Last update: Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018.
By Mike Elworth. Follow Mike @MikeElworth24
. For site updates follow @walterfootball
Golden State Warriors: (36-9). Previous Rank: 1.
The Warriors hold a firm grasp of the No. 1 spot in the NBA, and honestly there really isn't anyone close, although the Celtics are playing very well. With Stephen Curry healthy, the Warriors' offense is a machine, and they are a seemingly more athletic team this season as well. This is going to be a no-defense battle in the Western Conference Playoffs, but with James Harden injured and Kawhi Leonard still getting into shape after injury, the Warriors are the class of the NBA today.
Boston Celtics: (34-11). Previous Rank: 4.
The Celtics are the opposite of the Warriors, as the Celtics play truly perfect defense and have a really strong offense. They are the best team in the Eastern Conference by just as much as the Warriors are in the West currently, and if only the Celtics had Gordon Hayward, we could have seen a classic title match; it really is a shame.
Minnesota Timberwolves: (29-17). Previous Rank: 8.
With so many of the best teams in the NBA struggling. I thought I would give credit this week to the Western Conference Bulls - the Minnesota Timberwolves. With Tom Thibodeau, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, three staples of those excellent pre-Fred Hoiberg teams, the Timberwolves are the hottest non-Golden State team in the conference. Jimmy Butler is playing like an MVP candidate currently, their defense is much improved, and it seems that Karl-Anthony Towns and especially Andrew Wiggins are learning to play with Butler; it isn't easy for two young players to take slightly changed roles. I still don't think that Butler and Wiggins can last long term as they are too similar, but for now it's working.
San Antonio Spurs: (29-16). Previous Rank: 6.
The Spurs are now 5-4 with Kawhi Leonard healthy, but he's not truly healthy, so he likely won't be a daily contributor for the Spurs for a few more weeks. It's too difficult to judge this team; I just know that healthy they are one of the two or three teams that have a chance of beating the Warriors in the playoffs, so I have no problem of having them at No. 4. As a side note, the Spurs desperately need to trade for another big man. They should call the Hawks about former Spurs center Dewayne Dedmon.
Houston Rockets: (30-11). Previous Rank: 7.
After a tough 10-day-stretch that included six losses and an injury to James Harden, the Rockets have won three of four. To me, when they get Harden healthy in a week or so, they will easily be the second -best team in the NBA, and I think they can beat the Warriors. But can somebody tell me what happened to Ryan Anderson? The Rockets do not have the depth to have one of their key guys playing as poorly as he is, and in the middle of an $80 million contrac,t he cannot be traded, so they need to bench him, or coach him, or something. He should be giving them 15-18 points on 40 percent shooting from three, not nine points shooting and less than 40 percent from the field, as he has over his last 10 games.
Oklahoma City Thunder: (24-20). Previous Rank: 3.
Russell Westbrook is his normal incredible self currently, but two things have happened that, to me, should give fans hope: First, Paul George has been brilliant recently, playing like an All-Star, and secondly, Carmelo Anthony is taking a lesser role but is efficient in said role. With a clear No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3, the Thunder can now game plan effectively. Their bench is still pathetic, but I cannot help but think that Sam Presti will throw a first-round pick for a sixth man, as he knows they have to win at least a couple playoff series if they want to keep Paul George.
Toronto Raptors: (29-13). Previous Rank 5.
DeMar DeRozan continues to play like the fourth-best player in the East after LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kyrie Irving, and honestly I wouldn't care if you had DeRozan third, as the Raptors just keep winning. Their depth is also the best in the Eastern Conference one-through-12, but the problem is the difference from No. 2 to No. 12 isn't much, as the Raptors need more than an aging Kyle Lowry and 10 really solid guys to go with DeRozan. Toronto is one of the rare teams in the NBA that could make a playoff-changing trade, so why not give the Clippers a call about DeAndre Jordan? Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and a first-round choice?
Cleveland Cavaliers: (26-17). Previous Rank: 2.
Right now, the Cavaliers' defense is so pathetic they cannot actually win games. This is obviously attributed to Isaiah Thomas becoming the No. 2 guy in Cleveland. It is well known that despite his elite talent, he is statistically arguably the weakest defender in the league. I suggest starting Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson, giving them a big defensive increase in the starting five; let J.R. Smith score off the bench; and allow Jae Crowder to play a style more fitting his talents. This would give Cleveland a very small bench, but that doesn't mean much.
