Monday, April 21, 2014

The Indiana Pacers Better Wake Up




In what was certainly the biggest surprise of this weekend’s playoff action, the Atlanta Hawks went into Indiana and absolutely thumped the Pacers on their home floor, which raised many eyebrows across the league. Nobody was raising eyebrows about how good the Hawks played, but rather how poorly the Pacers played. Pacers star small forward Paul George had a decent outing with 24 points and 10 rebounds, but their center Roy Hibbert and power forward David West were terribly quiet, combining for 16 points and 11 rebounds. Their lackluster effort was truly alarming for a team that has home court advantage wrapped up until the NBA Finals. While it is true that Paul Millsap (25 points and 8 rebounds) and Jeff Teague (28 points and 5 assists) played extraordinarily well for the Hawks, their terrific play is still shadowed by how West and Hibbert both disappeared.


                                       (Image from indystar.com)  
I guess that what happens when you enter the playoffs as a sub-.500 team: Nobody respects you and everybody assumes if you succeed it’s because your opponent choked. The Hawks deserve more respect than they are getting, but it’s no question that the struggles of the Pacers is the bigger story here.

 The reason why this is such a big story is that the Pacers appear to be a case in which the mighty have suddenly fallen and cohesion has turned into chaos. The Pacers have gone from being everything that a team is supposed to be to being everything a team is not supposed to be. A year ago they were being praised for their hustle, defensive, and confidence and this year they have Charles Barkley calling them “wussies” on national television. Whatever the problem is for the Pacers, they better get things fixed fast, because if they don’t, they’ll find themselves out of the playoffs and back to the drawing board. 

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Eastern Conference Playoffs: First Round Predictions

I have now done my Western Conference preview, so now we're heading East!!



#1. Indiana Pacers (56-26) vs. #8 Atlanta Hawks (38-44)

As weak as the Pacers played down the stretch, they still hung on to the #1 seed in the East, which I think saved their season. As far as this series is concerned, I don't see the Hawks giving the Pacers much trouble. If the Hawks had Al Horford, this would be a different story, but then if they had Al Horford, they wouldn't be an 8th seed, either. The Pacers are simply much more talented and deep than the Hawks are. Now with that being said, the Hawks went 2-2 against the Pacers this season, so there is some cause for concern. In their 2 wins over the Pacers, Roy Hibbert stunk up the joint big time. He had 2 points in both games combined. If the Hawks want a chance to take out the Pacers, they need Roy Hibbert to be quiet, and the possibility of that happening isn't terribly low judging by how Hibbert has played recently. But even so, the Hawks' best player right now is Paul Millsap and the Pacers' best player is Paul George. Paul George has the edge over Millsap and then in addition to Hibbert, he has Lance Stephenson and David West to help him out as well. Millsap simply doesn't have that same kind of supporting cast to get the Hawks over the hump in this series. I expect the Pacers to win this series in 5 games.



#2. Miami Heat (54-28) vs. #7 Charlotte Bobcats (43-39)

Like the previous series, I don't think this series will be terribly close. On paper, the Bobcats could take 2 games off the Heat since Al Jefferson is playing as well as any big man in NBA, averaging 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per contest. In addition, he has a great point guard to play with in Kemba Walker, who is averaging 17.7 points per game and 6.1 assists per game. However, the reason why they won't win this series is because the Heat have LeBron James, who averages 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 6.4 assists per game. LeBron James is the best player on the planet, and no team has an answer for him except the Thunder who have Kevin Durant. The Bobcats have quality players, but nobody who can answer LeBron James. If you want me to further break things down, I can tell you that the Heat have Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Michael Beasley, Chris Andersen to throw at the Bobcats and the Bobcats have Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, and Josh McRoberts. The Heat win the supporting cast battle as well as the battle of stars. I do want to give the Bobcats more respect though. They do defend well and the play of Al Jefferson has been fantastic. But they simply don't have the horses to win this series. I've got the Heat winning this series in 5 games.




