Now that we are a few weeks into the season, you’ll notice the positions and teams begin to settle in. Kobe Bryant decided to take it upon himself to personally supplant the Lakers into the rankings. While the scoring outbursts are magnificent to witness and evidence that he still has plenty left in the tank (in his 16th season), his virtual-wink across the nation towards Dwight Howard might end up having a negative impact upon his Lakers team.
1.) Chicago Bulls (12-2) The Bulls managed to overcome their road woes against the Timberwolves, hold 3 opponents below 70 points (Raps/Wiz/Pistons), and dominate the Celtics (in Boston) on their way to a 5-0 week. The next 4 opponents, while not the best of teams, should provide for exciting point guard match-ups with Steve Nash, Kyrie Irving, and Kemba Walker for Rose to compete with.
2.) Oklahoma City Thunder (11-2) Much like the Bulls, the Thunder has decided they simply don’t want to lose anymore. They’ve rattled off 6 consecutive victories, and haven’t looked the least bit phased by the loss of Eric Maynor. James Harden has picked up some of the ball-handling responsibilities of the second unit, which has increased his overall productivity. The road should truly test this Thunder squad, as 13 of their next 16 will be played outside of the comfy confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena.
3.) Orlando Magic (8-3) Dwight Howard continues to silently issue his trade demands behind closed doors, and violently take it out on opposing centers while on the court. Coach Mark Jackson decided his Golden State Warriors had no chance at defending Howard, so he decided to simply foul him each time he caught the ball anywhere near the key. Not only did Dwight put up monster numbers (45 pts, 23 rebs, 4 stls, 3 asts, and 2 blks for good measure), but he messed around and broke Wilt Chamberlain’s 50-year-old NBA record for most free throws attempted in a single game (21-39 fts).
4.) Los Angeles Clippers (6-3) Whether you want to call them “Lob-City” or not, these Clippers are meant to be taken seriously. DeAndre Jordan is 2nd in the league in Blocks, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are ranked #7 and #8 (respectively) in Player Efficiency, all while CP3 leads the league in Steals Per Game. They’re getting steady contributions from both Randy Foye and Caron Butler, and Reggie Evans is still a rebounding machine when healthy. They followed up a disappointing road loss to the Blazers with a tough OT victory at home vs. the Heat. They finished the week with an exclamation point by enduring another 40-point outburst by Kobe en route to running away from the Lakers in the 4th quarter. According to reports, Chris Paul’s hamstring MRI results were negative, so all of Clippers Nation’s newfound fans can breath a collective sigh of relief.
5.) Miami Heat (8-4) The Heat went from looking absolutely unbeatable, to looking like a team that doesn’t know how to close a game out. LeBron was accused of being afraid of the spotlight, yet again, when he played passively down the stretch of an overtime loss at Golden State. James was then praised (by some) for his unusually aggressive play in the 4th quarter and overtime of another loss in Los Angeles to the Clippers. Others, were not as kind with their assessment of LeBron’s play, in mentioning his 4 missed free throws, missed shots, and turnovers down the stretch of that game. Adding ‘injury’ to yet another loss, Dwyane Wade is out indefinitely, after spraining his right ankle. NBA schedule-makers didn’t do the Heat any favors, as they host the Spurs, Lakers, 76ers, and Bucks this week.
6.) Los Angeles Lakers (9-5) It would be easy to make comparisons of Kobe’s recent offensive outburst (41+ ppg over his last 4 games) to the days where he regularly spent weeks, if not months scoring in bunches…but during those days, he was playing with a starting line-up that included Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm, and Smush Parker. These days, while he is still playing with a sub-par point guard and back-up small forward playing starter’s minutes, the two book-end 7-footers make this scoring trend less necessary. Not that NBA fans should be completely complaining, as it is not only a rare thing, but scoring of this nature in one’s 16th season has never been seen. Rumors have been running rampant about Kobe attempting to quiet any doubt Dwight Howard may have about his remaining skills, but at what cost to the current team’s progress? Nevertheless, I doubt there will be another week without the Lakers in the rankings.
7.) Philadelphia 76ers (9-3) Even though 2 of the victories came at the expense of the lowly Wizards, the 76ers have been extremely impressive over the last 10 games (winners of 9). The Sixers are 3rd in the league in Points Per Game (101.3) and 2nd in the league in points allowed (86.2). Meaning, Coach Doug Collins has his young team playing some scrambling and pressure-packed defense, and sharing the ball with one another on the offensive end.
8.) Indiana Pacers (9-3) Indiana completed another 3-1 week by beating Boston for the second time this season. These Pacers are the definition of a balanced attack, as they are the only team in the league with 7 players averaging double-figures in scoring. Six of the next seven games are on the road, which should either make for an opportunity for this team to gel or an opportunity for some of the struggling teams like the Knicks or Celtics to gain some ground.
9.) Atlanta Hawks (9-4) The Hawks lost Al Horford (starting center) for the next 3-4 months due to a torn pectoral. Prior to the injury, I asked why these Hawks aren’t pursuing a player like Joakim Noah or even Andrew Bynum to play alongside the often undersized Horford? The questions remains, as the Hawks will always be just good enough to make the playoffs and perhaps surprise a team in the first round, but never quite big (or skilled) enough to cause any serious reason for concern for the Eastern Conference leaders.
10.) San Antonio Spurs (9-4) Prior to this week, I’ve been hesitant to completely buy in to these Spurs. Although, they’ve been represented in these rankings, forgive me if all these new faces and contribution sources take some time to get used to. The Old Testament (formerly known as the “Big Fundamental”) is still able to muster up Duncan-like games against teams without top-notch power forwards and centers, but Coach Popovich is going to have to continue to motivate these lesser-heralded players to play above all levels of expectations. In an era of dynasties, huge names/contracts, and even bigger egos, Popovich has always done a masterful job at doing just that.
Also should be mentioned: Utah (8-4) and Dallas (8-5) should not go unrecognized, even if they don’t quite deserve to make this week’s rankings. After starting the season by dropping three of the first four games, the Jazz have won seven of their last eight. Their one loss, an overtime game in which they came from behind, only to come up just short at the very end against the Lakers. No shame in that. Point is, Coach Tyrone Corbin has this team answering the call. Derrick Favors shows flashes of athletic brilliance, but remains an unpolished product, at best. Paul Milsap continues to impress in a starter’s role. The Mavericks, after a similar slow start, look as though they’ve played themselves into shape. After starting the season 3-5, they’ve won 5 consecutive games and even held the Kings to 60 points on Saturday