NBA Power Rankings: How the Association Stacks Up in Early February
January has come and gone. The concurrent hot streak of Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder are officially things of the past.
And who could blame them? The 82-game season is, has long been and likely always will be a slog. As such, any opportunity for a player or coach to get away from the game and refresh his mind and body ought to be welcomed with open arms.
Until then, they'll have to grin and bear it for just one week more—unless, of course, they're partaking in the midseason festivities.
Don't expect us to slack off in the lead-up to the All-Star Game, though. The power rankings will soldier on, just as they did last week.
That is, so long as you swipe/click ahead.
30. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cleveland Cavaliers may not be the worst team in the NBA overall, but right now, they're certainly playing like they belong at the bottom of the barrel. Their five-game skid spilled into six on Wednesday night after what can best be described as a bizarre—and, for the Cavs, embarrassing—loss to the severely undermanned Los Angeles Lakers.
The story of the 119-108 loss focused on the Lakers' need to revive Robert Sacre—Call of Duty style—after he picked up his sixth foul in the fourth quarter. Because the Lakers were down to four healthy, eligible bodies, the refs had no choice but to allow Sacre to play on—but only after the Cavs were awarded a technical free throw.
Even that snafu wasn't enough to boost the home team to victory; Cleveland's fate was sealed long before the game became an exercise in rulebook oddities.
The Cavs fell behind by as many as 28 points in the third quarter to a Lakers squad that had lost two players (Jordan Hill and Jodie Meeks) the night before, saw another two (Nick Young and Jordan Farmar) drop like flies that night and was leaning on the likes of Ryan Kelly and Wesley Johnson just to get by.
"It has nothing to do with a team that has their guys or doesn't have their guys,'' coach Mike Brown told Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer. "I'm more so upset with the fact that we didn't come out and play the right way to start the game and we got ourselves in a hole.''
A hole that, at this point, seems far too deep for the Cavs to escape from in time to make anything resembling a playoff push. It should come as no surprise, then, that GM Chris Grant got his walking papers shortly thereafter, per Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
29. Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks can thank the Cavs for affording them some breathing room at the bottom of the power rankings. The Bucks' 9-40 record is still the NBA's worst by what might as well be a country mile, as is their average point differential of minus-9.6.
To be sure, Milwaukee did at least one good thing this week: give New York Knicks fans another reason to wax melancholic about their team's travails. The Bucks withstood 30-point performances from Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith to pull out a 101-98 home win on a game-winning three by Brandon Knight with 1.4 seconds left on Monday.
Better yet, you know those fans seen cheering their heads off in the stands immediately after Knight nails the shot? Those are the family members of none other than Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had 15 points off the bench that night.
All in all, it was a good night for the future of basketball in Milwaukee—good enough to give fans something to root for in the present.
28. Orlando Magic
Uh oh. Looks like the Orlando Magic are slipping up—in a good way, of course. They won two games this past week, spoiling their season-long tank job somewhat while also bringing a spot of joy to their forlorn fans.
Then again, the Magic could get back to their losing ways in a hurry. According to ESPN's Chad Ford, Arron Afflalo, Jameer Nelson and Glen Davis could all be dealt by the Feb. 20 trade deadline, though GM Rob Hennigan is in no rush to part ways with his team's talented veterans—nor should he be.
After all, if Orlando is already bad enough to own the second-worst record in basketball, why bother parting ways with those more experienced players who can teach the youngsters a thing or two unless said veterans can fetch pennies pretty enough to satisfy Hennigan's demands?
27. Los Angeles Lakers
Say what you will about how bad the Cavs are (and I already have), but the Los Angeles Lakers deserve some credit for coming away with a 119-108 win in Cleveland, especially given their strange circumstances.
It was one thing for the Lakers to gut out the game with only eight players dressed to start the game and the inevitable need to consult the rulebook to maintain Robert Sacre's eligibility in the fourth quarter.