#3. Toronto Raptors (48-34) vs. #6 Brooklyn Nets (44-38)

This series is a tough one to call. The Raptors have home court advantage and probably have the more talented team since DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are easily the best two players in this series. However, they are inexperienced and the Nets have more depth and playoff experience on their roster since they have Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Andrei Kirilenko. These two teams split their season series, which further illustrates my point that this series is so hard to call.

What's ultimately going to decide this series in my opinion is how DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry play in crunch time as opposes to the veterans of the Nets. All these games will be close and so what's really going decide this series is whether a star is born in DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry. I'm looking at DeRozan to be the guy here since he leads the team in scoring with 22.7 points per game, but don't be shocked if Lowry takes over instead of DeRozan since he was having an all-star level season all year with his 17.9 points and 7.4 assists per game. Both guys are capable, but will either of them step up is the question. The role players for the Raptors are solid. I expect Greivis Vasquez to be solid at the point guard position and Tyler Hansbrough has playoff experience with the Pacers. He should always be good for a hard foul or two and some rebounds. But the bottom line is this comes down to the play of DeRozan and Lowry. Most people don't know a lot about these guys, but I have full faith in their ability to step up in this series and get the job done. I got the Raptors winning this series in 7 games.



#4. Chicago Bulls (48-34) vs. #5 Washington Wizards (44-38) 

It may come as a surprise to some, but the Wizards did win the season series against the Bulls 2-1, which is why everybody shouldn't exactly pencil in the Bulls as advancing to face the Pacers. The Wizards have a really good back court with John Wall (19.3 points and 8.8 assists per game) and Bradley Beal (17.1 points per game and 3.3 assists per game) that should give the Bulls a lot to handle. And then in the front court, the Wizards have Nene (14.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game) and Marcin Gortat a.k.a. The Polish Hammer (13.2 points and 9.5 rebounds per game). With both a solid front court and terrific back court, the Wizards are much better than people realize and they definitely have the horses to knock off the Bulls.

What the Bulls have over the Wizards is playoff experience, better coaching, and better defense. Their front court of Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson also gives them an edge over the Wizards' front court. But their back court is suspect. D.J. Augustin has been ok for them as has Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy, but it doesn't look too good next to Wall and Beal.

What probably hurts the Bulls the most in this series is that they don't have the best player in the series, and that is always a huge factor in every playoff series. The best player in this series is John Wall hands down. He's the one legitimate all-star in this whole series and if he plays like an all-star, the Wizards will win this series. Ultimately, I think he will, which is why I think the Wizards win this series in 6 games.

--Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Western Conference Playoffs 1st Round Predictions

The NBA Playoffs begin later today. After a grueling 82 game season, we finally have all 16 playoff teams figured out. I will begin by analyzing the various first round series' in the Western Conference and make my predictions!




#1 San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. #8 Dallas Mavericks (49-33)

This series has the making of being a very exciting and entertaining series, but upon doing some analysis of their regular season contests, I don't expect it to be one. The reason why is that in 3 out of the 4 Mavericks' losses to the Spurs this season, Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki collectively played really well.  Both players combine to average around 40 points per game with Ellis averaging around 5.7 assists and Nowtizki averaging 6.2 rebounds. In 3 of those 4 losses they combined for at least 39 points, which means that they played better than they did on average or at least as well. I wish I could say the key to this series is Nowitzki and Ellis stepping up for Dallas, but evidently that isn't enough for the Mavericks to threaten the Spurs. The only way the Mavericks scare the Spurs at all is if their bench and role players step up. That means that Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Vince Carter, Brandan Wright, and Devin Harris all have to collectively step up. If they all play well as a supporting cast for Ellis and Nowitzki, then the Mavericks could make things interesting by taking the Spurs to 6 games, but otherwise, I see the Spurs winning this series easy. It's amazing that this is the case considering that Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili are still the engines of this team despite being really old. Tony Parker is averaging 16.7 points and 5.7 assists per game this season; Tim Duncan is averaging 15.1 points and 9.7 rebounds; and Manu Ginobili is averaging 12.3 points and 4.3 assists per game. Their numbers are down, but the team collectively is as dangerous as ever. This is largely due to their supporting cast Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and Marco Belinelli playing really well along with their fantastic coaching from Gregg Popovich. The three of them combine for over 30 points per game, which nearly matches the offensive productivity of Ellis and Nowtizki, and then when you add the original "Big 3" of Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan to that, you get serious  trouble for any opposing team. My prediction for this series is that the Spurs win this series in 5 games.



