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January 19, 2009
Prospectus Hoops List
Week of January 19, 2009

by Bradford Doolittle

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On Tuesday night, the NBA season will reach its midpoint: Game number 615. There are a pair of 9 p.m. tipoffs that night--Minnesota at Utah and Sacramento at Denver. When one of those games ends, the 2008-09 regular season will be 50% complete. How quickly they grow up.

With that in mind, I've fashioned this week's Hoops List as a first-half overview for each team. While reading through the recaps, however, don't lose sight of the rankings. In particular, check out the surging Orlando Magic. Orlando has been in the league's top five for a month now, and the gap between the Magic and the NBA's previous big three of the Lakers, Celtics and Cavaliers narrows with each passing week. This week, for the first time all season, Orlando's power rating has edged up over the 60 mark that is a sure-fire signifier of a title contender.

Orlando's surge also sets up a great matchup for this Thursday, when the champion Celtics pay a visit to the Magic. We're halfway done, but not nearly halfway done having fun with what is shaping up as a terrific NBA season.

RANK (Last Week) Team (Power rating) [ WIN PACE / PYTHAGOREAN PACE / PRESEASON PROJECTION ]

(Statistics through Jan. 18)

1. (1) Cleveland Cavaliers (65.8) [ 66 / 70 / 44 ]
Rankings: NET: 1; OFF: 2; DEF: 1; PACE: 25

The acquisition of Mo Williams during the offseason was nice, but does that really account for the gigantic leap the Cavaliers have made during the season's first half? Nah, there is something else going on here. The Cavaliers are the reigning top team on the Hoops List because LeBron James has made the subtle yet crucial transition from being one of the game's best players to being the unquestioned top player on the planet. He's better on defense, first of all, though his play on that end of the court was underappreciated anyway. No, you can't really point to any one thing that James has improved upon. In fact, statistically, you almost have to look at the improvement of the likes of Delonte West, Williams and Anderson Varejao for evidence of his ascension. At 24, he has developed an almost Magic Johnson-like ability to make his teammates better. Cleveland can't let up, though. The Cavs lead the East in winning percentage but actually are a half-game back of the Magic in the standings. The Celtics are nipping at both teams' heels. The top seed would obviously be huge for Cleveland: The Cavs are 20-0 are home. However, to maintain their lofty position, James and company are going to have to battle through injuries to starters West and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Bad timing, too, as the schedule ahead is tougher than the schedule behind. Cleveland is likely to fall short of its 67-win pace (70 according to Pythagoras), probably landing in the 62-63 win range. That would be an easy No. 1 seed most seasons, but maybe not this one.

2. (2) Los Angeles Lakers (62.7) [ 65 / 61 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 4; OFF: 1; DEF: 5; PACE: 4

Like the Celtics, the Lakers got off to a start that at one point had all and sundry proclaiming the Lakers as the unquestioned heir to the NBA throne. Even after a back-to-Earth period, L.A. is still far and away the best team in the West. The Lakers are in an excellent position, with a relatively easy path to the Finals before them while three beasts are sharpening their proverbial teeth in the East. With plenty of depth at his disposal, the second half for Phil Jackson will about keeping his frontliners fresh for the postseason.

3. (3) Boston Celtics (62.3) [ 64 / 65 / 63 ]
Rankings: NET: 3; OFF: 6; DEF: 2; PACE: 17