It was another entirely for L.A. to persevere through the foul- and injury-induced absurdity of having only four players available, considering that they'd dropped their last seven games in a row—including their previous five road dates—coming into Wednesday's on-court episode of The Twilight Zone.
"This has been crazy all year," Nick Young, who left the game after twisting his knee in the second quarter, told ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. "Tonight sums up how everything has been."
26. Philadelphia 76ers
According to seemingly every basketball-related source on planet Earth, the Philadelphia 76ers are dangling the trio of Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes in advance of the Feb. 20 trade deadline.
If I'm not mistaken, this has pretty much been the case since the start of the 2013-14 season. Those three represent Philly's most attractive assets—at least in the eyes of potential contenders in search of a spark plug or a filler of some sort ahead of the playoffs.
As ESPN's Marc Stein noted, the Sixers—like just about every seller on the market—are hoping to bring back a first-round pick of some sort in exchange for their established contributors. Getting one, though, is much easier said than done in this day and age, wherein young players (and the cheap contracts to which they're attached) are held in higher esteem than ever before.
Deal or no deal, Philly is bad enough to ensure that its own pick in the 2014 draft is a plum one.
And if the New Orleans Pelicans' pick they acquired at last year's draft for Jrue Holiday lands outside the top five, the Sixers will have two more lottery talents—along with Rookie of the Year favorite Michael Carter-Williams and rehabbing first-year player Nerlens Noel—around whom to rebuild going forward.
25. Utah Jazz
You'd think that raising a banner in honor of Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan last Friday night would inspire these young Utah Jazz to step up their collective game. Instead, the Jazz have dropped three in a row since Sloan's "number"—1,223, his total tally of regular-season wins—was raised to the rafters.
To be fair, Utah did what it could to deliver a "W" for Sloan and the fans in Salt Lake City. The Jazz led by as many as nine points in the fourth quarter, but they couldn't quite fend off Stephen Curry's 44-point flurry in the end.
In the grand scheme of things, the Jazz are doing just fine. At 16-32, they stand alone in last place in the Western Conference, despite the "best" efforts of the Lakers and Sacramento Kings to keep them company.
24. Boston Celtics
There's a folly inherent in taking too much from back-to-back wins over Eastern Conference bottom-feeders, but for the Boston Celtics, who are in no position to complain, the importance of those results goes far beyond the final scores.
Both of those games featured more sustained flashes of the vintage Rajon Rondo. He tallied 19 points, 10 assists and six rebounds in under 27 minutes against the Magic, and he followed that up by falling two points and one board shy of a triple-double opposite the Sixers.
Rondo is clearly recouping more of his old self with each passing game, though he still has a long way to go before he's back to where he was prior to the injury. "I'm getting back to my old self," Rondo said after the victory in Philly, per ESPN.com. "I'm not there yet but I'll take the progress."
23. Detroit Pistons
The Detroit Pistons are a tough nut to crack, to say the least.
They're just two games out of a playoff spot in the East, despite an abysmal 19-29 record. Their flailing frontcourt of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond has been one of the NBA's biggest disappointments this season, due in no small part to the cramping of floor space that comes with having three giants inside and no reliable shooters on the perimeter.
And yet, according to Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler, the Pistons have hardly moved a muscle on the trade market. Flipping Monroe, a restricted free agent-to-be, for a shooter of some sort (Arron Afflalo, anyone?) would make plenty of sense, given the limitations of Detroit's existing arrangement.
Of course, there's still time before the deadline for GM Joe Dumars to get a deal done. Chances are, his future with the franchise is riding on this team's ability to break its nearly five-year playoff drought.
And that may be too tall an order for Detroit's mismatched roster as currently constituted.
22. New York Knicks
For every step or two forward the New York Knicks have taken this season, they've stumbled backward another three or four times.
At least, that's how it's felt of late. Since early January, the Knicks have won five games in a row, lost five in a row, won four straight and now dropped their last three. Their latest skid began at home with a blowout loss to the Miami Heat, continued with a gut-wrenching result on the road in Milwaukee and persisted through a painful, four-point defeat to the Portland Trail Blazers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.
