New NBA Power Rankings

Eric FelkeyAnalyst IDecember 6, 2009

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 01:  Ray Allen #20 of the Boston Celtics celebrates after a basket against the Charlotte Bobcats during their game at Time Warner Cable Arena on December 1, 2009 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Can you believe the NBA season is already 22% complete? It seems like just yesterday Blake Griffin was healthy and ready to start the season, the Cavs and Celtics were tipping off the season opener, and Byron Scott & Lawrence Frank still had jobs.

But now it’s December, the Lakers and Celtics are rolling, Brandon Jennings is making teams feel foolish, and the Nets—well, they’re trying hard each night.

So what have we really learned in the first 38 days of the year?

Are the Hawks a legit contender for the Eastern Conference crown?

Will the Kings really finish the season above .500?

Is Allen Iverson really The Answer for Philly’s woes?

And can anyone stop L.A. and Boston from meeting in the Finals for the gazillionth time?

These questions can only be answered by…NBA power rankings! (Actually, they can be answered in other ways, but just humor me for the time being.)

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So without further ado, let’s look at all 30 teams from worst to first (as of December 4), assess their season thus far, and see what the rest of the year has in store (or in some cases, what free agency & the 2010 Draft has to offer).

The “Yea They Had The Worst Start Ever, But Are They That Bad?” Group                        

30. New Jersey Nets (1-18)  

Yea, typically when you open the season with the longest losing streak in the 64 year history of the Association, you’ll be at the bottom of the power rankings. But when I look at the Nets, I don’t really see a need to blow everything up.

Devin Harris has shown what he can do when healthy; the problem is, ever since the last 6 weeks of last year and pretty much all of this year, he’s been nagged by various groin/shoulder/ankle injuries. Brook Lopez is a double-double threat each night and has enough potential to be one of the top centers in the East. Josh Boone, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Courtney Lee & Terrence Williams all should be considered solid role players.

So what’s the problem?

Well, they’re last in the league in scoring, team FG%, assists, 29th in 3-point percentage, and in the bottom third of the league of pretty much every other major statistical category. Defensively they usually are pretty solid, but always seem to have 4-5 minute lapses where opponents break off 10+ point runs, and the game starts to get out of hand. They’ve lost 11 games to teams with above .500 records and have played 11 games on the road. And at the end of the season (I think playoffs might be out of the question), they cut over $30 million from their payroll and almost assuredly will have a top 2 or 3 pick. So yea, they’re 1-18. But in they’re in the best shape that any 1-18 team has been in, if that makes sense.

(Quick note: How many games does it take to realize that Courtney Lee should be starting over Trenton Hassell? Did anybody from the Nets watch Lee last year? Why did they even trade for him if they’re going to start Hassell?)

The “Perpetual Failures Who Probably Should Pack It In” Group

29. Minnesota Timberwolves (2-17)  

How’s that Ricky Rubio/Jonny Flynn backcourt working out? I’m still perplexed to this day why that occurred and the results on the court show the T’Wolves’ disarray. There’s not much to say about this team.

Al Jefferson’s numbers are way down from last year. The minutes between Flynn & Ramon Sessions are constantly juggled, and you can’t play both of them down the stretch. And anytime your center combination is Ryan Hollins and Nathan Jawai, you’re going to have problems in the paint.

The only reason they aren’t last is because of New Jersey’s collapse on opening night, and the inexplicable fact that this team went on the road a few nights ago and beat Denver. The only solace is Kevin Love’s return. But even that’s not enough.

28. New York Knicks (5-15)  

I almost think the Knicks situation is worse than the Nets & Timberwolves.

There are questions galore surrounding Gotham City. Is there anybody on this roster (aside from David Lee) that any of the top 5 teams in the league would want? Has there ever been a worse defensive team? Doesn’t Mike D’Antoni look a thousand times less interested than he did when he was battling Popovich and the Spurs a few years ago?

But cheer up New Yorkers – you’ll have LeBron James & Chris Bosh next year.

(Oh wait, no you won’t. Because nobody wants to go there and play with 10 scrubs in a rebuilding effort that’s sure to last 3-4 years. Plus the Knicks have no first round pick in 2010. Get over yourself New York.)