In one sense, the Celtics have performed exactly as projected. NBAPET forecast the champions for 63 wins. They're on pace to win 64, so the big picture is not a surprise. The manner that they've gotten to this point, however, raises an eyebrow or two. Boston opened 27-2 and looked a team hellbent on a repeat. After 19-game winning streak ended on the road against the Lakers on Christmas Day, the Celtics fell into a funk. Boston dropped seven of nine games, prompting a wave of "What's wrong with the Celtics?" articles across the NBA media landscape. Boston has won four straight since then to right the ship, but the damage has been done. Instead of being the clear-cut favorite in the Eastern Conference that they appeared to be, Boston is currently looking up at Cleveland and Orlando in the conference standings. The Celtics begin the second half with four tough games: Phoenix at home, Miami and Orlando on the road, then Dallas back at the Garden. Thursday's showdown at Orlando could be the game of the season so far, if it can manage to top Orlando's win in Los Angeles last Friday. Rajon Rondo has been the story on the roster, raising his game from supporting player to borderline All-Star. Overlooked has been the campaign posted by Ray Allen, who has been the Celtics' best player despite being the oldest of the veteran big three. During the second half, Danny Ainge will try to shore up a disappointing Boston bench with another scorer and a shot-blocking big man.

4. (4) Orlando Magic (60.3) [ 66 / 63 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 2; OFF: 5; DEF: 3; PACE: 10

What can you say? Orlando enters the second half playing better than any team in the NBA. The Magic have won its last seven and is 29-5 since starting the season 4-3. There are a couple of red flags on Orlando's dossier, however. The Magic has played the league easiest schedule in terms of opponent winning percentage, plus Orlando is 8-3 in close games. However, Stan Van Gundy's team has played 22 of 41 games on the road and is a league-best 17-5 away from home. This team is a legitimate contender to win it all. There are two areas where the Magic have improved. First, point guard Jameer Nelson has been playing as well as anyone at his position save for Chris Paul. Second, Orlando has developed a semblance of depth, with a four-headed solution at two-guard and a productive big-man bench tandem in Tony Battie and Marcin Gortat. The only thing that makes you nervous about the Magic is the degree to which their success depends upon outside shooting, with Nelson in particular setting a pace that will be hard to maintain. Nevertheless, those who take it for granted that Cleveland and Boston are on a collision course for the Eastern Conference final do so at their own peril.

5. (5) New Orleans Hornets (54.2) [ 53 / 50 / 45 ]
Rankings: NET: 7; OFF: 9; DEF: 13; PACE: 29

The kum-ba-ya aspect of last year's Hornets has given way to Chris Paul's one-man show. That's not in anyway to suggest that Paul has become selfish. The regression of David West, Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler has simply compelled Paul to take on an even larger share of the load this season. He's been up to the task; if it weren't for the season being enjoyed by LeBron James, Paul would be a runaway MVP candidate. As it is, Paul can only take the Hornets so far on his own. The West/Peja/Chandler trio has to rediscover last season's chemistry or the Hornets will not get out of the first round of the playoffs.

6. (7) Denver Nuggets (53.2) [ 54 / 49 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 6; OFF: 10; DEF: 9; PACE: 5

No team has remade its image more successfully than the Nuggets, in large part to the trade that swapped out Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups. Denver has improved to ninth in defensive efficiency and is on pace to win 54 games, putting them in the mix to grab the No. 2 seed in the West. Carmelo Anthony has drawn praise for his commitment on the defensive end, but right now, the Nuggets just need him to get back on the court. 'Melo has been off his game on the offensive end and if he can regain his health and shooting touch, the Nuggets will be in great shape entering the postseason.

7. (6) Portland Trail Blazers (52.6) [ 49 / 48 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 9; OFF: 3; DEF: 23; PACE: 30

Everything seems to have gone well for the ultra-talented Blazers. Brandon Roy has ascended to star status. LaMarcus Aldrige is a worthy running mate. Rookies Rudy Fernandez, Greg Oden, Nicholas Batum and, lately, Jerryd Bayless have all shown signs that they can be very good players in the NBA. The future is indeed bright in Portland. What about the present? The Blazers have hovered around the Nos. 4-6 slots in the Hoops List all season, which tends to cloud the fact that Portland is actually the current seventh seed in the West and only one game away from dropping off the West bracket altogether. As the Blazers continue to grow, the second-half prognosis is excellent. Portland has 24 of its last 42 games at the Rose Garden and in terms of opponents' winning percentage, the Blazers have the league's easiest slate the rest of the way.