Washington Wizards: (25-19). Previous Rank: 9.
I don't know exactly what happened to Otto Porter Jr., as he started the season looking like an All-Star, but has been pretty average recently. Fourteen points a game is fine, but I thought he was becoming an 18-19 point scorer. This doesn't matter though, because he doesn't need to be scoring to make a difference next to John Wall and Bradley Beal. The Wizards are obviously the fourth-best team in the Eastern Conference, but with really just a two-man bench, they need to make a trade as much as the Thunder do.
Miami Heat: (25-18). Previous Rank: 16.
With Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson, the Heat have three guys who can score at will and the team has elite size. They are a very athletic team that needs to get Hassan Whiteside and Dion Waiters right for the playoffs though, but if this team is healthy in June, nobody will want to play the Heat in the postseason.
Los Angeles Clippers: (21-21). Previous Rank: 15.
The Clippers somehow survived missing Blake Griffin for about two months and are now in the thick of the Western Conference Playoffs. This is mostly due to sixth man Lou Williams, who is having one of the best seasons of any sixth man in history - although he does start a lot. He's averaging 23 points for the season and 32 in January. The Clippers still need to trade DeAndre Jordan and a couple of nice options are Cleveland, Milwaukee and Toronto, but with Jordan, Williams and Blake Griffin, the Clippers should be able to make the playoffs.
Philadelphia 76ers: (20-20). Previous Rank: 22.
Philadelphia looks really nice right now. The team doesn't need 30 points from Joel Embiid to win games and is scoring a lot of points. The 76ers should sneak into the eighth seed in the East, but it has become surprisingly competitive.
Chicago Bulls: (17-27). Previous Rank: 12.
The Bulls are 14-7 since Nikola Mirotic started playing this season. It's not all Mirotic, although he is the No. 1 scorer for the Bulls, but a mix of very strong play from two-thirds of their rebuild trio - Kris Dunn, who has become an excellent starting point guard, and Lauri Markkanen, who is setting records as a shooting big. Now that the Bulls have Zach LaVine, a potential 20-point scorer healthy, they are 2-0, and he's only receiving 20 minutes a game. LaVine looks like he will be that No. 1 option for Chicago, so right now it's about trading Mirotic, as he is no longer needed and his value is the best it can possibly be.
Denver Nuggets: (23-21). Previous Rank. 14.
The fact that Denver is a likely playoff team despite Paul Millsap not being on the court for them in months is a minor miracle. The Nuggets take advantage of the height of their city, as they have one of the best home records in the NBA, but they have developed their talent incredibly well and therefore right now, they just need their big free agent signee to get healthy. I have to admit: the Nuggets could be the sleeper team in their conference.
New Orleans Pelicans: (23-20). Previous Rank. 17.
The Pelicans are currently in the playoffs and likely will be, as DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are the best duo in the league this season and the team has received excellent play from Jrue Holiday, who is having his best season in years. Rajon Rondo is actually making a big difference too, averaging more than seven assists a game, which has allowed Holiday to be more of a scorer. If the Pelicans could just find one more truly productive guy, they could be a threat in the West. They need to trade for a forward.
Indiana Pacers: (24-20). Previous Rank: 18.
To me, one of the oddest things this season is that the Pacers are actually a stronger team with Domantas Sabonis as their starting center than Myles Turner, who was expected to become their franchise player when Paul George was traded. Victor Oladipo has taken that job, but the Pacers don't actually need Turner at all to win games this season. They have to move him to the four again because they simply work well with Sabonis at the five.
Portland Trail Blazers: (23-21). Previous Rank: 11.
The Trail Blazers need to find a third scorer who they can rely on game-to-game and should call the Clippers, and give them rookie center Zach Collins, a first-round pick and a second-pick, if needed, for Lou Williams; he's perfect. The Trail Blazers are so average offensively, but he could make them a brilliant offensive roster.
Milwaukee Bucks: (23-20). Previous Rank. 10.
The Bucks' lack of size, porous rebounding and pathetic depth is still hurting them, as they just cannot play against big teams. They made a nice move starting Malcolm Brogdon and moving to Tony Snell to the bench, giving them one of the best starting fives in the NBA. I have heard of Milwaukee as a potential trade spot for DeAndre Jordan, and really, he's perfect.
Detroit Pistons: (22-20). Previous Rank. 13.
