The road to the top in the NBA still goes through the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. But while the best of the west reigns supreme, there's a case to be made that the next four most dangerous teams are all in the Eastern Conference.
This is especially true on the heels of a trade deadline that saw 14 trades on the actual deadline day, the most on at any trade deadline over the last 30 years.
With the trade deadline in the rear-view mirror, the attention now shifts towards All-Star weekend. With that in mind, this week's power rankings pays homage to the top All-Star campaigns for each of the teams inside of our weekly top 10.
10. Portland Trail Blazers
Last week : 8th
Current record : 33-22
Last week : 1-2
This week : at Thunder, Warriors
Best All-Star season : 2017-18 Damian Lillard
I'm in the camp that firmly believes Damian Lillard is in the midst of a truly underappreciated Hall of Fame career. Had Lillard not come along during the age of Stephen Curry, James Harden and Russell Westbrook while also sharing a conference with all three, he'd probably get a little more love.
Old souls might say that bestowing the title of best Blazers All-Star at the feet of Lillard is at-best recency bias and at-worst an insult to the likes of Clyde Drexler and Bill Walton. I'd counter by saying that his 2017-18 campaign offered up everything you could possibly want from a lead guard: 26.9 PPG, 6.6 APG and 4.5 RPG while carrying Portland's offence devoid of much other shot creation outside of CJ McCollum.
Drexler and Walton were both transcendant talents that have received their due. This is merely one man's way of offering up praise for an underappreciated superstar at the height of his prime.
9. Boston Celtics
Last week : 6th
Current record : 35-21
Last week : 1-2
This week : at 76ers, Pistons
Best All-Star season : 1984-85 Larry Bird
The Celtics slid three spots this week thanks to yet another drama-filled week. First came the 18-point blown lead to a reeling Lakers team still likcing its wounds from a shellacking at Indina. Then came a 28-point blown lead against the Clippers which led to Marcus Morris joining the chorus of Celtics' players to publicly vent about the team's struggles.
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Boston fans in need of a bright spot ahead of All-Star weekend can just think about Larry Bird's 1984-85 season, for my money the best individual season in Celtics history. The second of his three straight MVP awards, Bird dropped 28.7 PPG, 10.5 RPG and 6.6 APG while leading the league in minutes per game and shooting a career-best 43% from beyond the 3-point line. Bill Russell had some dominant seasons. Ditto for any of the other three dozen Hall of Famers to suit up in Celtics green. But this one goes down in my book as Boston's best.
8. Houston Rockets
Last week : 7th
Current record : 32-23
Last week : 2-1
This week : Mavericks, at Timberwolves
Best All-Star season : 2017-18 James Harden
Fully intergrating Chris Paul back into the mix will surely take some time given how Houston needed to rely to heavily on James Harden during his absence. The Rockets are 3-3 in games with Paul since he returned, not including the 27-point road win at Utah which he sat out and in which Harden scored 43 points while finishing just a single block shy of a 5x5.
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In the 116 minutes that Paul and Harden have shared the floor since his return, the Rockets have posted a net rating of +5.7, good but far from the sterling mark of +13.0 they posted a year ago.
Coincidentally, the 2017-18 Harden season goes down as our pick for the best individual season in Rockets history, just barely edging out MVP seasons by Hakeem Olawuwon (1993-94) and Moses Malone (1981-82).
7. Denver Nuggets
Last week: 3rd
Current record: 37-18
Last week: 0-3
This week: Heat, Kings
Best All-Star season: 2009-10 Carmelo Anthony
Yes, the Nuggets still have the fourth-best record in the NBA. But an 0-3 East Coast trip in which they allowed 129 to the Pistons, 135 to the Nets and 117 to the 76ers doesn't exactly warrant a vote of confidence. Denver will be tested from here on out as it has the NBA's second-hardest remaining schedule when adjusting for home and road, according to TeamRankings.com .
On a lighter note, remember how awesome Carmelo Anthony was in Denver? Sometimes the public opinion pendulum swings too far the other way and that's certainly been the case for Anthony who while in Denver was unequivocally one of the game's premier talents. With apologies to David Thompson's incredible 1977-78 season, Melo gets the nod for pouring in 28.2 points per game in his final full season with the Nuggets.
6. Indiana Pacers
Last week: 15th
Current record: 37-19
Last week: 4-0
This week: Hornets, Bucks
Best All-Star season: 1989-90 Reggie Miller
Let's get one thing clear: the Pacers, as currently constructed, are not the sixth-best team in the NBA.
That said... they have the league's fifth-best record and have reeled off five straight wins following a four-game losing streak. Sure, this stretch included wins over an Anthony Davis-less Pelicans, a short-handed Clippers team at the deadline, a lifeless post-deadline Lakers team and the Cavaliers... but winning is winning!
For a franchise only a few weeks removed from thinking big, the last week has been a much needed bright spot for the Pacers who are still no doubt adjusting to life without Victor Oladipo.
You know who could really help shore up the two-spot? Prime Reggie Miller who in 1989-90 set a career high with 24.6 points per game.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
Last week : 9th
Current record : 36-20
Last week : 2-1
This week : Celtics, at Knicks
Best All-Star season : 1966-67 Wilt Chamberlain
The Philadelphia 76ers are all in.
You could have said that even before the trade for Tobias Harris after they sent out Dario Saric and Robert Covington for Jimmy Butler back in November. In giving up two future 1st-round picks (including Miami's unprotected 2021 pick) along with promising rookie guard Landry Shamet for Harris, who can leave for nothing as an unrestricted free agent this summer, the Sixers have signaled that they are in it to win it right now.
