Contenders emerging and tankers submerging: Week 11 Power Rankings

Image by Anthony Bain

Rankings were missed last week because the leaves started blooming and that gave a sandstorm of pollen to good ole’ Minneapolis. I was sick last week. There is something much harder to adjust to than the weather in Minnesota and that’s the seasonal change that brings on a Nikola Pekovician attack of allergies. It knocked me out last week.

Speaking of knocking out, WE’VE GOT PLAYOFF RACES! I don’t like playing the race card but these playoff races are intense, AMIRITE?! Philadelphia is trying to bow out of the East. Milwaukee has no idea how to take advantage of this polite gesture. The Knicks seem locked into everything now. The Suns are making a real push with Shannon Brown as the starting shooting guard. The Rockets seem like a lock in the West. And we MAY have a new king of the left of the Mississippi River.

Rank em up! 

You need Anthony Davis

16. Charlotte Bobcats (7-48, 4-22 home, 3-26 road, -13.1 differential, 15th in the East)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: IwonderiftheycouldwintheSEC%
Currently: So bad even Michael Jordan is considering not gambling on them
Games behind 8th seed: Officially mathematically eliminated with 11 games left

This is the only way to bring fake solidarity back to the Internet! Anthony Davis ends up on the Bobcats and helps them escape the dark clutches of tanking forever. He blossoms into the pterodactyl predator Ethan Sherwood Strauss and Mimi the hamster know he can be and they are able to stop the mercurial Rajon Rondo as long as it’s not on a nationally televised game.
Games this week: at Cavs, 4 games in 5 nights (home to Detroit, at Miami then home to Boston, home to Hornets)

15. Kentucky Wildcats (38-2, 16-0 SEC, 18-0 home, 8-1 away, +16.8 differential National Champs)
Currently: Lighting couches on fire

I mean… they ARE champions right now…

Games this week: Counting them ringz

Ping-Pong tournament!

14. Washington Wizards (13-44, 7-21 home, 6-23 road, -6.4 differential, 12th in the East)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: SameOddsofRandyWittmanBringingthemtotheplayoffsever%
Currently: 14th in East
Games behind 8th seed: Mathematically eliminated with 9 games left
Guys… have I talked about the Jordan Crawford renaissance yet? It’s incredible. It’s not like your ordinary renaissance in which overpadded ladies are trying to invade a bustier whilst flutes dance around the pathways and Ye Olde English is spat from the mouths of hairy men with turkey legs in tow. There are no tents. There is no jousting. And you certainly don’t see mugs of ale slushing around as they sing the king’s tales of conquering and conquest. This renaissance is all about how one gunner replaced another gunner and ended up starting a revolution of fantastic scoring in the Wizards’ backcourt.

It’s interesting to see John Wall and Jordan Crawford playing alongside each other. They move almost exactly the same when they have the ball. Crawford doesn’t have Wall’s speed by any means, but Wall doesn’t have his jumper from 16-23 feet. He’s a contradiction to everything that is supposed to work. He loves taking pull-up jumpers from just inside the 3-point line and he’s good at them (41%). He can get to the rim (roughly three times per game since Nick Young was dealt) when he needs to but would rather shoot jumpers. He’s putting up solid volume scoring numbers right now in a fun way on a team that needs a little injection of entertainment. RENAISSANCE, I TELLS YOU!
Games this week: home to Orlando, back-to-back (at Knicks, home to Cavs), at Chicago

13. Cleveland Cavaliers (18-36, 9-18 home, 9-18 road, -6.3 differential, 11th in the East)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: AntawnJamisonGettingHisJerseyRetiredinCleveland%
Currently: 13th in East
Games behind 8th seed: 10 games
Speaking of volume shooters, Lester Hudson has been going OFF lately. It’s really only been a couple of games, but it’s performances like Lester Hudson’s that make tanking kind of fun some times. The joys of tanking SHOULD be competitive losses, watching bad players put up numbers as they play for a contract for next year, and grabbing ping-pong balls like they’re pogs (does anybody still collect pogs?). Lester Hudson has embodied that lately.

