By Ben Shatzman
1. Memphis Grizzlies: To beat the Grizzlies takes near-perfect ball, and with former DPOY Marc Gasol protecting the rim, scoring buckets on their defense is a 48-minute grind. Dave Joeger is establishing himself as one of the best young coaches in the league. They enter a four-game road trip at 12-2, and could easily be 14-0 if it weren’t for two tight losses.
2. Golden State Warriors: While the Splash Brothers remain the center of attention in Oakland, other players like Marreese Speights, Shaun Livingston and Harrison Barnes are stepping up to solidify Golden State as a complete season. And All-Star forward David Lee has missed most of the season thus far. Steve Kerr has this team playing to its full potential every night.
3. San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs are still the favorites to win the title — in my eyes at least — and it’s difficult not to rank them at No. 1, but Memphis and Golden State have looked great so far. As long as Coach Pop is on the sidelines and any combination of players is on the floor, the Spurs are, well, the Spurs.
4. Washington Wizards: John Wall may be the best point guard in the league right now — and he’s only 24. The return of Bradley Beal from injury makes the Wizards the most dangerous team in the East, and they showed why in their dismantling of the Cavaliers last week.
5. Houston Rockets: Everyone wanted to see Kobe vs. Dwight part deux last week in Houston, but Dwight “Teddy Bear” Howard was scratched right before the game with a “knee injury.” I don’t doubt that he was hurt, but right before the rematch with Kobe? Seems fishy. The Harden-Howard combo remains lethal, however, and James Harden is playing the best ball of his young career.
6. Toronto Raptors: Toronto proved itself to be a legitimate contender this week with wins over Memphis and Cleveland. The Raptors have a solid second unit, and Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan alone can keep them in any game. The Raptors could win the East.
7. Portland Trail Blazers: After a slow star, Portland has rattled off seven-straight wins, most without defensive-stopper Nicholas Batum. They Trail Blazers travel to Philadelphia on Monday night in what may be a preview of the NBA Finals. The 2021 NBA Finals, that is.
8. Dallas Mavericks: Mark Cuban is such a good owner. He puts out a great team year after year, and the 2014 Mavs are one of the better Dallas squads since the title in 2011. They have received significant production from backup big-man Brandon Wright (league-leading .785 FG%), and Dirk Nowitzki, at age 36, is still Dirk Nowitzki.
9. New Orleans Pelicans: All that must be said is Anthony Davis. He has been the MVP through the first month of the season, and he’s, like, only a year older than I am. He has GOAT potential. Tyreke Evans has had himself a nice season, too. The Pelicans appear playoff bound, and Ant Davis appears GOAT bound.
10. Phoenix Suns: A team with Isaiah Thomas and Gerald Green coming off the bench must be pretty darn good, right? The Suns’ backcourt is loaded, and while questions remain regarding their big-men, the Morris twins have given Phoenix quality minutes thus far.
11. Chicago Bulls: We all would love to see Derrick Rose healthy for five-straight games. We’ve had enough of Kirk Hinrich playing 30 MPG. Please, Derrick, please!! With Pau Gasol looking like prime Pau Gasol, the Bulls don’t even need Rose to be a top team in the East.
12. Sacramento Kings: Boogie Cousins is building off of a great 2013 campaign with a dominant start to 2014. Finally, the Kings are relevant again. The team has solid chemistry, and Darren Collison is in the starting role he has deserved for a while. The fast-start wasn’t a fluke — the Kings will compete for the playoffs this season.
13. Los Angeles Clippers: With such a loaded roster, it’s crazy to see the Clippers this low. But they haven’t looked all that good this year, and although they will at some point, they haven’t thus far. They need to figure out their small-forward issues, and build a Grizzlies-like team around Blake Griffin and CP3. Doc Rivers will take care of it soon.
14. Miami Heat: Everyone thought the Heat were done for when that good player bolted for Cleveland, but they are having a nice start to their season. Chris Bosh is playing rejuvenated ball, Mario Chalmers (how is he already 28?! Didn’t he just hit that buzzer beater for Kansas?!) has played well too and if D-Wade can stay healthy they can make a run in the East.
