* Team Records accurate as of Friday morning, 8:39 A.M.
The hyped hoopla of the NBA all-star break is long gone (thank God). Now as we push through the final eight weeks of NBA regular season play, it is fitting to look forward to the postseason. This article is as objective as possible. What I mean by this, is that no matter how much I hate the Lakers(this is true..want to be honest), they are a legitimate champion with the fire power to win championships for the next two to three years.
Before I continue with the rankings, I want to answer some of the questions the average fan has mused over this season:
1) Are we seeing the decline of Kobe Bryant? Yes and No. Kobe is 32. Whether we want to admit it, the guy has played professional hoops for fourteen years. There has been a lot of wear and tear on the knees, which can be atributed to the lack of lift on his jumpshots, explosions toward the hoop, and that tired look in the closing stretches of big games. Nonetheless we are talking about one of the greatest this league has ever seen, and like MJ or Magic, Kobe is smart and should be able to find ways to turn it on come playoff time.
2) Can the Heat beat the elite teams (top 5)? It should be noted that as of today, the Heat are 0-6 against the top five teams in the NBA. Yet I think we can all admit that when a lineup boast the likes of Bron, Wade, and Bosh, the likelihood of that zero remaining in the win collumn come playoff time, is a silly assertion.
3) Is a power shift occuring from West to East? Yes. The East is the strongest it has been in quite sometime with the “mighty 3” in Miami, a healthy Boston, Chicago’s flowering from young promise to seasoned reality, Atlanta’s firepower, Orlando’s depth, and now, the rebirth in New York. I believe that the biggest shift is occuring with the Knicks resurgence. Two superstar faces like Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony joining the Eastern Conference not only enhances the Knicks as a team, but switches some popularity from West to East. Not to mention the trade of Deron Williams to the Nets, continues in a trend of big name stars exiting the Western Conference. The West from seeds 6-8 in the postseason is still legitimately stronger, but that gap is closing.
1. L.A. Lakers (40-19): I know, I know, this seems cliche. But like the Bulls dominated stretches in the 90’s, the Lakers have been nearly as dominant in the 21st century’s first decade. The last ten years the Lakers have won five titles, been in seven finals, and are built with a team now that can find ways to win come playoff time. This year’s team has underachieved, no doubt. Yet how dominate is a team that underachieves at 40-19? They remind me of the first three-peat Bulls team that limped to a 57-25 finish and a #2 seed in the East. No Kobe is not Michael, but Michael never had the likes of Pau, Odom, Artest, and Bynum.
2a. Boston Celtics (41-15): This team wins when it matters most. This is the best this team has looked in three years, as each of their “big-3” are healthy and playing the best ball of the season. Pierce has increased his shot production–which was down the last two years–attributing to his increase in points per night by nearly two. Allen is smooth as silk and KG is playing with the fire necessary to drive this unit. Add in dime dropping Rondo, a somewhat motivated Shaq, bench sparks like Big Baby, and this team will be tough to beat at home this postseason.
2b.San Antonio Spurs (47-10): The most fad and cliche pick this season is San Antonio. Why? Their dominate start at 47-10, does not spell championships. Having three guys like Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili leading the way is huge. They have won three titles in the Century’s first decade, and have the poise necessary to help their young stars stay calm in the postseason. At the same time, this team has relied on the thirty three year old Ginobili like never before. With Duncan having his least productive scoring season of his career (13.6), the Spurs have become more of a run n’ gun team with isolation sets for the aging Ginobili. Ginobili has been brittle for most of his career, which scares me come playoff time. But with Pop at the helm, three guys hungry for their fourth ring, and the best record against the top ten teams this season (.688), I have to give them the cred necessary.
3. Miami Heat (42-16): If this was a ranking for most intriguing and dramatic, then the Heat would rank atop this list. The league learned a huge lesson in 2004, when the Lakers, boasting the likes of Shaq, Kobe, Malone, and Payton, lost to a group of role guys — the Pistons. The inconsistency of this method makes me question whether or not the Heat’s big three will know when and where to demote their shot to one another. I also wonder whether or not the lack of a post presence will burn them when facing a team that plays tough perimeter defense. Who scores inside? Until that is answered, I cannot in good faith put a team with no post presence and an 0-6 record against the top 5 teams at the top of this list.
4.Chicago Bulls (39-17): The Bulls are like a wine that has finally fermented to a perfect age. Plenty of tannin: 3rd in team defense, Robust flavors: increased scoring, Flowering nose: go to guy like Derick Rose, and Complexities: better depth–Boozer, Deng, Noah, Brewer. The ascension of Derick Rose from semi-star to a top 3 point guard in basketball, has legitimized the Bulls come playoff time with a serious scorer who has the ability to put this team on his back. When you add in a healthy Boozer (19.9 pts a night), and the comeback of defensive minded Joakim Noah, this team has the components to challenge anyone. The addition of Carlos Boozer has given the Bulls a legitimate 2nd scorer and the post offense they have lacked the last three years. One concern? 25-4 at home, but just 13-13 on the road.