He torched the Nets the other night by drilling four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. He finished the game with 26 points and had 18 of them in fourth. It was the best of all worlds for the Cavs. They were entertained like crazy, got to root for the underdog to keep performing with Hudson and they ended up with a loss to keep the dream of an Anthony Davis-Kyrie Irving pairing alive.
Games this week: 5 games in 6 nights (home to Charlotte, home to Indiana then at Indiana, at Wizards, home to Orlando)

12. Toronto Raptors (20-38, 11-18 home, 9-20 road, -3.4 differential, 14th in the East)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: ExchangeRateJoke…CrapIthinkIvedonethatjokealready%
Currently: 12th in East
Games behind 8th seed: Mathematically eliminated with 8 games left
Let’s take a look at how pretty much the same unit as last year has defended differently this year.

This team has become much swarmier when playing defense this season and it shows. They help in the post, they get back on the break and they challenge shooters pretty well. Last year, you could take a 3 against Toronto and most of the time it was a good shot. This year, you have a hand in your face and you know you’re getting challenged. Dwane Casey is kind of brilliant.
Games this week: home to Philly, home to Boston, back-to-back (at Atlanta, home to Atlanta)

11. New Jersey Nets (21-37, 9-19 home, 12-18 road, -5.1 differential, 13th in the East)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: OddsofDwightEndingupinBrooklynnextyear%
Currently: 11th in East
Games behind 8th seed: Mathematically eliminated with 8 games left
It’s almost unreal how bad Deron Williams has been in transition this season. For a guy of his size, speed and skill, you would think he’d be destroying opposing players in the open court. When he was on the Jazz the previous two seasons, he shot well over 50% in transition, while drawing a lot of fouls. He’s so overpowering and his crossover is so deadly, that you shouldn’t be able to guard him when he has a full head of steam and you’re just backpedaling into submission.

Now that he’s on the Nets? You’d almost rather he try to score in the open court than in the halfcourt. In a 138 transition possessions this season, Deron Williams is shooting just 41,8% from the field. Almost half the time he’s been on the break, he’s pulled up for 41 3-point attempts (only 98 field goal attempts total). He’s only been fouled on 9.4% of those possessions (nearly half from two years ago in Utah). Blame it on the lockout, blame it on the rain, blame it on his perplexing hair. Whatever the problem is, Deron Williams can’t score on a fastbreak this season.
Games this week: home to Philly, back-to-back (at Philly, home to Boston), home to Miami

10. Detroit Pistons (21-36, 15-12 home, 6-24 road, -5.8 differential, 10th in the East)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: CharlieVillanuevawinningMIPsomeday%
Currently: 10th in East
Games behind 8th seed: 8.5 games
I’ve grown to really like Greg Monroe and Rodney Stuckey over the course of this season. Monroe is a legitimate big man and I think Rodney Stuckey is starting to truly understand how to be a scorer in this league. With young guys like Brandon Knight and Jonas Jerebko to use as role players in the rebuilding process, you have to figure out how to give this team a lot of roster flexibility. The big contract albatrosses on the squad are Ben Gordon at $25.6 million over the next two seasons and Charlie Villanueva for $16.6 million over the next two. You can only amnesty one and it seems unlikely that you could convince another team to trade for Charlie. So you have to figure out a way to make Ben Gordon become an attractive asset at his price tag.

Where Gordon always seemed to be at his best was at the end of games. During his time with the Bulls (2004-2009), Gordon was their go-to guy at the end of games. In the last two minutes of the fourth quarter and/or overtime, BG was 43/103 (41.7%) to tie or take the lead. That’s a pretty solid success rate and something any contending team could use out of their backcourt. However, since Gordon took the money and ran to Motown, he’s been a crumbled shell of his former self. Since signing with Detroit, Gordon is 2/19 (10.5%) in those same situations. For the Pistons to convince a contender he’s worth trading for this summer, they need to get him to win some games in crunch time during the final nine games of the season. That’s going to be hard to do when you’re also trying to tank.
Games this week: back-to-back (at Charlotte, home to Bucks), home to Chicago

Hanging on for deer life… you see what I did there?

9. Philadelphia 76ers (29-27, 19-12 home, 10-15 road, +4.4 differential, 5th in the East)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 76.5%
Currently: 8th seed
Games behind 6th seed: 4.5 games
Point differential? Evaporating. Top-4 seed in the East? Vanished. Chances of being the team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs because of your depth and tenacity? Kaput. Making the playoffs altogether? It’s not looking so good right now.

