NBA Power Rankings Week 17: How Far Did Kobe Bryant and Los Angeles Lakers Fall?

Brian ChappattaCorrespondent IIFebruary 21, 2011

NBA Power Rankings Week 17: How Far Did Kobe Bryant and Los Angeles Lakers Fall?

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - FEBRUARY 14:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts to the bench against the Charlotte Bobcats during their game at Time Warner Cable Arena on February 14, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowle
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Kobe Bryant may have won the All-Star Game MVP Award, but that's not going to silence the critics of the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe's squad entered the All-Star break on a three-game losing streak, culminating in an embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the worst team in basketball.

    Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls knocked off the San Antonio Spurs in a statement game to the rest of the league, the Boston Celtics still have the Miami Heat's number and Carmelo Anthony is still a Denver Nugget—for now.

    Who moved up and who moved down? Find out in this week's Bleacher Report Power Rankings. 

    The Bleacher Report NBA Power Rankings are done by averaging individual featured columnists' tallies. This week's contributors were Brian Chappatta (Bulls), Andrew Bailey (NBA/Mavericks) and Allen Kim (NBA Team Leader).

30. Cleveland Cavaliers (10-46)

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    MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 31:  Antawn Jamison #4 of the  Cleveland Cavaliers shoots over Zydrunas Ilgauskas #11 of the Miami Heat during a game against at American Airlines Arena on January 31, 2011 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    What’s this? The Cleveland Cavaliers have won two of their past three games, both of which were at home against Los Angeles squads? Is this a sign of things to come?

    On one hand, not many teams in the NBA can say they’ve beaten both NBA finalists from last season. On the other hand, the Cavs are still a miserable 10-46, which is easily the worst record by any squad at the All-Star break.

    Part of their success has to be attributed to Mo Williams’ return, even though he’s only had a marginal impact in the box score. Another factor is J.J. Hickson’s emergence as a legitimate double-double threat every night. And then there’s Antawn Jamison, who’s playing so well he might actually have trade value again.

    Look, this is a Cleveland team that was ruined by LeBron’s departure and was decimated further when Williams and Anderson Varejao went down with injuries. Now healthy, they still won’t sniff 20 wins, but if it’s any consolation, they’re not the worst team ever.

29. Minnesota Timberwolves (13-43)

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    BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 03:  Kevin Love #42 of the Minnesota Timberwolves wipes his face in the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics on January 3, 2011 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeated the Timberwolves 96-93. NOTE TO USER:
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    The good news: Kevin Love made the All-Star team.

    The bad news: the Timberwolves are certainly one of the two worst teams in the Western Conference.

    Minnesota headed into the All-Star break losing four straight to mediocre opponents (Los Angeles Clippers, Portland, Philadelphia and Indiana). That came after an encouraging two-game winning streak, which is only the third time that has happened for the Timberwolves this season. They have yet to win three in a row.

    Maybe if Ricky Rubio comes next year, the Timberwolves will improve. But until then, David Kahnnnnn looks to be lottery-bound yet again.

28. Sacramento Kings (13-40)

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 18:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings and the Rookie Team moves the ball in the first half during the T-Mobile Rookie Challenge and Youth Jam at Staples Center on February 18, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    How long will it take for DeMarcus Cousins to get it?

    The Sacramento Kings must be hoping that day will come soon. Maybe he learned something from playing with his Kentucky teammates John Wall and Eric Bledsoe in the All-Star Rookie Game. Or maybe he’s just still too childish and inconsistent to contribute nightly.

    He has played in four of the last five games for the Kings, averaging 17.5 points, 13 rebounds and 1.3 blocks during that stretch. By comparison, Blake Griffin, the runaway Rookie of the Year, is putting up 24.4 points, 10.8 boards and 0.2 blocks in his past five.

    Cousins and company will get the first crack at the Miami Heat after the All-Star break, so perhaps the volatile rookie can wreak havoc against the Heat’s weak interior presence.

27. Toronto Raptors (15-41)

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 18:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors and the Sophomore Team dunks the ball against the Rookie Team during the T-Mobile Rookie Challenge and Youth Jam at Staples Center on February 18, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  (
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Was it coincidence that the Toronto Raptors’ worst losing skid coincided with the Cavs record streak of losses? Regardless, it’s fitting that the Raptors were knocked out by Chris Bosh’s new team to conclude the first part of the NBA season.

