5. Los Angeles Clippers
For a while, the Clippers looked dangerously close to locking the second seed in the West, potentially biding time until they could displace the Jazz. The whole team looked fantastic. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George played to their contract value, and role players like Patrick Beverly and Serge Ibaka expertly performed all the extra dirty work on defense to make the team formidable. Yet, something changed. They dropped their last two games before the break, the first to the Celtics and the second to the Wizards. Whereas one may easily forgive the first blunder, as Boston has competed well a few years in a row now, Washington has played much less impressively. Might back-to-back games like these indicate a slump? It remains a possibility. Will Los Angeles have to return in an explosive fashion to move back to their former glory in the rankings? Absolutely.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Unlike a lot of the league’s hottest teams, the 76ers did not enter the All-Star break quite so down on their luck. They did go a measly three of five in their final games, but one of these losses occurred in overtime and the two defeats had them at a combined deficit of only ten. Had those two games, effectively toss-ups, gone in favor of Philadelphia, they would presently sit on a perfect L10, this statement made before their Sunday game against the Spurs. All that keeps them from sitting higher on the list lies in the creeping presence of Brooklyn for the top seed in the East and the persistent indomitability of the West overall. However, Joel Embiid has played this season at a legendary level, reminiscent of postseason LeBron in his ability to take control of the game at will upon occasion. This observation alone, unpredictable at best, cannot raise the team up a slot just yet, but it may have them overperforming in the postseason. Barring unforeseen circumstances, these guys are the Eastern Conference lock for the Finals.
3. Phoenix Suns
With only their second numbered appearance in the power rankings, the Suns look borderline unstoppable. They won seven of their last eight before the All-Star break, with impressive wins over the Trail Blazers and the Lakers (both of whom they just recently surpassed in the conference standings). Their only loss in this streak came from a three-point fluke against the Hornets, who have certainly outperformed expectations this year and merit no embarrassment for Phoenix. Devin Booker proved his capability as a top tier player when he pulled the Suns to an 8-0 run against Playoffs-caliber teams in the bubble last summer. Likewise, Chris Paul reminded the world he still had work to do and pulled a young and inexperienced Thunder team to a five seed appearance, ultimately losing in seven games to James Harden’s Houston Rockets. Combined, the Suns have undergone a renaissance and will prove a tough competitor in postseason aspirations.
2. Brooklyn Nets
Every week a collapse seems imminent for the only team that simply refuses to play defense, and every week they seem to improve. That in mind, a two seed in these power rankings still feels a little too high. Not only do they presently sit behind the 76ers in the East still (although not by much), they still seem as though they might potentially lag behind the best in the West. Working best in their favor though, they dropped a few games early before the arrival of James Harden and have played very few games with all of their superstars together, as Kyrie Irving missed a few games early on safety restrictions and Kevin Durant missed a handful recently in nursing an injury. This lack of appearance at full capacity implies league superiority should everyone make their way onto the same court in a given night, but they have not been able to do so yet. Eastern Conference teams should feel concerned, but this team still has yet to prove itself deserving of a top seed in the power rankings.
1. Utah Jazz
Once again, nothing has indicated that Utah has lost their right to the top slot. Yes, they fell into a lull before the All-Star break (one that some may have predicted, hint), but they still did nothing to cause great alarm. They, unlike most other strong teams that struggled before the break, played an incredibly difficult schedule. Their losses came against the Clippers, which actually split back-to-back games as they had beaten them just two nights before; the Heat, who have won nine of their last 10 as of Sunday morning; and the 76ers, who could only beat them in overtime. During this same stretch, the Jazz stomped both the Lakers and the Hornets, as well as beating the 76ers in another game against them. All this in mind, Utah has done nothing unforgivable as of yet. All should expect a return in full force and possibly another 10+ win streak.
Hot Seat: Denver Nuggets
At one point, the basketball world had all but counted out the Nuggets. After an incredible record last season and a Western Conference Finals appearance, many expected a potential Finals run out of the Joker, or at least a competitive rematch against the Jazz the eked out and/or the Lakers who stopped their run in just five games. Yet, they underperformed to start the season. They won games, but they failed to build streaks and perform well with consistency. However, this fault seems poised to change. They have begun to piece wins together and move into a more respectable position in the West. Moreover, given that their underwhelming start holds them back from easily moving to a top slot, their present hold on a postseason berth becomes even more impressive. Look in the coming weeks to see if they do not further displace the Trail Blazers or even close in on the Clippers.