The Philadelphia 76ers have fallen so dramatically lately that I am now seriously doubting whether or not they can hold off the Milwaukee Bucks for the final spot in the East. Since a three-game winning streak in March to climb to eight games over .500, the Sixers have gone 4-10 with a point differential of -5.6. Not only that but they also finish the season with eight of their last 10 games on the road. They have a showdown on April 25th in Milwaukee that could very well determine if they even get to play in the postseason. If I told you this was going to happen back in February, how drunk would you have assumed I was?
Games this week: back-to-back (at Nets, at Toronto), home to Nets, at Orlando

8. Milwaukee Bucks (28-29, 15-13 home, 13-16 road, +0.5 differential, 9th in the East))
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 42.1%
Currently: 9th in East
Games behind 7th seed: 1.5 games
It’s remarkable how bad Monta Ellis has been since joining the Bucks. He can’t really make a shot anymore (41.1%), he certainly can’t make a 3-pointer right now (20%), he’s barely getting to the free throw line four times per game and he has the lowest efficiency (13.6 PER, 47.0% TS) since his rookie season. The acquisition of Monta Ellis hasn’t really brought anything to the Bucks at all, mainly because they’ve had zero time to truly work him into what they’re trying to do there. And yet…

The Bucks keep winning. They’ve been flirting with climbing over .500 for a little while now and had a chance before getting destroyed by Oklahoma City Monday night. Guys like Ersan Ilyasova and Beno Udrih have stepped up their play as of late and Mike Dunleavy Jr has been really incredible in this bounce back season. Brandon Jennings is still giving this team enough firepower most nights to remain competitive. The Bucks have dominated losing teams (19-4) all season long but they only have four of their final nine against teams with a below .500 record. It’s time to start beating the good teams if the Bucks want to prance over Philly.
Games this week: home to Knicks, back-to-back (at Detroit, home to Indiana)

I think you’re a lock to make it, which is astounding

7. New York Knicks (29-27, 19-10 home, 10-17 road, +2.7 differential, 8th in the East)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 82.0%
Currently: 7th seed
Games behind 6th seed: 4.5 games
There is a lot I want to explore with Carmelo Anthony lately and will probably save that for another post. Instead, I’m going to talk about Iman Shumpert or Pert Pert, as his true fans call him. Pert has been ridiculous over his last 10 games and not ridiculous in the “it’s ridiculous how little Nick Young brings to a team” sort of way. Iman has been a really nice scoring option for the Knicks. It’s not that he’s lighting up the scoreboard and dropping 30 points or anything. He’s just taking and making better shots than what we’re used to seeing from him.

With Lin out, most people might expect him to have to become the de facto point guard whenever Baron Davis gets winded, but that’s not really what the Knicks needs from him. Shump has been finding ways to get to the basket slightly more and make his outside shots. Over his last 10 games, Pert is making 44% of his shots from 16-23 feet and 38% of his 3-pointers. He isn’t just chucking shots like JR Smith and hoping they go in. He seems to be concentrating on taking the quality shots that most coaches preach. Not sure that he can keep this up, but if he can, while also providing his absurd defense, then the Knicks are going to be pretty dangerous next month.
Games this week: back-to-back (at Chicago, at Bucks), home to Wizards, home to Miami

6. Orlando Magic (34-23, 19-11 home, 15-12 road, +1.8 differential, 3rd in the East)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 100%
Currently: 6th seed
Games behind 3rd seed: 1 game
I can’t really stop watching this and I don’t know that I want to stop watching it. I wish everybody decided to approach their job and responsibilities like SVG.

Games this week: at Wizards, home to Atlanta, back-to-back (at Cavs, home to Philly)

NTTH – Never Trust The Hawks

5. Atlanta Hawks (34-23, 19-8 home, 15-15 road, +2.4 differential, 6th in the East)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 100%
Currently: 5th seed
Games behind 3rd seed: 1 game
We mock his contract but Joe Johnson has been pretty darn good this season. Is he $120 million good? Not quite but I’d argue he hasn’t been far off from it either. He’s an isolation scorer and that’s become something that we’ve turned on in the basketball community. We want teamwork. Sharing is caring. Move the ball instead of letting the offense go stagnant. But what happens if you’re just THAT good of a scorer? Should you be moving the ball when you consistently have the advantage? Get him around the basket and it’s over. He’s 18th in the NBA in post-ups (over 100 possessions too) and he’s 10th in the NBA in scoring when cutting to the basket (shooting 79%).

