As we approach the halfway point of the 2009-10 NBA season, it seems like an appropriate time to take a step back and evaluate each team's performance and progress, and examine which teams are primed to make a deep playoff run.
There are still several burning questions floating around the Association:
Is one of the preseason's four "elite" teams (Orlando, Boston, Cleveland, L.A.) really a lock to win the Finals?
Will the Grizzlies, Rockets, and Thunder really be fighting for a playoff spot in April?
How many teams will be actively looking to dump salary by the trade deadline?
Is karma the reason for the inevitable Clippers collapse and annual season-ending injuries?
Could the Nets go down as the worst team in NBA history?
And isn't it ridiculous that Kobe Bryant is playing through back and finger injuries to bolster his MVP resume instead of just taking a few games off to be healthy in the long run? (I'm kidding, I'm kidding! Just wanted to get Lakers fans riled up a bit.)
So let's take a look at each team, from No. 30 to No. 1, in the second installment of my NBA power rankings (and I promise to keep it under 6,000 words this time).
30. New Jersey Nets (3-36)
I still don't get the Nets; on paper, they look respectable. Not a playoff team, not a team with a winning record, but certainly not a team with just three wins halfway through January.
They have several decent young players to build around and they play hard pretty much every night. I just refuse to believe they can be as bad as their record indicates. They can't be the worst team of all-time.
29. Washington Wizards (12-26)
Gilbert Arenas pleads guilty to felony gun charges, is suspended indefinitely by the NBA, and faces jail time when his sentencing comes in March.
Four players (Randy Foye, Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, Nick Young) were fined for joining Arenas in mocking his charges during pregame introductions.
Andray Blatche, a backup who averages eight points and five rebounds a game for his career, was suspended by coach Flip Saunders for complaining about a lack of plays drawn up for him.
The team has lost eight of 10 games and if they have any respect or gratitude for what Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler have done for their organization, they will ship them out to better situations before the trade deadline.
Yea, that's dysfunction at its finest.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves (8-33)
A team with no real direction.
The T'Wolves have two nice post players in Kevin Love and Al Jefferson, but they essentially play the same position (I guess that shouldn't be surprising considering they picked two point guards with the fifth and sixth picks in last year's draft).
Not much to say about Minnesota. It's never a good sign when your franchise has openly admitted to waiting three years (until Ricky Rubio arrives) to try to be competitive.
27. Detroit Pistons (13-25)
Detroit's collapse has been a long time coming.
First, they pass on Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in the 2004 Draft.
Then they swap Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson in what's increasingly starting to look like one of the most lopsided trades of the decade.
They waste loads of cap space in 2009 on two second and third-tier players (Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva) who have never been on a team that's won a playoff series instead of waiting until 2010 when there is a smorgasbord of free agents.
Now, they have multiple overpaid players who all play the same position and could never be the best player on an NBA Finals team.
Have fun being irrelevant for the next five years, Detroit.
26. Golden State Warriors (11-27)
Another team with absolutely no direction. Injuries have prevented them from having a full lineup all year, but it wouldn't mask the fact that this team is just bad.
Time to say goodbye to Nellieball in the Bay area. It had a good run...now it's time to blow up and start over.
25. Philadelphia 76ers (13-26)
The Sixers are 8-8 since their 12-game losing streak, so they're working their way back up to respectable.
But it's going to be tough for Philly in the future. Elton Brand (four years, $14.9 million) and Andre Iguodala (five years, $12.2 million) make substantial money but neither is a No. 1 player.
In order for the Sixers to return to prominence in the East, they'll need to deal one of these guys (most likely Iguodala) and land a free agent in the offseason. Otherwise, it's going to be four years of mediocrity.
24. New York Knicks (16-23)
Surprisingly competitive despite launching an ungodly amount of three-pointers (1,048 total, 26.9 a game) and playing no defense. Even if they sneak into the playoffs, the real success will be determined in the summer of 2010: Can they land LeBron James or Dwyane Wade?
23. Milwaukee Bucks (16-21)
It was a nice start for Brandon Jennings & Co., but they've quietly slipped back down to reality.
Michael Redd, a fellow Buckeye alumnus and Milwaukee's most experienced player, is out for the second year in a row with a torn ACL. This is allowing teams to really hone in on Jennings, who has scored more than 20 points just twice in the last 16 games and is shooting just 32 percent from the field (77-231).
