January 21, 2008 -- The Eastern Conference is easy. No, not in the way you're thinking. I mean that the Eastern Conference is easy to break down. The Celtics are clearly the top team and the Pistons (despite their recent slump) are clearly No. 2. The Magic currently hold the three seed, but you can see the Cavs making their move. Then you have the Wizards and Raptors in the middle of the pack. Lastly, you have a bunch of inconsistent or underachieving also-rans, two of which will actually make the playoffs.
The West isn't nearly as cut and dry. At one point last week, there were five teams within one game of the top spot. After the Spurs lost twice at the end of the week, they dropped down to 2 1/2 games back of the Suns. But still, the best team in the West one day could be the six seed two or three days later.
That doesn't make my job easy, and it keeps the letters coming, because a fan any of the five teams could come up with a few reasons why their squad should be ahead of any of the others. Bring it on, I say. I enjoy the discussion.
And while the ultimate regular season goal is to have the best record after April 16. But there's a secondary target date coming up in less than two weeks. The coach of whichever team has the best record (not including Phoenix) after Feb. 3 will be going to (or staying in) New Orleans to coach the West All-Stars. It won't be Mike D'Antoni, because he coached the West last year.
It's interesting that the Suns currently hold the top spot, but they're the only ones with a losing record against the rest. And their two wins have come against a Parker-less Spurs team and a Bynum-less Lakers team this past Thursday. Still, what counts are the two numbers to the left.
This week, the Spurs host the Lakers on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) and the Hornets on Saturday. The Lakers are also in Dallas on Friday. Who knows how those results will affect the rankings.
If you've got a question or comment about the rankings, drop me a line and I'll answer mail on Wednesday.
Hero Team of the Week: Phoenix (3-1) Zero Team of the Week: New Jersey (0-4)
High jumps of the week: New York (+4), Golden State (+3), New Orleans (+3), Sacramento (+3) Free falls of the week: Atlanta (-5), New Jersey (-5), Toronto (-3)
Off: Points scored per 100 possessions Def: Points allowed per 100 possessions The league averages 91.9 possessions (per team) per game and 107.6 points per 100 possessions.
TEAM (LAST WK)
Off: 110.5 (8), Def: 97.7 (1) -- As the Celtics start to look more and more human and as the trading deadline nears, the question of whether or not they need a backup point guard will become more and more relevant. Their starting point guard might be back today.
Off: 114.5 (1), Def: 108.4 (20) -- With Sunday's blowout of the Nets, the Suns are now 15-2 against the Eastern Conference. Grant Hill should be back for tomorrow's game in Milwaukee, the start of a four-game trek through the Midwest.
L.A. Lakers (1)
Off: 111.8 (5), Def: 105.5 (6) -- So in the first game without Bynum, Kobe puts up 44 shots. Good thing he didn't stop at 43, or the Lakers might have lost. Their schedule this week (vs. DEN, @ SAS, @ DAL, vs. CLE) could affect the Pacific standings more than Thursday's loss to the Suns. Oh, and this won't help.
Off: 110.1 (10), Def: 104.2 (4) -- The Hornets are in the midst of a stretch where they play nine of 11 at home, and they've won their last three games at New Orleans Arena by an average of 28.3 points. Chris Paul has recorded double-doubles in eight of his last nine games and he scored 32 in the only one he didn't.
TEAM (LAST WK)
Off: 112.6 (4), Def: 103.8 (3) -- The Pistons have now lost five of their last eight (starting with that loss to the Celtics) and are, for some reason, 0-3 against the Bulls. Both the offense (103.2) and the defense (109.5) have been issues over the eight games. Diagnosis: General lethargy.
Golden State (10)
Off: 111.7 (6), Def: 109.7 (24) -- Maybe we should include the Warriors in our top-of-the-West analysis. They're .686 (24-11) with Stephen Jackson, which would put them ahead of the Lakers and Spurs.
San Antonio (6)
Off: 110.9 (7), Def: 104.5 (5) -- Here's why you worry as a Spurs fan: Of the five top contenders in the West, they've got the most road games remaining (26) and they've got the worst road record (6-9). Of course, there are several reasons (starting with No. 21) why you don't worry.
Off: 109.5 (13), Def: 108.0 (19) -- In his Orlando game recap, Dave from Blazer's Edge points out the Blazers' inability to defend the paint. They're allowing .47 points in the paint per possession, which is the third worst rate in the league. Not coincidentally, the only four losses they've suffered over the last 23 games have come against teams (Utah, Toronto, Boston and Orlando) with All-Star bigs.
