13. Brooklyn Nets (Steady)

(16-13) Last week: 1-1

Brooklyn's resurgence continues, sans Kyrie Irving. And Kevin Durant, of course. They've also missed Wilson Chandler until recently. They've just watched David Nwaba go down. Caris LeVert has missed significant chunks of time. Wow, the Nets really have fought an uphill battle, haven't they?

Coach Kenny Atkinson and his staff deserve a ton of credit for firstly integrating new pieces, then righting the ship as players fell around him. No coach has been crowned Coach of the Year without being above .500 since Doc Rivers at the turn of the century. Even so, does Atkinson come into the conversation if the Nets can finish with, say, 46 wins with Kyrie out for half the season?


12. Utah Jazz (Steady)

(18-12) Last week: 2-1

At the beginning of the season, the plan for Utah was quite clearly to let Joe Ingles be the leader of the 2nd unit, and use Royce O'Neal as a wing stopper/spot up shooter. O'Neal was fine, but Ingles cratered. Since moving back into the starting lineup, Slo Mo Joe is averaging 13.8 points (up 6.4), 5.8 assists (up 2.3) with elite 51/51/93 shooting splits; all up by a wide margin on his bench splits.

But what to do with the bench, now? Utah hopes they've solved that issue in acquiring Jordan Clarkson from the Cavs. A career bench gunner – who has admittedly improved his shot selection considerably in recent times – it's hoped that Clarkson's lesser reliance on teammates to put the ball in the bucket will jump start Utah's biggest weakness: it's bench.


11. Dallas Mavericks (Down 1)

(19-10) Last week: 1-1

Thu Mavericks finished their Luka-less Eastern swing with a 2-3 record, but would be kicking themselves at blowing a 30 point lead in their loss to Toronto. As we mentioned last week, coming out of that stretch, sans Luka, with a 3-2 record would have stamped the Mavs as true challengers.

Even so, the Mavericks brass would have to be pleased with the teams efforts of late. Kristaps Porzingis has averaged 22 points, 13.6 boards and 2.6 blocks on the road trip. Jalen Brunson has really stepped it up in Luka's place, putting up 14.6 points and 9.2 assists.


10. Indiana Pacers (Up 1)

(21-10) Last week: 2-1

Winner of 6 out of 7, the Pacers continue to sit on the shoulder of the Eastern Elite. That fact that the streak contains wins over the Lakers, Celtics and Raptors makes an argument that they're already there. The eventual return of Victor Oladipo should give the Pacers the boost they need to solidify that status. Assuming he's close to 100%, Dipo's defense and play making sit in well with the rest of the team, but his ability to put the ball in the basket will be the difference maker for a team that can struggle late in games.


9. Toronto Raptors (Steady)

(21-10) Last week: 2-2

Just as it looked like the Raptors were going to get their full band together, they lose Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and Norm Powell....in the same freaking game!

Toronto won a crazy game against Dallas with those 3 out, but couldn't get it done against Indiana or Boston. So much falls on the diminutive Kyle Lowry/Fred Vanvleet backcourt, now. Perhaps we'll see a breakout from OG Anunoby?


8. Houston Rockets (Steady)

(21-10) Last week: 3-1

We got to see the best and worst of the Houston Rockets this week.

Against the Clippers, in LA no less, Houston ran the Clips right out of their own building. Russell Westbrook was spectacular, dropping 40 with a combination of Patrick Beverley and Paul George guarding him.

Yet on Christmas Day, we saw the lowly Warriors take the Rockets down in the 2nd half, outscoring the Rox by 16. Westbrook was at his OKC best – big, inefficient numbers – as James Harden looked like he may have come straight to the arena from a club.

A quick stat to put the Westbrook apologists in their place: when Russ shoots over 50% from the field, Houston are 9 and 2. Which means he's shot over 50% in 11 of 31 games this season. For all the work that Harden does, Westbrook playing the EFFICIENT 2nd fiddle is vital to any Rockets success.