Jennings is a great start but Milwaukee definitely needs more pieces in order to be a playoff team.
22. Indiana Pacers (14-25)
I actually like this Pacers team—they are tall, moderately athletic, can spread the floor with multiple shooters, and are a decent scoring team. I just don't like their payroll ($66.9 million, over the cap for 2010-11).
They have some good young pieces, but it'll be interesting to see what they do at the upcoming trade deadline. Do they bite the bullet and pay the luxury tax, or do they actively shop someone like Troy Murphy in an attempt to save a few bucks?
21. Sacramento Kings (15-23)
Sadly, my desire to see a Kings/Lakers rematch in the first round doesn't look plausible this year. Sacramento has lost nine of 11 and is a woeful 3-14 on the road—not exactly the makings of a playoff team.
Still, there's no reason for the Kings to hang their heads. They weren't expected to be a playoff team this year; they weren't even expected to be moderately good. But they have several young pieces to be excited about.
I absolutely love Tyreke Evans. He can get to the hoop and score at will (20+ points in six of his last 10 games). Omri Casspi is the perfect small forward for this team, and Jason Thompson and Spencer Hawes are an effective inside-out combo that can pound the ball in the paint, grab rebounds, and hit jump shots.
With Kevin Martin and Francisco Garcia returning, the future is bright for the Kings.
20. L.A. Clippers (17-21)
Things were going great for the Clips—they fought through injuries, had wins over the Celtics, Blazers, Lakers, and Heat, and were just one game below .500.
Now, No. 1 pick Blake Griffin is out for the year, Chris Kaman is missing games with a back injury, the Lakers blasted them by 40 points, they're taking shots from Phil Jackson , and still face games this month against the Cavs (twice), at Boston, and at Denver.
Order has been restored in Clipperland.
19. Chicago Bulls (18-20)
The Bulls have had two four-game winning streaks in the last three weeks, including wins over Boston and Orlando. Throughout all the turmoil they've faced this year, if the playoffs started today, Chicago would be in.
Have they regrouped and rallied around Vinnie Del Negro? I'm not so sure, but we'll find out in the next three weeks, as the Bulls play nine of 10 on the road, including matchups at Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Atlanta.
18. Toronto Raptors (20-20)
An explosive offensive team, Toronto has found cohesion and balance with Jarrett Jack running the offense and Jose Calderon coming off the bench. With five players (Jack, Calderon, Hedo Turkoglu, Andrea Bargnani, Marco Belinelli) shooting over 37 percent from the three-point line, it's not a mystery why the Raptors lead the East with 103.5 points per game.
Many teams were salivating at the thought of acquiring Chris Bosh, especially at the beginning of the season and during the Raps' shaky 7-13 start. But as long as Toronto is a legit playoff threat, don't expect to see them pull the trigger on a Bosh deal.
17. Charlotte Bobcats (18-20)
The feisty Bobcats have the NBA's best defense (92.5 ppg allowed) and are a stout 15-4 at home. They've quietly won six of seven to start 2010 and are a more balanced team than people realize.
Raymond Felton has over a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio this year and runs the offense to a tee.
Gerald Wallace has been a terrific rebounder and is an underrated defender (he really bothered LeBron James in both of Charlotte's wins over Cleveland this year).
And Stephen Jackson is the closer, the guy who can hit big shots on offense and shutdown premier scorers on defense.
This team could really give Cleveland or Orlando some fits in the first round.
16. Miami Heat (20-18)
The addition of Rafer Alston gives Miami a second three-point threat to go along with Quentin Richardson, but it doesn't improve Miami's chances against Cleveland, Boston, Orlando, or Atlanta.
Even if Wade does his best Superman imitation, it probably won't be enough to get the Heat out of the first round.
15. Houston Rockets (22-18)
I love the way the Rockets compete. They are the hardest working team in the league and they get the most out of each position.
I just don't know how long they can keep up their high level of play. They haven't shown anything to make me think I should doubt them, but in the incredibly difficult and deep Western Conference, something tells me they might not have enough firepower down the stretch.
14. New Orleans Hornets (20-18)
In the previous edition of my power rankings, I had New Orleans placed in the "bad but show signs of life" group.
What have we learned since then? That Chris Paul is the sign of life.
Since his return, Paul is averaging 17.4 points, 12.4 assists, and 5.0 rebounds on 45 percent shooting. New Orleans' record: 13-7.