27. Golden State Warriors (6-12)  

Do you really believe it’s been two and a half years since the Warriors won over the nation with a stunning first-round upset over the 67 win Mavericks?

But once again, in the highly competitive Western Conference, Golden State is stuck in their up-tempo mediocrity and the playoffs seem miles away. I place them this low because, does anyone know what the *expletive* is going on with this organization?

Before the season starts, Stephen Jackson was begging to be traded. Shortly after, Monta Ellis essentially does the same. Don Nelson looks like a corpse on the sidelines, probably just counting off the number of wins he needs to become the all-time wins leader in his head.

But the most frustrating thing for Warrior fans is that there is plenty of talent to go around. Ellis has been playing out of his mind recently, dropping 34+ points four times in the last two weeks. The Anthony brothers (Morrow and Randolph) have a world of potential, but their minutes are more up-and-down than the Millennium Force. I mean, Mikki Moore is getting more minutes than Randolph—the only excuse for this would be if GS had a chance to win and compete now...which they don’t. Everything is chaos in the Bay now, and I think it’s safe to say that Nellie-ball might have run its course for Golden State.

The “It’s A Good Thing We Wasted All Our Cap Space In ’09 Instead of Saving For ‘10” Group

26. Detroit Pistons (7-12)  

Actually, the name of the group pretty much sums up everything I needed to say about Detroit. Just because you have cap space doesn’t mean you have to spend it.

The “Bad But Show Signs of Life” Group

25. Indiana Pacers (6-11)  

I actually don’t think this Pacers team is terrible. Danny Granger is becoming one of the NBA’s elite scorers…ok, he’s not becoming, he IS one of the elite scorers. Dahntay Jones has seen an offensive explosion this year, nearly tripling his career scoring average. And Roy Hibbert gave great minutes in a 7 game stretch earlier this year, averaging 14.4 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks.

But with the loss of Jarrett Jack and T.J. Ford’s disappearance, Indiana is getting virtually no production from the point guard position. Hibbert’s minutes have vanished with the return of Tyler Hansbrough and Troy Murphy. And defensively they are by far the worst team in the Central Division, giving up nearly 103 points per game.

They are just 2-6 in their last 8 games, with only two of those games against teams with winning records (Cleveland and Dallas).

24. Memphis Grizzlies (8-12)

The good for Memphis: Marc Gasol is the headliner for the NBA’s all-underrated team this year…Rudy Gay & Zach Randolph are having surprisingly productive seasons…above .500 at home and scoring more than 100 points per game…fourth in the league in offensive rebounds and seventh in FG%.

The bad: Mike Conley has yet to get out of his sophomore slump, but it’s his third year…O.J. Mayo is averaging less than 3 assists a game…Rudy Gay isn’t producing anything but points (no rebounds, assists)…tied for next to last in the NBA in turnovers per game and 25th in assist/turnover ratio.

It’s hard to get a feel on Memphis. They look more competitive than in year’s past, but…it’s still Memphis. And they’re still nowhere near good enough to compete for a playoff spot in the West.

23. New Orleans Hornets (8-11)  

Like Memphis, it’s tough to get a good beat on the Hornets this year.

Please don’t underestimate Chris Paul. I know most people realize how good he is, but it’s how good he makes everyone around him. Morris Peterson & Peja Stojakovic are just average without Paul getting them wide open looks. Emeka Okafor & David West are really just filling space in the middle without getting easy lay-ups, dunks, and put backs because of Paul. No one else on the team can engineer a fast break like CP.

But at the same time, they’ve pretty much held their own since Paul’s injury, going 4-5 in a tough stretch that included games against Portland, Atlanta (twice), Phoenix, Miami, Sacramento, and the Lakers. Darren Collison & Marcus Thornton have jumped right in the mix and played extremely well. They also boast a 6-2 home record and face a much more favorable schedule in December.

I don’t think this is a playoff team, but with a healthy Chris Paul, they’re competitive.