    Andrea Bargnani is having himself a fantastic year in terms of scoring, which culminated in a 38-point outburst against the Heat. He’s averaging close to 30 points per game in his last five contests on better than 53-percent shooting.

    Unfortunately, that’s really all that’s going well for Toronto right now. Since New Year’s, the Raptors have only won four games, and those were against the Cavaliers, Kings, Timberwolves and Clippers. The three former teams are literally the three worst teams by record in the NBA.

26. Washington Wizards (15-39)

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 18:  John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards and the Rookie Team hangs on the rim in the second half during the T-Mobile Rookie Challenge and Youth Jam at Staples Center on February 18, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Of all the bottom feeders in the NBA right now, it’s fairly clear that the team with the most upside is the Washington Wizards.

    Obviously, John Wall is going to be a superstar. Very little can be ascertained from the All-Star Rookie Game, but the kid is averaging 15 points, nine assists and four rebounds per game. In other words, this guy is going to be a star in the NBA as long has he can stay healthy.

    Meanwhile, the emergence of Nick Young has been a huge plus for the Wiz. Before his knee injury, he torched the Cavaliers for 31 points on 14-for-21 shooting from the field. He also scored 26 against the Milwaukee Bucks.

    Josh Howard has also come back strong from his devastating injury and led the Wizards with 32 points against Orlando in Young’s absence. And though perhaps he has underperformed this season, JaVale McGee is going to be a solid pro for years to come, as shown by a 16-point, 17-rebound effort against Milwaukee.

    If Washington is at full strength, it’s a team that playoff hopefuls can’t overlook on their schedules.

25. New Jersey Nets (17-40)

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 14:  Brook Lopez #11 of the New Jersey Nets shoots over Lamar Odom #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on January 14, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers won 100-88.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
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    Will they get Carmelo? Will they really trade a ridiculous four first-round picks in the process, and start over with Anthony and Brook Lopez?

    If they do, they’re not going to be any worse than they are right now. The fact of the matter is that Devin Harris and Brook Lopez, the two centerpieces of the franchise, have underachieved this season. Lopez looks like he has forgotten how to rebound this season, while Harris is barely averaging five assists in his past five contests.

    Some people, myself included, believed that the worst team in the NBA last year would make large strides thanks to a multitude of free agent signings and draft picks. Guess I was wrong.

24. Detroit Pistons (21-36)

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    BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 19:  Rodney Stuckey #3 of the Detroit Pistons drives around Rajon Rondo #9 of the Boston Celtics on January 19, 2011 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeated the Pistons 86-82. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
    Elsa/Getty Images

    There was a reason I cheered when I found out the Detroit Pistons overspent on Ben Gordon. This is it.

    The team of the mid-2000s is now faced with too many shooting guards and old players who don’t fit well together, and the team’s record has suffered for it. Gordon, Richard Hamilton, Tracy McGrady, Rodney Stuckey…the list goes on.

    The worst part for Detroit is that T-Mac is playing better than the other players who are locked up for the long-term.

    Ben Wallace is washed up. Tayshaun Prince should not be a first option on any professional squad, or even a second option for that matter. The only memorable thing Charlie Villanueva has done this season was tweet about getting called a “cancer patient” by Kevin Garnett.

    Expect a lot more playing time for Greg Monroe and Austin Daye in the second half of the season, because the current players on this team aren’t taking the Pistons anywhere. 

23. Milwaukee Bucks (21-34)

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    MILWAUKEE - NOVEMBER 16: Drew Gooden #0 of the Milwaukee Bucks grabs a rebound next to teammate Brandon Jennings #3 against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Bradley Center on November 16, 2010 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Lakers defeated the Bucks 118-107. N
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Remember when Milwaukee Bucks fans were saying their team would compete with the Bulls for the Central Division crown?

    And then they blamed injuries, most notably to Brandon Jennings, for that not happening. And then they lamented how tough their strength of schedule was.

    Well, the Chicago Bulls have run away with the division title. The Bucks really needed to make a move in February, when they matched up with some of the weaker teams in the NBA (Indiana and Memphis were their two toughest opponents).