But the big key for how good he’s been this season is how good he is on defense. Opposing players are scoring just 0.55 points per possession against him in isolation sets. He can’t be posted up against either (gives up 0.51 PPP and 26.1% FG). He’s defended the PnR well all season long and the only spot he struggles with are spot-up shooters. Joe Johnson will always be mocked for signing a contract he shouldn’t be given, but we should recognize that he’s probably been the Hawks’ best player this season. Even over the vaunted frustration that is Josh Smith.
Games this week: at Boston, at Orlando, back-to-back (home to Toronto, at Toronto)

Wouldn’t mind if you were for realsies

4. Indiana Pacers (35-22, 19-8 home, 16-14 road, +2.7 differential, 4th in East)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 100%
Currently: 3rd seed
Games behind 2nd seed: 6 games
Danny Granger might be Danny Granger again. I’ll be happy to admit that back in 2007-08, I openly used to wonder if it was smarter to believe in Granger more than you might believe in Kevin Durant. I wasn’t really sold on Granger over Durant but I thought it was an interesting debate to have. Turns out I was a complete moron for thinking that. Durant has become one of the best players in the league and Granger has regressed due to inconsistent scoring.

Over the last 10 games though, Granger is scoring at an incredible rate. He’s making 49.7% of his shots, 47.9% of his 3-pointers (almost five attempts per game too), and he’s making over 50% of his long 2s. It’s unlikely that this level of production keeps up, but it also seems like he probably won’t revert to being as poor of a shooter as he was in the first month of the season. This is the Granger that the Pacers need to be taken seriously in the playoffs. If they want dreams of knocking off Chicago for real, this guy can’t go away any time soon. It’s fun to see him back.
Games this week: at Cavs, back-to-back (home to Cavs, at Bucks), home to Wolves

3. Boston Celtics (32-24, 20-89 home, 12-15 road, +2.2 differential, 7th in the East)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 99.4%
Currently: 4th seed
Games behind 3rd seed: 2.5 games
Maybe I’m just sipping the prune juice a little too much right now, but I’m kind of talking myself into the Celtics. I don’t REALLY think they can beat the Bulls or Heat without homecourt advantage in a series, but they’ve become such a nicely balanced team over the last month that I am having a hard time looking away from them. Maybe it’s just because I really enjoy watching Kevin Garnett be a good basketball player again. I’m also a big Rajon Rondo defender against those who discount the impact of PG defense and assume because he doesn’t shoot when opponents back off of him that it hurts his team.

Looking at this squad right now, the idea of bringing Ray Allen off the bench both intrigues and worries me. The emergence of Avery Bradley as a “do not use this plastic bag as a toy” defender and a competent offensive player lately makes me think it’s possible that it works. But how can you expect Paul Pierce to have to room to operate with Bradley AND Rondo on the floor. You no longer have to guard the perimeter and can feel comfortable making Brandon Bass 18-footers beat you. This isn’t how the lineup is going to look in crunch time but can you afford to start the game off slowly by allowing the other team to swarm your best offensive player?
Games this week: 5 games in 6 nights (at Miami, home to Atlanta, then at Toronto, at Nets, at Charlotte)

We have a race for first again!

2. Chicago Bulls (43-14, 22-6 home, 21-8 road, +7.8 differential, 1st in the East)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 100%
Currently: 1st seed
Home court advantage? 1-game lead
I’m not really quite sure why I decided to drop the Bulls below the Heat this week. I had the Bulls ranked first until I started to type out this blurb and had a change of heart, all of a sudden. The Knicks loss didn’t show me anything that I didn’t see before and I don’t take too much out of struggling offensively in your best player’s first game back from a long layoff. When Rose begins dominating all parts of the game like he did in the third quarter, maybe I’ll move them back to first. But for some reason, it just hit me that Miami was probably better.

Who knows? Thursday’s game will probably make this look like a really idiotic placement. Then again, it’s just power rankings.
Games this week: home to Knicks, home to Miami, back-to-back (at Detroit, home to Wizards)

1. Miami Heat (40-15, 24-3 home, 16-12 road, +7.0 differential, 2nd in the East)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 100%
Currently: 2nd seed
Games behind 1st seed: 2 games
The loss to Memphis was ugly – like REALLY ugly. The bounce back against Detroit was a night way to show they don’t have to fall into losing streaks all the time. The games against Philly and OKC were just extremely fun basketball games and that’s probably the reason why I ended up putting them first this week. Watching a motivated and hungry LeBron James is truly a spectacular show, even if you hate him for how he decides to conduct career decisions.