22. Philadelphia 76ers (5-15)  

They might have been five spots lower if I wrote this a week ago, but with the return of Allen Iverson, they have a spark for the first time all season.

Philly might be my best 2009 example of why you can’t trust statistics. If you look at their team stats, they’re middle of the road in points, FG%, 3PT%, assists, opp. PPG, and actually are in the top 10 in FT% and steals. They only categories they are really lagging in are rebounds and free throw attempts. But based on that, you would guess that the Sixers are somewhere near .500, right? Nope. Just five wins…and three have come against the Knicks and Nets.

However, A.I. offers them just enough hope.

He should take pressure off of Iguodala in the half-court set, and maybe even open up opportunities for Samuel Dalembert and Elton Brand. He’ll also assuredly increase the Sixers’ free-throw attempts with his ability to drive to the hoop.

But as as much as I personally like Iverson, and I greatly admire his passion and love for the game of basketball, I don’t see the honeymoon lasting long in Philly.

He’s probably not going to be enough to push them into a playoff spot, and he’ll take minutes away from Lou Williams when he returns from injury. And what will happen to Iguodala and Thaddeus Young in the half-court? Will they stand around watching Iverson take 20 shots a game to protect his career scoring average? How does this help the Sixers in the long run? This was a desperate marketing move from Philly, but it’s enough to keep them out of the cellar…for now.

The “I Have No Idea What The (Bleep) To Think” Group

21. Toronto Raptors (8-13)

Almost the worst defensive team in the league, giving up an astounding 110 points per game, including 146 on Wednesday night’s beat down at Atlanta. A dismal 2-9 record on the road and a 2-9 record in their last 11 games. In five of their seven wins, they’ve held opponents under 100 points; in all of their losses, their opponent has cracked 100. Hedo Turkoglu is not the player he was in Orlando and he just looks older than his age suggests (30).

But still, the Raps have shown flashes of being a good team this year. The first that comes to mind for me was their opening game against the Cavs, when they hounded the Cavs defensively and exploited Cleveland in the pick-and-roll, getting open jump shots for Andrea Bargnani and Chris Bosh, while Jose Calderon & Jarrett Jack got to the hoop with ease.

Pretty much nothing that happens with Toronto would surprise me, whether they won 10 in a row or lost 10 in a row.

20. Chicago Bulls (7-10)

Just like Toronto, the Bulls have been all over the place. After allowing only one team (Boston) to score more than 100 points in their first 10 games, Chicago went 1-5 on their annual circus trip, giving up 105.5 points per game.

Offensively they look lost, scoring just 91.4 a game and shooting a dismal 43.5% from the field, good for 28th in the league. But they’re 5-1 at home and still trying to fill the scoring gap left by Ben Gordon. Joakim Noah & Luol Deng have played good minutes this year and Derrick Rose is still coming into his own. This team has much more potential than Toronto, and I think they can easily get back in the playoff picture…just play some defense!

The “Strangely Intriguing” Group

19. Los Angeles Clippers (8-11)  

The Clips have played all season without #1 pick Blake Griffin and about half the season without starting guard Eric Gordon. They dropped their first four to the Lakers, Suns, Jazz and Mavs (all playoff teams) and quietly won four of five in late November.

Chris Kaman & Marcus Camby are combining for 28 points, 19 rebounds, and 4 blocks per game, while Rasual Butler and Craig Smith are two great players to bring off the bench

. So could the Clippers…the Los Angeles Clippers…be a legit playoff contender by the end of the season?

Several questions need to be answered. How will Blake Griffin fit into the rotation since Camby & Kaman are playing so well? Can Baron Davis be durable enough to stay healthy all season? How many games will Mike Dunleavy cost them in crunch time with his line-up juggling and poor play calling? And can they survive two 6+ game road trips in December and January to keep them in the hunt for an 8-seed come March?

18. Charlotte Bobcats (8-11)  

The league’s best defensive team has started to gel since the arrival of Captain Jack from Golden State, winning four in a row (including a thumping of my Cavs) before falling to Boston on Tuesday.

Gerald Wallace is all over the boards (almost 12 a game) and the Nazr Mohammad/Tyson Chandler combo in the middle is doing enough to get by.

