1. Golden State Warriors (29-5)
The Warriors might be due for a slump, but even without starting center Andrew Bogut they’ve been pillaging through the league — right now, they’re on pace to win exactly 70 games. They’ve been the best team of the 2014-15 season by virtually every measure.
2. Atlanta Hawks (29-8)
Can anyone in the Eastern Conference beat the red-hot Hawks? They’re 23-3 since some small struggles at season’s beginning, establishing a sharp, selfless offensive system with perhaps the best passing and off-ball motion in all of basketball.
3. Portland Trail Blazers (30-8)
Robin Lopez is out, but the Blazers just keep winning. Damian Lillard is due for some MVP attention soon, especially if he keeps doing things like this:
4. Chicago Bulls (26-12)
Despite Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah still not looking like themselves with any consistency this season, the Bulls have been rolling. A lot of that has to do with Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler — two players who, respectively, were seen as done and never capable of playing this well.
5. Houston Rockets (26-11)
James Harden continues to lead the Rockets, bolstering his MVP résume daily as Houston still finds the best role for newcomer Josh Smith. And, outside of everyone’s attention, Dwight Howard has been back to playing elite ball at center.
6. Memphis Grizzlies (26-11)
The Grizzlies trading for Jeff Green gives them some serious scoring depth on the wings, and the return of Zach Randolph from injury should vault them back into the league’s highest echelon.
7. Toronto Raptors (25-11)
DeMar DeRozan’s return came last night against the Detroit Pistons, and it couldn’t have come any sooner. The Raptors have been just 12-8 without him, after starting 13-3 and taking seize of the Eastern Conference to open the season.
8. Dallas Mavericks (26-12)
As Rajon Rondo adjusts to life in coach Rick Carlisle’s offense, one of the league’s new giants begins to take shape. If these Mavs stay healthy, they’re more than capable of coming out of the Western Conference.
9. Washington Wizards (25-12)
The Wizards continue to be an enigma, falling somewhere between playoff fodder and true title contender. John Wall is a breakout superstar, and Paul Pierce’s presence has made for positive change — but something still seems missing in D.C.
10. Los Angeles Clippers (25-13)
The Clippers, more than ever, are facing title-or-bust expectations. Optimists may suggest that’s why they’ve had a rocky 2014-15 season; they’re just waiting until the stakes are raised before they play their best ball. If not’s the case, though, then there’s cause for heightened concern in Lob City.
11. Phoenix Suns (22-18)
The Suns are on the fringe of the loaded Western Conference playoff picture, and they’ve decided to push more chips to the table’s center by trading for big man Brandan Wright. This unusual roster is one of the NBA’s most exciting, for the second year running.
12. San Antonio Spurs (23-15)
The Spurs have seen Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard miss 16 games this season. DNP’s have long been par for the course in San Antonio, but for a 23-year-old? Until Leonard looks right and the Spurs snap out of their championship hangover, we’re hedging on them.
13. Milwaukee Bucks (20-19)
The young Bucks are one of the surprises of the season, forming one of the best defenses in the NBA despite accruing injuries all year. Head coach Jason Kidd is proving himself as an effective culture changer.
14. Cleveland Cavaliers (19-19)
The reeling Cavs have more questions than answers, and the questions grow with every day. LeBron James is due to return soon — but even he can’t solve the litany of issues plaguing Cleveland.
15. Oklahoma City Thunder (18-19)
The Thunder have a lot left to prove. Things haven’t been as smooth and easy as the return of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook might have made them, with OKC playing just .500 ball over their last ten contests. If they don’t put their foot on the pedal soon, they could risk missing the playoffs.
16. New Orleans Pelicans (18-18)
Anthony Davis might be the best player in the league, and Tyreke Evans, Omer Asik, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday round out a solid core of talent around him. But the dropoff after those five is too dramatic for the Pelicans to be a real playoff contender in the West. New Orleans is more than one move away.
17. Miami Heat (16-21)
Hassan Whiteside is a breakout, mid-season star in the vein of Jeremy Lin. Considered a bust or a never-was by most scouts, Whiteside is now making tons of teams slap their foreheads after waiving him. The bright spot of the Heat’s sagging season, Whiteside is a story to keep your eyes on.
18. Detroit Pistons (13-24)
Stan Van Gundy’s squad could easily climb much higher in the next installment of these rankings. Winners of eight of their last nine, the Pistons simply need to get to ground level after digging themselves so deep — then, they’ll be playoff contenders in the thin East.
19. Brooklyn Nets (16-21)
The Nets stink. With a collection of overpaid, unhappy players, general manager Billy King is wondering if he can ship off enough of his roster to avoid more harsh luxury tax penalties, and keep owner Mikhail Prokhorov from giving him some nasty parting words.
20. Denver Nuggets (17-20)
Trading Timofey Mozgov to the Cavaliers could mean the beginning of a Nuggets fire sale — alternately, it could not. Denver is deep down low, so Mozgov (despite being arguably their best big man) was somewhat expendable. Time will tell if he was the first domino in a larger trend.
21. Sacramento Kings (16-21)
The firing of head coach Mike Malone isn’t looking any smarter today. Troublesome-but-mega-talented big man DeMarcus Cousins is still destroying his defenders in the paint, but his attitude has taken a visible turn for the worse, and the future in Sacramento is more foggy than ever.
22. Utah Jazz (13-25)
An injury to starting center Enes Kanter has been a silver lining in Salt Lake City — it’s made way for the arrival of Rudy Gobert, a 7’1”, 22-year-old Frenchman who’s quickly building a reputation as one of the best rim-protectors in basketball. The future is bright in Utah.
23. Indiana Pacers (15-24)
Frank Vogel has proved himself as one of the best coaches in the NBA this year. With a terrible roster and even worse injuries, these Pacers have had no business entering double-digits in the win column. Vogel’s intensity and preparation have taken them there.
24. Charlotte Hornets (15-24)
The Hornets have been playing a better, more team-first game without the injured Lance Stephenson in the lineup. Too bad they’re still struggling to make the playoffs in the East, and making it harder to trade Stephenson away in the process.
25. Boston Celtics (12-23)
Let the rebuild begin in earnest. After sending out Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, Boston has made it as clear as can be that they’re sellers, looking to collect more and more draft picks as they glance toward tomorrow.
26. Los Angeles Lakers (12-26)
Kobe Bryant’s tempered his game to fit more into what the Lakers are doing — finally. The question is whether winning some extra games is good for their draft prospects and overall future.
27. Orlando Magic (13-27)
The Magic still aren’t expected to crack the playoffs, but this is a year in which more growth should be visible. It’s definitely time to wonder whether Jacque Vaughn is the man for the job at head coach.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves (5-31)
Andrew Wiggins has started to soar and look like a real No. 1 overall pick, providing the only germ of watchability in an awful, injury-plagued season in Minnesota.
29. Philadelphia 76ers (7-29)
The Sixers’ tank rolls on, and until it stops and takes the course toward competition, we’ll just have to keep enjoying their dance moves more than anything they do between the whistles:
30. New York Knicks (5-35)
Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith are out the door, and one wonders if Carmelo Anthony would be too, if not for his no-trade clause and shaky knees. The Knicks are scorching the earth around ‘Melo and seeing what they can do to rebuild around him. How long will it take?
— John Wilmes