Welcome back to the Eastern Conference Power Rankings, the best power rankings of the worst basketball conference in history!
We took a week off last week, and it's amazing what two weeks can do in the NBA. Last time we did this, the Detroit Pistons were the toast of the East , killing teams post-Josh Smith excommunication, and the Cleveland Cavaliers were the most disastrous disaster that ever disastered. The Miami Heat were struggling, the Boston Celtics were trading everything in site for draft picks, and the Philadelphia 76ers had won three of four. CHAMPIONSHIP!
Two weeks later, some things are very similar, but some have changed significantly. Detroit's train derailed horribly with Brandon Jennings's Achilles tendon rupture. Miami unearthed Hassan Whiteside. Cleveland got LeBron James and Iman Shumpert back from injury, and it turns out that that is helpful for winning basketball games! Meanwhile, Atlanta continues to roll, Brooklyn is still awful to watch, and the bottom is pretty similar. Let's break it down further.
1. Atlanta Hawks (1)
16 straight wins. Eight wins out of nine by double-digits. Four potential legitimate All-Star candidates. Atlanta is untouchable until further notice.
2. Toronto Raptors (2)
Beat up East driftwood this week sandwiched around a loss at Memphis, which is forgivable. They also have Demar DeRozan back, and he's either been fantastic (four 20+ point performances), or awful (0-9 shooting vs. Milwaukee Monday). If he can find consistency, Toronto's easy schedule should mean they go on a little run here.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers (7)
In the power rankings two weeks ago, I said that the Cavs were on an extended holiday, and to check back in two weeks. It's been two weeks; the Cavs have won six straight, are cruising through an easy schedule spot, and despite Kevin Love's ongoing struggles, the offense has been ungodly the last few games.
The Cavs also now have a couple more signature wins, as double-digit victories over the Bulls and Thunder are quality wins against playoff-caliber teams. The Chicago game was never close - the Cavs jumped into the driver's seat early, held off a couple of Bulls runs in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, and finished off a quality defense with an offensive flurry. In the OKC game yesterday, the Cavs fended off a very solid effort from Kevin Durant (32/6/9) to beat the Thunder by 10 in Dion Waiters's return to Cleveland. These two wins were very impressive, beating a team directly above them in the standings and the team that's been forced to press for the next three months just to make the playoffs, and doing so comfortably. And the schedule this week should help them stay on a roll: Detroit, a banged-up Portland team, Sacramento, and Minnesota.
4. Chicago Bulls (4)
A couple of really impressive wins against the Spurs and Mavericks were nice, even if they got buzzsawed by the Cavs and Heat. The Spurs game was one of their best performances of the season, beating a fully-dressed Spurs team on national TV by holding them to 81 points.
5. Washington Wizards (3)
Played one of the most exciting games of the season in Wednesday's OT loss to the Thunder, and while they totally underwhelmed on their altitude back-to-back, they did escape with two wins on the week, so good enough.
6. Miami Heat (8)
Look at these per-36 numbers with me for a minute:
There's been a ton of talk about Hassan Whiteside over the last couple of weeks, as there should be. He's been incredible. However, as with every "out of nowhere" success story, similar to Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley, the last two weeks have been filled with hyperbole and hindsight bias related to Whiteside. "How could every team pass on him!" and "Whiteside should have stayed in college!" are two common sentiments.
But look at Whiteside's tenure with the Kings again. It's not just that Whiteside didn't get a chance or was too raw with the Kings in 2011-2012. Whiteside was legitimately awful, and it was partially due to him not taking the game seriously and having a very poor understanding of the work it takes to excel in the league. Before the season, there was no reason to think that this center, who had spent the last two seasons playing in Lebanon and China, would be an impact player. Even though 19 games of NBA experience is a small sample size, there was little evidence to the positives that Whiteside has flashed as the Heat's new energy big.
And the argument that Whiteside would have been helped by staying at Marshall isn't one that makes sense, either. Whiteside left the Thundering Herd after one year of absolute domination of Conference-USA. This isn't like a raw player who shows flashes at UNC or Arizona. He was at Marshall, partly because of the character questions that plagued him with the Kings, and it's really not a given that more time beating up on the Louisiana Tech's and UTEP's of the college world would have made him a better player.
