The NBA is a league where you always have to be on your guard.
20. Brooklyn Nets (Down 2)
(18-24) Last week: 0-2
In their first 11 games – all played before Kyrie Irving got hurt – the Nets were 4-7.
In the 26 games they played without Kyrie, the Nets went 13-13.
Since Irving's return, the Nets have a 1-5 record.
And then he goes and says this:
Let me ask you, Dear Reader: would you like to play basketball with Kyrie Irving?
19. Phoenix Suns (Steady)
(18-26) Last week: 2-2
The Suns continue to sit just outside the playoff picture, which when you think about it, is fairly impressive.
The team hasn't been relevant since the first half of the last decade, their best player doesn't play defense, their prized big man missed a huge chunk of the season (to be clear, I'm talking about DeAndre Ayton, not Aron Baynes), and the rest of the roster is made up of retreads.
Monty Williams has done a great job holding the team together through a tumultuous first half of the campaign. It's an outside chance, but could the Suns make the playoffs? Ayton's recent form – 24.3 points and 14.5 boards in his last 4 games – says that there might be a run in them.
18. Portland Trailblazers (Down 1)
(19-26) Last week: 1-2
In light of their salary saving trade this week, perhaps Portland GM Neil Olshey has finally come to terms with the catastrophe that has been this season. The fascinating postscript to this trade: does this mean Portland will offload other veterans and give the season up? Watch this space.
Should the Blazers decide to tank, they have of course one major stumbling block: Damian Lillard. Their superstar is simply too good to let this team slide into a juicy top 10 draft slot. Yesterday, he dismantled the Warriors with a career high 61 points, despite running mate CJ McCollum being added to the injury scroll – it's surely more than a mere injury list now.
17. New Orleans Pelicans (Up 4)
(17-28) Last week: 2-2
A split week for the Pelicans, so why the sharp rise in our rankings?
It's the manner of the results more than the results themselves. In their wins, the Pellies gave Utah their only loss of the decade, getting a transcendant performance from Brandon Ingram. They also took out their 'young team on the rise' doppelganger in Memphis. The losses were a closely fought game with the Clippers, and whilst New Orleans weren't at their best against the Spurs, we finally got to see Zion Williamson.
Zion was on a severe minutes restriction. That, combined with his poor fitness and understandable tentativeness, meant he really couldn't get into the flow of the contest. In the final quarter, however, Coach Alvin Gentry put the ball in Zion's hands and let him go to work. The result was 17 points in a span of a little over 3 minutes, including a perfect 4 from 4 from deep. Once he gets his legs under him, we're all in for a hell of a ride.
16. Memphis Grizzlies (Steady)
(20-24) Last week: 1-2
A pair of losses to New Orleans and Boston put to bed the Grizzlies' 7 game winning streak. They've also dropped out of the play-off places, currently sitting a half game behind the Spurs for 8th in the conference.
Nonetheless, this is a young team on the rise, and the streak – which included wins over the Clippers and Rockets, should give this team belief that they belong. And they were feeling themselves for a stretch there.....
James Harden leaves Ja Morant open for a 3 and Ja makes him pay— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) January 15, 2020
â€œTell that mfer about meâ€ 🔥 pic.twitter.com/AMqPzVLz70
15. Orlando Magic (Down 1)
(21-24) Last week: 1-3
Only days after taking down the Lakers in their own floor, Orlando conspired to lose to the lowly Warriors by 14 points.
The Magic continue to plug away, sitting at just below .500, safely ensconced in the lower play-off seedings. They're the NBA's Groundhog Day. The only interesting thing to watch with Orlando is Markelle Fultz, who continues to make strides in reclaiming his once endangered NBA career.
14. San Antonio Spurs (Down 1)
(20-23) Last week: 3-1
Doesn't it just seem so right that it's San Antonio who played party pooper to the Zion Williamson debut celebration? The Spurs took care of business against the Pelicans, easing out to an early lead. They kept Zion – and importantly the crowd – out of the game until Williamson's late burst, before setting things right for their 3rd straight win.
Again, the veterans led the way. LaMarcus Aldridge went off for 32 and 14. He continues to fire away from deep, going 6 for 17 this week. DeMar DeRozan had 20 points of his own against New Orleans. He's quietly playing like an All Star over the past few weeks.
13. Dallas Mavericks (Down 2)
(27-16) Last week: 1-1
Kristaps Porzingis returned from a 10 game absence against the Clippers. He played solidly, but did look tentative. Perhaps that was because he had a very real reminder of the fickleness of human ligaments and tendons, watching teammate Dwight Powell go down with a blown Achilles.
Powell had stepped up manfully with KP out, putting up 13 points, 6.4 boards whilst shooting 71.2% from the floor over those 10 games.
With Powell sidelined and Porzingis being handled with baby gloves, much falls on Maxi Kleber. The 2nd best Maverick to ever come out of Wurzburg, Germany, the versatile big will be expected to play big minutes from time to time, which may be beyond him. That means one thing: Boban time!
12. Houston Rockets (Down 3)
(27-16) Last week: 1-2
The win over Denver was nice, but it doesn't mask the fact that the Rockets are in a spiral.
Losers of 4 straight before the hopefully steadying win against Denver, Houston's problems are easy to trace – efficiency.
James Harden has fallen off a cliff compared to his early season numbers. He's still averaging 31.1 points in January (that's a long way off his season averages) but his true shooting % has dropped almost 12% from December to 52.8%, whilst he's gone ice cold from deep, connecting at 26.9% this calendar year, including an embarrassing 1 from 17 against OKC.
Maybe fatigue is to blame? Harden's usage rate hasn't changed, and the steady diet of double teams that come his way has to take its toll eventually. Russell Westbrook was supposed to take some of that responsibility from Harden, but until Coach Mike D'Antoni starts to split his star back court some more, then Harden will continue to wear down, and we'll probably see another playoff face plant.
11. Indiana Pacers (Up 2)
(29-16) Last week: 3-1
A 30 point blowout loss to the streaking Jazz is the only blip in the Pacers recent form. Since getting Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis back in the lineup, the Pacers are 5-1. It's very possible that both could be 1st time All Stars this season. Brogdon is posting 17.4 points, 7.4 assists and 4.4 boards – all career highs. He has thrived with the responsibility of being a lead ball handler.
Sabonis is averaging 17.8 points, 12.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists, playing the type of bully ball that has supposedly gone out of fashion.
These two have set the table beautifully for Victor Oladipo, whose return is imminent.