5. Los Angeles Clippers
After a disappointing last week, the Clippers had to come down a notch. A close loss to either the Celtics or the Nets? Understandable. Dropping both? Unforgivable. This team has a serious problem with bullying teams outside the estimable top 10, but playing inconsistently if not poorly against their better opponents. They have all the talent they need to beat anyone, but they struggle to employ that advantage in the games where it matters. Their record stays high (and they stay in the top five) because they simply do not blow games to average teams (cough cough, the Pistons over the Lakers and 76ers). Moreover, they win a healthy amount of games against good teams too. Their biggest setback sits between the ears of Paul George, and until he can be the clutch player the team needs, they will have to stay in relegation at the lower ends of the rankings.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
Up one from last week, the Bucks look a little better. If they can fight their way to the Eastern Conference dominance they have known in the past, they will stand a chance to vye for the top slot in the power rankings. Sitting in their path, however, is the big man from Yaounde, Joel Embiid. Until the Bucks can prove themselves conclusively better than their Philadelphia competitor, they will suffer from a cap on all estimates to their success. The Eastern Conference looks a little better than it did in the past, but it still looks weaker than the West. If they want to enter the discussion on potential ring ceremonies, they will have to escape their conference. If they cannot beat the 76ers now, they may see another pre-Finals postseason exit. Hopefully the competition will encourage them to kick it into high gear.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
As the only other team to drop this week, the 76ers still look remarkable. The East sits at their mercy and the West dreads to think of meeting them in a Finals scenario. However, the question remains as to whether they will prove capable of maintaining their current level of play. Last year appears to have been a wake-up call for the team, as they entered with a weak six-seed in the postseason and made no waves to raise eyebrows before their exit. More of the same, it seemed. Now, they have to produce or face an existential crisis. If they do not win the East, they will have to at least make a close claim for a Finals appearance. If not, management will have no choice left but to search for the next superstar face of the team. Another team with all the talent they need, they desperately need to settle into their groove and play to their full capability, consistently, if they do not want the band to break up.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
Back up one slot, the Lakers should almost be considered number 1B. While the search for consistency should remain the top priority for most teams, the Lakers seem to have it. They dropped a bad loss to the Pistons not long ago, but a bad game here or there just happens, not to mention the fact that they did have to play sans Anthony Davis that night. No one should feel surprised if the Lakers win another championship. They have everything they need: they always play their best, and they are always clutch when it counts. If they lost their next five games, they would probably still hold a spot in the top five list. These guys can win at will, and as of yet, I do not think it is even anyone’s game as to who reaches and wins the Finals. If the postseason started tomorrow, I truly believe that only the Jazz could stop them from an appearance and only the 76ers could prevent a repeat. Everyone in the top five is good, but that does not mean equal chance in the postseason; the barrier between the top three and the last two is chasmic.
1. Utah Jazz
In all frankness, these guys look absolutely unstoppable right now. I can only say so much about them. They do not just win, but they make it look second nature. The Nuggets may have ended their streak a bit ago, but Lot’s wife can take notes because they never looked back. After shrugging off their defeat, they simply started another little win streak that they definitely appear poised to continue. I fully expect a lull at some point here in the coming weeks, but if they bounce back to the excellency they know now, the object for the rest of the West ceases to be beating them and becomes simply avoiding the sweep. For whatever seed has to play them in the first round, they just need to see if they can make Donovan Mitchell break a sweat.
Hot Seat: Boston Celtics
Despite the record not being there and the L10 making them appear as though in a lull, Boston sits on the cusp of a real breakthrough into top tier play. Recently, they dropped a close game to the Kings, which I would chalk up as an anomaly, as well as a one-point loss to the Lakers. In the same period, they topped the Warriors (who can blame part of their weak start on a long court absence and a ruthless West, but are not actually bad in any respect) and the Clippers. Knock out the anomalous game that they will certainly fix out of habit by the end of the season, and these guys can upset anyone in the East. They do not look quite ready to pose a challenge to the Lakers or Jazz, but Bucks and Celtics fans beware of the threat to come.