The NBA is back in full swing this week and some interesting questions are emerging.
Whilst the Bucks and Lakers are locks for the conference #1 seeds, both have their weaknesses. But are any of their adversaries ready to step up and challenge them? The Clippers and Jazz are struggling in the West. The Sixers and Heat are falling away in the East. Let's see if/how those teams – and the rest of the challengers – regroup as the regular season winds down.
Throughout the season, Inside Sport will be bringing you our NBA Power Rankings. These are not necessarily ranking based on records. This is a purely subjective assessment of how a team is progressing, projected and playing.
All records are as of Thursday night Australian time.
30. Golden State (Down 2)
(12-46) Last week: 0-3
The Warriors losing streak now stands at 7, and their league worst 12 wins is 5 adrift of a slew of teams. The Warriors are seemingly a lock for the best odds at the #1 pick in the draft.
The only possible scenario that can upset that particular apple cart is, just to name a random series of events, the emergence of a transformative player, able to bend defences to his will, create gravity all over the court, and act as a talisman for a young team. In completely unrelated news, Steph Curry has been confirmed as returning on March 1 against the Wizards.
29. Detroit Pistons (Steady)
(19-41) Last week: 0-3
Markeiff Morris (since signed by the Lakers) is the latest veteran to leave Michigan. With Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond jettisoned and Blake Griffin sliding sadly into irrelevance, Derrick Rose is the last man standing with Detroit at long last embracing the rebuild.
The Pistons have now lost 7 straight matches. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. The losses of course give the team a better chance in the lottery, and the youngsters are getting all the court time they can handle. There is good and bad in that. The good is Christian Wood, who has led the team in scoring in each of their last four games, putting up 22.5 points, 10.5 boards and two blocks per contest over that span. The bad is Thon Maker. The Australian has been supplanted in the starting line-up by John Henson, who was nothing more than an expiring contract thrown into the Drummond trade. Thon must surely be running out of chances at the NBA level.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers (Up 2)
(17-41 Record) Last week: 3-1
Well, well....the Cavs are playing some winning basketball. They've won four of five including victories over Miami and Philadelphia.
Big deadline acquisition Andre Drummond hasn't exactly set the world alight as a member of the Cavs, putting up 12.8 points, 10.4 boards, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks – all well down on his Detroit numbers. Instead, it's the man he's supposed to usurp in Tristan Thompson that has shined. In his last five matches, the Canadian has registered 14.4 points and 10.2 rebounds, whilst playing the sort of defense that Drummond thinks he can play. With Drummond likely to opt into his player option, the Cavs must wish that they had dealt Thompson for something (anything!) at the deadline.
27. New York Knicks (Down 3)
(17-41) Last week: 0-3
Aaaaaaand normal service is restored.
The Knicks have lost five straight games, to render their most encouraging stretch of the season meaningless. It wasn't exactly a murderers' row of games either: the Hawks, Hornets, Wizards and free falling Pacers all topped the Knicks. Maybe that's not fair: every stretch of games is a murderers row for New York.
With four of their next five against winning teams, their poor form shows no sign of abating.
26. Minnesota Timberwolves (Steady)
(17-40) Last week: 1-3
D'Angelo Russel broke his duck as a Timberwolf by leading his team to a big win over the Heat in Miami. D'Lo lead the way with 27 points, including 7 treys. The oft travelled star has adapted well to life in the Twin Cities, averaging 24.4 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds and 1.4 steals. His shooting is typically excellent and he is – wait for it – actually working hard on defense. Perhaps playing with his buddy Karl Anthony Towns has lit a spark in Russell. God knows the young man needs some professional stability. Perhaps a team that has actively traded for him to play with their main man will finally let us see what the former #2 pick can do once he puts down some roots.
25. Chicago Bulls (Steady)
(20-39) Last week: 1-3
The Bulls managed to halt their losing streak at eight with a win over Washington, despite Bradley Beal's 53 points, but that's their only win in 10 as the season slips away. Despite the losing run, their still – inexplicably – only six games out of the play-offs. They're not going to make it of course, but doesn't it seem like they should be so much further away? This team likely tops out at average when healthy and boy are they not healthy right now.
A bright spot this week has been rookie Coby White. The seventh pick has certainly blown hot and cold this season, but he has been (excuse the pun) white hot of late, tallying 33, 33 and 35 points in his last three outings.
24. Atlanta Hawks (Up 3)
(17-43) Last week: 2-2
The deadline acquisition of Clint Capela threw the future of John Collins into the spotlight. The Hawks clearly didn't consider Collins a centre, but could he play as a modern power forward? Did the Hawks even consider him a cornerstone player? Perhaps the scrutiny has spurred Collins into action. Since the trade deadline, the third year pogo stick has recorded a nightly 25.1 points, 8.4 boards and 1.4 blocks, whilst shooting 48% from deep on over three attempts per game. Those are fantastic numbers. There is a disclaimer, though: whilst he's playing with a centre, Dewayne Dedmon can stretch the floor. When Capela returns, Collins won't have the space inside to play his inside/out game.
23. Charlotte Hornets (Steady)
(20-38) Last week: 2-2
The growing pains continue in Charlotte where, in a big win over the Bulls, the youngsters in PJ Washington, Malik Monk and Miles Bridges led the way. They followed that up with a listless performance in a 29 point home loss to Brooklyn. The may as well have given a walkover in their next game: a 39 point loss to the struggling Pacers.
Any growth in their young core has been further compromised by the news that Monk has been suspended by the NBA for 25 games for falling foul of the leagues drug policy.
22. Phoenix Suns (Steady)
(24-35) Last week: 2-2
Much like the Wolves, the Suns have a solid young core – at one end of the court, at least.
In Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre and DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix have all bases covered: the lead guard, the powerful wing, and the athletic big man. Of course, that trio have proven themselves utterly incapable of stopping anything that has been thrown at them.
The challenge for the Suns is building around their developing Big T3. Given Booker's ability on the ball, the Suns could get away without a traditional point guard. Rather, they might look for a shooter that can defend the opposition point guard. If he was younger, George Hill would be perfect. At the other forward spot, a player in the mould of PJ Tucker would be ideal: a stout defender that can knock down open corner three's.
21. Washington Wizards (Down 1)
(21-36) Last week: 1-3
The Wizards are running out of bullets to fire in their unlikely pursuit of the eighth and final play-off spot in the East. Back to back 50+ point games from Bradley Beal (the last time Beal didn't lead the team in scoring was January 17!) wasn't enough to get them over the line against the Bulls or the Bucks, although the win against the vulnerable Nets helps their cause. Realistically, they're not going to make it, but a base of Beal, Davis Bertans, Rui Hachimura and a returning John Wall forms a play-off worthy core for next season.