#2 Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23) vs. #7 Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)

Before I go into analyzing this series, it should be noted that I currently cover the Memphis Grizzlies for BealeStreetBears.com, which is a part of the Fansided network. The reason I'm mentioning this is that it could explain my bias in this series. It should also be noted that I wrote an article on there that said that if the Grizzlies should hope to face any team in the first round of the playoffs, it should be the Oklahoma City Thunder. The reason why I see the Thunder as a favorable match up for the Grizzlies is simply because they have the defense to slow down Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant; the post presence in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to beat the Thunder on the glass inside; and they also have Mike Miller and Courtney Lee to stretch the floor. I suggest you read the full article, which I hyperlinked above to get more detail on why I like this matchup for the Grizzlies.

With that being said, Kevin Durant has been the MVP of the entire NBA all season. Slowing him down will be no easy task and stopping him will be impossible. If he goes bananas, the Grizzlies are done for. But the concern I have for the Thunder is that I think they need Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to play at an even higher level in the playoffs. They don't have James Harden anymore and they don't have Kevin Martin anymore either. The addition of Caron Butler is nice, but it doesn't make up for the absence of having that legit third scoring threat in the back court.

I personally really like the Grizzlies' chances of knocking out the Thunder and after saying that they should hope to draw the Thunder in the playoffs, I'm going to put my money where my mouth is and pick the Grizzlies to take out the Thunder in 7 games. If you think I'm crazy, my man Ken Newhouse from BealeStreetBears.com agrees with me. Read his article here for a second argument for why the Grizzlies will take out the Thunder.



#3. Los Angeles Clippers (57-21) vs. #6. Golden State Warriors (51-31)

Now this is a series that I can't wait to see! I think I can speak for all NBA fans when I say that this is the most exciting first round series of the playoffs for the simple reason that the over/under for number of punches thrown in this series is around 5. These two teams HATE each other and they both are like mad dogs locked up in a cage just ready to go after each other. In addition to the real possibility of blood being spilt, what makes this series fascinating are the individual matchups: The Clippers have the best point guard in basketball in Chris Paul and the Warriors have the best 3-point shooting point guard the NBA has ever seen in Stephen Curry. The Clippers have the high-flying power forward Blake Griffin and the Warriors have the finesse power forward David Lee. The Clippers have J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford as additional offensive weapons to stretch the floor and the Warriors have Klay Thompson who is the second coming of Reggie Miller, Harrison Barnes who is an extremely athletic wing man to attack the basket, and Andre Iguodala who is a fantastic perimeter defender and always good for a clutch bucket. When you look at these two teams, it's clear that they are pretty close to being evenly matched.

What gives the Clippers the edge in this series is that they have DeAndre Jordan healthy and the Warriors are without Andrew Bogut who is out indefinitely with a rib injury. If the Warriors had Bogut healthy, I would love to pick them to take out the Clippers, but I just don't see the Warriors doing it without him. Especially since the Clippers have home court advantage. I'm picking the Clippers to win this series in 6 games.