I really loved the Stephen Jackson acquisition for this team; he gives them size on the perimeter and someone who can get his own shot at any time, which is what the Bobcats have seemingly lacked for years. But do they have enough scoring, especially inside? When they play physical teams (like Boston), their interior players are really exposed.

17. Washington Wizards (7-11)  

My sleeper pick at the beginning of the year is quietly coming around, winning four of the last five and taking advantage of a soft schedule. It pretty much comes down to health issues for Washington: if the Wizards can get everybody healthy, they could give Boston or Orlando (or Cleveland especially) a real headache in the first round of the playoffs.

Do you realize that Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler have only played together in about 30 games in the last 2+ seasons? This is by no means an elite team, but definitely a playoff one.

The “Hey, These Guys Are A Pleasant Surprise!” Group

16. Sacramento Kings (9-8)  

I’d like the shake the hand of the man that predicted that Paul Westphal would lead one of last year’s most pathetic teams back into respectability so quickly. The Kings are exciting to watch; a youthful, up-tempo team that ranks in the top 10 in FGM, FGA, and FG%.

I love Jason Thompson inside; he’s a throwback big man that does the dirty work inside and doesn’t take anything off the table. And as strange as this sounds, the injury to Kevin Martin might have helped Tyreke Evans — he has the ball in his hands more and can create for himself and his teammates.

I know it’s early, but if this team stays hot (remember they’ll not only get Martin back in a few weeks, but Francisco Garcia will return as well), we could get a Lakers/Kings play-off rematch. I’m giddy!

15. Milwaukee Bucks (9-9)  

I think we all know the secret to Milwaukee’s blistering 8-3 start — an enthralling point guard from Italy, Brandon Jennings. I don’t think anybody saw what Jennings was going to do this year; this guy barely broke 10 points a game overseas and shot less than 30% from behind the line.

Already this year, he’s scored 55 in a game, leading a team whose starters include Charlie Bell, Carlos Delfino, and Ersan Ilyasova into second place in the Central Division, and to top it off, he’s shooting nearly 46% from 3. And watching him play is a treat in the eyes of every basketball purist.

He’s making fans for Minnesota, New York, Golden State (and even Toronto and Sacramento) envious. I don’t see Milwaukee maintaining their current pace, but the Bucks have found a franchise player for the next 10 years.

14. Houston Rockets (11-8)  

They lost Ron Artest to free agency and Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady to injury (which is over half their offense from 2008-09). So the overall games of role players like Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola, and Shane Battier should also take a dip without premier offensive threats to take the pressure off, right?


Aaron Brooks has been fantastic, nearly doubling his points per game and assist averages from last year, and increasing his numbers in FG% and 3PT%. Battier does all the little things that a good team needs—tenacious defense, countless deflections and tipped balls to teammates, takes charges and plays with an extremely high basketball IQ. And Trevor Ariza has been an upgrade from Artest — better defense and more of a playmaker in the open court.

I love this Rocket team; they’re tough, gritty, and they find ways to win. Barring more injuries (which could be a concern because they’re not that deep), they’ll make the playoffs. Book it.

13. Oklahoma City Thunder (10-9)  

One of the most exciting teams in the league to watch. I love Kevin Durant and everything about his game. I love his jump shot — every time he shoots, I expect it to go in. I love the way he can take smaller defenders into the post and abuse them with a variety of moves (fade away, up-and-under, spin move).

He commands so much attention from opposing defenses that it makes things much easier for Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, two very underrated players in my opinion.

Do you realize that the Thunder are averaging nearly 100 points a game with Nenad Krstic & Etan Thomas as their two centers? It’s really a shame that out of the Kings, Rockets, and Thunder, only one will probably make the playoffs. If it’s OKC, we’re treated to a Durant/Kobe first-round match-up, which could be one of the most exciting opening round duels in recent memory.

The “Good, But Not Quite Elite” Group

12. Miami Heat (10-8)

There’s not really much to say about Miami. If Dwyane Wade plays out of his mind, attacks the basket relentlessly (and gets bailed out 4-5 times a game by the officials, which he typically does), and knocks down some jump shots, the Heat can compete with anyone.

