Will the real Eastern Conference please stand up? Not saying things are perfect in the Western Conference, but once again, the balance of power in the NBA seems to have shifted considerably to the West. Don’t tell Los Angeles Lakers fans this, as things have only grown worse for a franchise accustomed to riding a seemingly never-ending wave of success. Folks are gripping in Laker Land, as Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and back-up Jordan Hill are all out indefinitely with various injuries.
With the Heat placing some distance between themselves and the rest of the East, outside of the Knicks and (possibly) the Bulls, folks are waiting to see if the Celtics are going to be able to generate enough of a consistent fight to challenge as a contender once the postseason rolls around.
#1 Los Angeles Clippers : Even though Chris Paul got “baptized” in the meeting with his building-mate Lakers, the Clippers were still able to come away with a short-handed (Crawford) victory at the end of the day. That’s the difference between these Clippers and any other team in franchise history…they win the tough games. The Clippers are getting healthier while other teams are getting dinged up. As crazy as it may sound, the biggest concern in Lob City may be how coach Vinny Del Negro manages all of their talent down the stretch.
#2 OKC Thunder: Slip-up in Washington aside, the Thunder remain the top team out West. OKC fans have to hope they’ve has gotten it out of their system, as the Thunder play 9 of 11 on the road, and most coming against fellow Western Conference playoff contenders. They may have the ability to slam the door shut on a couple spiraling teams like the Lakers and Mavericks as they play each of them twice over the next two weeks.
#3 San Antonio Spurs: For as much as folks have been justifiably lauding the exploits of an elder-statesman like Kobe Bryant, folks might want to take a moment to look at the numbers Tim Duncan, AKA “Father Time”, has been putting up. While some folks may have thought Duncan was washed up a few years back, in he is putting up 17.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game in his 16th season. The Spurs have a big 5-game stretch coming up against Western Conference playoff contenders and wannabe’s.
#4 Miami Heat: As mentioned, the Heat have distanced themselves from the rest of the pack in the East. I’m not sure whether that is actually the best thing for the Heat, as they look poised to coast to the playoffs unless someone challenges them in the second half. After spending the better part of December in Miami, the schedule could actually be the great equalizer, as the Heat play 10 of the next 12 on the road.
#5 Golden State Warriors: I wouldn’t place too much stock in that double-digit loss at the hands of the Clippers. Make no mistake about it, L.A. needed that victory, having already dropped the first two meetings vs. the Warriors. If I’m not mistaken, David Lee is the only player in the league currently averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds (19.9/10.9). Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have also paced them with outside shooting, but the true test for GS remains how coach Mark Jackson is able to integrate Andrew Bogut into the mix once he is available to return.
#6 New York Knicks: Following a blazing start to the season, the Knicks are just 5-6 over their previous 11 games. Strangely enough, Melo has actually increased his shots per game (24.8) since Amar’e has returned. The question remains: Will the Knicks be able to continue working together and find a way for all the parts to fit, especially once Iman Shumpert returns from injury?
#7 Houston Rockets: James Harden is, once again, making people “Fear The Beard” in Houston. For as much credit as we give Melo for his numbers, a strong case could be made for Harden’s stats actually being more impressive. He and Lin seemed to have found a way to co-exist in the same back court, as they lead the highest scoring offense in the NBA. The Rockets could be a player away from surprising a team or two in the playoffs. Like most other teams, this next stretch could be key for Houston, as they play 10 of 13 on the road.
#8 Memphis Grizzlies : Boasting the league’s stingiest defense (89.1 ppg), the Grizzlies have weathered a bit of an injury storm, and maintained a top-4 seed out West. Trade rumors are swirling, as the Grizzlies happen to be one of those small market teams that spends like a relatively big market franchise. Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph’s names have been mentioned in the most recent rumors, but I would find it surprising if they were to move such a large bulk of their offense in one move, considering they are 23rd in total scoring (94.8 PPG).
#9 Chicago Bulls : For as much as folks want to clown Carlos Boozer for his spray-on hair and gargantuan contract, the man has actually been playing some inspired basketball for the Bulls. As they await updated news on the Derrick Rose front, the Bulls have won 4-5 and Boozer’s 23/12 on 53% shooting over that stretch has been key. Big meeting with the Knicks at MSG on Friday night that could shift the balance of power in the East if the Bulls were able to go into NY and make a statement.
#10 Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks continue to linger just along the outside of the teams to take seriously once the playoffs arrive. Josh Smith, to his credit, seems a bit rejuvenated on the defensive end. Smith has 13 blocks and eight steals over his previous four games. With rumors also surrounding his name (what’s new?), it will be interesting to see if the Hawks are buyers or sellers at the trade deadline.