now dropped five in a row—their longest losing streak since April of 2011.
If anything, the Hawks have had something like this coming for a while. They've lost four key rotation players, most notably Al Horford, since late December.
Jeff Teague and first-time All-Star Paul Millsap have done an admirable job of keeping Atlanta's operation afloat in the interim, but those two can only do so much when they have to rely on an overmatched Gustavo Ayon and a struggling Louis Williams to fill in many of the other gaps.
It's a good thing, then, that the Hawks are in the Eastern Conference. Even with their five-game skid, the Hawks sit in fifth place on that side of the bracket heading into the All-Star break.
18. Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets can comfortably "claim" the longest active losing streak in the Western Conference, with four straight defeats heading into All-Star Weekend.
It's no wonder, then, that the Nuggets have picked up considerable steam amidst the pre-trade deadline rumor mill. ESPN's Marc Stein had Denver fielding calls from the Knicks for Kenneth Faried. Meanwhile, Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling pegged the Wizards as a potential trade partner for the Nuggets, with Andre Miller drawing Washington's attention.
Head coach Brian Shaw, for his part, isn't about to get wrapped up in all the hoopla. He told Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post:
I think that with all that I'm dealing with in terms of coaching the team, I'm just going to concentrate on coaching the guys that are here and available to play. That's on (general manager) Tim Connelly and (assistant general manager) Arturas (Karnisovas) and (team president) Josh (Kroenke) and those guys. I don't even try to pretend the numbers and the salary cap and restrictions that you have from doing this and doing that.
17. Charlotte Bobcats
At first glance, it may seem strange to think of the Charlotte Bobcats as aggressive buyers ahead of the Feb. 20 trade deadline. After all, their 23-30 record is far from stellar, and, well, this franchise has had so little experience with success (just one playoff appearance since joining the NBA in 2004) that the thought of the 'Cats chasing impact players midseason is still an unusual one.
Charlotte, though, is in it to win it—not all of it (i.e. the NBA title), but certainly more than this team has during its recent run of misery. The 'Cats have shown some signs of promise recently, particularly during victories over the Golden State Warriors and the Dallas Mavericks.
It makes sense, then, that the 'Cats are as keen to deal before the window closes as ESPN's Marc Stein and Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer say they are. They have assets to move, holes to fill and a playoff spot to secure.
16. Washington Wizards
Whatever close-game curse it is that's plagued the Minnesota Timberwolves all season has apparently spread to the nation's capital. The Washington Wizards promptly followed up their first foray into winning territory in over four years by losing four out of five.
Worse still, three of those defeats came by two points or fewer. The fourth was a double-overtime loss that extended Washington's winless streak against the San Antonio Spurs to 16 games.
Such shortfalls are to be expected for any young squad still learning how to win consistently. And, like the aforementioned T-Wolves, the Wizards have seen their late-game execution victimized by a poor-shooting point guard.
In this case, the attention shifts to John Wall. The first-time All-Star's shot is a shade under 39 percent from the field (29 percent from three) over his last five games. According to NBA.com, Wall's fourth-quarter shooting numbers from the entire season have been even worse.
This isn't to suggest that Wall isn't "clutch" so much as it's pointing out that Wall's jumper, like the Wizards' winning culture, still has a long way to go.
15. Minnesota Timberwolves
Not to be the bearer of bad news or anything, but the Minnesota Timberwolves' playoff goose is just about cooked at the moment. Prior to their 27-point blowout of the Nuggets, the T-Wolves had dropped four in a row and six out of seven to fall firmly under the .500 mark once again.
As a result, Minny, at 25-28, sits six games back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West heading into the All-Star break. That leaves the T-Wolves in a bind with regard to ending their decade-long playoff drought in time to satisfy a cranky Kevin Love.
They'll have to leapfrog the ninth-place Memphis Grizzlies and one of the three between the Dallas Mavericks, the Phoenix Suns and the Golden State Warriors to pull it off.
Good luck with that. The T-Wolves will open up their stretch run by hosting the Indiana Pacers before embarking on a five-game road trip, with visits to Portland and Phoenix mixed in.
14. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets will enter the All-Star break on a down note after dropping a 16-point decision to the Bulls in Chicago. And if you're still operating from the premise of this team's preseason expectations, you're probably disappointed (perhaps considerably so) by Brooklyn's 24-27 record.
But if your point of reference is the Nets' embarrassingly slow start, you're probably pleased with how far this squad has come since New Year's Day. They've gone 14-6 in 2014, thanks to a more pass-happy offense and a screen-switching defense.
This aging squad could certainly use the rest that All-Star Weekend will afford if it's to keep those good times rolling into the stretch run. The Nets will resume their lengthy road trip next Wednesday with five straight games against Western Conference foes before finishing up in Milwaukee. That time away from home may well throw Brooklyn's playoff hopes back in doubt.
But if the veteran wisdom of this team shines through, the Nets could just as easily work their way into a top-four seed before returning to the Barclays Center on March 3.
13. Memphis Grizzlies
Quick! Someone get Orkin to the FedEx Forum. The Memphis Grizzlies' locker room is still crawling with injury bugs.
They struck again on Wednesday, when Marc Gasol reaggravated a previous left knee injury during the third quarter of Memphis' 86-81 win over the Orlando Magic. Fortunately for Gasol and the Grizz, the setback came just ahead of the All-Star break, during which the Spanish center is expected to undergo an MRI.
Gasol, for his part, doesn't seem too worried about it. "We’re going to get it checked to make sure everything is okay," Gasol told Ronald Tillery of The Memphis Commercial Appeal. "But it feels a lot better than it did the first time."
The Grizzlies can ill afford to lose Gasol for long. They're already without Mike Conley and Tony Allen and still have a game and a half to make up in pursuit of their fourth straight playoff appearance, despite going 14-4 since January 10.
12. Chicago Bulls
Not that anyone doubts Joakim Noah's All-Star worthiness, but if somebody out there does, he/she needs only look back on the big man's last week of work to understand how he earned his ticket to New Orleans.
Noah began by stuffing the stat sheet every which way against the Lakers (20 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, two steals, three blocks), continued with his first triple-double of the season (19-16-11 with three blocks) opposite the Hawks and concluded with 14-13-7 and two blocks at the Nets' expense.
Not surprisingly, the Bulls won all three of those games to move two games above .500 and comfortably into fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
So much for mailing in the 2013-14 season after losing Derrick Rose to injury and Luol Deng to a trade with the Cavs. As long as Noah is ambulatory, Chicago will be a threat to not only make the playoffs, but also to win a round if it's lucky.
11. Golden State Warriors
Consistency remains elusive for the Golden State Warriors. They alternated wins and losses over their last six games heading into the All-Star break. This past week alone, the Dubs sandwiched a 43-point win over the Sixers between a 13-point loss to the Phoenix Suns and a heartbreaker to the Miami Heat.
Granted, Phoenix and Miami are operating in an entirely different bracket than is Philly. Still, Golden State would clearly be better served by playing hard and smart from start to finish. The Warriors did well to nearly upend the two-time defending champs on Wednesday, but only after falling behind by 21 while Dwyane Wade watched in street clothes.
Mark Jackson's performance as the team's head coach has come under fire amidst the inconsistency, with Warriors owner Joe Lacob among those concerned.
"I do think our coach has done a good job–we have had some big wins, a lot of wins on the road, and that’s usually a sign of good coaching," Lacob told Tim Kawakami of The San Jose Mercury News. "But some things are a little disturbing–the lack of being up for some of these games at home, that’s a concern to me."
Jackson's seat is far from hot, though there could be some change afoot in the roster around him. According to Sam Amick of USA Today, Golden State is in the market for an upgrade to its bench and could be willing to part ways with Harrison Barnes to get one.
10. Toronto Raptors
Honestly, I'm not sure why the recent talk about the Toronto Raptors' resistance to trading Kyle Lowry, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, qualifies as "news."
Does anyone really think the Raptors would want to part ways with Lowry right now? I understand that his value has never been higher, given both his numbers (16.7 points, 7.6 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 38.8 percent from three) and his role as a leader on this Raptors squad. I also understand that Toronto may be loath to shell out beaucoup bucks to keep Kyle in Canada.