    Yet they couldn’t get it done. Look at the Bucks’ most recent wins: Clippers, Raptors, Nets, Raptors, Hawks, Cavaliers, Wizards. My point is they’ve struggled to win against winning teams, though they did manage to take down the Mavericks on New Year’s Day.

    All this, and yet in the weak Eastern Conference, the Bucks could still make the playoffs, as they are only 3.5 games behind the conference-rival Indiana Pacers for eighth place.

22. Charlotte Bobcats (24-32)

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    CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 15: Former player Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls talks to a fan before the Bulls take on the Charlotte Bobcats at the United Center on February 15, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
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    Maybe Michael Jordan lit a fire under his team when he practiced with them. Or maybe Paul Silas is settling into his new head coaching role. Whatever it is, the Charlotte Bobcats are a team on the rise.

    The Bobcats are 3-3 in their last six games, winning against the Celtics, Hawks and Lakers, while losing to the Bulls, Nets and Pacers. Those three wins are pretty impressive, while the three losses are concerning, especially since Charlotte was previously 2-0 against Chicago.

    Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace will create match-up problems for most teams. D.J. Augustin has struggled as of late, but oftentimes has been the best player on the court for Charlotte. Kwame Brown is actually producing at a respectable level, and Gerald Henderson has been on a scoring tear as of late.

    With all that said, the Bobcats seem destined to be a playoff bubble team. 

21. Los Angeles Clippers (21-35)

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 19:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers dunks the ball as his elbow hangs on the rim in the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest apart of NBA All-Star Saturday Night at Staples Center on February 19, 2011 in Los Angeles, Californ
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Are they fun to watch? Yes. Are they going to make the playoffs this season? Probably not.

    Next year, I’m sure the Los Angeles Clippers will make the playoffs as a No. 7 or No. 8 seed. But this season, they started out too poorly. Without star Eric Gordon of late, they have fallen to teams they should have beaten easily (read: Cavaliers).

    The Clippers are currently 21-35, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they go .500 or better in the final stretch of the regular season. Blake Griffin is a legit superstar to build around, Gordon is an up-and-coming wing player and players like DeAndre Jordan have tremendous upside. Watch out league, just not this season.

20. Indiana Pacers (24-30)

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    MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 08:  Roy Hibbert #55 of the Indiana Pacers drives around Eric Dampier #25 of the Miami Heat during a game at American Airlines Arena on February 8, 2011 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Things are certainly looking brighter in the Frank Vogel era for the Indiana Pacers. Whether that means making the playoffs (which the new coach basically guaranteed) is a different story.

    The Pacers headed into the All-Star break on the losing end of back-to-back games against the Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons. The Miami game was lost in part because of a rare five-second call which just about sealed the win for the Heat. It seemed like the Pacers could not recover from that defeat against the lowly Pistons.

    Still, Roy Hibbert, Darren Collison and the young guns of the Pacers are playing more minutes and, more importantly, improving every game. Indiana should strive to sneak into the playoffs this season and accumulate some postseason experience, because they are loaded with cap room this summer and could make a few strong moves under the new collective bargaining agreement.

19. Houston Rockets (26-31)

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 01:  Luis Scola #4 of the Houston Rockets is defended by Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers in the second half at Staples Center on February 1, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers defeated the Rockets 114-106. NOTE
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    The Rockets are the definition of a middle-of-the-road team in the NBA this year. They have some good pieces, such as Kevin Martin and Luis Scola, but sometimes they have trouble knocking off easy opposition, such as the Minnesota Timberwolves.

    What’s interesting about Houston is it has two quality point guards, and seemingly not enough minutes to go around for both of them. Aaron Brooks is among the quickest players in the NBA and gives opposing defenses fits, but Kyle Lowry has led the team in points and assists in two of the Rockets’ past three contests.

    Without Yao, Houston is exploring getting bigger at the power forward and center position, and reports have the team dangling Courtney Lee in possible trades. At the end of the day, no move Houston makes is going to elevate them into the Western Conference elite. This is a bubble team for the playoffs, through and through.

