5. Los Angeles Lakers
Back in the rankings after an absence in the past weeks, LeBron and his supporting cast have found somewhat of a groove. They have now won four straight coming out of the All-Star break. And while these wins came against teams that might not seem quite so competitive as the ones that pushed Los Angeles out of the power rankings, the wide margins of victory seem to indicate a rediscovered competitiveness that could propel the Lakers past tougher opponents. Last Monday, the Lakers beat the Warriors by a whopping 31 points, following it with a 16 point victory over the Timberwolves on Tuesday and an 11 point victory of the Hornets on Thursday. Combined with their earlier post-All-Star debut win over the Pacers, their average margin of victory for the second half sits presently at just below 16. Given that top tier teams have struggled as of late, the Lakers playing at this level may not only reenter the rankings, but may also climb back to their former glory or even retake the top seed in the West.
4. Phoenix Suns
Although they dropped a single slot since last week, this comes more from the perpetually increasing competitiveness at the top of the East than it does from any fault at the feet of Phoenix. However, they have played below expectations since the break, and this underwhelming start to the second half has allowed the Lakers to reclaim the second spot in the West. Hopes looked high with a win over the Trail Blazers, but a loss to the Pacers and split of two games against the Timberwolves has them looking more like the first round exit many anticipated. A game against a reinvigorated Miami squad this coming week hosts a chance for the Suns to stunt the aspirations of a competitive cross-conference team while propelling them back to their own hopes of a high seed in the postseason. Of course, all this remains contingent on the assumption that they can still cruise past less daunting foes in their other upcoming games against the Magic and the Raptors.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Much to the surprise of those eyeing the race for first in the East, Philadelphia has yet to succumb to the pressure from the ever-encroaching Nets. The margin separating them remains razor-thin, perpetually hovering around a half-game lead in the 76ers’ favor. However, much of this lead seems to rise out of a better start to the season. The Nets did not begin with the intimidating lineup they can boast now, and as such struggled more than the 76ers early in the year. Discounting the first three or so weeks of the season, the 76ers no longer have a hold on the top seat in their conference. That said, what Philadelphia has accomplished merits no scoff, and any postseason showdown for an appearance in the Finals could still fall to either team. Ultimately, the fate of the conference relies on two factors: whether or not Joel Embiid can adopt a timeless LeBron level of invincibility in the postseason and whether the Nets can mesh their competing interests into a cohesive game plan.
2. Brooklyn Nets
As of yet, this team looks like the scariest group the Eastern Conference has seen since LeBron’s last year in Miami. Constantly plagued by injuries and missed games, no one has really seen this team at their full potential. Regardless, they still sit right on the cusp of running away with a one seed in the postseason. A cold or a mild strain for Joel Embiid could spell disaster for Philadelphia and give the Nets all that they need to steal the spotlight. However, while no one has seen Brooklyn yet at their maximum capacity, neither has anyone seen them at their most internally contentious. James Harden and Kevin Durant both enjoy high offensive output, and Harden and Kyrie Irving have enjoyed recent years as the most valuable players on each of their teams, in Houston and Boston, respectively. The new addition of Blake Griffin brings in another name coddled with the burden of leading offensive efforts. Put any combination of these guys on the floor, and problems may arise. They only have the one ball at any point.
1. Utah Jazz
Yes, they have seen their darkest days most recently, but they still appear the likeliest champions for this season. Every team must face a lull now and then. Not only may such a period prove inevitable, but it can also provide a healthy dose of reality for a team. Any team that enters the postseason believing in their own dominance may not have the scrappiness to endure the shock of other teams providing a challenge. For a prime example, look to the 73-9 Warriors who lost their ring to his highness, King James. The Jazz, as of yet, may need this period of reflection to surge into a truly spectacular postseason run. Even if they drop the top seed to the Lakers or the Suns, even if they fall behind both, this squad looks formidable enough on any given night to beat anyone in a series of seven. It will take serious circumstances to convince otherwise.
Hot seat: Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokoumnpo was the first to taste the disappointment of falling out of top contention, but the Greek Freak has returned to close quarters with the best of his conference and shows no signs of slowing down. As of this writing, they have yet to lose a game since the All-Star break. Their competitors remain roughly middle-of-the-road in the coming games, and they will have