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Early Returns Coming In
SECAUCUS, NJ, March 3, 2008 -- When do we start evaluating the new rosters of those teams that made major deals at (or just before) the trade deadline? I say the time is now.

Now, I'm keeping an open mind. I'm not ready to say that the Suns will fall out of the playoffs entirely, and we'll know more a week from now, as they have four big games on the schedule in the next seven days. But so far, things aren't looking so great in Phoenix.

In addition to knowing how the Suns are going finish the season with Shaq (and maybe more important, without Shawn Marion), we want to know how good the Lakers are with Pau Gasol. We want to know if Jason Kidd is a good fit in Dallas. We also want to know if the Rockets can keep it up without Yao Ming and if the Nuggets can ever put together a string of wins.

In the East, we want to know if LeBron's seemingly stronger supporting cast can put the Cavs on the same level as the Celtics and Pistons. In time, we'll learn if Sam Cassell is exactly what Boston needs to cement their spot as the best team in the conference.

If you've got any questions or comments about this week's rankings, you know what to do. I'll answer mail later this week.

The Wire Team of the Week: San Antonio (4-0)
Cop Rock Team of the Week: L.A. Clippers (0-4)

High jumps of the week: Washington (+4), Indiana (+3), Milwaukee (+3), Orlando (+3)
Free falls of the week: L.A. Clippers (-4), Utah (-4), Sacramento (-3), Seattle (-3)

Off: Points scored per 100 possessions
Def: Points allowed per 100 possessions
The league averages 91.6 possessions (per team) per game and 108.3 points per 100 possessions.