18. Philadelphia 76ers (27-29)

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    CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 21: Elton Brand #42 of the Philadelphia 76ers looses control of the ball against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on December 21, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the 76ers 121-76. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ack
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    There’s a reason that Doug Collins is one of the top considerations for Coach of the Year. And that’s because he has turned what was supposed to be one of the worst teams in the East into a legitimate playoff contender, one that has beaten the San Antonio Spurs, among other teams.

    Elton Brand is playing inspired basketball, averaging close to 15 points and 10 boards per game. Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young are having nice seasons as young players. And Andre Iguodala, though not improving as much as his fellow FIBA stars, is still producing at a reasonably high level.

    Though still under .500, the 76ers appear to be the most likely team to earn the No. 7 seed in the East this season, with the Pacers and Bobcats breathing down their necks. Though those teams are merely average, it should prove interesting to see which young players thrive down the stretch and lead their squad to a playoff berth.

17. Golden State Warriors (26-29)

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    OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 24:  Monta Ellis #8 of the Golden State Warriors in action against the San Antonio Spurs at Oracle Arena on January 24, 2011 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or us
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Can Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry coexist? Or is one of them destined to be shipped out of Golden State?

    The way the team has been playing in February, perhaps this team is hitting its stride and finding out how to play with basically two undersized shooting guards. The Warriors are 6-2 in February, losing twice to the Suns but toppling the Bulls, Thunder, Hornets and Jazz, among others.

    David Lee, the Warriors’ prized free agent acquisition, is finally starting to put up numbers comparable to his statistics in New York, which helps  Golden State balance their scoring attack and limit second-chance opportunities for the opposition.

    Moreover, not enough can be said about the emergence of Dorell Wright. Though he did not win the Three-Point Shootout, he has emerged as one of the biggest threats from long distance in the NBA. He capitalizes off of drives from Curry and Ellis and, at the same time, opens the lane for Golden State’s two slashers.

    Dare I say playoffs for the Warriors, considering how they are playing lately? It could happen, and Mavericks fans know how dangerous this team can be if they sneak in as the No. 8 seed.

16. Phoenix Suns (27-27)

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    PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 17:  (L-R) Steve Nash #13, Vince Carter #25 and Channing Frye #8 of the Phoenix Suns react during a break from the NBA game against the Dallas Mavericks at US Airways Center on February 17, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Mavericks d
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Free Steve Nash!

    But seriously, how did this guy not get voted into the All-Star game, considering he’s putting up just as good of numbers without the likes of Amar'e Stoudemire and despite losing some of his best teammates to the Magic in a midseason trade?

    At the end of the day, the Suns would be a lock for the Eastern Conference playoffs, but in the loaded Western Conference, the elders (Vince Carter, Grant Hill, Nash, etc.) are likely going to be outpaced by the younger Grizzlies. That said, Nash’s productivity at this age is remarkable.

    And if the Grizzlies do eventually move back to Vancouver, Nash and his eternal youthfulness could join the franchise in Canada, his homeland.

15. Utah Jazz (31-26)

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    PHOENIX - OCTOBER 12:  Head coach Jerry Sloan of the Utah Jazz talks with his team during the preseason NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center on October 12, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees th
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    No Jerry Sloan. A four-game losing streak headed into the All-Star break, including the loss to the Bulls, which was the last game Sloan coached. All this signals problems brewing in Salt Lake City.

    Deron Williams has said some unimpressive comments, hinting that he does not like the bright lights or handling pressure. Those are not words you want to hear from your supposed superstar, who the organization was so desperate to appease that Sloan knew he had to step down.

    This is still a talented team that should make the playoffs, especially if the Nuggets trade away Carmelo and struggle to adjust. But what once was the most stable franchise in the NBA suddenly looks more vulnerable than ever before.

14. Memphis Grizzlies (31-26)

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 02:  Head coach Lionel Hollins of the Memphis Grizzlies talks to O.J. Mayo #32 in the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on November 2, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers defeated the Grizzlies 124-10
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    For those who don’t take team chemistry into account when thinking about trades, just look at the Memphis Grizzlies and how they’ve performed without O.J. Mayo. One word: spectacularly.

    In fact, the case could be made that the Grizzlies are among the league’s hottest teams since 2011 got underway: 17-8 is not a bad record at all, and that comes against quality opposition.