Missing one of the few scoring weapons they have in Reggie Jackson and moving Ish Smith in the starting five has hurt the Pistons already incredibly mediocre offense and depth. This team cannot afford to lose a single rotation player if it wants to stay in the playoffs, as the Eastern Conference is improving by the week.
Charlotte Hornets: (14-24). Previous Rank: 20.
The Hornets are on a nice run during the last two weeks, and that is almost singularly because of Kemba Walker improving his game. He was struggling, but he is playing like the All-Star he is again, which is leading the Hornets to wins. They need a lot more from their role players, as there may not be a team getting less from more talent this season.
Los Angeles Lakers: (15-28). Previous Rank: 28.
The Lakers' key young guys - Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram - are improving, and they are still getting really strong basketball from Larry Nance Jr., Julius Randle and Kyle Kuzma, but their young talent isn't ready to win games and their veterans lack it too. The Lakers should start trading away anyone who isn't Ball, Ingram, Nance Jr. or Kuzma, collect assets and add capital for free agency, because they are very mediocre despite their recent four-game win streak.
New York Knicks: (20-24). Previous Rank: 19.
The Knicks just got Tim Hardaway Jr. healthy, but after Kristaps Porzingis and Michael Beasley, they need consistency. Enes Kanter needs to do more, as does Frank Ntilikina. The talent of a playoff team is there, and they have a superstar, but they are just not playing that well, and that starts with their defense.
Memphis Grizzlies: (14-28). Previous Rank: 26.
The Grizzlies are receiving All-Star play from Tyreke Evans, and Marc Gasol is still basically the same player, although his shooting percentages are far lower this season, but with no Mike Conley, the Grizzlies don't have much of a chance to win most nights. They need to trade away Evans and Gasol, and rebuild with Mike Conley and the premium draft pick they would get this offseason.
Dallas Mavericks: (15-30). Previous Rank: 21.
The Mavericks have a lot of nice veteran talent with Dirk Nowitzki, J.J. Barea, Wesley Matthews and more who could really be helping playoff teams right now, as this team is about Dennis Smith Jr.'s development and to a lesser extent, Harrison Barnes'. Dallas is too talented of a team to be losing as much as it needs to for a premium selection.
Utah Jazz: (17-26). Previous Rank: 23.
The Jazz have been a mess since losing Rudy Gobert, and as they are a defensive team missing their best player and arguably the best defensive center in the game, it's not hard to see why. As brilliant as Donovan Mitchell is already, and with secondary talents like Rodney Hood and Ricky Rubio giving them solid production, it doesn't matter as they aren't going to win with offense; they need Gobert's defense more than anything. They will get him healthy this season, but it's too late for them to make a playoff run.
Phoenix Suns: (16-29). Previous Rank: 24.
With Devin Booker a stud and T.J. Warren one of the best offensive small forwards in the NBA, the Suns have their foundation, as those two are young and excellent, but this season is about developing their last three lottery picks; Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Josh Jackson. Bender has shown the ability to be a stretch four and not much more, Chriss is showing his incredible athleticism and is actually playing some of the best ball of his career as is Jackson, so this is about as promising as Phoenix has looked this season.
Brooklyn Nets: (16-28). Previous Rank: 25.
The Nets have a weird collection of expensive veterans they received assets for and young talent that for the most part were guys not drafted in the lottery. Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen are improving and look like keepers, but it's a shame the Nets have missed D'Angelo Russell, their best player for most of the season, as he was looking like a potential All-Star, plus he is losing valuable chemistry minutes with these guys. As for Jahlil Okafor, he isn't playing much and has his flaws, but the numbers are incredible.
Sacramento Kings: (13-30). Previous Rank: 27.
The Kings are easily the weakest team in the Western Conference. They are getting nice play from a lot of their young talent, but they refuse to play a single one of them more than 25 minutes a game. So instead of 35 minutes for De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, who to me are their two best talents, they are starting Fox and having Hield come off the bench, meaning they are probably just be getting 5-10 minutes together. You see the problem with that?
Orlando Magic: (13-31). Previous Rank: 29.
Since their stud center was injured, the Magic have had a lot of problems buying wins and their strong start to this season seems like a year ago. They are a pathetic defensive team, and it is obvious that something isn't working when it comes to this team, as they have far too much talent to be this pathetic.
Atlanta Hawks: (12-31). Previous Rank: 30.
There isn't much to say; Atlanta is successfully tanking and they has three first-round picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. Congratulations, you suck.
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