1. San Antonio Spurs, 56-13. Led by All Stars Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs continue to shock the NBA with the best record in the league. A faster-paced offense that uses a deep rotation is the biggest factor in their success. Their championship pedigree makes them a serious threat to win it all. The Spurs have won seven of nine, but the two losses, to the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, have been by a combined 46 points, giving Spurs a reason for concern.
2. Boston Celtics, 49-19. Led by All Stars Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo, the Celtics are poised to make another championship run after losing in the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers in 7 games in 2010. The trade of Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson for Jeff Greene and Nenad Kristic has many Celtics fans worried about size in the playoffs, but it says here Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal will fill that gap, and, as Celtics head coach Doc Rivers stated, they now have the ability to play small and spread the floor for the first time since 2008, a strength they will utilize. Losses to the New Jersey Nets and Houston Rockets now have the Chicago Bulls even with the Celtics, and the younger legs of the Bulls may clinch the first seed in the conference.
3. Los Angeles Lakers 50-20. The Lakers, led by All Stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, are striving toward their third-straight NBA championship, and the Lakers are sometimes unfocused, as Bryant said earlier this season when I asked if it was difficult for the veteran team designed to win a championship to get motivated for regular season games. With the post-All Star break schedule here, the Lakers more focused, winning 12 of 13 since. That one loss came against the Miami Heat, who seem to cause match up problems for the Lakers. When the Lakers are playing their best, they are impossible to beat.
4. Miami Heat 48-22. After a 9-8 start, the Heat, led by All Stars Chris Bosh, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade, have rebounded to go 39-14 over their last 53 games. They have lost three to the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls, and two to the Dallas Mavericks, so there is still doubt about the ability of the Heat to beat the best. The acquisition of Mike Bibby may put them over the top. The Heat appear to have moved past “CryGate”, winning five of their last six. Still, they may not be able to catch the Boston Celtics or Chicago Bulls for best record in the conference, thus not having home-field advantage in a playoff series.
5. Chicago Bulls, 49-19. All Star guard and NBA MVP candidate Derrick Rose leads a Bulls team that hasn’t had their starting lineup together for long. With Carlos Boozer missing five-straight games, Bulls fans have to be concerned with starting 38-year old Kurt Thomas at the power forward position. Despite Boozer being hurt, look for the Bulls to finish the season strong and push both the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat for the best record in the Eastern Conference.
6. Dallas Mavericks, 49-21 All Star forward Dirk Nowitzki leads the Mavericks, but it is the addition of center Tyson Chandler that appears to have given them a defensive edge, one that has Mavericks fans thinking about a championship run. The season-ending injury of Caron Butler really hurts the Mavericks, but they are still poised to make a championship run. The Mavericks have lost three of five and are now one game behind the Los Angeles Lakers.
7. Orlando Magic 44-26. All Star Dwight Howard leads a team of talented players that haven’t seemed to gel as of yet since the big trades that took place in mid-December ( https://razzandjazzsports.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/dwight-magic-talk-trade/ ) but with the likes of Hedo Turkoglu back, along with guard Jason Richardson, and Gilbert Arenas, the Magic definitely have the talent to match up with any team in the league. Barring a collapse by the Magic or a team ahead of them, they are locked into the four seed in the Eastern Conference.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder, 45-24. All Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook lead a Thunder team that is poised to take their next step in the playoffs, after intensely battling the Lakers in the first round last season. The recent acquistion of Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson for Jeff Greene and Nenad Kristic shows that the Thunder are prepared with size to battle the best in the Western Conference. The Thunder have won 9 of 11, but may be locked into the fourth seed in the Western Conference, barring a prolonged losing streak by them or the Lakers or Mavericks.
9. Atlanta Hawks 40-30. All Stars Joe Johnson and Al Horford lead a Hawks team that is trying to improve upon their second-round playoff exit last season after being swept by the Orlando Magic. The acquistion of guard Kirk Hinrich from the Wizards for Mike Bibby may improve the team in the long run. The Hawks have lost 6 of 9, but the inconsistency of the teams behind them, the Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks make it likely they will stay in the fifth seed in the eastern Conference.
10. Denver Nuggets 41-29. The Denver Nuggets are 9-4 since trading Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks, and have had six different players lead them in scoring, including new additions Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari. Fiv of their final 12 games are against teams currently in the playoffs, and with a four-game lead in the loss column against the Phoenix Suns, the Nuggets should be solidified to make the playoffs.