    The leader of this new-and-improved Grizzlies squad? It has been a little bit of everyone. Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay have all played phenomenally to help launch the Grizz into the playoff conversation. They toppled the Lakers, Thunder (twice), Mavericks and Magic so far in the new year, and you can bet teams don’t want to see Memphis in the first round.

    Will the Grizzlies win a first-round series? Don’t count on it. But this young team is making large strides this year and will only get better in the second half of the season.

13. New York Knicks (28-26)

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 20:  Amare Stoudemire #1 of the New York Knicks and the Eastern Conference stands with Carmelo Anthony #15 of the Denver Nuggets and the Western Conference after the Western Conference won 148-143 victory in the 2011 NBA All-Sta
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    At the All-Star break, the New York Knicks are barely above .500, but for the first time in a long while, they are firmly in the playoff hunt and look to be a lock for the sixth seed in the East.

    This begs the obvious question: How much better would this team be with Carmelo Anthony and without nearly all its role players?

    My answer: Not good enough to move up in the Eastern Conference pecking order. The issue with New York is they keep waiting for the next big thing. First it was 2010. Then LeBron spurned them. Now they’ll get Carmelo, but with just him, Amar'e Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups, they are not going to be any more formidable than with their lengthy role players. They’ll have to wait until 2012 to possibly land one more star, by which time Amare’s knees will be long gone.

    In spite of all this, if I’m the Heat, Bulls or Celtics, I’m fighting for the top two seeds in the conference. The Knicks might not be that good, but they’re a lot better than those after them in the standings.

12. Denver Nuggets (32-25)

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    DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 10:  Carmelo Anthony #15 of the Denver Nuggets looks on during a break in the action against the Dallas Mavericks during NBA action at the Pepsi Center on February 10, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Mavericks 121-
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    Carmelo Anthony.

    He has defined the Denver Nuggets’ season and will continue to do so, regardless of whether he’s traded or not. He is going to leave a lasting impact on a team fighting for playoff contention, despite dealing with all the MeloDrama.

    Which leaves me wondering: How good could this team be if Carmelo was 100 percent focused and his teammates had no distractions? Certainly a lot better than the Knicks and Nets.

    It’s impossible to foresee what will happen in the Nuggets’ future, but right now they have the talent to scare a few top teams in the first round of the playoffs.

11. New Orleans Hornets (33-25)

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    OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 15:  Chris Paul #3 of the New Orleans Hornets shoots over Jeremy Lin #7 of the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena on February 15, 2011 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by download
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    There is no NBA team that is streakier this season than the New Orleans Hornets. Not by a longshot.

    After starting the season 8-0 and 11-1, they dropped to 14-10 in mid-December. Then they went on a rampage, storming to a 31-16 mark by late January. Now, after two large losing streaks, New Orleans is back down to 33-25.

    Maybe Hornets fans can enlighten me because I’m perplexed by these events. The wins have sometimes come against tough opponents, while the losses have sometimes come against weak opposition.

    The Hornets get the Clippers, Timberwolves and Rockets next, so there’s a chance to make up some of the ground they lost and get back to jockeying for playoff position in the loaded West.

10. Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)

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    PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 14:  LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the Portland Trail Blazers blocks out Channing Frye #8 of the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game at US Airways Center on January 14, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Suns defeated the Trail Blazers 115-111.
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    No Brandon Roy? No problem.

    LaMarcus Aldridge is playing absolutely out of his mind as of late, which has surely made several coaches reconsider putting him on the All-Star team. He’s arguably the main reason why the Trail Blazers, despite battling decimating injuries, are still among the best in the West.

    They are on a six-game winning streak, toppling mostly easy foes, but also the Bulls and Hornets. Aldridge has been the leading scorer in four of those six games, and he amassed 34 or more points in each of those contests.

    He’s starting to attack the basket more and not settle for jumpers, which is also helping his rebounding. If Roy can come back and contribute at a reasonable level, there’s no reason to think the Blazers won’t make some noise in the postseason.

9. Atlanta Hawks (34-21)

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    NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 16:  Joe Johnson #2  of the Atlanta Hawks dribbles the ball against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on February 16, 2011 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/o
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    I used to think the Hawks were overrated. But now I’m a believer.