1 San Antonio (2) 41-17 Off: 109.9 (11), Def: 103.8 (3) -- Winners of nine straight, the champs are back up top for the first time since Dec. 10. More important, Tony Parker looked pretty healthy Sunday night in New Jersey.
2 Houston (3) 39-20 Off: 107.6 (16), Def: 102.5 (2) -- Maybe you thought the Rockets would beat the Wizards and Grizzlies after Yao went down. But, admit it. You thought they would lose to the Nuggets on Sunday. Well, you forgot about the Rockets' defense, which has a ridiculously good 92.1 rating in the three Yao-less games.
3 L.A. Lakers (1) 42-18 Off: 113.4 (3), Def: 106.0 (5) -- You could chalk up Friday's loss in Portland, which ended the Lakers' 10-game winning streak, to fatigue. And you can chalk up Sunday's win over the Mavs to my new pick for MVP (sorry, KG), Kobe Bryant.
4 Boston (6) 46-12 Off: 111.3 (10), Def: 100.4 (1) -- I caught some flack last week for putting the team with the best record in the league outside of the Top 5 (for the first time this season). But I didn't tell them to lose three straight. Maybe now that they've won five in a row, Boston fans will like me better.
5 Detroit (5) 43-16 Off: 113.2 (4), Def: 103.8 (4) -- We only get Celtics-Pistons three times this season, so Wednesday's game in Boston will decide the season series and is a must-watch if there ever was one. Boston's lead for the top seed is currently 3 1/2 games.
6 New Orleans (7) 39-19 Off: 112.1 (8), Def: 106.7 (9) -- After picking up nice wins over the Suns and Jazz, the Hornets had another one of those ugly fourth quarters, going six minutes without a point and falling to the Wizards for the second time in seven days.
7 Dallas (9) 39-21 Off: 112.1 (9), Def: 107.6 (10) -- The early returns on Jason Kidd are mixed. The defense has improved (104.3 with Kidd, down from 108.1 without him), but the offense has suffered (108.9 with Kidd, down from 112.5 without him). More important, they're 0-3 against teams they might face in the postseason, but hey, it's still early.
8 Utah (4) 38-22 Off: 113.6 (2), Def: 107.6 (11) -- The Jazz had a very good defensive rating of 106.9 before the break. In their first six games since, it's up at 113.5. With Dallas, Phoenix and Denver on the schedule this week, tightening up the D would be a good idea.
9 Golden State (10) 36-22 Off: 112.8 (7), Def: 110.3 (23) -- With the Rockets still winning, it's looking more and more like it will be between the Warriors and Nuggets for that final playoff spot in the West. Golden State has a little bit of momentum now, and even though they're going on the road, their schedule is much easier (think Southeast) this week. So, they should be able to build on their one-game lead.
10 Phoenix (8) 39-20 Off: 114.2 (1), Def: 109.4 (21) -- You knew that the Suns' defense would fall off after trading Shawn Marion for Shaq, and here are the details: 107.9 rating before the trade, 115.7 rating after. But the big fella was brought over to neutralize the size of teams like San Antonio and Utah, and Phoenix will face them both this week.
11 Orlando (14) 38-23 Off: 112.8 (6), Def: 108.6 (16) -- It's all about the D for the Magic. Adding a big would have been nice, but they'll just have to stick with what they got. After Tuesday's matchup with the Bosh-less Raptors, the upcoming schedule looks very favorable as they try to strengthen their hold on the three seed.
12 Denver (11) 35-24 Off: 109.0 (13), Def: 106.3 (6) -- Overall, the Warriors' and Nuggets' remaining schedules are fairly even, and they play each other two more times, once at each arena. But the next eight days (Phoenix, San Antonio, @ Utah, @ San Antonio) will surely test Denver's will.
13 Cleveland (12) 34-26 Off: 107.2 (17), Def: 107.8 (13) -- The Cavs lost in Milwaukee and didn't measure up to the Celtics this week, but the per-possession numbers over the last five games tell a good story regarding the new supporting cast. Both the offense (up 2.0) and the defense (down 5.8) have improved. And of course, this (video) was sick.
14 Toronto (13) 32-26 Off: 112.9 (5), Def: 108.3 (15) -- With four straight games against the Southeast Division, you would think the Raptors would be able to survive this week without Chris Bosh, but they opened that stretch by giving up 18 offensive boards and 32 second-chance points (while scoring none themselves) to the Bobcats.
15 Washington (19) 29-30 Off: 109.4 (12), Def: 109.3 (20) -- Just four days ago, I wrote that the 6-8 spots were wide open in the East with Caron Butler's injury apparently more serious than previously known. But perhaps the other Wizards, like the Rockets, didn't actually forget how to win, as displayed by two big victories over the Hornets this week.
16 Philadelphia (17) 27-33 Off: 106.2 (20), Def: 106.6 (7) -- The Sixers have a pretty difficult remaining schedule, but week's wins over Orlando and Phoenix are an indication that they can overcome it to retain the seven seed in the East or even move up past the Wizards.
17 Portland (16) 31-29 Off: 108.2 (15), Def: 109.1 (18) -- The James Jones factor: When he plays, they're 23-13 and their offensive rating is 111.5. When he doesn't play, they're 8-16 and their offensive rating is 103.3. Their defensive rating is exactly 109.1 either way. You should have known that they would beat the Lakers when he made his return on Friday.
18 Sacramento (15) 27-32 Off: 108.6 (14), Def: 110.8 (25) -- Having lost four straight and down 20 at the half to the woeful Heat at home Sunday night, things were not looking to good for the Kings. Then they went and outscored Miami 71-40 in the final 24 minutes to avoid two losses in six days to Pat Riley's team and save some dignity.
19 New Jersey (18) 26-33 Off: 104.3 (25), Def: 109.5 (22) -- With Devin Harris making a too-good-to-be-true New Jersey debut, the Nets had their best offensive game of the year (135.6 rating) on Thursday. Then they played the Spurs on Sunday and the offense disappeared. Now, they go visit the entire Southwest Division over seven days.
20 Atlanta (22) 24-33 Off: 105.2 (23), Def: 107.8 (12) -- The Hawks are starting to look more like a playoff team and they can pick up an extra win this week by completing that suspended game on Saturday.
21 Chicago (21) 23-36 Off: 103.6 (26), Def: 106.7 (8) -- The Bulls are still within three games of the playoffs, but the roster shakeup hasn't exactly inspired a run, and with a tough upcoming schedule, it might be time for John Paxson (or some other Chicago rep) to book a flight to Secaucus.
22 Indiana (25) 24-36 Off: 106.8 (18), Def: 108.9 (17) -- With five of their next six on the road and against teams at least 12 games over .500, don't expect the Pacers to making a run at that eight spot in the next couple of weeks ... unless you think 2008 Flip Murray resembles 2003 Flip Murray.
23 Milwaukee (26) 22-38 Off: 106.2 (19), Def: 113.5 (30) -- Already with a win on Monday over the Cavs, this could really have been a nice week for the Bucks, despite getting beat handily by the Nets on Thursday. They had Michael Redd at the line to send Friday's game against the Spurs to overtime. But Redd bricked the first one, they got smoked by the Pacers on Sunday, and we wonder why I'm moving them up three spots. I guess it's because everybody else in the 22-30 range stinks too.
24 L.A. Clippers (20) 19-38 Off: 102.6 (29), Def: 108.2 (14) -- The Clippers just finished what was one of the toughest stretches any team will have this season: Utah, Lakers, Boston, Portland, @ Denver and Detroit over nine days. In addition to Sam Cassell, they also lost five of the six games.
25 New York (24) 18-41 Off: 105.4 (22), Def: 112.2 (28) -- Fascinating tidbit from Frank Isola's game story after Saturday's loss in Orlando: Eddy Curry has more games where he grabbed zero rebounds (3) than he does games where he grabbed 10 or more (2) this season.
26 Seattle (23) 16-43 Off: 101.6 (30), Def: 109.2 (19) -- The Sonics began their seven-game road trip with an overtime escape in Minnesota. The trip obviously gets tougher from here, but Seattle can at least say that they're 3-0 against the T-Wolves.
27 Minnesota (27) 12-46 Off: 103.0 (27), Def: 111.0 (26) -- The T-Wolves have lost 10 of their last 12, but Monday's win over the Jazz has to be somewhat encouraging, especially with Randy Foye starting to hit his stride. The other good thing about that game is that it produced this photo.
28 Miami (30) 11-46 Off: 102.9 (28), Def: 110.8 (24) -- Ira Winderman is probably running out of one-liners with how bad the Heat have been this season, but the first one here hits the mark.
29 Charlotte (28) 20-39 Off: 104.9 (24), Def: 111.1 (27) -- Sure, the Raptors were without Chris Bosh, but a win is a win. Still, it's time to start thinking about the future.
30 Memphis (29) 14-45 Off: 106.2 (21), Def: 112.8 (29) -- If you're a Grizzlies fan and your team is playing at the same times as Kansas State, which game are you watching? The Grizz have lost eight straight (and 14 of their last 15), with seven of the eight losses coming by 14 or more points.

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