It may only be a matter of time, then, until Mike Woodson is shown the door. “If something was to happen, it’s out of my hands,’’ Carmelo Anthony said of Woodson's future after the loss to the Blazers, via Marc Berman of the New York Post.
That's not exactly a ringing endorsement from 'Melo, whom the Knicks are so eager to please ahead of his expected foray into unrestricted free agency this summer.
21. Sacramento Kings
It's no coincidence that the Sacramento Kings lost seven games in a row while DeMarcus Cousins was dealing with an ankle injury. Nor is it a matter of happenstance that Sacramento is 2-0 since Boogie's return.
These Kings are far from conquerors, even with their full complement of players. But without Cousins, their best player, the Kings have a hard time so much as resembling a respectable outfit.
Cousins certainly didn't wait to make his presence felt. He tallied 25 points, 16 rebounds, four assists and a block in Sacramento's 29-point blowout of the frustrated Chicago Bulls, and he followed that up with another 25-10-4 output with two blocks and a steal to put the Kings way out ahead of the Toronto Raptors. This was all while playing through pain in his ankle, no less.
"To be honest, I shouldn't have been playing tonight," Cousins said after the win over Chicago, via ESPN.com. "But I'm not the kind of guy to let a nagging injury hold me back. So once I got to the point where I could play through the pain, go through the pain and stiffness in my ankle, I was ready to go."
20. New Orleans Pelicans
Here's another bit of news for folks in the Bayou to embrace and the rest of the country to either snicker at or scratch its collective head in confusion: The New Orleans Pelicans will now be playing in what's known as the "Smoothie King Center."
According to a press release from the Pelicans, they and the state of Louisiana have agreed to a 10-year naming-rights deal with the 40-year-old chain, which has spread to over 600 stores across the United States and Asia from its origins in the Crescent City.
The naming-rights deal may seem strange to outsiders, though it still pales in comparison to the incongruity of referring to one of the NBA's most boisterous venues as "Sleep Train Arena." And, as far as New Orleans is concerned, Smoothie King is no less intrinsic to the city's commercial fabric than pelicans are to the local fauna.
Now, if only Smoothie King had a special recipe or two to help the team recover faster from (and, ideally, prevent) injuries...
19. Charlotte Bobcats
The thought of the Charlotte Bobcats, at 22-28, making the playoffs may seem like a joke, though that prospect would appear to be anything but a laughing matter in the team's locker room. The 'Cats went 3-1 on their recent West Coast swing, capping things off with a 91-75 stomping of the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena.
That last game, in particular, served as the perfect exhibit of this team's capabilities when it has all of its ducks in a row.
Al Jefferson registered his third 30-10 game in his last four outings. Kemba Walker returned from injury to drop a team-leading seven assists. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist spearheaded a Charlotte defensive effort that limited Golden State to its lowest single-game field-goal percentage (.312) since November of 2004.
This isn't to suggest that the 'Cats are going to go out with a bang before the team reclaims its Hornets heritage. A week of games against the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Brooklyn Nets could bring Charlotte back to Earth in a big way—as if it ever left.
But the fact that the 'Cats have already surpassed last season's win total (21) and are reportedly in the buyer's market as the trade deadline approaches, per Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler, is cause enough for a celebration of some sort among Michael Jordan and his Queen City contingent.
18. Minnesota Timberwolves
So much for the Minnesota Timberwolves finally figuring out how to win close games. The T-Wolves dropped to 1-12 in games decided by four points or fewer this season with their 94-90 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies last Friday. The very next day, "Minny" dropped a seven-point decision on the road to the Atlanta Hawks.
At some point, the T-Wolves are going to have to capture close contests with greater regularity if they're to break their decade-long playoff drought. Having a reluctant shooter like Ricky Rubio directing the offense certainly doesn't help and neither does having injuries to Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic.
The T-Wolves, at 24-25, are still well within range of a spot in the postseason. What they need now, though, is for their bigs to heal up and for the team to coalesce with some semblance of consistency before they fall too far behind.
17. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets caught a big break going up against the severely short-handed San Antonio Spurs on Thursday.
The Nets had taken their fair share of lumps since the last edition of these here power rankings hit the Interwebz. First, they were embarrassed at home by the white-hot Oklahoma City Thunder, to the point that Kevin Durant's 30-point-game streak was snapped simply because he didn't need to play the entire fourth quarter. The very next night, the Nets dropped a heartbreaker on the road to the Indiana Pacers.
Consecutive wins over the Sixers and Spurs will go a long way toward solidifying Brooklyn's playoff positioning. But, at 22-25, the Nets still have plenty of work to do if they're to live up to their lofty preseason expectations in any capacity.
16. Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls rushed out to a solid 16-point lead in the second quarter against the Golden State Warriors, but there's only so much Tom Thibodeau's team can do once the offense inevitably bogs down.
That's been the problem for the Bulls for some time now. Even when Derrick Rose was healthy, Chicago struggled mightily to create good shots, as did Sisyphus in pushing that dang boulder up the hill. Now, with Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin running the show, the Bulls are practically obligated to simply run their sets and hope for the best.
Luckily, their defense (No. 2 in points allowed per possession) is good enough to keep them in a comfortable playoff spot amid the muck of the Eastern Conference. But without anything resembling a competent, semi-dynamic offense, they'll still only go as far as their scrappiness and desire can take them.
15. Atlanta Hawks
The hits keep on coming, and the Atlanta Hawks keep competing.
The Hawks have held relatively steady since losing Pero Antic, their starting center, to a stress fracture in his right ankle in late January, and they will now have to make do without John Jenkins, who underwent season-ending back surgery this week.
It's a good thing, then, that Atlanta has at least one All-Star (Paul Millsap) on whom to lean through these difficult times. Millsap's averaged a sturdy 18.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 3.6 combined blocks and steals since Al Horford began the team's parade to the training table.
Even with the injuries and recent losses to the Indiana Pacers and the Pelicans, the Hawks remain in fourth place in the Eastern Conference—which says as much about their competition as it does about their perseverance.
14. Denver Nuggets
There's going to come a time when we'll all have no choice but to give Brian Shaw credit for holding the Denver Nuggets together amid the chaos that's ensued since the summer.
This past week alone, the Nuggets lost Nate Robinson to a torn ACL and found out that they may be without JaVale McGee for the rest of the season, per Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. This, not long after Denver declared that Danilo Gallinari would be out until next season as well.
The loss of Robinson would seem to be of particular importance, given Andre Miller's absence from the team since the New Year. Apparently, this conundrum hasn't yet moved Shaw to reconcile with Miller in the wake of their earlier disagreement over the veteran's role on the team.
"There won’t be any reaching out from our end,” Shaw recently told Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post. “I think we’ve operated and done everything that we’re supposed to do. So, if there’s any reaching out that needs to be done I think the reaching out has to come from him to us."
Even with all of that, on the heels of an offseason in which the franchise turned upside down, the Nuggets remain just 3.5 games shy of extending their 10-year playoff streak.
That's not bad for a shaken-up squad under the auspices of a first-year head coach.
13. Memphis Grizzlies
Just when the Memphis Grizzlies were ready to reclaim their rightful place among the Western Conference's playoff hopefuls, the injury bug came back to bite them. This time, the breaks of the game caught up to Mike Conley, who's missed Memphis' last three games with a sprained ankle.
To be sure, the Grizzlies aren't exactly up a certain creek without a paddle in Conley's absence. Nick Calathes has done an admirable job of filling in at the point. The former Florida Gator has averaged 15.3 points on 51.4 percent shooting (46.2 percent from three) to go along with 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.7 steals in 36.7 minutes through the first three starts of his NBA career.
Calathes, though, is no Conley, as became clear amid the Grizzlies' offensive stagnation in losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks this past week. This Memphis team has already shown itself to be good enough to crack the playoff picture out West—and then some.