    In a league that’s become more and more defined by Big Threes, Atlanta has a very respectable group of its own in Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford. Johnson leads the team in points and assists. Horford is tops in rebounds. And Smith is the defensive monster, leading the Hawks in both steals and blocks.

    But with this team, you have to question just how far they can realistically go (which is why I opposed the Johnson signing in the offseason). Could Atlanta knock out Orlando in the first round of the playoffs? Probably. But this squad as is won’t get by Boston, Miami or Chicago.

    Still, a deadline deal for a traditional center or a pass-first point guard could make this team a dark horse in the East.

8. Orlando Magic (36-21)

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    BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 06:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Orlando Magic heads for the basket as Kevin Garnett #5 and Glen Davis #11 of the Boston Celtics defend on February 6, 2011 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeated the Magic 91-80.
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    It is hard to determine the effects of Orlando’s mega trades earlier in the season. The Magic have not drastically improved in the standings and while they can still defeat weaker opposition, they fall to the NBA elite. With the exception of the recent win over the struggling Lakers, the last losses for the Magic have come at the hands of the Hornets, Celtics, Heat, Grizzlies and Bulls.

    So unless the Magic can improve the team chemistry or start making even more outside shots, this team is going to get booted in the second round of the playoffs. That’s not a good sign for trying to retain Dwight Howard.

    The Magic are the ultimate wild card. Did they deserve to make it to the NBA Finals two years ago? Not really. But it could easily happen again this year if Gilbert Arenas can be the playmaker they need and if their shots fall.

7. Los Angeles Lakers (38-19)

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 20:  Western Conference celebrates the Western Conference 148-143 victory against the Eastern Conference in the 2011 NBA All-Star Game at Staples Center on February 20, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User express
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    Panic! Panic! Panic!

    It’s amazing what one loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers will cause among the defending champions' fan base.

    It wasn’t just that loss, though. After winning a statement game against the Celtics and knocking off the Knicks, the Los Angeles Lakers lost three consecutive games heading into the All-Star break. For a team that has already faced scrutiny for not showing up to play on occasion, this is alarming.

    Yet I would doubt it’s a reason for drastic action. After all, this Lakers squad is headlined by Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, and reinforced by Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum. Point being, there’s enough star power among the Lakers that they’ll overcome this.

    Yet, even for the defending champs, playoff positioning is important. I guarantee the Lakers do not want to match up with the Spurs in the postseason, nor the Thunder if they can avoid it. 

6. Oklahoma City Thunder (35-19)

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 21:  Teammates Kevin Durant #35 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma Thunder warmup before the start of their game against the Charlotte Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena on December 21, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOT
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    I think by now it’s clear that experts who were predicting the Oklahoma City Thunder would make the NBA Finals were a year or two ahead of themselves. Kevin Durant is most certainly a superstar and prolific scorer, but his percentages are still not fantastic and his supporting cast is still learning.

    One of those teammates, Russell Westbrook, is also a legitimate star in the NBA, while guys like Serge Ibaka and Jeff Green are nice role players. But it just seems like they are not ready for all the pressure that being a champion comes with.

    Oklahoma City was blown out in San Antonio earlier in the year by 27 points, and they’ll be facing the Spurs again in their second game after the break. It should be a good test to see how far they’ve come.

5. Chicago Bulls (38-16)

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    CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 15: Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls goes up to shoot past Stephen Jackson #1 of the Charlotte Bobcats at the United Center on February 15, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Bobcats 106-94. NOTE TO USER: User exp
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    I’m probably biased, but in my mind, there’s no team in the NBA hotter right now than the Chicago Bulls, with the exception maybe of the Dallas Mavericks.

    Derrick Rose took attacks on his defense personally and shut down both Deron Williams and Chris Paul, which cemented his name in the conversation about best point guard in the NBA. Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng are continuing to improve in Tom Thibodeau’s offensive system and are helping Rose with the scoring load. Keith Bogans and Kyle Korver are starting to make three-pointers more often. Omer Asik is emerging as a strong defender in the paint.

    And, most importantly, Joakim Noah is coming back.