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Though depth is a concern, Philadelphia now trots out a starting five of Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, JJ Redick, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid which is a starting unit matched in talent by perhaps only Golden State. In 30 minutes together thus far, that group has posted a net rating of 22.9 and will face a stern test this week at home against the Boston Celtics.
As for celebrating the past ahead of All-Star weekend, you can do no better than Wilt Chamberlain who won the MVP in 1966-67 while leading the 76ers to an NBA title and ending Bostons run of eight straight championships.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last week : 5th
Current record : 36-19
Last week : 3-0
This week : Trail Blazers, at Pelicans
Best All-Star season : 2013-14 Kevin Durant
The Thunder have won 10 of 11 overall and are starting to look like the biggest threat to the Warriors in the Western Conference. In the midst of what's been by far the best season of his career, Paul George unleashed perhaps the best game of his season yet in Sunday's win over the Rockets in which he exploded for 45 points including 15 in the fourth quarter to help turn a tie game into a five-point OKC win. George won't win the MVP. That likely has either James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo already etched into the hardware.
But it's not taken lightly that George has outscored Harden in two of their three head-to-head meetings this season. Nor is the fact that George and not Russell Westbrook has been OKC's best player in closing out games. He's a legitimate candidate to finish third in MVP voting and snap a first-team All-NBA spot.
With apologies to Westbrook and his historic 2016-17 season in which he averaged a triple-double en route to winning the MVP, the best season by any All-Star in Thunder history has to be Kevin Durant's 2013-14 masterpiece. A top-15 player of all-time, this was Durant at his absolute best, pouring in 32 a night while coming close to going 50-40-90. He finished with over 19 win shares, something that even LeBron James has only done twice and before that, hadn't been done since Michael Jordan.
3. Toronto Raptors
Last week : 4th
Current record : 41-16
Last week : 3-0
This week : Nets, Wizards
Best All-Star season : 2000-01 Vince Carter
The trade for Marc Gasol is among the biggest in-season moves in Raptors history. Though Toronto had a good thing working with the Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas platoon system, Gasol raises the ceiling and brings several valuable skills to the table that the departed Valanciunas simply did not.
First and foremost, he's among the most stout post defenders in the entire league. Even if he's lost a step, Gasol still rates among the very best in the game when it comes to playing straight up against the league's best post players. With Joel Embiid's 76ers looking better than ever, that can't be understated.
Neither can Gasol's passing ability from either elbow. Toronto has at times vascillated between two different offensive looks this season: the one with ball movement incorporating all five on the floor and the one in which Kawhi Leonard plays one on one. Gasol's passing ability and high basketball IQ should serve as a bridge between the two and gives Nick Nurse another facilitator.
As for looking backwards, who can possibly forget peak Vinsanity? At least in terms of win share, 2000-01 Vince Carter grades out as the best individual season in team history.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Last week : 2nd
Current record : 41-14
Last week : 3-1
This week : at Bulls, at Pacers
Best All-Star season : 1971-72 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
I was prepared to elevate the Bucks to the top spot. Then came the miserable showing against the Orlando Magic on Sunday in which they lost by 20 at home in a game that Giannis Antetokounmo sat out.
When the Bucks are humming along (as they were prior to that loss), they look every bit like a legit contender that can push Golden State. And then you're left scratching your head and wondering if they simply rely too much on the talents of one player. Maybe that game was nothing more than a mid-season let down, the types of contests you chalk up to mid-season malaise in the drudgery of a long and winding 82-game regular season. Or maybe it was the sign of something bigger, of a team that's too dependent upon the otherworldly talents of an out-of-this world player. Only time will tell.
When all is said and done, perhaps Antetokounmpo will deliver the best individual season in Bucks history. For now that honour goes to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who one year after leading the Bucks to their only title, averaged a career-high 34.8 points per game and finished with 25.4 win shares, the most by any player in any season in NBA history .
1. Golden State Warriors
Last week : 1st
Current record : 40-15
Last week : 3-0
This week : Jazz, at Trail Blazers
Best All-Star season : 2014-15 Stephen Curry
Given all of the drama and captivating storylines elsewhere around the league, it's somewhat remarkable that how the two-time defending champs incorporate DeMarcus Cousins into what was already the league's most dangerous starting five is old news.
Here's an update:
- In 100 minutes together, the 5-man lineup of Curry, Durant, Cousins, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have a negative 1.8 rating. That's right, negative.
- The main culprit? The defense. Those five have allowed teams to score 117.4 points per 100 possessions
- In their last two games (both wins), that lineup was outscored 98-61 in 34 minutes
- All of that aside... the Warriors are 9-1 with Cousins in the lineup
Yes, the Warriors are rolling. But no, it's not due to the lineup that everyone just assumed would rule the world. At least not yet.
Shoutout to Curry for becoming the first unanimous MVP in league history back in 2014-15. There was no other choice for picking the best All-Star season in team history.
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Rest of the NBA
11. Utah Jazz
12. LA Clippers
13. Sacramento Kings
14. Brooklyn Nets
15. Los Angeles Lakers
16. San Antonio Spurs
17. Charlotte Hornets
18. Detroit Pistons
19. Dallas Mavericks
20. Miami Heat
21. Minnesota Timberwolves
22. New Orleans Pelicans
23. Orlando Magic
24. Washington Wizards
25. Memphis Grizzlies
26. Atlanta Hawks
27. Chicago Bulls
28. Cleveland Cavaliers
29. Phoenix Suns
30. New York Knicks