Whiteside's experience abroad is what helped him mature, and his acceptance by the Heat organization is what gave him the opportunity to do what he's doing. Whiteside's a great story, but let's not get swallowed in the moment to criticize other teams for not noticing. Before this, there was nothing to notice.
(By the way, Miami's played very well as a whole as of late, and they get a great chance to make a statement on Friday when they host the Mavericks on ESPN).
7. Milwaukee Bucks (5)
Rough week for the Bucks, who beat the Pistons but got hammered by the Bucks at home and lost to the better teams on their schedule. Their biggest issue is size right now, because John Henson's hurt and Larry Sanders is still suspended.
8. Charlotte Hornets (9)
Playing ugly but successfully right now. They're in the playoff picture, knocking the Nets out this week. Nevermind that they've won three games without scoring 80 points in the last two weeks and got blown out by the Cavs on Friday. They've got Al Jefferson back and healthy now, and they are a playoff team that's not the Nets, so I'm pro-Hornets this week.
9. Boston Celtics (12)
Remember when it looked like Boston was punting the season a couple weeks ago? Well, they went on a west road swing last week and had competitve losses to the Clippers and Nuggets while winning both legs of an altitude back-to-back, so so much for that.
One of the keys for Boston's recent success? Ball movement. Boston averaged 22.5 assists per game in their four games this week, and they have been sharing the ball really effectively since the Rajon Rondo trade. They don't have a so-called "pure point guard" on the roster, but that hasn't mattered. Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, and Evan Turner give them plenty of solid passers to work with, and they've played with a nice free-flowing offense lately, generating good looks through open sets instead of relying on Rondo to set everyone up. Turner in particular has been, dare I say, good, clocking in 6.8 assists per game over the road trip, and even though Boston isn't hitting shots consistently, they're getting good looks, which is enough to catch a team that isn't great defensively off guard, as they did to the banged-up Blazers and Nuggets this week.
Boston may not have a true go-to player, and they may be set up to further rebuild after this season, but Brad Stevens has them playing great team-first ball right now, something I never thought I'd be able to say about a team employing Turner, Marcus Thornton, and Brandon Bass regularly.
10. Detroit Pistons (6)
It was a fun run, Detroit. But with the Brandon Jennings injury, here's where your hopes now lie:
The Cavs should do a tiiiiiny bit better against the Pistons on Tuesday than they did in their last effort.
11. Indiana Pacers (10)
(Pay no attention to the Pacers' on-court play)
12. Brooklyn Nets (11)
The Bad: Back-to-back 35+ point blowouts this week. One was to the Jazz, who hadn't won by that much since 2008.
The Ugly: The Jarrett Jack Three-Point Percentage meter, still holding strong at 18.9 percent for the season! And why yes, he is still starting and averaging more than one attempt per game!
The Tragic: Mirza Teletovic, who left the Clippers loss Thursday with shortness of breath, and was later discovered to have suffered a pulmonary embolism.
Teletovic will have to miss the rest of the season, which is a small price to pay, given that had it not been caught, he very well could have died had he taken the plane ride with the Nets to Utah. The pressure change of a flight has horrible consequences for someone with this condition, as it can cause the blood clots in the lungs to dislodge and block a major artery in the heart. Safe to say it's a really good thing Teletovic didn't do that.
Teletovic is one of my favorite players in the league. I love guys who chuck threes at an absurd rate, and especially love when those players are hardened badasses from Bosnia who aren't afraid to scrap. I'm very bummed this had to happen to him; this is even more serious than Anderson Varejao's blood clot two years ago, and he could be in for a long recovery. Thoughts and prayers to Teletovic that we can see him on the court again.
13. New York Knicks (15)
Live, from the center of the East.
14. Philadelphia 76ers (13)
Seven light years below the playoff race we go.
15. Orlando Magic (14)
Welcome to Tankonia. The place from which all lottery picks come.