#4. Houston Rockets (54-28) vs. #5. Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)

#4 vs. #5 matchups are always impossible to predict accurately in the NBA. It's like the #8 vs. #9 matchups in the NCAA Tournament. Flip a coin and move on. But I can't just flip a coin for you and tell you my prediction! I need to give you some things to look for in this very exciting series. First off, watching the back court battle between Damian Lillard of the Trail Blazers and James Harden of the Rockets should be exciting to watch. Harden is averaging 25.4 points per game and 6.1 assists and Lillard is averaging 20.7 points per game and 5.6 assists. I'm looking very much forward to watching both of these guys deliver one blow after another to each other. The front court matchup between Dwight Howard of the Rockets and LaMarcus Aldridge of the Trail Blazers should also be fun to watch. Howard is averaging 18.3 points and 12.2 rebounds per game and Aldridge is averaging 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. I think it's clear that while the Rockets have the back court advantage with Harden, the Trail Blazers have the front court advantage with Aldridge.

However, not enough of an advantage for it neutralize the James Harden advantage that the Rockets have. The Rockets are 3-1 against the Trail Blazers this season, and over the course of their 4 games against each other, Dwight Howard has actually played considerably better than he does on average with games in which he scored 29 points and 32 points. That doesn't mean the Rockets will win this series, but it does mean that the Trail Blazers need more to neutralize the James Harden advantage and the superior play of Howard against them. What neutralizes all that in my opinion is the role players of the Trail Blazers. Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, and Mo Williams are better than Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, and Terrence Jones. Those guys especially play well at home. If the Trail Blazers get the split in Houston, look for them to take this series. I think they will succeed at this and end up winning the series in 6 games.

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Playoffs Start Now For Miami And Indiana

                                                 (Image from: nba.si.com) 

With the NBA playoffs starting in only a couple of weeks, we are entering the time of year in which regular season games suddenly appear to matter.   I say "appear" only because all games in the regular season matter equally as far as the standings are concerned. It isn't as if winning in April magically is worth two wins whereas a win in November is only worth one win. But it is fair to say that the effect of winning and losing is noticed much more strongly at this time of year. With that in mind, I will address the current state of the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, two teams which are the clear powerhouses of the Eastern Conference. People try and talk up the Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, and even the Toronto Raptors and try to convince us that those three teams might make the NBA Finals or at least knock off either the Pacers or the Heat en route to the Eastern Conference Finals. I will try and set the record straight for all of you who are getting confused by this idle chatter.

The Eastern Conference isn't a three horse race, a four horse race, and not a five horse race. It is a two horse race between the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat, and all the other six teams that will make the Eastern Conference Playoffs are just there for show. None of them have any remote chance of reaching the NBA Finals or even getting past either the Heat or Pacers.  I think that what will likely decide the projected Heat-Pacers series in the Eastern Conference Finals is home court advantage. Since the only way for the Heat and Pacers to affect who gets home court advantage is to win games between now and the end of the regular season, I argue that as far as the Heat and Pacers are concerned, the playoffs start now.

Both of these teams have been struggling as of late. The Heat went 10-8 during the month of March and the Pacers went 8-10, which included a 4 game losing skid, and concluded on a 3 game losing skid which continues as they roll into April. While the Heat are instead on a 3 game winning streak instead of a 3 game losing skid, lets not kid ourselves and ignore the fact that they too have been playing poorly during this past month. The bottom line is that both teams played in the month of March like they didn't care anymore about the regular season, but the irony of it is that this is the time of year that they should be playing their hardest to win games.

As it stands now, both teams are tied in the standings, with the Pacers having played 2 more games than the Heat. That means that the Heat have more games to get things sorted out and the Pacers have fewer games to do so. Which ever team has a better month of April will get the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, which means that the route to the NBA Finals will go through their building. If the Miami Heat get the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, we might as well send them straight to the NBA Finals. I don't see any way that the Indiana Pacers get to the NBA Finals without home court advantage. Especially since they have been playing like absolute garbage during the past month. What's worse is that the Pacers had the home court advantage and booted it away due to what Roy Hibbert calls their own selfishness. That selfishness was manifested the other night when George Hill and Lance Stephenson had to be separated from each other on the bench because they were squabbling over something petty. The only thing at this point that can prevent the Pacers' problems from trickling into their post-season play is if they still hang on and get the #1 seed. If the Pacers get the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, then the Pacers can mentally hit the reset button. They can all give each other a big group hug, sing "Kumbaya" around a campfire, and get over the problems if they get the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They can still feel like they accomplished their goal and have had a successful regular season if they hang on to the top spot. More importantly, they can still feel confident in their ability to reach the NBA Finals and fend off the Heat. Especially since the last time the Heat came into their building, they came out victorious.