If he’s struggling, they can’t.

Regardless, even if Wade is in vintage form, the Heat can’t beat Cleveland, Boston, Orlando, and probably Atlanta, in a seven-game series with their current roster. But they are one of the few teams who can offer two max contracts at the season’s end.

11. Utah Jazz (11-8)  

Last year the Jazz were plagued by injuries and never could get on track. I picked them to win the Northwest Division because I thought playing healthy all season would really benefit them, and I thought they would improve on their woeful road record (15-26 in ’09).

Nineteen games in, I wish I could have that one back.

Other than Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer (who both have played marvelous), the Jazz are lacking one other player that can keep defenses from honing on the aforementioned two. They need to improve outside shooting (26th in the league with just 4 3-pointers made per game), and they still struggle away from Salt Lake City (three road wins — New York, Philadelphia, and San Antonio with no Parker/Ginobili).

The Jazz always just seem like they should be better. But they’re not.

10. Portland Trailblazers (12-8)  

Similar story for Portland. They got better on paper, but the results haven’t translated to more wins.

Andre Miller is seemingly a better point guard than Steve Blake, but sources in the Blazer organization say that Brandon Roy prefers playing with Blake and that Miller isn’t working out the way they envisioned. Greg Oden has improved his game, but he’s still constantly in foul trouble.

Charles Barkley usually says this every time Portland plays Thursday night on TNT — down the stretch in a close game, the Blazers can’t get easy buckets. They have to take jump shots, and you can’t be an elite team settling for jumpers in the 4th quarter. Like the Jazz, you just get the sense that they should be better than they are.

And one quick tangent: after watching Greg Oden at Ohio State for a year and seeing several Blazer games over the past two years, Oden gets some of the cheapest foul calls I’ve ever seen. Over half of his fouls are calls that go either way or simple touch fouls that go uncalled 90% of the time, but for whatever reason, he gets the call. It can’t be that he rubs referees the wrong way, because he’s one of the more humble and likeable players in the league. I don’t understand.

(One more tangent: as I was finishing this up, Oden fractured his patella and is likely done for the year. It’s now safe to say that Oden over Durant was an error that cannot be justified.)

9. Phoenix Suns (14-5)  

They could be in the “pleasant surprise” group, but they’re better than that. Steve Nash is really a freak of nature; when the Suns signed him to a long-term deal years back, I thought they would be getting 2-3 high quality years out of him. But he keeps showing up every year and putting up unbelievable numbers, constantly setting up teammates for open lay-ups or jumpers, and improving his own jump shot as the years progress. He has to be a top 5 MVP candidate at this point (he might be number one if he weren’t the biggest defensive liability at point guard in the NBA).

But he’s the sole reason the Suns are playing this well (as an Amar’e Stoudemire fantasy owner, I can assure you it’s not him and his 6.9 rebounds a game). Get used to Phoenix; they’ll be around all year.


The “Can They Challenge The Big Dogs?” Group

8. Dallas Mavericks (14-5)

The Mavs are quietly doing work this year.

They have the most road wins in the West and scored wins over the Lakers, Spurs, Rockets, and Jazz. Like Steve Nash, Jason Kidd somehow withstands the test of time each year and continues to play at a high level (including a mind-boggling 48% from the 3-point line, compared to his career average of 34.5%). They get quality minutes from Drew Gooden and Jason Terry and now that Shawn Marion is playing with an elite point guard, he gets better looks from the field and is more of a threat in transition.

But the main reason the Mavs have moved into the same conversation as the Spurs and Nuggets in the West is Dirk Nowitzki.

Dirk is playing like 2006-07 Dirk; he’s got swagger, intensity, and you’re seeing his infamous scowl more often this year.

You know the look I’m talking about—the look that Dirk gets when he gets the ball at the foul line and scores three straight possessions. The “there’s no effing way you’re stopping me” look. Sometimes you can throw stats out the window — just watch a Mavs game and watch how Dirk plays. He really believes this team can compete for a title.