Off: 110.0 (11), Def: 107.3 (15) -- A year ago, Caron Butler was ecstatic when he heard he would be an All-Star for the first time. This year, he doesn't even need to watch the show. He's the biggest lock in the East to be selected as a reserve.
Off: 108.7 (14), Def: 105.6 (8) -- The Nuggets have been terrific at home, but they've lost their last three road games. And their next three are at the Lakers (tonight, 10:30 p.m. ET, TNT), Mavs and Hornets.
Off: 112.9 (3), Def: 107.8 (18) -- The Jazz have won seven of their last nine, but they've also lost 11 of their last 12 road games. They're 1 1/2 games out of the eighth spot in the West, and if they want to get there, they need to find a way to win on the road.
Off: 110.1 (9), Def: 107.0 (11) -- Have the Magic awoken from their funk with Saturday's win over the Blazers? We'll find out soon enough as three of their next four are against the Pistons (2) and Celtics.
Off: 105.2 (19), Def: 107.5 (16) -- Winners of seven of their last eight and nine of their last 11, the Cavs are hitting their stride. Larry Hughes still can't make a shot, but putting him in the starting lineup has helped key the turnaround.
Off: 109.6 (12), Def: 107.3 (14) -- A couple of you wrote in about Andrea Bargnani (shooting 6-for-30 over the last five games) for last week's mailbag and I didn't get the chance to respond, but it seems pretty clear to me that it's a confidence issue. With players that young, confidence is going to waver a lot and maybe benching him early in the season affected him more than he'll ever admit to. That's why guys like Chris Paul and Brandon Roy are so special. They had confidence from Day 1 and never lost it.
Off: 105.8 (17), Def: 103.7 (2) -- On Tuesday (after a loss to the Sixers), Fran Blinebury wrote, "You can give up on this season. The Rockets have." On Saturday (after three days off), Tracy McGrady returns to the lineup and the Rockets beat the Spurs.
Off: 104.8 (22), Def: 109.0 (21) -- The Bobcats had a 3-1 week, including wins over the Nuggets and Magic. But now, the Spurs and Mavs come to town. And after that, they hit the road for the rest of the season (slight exaggeration).
Off: 106.8 (16), Def: 109.9 (25) -- With Martin, Bibby and Artest back, the Kings are like a whole new team, and they've won five of their last seven, showing marked improvement on both ends of the floor.
Off: 104.0 (25), Def: 107.0 (10) -- Seven of the next eight for the Bulls are very winnable. If they don't go at least 6-2, then I might start reconsidering my prediction* that they would win the East.
New York (25)
Off: 104.9 (21), Def: 111.7 (28) -- The Knicks have won four of their last five and Nate Robinson is a +50 and has a 4.14 assist-turnover ration over that stretch. Now, if they beat the Celtics today ...
New Jersey (17)
Off: 103.2 (26), Def: 109.2 (22) -- The underachieving continues as the Nets have dropped five straight and six of their last seven. You would think that something has to change ... soon. Peter Vecsey has a few suggestions.
Off: 104.6 (23), Def: 105.6 (7) -- The Hawks currently hold the seventh spot in the East, and Sekou Smith isn't afraid to tell you that isn't exactly a good spot to be in, and adjustments need to be made to improve their standing. After hosting the Blazers today, Atlanta heads West for the first time this season.
Off: 104.1 (24), Def: 107.3 (13) -- Young Thaddeus Young is starting to look like a player. He's been getting regular burn (21.8 MPG) over the last nine games and is averaging 9.3 points and 4.6 boards while shooting .554 from the field over that stretch.
Off: 105.1 (20), Def: 111.4 (27) -- At halftime against the Warriors on Saturday, Michael Redd had 20 points on 9-for-15 shooting and the Bucks were down one. Redd took just three shots in the second half and the Bucks lost by 20. "I just stood around, pretty much, patient, just waiting," Redd said afterwards.
L.A. Clippers (27)
Off: 101.2 (29), Def: 106.4 (9) -- When Sam Cassell (32 in Tuesday's win over the Suns) and Corey Maggette (31 in Saturday's win over the Nets) go off, the Clippers are dangerous. Of course, what the Clippers are doing on the court isn't really the story these days.
Off: 100.6 (30), Def: 109.6 (23) -- After a 6-8 December, the Sonics have yet to win in 2008. But seven of their nine January games have been on the road, and the other two were against Dallas and the Lakers. After today's game in Houston, they've got seven straight at home.