But it's not as though the Raps would get much in return for two or three months of Lowry. Nor are there many (if any) teams out there with a need at point guard, the resources to acquire one and legitimate playoff aspirations to connect the first two. Moreover, there doesn't figure to be much of a market for floor generals this summer, so the Raps should be able to retain Lowry at a decent price.
Let's leave all that aside, though. Toronto's got a good thing going with Lowry at the helm. The Raps, at 28-24, are on track for their first playoff appearance since 2008 and could legitimately advance for just the second time in franchise history. Surely, GM Masai Ujiri understands the importance of winning games to, you know, building a winning culture.
One to which Lowry has become an integral cog, surprisingly enough.
9. Phoenix Suns
If you're seeking out a team that might actually make a major move before the trade deadline, look no further than the Phoenix Suns. They've got four 2014 first-rounders, a slew of inexpensive youngsters and Emeka Okafor's expiring contract to peddle in exchange for an impact player who might improve their already strong playoff prospects.
That should leave the Suns with options aplenty ahead of Feb. 20. They've already discussed a Pau Gasol trade with the Lakers and figure to talk shop in a more serious manner with the Sixers regarding Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and/or Spencer Hawes before all is said and done.
Or the Suns could just stand pat and continue their charge into the postseason. They've gone 11-10 since Eric Bledsoe went down, thanks in large part to the All-Star-caliber play of Goran Dragic (22.8 points, 6.5 assists, 53.5 percent from the field, 48.3 percent from three in 2014).
And with Bledsoe due back at some point after the break, Phoenix should have all the reinforcements it needs to ensure that its stretch run is a strong one.
8. Dallas Mavericks
Their blowout loss in Charlotte notwithstanding, the Dallas Mavericks were playing some of the NBA's best ball before All-Star Weekend. They'd won six out of seven, including an impressive 81-73 road victory over the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday, to move into sole possession of sixth place in the Western Conference.
Dallas has built up its recent goodwill in the standings on the strength of its ever-improving defense. Since Jan. 31, the Mavs had held their opponents to 101.6 points per 100 possessions on 44.4 percent shooting—both of which would rank as top-10 marks over the course of the 2013-14 season.
If Dallas can rekindle its strong play on both ends of the floor after the break, there's no reason to think that Dirk Nowitzki and co. won't secure a spot in the postseason, if not parlay it into a series victory in a favorable matchup.
7. Portland Trail Blazers
I'd like to take a moment to officially welcome the Portland Trail Blazers back to Earth. They've played .500 ball since their 24-5 start, with a 5-8 stretch since late January dropping them into a virtual tie for fifth place in the Western Conference.
It's in this context that Damian Lillard's decision to be the first player to participate in the five biggest events of All-Star Weekend (i.e. the All-Star Game, the Rising Stars Challenge, the Three-Point Contest, the Slam Dunk Contest and the Skill Competition) seems like a curious one.
He may not see the events themselves as tremendous commitments, though the myriad media obligations that attend them are known to be draining.
And draining is the last thing the Blazers should want All-Star Weekend to be for Lillard. According to NBA.com's player tracking stats, Lillard has logged the fifth-most miles traveled in the NBA this season (134.6) and also ranks among the top 10 in touches per game and time of possession.
Portland had better hope Lillard doesn't wear himself out, lest the Blazers see their early-season success undone completely by fatigue.
6. San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs have long been the NBA's gold standard for withstanding the ill effects of injuries, among other things. But even the Spurs would admit that the extent to which they've been stricken by setbacks this season is getting to be rather ridiculous.
“If you know somebody's injured, they're going to be out for the year or four months or something, you get your team together and you play,” Gregg Popovich told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “What's been odd with this, it's a different team every two games. We haven't been able gain any traction.”
Pop isn't kidding around either. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter have all missed significant time to injuries this season, while Tim Duncan has been on his typical regimen of rest.
Not that anyone should weep for the Spurs. They head into the All-Star break with a 38-15 record, good enough for second place in the West. Assuming their key players heal up over the next couple months, the Spurs should be in solid position for yet another deep playoff run come spring.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers are looking like more than just a dark-horse title contender now that Chris Paul has returned from his shoulder injury. In just his second game back, Paul stuffed the stat sheet with 20 points, 12 assists, four rebounds and three steals in a 122-117 home win over the Blazers before the break.
