Dec 9, 2013, 4:53 PM EDT
The general rule of thumb is 20 games into the season you can start to really trust the stats and the trends — in which case it’s good to be a Portland Trail Blazers fan. They move into the top slot with their recent wins over Indiana and OKC.
1. Trail Blazers (17-4, Last Week No. 4). They are doing it with the best offense in the NBA. It’s okay to be a jump shooting team if you hit them, and the Blazers knock them down — they are hitting 42.7 percent on corner threes as a team this season and 41.8 percent from beyond the arc overall.
2. Thunder (15-4, LW 4). Kevin Durant seemed to take things personally against Paul George this weekend — a side of Durant we don’t get to see very often. I liked it. Still not reading too much into the margin of victory over a clearly tired Pacers team.
3. Pacers (18-3, LW 1). Indiana would really love to thank the schedule makers for their Clipper/Blazers then Spurs/Thunder back-to-backs last week. Indy lost both back ends but I’m not faulting them much for it. Showdown Tuesday with Miami.
4. Spurs (15-4, LW No. 5). In case you ever wondered what Tiago Splitter means to this team, I hope you watched the loss to the Pacers Saturday night: San Antonio was up 35-22 when Splitter was removed for the game (calf issues) and the Pacers went on a 84-45 run. His defense is key and he’s out at least a couple more games.
5. Heat (16-5, LW 2). They lost a couple games last week to teams with big front lines (Detroit and Chicago) but the Heat still feels like a team just kind of coasting, waiting for what matters. And they got their revenge on Detroit Sunday.
6. Rockets (15-7, LW 6). On paper the Rockets look strong — elite offense and the fourth best net rating of points per possession in the league — but then you watch them play and they don’t pass the eye test at the same level. There is a lack of consistency night to night, which led Dwight Howard expressing frustration.
7. Nuggets (12-8, LW 8). A scout speaking to ESPN’s Marc Stein said something we noticed: This team became a lot better when JaVale McGee went down injured. Denver tried to play inside-out with McGee, now they are just running and it works much better.
8. Mavericks (13-8, LW 11). Winners of three in a row including over Portland last week (where Indiana and OKC lost). The simple fact is this is a playoff team in the West and one that will be a tough matchup for whoever lands them in the first round.
9. Clippers (13-8, LW 7). They fell to Atlanta and Cleveland on the road last week — how is a team this good 3-5 against the East so far? L.A. continue its East Coast swing this week but with winnable games (Philly, Boston, Brooklyn and Washington).
10. Warriors (12-9, LW 9). Nice 27-point come from behind win against the Raptors last week, but the fact they were down that much points to how much their defense misses Andre Iguodala. Rough stretch of games against the West coming up.
11. Suns (11-9, LW 10). Eric Bledsoe is back in the lineup, which is good news, but now this far into the season we can just say that Jeff Hornacek has to come up in any coach-of-the-year conversations. His team is playing well at both ends.
12. Hawks (11-10, LW 15). This is the third best team in the East right now, which just makes me hope nobody on Miami or Indiana gets hurt because we need that Eastern Conference Finals. Congratulations to Kyle Korver for breaking the consecutive games hitting a three record at 90.
13. Timberwolves (9-11, LW 12). Look for them to string together some wins now after going through a rough patch in the schedule (and going all the way to Mexico City to have a game cancelled). This team is better than its record shows (they have the point differential of a 12-8 team)
14. Lakers (10-10, LW 13). Kobe is back but there is a lot of work to do to get any offensive flow going — L.A.’s starters looked hesitant with Kobe controlling the offense. They have to try and shake off Kobe’s rust against the Suns, then a Thunder/Bobcats back-to-back on the road this week.
15. Pistons (10-10, LW 22). Road wins against both Miami and Chicago show just how dangerous this team can be when it hits its threes (they shot 54.3 percent from beyond the arc in those games). Also, Andre Drummond is just a beast.
16. Wizards (9-10, LW 17). John Wall is playing well, but simply the deeper they have to go into their bench in any game the worse they look. Good tests this week with Denver, Atlanta and the Clippers on the docket.
17. Pelicans (9-10, LW 14). Without Anthony Davis the Pelicans defense has been terrible, allowing 109 points per 100 possessions. Remember, they went out and got Greg Stiemsma to give them depth up front but he is injured as well, so it’s a lot of gunning Ryan Anderson.
18. Grizzlies (9-10, LW 16). The big issue is simply health — Marc Gasol is out and Zach Randolph is hobbling. But it doesn’t help that Jerryd Bayless couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean right now (to borrow an old Chick Hearn line).
19. Celtics (10-12, LW 23). They went 3-0 last week — Rajon Rondo who? It looks like after Christmas at best and likely after New Year’s Day before they get their All-Star point guard back. Even so, are they the favorites in the Atlantic now?
20. Bulls (8-10, LW 18). 1-2, Since Derrick Rose went down the Bulls defense has simply not been good… until they faced the Heat, then they looked like the Bulls we remember. If they find that consistently they are a playoff team in the East.
21. Bobcats (9-11, LW 19). That the Bobcats are beating the other struggling teams in the East and would be the 7 seed if the playoffs started today speaks to the job Steve Clifford has done. But the schedule starts to get a lot tougher the next couple weeks.
22. Raptors (7-12, LW 20). Rudy Gay is gone but with him out Sunday night Toronto played at a faster pace, used a lot more pick-and-rolls and their floor spacing was better. This was not supposed to be a trade that made Toronto better, but I wonder if it might be.
23. Cavaliers (7-13, LW 26). They are 6-3 at home but 1-10 on the road this season. And those road losses often have been ugly — like Kyrie Irving 0-of-9 shooting ugly. The Cavs are in the running for the most disappointing team in the league.
24. 76ers (7-14, LW 25). The skin infection on Michael Carter-Williams’ knee is going to keep him out Monday for sure and likely a few more games after that. They are still playing at the fastest pace in the league (which is a bad fit with their terrible defense).
26. Knicks (5-13, LW 29). We saw the Knicks we expected this season against the Nets Thursday — moving the ball, raining threes — then on Sunday they reverted to their new form. Good news that Tyson Chandler returned to practice, they need him.
27. Nets (6-14, LW 24). No, Jason Kidd is not in immanent danger of losing his job, Nets management want to see what he can do with a healthy roster. With Paul Pierce and Deron Williams do back this week, Kidd will have to start producing some wins (and he needs to turn that defense around, which may be the hardest part).
28. Kings (5-13, LW 27). I get why they made the trade for Rudy Gay — not a bad roll of the dice that didn’t cost much — but after watching him fail to consistently feed Jonas Valanciunas in the post (even on nights the big man had a mismatch to exploit) it’s hard for me to see Gay and DeMarcus Cousins working out well.
29. Jazz (4-18, LW 28). Trey Burke has helped the offense. But when I watch Gordon Hayward I can’t help but wonder how good he would look as the second or third option on a quality team (he’s not a No. 1 guy).
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