5. Dallas Mavericks (41-16): This is where things get murky. I know the Mavs are arguably the most disappointing franchise of this Century’s first decade. Their collapse against the #8 seed Warriors in the 1st round of 2007 still lingers in many peoples minds. But this is not 2007. The Mavs have the 2nd best record against the ten best teams in the league, 4th best against the top five. They are the most balanced team at Home (22-8) and Away (19-8), which means they can beat anyone, anywhere. They are in the top-5 defensively and can score, ranking top-10 offensively. Add in a winner like Jason Kidd, a go to guy like Dirk, sparks like Marion, Terry, and Stojakavic, and this team realistically could make a deep run in the playoffs.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder (36-20): The trade for Nate Robinson and Kendrick Perkins from Boston, gives the Thunderdepth on their bench and solidifies a struggling defense. With Perkins now in the front court, the Thunder can defend any big in the postseason. One question though, is who scores besides Durant and Westbrook? Trading Jeff Green to the Celtics, proves the Thunder were not willing to continue giving the underachieving Green a shot. Yet without Green, the Thunder will look for scoring from Jeff Harden, who has yet to develop into the scorer we thought he would be in the pros. At the same time, this team thrives on defense. Their dip in this area is the reason for the trade and should re-center them defensively come postseason. Not to mention they are confident, after nearly knocking off the #1 seed Lakers last season in the 1st round.
7. Orlando Magic (36-22): It seems the Magic are once again lost in la la land. After losing in 1995 to the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals, the Magic splintered and went into a fourteen year drought. Now nearly two years later since losing to the Lakers in the Finals, the Magic are the worst they have been in three years. They are still very good defensively (top 5) , but struggle offensively at times. Why? Their reliance upon the defensive-minded Dwight Howard proves such. Despite Howard’s career year (22.4 pts), the Magic are scoring nearly seven points lower this season and shooting the three-point shot eight percent lower than last season. Attempting to run a post offense has never been who this team is; a run and gun, fast paced, three point shooting team. Incredibly deep, it seems the Magic are deep with the wrong players: shoot first, oft injured point guards in Gilbert Arenas and Jameer Nelson, a one-hit wonder forward in Turkoglu, and an erratic scorer in J-Rich. I argue that the move for Vince Carter a year and a half ago set this team back a few years.
8. Portland Trailblazers (32-25): Despite Brandon Roy’s banged up body, the Blazers continue to stay afloat with great defense (top 7), an emergent star in Lamarcus Aldridge, and a group of roll guys like Rudy Ferndandez, Andre Miller, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Mathews and Marcus Camby. They are tough to beat at home, and play with a poise necessary to win tough games on the road in the postseason. The trade for Gerald Wallace from Charlotte, should take pressure off of Roy offensively and gives the Blazer another facet on a dangerous unit.
9. Atlanta Hawks (34-23): It seems every year, we wait for the Hawks to become a dominate force in the Eastern Conference. This year is not the year. Once again, they are a middle of the pack team with the elements to beat anybody. The trade for Hinrich from the Wizards is silly, considering they lose a talented veteran point guard in Mike Bibby for a disappointing, aloof point guard in Hinrich. Nonetheless a lineup withguys like Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, and a bench with the likes of super- sub Jamal Crawford, gives this team the ability to beat much of the top teams comes postseason. Unfortunately ability is not reality, and I don’t think Joe Johnson is right star to lead them to greatness.
10. New Orleans Hornets (34-25): Yes the Hornets are renewed after their disappointing 09-10 season. But they still lack a true post presence with the a more defensive minded Emeka Okafor. Disappointments like Trevor Ariza, have caused the Hornets to take a step back offensively, after being one of the top teams two years ago. The leagues top team defensively, the Hornets cause a bunch of turnovers and can get in the open floor. Chris Paul and David West drive this team, but they lack the cohesiveness on offense to make a run.
11. Memphis Grizzlies (32-27): I love this team. They are still two years away from really competing. But when you boast a lineup with a star in Rudy Gay, an up- and- coming point guard in Mike Conley, a front court with two tough nosed guys in Zack Randolph and Marc Gasol, you’re destined to be really good. I like the Battier trade, because it further strengthens their defensive prowess and gives them the veteran necessary come playoff time.
12. New York Knicks (29-26): The Carmelo trade makes things interesting out East. Melo gives this team the star wing player they’ve been lacking. Add in a veteran winner like Chauncey Billups, and return- to- dominance Amare Stoudamire, and this team has the trio necessary to bounce a higher seed early. The Knicks are my definite dark horse come playoff time.
