Four of the six best records in the NBA belonged to Eastern Conference teams through Saturday night’s play.
The Golden State Warriors, meanwhile, reached the 41-game midpoint of the schedule on a pedestrian (for them) 54-win pace.
The first half of the regular season, in other words, has defied most preseason prognostications and requires special examination to properly sort out the 1-to-30 landscape. So it is an ideal time to reconvene what is known as the Committee (of One) and share my team-by-team progress report in the form of NBA Power Rankings.
The Committee, as it has since the 2002-03 season, determines the order by weighing what is happening in the present alongside each team’s big-picture outlook — with sprinkles of subjectivity and whimsy thrown in.
What used to be a weekly endeavor for me is only a once-a-season enterprise every January now. Yet the goal, as always, is to provide a more up-to-date and detailed assessment than the standings do.
1. Toronto Raptors (32-12)
The Raptors were this season’s first 30-win team, which is impressive when Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry have been in uniform together only three times in Toronto’s last 17 games. The threat of the Los Angeles Clippers signing Leonard away in free agency is all too real for every basketball-loving Canadian, but the Raptors may still assemble the best possible sales pitch: Win the post-LeBron James Eastern Conference to get to the NBA Finals and give Leonard ample reason to stay.
2. Milwaukee Bucks (29-12)
Giannis Antetokounmpo supplanting James Harden as the league’s most valuable player? Mike Budenholzer emerging from the usual deep field to win NBA coach of the year? Milwaukee clinching the East’s No. 1 seed heading into the playoffs? Any of those would have been fairly wild claims back in September, but suddenly they all seem possible halfway through the regular-season schedule. The challenge now: Milwaukee is just beginning the toughest two months of its schedule.
3. Golden State Warriors (28-14)
Maybe the Warriors do not inspire the fear they once did. Maybe their defensive woes (having slipped to 16th in defensive efficiency) are a sign of true vulnerability. Or maybe, with DeMarcus Cousins just days away from making his long-awaited debut, Golden State’s season is about to start for real. I tend to believe it is the latter, in Year 5 of a historic run, having seen firsthand how much this team can struggle with regular-season motivation.
4. Denver Nuggets (28-13)
The regular season is just under 90 days old. The plucky Nuggets, despite numerous injuries, have held the top spot in the West — Golden State’s conference — for 44 of them. Yet you would not know it, as NBA know-it-alls wrestle with billing Denver as a full-fledged contender — or dismissing them as a team that can only do pre-April damage. Book this either way: Nikola Jokic is a lock to snag his first All-Star berth.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder (26-16)
Remember the Thunder’s 0-4 start? Neither do we. Despite the season-long absence of the ace defender Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City leads the league in defensive rating (allowing just 102.9 points per 100 possessions) and specializes in the physical style that has troubled Golden State in the past. The Thunder have undoubtedly benefited from what ranks as the league’s second-easiest schedule to date, but you would struggle to find a star duo meshing better than Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
6. Houston Rockets (24-17)
Earlier this season, I responded to the Rockets’ disappointing start and Chris Paul’s hamstring issues by stopping just short of proclaiming the window to contention closed for James Harden and Company. Houston is 7-2 since Dec. 24 — with Harden averaging a mere 41.0 points (and 16.7 3-point attempts!) per game in that stretch. Write the Rockets off if you wish, but Harden’s brilliance, augmented by a resurgent Clint Capela and newcomer Austin Rivers, should give you pause.
7. Indiana Pacers (28-14)
Surprise No. 1: Only six teams in the league, according to Basketball-Reference.com’s projections, will finish the season with at least 50 wins. Surprise No. 2: Indiana is on that list, ahead of higher-profile teams like Philadelphia and Oklahoma City, despite the fact that the All-Star guard Victor Oladipo has missed 11 games with a knee problem. Coach Nate McMillan, continuity and a top-two defense have the unfashionable Pacers overachieving — again.
8. San Antonio Spurs (25-19)
This season’s 11-14 start was the first time Gregg Popovich had ever sported a sub-.500 record after 25 games and included a four-game stretch in which the Spurs unfathomably suffered three losses in excess of 30 points. The ensuing turnaround, though, has been no less remarkable. San Antonio is 14-5 and ranks No. 1 in offensive efficiency and No. 2 in defensive efficiency in that span, led by midrange maestros DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge flat-out ignoring the league’s 3-point revolution.
9. Boston Celtics (25-17)
The numbers continue to say that the Celtics are fine. They have a per-game average point differential (+6.4) that ranks second only to Milwaukee’s (+9.1). Boston is also one of just four teams (along with Milwaukee, Toronto and Denver) to rank in the top 10 in both offensive (ninth) and defensive (fourth) efficiency. The problem: Boston just followed up an impressive rout of Indiana with losses in Miami and Orlando, which suggested yet again that things are not fine.
10. Philadelphia 76ers (27-16)
For all the creative tension that has bubbled around the Sixers since they acquired Jimmy Butler on Nov. 10, they have the fourth-best overall record in that span (19-10) despite well-chronicled concerns about shooting and depth around Philadelphia’s star trio as well as the occasional squawking. Butler’s fit alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons has been less than seamless, as predicted, but stockpiling as much talent as possible and then trying to solve the puzzle is the NBA way.
11. Portland Trail Blazers (26-17)
One of my faulty predictions from last year asserted that 2018 would be the year that the Trail Blazers finally broke up the Damian Lillard/C.J. McCollum partnership as a means to build a more balanced roster. Portland has instead clung to the hope that Jusuf Nurkic will keep inching closer to becoming the consistent third wheel it has needed for ages. It is a better team than last season’s version, but only marginally — and still vulnerable to athletic opposition.
12. Utah Jazz (23-21)
The Jazz have risen to a more familiar No. 5 in defensive efficiency and cling to the belief that their road-heavy schedule, with 25 of the first 41 games away, has contributed mightily to keeping them out of the West’s top eight for much of the season. But to resemble the team most experts thought it would be, Utah needs Donovan Mitchell’s January resurgence to last, as well as a return to last season’s standards from Joe Ingles.
13. Los Angeles Lakers (23-20)
Winning without LeBron James is hard. Who knew? The Lakers are 3-6 since James sustained a strained groin in a Christmas Day rout of Golden State. As a result, they have slid from a higher-than-expected No. 4 to an uncomfortable No. 8 in the West — thus resurrecting all the preseason questions about LA’s ability to make the playoffs with, shall we say, such an eclectic roster. James appears likely, at 34, to miss more than the 11 games Stephen Curry lost to a similar injury in November.
14. Los Angeles Clippers (24-18)
I fear they are at high risk to slip out of the West’s top eight, but the Clippers would certainly slot in right at the top of the play-hard rankings if there were such an industry. The feisty likes of Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley, flanking a better-than-ever Tobias Harris, continue to make the Clippers more bizarrely competitive than anyone had imagined heading into a summer in which they are positioned to make the loudest free-agent noise in franchise history, if they can persuade Leonard to leave the Raptors for Southern California.
15. Sacramento Kings (22-21)
A Bogdan Bogdanovic buzzer-beater to topple the Lakers on Dec. 27 hiked the fast-paced Kings’ record to 19-16 and seemed to announce the blossoming tandem of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield as certifiable playoff material after a league-high 12 consecutive seasons of missing out. Sacramento briefly unraveled, enduring a 1-5 funk that included an embarrassing fall-from-ahead loss at Phoenix when the Suns were without Devin Booker. You cannot afford funks in the West.
16. Miami Heat (21-20)
Little emanating from South Beach makes sense, whether it is Miami’s ability to play .500 basketball despite missing out on Butler via trade and having Goran Dragic healthy for just 14 games — or the fact this team is 0-3 against Atlanta. It is unclear how long it will take Miami to get back into the trade mix for a player of Butler’s caliber, but the retiring Dwyane Wade should have an opportunity to bid the game farewell from the playoff stage.
17. Brooklyn Nets (21-23)
The drop-off from the East’s top five to teams trying to secure the final three playoff stops is as steep as pessimists feared. Not that the Nets intend to apologize after the barren half-decade they endured in the wake of their disastrous 2014 trade with Boston. While the Knicks tank their way to a shot at Zion Williamson, New Yorkers may get postseason games after all, thanks to success stories like Spencer Dinwiddie, D’Angelo Russell, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen.
18. New Orleans Pelicans (20-23)
It is a misnomer to say Anthony Davis has no help. Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle are all accomplished players. The Pelicans’ problems have been health (most notably injuries for Mirotic and the point guard Elfrid Payton) and difficulties in playing Davis, Mirotic and Randle together even when they are all available. New Orleans, as a result, is facing the biggest possible problem: Outcomes that force them to trade the Brow grow more plausible by the day.
19. Washington Wizards (18-25)
Indiana has crashed the East’s upper crust to give the conference its own Fab Five, but we were not exaggerating the drop-off to the chasing pack. Look no further than the nation’s capital for proof, with the Wizards still firmly in the playoff chase despite having lost John Wall to season-ending heel surgery. Recent wins over Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Milwaukee should tell you that the Wiz are not heeding some fans’ calls to tank.
