Sometimes it feels like the season is simply winding down to the inevitable Thunder vs Spurs and Heat vs Pacers final four. At other times it seems there are 9 or 10 legitimate “final four” contenders. The truth is, about half the league (or at least half the West) could get hot and make an extended playoff run. The fate of coaches, players, and millions of dollars will hinge on a few key games and plays. The regular season is our extended preview of this drama.
For teams like the Heat and Spurs, it’s an 82 game warmup. For the Thunder and Pacers, it’s a chance to show they belong in the elite. Teams like the Bobcats and Suns are making their case for simple legitimacy.
Well it’s time for us to sift through all that drama and pull out some nuggets of gold for you our loyal reader.
As you may know, at Trending Hoops, we don’t rank teams by power, skill, or ability to win a championship. We rank teams by buzz they generate, relative to the market they are in (otherwise L.A. would always be #1). With no further ado:
#1. L.A. Clippers (previously 4)
No J.J.? No problem. Hoop heads everywhere (us included) were worried that the temporary loss of J.J. Reddick would cause the Clippers spacing to shrink into something like Detroit’s…yuk. But the Clips have found a way to keep that high scoring offense ticking.
Part of that ticking is Blake Griffin. Retrofitted with a working jump shot, Griffin is doing his best to quell the “Griffin for Love” trade rumors. It’s hard when Love drops 45-19 on L.A. to Blake’s 32-10, but as long as L.A. is winning, Blake will stay.
CP3, after his blistering start, is now the automatic “best point guard” in any debate. I’m on board, only because when PG’s have incredible nights, my first reaction is still: “Now that’s Chris Paul line.” The latest–Steph Curry’s 30/15/5 line this week.
Incredible to me that the Clippers have 3 players capable of averaging double doubles every single night (DeAndre Jordan’s at 9.6 ppg).
Great plays for both teams here…
#2. Brooklyn Nets (previously unranked)
When a highway accident happens, the other side of the highway usually slows down, as people rubberneck. Welcome to the rest of the year for the Brooklyn Nets. Honestly, the Nets still have enough juice to win a title, they are just so used to dramatically underachieving it seems impossible right now. A PG that can average 20-10, and a shooting guard able to score 25 a night? Two veteran, former champs? A fairly deep bench? That’s a line up that can win 50 games and contend in any playoff series.
If the Nets continue to crash and burn, injuries will be blamed, and “next year or bust” will be the slogan. Mikhail Prokhorov will probably cope by taking a yacht to some tropical locale until sometime in October of 2014. J-Kidd will replace Phil Robertson on Duck Dynasty, as long as the beard keeps growing. D-Will may have a transcendent game or two, just to remind us that he could be Chris Paul, he just chooses not to be.
If you listen quietly, you can hear the sound of the Atlanta Hawks fans crying tears of joy. Another team is tanking for us? How kind. It must be the Christmas spirit. When the playoff bound Hawks swap picks with the Nets in 2014 (and again in 2015), their ceiling is going to soar, while the Nets fans slowly turn their attention back to…(I’m sorry) the Knicks.
Somewhere there’s a Grinch with a periscope, laughing at Brooklyn fans…
#3 The Charlotte Bobcats (previously unranked)
Charlotte is a middling market, but the Bobcats generate so little buzz on a yearly basis, you could make the case they don’t deserve the “Hornets” moniker (Hey-O!). But new logo + new winning ways = as much buzz as this expansion team has ever had. They will continue to fall back into their old ways at times–like their last puzzling loss to the Jazz. But Kemba Walker is averaging All-Star numbers of late. The Bob’s can beat any “middling team” right now (south of Clippers is the heart of middling).
The Bobcats are quickly becoming the Cavs (aka Kyrie = Kemba). That makes for entertaining ball, but no long term championship plan. Maybe Kemba can convince Lebron to come to Charlotte.
#4. The Phoenix Suns (previously 3)
Continuing our pattern of honoring overachievers (and overly injured), the Suns get #4. Goran Dragic, Channing Frye, and Eric Bledsoe have carried the load for the 6th best team in the West (sounds nice right?), more proof that Brooklyn should just shut up and win some games.
It seems unlikely that the Suns will keep rising (Hey-O), but that’s what we said about Portland. For now, let’s just appreciate that Phoenix has won 7/8. Two tough road games coming up against the Clips and Dubs will test their mettle, but everything is gravy at this point. Win enough to make the playoffs and you’ve got the coach of the year riding serious momentum into next season with a talented young core. Lose like crazy and get a great draft pick to dangle in front of an excited fan base.
It’s a good time to be a Suns fan.
By the way, “Goran Dragic” sounds like the name of a vampire over-lord…who plays for the SUNS to hide his true identity. Coincidence?
IgnitetheFuture is the best possible hashtag for the Suns.