    Charles Barkley, who has praised the Bulls all season, said they could be the team to beat when healthy. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Heat, and particularly the Celtics, wouldn’t fancy a second-round date with the Bulls in the playoffs.

    I’ve tempered my expectations to not expect a championship this season. But with Rose playing as if he can’t be stopped, Boozer scoring down low and Noah coming back with the intensity needed to grind out road wins, the sky is the limit for Chicago.

4. Miami Heat (41-15)

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    TORONTO, CANADA - FEBRUARY 16:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat gets set to make a pass in a game against the Toronto Raptors on February 16, 2011 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Canada. The Heat defeated the Raptors 103-95. (Photo by Claus Anderse
    Claus Andersen/Getty Images

    As much as Miami haters and Boston fans don’t want to admit it, the fact of the matter is the Heat are dangerous. And once they figure out how to play at full-strength once Udonis Haslem comes back, it’s going to just get tougher.

    If LeBron James wasn’t injured for a brief stretch in January, the Heat would easily have the best record in the Eastern Conference right now. But, as we all learned, as LeBron goes, so go the Heat. Chris Bosh is too soft to be missed when he’s out injured. James can do what Dwyane Wade does, only better.

    In other words, the Heat are last year’s Cavaliers, only a heck of a lot better.

    What I’m particularly interested in is seeing how Miami matches up to Chicago, as the Heat will be facing the Bulls in two of their next seven games. The Heat have struggled against the Celtics, obviously, so if Derrick Rose and the Bulls can take it to the Heat, it could be a sign that the Heat have not gelled enough yet.

    Only time will tell.

3. Dallas Mavericks (40-16)

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    PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 17:  Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks drives the ball past Mickael Pietrus #12 of the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game at US Airways Center on February 17, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Mavericks defeated the Suns 112-106.
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Early January was tough for the Dallas Mavericks. But since then, there has not been a better team in the NBA, which is why normally aggressive Mark Cuban says he might just stand pat at the trade deadline.

    And why shouldn’t he? Dirk Nowitzki is still going to create match-up problems for every team in the league. Jason Kidd is still going to run the offense well, and now the team has a quality backup. Jason Terry can still score with the best of them and Tyson Chandler has emerged as a vocal leader, especially on defense.

    There’s not much else new with the Mavs, who my roommate has called the Indianapolis Colts of the NBA. That’s not a particularly good connotation, though. The point is the Mavericks have been a fantastic regular season team for years, yet they’ve never been champions. With an aging core, 2011 could be their last real push.

2. Boston Celtics (40-14)

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    BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 10:  Ray Allen #20 of the Boston Celtics reacts after he is called for a foul in the second half against the Los Angeles Lakers on February 10, 2011 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  The Lakers defeated the Celtics 92-86. N
    Elsa/Getty Images

    If I were betting on the order each team would finish in the Eastern Conference, I’d put the Celtics at No. 3, despite holding the top spot at the All-Star break.

    Why? The same reason that the San Antonio Spurs will not have nearly as impressive a record at season’s end as they do right now. Doc Rivers is smart and knows his best players are older, so thus he will use them less.

    The Celtics are 4-3 in February. Obviously they’ve played some good teams, but it could still be a sign of things to come.

    At the same time, when glancing at their schedule, only a select few games are against elite teams. The Celtics have one more match with the Bulls and one last bout with the Heat (both in April), but that’s about it.

1. San Antonio Spurs (46-10)

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 25:  (L-R) Manu Ginobili #20, Tim Duncan #21, and Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs watch from the sidelines during the third quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center on January 25, 2009 in Los Angeles,
    Harry How/Getty Images

    Losing to the Bulls just before the break may have exposed their age a little bit, but the Spurs still have to be considered the team to beat in the NBA right now.

    Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will get some rest and already have, while the Spurs will keep winning thanks to quality bench depth. George Hill and DeJuan Blair will see increased minutes, which will prepare them better for the playoffs, while also preserving the aging core.

    The Spurs don’t have the easiest remaining schedule, as they have two games against both the Lakers and Heat remaining, and also face the Celtics one more time. They’ll also get challenged by a up-and-coming Western Conference foe right off the bat, as they battle the Thunder in their first game after the break.