8. (9) Houston Rockets (49.7) [ 50 / 49 / 61 ]
Rankings: NET: 12; OFF: 17; DEF: 4; PACE: 21

NBAPET forecast the Rockets to win 63 games and to face the Celtics in the NBA Finals. While analyst/broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy still agrees with that assessment of the Rockets, the projection is on shaky ground. Houston is on pace to win 50 games and all of its underlying indicators suggest that the pace is appropriate for this roster. The problem is that the core trio of Ron Artest, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady has had limited availability and there is nothing to suggest that situation will improve. Daryl Morey has assembled a deep group of supporting players for Rick Adelman to work with, but if the big three aren't on the court and playing to their potential, then a championship run is out of the question. McGrady may not be able to regain his former status, worn down by his string of injury problems. If that's the case, the Rockets are looking at another first-round exit.

9. (11) San Antonio Spurs (48.7) [ 54 / 49 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 8; OFF: 11; DEF: 6; PACE: 26

Through misery comes self-discovery. I'm sure Gregg Popovich proferred some similar sage sentiment when the Spurs limped to an 0-4 start and a sluggish first quarter of the season with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili struggling with injuries. That duo is back and playing well, while constant Tim Duncan never wavered. Meanwhile, Roger Mason and George Hill gained the confidence of coach Pop, who has also recognized that the charms of Bruce Bowen are, at this stage, best put on display in snippets. Matt Bonner and Michael Finley have also contributed in larger-than-expected roles. During the second half, Popovich will continue to sort out his backup big man options in Fabricio Oberto, Kurt Thomas and newcomer Austin Croshere, but the Spurs have as good of a chance as anyone to challenge the Lakers in the West. For one more year, at least, it's business as usual in San Antonio.

10. (8) Atlanta Hawks (47.7) [ 48 / 45 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 11; OFF: 7; DEF: 16; PACE: 24

The projections foresaw the Hawks backsliding just a bit back into the NBA abyss from whence they came during last season's playoff campaign. Instead, Atlanta has become a resurgent franchise, on target for a top-four seed in the East and playing before large, enthusiastic home crowds. Fueling the momentum has been the play of Joe Johnson, 27, who is enjoying a career season that has him No. 7 in the WP82 rankings. His running mate, Mike Bibby, continues to play well and the Hawks haven't even seen the best of what they can expect from Josh Smith, who has battled some physical problems during the first half. There is nothing in the Hawks' profile that cries "Fluke!" and if they can get that No. 4 seed, their homecourt advantage makes them a good bet to get to the second round for the first time since 1998-99.

11. (12) Phoenix Suns (47.1) [ 49 / 46 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 10; OFF: 4; DEF: 22; PACE: 9

It's a new style in Phoenix. More defense--in theory. Less offense--in theory. A more balanced approach suitable to the postseason--in theory. In practice: The Suns are an ancient team, still the NBA's best shooting outfit, with a lofty ranking in offensive efficiency (fourth) and the usual accompanying iffy ranking on the defensive end (22nd). The tempo has picked up after a slow start, but the wins haven't necessarily followed suit. Let's face it: This is a very old team by NBA standards and not very deep. The Suns are not a sure bet to make the playoffs.

12. (10) Utah Jazz (47.0) [ 48 / 50 / 50 ]
Rankings: NET: 5; OFF: 8; DEF: 8; PACE: 12

No team has been more affected by injuries than the Jazz. First it was Deron Williams, who is only just now rounding into shape. Then it was Carlos Boozer, and who knows when he will return. Now, it's Boozer's worthy replacement, Paul Millsap. Still, through it all, Utah sports a 16-4 home record and is the current No. 8 seed in the West, with the Mavericks right behind. At some point, available talent is going to outweigh the effectiveness of Jerry Sloan's system, so a return to health by all the key players is essential if the Jazz are going to regain its contender status this season. Frankly, right now, that seems like a long shot.