He had a fun warmup game against Philly in which he torched arguably the league’s best wing defender for a lot of points. That took him into the next night in which he eviscerated Kevin Durant for most of the game. It wasn’t just the 34 points and the 10 assists by LeBron that looked impressive to me. It was the way he decided to make a statement with his defense. He was physical with Durant and all over him. He forced him into a lot of turnovers. He just decided to be better than him that night. If he would just do this kind of stuff consistently in the playoffs, his bandwagon would be overflowing again. Even if he doesn’t manage to do this when it matters most this Spring, it will be fun to watch the circus of everything unfold.
Games this week: home to Boston, 4 games in 5 nights (at Chicago, home to Charlotte then at Knicks, at Nets)

I’m going to be the best owner you’ve ever had!

15. New Orleans Hornets (15-42, 7-22 home, 8-20 road, -4.7 differential, 15th in the West)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: EricGordonplaying90%ofhisgamesnextyear%
Currently: Testing just how dedicated basketball nerds are when their games come on
Games behind 8th seed: Officially eliminated with 9 games left
Things that have to stop happening: people that want to degrade everything about David Stern pretending the Hornets didn’t make out like bandits in the Chris Paul trade. It wouldn’t have been as nice as keeping CP3 and continuing to build a team around him, but it’s much better than the Odom-Martin-Gasol tryst that would have happened.

They are looking at two lottery picks right now. I know Eric Gordon has been befallen with injuries left and right, but even if he’s never that healthy and doesn’t have a long-term future with the Hornets, they have a chance to grab two incredibly talented and cheap building blocks by the time free agency opens up. I get the need for wanting to take potshots at Stern and the trade fiasco from this past December, but pretending the Hornets aren’t in great shape is just wrong.
Games this week: home to Kings, home to Utah, back-to-back (home to Memphis, at Charlotte)

It’s weird how bad franchises never really get better…

14. Golden State Warriors (22-34, 12-16 home, 10-18 road, -2.7 differential, 13th in the West)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: JoeLacobWantingtobeatfanappreciationnight%
Currently: 13th in West
Games behind 8th seed: 7 games
Brandon Rush has been good this season and I’m still uncomfortable with these developments. 47.4% from the field and 44.8% from 3-point range are his shooting percentages and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The 3-point shooting has been there his whole career, even though it’s skewing a bit high right now. The real difference is that he’s made his 16-23 foot jumper is now pretty deadly. He’s not messing around with a lot of shots in the middle of the floor. He’s either at the rim or around the 3-point line. He can’t make shots in-between and he doesn’t even try. He’s learned how to maximize what he’s capable of making and playing within his limits and when you get a young player to do that, you’ve created a really good role player.

By the way, Brandon Rush has been the best clutch shooter on the team this season (Monta Ellis has made more shots but at a lower percentage). He’s made eight of his 14 attempts and is 4/8 from 3-point range in clutch situations. He spaces the floor incredibly well now, He used to get in the way because he was too impatient. Now he’s taking his time, waiting for his moment and he’s no longer… (puts on sunglasses)… RUSHing things…
Games this week: back-to-back (at Portland, home to Dallas), at Clippers, home to Spurs

13. Sacramento Kings (19-38, 14-15 home, 5-23 road, -5.8 differential, 14th in the West)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: FanswillbehappyifGeoffPetriegetsanextension%
Currently: 14th in West
Games behind 8th seed: Officially eliminated with 9 games left
It’s so bizarre watching this team play. It’s like watching a top rec league team and for once I don’t mean that as an insult. They simply don’t pass the ball for assists ever. They’re 26th in the NBA in total assists. Normally, I’d be embarrassed to drop a counting statistic like that because they often aren’t telling of much. However, see that the Kings are first in the NBA in pace and 26th in the NBA in total assists and it’s really almost hard to believe they’re so competitive. They were truly awful for most of the season, but lately they’ve found a way to be pretty competitive with unconventional NBA basketball.