15. Cleveland Cavaliers: They will figure it out, but they haven’t yet, and it’s been a disaster so far for Bron Bron. David Blatt has plenty of time to turn the team around. It’s a classic case of teammates getting used to one another. The Cavs will be top-five on this list come January.
16. Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks were an epic choke away from knocking off the Pacers in the first round last season. They have looked average so far, but have beaten most of the teams they were supposed to beat and vice versa. With Al Horford healthy, it’s only a matter of weeks before the Hawks establish themselves as one of the better teams in the East.
17. Milwaukee Bucks: How are the Bucks 7-7? The Greek Freak is developing from the raw teenager he was last season into a rising star, and Brandon Knight is still only 22 and could be a future star too.
18. Orlando Magic: Like the Bucks, the Magic are a young, potential-loaded team that could make an unexpected playoff run. Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris are budding stars. The Nuggets clearly did not see much in Evan Fournier, but appear to have let go of a talented scorer. Harris, Fournier and Victor Oldaipo are all just 22 years old.
19. Brooklyn Nets: I expected Lionel Hollins to have this Nets team playing a lot better than it has thus far. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson definitely still have quality basketball left in the tank, and while Kevin Garnett may not, the Nets are still a playoff team in the East.
20. Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets don’t have much going for them right now. Ty Lawson is a great, unselfish point guard, but he doesn’t have scorers to pass too. Maybe JaVale “Why Is He Making $11 Million This Season” McGee will break out this season. Unlikely.
21. Indiana Pacers: The Pacers have been hit by the injury bug, and the injury bug isn’t a bug, it’s more of a gorilla. David West, George Hill, Paul George and now Roy Hibbert may miss some time. They are fortunate to have some wins on their resume.
22. Utah Jazz: Utah’s young nucleus has pulled out some impressive wins this season. It has a bunch of young studs, and Quin Snyder looks like a great hire. There is a lot to look forward to for Jazz fans.
23. Charlotte Hornets: Most pundits expected the Hornets to be one of the better teams in the East, but they have instead been among the most disappointing. They should turn it around, and like the Cavs, it’s probably just a case of new faces gaining chemistry.
24. Boston Celtics: The Celtics are better than their record shows, and should make a run at a low playoff seed. If only Rajon Rondo could shoot with consistency, the Celtics would be tough to beat.
25. Detroit Pistons: I thought Stan Van Gundy could make the Pistons play to their ability, but he hasn’t, at all, and frankly, 25 is probably a bit high. With so much talent, they may be able to turn their season around somewhat, but who knows with the Pistons.
26. Oklahoma City Thunder: When Reggie Jackson pleaded for a starting job before the season, he meant alongside Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, not Andre Roberson and Lance Thomas. OKC has hung in games, but hasn’t won enough. Durant and Westbrook need to heal, quickly. It’s not easy to survive in the West.
27. Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe has proven that he still has it, but he has little help around him. The starting five isn’t so bad, really, but the second unit is just horrible and cannot stay in games. If Bryant and Boozer could log 40 minutes apiece, the Lakers would be average, maybe.
28. New York Knicks: Something about the Knicks seems off this season. Maybe it’s the new offensive system. Maybe it’s Carmelo not taking every shot. But right now it seems like Carmelo should be taking every shot. He passed up his best shot, which was leaving New York in the summer.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves: Decimated by injuries, it’s going to be a long season for Flip Saunders in his return to Minneapolis. With Rubio, Pekovich and K-Mart all healthy, the Wolves have a fairly talented roster. But all three are hurt, and now it’s the Gorgui Dieng show.
30. Philadelphia 76ers: Mind-blowingly bad. Possibly worst team of all time. But in all seriousness, I just can’t fathom the Sixers winning a game. I thought they had a chance against Carmelo’s squad, but they looked like a fifth grade travel team compared to the Knicks.