But that is only if its principal players, Conley included, can stay healthy.
12. Washington Wizards
If ever the Washington Wizards were going to end their years-long drought against the San Antonio Spurs, Wednesday night seemed like the best time to do it. The Wizards were up by as many as 17 points in the first half and managed to hang on through an overtime period.
But the second overtime proved to be Washington's downfall. The Wizards mustered just three Nene free throws in the frame before falling to the Spurs 125-118—their 16th consecutive loss to the NBA's model franchise.
In the big picture, though, coming so close to upending the mighty Spurs, short-handed as they may be, qualifies as a feather in the Wizards' ever more formidable cap. Over the last two weeks, Washington has racked up wins over the Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers.
No other Eastern Conference club—not the Miami Heat, not the Indiana Pacers—can claim such an impressive list of victims from among the best in the West. That, in itself, goes a long way toward demonstrating just how far the Wizards have come, with close losses like those against San Antonio, Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers serving as a reminder of the hard work that lies ahead.
11. Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors haven't posted a winning record on a Western Conference road trip of five games or more since November 2001, when Vince Carter was still sporting purple. Heck, they haven't had a winning record on any swing of at least five games in two years.
Those dubious droughts could both come to an end on Friday, when the Raptors drop into the Staples Center to take on the Los Angeles Clippers. Toronto has thus far alternated wins (at Denver and Utah) and losses (at Portland and Sacramento) on its latest West Coaster.
Keeping that pattern going in L.A. will be no easy feat for the Raps. They'll be up against a Clippers squad that's hungry for a W after back-to-back losses and will be playing (perhaps) its last game before Chris Paul returns from a shoulder injury.
The last time these two teams met, Terrence Ross exploded for 51 points, and the Clips still came away with an eight-point victory. The Raps would be hard-pressed to coax such a performance out of any of their players this time around, though a more balanced effort might be to the team's benefit anyway.
10. Golden State Warriors
As much as the Golden State Warriors have shuffled toward the fringes of the NBA's elite this season, they still have yet to master the all-important art of being a targeted team. They'll get up for the other good teams, but they are too often caught flat-footed against presumably inferior competition.
The Dubs had recently gone through a particularly rough patch of playing to the level of their opposition, good and bad. They beat the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers in late January, but it was only in between close losses to the T-Wolves and Wizards. Golden State's home drubbing at Charlotte's hands served as the pinnacle of the Warriors' inconsistent ways.
They started off slowly against the offensively challenged Bulls on Thursday, falling behind by 16 points in the second quarter. Luckily for the Warriors, though, Stephen Curry had it going on, as did Klay Thompson. The "Splash Bros" combined for 56 points on 21-of-35 shooting, including a 7-of-12 performance from three-point range.
Such is the blessing and curse of being a team whose efforts are organized around the talents of two somewhat streaky shooters. On some level, the Dubs feel like they can fall behind and simply shoot their way back into the game if need be. That works well enough now, when the competition is middling more often than not, but it won't cut it once the field is narrowed down to the best in the West.
At that point, the Warriors will have to diversify their scoring across the floor and lean on the strength of their much-improved defense, whether or not their backcourt has a hot hand (or two). Otherwise, an early exit could once again be in store for a club with serious "Cinderella potential."
9. Phoenix Suns
Lost in the hoopla surrounding the on-again-off-again trade talks between the Phoenix Suns and the Lakers over Pau Gasol is a simple question: Why would the Suns want Pau in the first place?
That is nothing against the four-time All-Star and two-time champion, who averaged 21 points, 12 rebounds and four assists in January and also happens to be a personal favorite of mine. But Gasol seems like a poor fit for this Phoenix team all around. He's a half-court, low-post player who doesn't get up the floor like he used to—all of which runs contrary to the Suns' fast-paced, dribble-drive style of play under Jeff Hornacek.