13. (13) Dallas Mavericks (44.0) [ 47 / 45 / 51 ]
Rankings: NET: 13; OFF: 12; DEF: 15; PACE: 15

The Mavericks projected to win 51 games; they're on pace to win 47, further evidence of a team that is slowly receding into mediocrity. With the team's core all on the wrong side of 30, this is still a playoff team, but is no longer a championship contender. Thus, it's time for the long process of tearing down and rebuilding. However, does Mark Cuban recognize the situation and does he have the patience for it?

14. (18) Philadelphia 76ers (42.7) [ 41 / 43 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 16; OFF: 22; DEF: 7; PACE: 16

After signing Elton Brand, the consensus was that the 76ers would leap into the upper crust of the East and become a darkhorse to challenge the Celtics and rekindle the Boston/Philadelphia rivalries of yore. Instead, Philadelphia is repeating the season it put together last year. Maurice Cheeks re-built his system around Brand who, while a nice player, is not really the kind of player you rebuild your system around. The result was a 13-20 start and a trip to the unemployment line for Cheeks. Brand never got comfortable, ranking 157th in WP82, and eventually went on the shelf with a torn labrum. In his absence, the Sixers have gone 9-6 and they enter the second half with a seven-game winning streak to get back to .500 under interim coach Tony DiLeo. During the streak, DiLeo has been using the lineup and the style of play that worked so well for the 76ers last season. The key to the second half will be how well DiLeo is able to re-integrate Brand into the mix once he comes back from his injury. We'll assume the lesson has been learned and that the Sixers should be a solid bet for the sixth or seventh seed in the East. They won't be an easy out for whoever they play in the first round--which may turn out to be the Celtics.

15. (16) Miami Heat (42.2) [ 45 / 41 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 15; OFF: 19; DEF: 10; PACE: 19

Dwyane Wade has put to rest suggestions that he is on the Penny Hardaway career path, and instead has rediscovered the path to the Hall of Fame. As a result, Miami (22-18) has already won seven more games than it did all of last season. Helping Wade has been stellar rookie point guard Mario Chalmers, who should get some Rookie of the Year support before the season is done. New coach Erik Spoelstra still needs to get Michael Beasley acclimated to both the NBA level and to the defensive end of the court. Meanwhile, Pat Riley needs to figure out what to do with backsliding forward Shawn Marion while the Matrix still has some trade value. The Heat still have holes--including limited center Joel Anthony--but the future is infinitely brighter than it was a year ago and no matter what seed Miami ends up with in the playoffs, facing Wade at his peak will not be an enviable first-round task for any of the big boys in the East.

16. (15) Milwaukee Bucks (40.7) [ 38 / 42 / 31 ]
Rankings: NET: 14; OFF: 18; DEF: 12; PACE: 14

Milwaukee entered the season as a franchise much in need of a paradigm shift, and that's exactly what new coach Scott Skiles has given the Bucks. Milwaukee was a dreadful defensive team last season, worst in the league, but with a couple of new players and Skiles' disciplinarian demeanor, the Bucks have improved to 12th in defensive efficiency. Former Net Richard Jefferson has helped fuel the improvement on that end of the floor, as has rookie Luc Mbah a Moute. Other Bucks who have come into their own include point guard Ramon Sessions and center Andrew Bogut. However, Skiles has been slow to recognize what he has in Sessions who, in fact, is a player a lot like Skiles was in his heyday. Instead, Sessions has been caddying for Luke Ridnour. Rumors have been flying that Milwaukee will unload Sessions and rookie Joe Alexander on Memphis for Michael Conley Jr., which seems like an awful lot of talent to surrender from the Bucks' perspective. Right now, Milwaukee is 20-23 despite having played just 18 of 43 games at home. Barring an ill-advised trade, the Bucks are a good bet to return to the playoffs for first time since 2005-06.