Can they? We’ll find out more in mid-December to mid-January, when Dallas plays Cleveland, Portland, Utah, the Lakers (twice), Oklahoma City (twice), Houston (twice), and San Antonio.

7. Atlanta Hawks (13-6)  

Talent hasn’t been the issue for Atlanta the last two years. Yet the Hawks quietly improved their roster’s depth in the off-season.

They traded Acie Law and Speedy Claxton  for Jamal Crawford, an explosive scorer capable of going for 20 every night. Joe Smith provides veteran leadership and a mentor to young guys like Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia.

And draft pick Jeff Teague is a key addition because he’s more of a true point guard than Crawford and is somebody that can competently run an offense when Mike Bibby is on the bench (something the Hawks haven’t had in a long, long time).

But talent is essentially meaningless at this level without maturity. And the youthful, high-flying Hawks seemed to grow up overnight.

Bibby is playing like an experienced veteran and is content with picking and choosing his spots while mostly deferring to his teammates. And Josh Smith finally seems to be putting everything together — he’s smarter with his shot selection, dominant on the glass, and staying out of foul trouble. He’s a perfect reflection of what’s going on with Atlanta — loads of talent and potential, and this year he’s putting everything together. And the Hawks are winning.

6. San Antonio Spurs (9-8)  

Ignore the Spurs’ record. You know they’re going to be around come playoff time. They’ve got the greatest power forward in the history of basketball and, for once, some young players around him (Richard Jefferson, DeJuan Blair, Roger Mason, and George Hill).

They just need to be healthy around the All-Star break. If they get two months of basketball under their belt before the playoffs roll around, they can play with the Lakers.

5. Denver Nuggets (15-5)  

Carmelo Anthony is undoubtedly the NBA MVP. He’s the best pure scorer in the game.

Everything comes easy for him; he can beat defenders off the dribble, in the post, from the wing, from the 3-point line, from anywhere. And he finally seems to get it — he understands what it takes to not just be an elite scorer in this league, but an elite player .

I thought Denver would have a bit of a down year in 2009-10, but ‘Melo has made sure this didn’t happen. And now the Nuggets are the best chance of taking down the Lakers (come on, someone has to do it!!!).

Also, don’t underestimate Chauncey Billups’ influence on this team. Remember last year, when the Nuggets swapped Iverson for Billups (one of the most lopsided trades that led to the inevitable 10-year run of mediocrity for Detroit), and everyone realized that they forgot how good Billups was? I think the same has kind of happened again this year — people just forget how good Chauncey is.


The “Elite” Group

4. Cleveland Cavaliers (14-5)  

Now we’re in my wheelhouse…and the words “LeBron James” will barely be uttered in this section because we all know he’s the best player in the NBA, and there’s not much need to keep hyping him up.

It’s hard to gage the Cavs so far this year because, well, they’ve been sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde. Embarrassing road blowouts to Toronto and Charlotte were enough to make you start to question whether or not this team was good enough to get out of the second round of the playoffs. Impressive offensive performances against Orlando, Miami, Utah and Dallas made this team look like a juggernaut that could waltz through the NBA Finals.

Recently, they’ve found a nice balance, winning six of their last seven and playing consistent basketball with Shaq in the line-up.

When you look at the positives for the Cavs this season, you have to start with J.J. Hickson. Six games into the season, Mike Brown took Anderson Varejao out of the starting five and inserted Hickson, and the second-year forward has exploded onto the scene, averaging 11.4 points and 4.2 rebounds in about 25 minutes.

Not only was this a great move for Hickson’s confidence, but also for Varejao — Andy is better coming off the bench because he plays with such high intensity and always provides a spark. Anthony Parker & Jamario Moon are beginning to gel in their roles as well.

However, there are still a few major concerns for the Cavs.

The first is Delonte West. He’s the Cavs best perimeter defender (Mo Williams is a fantastic shooter but he gets burned big-time on the defensive end), and the Cavs really need his toughness and consistent play — other than LeBron, he was the only player that showed up in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

He also allows Anthony Parker to come off the bench, and if the Cavs can trot out Gibson, Parker, Moon, Andy and Z off the bench (and Leon Powe when he returns), they have the best bench in the league. But his minutes are yanked around and he’s been inactive for half the season—the Cavs either need to work him back in the rotation, or ship him out for another shooting guard.