13. Utah Jazz (31-27): Did I like D-Will in Utah blue? Absolutely. Do I think the Jazz made out well in the trade? Yes. I am never a proponent, as most of you aren’t, for sending your franchise guy in a flash trade. But the Jazz got a looming star point in Devin Harris, a project talent in Derrick Favors, two first round picks, and a nice pod of three million. With bigs’ like Al Jefferson, and Paul Milsap, this team has the players to compete for the next five years.
14. Philadelphia 76ers (28-29): The Sixers are balanced: middle pack offensively and defensively. They have an exciting crowd pleaser in Andre Igoudala, and a nice blend of veterans–Elton Brand, with young talents–Thad Young. No point guard, and the disappointing rookie season of Evan Turner have this team looking on the outside in when it comes to seriously competing.
15. Phoenix Suns (28-27): Steve Nash just gets better and better with age. But who are we kidding? You have no shot when it comes to tired and old Vince Carter, and shoot first role guys like Channing Frye and Jared Dudley. And why trade for another bomber in Aaron Brooks?
16. Denver Nuggets (34-25): “Who needs Melo?”. Okay Denver, I loved that chant last night in a win over Boston. But…you went in the opposite direction with a trade that brought you an nonathletic wing in Galinari and a me-first wing in Chandler. Your two central figures for the future should be Felton and Nene.
17. Golden St Warriors (26-30): The Warriors will not make the playoffs. And I don’t think the more you shoot the more you win. Except for Monta Ellis and Steph Curry, this team is awash in no-namer raw talents.
18. Indiana Pacers (26-30): What is the hype with Indiana? I cannot figure it out. Collison is not a franchise point guard, and just because you have a seven footer in Roy Hibbert averaging 13.3 pts, 9.0 reb, does not mean you are going in the right direction. Is it just me, or is the streaky shooting Danny Granger becoming the most overpaid wing in hoops?
19. Houston Rockets (28-31): This team is multi-talented and can win without a guy like Yao. But that was when they had a point guard–trading Aaron Brooks to the Suns for Goran Dragic is silly, and a wing like Ron Artest. I also think the trade of Battier to Memphis is perplexing, considering Battier was their defensive heart and soul. Sorry Scola, you are now stuck in a bad situation.
20. Los Angeles Clippers (21-37): Finally this team is going in the right direction, with two franchise players in Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin. Ditching Baron for Mo Williams and JamarioMoon was smart. Davis was overpaid and screwed with the Clippers chemistry. Watch out next year, when they get Chris Kaman back from injury and gel for an entire off-season.
21. Charlotte Bobcats (25-32): They start Kwame Brown–nuff’ said.
22. Milwaukee Bucks (22-35): I am a fan of the Bucks. They are a team of role guys who make it happen. Things caught up to them this season with the injury to Bogut and Jennings innability to rise into a star point.
23. Detroit Pistons (21-38): Hey, how bout them Tigers?
24. Toronto Raptors (16-42): All I can say is that I like Calderon and their young prospect DeMar DeRozen.
25. New Jersey Nets (17-40): Things in Jersey are sad. Yes they just acquired Deron Williams from the Jazz, but they gave away their entire team doing it.
26. Minnesota Timberwolves (13-45): I know it sounds far-fetched but this team does have three good pieces to build around in Kevin Love, Michael Beasley, and Johnny Flynn.
27. Washington Wizards (15-41): The only bright side to things is that I truly believe John Wall will be a top five point guard in two years.
28. Sacramento Kings (14-41): Tyreke….ahhhhhhhhh…how can a multi-talented guy like you play so awkward?
29. Cleveland Cavaliers (10-47): It is comical when your biggest franchise face is Baron Davis. Bron Bron–bad on you.
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James over Derick Rose, though my heart believes it is Rose’s to win this year. Imagine the Bulls without Rose. Now imagine the Heat without James. Nonetheless it is more economical for the league to give James his third MVP in a row.
Rookie of the Year: Can you say Mr. Griffin in L.A.? Wow.
Most Improved Player: Roy Hibbert, C, Indiana Pacers. Numbers have doubled from last season, and he is now considered an up-and-coming franchise center.
Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich. Hard to argue with his team’s 47-10 start, considering they hardly cleared 50 wins the last two years. Their evolution proves Pop’s ability to quickly route a franchise into the right direction.
Playoff Darkhorse Eastern Conference: New York Knicks. It will be interesting to see if this team gets into a four v five matchupin the first round. With Melo, Amare, and Billups, they have the veterans and star power to surprise someone.
Playoff Darkhorse Western Conference: Portland Trailblazers. They fly under the radar because of the injury to Brandon Roy. But this team has enough without a healthy Roy to upend a conference elite. With Aldridge playing like he is, and the addition of Gerald Wallace, the hard nosed Blazers could make some noise come playoff time.
Finals Prediction: It will be an L.A. Lakers v. Boston Celtics rematch. Boston will have home court, which is huge. Series goes seven. I say it is a toss up. What do you think?