I don’t think this is a sustainable model of operation for a team on a court. And it’s not like they’re actually winning games right now with their isolation-heavy attack. It’s just kind of fun to see a team of young guys figure out what works and what doesn’t work in real time. Speaking of unsustainable models, the Maloofs are still a joke. Check out this clip for my reasons why but it’s hard to ever believe they’ll own a truly successful team again.
Games this week: back-to-back (at Dallas, at Hornets), at OKC, home to Portland

12. Minnesota Timberwolves (25-33, 13-15 home, 12-18 road, -1.2 differential, 11th in the West)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: Chancestheyknowthattheyarentsupposedtotank%
Currently: 12th in West
Games behind 8th seed: 6.5 games
In a 5-on-5 last week, I put Kevin Love as third in MVP voting for this season. After watching the recent six-game losing streak that has gripped the Wolves’ franchise, I feel embarrassed for even suggesting that, let alone putting it on Kevin Love has been phenomenal this year and I would have never guessed he’d improve and develop his game this quickly or to this level. He’s helped carry this dead franchise over the past two years and this year, they were actually in the playoff hunt past the first week of the season. However, ever since Rubio went down and this team stopped playing defense, they’ve been in a downward spiral.

Love’s been saying the right things to the media and talking about pride and guys stepping up to finish the season the right way. But he hasn’t been walking the walk. His numbers are good over this period of time. He’s getting double-doubles almost every night and still putting up insane stats. The problem is his defense has been atrocious after showing huge improvements this season. He’s getting torched and then saying guys need to step up on defense. You can’t lay down like this and just appear to be hunting stats. You have to be the leader this team needs you to be. Playoffs are gone but you can still end this season with some pride.
Games this week: back-to-back (at Denver, home to Clippers), home to Thunder, at Indiana

You’re on the outside, and you’re looking in… OH MY GOD DID I JUST QUOTE STAIN’D?

11. Portland Trailblazers (27-31, 19-11 home, 8-20 road, +0.6 differential, 12th in the West)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 0.8%
Currently: 11th in West
Games behind 8th seed: 4.5 games
When the Blazers and Wolves played recently, LaMarcus Aldridge seemed to have a gigantic chip on his shoulder while battling Kevin Love. Maybe a lot of it has to do with Love getting the All-Star nod last year over Aldridge. Maybe it has to do with LMA being in early and often foul trouble in the previous two showdowns with the Wolves. Maybe Kevin is just a really annoying guy to play basketball against because he’s physical and he complains to the refs a lot. Whatever it is, things got chippy and Aldridge seemed to take it personally that night.

What transpired was Aldridge kicking Love’s butt up and down the floor during the third quarter. He never allowed Minnesota to get back into the game. We want players to be enemies sometimes and show a competitive fire that we assume doesn’t exist anymore. Watching Aldridge turn his frustration into domination was fun to watch because it reinforces that these guys care as much as we do. They just care about it in a different way. LMA got pissed off at Love and decided to destroy him. Seeing that drive can be awe-inspiring.
Games this week: home to Warriors, home to Dallas, back-to-back (at Kings, at Phoenix)

10. Utah Jazz (30-28, 21-8 home, 9-20 road, -0.0 differential, 6th in the West)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 34.7%
Currently: 10th in West
Games behind 6th seed: 1.5 games
As I’ve watched the Wolves free fall out into the lottery, I’ve become more and more anxious for the Utah Jazz to vault themselves into the playoffs and their pick into the grasp of Minnesota. They’re very close to making the playoffs but they have to leapfrog Phoenix and manage to oust either Denver, Dallas or Houston. Wednesday night, they play Houston and a win would give them the series advantage over the Rockets. They can’t tie Dallas because they’ve already lost all three of their meetings with them so far this season. They can tie Denver because they’ve gone 2-1 against them this year. Obviously, they only have eight games remaining this season so all stretches are key the rest of the way, but this stretch of three straight road games to start this week will make or break them.

