5. Phoenix Suns
In what most certainly constitutes the most controversial selection of the week, Devin Booker and Chris Paul will join the list for the first time this season, relegating the Lakers to a tentative sixth spot. This spectacular southwest team has stomped almost every team in its path recently, having its only losses in recent memory come in razor-thin differentials with the dominant Nets and the aspiring Hornets. Most impressively, however, the Suns trounced what once was their closest competitor for the final spot in the top half of the west, the Portland Trail Blazers, in a 32-point defeat. If they want to keep the slot, they will have to beat the Lakers this coming Thursday to prove they have earned the spot.
4. Brooklyn Nets
While I can definitely recognize that much of the basketball world might charge me with criminally neglecting one of the most impressive teams in the league, I simply have to yield any higher slot to the more consistent 76ers and the ever better Western Conference. With the Lakers play, however, the Nets have a lock as of yet to stay, at worst, where they presently sit. Better yet, they have a good opportunity to rise, as they have done what they have in the absence of the Eastern Conference All-Star team captain, Kevin Durant. In their favor, they have James Harden putting up more assists than most believed he ever could, Kyrie Irving scoring at will on nearly every possession, and DeAndre Jordan playing the best he has in years, maybe in his whole career. Although the second half of the season has a propensity to surprise a few teams each year, these guys look like the real deal. Upcoming games against the Mavericks and the gently rising Spurs should give the answer as to whether the east at-large is ready to compete on a broader scale with their loaded conference counterpart.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Joel Embiid, while still absolutely having a runaway MVP kind of year, rests on thin ice for his upper slot in the power rankings. The Nets have everything but secured their theft of the top seed in the east roughly halfway through the season. Unless Embiid can grab a little more of the help he needs out of his team, he can kiss away a Finals appearance to a ruthless Brooklyn team. However, if cross-conference play results in some wins for this group, then the barrier separating the top western teams from the top east may collapse, and they may find themselves able to retain a coveted three-spot even if the Nets pass them. Best-case scenario for this team lies in recovering their former regularity and pulling back away from the Nets, all while proving themselves against western teams. If they can go roughly .750 in the future, beating top teams as frequently as anyone, they may lock themselves as Finals contenders.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Few teams appear so openly stacked as the Clippers, and they have finally begun to play to that image. With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in a groove, Serge Ibaka and Nicolas Batum keeping everything tight in the post and three competitive point guards in Lou Williams, Patrick Beverly and Reggie Jackson, these guys have all the tools they need to stop anyone. And again, the biggest fact working in their favor is that they finally have started to play that way too. Other than close games with the Nets and Jazz and a fluke deal with the Grizzlies, they looked unbeatable through late February, topping the Jazz in a second chance game and the rapidly-improving Heat and Wizards. Their upcoming schedule has a few tough spots with the Bucks and Celtics, but after that they only have lower-seeded teams to worry about. If they want to take the number one spot from the Jazz, they will have to do it here in March.
1. Utah Jazz
While splitting a pair of games against the Clippers definitely blemished the incredible run the Jazz have made this season, Friday night’s blown loss to the Heat put the winningest team in the NBA the closest they have come yet to dropping out of first in the power rankings. Outside of a tough game against the 76ers on Wednesday though, they will have a relatively easy chance to compile an impressive streak again and repair their record to former indomitable status. On top of that, they have the All-Star break after their 76ers matchup. Attributing their most recent losses and close calls to exhaustion, they look more likely to go undefeated in the second half of the season than to drop out of first in the west. At the midpoint, these guys are my pick for Finals champions.
Hot Seat: Miami Heat
While they have done so relatively quietly, Jimmy Butler and his championship runner-ups have started to rediscover the old chemistry that made them such a force in last year’s postseason. Currently, Miami flirts with reentering the Playoffs around the same middle seed they took last year. More than that, their recent wins over the Lakers and Jazz prove that they might have the stuff to better compete against Western Conference giants this year. As a lower seed, they would likely have to beat both the Nets and the 76ers in a series to reappear in the Finals, but if they can beat the Jazz, they can beat anyone. Watch in the weeks following the All-Star break to see if they do not overtake the Raptors and the Bucks to take the third seat in their conference.