In order for the Heat to steal the #1 seed from the Pacers, they are going to need LeBron James to play like the MVP during the month of April. He's so dominant that if he plays like his MVP self, I don't see any way the Pacers hang on to the #1 seed. As for the Pacers, since they don't have that definitive superstar like LeBron James, it's going to have to be a group effort on their part. I know Paul George is their "superstar" and he can play like one in stretches, but his play isn't consistent enough that one can bank on him to play like a superstar every night. Hence, it needs to be a group effort on the Pacers' part. In addition to Paul George playing well, they need Roy Hibbert, David West, George Hill, and Lance Stephenson to all play better. If all those guys play well for the Pacers (which means they get over their problems in the locker room), then the Pacers will have a chance to re-right the ship and reclaim the #1 seed in the East.

                                              (image from: bballbreakdown.com)

As I said in the beginning, the playoffs begin now for both of these teams. Unlike the stat freaks at ESPN who only give the team with home court advantage a 53% chance at winning this projected series, I think the percentages are much higher. What those stats might be tapping into is that getting home court gives one team only a slight advantage over the other, but lets not kid ourselves and act like a slight advantage is nothing. A slight advantage for one team over the other is huge in this series, which is why I think if the Heat get home court advantage the odds of them winning the Eastern Conference Finals is around 85%. As for the Pacers, if they get home court advantage, I put the odds that they win around 60%. Bottom line is if the Heat get home court advantage, they're going back to the NBA Finals. If the Pacers get home court advantage, they have a shot and should be favored. With these numbers in mind, I think it should be obvious that the Pacers and Heat should treat each remaining game in the regular season like it is a playoff game. They'll have no trouble winning their opening round series and only have maybe a little bit of trouble in their second round series. They can use those series' to rest a little bit and catch their breath, but the games that they shouldn't  be taking off and not worrying about are these final few games of the regular season.

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Will Phil Jackson Turn The Knicks Into A Serious Contender?

                                                    (image from npr.org) 

     Phil Jackson is known for being one of the most brilliant basketball minds of all-time. He has 11 NBA Championship rings as a head coach, and has coached the greatest players in the game, coaching Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on the Bulls in the 1990s and Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant on the Lakers in the 2000s. Championship success seems to ooze out of him like a fine white wine oozes out of grapes. He has this almost mystical aura about him that seems to be a magnet for success. Nobody else seems to have that aura, and yet everybody wants it. That is why the New York Knicks have decided to hire Phil Jackson as their President of Basketball Operations. They hope that with Phil Jackson running the ship, they too will have some of that championship magic rub off on their own organization. It should be noted that Phil Jackson played for the Knicks during his time as an NBA player and also was a member of their only two NBA Championship teams, which won the NBA Finals in 1970 and 1973. The Knicks hope that in his return to the Big Apple more championships will follow. While one can't guarantee that Phil Jackson will bring championships to the Knicks, one can be confident that he'll put the team in a great position to contend for a title.
     The reason why I'm confident he will have a such an impact on the Knicks is because he has had a powerful impact everywhere he has gone. If he had a powerful impact on both the Bulls and Lakers, why doubt his ability to have a similar impact on the Knicks? Plus, both the Bulls and Lakers were in similar boats as the Knicks are right now before he started coaching them. Both teams had a talented super star who needed proper coaching, and the Knicks have that same kind of player in Carmelo Anthony. I'm not saying that Carmelo Anthony is Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, but I am saying that he is a talented player who certainly could be molded into a championship player with the right pieces around him. I am confident in Phil Jackson's abilities to know what Carmelo Anthony needs around him to succeed.
    Phil Jackson is sure to know what Carmel Anthony needs around him because he has both coached superstars like Carmelo Anthony and also been around great front offices who put together quality teams around their superstars.  Phil Jackson knows that the key to Michael Jordan winning 6 championships was more than just having Scottie Pippen as his right hand man. They key was having guys like John Paxson, Horace Grant, and Dennis Rodman around him to fulfill niche roles. Phil Jackson should be able to find guys to fulfill similar roles on the Knicks with Carmelo Anthony as the centerpiece.
     It's no guarantee that Phil Jackson delivers a championship to the New York Knicks, but it can almost certainly be a guarantee that he'll do a great job and put them in a great position to win a title in 3-5 years. Remember, unlike other guys who have taken a stab at being general managers, Phil Jackson has already been in management as a coach and on top of that he has been around great front offices for many many years. Those who say this is a risky hire don't understand that the resume he has to succeed at this job is actually very strong.

----Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

With A New Team In Chicago, It Is Time For Jimmer Fredette To Produce

                                               image from: nba.si.com 

It is no secret that Jimmer Fredette had a rocky time during his days with the Sacramento Kings. Ever since his rookie season, it had been more than obvious that the Kings didn't want him around. The blossoming of young point guard Isaiah Thomas was one of the earliest signs that this team didn't want him around, but even aside from that, they never really gave him a chance to shine and do his thing which is score the basketball. But now that he is out of California's state capital and on a new team with the Chicago Bulls, he can put those ugly days in Sacramento to rest and start afresh in the Windy City. While it may take a little bit of time for Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to break Jimmer Fredette into the rotation, Jimmer's stop in Chicago is an opportunity for him to show that the Kings made a mistake in giving up on him, and prove that he belongs in the NBA has one of the better scorers in the game. If he can't establish that in Chicago, he may be forced to face the music that he is destined to be a bench warmer for the rest of his career.

The main reason I say this is because Chicago should be a great fit for him. The Bulls need scoring, 3-point shooting, and also depth at the point guard position without Derrick Rose. Plus, the Bulls defend so well that they should be able to mask Jimmer's one weakness which is on-the-ball defending. If the Bulls can't find Jimmer a comfortable role on their team with their needs and also their primary strength, it's gonna look really bad for Jimmer Fredette going forward.

Now as to what I think will happen, I think that Jimmer Fredette will eventually find a nice little role on this team. I don't say "little" to make it come off like he won't do much, but "little" as in he will fulfill his small role nicely which is to come off the bench and score in addition to running the point. D.J. Augustin and Kirk Hinrich are the only capable point guards on the Bulls right now, which should mean that Jimmer Fredette will eventually see some solid minutes at the point guard position. Hinrich and Augustin are good enough that if Jimmer struggles, they will take over the point position without him if needed, but Tom Thibodeau would love to give those guys more rest if Jimmer Fredette could produce. That is why I think Jimmer will get a fair shot with the Bulls, which thus means I think he will succeed. Getting a fair shot is all that Jimmer has needed and now that he will get one on the Bulls, I expect him to succeed and prove himself capable of helping out other teams in the future should he not end up on the Bulls for the long term.

In conclusion, Jimmer Fredette has a golden opportunity to prove himself in Chicago and put his rocky past in Sacramento behind him. He is on a good team with a good coach who has the resources he needs to succeed and also the need for a player like him to come along. Chicago on paper should be a nice fit for Jimmer, which is why now is the time for Jimmer Fredette to produce and prove to the NBA who he actually is.

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Monday, February 17, 2014

All-Star Break Power Rankings


I haven't done Power Rankings in a while, but don't fear, they're back in time for the All-Star Break! Here is how all the teams stack up at the All-Star Break!