To go 2-1 against Houston, New Orleans and Memphis would put them in the driver’s seat of their own playoff fate. They’d be left with four of their final five games at home, including a showdown with Phoenix in the second-to-last game of the season. They probably have to finish with winning at least six of their final eight games to make it into the playoffs and wins over Houston and Phoenix have to be in those six wins. I’ll be hoping it happens because there is nothing else for Wolves’ fans to look forward to.
Games this week: at Houston, back-to-back (at Hornets, at Memphis), home to Dallas

9. Phoenix Suns (30-27, 17-11 home, 13-16 road, +0.4 differential, 10th in the West)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 41.9%
Currently: 9th in West
Games behind 8th seed: 1 game
I don’t quite know how to say this without sounding like a blithering drunk but here goes: Shannon Brown has been a really good starting shooting guard this season. Now before you close the page, read me out! He’s only started in 10 games so there is plenty of room to call this an episode of “Small Sample Size Theater,” and yet it seems like everything we’ve seen with him and Nash so far seems totally natural. When Nash is on the court, Shannon doesn’t appear to try to do too much. He picks his spots and is happy to space the floor.

He’s shot well from the corners with Nash running the show (41%) and as a starter he’s been scoring at an extremely impressive clip. He’s been averaging 17.4 points per game on 14.3 shots per game as a starter. Those aren’t astronomical numbers by any means, but his 44.8/39.6/75.8 percentages are very nice. He doesn’t turn the ball over much anyway, but it’s barely gone up with the increased minutes. Not pretending this is a long-term solution for Phoenix, but he’s flourishing with Nash right now.
Games this week: at Memphis, back-to-back (at Houston, at Spurs), home to Portland

You’ll have egg on your face if you miss the playoffs and then Boris Diaw will eat your face

8. Denver Nuggets (31-26, 17-12 home, 14-14 road, +1.9 differential, 8th in the West)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 58.7%
Currently: 8th seed
Games behind 6th seed: 1 game
I just want to watch this all day. I don’t want to think about anything else with this team other than this play.

Games this week: home to Wolves, at Lakers, back-to-back (home to Rockets, at Rockets)

7. Dallas Mavericks (31-26, 20-10 home, 11-16 road, +1.0 differential, 4th in the West)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 75.1%
Currently: 7th seed
Games behind 6th seed: 1 game
This Lamar Odom thing was so weird. I’ve thought all year long that once he got to the playoffs with this team, he’d have all of his offseason issues worked out and he’d be back in game shape. I don’t fault him for coming into this season out of shape and not ready to be in such a new environment. I understand the life he’s had and what he went through this past offseason and can assume how hard it is for him to adjust to that. But after everything that has come out over the last two days with him leaving the team and the alleged blowup with Cuban, I just don’t know what to think anymore.

A lot of people just assume because he has millions of dollars that he should just suck up his issues and play basketball. I don’t think life is that simple for someone like Lamar. With that said, I can’t believe he was showing up late to everything and not trying to work hard through it. Whatever even weirder is that we’re going to see how this all played out on a very special edition of Khloe and Lamar some day. Can’t wait!
Games this week: 4 games in 5 nights (at Warriors, at Portland then at Lakers, at Utah)

6. Houston Rockets (32-25, 20-8 home, 12-17 road, +1.1 differential, 9th in the West)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 90.4%
Currently: 6th seed
Games behind 5th seed: 1.5 games
If any of these teams are likely to fall out of the playoffs to let Utah or Phoenix in, it’s Houston. They have a tough stretch of games coming up in the next week with Utah, Phoenix, a home-and-home with Denver and then Dallas. They DO get the benefit of playing New Orleans twice the rest of the season and they have a game against Golden State, but they also play Miami in the second-to-last game of the season. It also might get tough with Kyle Lowry back and trying to figure out the minutes between the recovering Lowry and Goran Dragic, who has been a fire-breathing dragon lately.

In Dragic’s last 10 games, he’s shooting 52.2% from the field and 46.9% from 3 (4.9 attempts per game). He’s scoring 20.3 points, dishing out 7.9 assists and turning the ball over only 2.5 times per game. I was never overly impressed with Dragic when he was in Phoenix because his inconsistent play was living off the embers of his explosion in the playoffs against the Spurs. But he’s learned how to channel his abilities into something much more consistent lately, and that’s a very dangerous thing. He and Lowry haven’t played even 300 minutes on the court together this year, but McHale might have a goldmine of a small backcourt under his nose if he can figure out how to get them to play off of each other.
Games this week: home to Utah, home to Phoenix, back-to-back (at Denver, home to Denver)

Still hesitant about you two but I really enjoy watching you play

5. Los Angeles Clippers (34-23, 21-9 home, 13-14 road, +2.3 differential, 7th in the West)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 98.9%
Currently: 4th seed
Games behind 3rd seed: 1.5 games
It’s just so good to have Chris Paul back. I may try to extrapolate this into a love letter that puts my Ricky Davis one to shame, but for right now I’m just so happy we have him back. He’s the best point guard in the NBA and I’m not sure how close it is. It doesn’t mean Derrick Rose isn’t a great player because he is. It just means that Chris Paul brings literally everything to the table that you would want from a PG and he does it all in an elite way. When I saw him do this to Terrence Williams the other night, I just thought he was being rude because it didn’t have to break him like that. Welcome back, CP3.