My biggest problem with the Cavs? The way they were built in the offseason.I think Danny Ferry panicked too much after last year’s loss to Orlando and re-worked the team this year to try and beat them.

Which is fine; with Shaq able to guard Howard one-on-one, and no Turkoglu to create such a match-up nightmare, the Cavs match-up with the Magic now, and can probably beat them in the playoffs.

But the Cavs forgot about Boston. Now the Celtics have a major match-up advantage over the Cavs with Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace, who are great pick-and-pop players. Either Shaq or Z will have to guard one of them, and they can’t chase those guys out on the perimeter.

3. Orlando Magic (15-4)  

I admire what Orlando did in the offseason. They couldn’t stand pat because they weren’t good enough to win a title with their roster. So they made some moves, which have worked out well. They are still an explosive offensive team, and are quietly efficient on defense (5th in the league at 94.2 points per game allowed). They hit nearly 4 more threes per game than their opponents and get to the line frequently (Dwight Howard is a major reason for this). Jason Williams is rejuvenated and is (shockingly) running their offense to a tee, and Ryan Anderson is a great back-up for Lewis.

But the Magic lost their biggest advantage from last year’s team — Hedo Turkoglu. Not that Turkoglu was unbelievably great, but he played fantastic in the playoffs and teams couldn’t match-up with both him and Lewis.

Vince Carter is much more perimeter-oriented than Turkoglu and doesn’t get the three-point shooters as many open looks.

And I know I’m biased (I really thought the Cavs were better than the Magic all of last year except for a two week stretch – which is all that really mattered, I guess), but I don’t see a duplicate success for Orlando in the playoffs again this year. This current team, even with Jameer Nelson, can’t beat both the Celtics and Cavs. So if they’re not the #1 seed, I don’t think they can make the Finals.

2. Los Angeles Lakers (15-3)

I know what you’re thinking: L.A. at number 2?!? Are you crazy? They’re the defending champs! They have the best record in the league! They have the best player in the league! They look totally unstoppable. How could they possibly be number 2?

Here’s my justification: The Lakers have played 14 of their 18 games at home (this is meaningful — they won two road games in overtime by a combined 4 points, and also got torched by the Nuggets in Denver).

Before last night’s buzzer-beater against Miami, they only beat one team with a winning record in the last 3 weeks (101-85 vs. OKC). And come playoff time, Artest is not a major upgrade over Ariza. Ariza played great defense, hit the clutch 3, and constantly deferred to Kobe – he knew his role. What’s going to happen in a close game when Artest jacks up a contested jumper and Kobe gives him that evil stare down?

Regardless, they still are the best team in the West and unless some team gets dramatically better, they look like a lock for the Finals. So calm down Lakers fans. You’ll be just fine.

1. Boston Celtics (16-4)

The team to beat.

They took Orlando seven games last year with no Garnett and with Brian Scalabrine getting big minutes.

Now they have Garnett back, along with Rasheed Wallace (who looks like he gives a crap for the first time in 2 years), Marquis Daniels, Shelden Williams (playing the best ball of his career), and sharpshooter Eddie House (I’ve never seen House put up a 3 that I didn’t think was going in). Kendrick Perkins is like an old-school Robert Parish in the middle, and Rajon Rondo is the Celtic version of Anderson Varejao — invaluable but annoying as hell if he’s not on your team. And either Paul Pierce or Ray Allen can carry the scoring load each game.

Oh, and they’re the best defensive team in the league. With a healthy Garnett, they probably make the Finals last year. Now they have a deeper bench and a renewed focus and drive to make it back and recreate a Celtic dynasty. The ideal team — they play basketball the way it was meant to be played. And they look like they won't be satisfied until they're NBA champs again.

Of course, we still have more than 75% of the season to go, plus two months of playoffs. Nothing is set in stone, so let's see what unfolds!


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