1. Oklahoma City Thunder (43-12): The Thunder are playing the best basketball of any team in the NBA right now, and what's scary is that they're doing this without the help of Russell Westbrook, who may be back this Thursday. Kevin Durant is averaging 31.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game and is hands down the MVP of the NBA this season. If he is able to play like this with a healthy Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are going to be the team to beat in the Western Conference.

2. Indiana Pacers (40-12): The Pacers are in the bottom third in points per game (98.5) and yet they are #1 in the NBA in average point differential (+8.2). That speaks to their defensive ability and in my opinion makes them the #1 defense in the NBA hands down. If they can secure home court in the Eastern Conference, I expect Paul George to take the Pacers all the way to the NBA Finals in June.

3. Miami Heat (37-14): LeBron James' game winner in Oakland to beat the Warriors sort of was his way of saying "Don't forget what I can do!" when it comes to being a guy who can close games. He may not be winning MVP this season, but he still is the best player in the NBA and will once again be the only guy that stands in the way of the Pacers and a championship. The road to a title still goes through Miami until somebody knocks them off.

4. Houston Rockets (36-17): Before the season started, the Rockets were viewed by many as a sleeper pick to win the West. Now that they've won 7 straight games, with wins over the Spurs, Mavericks, and Suns, the Rockets may be starting to find their stride at the right time.

5. San Antonio Spurs (38-15):  The Spurs are quietly still a top 5 team in the NBA, and are currently the #2 team in the West behind the Thunder. By quietly I mean very quietly. Like a ninja sneaking through a dark forest kinda quiet. Don't be shocked if they pounce on everybody in the West and once  again reach the Finals.

6. Los Angeles Clippers (37-18): Chris Paul is back and they hardly missed a beat with him gone. That has to greatly concern their other Western Conference foes.

7. Portland Trail Blazers (36-17): In the past month they've fallen to the Rockets, Thunder, Warriors, Grizzlies, Wizards, Pacers, and Clippers. I'm not saying they aren't contenders, but they gotta start getting some wins over those teams before the playoffs start to regain some confidence.

8. Phoenix Suns (30-21): At some point you just gotta say that this team isn't a fluke and that there is something to their success. They still may miss the playoffs, but it won't be because they were a fluke. This team is good, and I expect Goran Dragic to play with a chip on his shoulder as a result of getting snubbed from the All-Star Game. Ironically, getting snubbed may end up doing the Suns more good than had he made the team.

9. Golden State Warriors (31-22): The Warriors have a better record at this point of the season than they did last season, so I'm not sure why Mark Jackson's seat is "hot". I'm confused.

10. Memphis Grizzlies (29-23): This team is just waiting to get everybody back healthy. Specifically Mike Conley, Jr. and Tony Allen. It'll be interesting to see if this team makes any more trades before the deadline or if the are confident that they can make some noise with what they have.

11. Dallas Mavericks (32-22): Old man Dirk Nowitzki is still playing really well, earning another All-Star Game appearance thanks to his 21.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. He and Monta Ellis certainly seem to be forming a solid one-two punch.

12. Chicago Bulls (27-25): For the second year in a row this team faces an uphill battle without Derrick Rose and they'll once again make the playoffs and probably win a series because they simply play harder than their opponents. Make no mistake, trading Luol Deng wasn't waiving the white flag, it was actually just allowing room for the arrival of Nikola Mirotic, who has been playing really well in Spain for Real Madrid. This team won't go down without a fight.

13. Toronto Raptors (28-24): Due to the horrible nature of the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division specifically, the Raptors suddenly realize they are actually sorta kinda a contender since they are leading their division. As a result, Kyle Lowry probably stays past the trade deadline unless somebody really gives them an offer that they can't refuse.

14. Atlanta Hawks (26-27): The acquisition of Paul Millsap truly has been mutually beneficial both for Millsap and the Hawks. Millsap gets an All-Star appearance and the Hawks get a guy who can keep the team motoring along without Al Horford. This team won't make any noise in the playoffs, but they should feel good having Paul Millsap locked up for the foreseeable future.

