5. Brooklyn Nets
Coming in at as the most recent addition to the top rankings, the Nets look primed to move nowhere but up. In the increasingly frustrating absence of Kevin Durant, James Harden has played some of the absolute best basketball of his career and Kyrie Irving, when he has played, has made the offense unbeatable. The three, hopefully together for most of the second half of the season and certainly through the postseason, will be a conference finals team at their weakest, NBA champions at their full potential. Make no bones about it, they sit at a week’s worth of offensive spectacles away from pushing the 76ers back to fifth, if not the Clippers back to fourth.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
While still sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings, the only thing pushing them to eke out the Nets once more is the incredible work of the (likely) future MVP Joel Embiid. Putting up a 50-piece to top the Bulls in the Friday night showdown, the big man has proven himself more than willing to win each and every game this season singlehandedly if he must. More than that, he seems the best person to put a stop to the Nets’ ravaged war path through every team they face. While Deandre Jordan certainly poses a legitimate threat underneath the basket, he simply will not stop Embiid from scoring at whim. With the underwhelming effort coming out of Milwaukee right now, no one should be surprised in the least to see these two teams face off in a conference finals series.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
While the 76ers may play a little too close to teams like the Bulls, the Clippers are slowly healing themselves of similar afflictions. Coming off an impressive win over the Jazz (who still made a close grab at it in the final minutes), the Clippers want everyone to know that the top seed in the west is a three-way competition. Their win may not be enough to push them ahead of the Lakers or even the Jazz they just beat, but it certainly puts them right on the cusp of rising through the ranks. And if the Lakers do not make the explosive comeback the world expects once Anthony Davis and Dennis Schroeder reenter the floor, they could very likely fall behind their cross-city rival and or the aggressively rising Nets.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
I cannot place enough emphasis on how thin the boundaries separating each of these teams truly are. Assuming Dennis Schroeder makes his return this coming week, they will have to win big to fend off the encroachment of the other aspiring teams in the league. The absence of Davis has certainly handicapped one of the most formidable teams in recent history, but the Los Angeles squad has won a handful of impressive games despite this setback. A full squad has a serious claim to make for a repeat championship, but even this incomplete team seems capable of rivaling just about any team in the league. If they can find and maintain a healthy team, the Lakers almost have a lock on a repeat appearance in the Finals if not another championship entirely. If not though, this team still has the talent and consistency to make a conference championship claim.
1. Utah Jazz
In what most certainly constitutes a controversial pick, the Jazz will once again secure the top ranking in the league. Yes, they may have dropped a game to the Clippers on Friday, but they looked like professionals doing it. More than anything, they truly just appeared to have a poor night shooting, which has to happen for every team at least once in a while. They played the game the way they always do, missed more open shots than they normally would and dropped what would have put them into another double-digit win streak. This coming Wednesday’s matchup against the Lakers will ultimately, Anthony Davis or not, provide enough insight to conclusively announce whether or not they will win a championship. Even if their shooting does not come up to what they are normally capable of, if they find themselves able to create shots as easily as they could against the Clippers, it will become obvious who takes any seven game series.
Hot Seat: Portland Trail Blazers
Ripping hot and right on the heels of the Clippers, Damian Lillard wants to expand that three-way battle for first to have a little room for a fourth contender. Right now, the whole balance of the west is extremely fragile. A bad week for the Lakers drops them to third if not fourth with the Blazers and Clippers playing as well as they are. Ultimately, the postseason and the full-fledged seven game series will decide who looks better this year, so the seeding in the top half of the Playoff spots may not amount to much in the end. However, with the way the Portland group looks right now, they may just lock this spot as a tentative number six rank that they can trade back and forth with the Suns.