Having CP3 in the fold again should ease the burden on Blake Griffin, who's been on a rocket ship to superstardom this entire season but especially since the Clips' floor general went down in early January. Griffin's topped the 30-point mark four times in his last five games, including a monstrous 43-15-6 night in a loss to the Miami Heat.
As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding recently suggested, Griffin is well on his way to being the Clippers' best player, assuming he's not there already.
The rest of the Association should take notice of what Blake's become in Year 4 and, in some cases, cower in fear at the thought of the sort of havoc he, Paul and DeAndre Jordan (whose free-throw shooting is improving, by the way) can and will wreak come playoff time.
4. Miami Heat
As a basketball fan, I was geeked about LeBron James' fadeaway game-winner against the Golden State Warriors. As an analyst, it's clear to me that his Miami Heat needed this All-Star break as much as any team in the NBA.
The Heat huffed and puffed their way through the first four legs of their six-game Western Conference road swing. They played pretty well in thrilling wins over the Clippers and the Suns but looked gassed in a shocking loss to the Jazz and seemed to be running on empty as their 21-point lead in Oakland vanished into thin air.
Dwyane Wade's struggles with pain in his foot, knee and noggin haven't helped. Neither has Miami's on-again-off-again effort on defense.
Still, there's no need for anyone on South Beach to panic. The Heat should be refreshed and ready for the stretch run after this weekend's festivities.
Or, rather, refreshed and ready enough to remind everyone that they're still the champs, just in time for another grueling playoff push.
3. Indiana Pacers
But there's no ignoring Indy's one-point loss in Orlando or its eight-point defeat at home to Dallas in a game that wasn't quite as close as the final score would suggest.
George, for one, has been party to the Pacers' recent inconsistency. Over his last 10 games, he has averaged just 16.5 points on an abysmal 32.6 percent shooting (27.6 percent from three). Clearly, he could use a few days to rest and regroup.
Trouble is, he'll be plenty busy this weekend between the Slam Dunk Contest, the All-Star Game and his media obligations for both of those events.
2. Houston Rockets
Do I think the Houston Rockets are the second-best team in the NBA? Not really. Do I enjoy watching the Rockets play basketball, what with their flurry of three-pointers and free throws? Definitely not.
But I'd be remiss if I didn't show proper respect to what Kevin McHale's club has accomplished of late. The Rockets own the NBA's longest active winning streak (seven games) and have gone 15-4 since the start of the new year. That ties Houston with Memphis for the second-best mark in 2014, just behind Oklahoma City's 18-5 mark.
But the Rockets' record (36-17, third best in the West) isn't the only indicator of this team's championship potential. According to NBA.com, Houston is one of four teams—along with the Clippers, the Thunder and the Spurs—that ranks among the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
You may not like seeing Dwight Howard flail around in the post or James Harden draw fouls like a sketch artist, but at the rate at which this team is improving, we may have no say in the matter come playoff time.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Like the Pacers and the Heat, the Oklahoma City Thunder had some slip-ups of their own in their approach to the All-Star break. They lost in Orlando on a last-second dunk by Tobias Harris and nearly got caught napping against the lackluster Lakers before waking up to erase a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit.
Kevin Durant was certainly helpful in that endeavor, to say the least. He scored 31 of his game-high 43 points in the second half, including 19 in the fourth quarter alone.
Thanks to KD, OKC heads into the weekend with the best record in basketball at 43-12. That also marks the franchise's most impressive win-loss tally before the All-Star Game since 1995-96. Back then, the Thunder were still known as the Seattle SuperSonics and had Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp taking the league by storm.
Much has changed since then, though the Thunder are just as well equipped to win the West this year as were those Sonics 18 years ago. And, if things continue to break in OKC's favor, this team may have what it takes to bring home the biggest slab of bacon (i.e. the Larry O'Brien Trophy).
Unlike that Seattle squad of yesteryear, which succumbed to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in six games in the NBA Finals.
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