15. Washington Wizards (25-27): This really isn't that bad of a team. John Wall and Bradley Beal are forming a fantastic young back court and Nene is a solid guy in the front court. What nobody is talking about though is how disappointing Otto Porter, Jr. has been (1.6 points, 1.5 rebounds, and .4 assists). The dude was supposed to be the most "NBA ready" rookie in the draft class of 2013.

16. Minnesota Timberwolves (25-28): In my previous blog post, I suggested the Timberwolves strike a deal with the Suns that would get Kevin Love off their hands in exchange for some nice assets. I don't think it will happen, but if the Wolves had any brains, they'd pull the trigger on such a deal.

17. Charlotte Bobcats (23-30): I still think this is a team capable of being above .500 if they can stay healthy. The Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Al Jefferson, and Gerald Henderson quartette is actually pretty solid especially in the East. They currently sit as the #8 seed in the Eastern Conference, but don't be shocked if they gain a little ground and catch the Hawks to get into that #5 spot.

18. Brooklyn Nets (24-27): Their ceiling remains rather limited with Brook Lopez done for the year, but I'm happy to see them wake up and start playing decent basketball. They'll make the playoffs without a doubt, and possibly win a series if they can avoid the #7 or #8 spot.

19. New Orleans Pelicans (23-29): The team itself may not be very good, but Anthony Davis sure is. They have to like their future purely because they have him. Now they just need to figure out if the want to hang on to both Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans. Of course, the absence of Jrue Holiday hasn't helped so perhaps they'll just wanna see what they got for the rest of the year and not make any trades at the deadline.

20. Denver Nuggets (24-27): The Nuggets banishing Andre Miller has to be one of the weirdest stories in all of sports right now and certainly the strangest story in the NBA this season. Nate Robinson has torn his ACL, Danilo Gallinari is done for the year due to his ACL, JaVale McGee is likely done for the year due to the stress fracture in his leg, and the team still won't bring back Andre Miller. They also are thinking about trading Kenneth Faried. I don't know where in heaven's name this team is going, but it certainly doesn't look promising.

21. Detroit Pistons (22-30): I don't think Mo Cheeks deserved to be fired. The reality is that management overpaid for Josh Smith and have put together a team that doesn't properly suit the talents of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond who are forming a very formidable front court.

22. Utah Jazz (19-33): Since Trey Burke's return from his hand injury, the Jazz are playing close to .500 ball on the year. They certainly seem to have found their franchise point guard and in the process have quality pieces around him. This team should take comfort in knowing that failing to get a top 3 or even top 5 pick in this upcoming draft wouldn't be the end of the world.

23. New York Knicks (20-32): The Knicks should feel embarrassed about their poor performance this season. Andrea Bargnani was obviously a waste of money and the acquisition of Metta World Peace was truly a dud.

24. Cleveland Cavaliers (20-33): This whole franchise is a train-wreck and it starts with their moronic owner Dan Gilbert. I don't see Kyrie Irving sticking with this team. Not because of the city or the fans, but because of Gilbert and his idiotic behavior.

25. Boston Celtics (19-35): They clearly need Rajon Rondo to be healthy. This team is running on fumes.

26. Los Angeles Lakers (18-35): Being lottery bound might be the best thing for this team for the future. Goodbye Kobe Bryant, hello Jabari Parker?

27. Sacramento Kings (18-35): DeMarcus Cousins is the only reason for this team to have any faith in a prosperous future.

28. Orlando Magic (16-38): They're heading for a top 5 pick it looks like, which for them wouldn't be all that bad.

29. Philadelphia 76ers (15-39): They are likely going to trade either Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, or Thaddeus Young for draft picks. Possibly all three or at least a couple of them. This team is looking to build around Michael Carter-Williams and hopefully Nerlens Noel.

30. Milwaukee Bucks (9-43): This team is so bad that they truly deserve the #1 pick. This city needs a basketball B12 shot in their arms, and getting the #1 pick would do the trick.

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord