By: Sam Block
1. Houston Rockets (24-4)
The Rockets are off to an incredible start this season, and it does not come as much of a surprise. However, not many people figured they would be sitting at 24-4, ahead of the mighty Golden State Warriors. The Rockets are currently riding a 13 game win streak and do not look like they are going to slow down anytime soon. As long as James Harden continues to perform at an MVP level, and Chris Paul continues to mesh perfectly alongside Harden, this team will be a force all season in the Western Conference and could challenge Golden State for the 1 seed.
2. Golden State Warriors (23-6)
The Warriors have quietly won 8 straight and continue to impress even without Steph Curry. Leading the league in scoring, averaging 116.8 points per game, the defending champions continue to roll through NBA competition. Over the past 2 games, veteran Omri Casspi has stepped up for the Warriors by averaging a double-double. If they can continue to get production out of Casspi, I expect him to remain a vital piece of their rotation throughout the postseason.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers (23-8)
Don’t look now but the Cavaliers are RED HOT. The Cavs are 18-1 in their last 19 games and Isaiah Thomas is now on the cusp of returning to game action. This is good news for Cleveland and bad news for the rest of the NBA. LeBron James, not James Harden, is my current vote for league MVP, as he truly looks to be having the best year of his entire Hall of Fame career. Kevin Love is averaging a double-double and Jose Calderon has really stepped up in the absence of Derrick Rose. This team has to be considered the favorites in the Eastern Conference.
4. Boston Celtics (25-7)
The Celtics are just barely holding onto this number 4 spot after struggling mightily over the past week. It surprisingly took a while for the Celtics to show clear weaknesses after being decimated by injuries. The loss of Gordon Hayward will be rough to overcome for this team and losing Marcus Morris for an extended period of time will damage the Celtics ability to produce bench points. Brad Stevens is my current vote for Coach of the Year, however, as he has this team rolling over post-Hayward injury expectations. If the Celtics step it up again on the defensive end, they will flirt with 60 wins.
5. Toronto Raptors (20-8)
Toronto has significantly benefitted from a very easy schedule of late. With 9 wins in their last 10 games, the wins have come against the Hawks, Hornets, Pacers, Suns, Grizzlies, Kings, Suns, Nets, and Kings. Don’t overreact here. Toronto is good though. Really good. Of course not good enough to actually contend for an NBA Finals berth though.
6. San Antonio Spurs (20-10)
Ageless fan-favorite, Manu Ginobili, has two game-winning shots in the Spurs past three wins. GO MANU! And the Spurs continue to be the Spurs, despite not having Kawhi Leonard for almost the entire season to date. I give a ton of credit to LaMarcus Aldridge for leading this team in Kawhi’s absence, as he is averaging 22.4 points per game and 8.4 rebounds per game so far this season.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves (17-13)
The Minnesota Timberwolves have underachieved so far this season. Jimmy Butler started off slow and has really come on of late. Head Coach, Tom Thibodeau, is sticking to his reputation and playing his starters a TON of minutes. Towns, Butler, Wiggins, Teague, and Gibson are all averaging at least 33.4 minutes per game. Sitting atop a very competitive Western Conference division at this point in the season is definitely impressive, and I look for the Wolves to improve their winning percentage as the season goes on.
8. Washington Wizards (16-14)
The Wizards have really struggled to match last season’s performance so far this season. Sitting only two games above .500 is not very impressive considering this team has lofty goals by season’s end. Not having John Wall around has understandably hurt this team but Marcin Gortat looks to have taken a step back from his production in recent years. I expect the Wizards to be a tough out in the Eastern Conference Playoffs once again, but they are an extremely long shot to make the NBA Finals.
9. Denver Nuggets (16-13)
The Nuggets are quietly a very solid team in the Western Conference right now and are playing well enough to warrant a top 10 spot at this point in the season. Will Barton has been phenomenal off the bench this year, logging heavy minutes. The backcourt combination of Gary Harris and Jamal Murray has been performing very well of late. And Trey Lyles is finally beginning to show promise throughout the absence of star big man, Nikola Jokic.
10. Detroit Pistons (17-13)
TOBIAS HARRIS! This man has been the main reason for the Detroit Pistons surprising early season success. The Long Island native is averaging 17.8 points per game and 5.4 rebounds per game. Andre Drummond has also been an absolute force down low averaging 14 points per game and 15.2 points per game. I am a big fan of the job Stan Van Gundy is doing with this roster and expect the Pistons to give a top four Eastern Conference team fits in the 1st round of the NBA Playoffs this season.
11. New Orleans Pelicans (15-15)
It is well known that the Pelicans have a ridiculous tandem down low with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. The reason this team has won more than last season is due to the underrated addition of assist-master Rajon Rondo. Jrue Holiday is also having a career resurgence this season and E’Twuan Moore has been great offensively. This team has generational talent but is going NOWHERE without a severe upgrade on the depth of their non-existent bench.
12. Indiana Pacers (17-13)
Is it time to start buying the Indiana Pacers as legit? Well, it may just be. Of course they are not anywhere near finals contender legit. But they are certainly playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference. Victor Oladipo has been off-the-charts good and that Paul George trade surely looks awesome right about now. With wins in 5 out of their last 7 games, the Pacers are rolling and 4 games over .500 through 30 games. Who would have thought?
13. Portland Trail Blazers (16-13)
Winner of three straight, Rip City is playing better basketball right now than expected. Many figured Portland would miss the postseason this year after failing to upgrade their roster in the stacked Western Conference. So far, the Blazers seem to be holding their own. Lillard and McCollum have been as advertised and Nurkic has struggled at points, but has mostly produced when healthy. This team will go as far as their backcourt can take them, which is almost certainly a first-round exit.
14. New York Knicks (16-13)
We all knew the Unicorn is phenomenal, but WOW we did not know he was THIS good. Porzingis being injured will kill this team, but Beasley surely didn’t seem to care when he helped lead the dismantling of Melo’s Thunder. Winners of four straight, I think it is time to praise Head Coach, Jeff Hornacek, for the job he has done this season.
15. Oklahoma City Thunder (14-15)
The story of the season. And let me warn you, it’s a bad one. The star-studded Thunder are sitting below .500 through 29 games this season and look completely lost. After beating some solid teams like the Wolves, Spurs, Jazz, Pacers, and 76ers, this team got shellacked by the Knicks at The Garden. Also sprinkled in and around those wins are blow-out losses to the Mavericks, Magic, Nets, and Hornets. What is going on in Oklahoma City?
16. Milwaukee Bucks (15-13)
The Bucks have really struggled to play consistent basketball this season, as evidenced by losing their last 3 games. The talent here is undeniable however, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is nothing short of spectacular just about every night. The addition of Eric Bledsoe will definitely help this squad. And finally, Khris Middleton has gotten off to a great start again this season. I expect the Bucks to emerge as a serious contender within the next couple of years. But they are not ready yet.
17. Philadelphia 76ers (14-14)
The Sixers are undoubtedly going to be a force in the NBA for years to come. The Sixers are undoubtedly filled with tantalizing young upside. The Sixers have trusted the process and it is paying off in a big way. But they are NOT ready to truly compete with the big boys yet, and that is evidenced by their 1-5 record in their last 6 games. Embiid is incredibly fun to watch and is a star in this league. Ben Simmons is a budding superstar. Covington is extremely underrated. Oh, and JJ Redick was a GREAT off-season signing. Trust the process.
18. Utah Jazz (14-16)
The Jazz are a solid NBA team but will most certainly struggle without Rudy Gobert in the lineup. Donovan Mitchell looks like he is going to be the steal of this draft and has taken Salt Lake City by storm. Averaging 18.1 points per game in just 30 NBA games is brilliant. Ricky Rubio has really struggled so far this season and will have to step it up if the Jazz want to stay afloat without Gobert. I like Utah and the way they compete, but they are far from a lock to make the postseason.
19. Miami Heat (15-14)
Erik Spoelstra is a great NBA Head Coach and that has long been established, but what he is doing with this roster cannot go unnoticed. Losing Hassan Whiteside would normally tank a team like this but Spoelstra has kept them competitive. Kelly Olynyk started off slow but has picked his game up of late. I am very unimpressed with Tyler Johnson, however, after signing a nice deal in 2016. The Heat are lost in the middle of the NBA standings, a bad place to be.
20. Los Angeles Clippers (11-17)
What a disaster of a season it has been for Doc Rivers and the Clippers. Doc has proven he can coach but may not last much longer in LA. Lou Williams has been outstanding and has really picked up his offensive game with Blake Griffin out of the lineup. Losing Blake has and will continue to break this squad. The Clippers are going to start their full rebuild very shortly.
21. Los Angeles Lakers (10-17)
The Lakers come in at 21 but in all seriousness have not been all that bad this season. I love their young core consisting of Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball, and Larry Nance Jr. Ball has underwhelmed in my opinion and Kuzma has been an absolute steal. Brandon Ingram looks great but still needs to gain some muscle to really become the force he can become in this league. LeBron to the rescue? I’m guessing no.
22. Brooklyn Nets (11-18)
Head Coach Kenny Atkinson deserves a lot of credit for the way he has coached this team so far this season. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert both look like promising young players. D’Angelo Russell looks like he can be a star if he gets healthy. I love the low-risk trade of acquiring Jahlil Okafor. And finally I want to commend Spencer Dinwiddie for averaging 7.9 assists in the month of December. There is life in Brooklyn!
23. Charlotte Hornets (10-19)
The Hornets are not a good basketball team but they do have some players playing very well. Dwight Howard has received negative media attention in recent years but is certainly doing great things on the court this season averaging 16.1 points per game, 12.7 rebounds per game, and 1.34 blocks per game. Kemba Walker is also averaging a cool 21.9 points per game to go along with 6 assists per game. The rest of the Hornets roster? Mostly underperforming. Charlotte is lottery bound.
24. Orlando Magic (11-20)
Since starting the year 8-4, the Magic have gone 3-16. That is awful. And yes, their start was a complete fluke. Evan Fournier has been banged up of late and that does not help. On the bright side, their big men are having great years, as Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic are nearly averaging double-doubles. In the end, the Magic will be right back in the NBA Lottery as usual.
25. Chicago Bulls (8-20)
The Bulls are winner of five straight games and have beaten solid teams like the Celtics, Bucks, Jazz, and Knicks during that stretch. It is no coincidence that this win streak has coincided with the return of power forward, Nikola Mirotic. Mirotic is averaging 20 points per game over his first 5 games this season. Justin Holiday, Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis, Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine, and David Nwaba have all been playing solid basketball this season and look like good young players for a Bulls team in desperate need of a bright future to look forward to. The Bulls hot stretch will end soon, but it has been fun while it has lasted.
26. Dallas Mavericks (8-22)
The Mavericks have an underwhelming record but have really competed in many of their losses this season against good teams. Harrison Barnes is a very solid NBA player, Wesley Matthews has been at least decent, and Dirk is way past his prime but has shown flashes of his old days at times. The catalyst of their never-quit attitude has to be J.J Barea, as the undersized point guard is a pure fighter and has played great basketball this season. Young big men Maximilian Kleber and Dwight Powell have shown promise while rookie Dennis Smith Jr. looks fantastic. The Mavericks are heading in the right direction, but will continue to lose games for now.
27. Memphis Grizzlies (9-21)
The Grizzlies were good for many years. They are now a mess. The loss of Mike Conley for more than half the season has of course shown to be detrimental. The firing of David Fizdale was also very strange and unwarranted in my opinion. With a trade of Marc Gasol most likely looming, the Grizzlies look like they will be bad for years to come.
28. Phoenix Suns (10-21)
The Suns are not going to win many games this season, but have a brighter future than people currently realize. Losing Devin Booker will hurt this team but could help the other players of this young core develop their offensive games. Kudos to Mike James for earning a season long contract after getting a chance with a struggling basketball team. Stories like that are what the Suns organization needs right now. TJ Warren is legit though, I am telling you.
29. Sacramento Kings (9-20)
The Kings have been bad for a very long time. It is extremely strange to see winners like Vince Carter, George Hill, and Zach Randolph compete for a team like this. I do love the fight Zach Randolph is showing this season though, as he clearly just wants to play ball. Buddy Hield must improve and I’d like to see more from De’Aaron Fox. Bogdan Bogdanovic has quietly played fairly well this season, averaging 9.7 points per game.
30. Atlanta Hawks (6-23)
The Atlanta Hawks have been awful all season long and are currently sitting 17 games under .500. I expect the Hawks to win about 15 games and have a strong shot at the number 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Guys like Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore will keep them competitive in some games, but their depth is too weak to consistently win in the NBA. Rookie John Collins looks intriguing and has shown strong leadership qualities. After years of watching winning basketball, Hawks fans are not used to all of this losing. Keep the faith, Atlanta.