13. Memphis Grizzlies (20-18)
That's right, the Memphis Grizzlies.
These aren't your typical Grizzlies. They're young, athletic, exciting, and fun to watch. They score 104 (that's right, 104!) points per game and boast a 13-5 record at home.
Zach Randolph (the same headcase who the Blazers and Clippers gave away so he couldn't be around Greg Oden or Blake Griffin) and Marc Gasol are a great inside-out power forward combo and present matchup problems for most teams.
Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo are fantastic scorers on the perimeter and Mike Conley is the perfect point guard for this starting lineup.
And how impressive has Sam Young been off the bench? This is all coming after the Grizz spent the No. 2 pick in last year's draft on Hasheem Thabeet, who is playing 11 minutes a game and averaging three points and three rebounds.
12. Utah Jazz (22-17)
Just another typical Utah season; they're great at home, struggle on the road, and get inconsistent play from role players.
Utah's biggest problem is a lack of three-point shooting. They are great inside, averaging 46.3 points in the paint per game, but until they get a consistent outside shooter, teams can pack the middle and force guys like C.J. Miles, Ronnie Brewer, Andrei Kirilenko, and Ronnie Price to hit long jump shots (though after Thursday night, maybe Sundiata Gaines can be the guy ).
Just don't tell me Kyle Korver is the answer.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder (21-18)
For some reason, I absolutely love this team. Like Memphis and Sacramento, they're young, energizing, and play with great enthusiasm.
But Kevin Durant is what sets them apart. Durant has become one of the top scorers in the league and is on an absolute tear right now.
Last month I wrote a Top 10 MVP list and predicted a stretch where Durant would average something around 35-8-4 on 50 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent from behind the arc.
Well, check out Durant's point totals since Dec. 22: 30, 38, 30, 40, 35, 31, 31, 25, 27, 40, 30, 35, 30.
Impressive, right? In that stretch, he averaged 32.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.8 assists on 54.3 percent shooting from the field, 86.3 percent from the line, and 50.0 percent from the three-point line.
Bottom line: This kid is good. Real good. And he has enough support around him to carry the team even if he gets cold for a few weeks. The Thunder are a team to be reckoned with.
10. Phoenix Suns (24-16)
After a blistering 14-3 start, including an 8-3 start on the road, the Suns have cooled off and are coming back down to earth.
An encouraging sign for the Suns has been the play of Amar'e Stoudemire, who is averaging over 23 points and 10 rebounds in the last month.
My fear with Phoenix is that they've already peaked—we know how good they can be. Is what we've seen good enough to beat a team like San Antonio or Denver in the playoffs?
9. Portland Trail Blazers (25-16)
I'm impressed with the way Portland has played without Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla, but not surprised. The Blazers have shown great intensity, especially on the defensive end, and their small-ball lineup has put up points; they've scored 100+ points in seven of their last 10 games.
But Portland faces a brutal stretch in the next 35 days, highlighted by games against Boston (twice), Utah (three times), New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, Charlotte, San Antonio, L.A. Lakers, Oklahoma City, and Phoenix.
How they respond will be crucial towards their playoff run.
8. Orlando Magic (26-14)
Injuries have slowed the Magic's momentum, and that's completely understandable, but as of right now, Orlando is the fourth best team in the East and there's no real disputing that.
Dwight Howard isn't going to command double-teams when he takes less than 10 shots a game. In turn, that doesn't help open the floor for the Magic's three-point shooters.
Even with the return of Vince Carter, I question this team's ability to consistently score in a halfcourt set in the playoffs. Turkoglu was the guy that everything went through last year, and I don't know if Vince can be the distributor and creator that Turkoglu was.
But Orlando has half of a season (and loads of talent) to right the ship by April.
7. Denver Nuggets (25-14)
Like Orlando, injuries to Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Ty Lawson, and Chris Andersen have slowed the Nuggets down and hampered their record.
The biggest question mark for Denver is their inside play; can they get enough from Nene and Kenyon Martin when they go up against the Lakers and Spurs?
6. Atlanta Hawks (26-13)
Despite a four-game losing streak at the end of December, the Hawks have climbed to the top of the Southeast Division, partially in thanks to Orlando's recent swoon.
Jamal Crawford has been invaluable to Atlanta's success. His ability to score easily and to attack the hoop has been instrumental in their push to become one of the East's elite teams.
Even though they have enjoyed success against the Celtics (3-0 this year), they've struggled against Orlando and Cleveland (0-4). Their ability to find ways to score in the fourth quarter, other than simply spreading the floor and letting Crawford or Joe Johnson go one-on-one, will be detriment to their playoff prosperity.
5. Dallas Mavericks (26-13)
As you've probably noticed, most of the top 10 teams have had some sort of injury problem so far this year. The Mavs are no exception: Josh Howard, Erick Dampier, and Drew Gooden are all rotation players who have missed time this year.
Nonetheless, as they've done all season, Dallas has quietly chugged along, getting good contributions from Jason Terry and Shawn Marion, notably, on their way to the second best record in the West.
Dallas also has the best road record (13-6) in the West, and they begin a five-game road trip on the east coast Sunday.
4. San Antonio Spurs (24-14)
The Spurs are doing what they do every year, just plodding away during the regular season without doing anything spectacular (they have won 12 of their last 16).
"The Big Three" of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili are all averaging under 32 minutes per game, which is critical because San Antonio will need all three healthy to have any sort of chance to beat the Lakers in the playoffs.
Gregg Popovich makes it no secret that his team is built for success in the playoffs. But San Antonio was scorched by Dallas last year partly because of age, but also because they had no answer offensively, averaging just over 90 points per game.
Will it be different this year? The Spurs are younger, with players like George Hill, Roger Mason, and DeJuan Blair getting increased minutes.
They also have Richard Jefferson and even though he hasn't put up astounding numbers, he still has the capability to explode for a big night. He's the X-factor for the playoff run.
3. Boston Celtics (27-11)
Injuries, injuries, injuries.
The Celtics have seen Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Glen Davis, and Marquis Daniels all miss considerable time this year. In fact, they haven't yielded a completely healthy team all season.
The development of Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins has really helped carry this team. Perkins is one of the best low-post defenders in the league and Rondo, in my opinion, is having a good enough season that you need to consider him when discussing the MVP.
Age is a big concern for Boston. Ray Allen, Pierce, Garnett, and Wallace are all over 30 years old and have a lot of games under their belt. Doc Rivers knows he needs all of these guys ready in the playoffs.
If Boston is healthy, I still think they're the team to beat in the East; they have so many weapons on offense, especially with the emergence of Rondo.
And they're still the best defensive team of any of the East's top teams.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (30-11)
The Cavs have capitalized on injuries to Boston and Orlando to sprint out to the best record in the Eastern Conference. But they still have issues to overcome.
The first is Mo Willliams. Williams is a very up-and-down player, going on unbelievable shooting stretches for some weeks and contributing virtually nothing during others.
Williams has been quiet as of late, especially during the Cavs' recent road trip. When Williams isn't connecting offensively, Cleveland struggles to find a No. 2 scoring option.
And if you remember last year's playoffs, Williams was missing shots in the Orlando series and the Cavs were exposed. He needs to be more consistent down the stretch.
One other issue is the power forward position. When Mike Brown inserted J.J. Hickson into the starting lineup, the second year player's numbers immediately flourished. But in the last month, Hickson has struggled again, and continuous lapses on the defensive end has Brown searching for answers.
Every Cavs fan loves what Anderson Varejao brings to the table. You can't put a value on his hustle and all the little things he does. But the fact is, he's still not athletic or quick enough to consistently guard power forwards like Rashard Lewis, Kevin Garnett, or Pau Gasol.
Don't get me wrong, this Cavs team is better than last year's, and they've shown how good they can be in big games this year (wins vs. Orlando, Miami, L.A., Portland, Phoenix, Atlanta, and Dallas).
But they need to improve if they want to win the NBA Finals.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (31-9)
I've doubted them most of the season, especially their hot start where they played a majority of games at home and against sub-.500 opponents.
But their recent stretch, even through injuries, have shown that, as of right now, the Lakers are the best team in the NBA.
Pau Gasol has missed ample time due to hamstring problems, but Andrew Bynum has stepped his game up in Gasol's absence.
Lamar Odom has increased his production on the bench, giving L.A. another weapon in their offensive arsenal.
And Kobe Bryant has battled through a broken finger and back spasms to get the Lakers back on track after a stretch where they lost three of four.
The Lakers are re-establishing themselves as the team to beat. I look forward to their next two games (vs. Orlando, at Cleveland); will they bring that mindset against the East's elite?