17. (14) Detroit Pistons (40.7) [ 46 / 40 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 17; OFF: 21; DEF: 11; PACE: 28

Joe Dumars raised the white flag on the Chauncey Billups Pistons, sending the heart of one of the league's most successful teams over the last seven years to the Denver Nuggets. The trade was a move towards the future which, in the short term, brought back a vestige of NBA past in veteran scoring machine Allen Iverson. Iverson has struggled to fit in with his new team, and now Detroit is in a pickle. Detroit stalwart Richard Hamilton can't really play alongside Iverson, yet coach Michael Curry doesn't really want to bring Rip off the bench nor does Hamilton particularly want to be a reserve. Curry has tried to get his five best players on the court, but doing so leaves the Pistons undersized and uncharacteristically weak on defense. Frankly, that's just the way things are going to be until Dumars takes the next step in his transition plan. With this much veteran talent on hand, Detroit can't help but make the playoffs but are staring down the barrel of a five-seed and a tough first-round matchup with the Atlanta Hawks. After that, Iverson will go on his merry way and Dumars will go about reimagining the next era of Pistons basketball. A key part of Pistons: Next Generation will be second-year guard Rodney Stuckey, who is battling veteran Tayshaun Prince for the team MVP award.

18. (19) Indiana Pacers (35.8) [ 30 / 35 / 41 ]
Rankings: NET: 19; OFF: 16; DEF: 19; PACE: 3

Larry Bird entered the season envisioning new point guard T.J. Ford running a high-octane attack that featured emerging young stars Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy as well as flashy rookie Brandon Rush. The Pacers have been competitive, playing a league-high 18 "close" games, or those decided by five points or less. However, Bird's grand plan has not come together. Ford has been an outright disappointment and has been replaced in the starting lineup by Jarrett Jack. Dunleavy missed much of the first half with an injury, but has been solid since his return. Not coincidentally, Indiana is 5-4 in January. Rush has been more than a disappointment. He's shown little indication that he can be an NBA starter. To Bird's credit, the early returns on the Pacers' other first-round pick, Georgetown big man Roy Hibbert, have been a little bit more positive. The one facet of the Pacers that has gone according to plan has been the play of Granger, who has become one of the best young players in the league, a clutch performer that you absolutely don't want to leave open for a straightaway three-pointer with the game on the line. Like most of the bottom half of the East, the Pacers are within sneezing distance of a playoff spot. Instead of angling to become cannon fodder for the Cavaliers or Celtics, however, Indiana needs to spend the second half sorting out what it has, with the paramount questions being whether Rush can become a core talent and whether Ford can be the lead guard of the future.

19. (20) Chicago Bulls (35.4) [ 36 / 32 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 20; OFF: 23; DEF: 18; PACE: 7

After becoming a surprise contender in 2006-07 and the NBA's biggest flop in 2007-08, it was hard to know what to expect from the Bulls entering the season. Oh, the projections foresaw something of a rebound--43 wins and a solid playoff seed. Conventional wisdom was mixed. Chicago parlayed their crash-and-burn campaign of a season ago into a lottery-ball miracle which resulted in the selection of hometown hero Derrick Rose with the top overall pick in the most recent draft. Rose has been everything he was advertised to be but the Bulls have been consistently below average. Chicago is scoring (and allowing) more points under new coach Vinny Del Negro, but aren't any more efficient on offense than it was last season, despite the sometimes-spectacular play of Rose and a career season by Ben Gordon. The root of the problem has been lackluster production by young interior players Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas. Noah has his moments as a rebounder and a shot blocker, and can even finish the opportunities others create for him, but he is quite unskilled offensively. Meanwhile, Thomas has every physical attribute and skill you'd think a big man would need to excel in the post...except for the ability to make shots. Unless he turns things around in a hurry, it will be tough for any Bulls fan to look at him and not think, "That could be LaMarcus Aldridge." Chicago will go only as far as its big people take them. They better take them to the playoffs or team architect John Paxson will be out of a job. Talent for talent, there is no doubt this team should make the playoffs.