#5. OKC Thunder (previously 1)
Maybe I’m subconsciously mad at the Thunder for throwing themselves off a 70 game win pace when they were so close to getting back on it. No one wins every game at home, but the Thunder have simultaneously given the Raps legitimacy and given the lead in the West back to Portland. (Yes, that’s how close the top of the West is…go 9-1 in your last ten, get 2nd place.)
The next chance for anyone to jump on the 70 win train is a 30-5 record (Portland, S.A., OKC eligible) or a 35-6 record (Miami still has a chance here). I’m not giving up!
Anyways Thunder have played out of their minds lately, and crushed a full strength Spurs team. KD and RW average a combined 49.1 points, 13.8 boards, 10.5 assists, 3.4 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game this year. They basically have Chris Paul’s best game every night, between the two of them. Ibaka and Perkins do their best Griffin and Jordan impression, and the Thunder continue to roll. Ibaka’s average of 14-10-2.4(blocks) should snatch him most improved player this year.
Jeremy Lamb’s continued development is one of the best stories of the Thunder’s season, and reason for future hope (that a team with KD and Russ can stay together, stay under the tax, and develop players internally).
#6 Portland Trailblazers (previously 2)
#1 in the West by 1/2 a game. As if the Trailblazers haven’t proven their legitimacy as an elite team enough, the upcoming week will be a trail by fire. Clippers, Heat, and @OKC; only reprieved by an @New Orleans. Then it’s 6 games against sub-500 opponents, and then back in it with a 4 game road trip against S.A., Dallas, Houston, and OKC. If they go 7-6 over this stretch, you can place a wager on them not getting out of the 2nd round. 10-3 or higher? The West finals is a real possibility.
The Trailblazers deserve two All Stars. The Pacers will get two. The Heat will get two, probably three. Spurs: probably 2. OKC: most definitely 2. But the best team in the NBA gets one coaches choice??? I hope the coaches do the right thing and elect two Blazer All-Stars. There’s precedent: like when the Pistons won the title and sent 4 non-star players to the game.
It’ll be a tough one–here’s the shakedown I see coming.
Each conference gets 12 players. The fans vote in 5 and the coaches vote in 7. Coaches must vote for 2 guards, 3 front court players and two wildcards.
James Harden (injury replacement for Kobe)
Not making the cut: Tony Parker, Damian Lillard, Ty Lawson, Ricky Rubio, Jeremy Lin
Not making the cut: Anthony Davis, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Andre Iguadola
Missing the cut: Damian Lillard…everyone else…
I can’t see how Lillard isn’t the 13th (non-existant) man on the West’s roster. If Kobe is healthy enough to play, it pushes Lillard to 14th (or, if you argue he’ll make it over Davis, Kobe pushes him out). Barring a second injury replacement, Lillard will be playing in the Sophomores vs. Rookies game. What a shame.
#7. The Miami Heat (previously 7)
After all the buzz generated by the Miami vs Indiana two week series, Miami stays at 7. Why? Their “large market/always in the news” status makes their relative buzz less “trendy” for us. Anyways, vintage Dwayne Wade has returned and the Heat are in elite mode. If Bosh can consistently rebound, the champs look primed for another deep run.
Interesting note: Wade and Bron-Bron will be starting All Star teammates for what is likely the last time. The pile of injured/underachieving/young talented guards in the East (Rondo and Rose, D-Will, MCW) will soon push Wade into permanent “coaches choice/snub” category.
This is trending as well…Heatles getting married off at a record rate:
#8. Toronto Raptors (previously unranked)
Winners of 4 of 5 games, including @ the Thunder, to move to a meager 11-14. Spurs up next. No Rudy Gay paves the way to over achieving mediocrity. Leading the Atlantic Division mean tanking or pushing for the playoffs might mean the same thing. Anyways, it’s something to talk about: Does Toronto prefer a successful season ending in a sweep? (Either in the 1st round or 2nd round.) Or do they prefer a disastrous season ending in a great pick? Time will tell.
For now the Raps will take a bunch of hungry young players and a pile of future draft picks and build a promising future.
#9. Washington Wizards (previously 10)
Bradley Beal is back, and the Wiz are winning. Three road wins are three road wins, no matter the quality of competition. (And that was a decent Knicks team they beat despite a great game from Carmelo.) If healthy, the Wizards are probably good enough to finish 7 or 8 games over .500, good enough for 4th in the East. John Wall’s continued development is fun to watch in the guard deprived East.
#10. San Antonio Spurs (previously 8)
Winning is always trending, and the Spurs win even when they try to rest (beating Warriors without Tim or Tony). The development of Kawhi Leonard has been enough to land him at #14 of the West’s front court voting. For fans of a dominance streak churning past two decades, that’s great news.
Manu Ginobli after a 2 point win @Golden State.
Falling out of rankings: Detroit Pistons (9), L.A. Lakers (6), Indiana Pacers (5)
Tyler Dykstra is an editor for Trending Hoops.
Photo’s on cover compiled from Wikimedia commons.