Moreover, the 33-year-old Gasol isn't the sort of player who'd make sense in the Suns' long-term plans. He'll be a free agent after this season, at which point he'll probably (try to) command upward of $10 million per year on what could be his final NBA contract.
Certainly, the Suns wouldn't be interested in having a 30-something center clog up the lane and their cap sheet all at once. And if that's the case, why spend a first-round pick and Emeka Okafor's valuable expiring contract to rent a player, in Pau, who's not only injured now, but doesn't make sense next to young speedsters on hand in Phoenix?
The Suns can find better options (any of the Sixers' veteran trio, perhaps?) to fill more pressing needs.
8. Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks sure picked a good time to snap out of their slump. They've now won three games in a row, on the heels of a stretch in which Dirk Nowitzki and Co. dropped five of eight to fall out of the Western Conference playoff picture, however temporarily.
Why does the timing of this turnaround matter, you ask? Because it just about coincides with the Grizzlies' struggles in the absence of Mike Conley. Those two trends came to a head on Wednesday, when the Mavs mauled the short-handed Grizz in Memphis, 110-96. Dirk led all scorers with 26 points to extend an impressive stretch in which he's averaged a shade under 30 points on a blistering 61.6 percent shooting (55 percent from three) over his last five games.
If Dallas is going to hang on to start another extended playoff streak, it'll need Nowitzki to continue to defy Father Time and play like an honest-to-goodness MVP.
7. Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers could use a break right about now. They've dropped three of their last four games, including a buzzer-beating heartbreaker in Denver and a valiant comeback attempt at home against the Miami Heat, with just three games to go until All-Star weekend rolls around.
That break won't do much to help Blake Griffin, who'll probably be busy with all sorts of obligations in New Orleans before, during and after his fourth straight All-Star Game appearance. Griffin has been on an absolute tear, piling up 79 points, 26 rebounds and 10 assists over his last two games—both losses for L.A.
The bigger boost for the Clips as a whole, Griffin included, should come this weekend. According to ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi, Chris Paul will practice on Saturday, with the aim of returning in time to take on the Sixers on Sunday.
L.A. has adjusted to life without CP3 over the month or so that he's missed with a separated shoulder, though you can bet the team will be happy to have its MVP back in the starting lineup as soon as possible.
6. San Antonio Spurs
No Big Three, no problem for the San Antonio Spurs.
One night after needing double overtime to put away the Wizards, the Spurs suffered a 14-point beating at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets, with nary a peep from Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Gregg Popovich had reasons beyond rankling the new commissioner for withholding his stars from a nationally televised tilt. Parker left Wednesday's win with tightness in his lower back, Duncan played 40 minutes in D.C. on Wednesday—piling up 31 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and five combined blocks and steals, no less—before fouling out, and Ginobili's been on the shelf since the end of January with a hamstring strain.
Frankly, the Spurs, as a whole, look like they could use a breather. They dropped three in a row at the end of last month and began this month by eking out wins over the Kings, Pelicans and Wizards.
It is a good thing the All-Star break is right around the corner. Assuming Parker is fit to participate in the festivities, he'll probably be the only Spur who doesn't get the requisite R&R that weekend—even though he's probably the one who needs it most.
5. Portland Trail Blazers
Like Kyrie Irving before him, Damian Lillard will have the opportunity to build upon his impressive Rookie of the Year campaign by cementing himself as a bona fide force in the NBA during All-Star weekend.
Lillard will be the first player in league history to compete in all five of the weekend's major events: the Rising Stars Challenge, Skills Challenge, Slam Dunk Contest, Three-Point Contest and (of course) All-Star Game itself.
"A lot of people don't get the opportunity," Lillard told USA Today's Sam Amick. "So I just felt like it was something that had never been done, and I'm capable of doing all the things that need to be done in all the competitions, so I figured why not go out and be the first one to do everything and get that experience?"
Lillard should be a particularly perfect fit for the three-point shootout. He's knocked down 140 treys so far this season—the third-most in the NBA, behind only Golden State's "Splash Bros"—at an impressive 40.5-percent clip.