20. (17) Toronto Raptors (35.2) [ 31 / 33 / 42 ]
Rankings: NET: 18; OFF: 14; DEF: 24; PACE: 18

Toronto is on pace to fall 11 games short of their NBAPET projection, marking the Raptors as one of the league's most-disappointing teams. At the crux of the shortfall has been the lack of production from key trade acquistion Jermaine O'Neal. O'Neal's knee problems are far from resolved and instead of getting a rejuvenated center to pair with Chris Bosh, Toronto has ended up with the back end of Shawn Kemp's career. Former coach Sam Mitchell was dismissed and perhaps his match with Bryan Colangelo was ill-fitting from the start. However, O'Neal's physical issues were hardly Mitchell's fault. Under Jay Triano, one of Steve Nash's mentors on the Canadian basketball scene, has Toronto playing a more uptempo, freewheeling style--in theory. In practice, nothing seems to have changed for the Raptors, who lately have had an injury to point guard Jose Calderon to contend with as well. Toronto has played the third-toughest schedule in the league to date and the docket gets a little easier from here on out. However, if the Raptors can't get healthy, they are unlikely to squeeze into the East playoff bracket. One positive development of late has been the play of near-bust Andrea Bargnani, who has averaged 21.0 points in 10 January games while taking O'Neal's place in the starting lineup.

21. (21) New Jersey Nets (32.5) [ 38 / 32 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 21; OFF: 13; DEF: 27; PACE: 20

The Nets are on pace to win 38 games, exactly as NBAPET projected. However, to keep that pace, which has the Nets in the scrum for the last couple of East playoff slots, New Jersey is going to have to improve during the second half. The Nets have been outscored by three points per game and sport a Pythagorean win pace of 32 games, tying Lawrence Frank's crew for the league lead in luck factor (5.6 games). It's hard to know what to make of the Nets. You expect teams that underplay their point differential to regress. However, New Jersey is one of four teams in the East with a winning record on the road. The others are Boston, Cleveland and Orlando. Boosting the hopes of Nets fans has been the play of rookie center Brook Lopez, whose play is improving exponentially as the season progresses. The Nets' other breakout player has been Devin Harris, who has mastered the art of getting to the foul line. Will New Jersey make a playoff push? The schedule ahead of the Nets (.533 opponent winning percentage) is tougher than the one behind them (.473) and the team's No. 27 ranking in defensive efficiency doesn't indicate a squad ready for the postseason. Expect a little roster shuffling as Kiki Vandeweghe tries to set up the Nets for the future.

22. (23) Charlotte Bobcats (32.3) [ 32 / 32 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 22; OFF: 28; DEF: 14; PACE: 27

Larry Brown has taken to his latest reclamation project with gusto, as the Bobcats have become more competitive than they have been at any point in the franchise's five-year history. Not only is Charlotte on pace to match its record of 33 wins, but the Bobcats have suffered an unfortunate 4-11 record in close games, a mark which you'd expect to regress. This is not a playoff team, but the Bobcats are no longer an automatic "W," either. Brown seems to have a keeper in rookie point guard D.J. Augustin. The only problem is that the incumbent point guard, Raymond Felton, is still hanging around. Felton has trade value and if Michael Jordan can parlay him into a big man who can allow Emeka Okafor to slide over to the power forward position, then Brown will be only a legit two-guard away from whipping Charlotte into shape. Recent acquistion DeSagana Diop is not the aforementioned big man, by the way, but this is a roster that is still taking shape.

23. (22) New York Knicks (31.5) [ 31 / 31 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 23; OFF: 20; DEF: 26; PACE: 2

The Knicks' pace is one win off their projection (33 projected vs. a pace of 32) but the team's play during the first half could hardly be considered disappointing. This season has been about cleaning house, and Donnie Walsh has gotten a much quicker start on that task than anyone could have envisioned. Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford were traded while Eddy Curry and Stephon Marbury have been consigned to NBA purgatory. The result is a hustling roster that practices the exciting brand of basketball espoused by Mike D'Antoni and is winning back the hearts of Knicks fans while Walsh continues to put the franchise in position to upgrade the talent. One of these days, the Marbury situation will play itself out and Curry, if he can get himself healthy enough to play, actually has teams interested in acquiring him. After that, Walsh and D'Antoni will have the fresh slate that the team needed after the debacle of the Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas regimes. There will still be plenty of work to do: The team's best players have been Chris Duhon and David Lee. If those are your fourth- and fifth-best players, you have a championship team. If they are your best players, you have a team without a core. During the second half, expect the Knicks to maintain but not exceed the pace they've set to date.