20. Dallas Mavericks (20-22)
Luka Doncic has a real shot to become the first rookie to achieve All-Star status since Blake Griffin did it in 2011, which already makes this a more successful season in Dallas than many had forecast. But the huge disparity between the Mavericks’ play at home (16-4) and on the road (4-18), Dirk Nowitzki’s health woes in what they had hoped would be a heartwarming final season and J.J. Barea’s season-ending Achilles’ tear have combined to snuff out some of the joy.
21. Minnesota Timberwolves (21-22)
As regular readers know, Glen Taylor’s passive ownership style is a frequent source of consternation for the Committee. But give Taylor this: Firing Tom Thibodeau when he did to replace him with the 32-year-old Ryan Saunders, bizarre as the timing seemed, meant eating an estimated $20 million left on Thibodeau’s contract. If only Taylor had been that decisive back in June or July when the Wolves really needed to start dealing with Butler’s discontent.
22. Charlotte Hornets (19-23)
The Michael Jordan-owned Hornets have All-Star Weekend hosting duties in a month to assure the franchise and city a measure of prominence this season. But what they, especially Jordan, really want is a playoff berth that is by no means certain given the limited scoring punch Charlotte can field beyond its do-everything guard Kemba Walker. It also does not help that the Hornets have already racked up a league-high eight costly losses in one-possession games.
23. Detroit Pistons (18-23)
Since it hit my radar during an early-season visit to Motown, it has been one of my favorite stats of the season: Blake Griffin leads the league in touches per game at 93.3. Nikola Jokic and Harden are the only others in 90s, but the number doubles as an illustration of the Pistons’ problems as much as it spotlights Griffin’s special ability as a power player to handle the ball like a guard. He is clearly compensating for multiple holes in the roster.
24. Memphis Grizzlies (19-23)
Memphis has nose-dived from a West-leading record of 12-5 on Thanksgiving, losing 18 of 25 games while former All-Star center Marc Gasol has been submerged in a slump that has shown few signs of relenting. The fade might not just cost the Grizzlies a playoff berth; it might also threaten to extend Mike Conley’s career-long wait for an All-Star berth, as team success is bound to be factored in to the votes of the news media panel and coaches, given the glut of worthy guards in the West.
25. Orlando Magic (18-24)
The Magic reeled off seven wins in a nine-game stretch in November under the new coach Steve Clifford, spawning hopes that competing for a spot in the inviting lower reaches of the East’s playoff ladder was feasible. Two months later, apart from the career-best season assembled by the veteran big man Nikola Vucevic, Orlando is back on course for a ninth successive trip to the lottery and remains as desperate as Phoenix for an upgrade at point guard.
26. Atlanta Hawks (13-29)
If the Hawks finish where they are as the so-called best of the worst, they will have a 10.5 percent shot at the No. 1 overall pick in June in the NBA’s new lottery system, which flattens out the odds to 14 percent each for teams with the three worst records. In the interim, Trae Young’s development is the overwhelming focus, which makes it difficult not to partake in obsessing over how Young is shooting from the field (.394) and 3-point range (.291).
27. Phoenix Suns (11-33)
Deandre Ayton’s Rookie of the Year campaign would appear to be the only pleasant diversion for one of the league’s longest-suffering fan bases amid Phoenix’s ninth straight nonplayoff season, Booker’s various health woes and the owner Robert Sarver’s struggles to secure public financing for the renovation of the Suns’ downtown arena. Yet I cannot say I love Ayton’s chances after witnessing up close how badly he was outplayed by the ROY favorite Doncic last week.
28. New York Knicks (10-32)
Will the Knicks really hold Kristaps Porzingis out for the entire season? Will the Knicks trade Enes Kanter? Will the Knicks get lucky in the June draft? Those three questions have dominated coach David Fizdale’s first season in New York while this franchise waits for its opportunity in July to see if it can really make the long-awaited splash in free agency that many league observers legitimately expect after two mostly hapless decades.
29. Chicago Bulls (10-33)
Jim Boylen is still running some long practices, but things have mellowed (at least somewhat) between the Bulls and their feisty new coach after the initial wave of wind sprints, pushups and disagreements. While Boylen works to secure a return next season, it is all about development for the rest of this season for the few keepers on the roster — most notably Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Wendell Carter Jr. — and finding new homes for Jabari Parker and Robin Lopez.
30. Cleveland Cavaliers (8-35)
In the four years between James’ two stints with his home-state franchise, Cleveland somehow won the NBA draft lottery three times: 2011 (Kyrie Irving), 2013 (Anthony Bennett) and 2014 (Andrew Wiggins). Dreams of getting lucky again and earning the right to select Zion Williamson may be the only source of comfort for Cavaliers fans trying to get through what must surely feel like the longest of winters.