5. Philadelphia 76ers
While Joel Embiid seems the shoe-in for MVP at this juncture, losing to the Nets and then the Trailblazers makes the team as a whole look much more human. Still, the competitiveness of this team still has them looking good enough to take anyone in a seven game series, but a decrease in production recently exposes enough weakness to give the other teams also vying for a first-in-too-long Finals appearance more hope than Philadelphia fans are comfortable with. The real test for this team will come Monday night against the Jazz. If they can steal a win from the hottest team in the NBA right now, they will pull themselves back up toward contention for the top of the rankings. However, where a close game might not necessarily harm them, a wide-margined loss could put them down out of the list. The rest of their week, with games against the Bulls and Rockets, seems easy, but they will need blowout wins to prove they are still up to snuff. Ultimately, this week could set the tone for the rest of the season for the team.
4. Brooklyn Nets
I have finally had to cave. While the Nets seemed perfect to top the beautiful loser category, this team keeps winning and crawling toward a top slot in the Eastern Conference. Any team with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden will win more than their fair share of games, but a handful of hot wins sans Kevin Durant and one of the most unstoppable offenses in the league has forced this team into the top five. A few more eyebrow-raising wins could feasibly even push this team higher in the rankings, but it will take some improvement in the areas that need attention, most notably their Achilles’ heel: the entire defensive end of the floor. A shutdown spectacle over a good team would make this team look unstoppable. However, until they can learn to stop their fiercest opponents from scoring at will, they simply will not be able to make a run in the postseason.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
On one of the most unpredictable teams, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have steadily kept themselves just below the peak of the Western Conference. Whether they blow out a team, get blown out or play a close game that goes either way, it never seems to matter who they play. Every game for this team looks like a dice roll on outcome, with a convenient heavy bias toward impressive wins. The problem, of course, lies in the unforeseen bad luck. Losing to the Nets or the Celtics is one thing, but dropping a game to the, albeit far-improved, Kings is unacceptable for a team that hopes to make a Finals appearance. If they can tone down the frequency of off-nights, the odds look 50-50 on both making the Finals and winning it all once there, respectively.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
While Anthony Davis and LeBron are still playing some of the best basketball of their careers, they came dangerously close to letting the Jazz run away with the top spot in the Western Conference this week. Back-to-back games against the Thunder became their second and third overtime wins in a row. While the final W in the column is all that matters for the standings, two toss-up games against a team scraping the bottom of the same conference could have just as easily made for a very bad week in LeBron land. As they still won all their games and kept just barely behind the Jazz in the standings, they remained in the two spot for the week. With a week like this though, they appear right on the cusp of dropping some essential games and giving up the one seed to the Jazz, if not the two seed to the Clippers.
1. Utah Jazz
These guys cannot lose. End of story. Monday’s game against the 76ers might just provide a sneak preview of the coming Finals, because these guys look destined to make it and only a few teams look positioned to steal the Eastern Conference out from Philadelphia. While the Lakers have been making their wins as close as seems possible, Utah has enjoyed much more comfortable wins. Even their closest games reach a conclusion by the end of regulation. Barring some catastrophe or serious lull for this team, they will pull ahead of the Lakers in the coming weeks, as the number two team in the West simply does not have the steam to keep pushing without hardly ever dropping a game. Utah, of course, does have that level of energy. Like no year before, a team seems ready to dethrone the king.
Hot Seat: Phoenix Suns
Why have Chris Paul and Devin Booker taken this spot, you might ask? Well, more than anything, they have consistently beaten every other team to hold this spot. James Harden was never the right match as a teammate for Paul, but his move to Oklahoma City instigated a renaissance in the veteran guard and now, given his deadly combination with Booker, the man has entered a whole new existence. Newer NBA fans might not even remember the years that he dominated highlight reels with Blake Griffin in Los Angeles. His cultured style of play and inspiring locker room presence have taken the energy from the incredible last-second push of this Phoenix team from the previous season and pushed past all known barriers. This team is an easy second round Playoffs team.