Games this week: back-to-back (at OKC, at Wolves), home to Warriors, home to OKC

4. Memphis Grizzlies (33-23, 20-7 home, 13-16 road, +1.6 differential, 5th in the West)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 99.6%
Currently: 5th seed
Games behind 4th seed: 0.5 game

This is why Marc Gasol is the second best center in the NBA.

Games this week: 4 games in 5 nights (home to Phoenix, at Spurs then home to Utah, at Hornets)

You’re still my West Contenders! You’re Westenders!

3. Los Angeles Lakers (36-22, 23-6 home, 13-16 road, +1.9 differential, 3rd in the West)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 100%
Currently: 3rd seed
Games behind 2nd seed: 5.5 games
It’s kind of weird that after all of the injuries Kobe Bryant has played through during his career, he decided to sit a couple of games because of an inflamed left shin. This guy was basically on one leg last year and only had nine fingers and yet somehow managed to produce at a pretty ridiculous level. This time, Kobe’s shin hurts and he’s decided to cool it for a few days before the playoffs begin. The Lakers were able to rely on their bigs to pull out the victory against New Orleans, after dropping one big to the Suns, but it reminds us that no matter how much we want to discount Kobe’s greatness or elite stature at this stage in his career, the Lakers still need him on the floor to make everything work. He’s not the SOLE reason they win, but he’s still probably the biggest reason.

I imagine his shin injury looked like this.

Games this week: at Spurs, home to Denver, home to Dallas

2. Oklahoma City Thunder (42-15, 24-5 home, 18-10 road, +6.5 differential, 1st in the West)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 100%
Currently: 1st seed
Games behind home court advantage: 1-game
Wait a second… this isn’t where I parked my car. WHY ARE THE THUNDER KNOCKED OFF OF THEIR LONG-TIME PERCH OF FIRST PLACE IN THE WEST?! I think it’s a balance thing right now. Their lack of scoring inside still concerns me a lot and even though their perimeter attack can be smothering most of the time, I’m a bit worried about them in the playoffs. This could all just be paranoia and assuming things have to be done the way they’ve always been done, but I can’t help thinking the Ibaka-Perkins frontcourt is such a waste on offense.

One thing I’ve been kicking around in my head is throwing Westbrook into the post more. When you’ve got him on the perimeter with Harden and Durant, Russ heading down to the low block against a much weaker point guard could be the kind of advantage and wrinkle that this Thunder team needs. He’s a good scorer in the post and his passing ability wouldn’t be diminished if the double team came. It’s not something I’d run exclusively, but it’s definitely something I’d try to do more than dumping the ball into Perkins on the block so you can practice offensive rebounding.
Games this week: home to Clippers, back-to-back (home to Kings, at Wolves), at Clippers


1. San Antonio Spurs (40-15, 23-4 home, 17-11 road, +5.7 differential, 2nd in the West)
Hollinger Playoff Odds: 100%
Currently: 2nd seed
Games behind 1st seed: 1 game
There’s a new sheriff in town and he goes by the name of Gregg Popovich. Pop is constantly messing with our minds and I kind of adore him for that. I also fear him greatly. I love that he doesn’t seem to care about winning streaks. The streaks end when he says they do and not because some team has finally cracked the code. They had an 11-game win streak going and he decided to sit his big three and sacrifice the glory. And they STILL almost won.

I don’t know that this team will actually compete for an NBA title this year. They could run into a team like Memphis again and get abused inside. They could also go nuts from outside like the Mavs did last Spring and completely shock the world. Nothing is out of the realm of possibility because Popovich is THAT good of a coach. Congrats on the number-one spot in the West this week, Gregg. I hope you approve!

Games this week: back-to-back (home to Lakers, home to Memphis), home to Phoenix, at Warriors

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