1. Atlanta Hawks (38-8)
There’s no better way to put it: the Hawks have beaten the crap out of everybody, east and west, for multiple months running. Until their 17-game winning streak comes to a halt, there’s no reason to drop them from this spot.
2. Golden State Warriors (36-7)
Despite having their 19-game home court winning streak snapped by an inspired Chicago Bulls squad this week, the Warriors are still sitting pretty, and they’re still the favorites to represent their conference in the Finals.
3. Memphis Grizzlies (34-12)
Quietly, quietly, quietly — that’s how the Grizzlies have always compiled top marks in the regular season, and this year is no exception. Marc Gasol is finally getting some overdue recognition as a starter for the Western Conference All-Stars, but otherwise the Grizz are still an unseen title contender.
4. Los Angeles Clippers (32-14)
The Clippers have snapped out of their malaise and won six in a row, climbing up the prickly Western standings and finally looking urgent enough to perhaps meet their championship-or-bust expectations.
5. Houston Rockets (32-14)
The Rockets have endured a lengthy absence from Dwight Howard already, and the recent buzz about his knee suggests they might have to do it again. If they come out of this one still shining, James Harden’s MVP campaign will only grow stronger.
6. Washington Wizards (31-16)
John Wall has become the best pure point guard in the league, and the addition of Paul Pierce continues to give the Wiz an added calm and edge. Washington isn’t talked about as a potential Eastern Conference champion too often, but they should be.
7. Portland Trail Blazers (32-14)
LaMarcus Aldridge has foregone surgery on this thumb to play through the pain. He must believe there’s something special on the horizon with this Blazers squad to jeopardize his body that way.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers (27-20)
The Cavs’ trades for Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert have paid off, and LeBron James is spry and back to playing MVP-level ball. It doesn’t hurt that Kyrie Irving is having his most productive season yet, too.
9. Chicago Bulls (30-18)
A shocking win at Golden State — along with wins over the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks — was par for the Bulls’ 2014-15 course. So was their double-overtime loss to the lowly Los Angeles Lakers. It’s been a confounding season for this so-called title contender.
10. San Antonio Spurs (30-17)
The Spurs are looking better with Kawhi Leonard back in the fold, but doubts about their remaining motivation will persist until they go on one of their signature late-season winning streaks. Do they have another one left in them?
11. Toronto Raptors (31-15)
The Raptors had a bad January. Their recent four-game winning streak is encouraging, but this team nevertheless looks day by day more like one that’s not built for a tough seven-game series just yet.
12. Dallas Mavericks (30-17)
Rajon Rondo’s been a strange, awkward fit in Dallas. They’ve made it work, for the most part, but a recent four-game skid has raised some questions — particularly about their thin front court behind Tyson Chandler.
13. Phoenix Suns (27-20)
The Suns are holding tight to the eighth and final playoff spot in perhaps the best Western Conference of all time, but the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder are coming. And in the case of Kevin Durant’s Thunder, they’re coming fast.
14. Oklahoma City Thunder (23-23)
OKC has a lot of questions to answer, but the response to almost all of them is this: more great play from Durant and Russell Westbrook, two of the most fearsome players of this era. You should be surprised if you don’t see them sneak into the playoffs.
15. New Orleans Pelicans (24-22)
Monty Williams is on the chopping block for his job with the Pelicans, but he probably shouldn’t be. After Anthony Davis, this is a team with a ton of problems and shortcomings, and that falls on general manager Dell Demps’ shoulders.
16. Milwaukee Bucks (24-22)
The young Bucks are one of the best surprises of the season, as they’ve created one of the league’s best defenses under second-time coach Jason Kidd. They could scare some overdogs in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
17. Miami Heat (20-25)
The Heat continue to struggle through the post-LeBron era, despite the emergence of big man Hassan Whiteside. The latest road bump? An indefinite absence from the freshly injured Dwyane Wade.
18. Charlotte Hornets (19-27)
After a disastrous start to the season, the Hornets have gotten their defense together and strung some wins together off the radar. They’re still falling well below expectations, but Charlotte should be able to fit into the playoff picture out East.
19. Denver Nuggets (19-28)
The Nuggets have as little direction as any of the NBA’s lost teams. The good news is that they did well to trade for rookie sensation Jusuf Nurkic, a 20-year-old from Bosnia who could be the best big man of his class.
20. Brooklyn Nets (18-27)
The Nets remain a depressing collection of bad contracts and ambitions no higher than the east’s eighth playoff spot. It’s no mystery why owner Mikhail Prokhorov wants to sell this underperforming team.
21. Sacramento Kings (16-28)
DeMarcus Cousins is an All-Star snub. What else is new? Boogie is the best offensive big man in the game, but the league still seems far from recognizing him as such.
22. Detroit Pistons (17-30)
Brandon Jennings’ tragic ACL tear has derailed one of the best stories of the NBA season, and the Pistons look as bad the last week as they did in their season’s terrible beginning. Can they get back on course without their point guard?
23. Utah Jazz (16-30)
The Jazz continue to lose competitive games, which is the very best they can do as a young, learning squad. Look for them to make a leap next year, after a summer spent absorbing the lessons of these growing pains.
24. Indiana Pacers (17-31)
The Pacers won’t be competitive until they get Paul George back. Even then, though, this season has demonstrated that they might need another significant piece before they can get back toward the top of the Eastern Conference.
25. Orlando Magic (15-34)
Head coach Jacque Vaughn doesn’t look long for the job these days. A talented young crew hasn’t made the expected jump this season, and the Magic are said to be actively seeking a replacement.
26. Boston Celtics (16-28)
The Celtics stay in their holding pattern, waiting out the season to make noise in the draft again — especially now that Jeff Green and Rondo are out the door, taking the chance of real Celtics’ competition with them.
27. Los Angeles Lakers (13-34)
The Lakers suck. Everybody loves it, because this never happens. Kobe Bryant’s out for the year, and things look bad for the short term. But don’t be surprised if a star reaffirms the glamour of playing in Tinseltown, and signs there this summer.
28. New York Knicks (9-38)
The Knicks have begun their rebuild in earnest, and any team interested in their leftover veteran pieces should not hesitate to call Phil Jackson about a trade. Losing is the new winning in New York.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves (8-37)
Andrew Wiggins has been the premier rookie in the league for quite a while now, and the Wolves look destined for another great prospect as they keep dropping contests. They’re not far from being the league’s best farm system, if they aren’t already.
30. Philadelphia 76ers (9-37)
The Sixers are tanking. Didn’t you hear? And guess what? It’s working. They’ll be back at the top of the draft this June, just like they planned.
— John Wilmes