And if Kyrie's current notoriety in the wake of winning last year's Three-Point Contest is any indication, this competition could be the key to propelling Lillard toward true superstardom in short order.
4. Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets have been on a roll of late, winning four in a row and 12 of 16 since the start of the new year. What's scary—for the rest of the NBA, anyway—is that this team might just be getting started.
Omer Asik returned to practice this week for the first time since suffering his thigh and knee injuries in early December. The Turkish center has yet to go through contact of any sort, though the fact that he's back on the court at all is reason enough for the Rockets to be pleased.
“We definitely miss him out there on the court,” James Harden told Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle. “He is such a great talent. He did so many great things for us last year. He is one of the best big men in the NBA. We are grateful to have both him and Dwight (Howard) on the same team."
As well they should be. Most teams would be happy to have one elite rim protector from whom to draw strength on the defensive end. With Howard and Asik around, the Rockets can be sure that opponents never have a clear path through the paint.
3. Miami Heat
I'm sure LeBron James is tired of hearing rumors regarding his own potential free agency and...well, so am I. The guy stops by L.A. with the Miami Heat and all anyone wants to talk about is the theoretical potential for him to join Chris Paul, his close friend, with the Clippers, per Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelbourne of ESPN.com.
Pump the brakes, folks.
I understand the temptation to talk about LeBron leaving South Beach behind to conquer the country's second-largest media market. I get that the Heat's run of championship success could fizzle out this spring, as the team's age and collective mileage catches up to its constituents. And it makes sense that change would be in store for the Heat, given that most of their roster either can or will be free agents this summer.
Still, it's tough to imagine James jumping ship at this point—even more so if the Heat complete their three-peat in the spring. By all accounts, James trusts Pat Riley to put top-notch players around him and Erik Spoelstra to organize the on-court proceedings accordingly.
And if Wednesday night's thrilling 116-112 Heat win is any indication, that arrangement is still working out just fine for LBJ.
2. Indiana Pacers
Welcome to the Indiana Pacers, Andrew Bynum. I hope you didn't come to Circle City expecting a significant role on a bona fide NBA title contender, what with All-Star Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi entrenched at your position.
To that end, Bynum would seem to have his head screwed on straight. "He made it perfectly clear,” GM Kevin Pritchard told Colin Cowherd earlier this week (h/t Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star). “He was like, ‘Look, I want to win a championship, I think I can really help you, and I want to fit in. I’m not coming here to let everybody fit in with me. I got to fit in with everybody else.’
On paper, Bynum should fit in just fine. Indy's reserves remain among the league's least productive, even with the additions of Luis Scola and C.J. Watson and the return of Danny Granger.
So far, they've performed pathetically on the offensive end without Hibbert. According to NBA.com, the Pacers have scored 105.6 points per 100 possessions with Hibbert in the lineup, as opposed to 96.9 when he's rested. That's roughly the difference between the T-Wolves' ninth-ranked offense and the Bucks' dead-last attack.
Bynum won't make up that entire difference by himself, but with his low-post skills and championship experience, the Pacers should find it a bit easier to score when their starting bigs sit.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Not even a 15-point road loss to the Wizards could drop the otherwise white-hot Oklahoma City Thunder from the top spot in these here power rankings.
Kevin Durant hasn't wasted any time carrying over his Western Conference Player of the Month excellence from January into February. In three games since the turn of the calendar, K.D. has stuffed the stat sheet with averages of 27.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists.
But Durant isn't the only Thunder player who's performing superbly. Reggie Jackson chipped in 20 points and nine assists in OKC's home win over the T-Wolves on Wednesday. The game before that, Serge Ibaka tallied 21 points and 12 rebounds to help the Thunder take down the Grizzlies.
K.D. deserves the lion's share of the credit for OKC's sustained success in the absence of Russell Westbrook. But it's the Thunder's deep, talented and (mostly) young supporting cast that's going to sustain this squad through the remainder of the regular season and, perhaps, propel it all the way through the Western Conference playoffs.
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