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Eastern Conference power rankings: Toronto making a claim for elite status

The Raptors have soared into the top tier, while the Hawks are in a nosedive.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 1 -

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (13-5, .722)

2. Toronto Raptors (14-6, .700)

Toronto has been on a tear lately, and to be honest they have better peripheral numbers than Cleveland does. Despite this, they’ve lost both head-to-head match ups. A win against the Cavs on Monday might flip these rankings, but for the time being they’ll have to settle for second place.

It must be said, however, that this Toronto team is not to be taken lightly. Dynamic guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are averaging 48.3 points and 11.7 assists per game combined. They’ve been efficient, and the attention they draw has made it easy for role players to thrive around them. Aside from Lowry and DeRozan eight players on Toronto have played more than 200 minutes. Six of them have a true shooting percentage above 58. The offense as a whole is firing on all cylinders, currently rankings third, third, eight and fourth in each of the four factors (eFG%, TOV%, ORB%, FT/FGA), respectively.

While those numbers may regress, the underlying skill level of this team may improve as the year progresses. Their only major free agent acquisition, power forward Jared Sullinger, hasn’t played a game yet. He’s expected back before the All-Star break. Talented 21-year-old rookies Jakob Poeltl and Bruno Caboclo are beginning to earn minutes, and may crack the rotation by the time the regular season ends. The whole team is very young, in fact. Every player on the roster except Lowry and DeMarre Carroll (both 30 years old) is 27 or younger. Expect this team to be near the top of the Eastern Conference for years to come.

Tier 2 -

3. Detroit Pistons (11-11, .500)

4. Boston Celtics (12-8, .600)

5. Chicago Bulls (11-8, .579)

6. Milwaukee Bucks (10-8, .556)

7. Charlotte Hornets (11-9, .550)

Get ready for Detroit to start climbing the Eastern Conference standings. They presently hold the second-best defensive rating in the league, and point guard Reggie Jackson just returned to bolster an offense that has been middle-of-the-pack so far. While Ish Smith performed admirably in his absence, he’s much better suited to a backup role. With Jackson back at the helm, expect their offensive rating to creep up from 16th into the top 10.

Tier 3 -

8. Indiana Pacers (10-10, .500)

9. Atlanta Hawks (10-11, .476)

10. New York Knicks (11-9, .550)

11. Orlando Magic (9-12, .429)

Well, it seems Atlanta’s ship is sinking like a lead balloon. After a torrid 9-2 start they’ve gone 1-9 with five of the losses being blowouts. During that ten game span they’ve had a -15.4 net rating, playing abysmally on both ends of the court. True, forward Paul Millsap has missed the last three games. When he returns the team will get a boost, but even before he was out the offense was really struggling.

The defense has been great with Millsap in the lineup, so I’m trying to give them the benefit of the doubt here, but I think it’s fair at this point to question whether it was wise to hand Dennis Schroder the keys to the offense. While Jeff Teague wasn’t fantastic he was a steady veteran. Both Schroder and his backup Malcolm Delaney have been struggling mightily. With these two handling the ball the vast majority of the time only the Philadelphia 76ers are turning it over more frequently.

The issues don’t stop there. Only two players are making more than 33.3 percent of their 3-point shots, and $70 million man Kent Bazemore isn’t one of them. Atlanta is also 29th in the NBA in FT%, a symptom of Dwight Howard attempting 30 percent of their shots from the charity stripe. While these areas will likely improve to some degree, it’s time to start wondering whether Atlanta is even a playoff team a few weeks after they were neck-and-neck with Cleveland atop the East.

Tier 4 -

12. Miami Heat (7-13, .350)

13. Washington Wizards (6-12, .333)

14. Brooklyn Nets (5-14, .263)

15. Philadelphia 76ers (4-16, .200)

I don’t have much to say about these teams. Hassan Whiteside, John Wall, Brook Lopez and Joel Embiid are all fun and having really nice seasons. The players around them are incredibly bad. DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns feel their pain. These teams will all be in the ‘race’ for the top lottery odds.