24. (24) Minnesota Timberwolves (28.2) [ 25 / 30 / 26 ]
Rankings: NET: 24; OFF: 24; DEF: 25; PACE: 11

Kevin McHale was convinced to axe Randy Wittman as head coach and to take over on the bench and deal with the roster he put together, one which features Randy Foye, not Brandon Roy, and Kevin Love, not O.J. Mayo. Through it all, the Wolves are right on pace to match their 26-win projection, but the team's play has been looking up of late. Foye has been playing his best basketball as a professional over the last couple of weeks, averaging 21.1 points this month with excellent percentages. Meanwhile, Love continues to be a beast on the boards while at the same time struggling to find his offensive stride. Getting him up to speed--as a starter alongside Al Jefferson--tops McHale's to-do list for the second half. Hey, I don't think it's an ideal pairing, either, but given the talent on hand, McHale has to find a way to make it work.

25. (25) Golden State Warriors (26.0) [ 24 / 26 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 25; OFF: 15; DEF: 29; PACE: 1

First it was the shocking departure of free agent Baron Davis. Then it was the ill-advised signing of Corey Maggette. Then it was the trade for Jamal Crawford. Mix in the offseason injury to Monta Ellis and it's been a season of disarray by the bay. Where is this team headed? What is it about? I am less able to answer those questions about the Warriors than any team in the league.

26. (26) Memphis Grizzlies (21.9) [ 23 / 24 / 19 ]
Rankings: NET: 26; OFF: 27; DEF: 21; PACE: 22

Baby steps. The Grizzlies projected to be awful, but they're simply bad. Rookie O.J. Mayo is a foundation player, as is running mate Rudy Gay. After that, there are question marks and a lot of potential: Marc Gasol may or may not be the answer at center. The Kyle Lowry/Mike Conley tandem at point guard may or may not be the solution at that position. Darrell Arthur may or may not be a legitimate NBA power forward, while Darko Milicic continues to puzzle. Through all of this, the Grizzlies have been competitive. They're on the right track and more help will be on the way after the season.

27. (27) Los Angeles Clippers (21.4) [ 19 / 21 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 27; OFF: 30; DEF: 17; PACE: 13

The Clippers are still the Clippers, collecting players but never building a team. Rookie Eric Gordon has been better than expected, while free-agent acquisition Baron Davis has been much worse. Everyone around the Clippers loves Marcus Camby but Mike Dunleavy Sr. has one too many starting big men. Second-year player Al Thornton has offensive talent, but winning in the NBA isn't about playing one on one. Again, it's the same old Clippers.

28. (28) Washington Wizards (20.7) [ 16 / 23 / 32 ]
Rankings: NET: 28; OFF: 25; DEF: 28; PACE: 23

This has been a lost season of sorts for the Wizards. With Brendan Haywood and, more famously, Gilbert Arenas out with injuries, perhaps it was unrealistic to expect the Wizards to maintain contender status in an increasingly-difficult Eastern Conference. Still, that Washington has taken a place alongside the dregs of the NBA has to qualify as a surprise and it's one that cost a fine coach--Eddie Jordan--his job. There's not much to be done to salvage this season for the Wizards. They need to continue to give a larger role to Nick Young, who has shown signs of deserving it, and to work on the development of rookie center JaVale McGee. A lottery pick is in the offing but you have to be concerned about the huge contract handed to Arenas last offseason. If Arenas can't get back to 100 percent, that contract could haunt this franchise for years to come.

29. (29) Sacramento Kings (19.6) [ 20 / 19 / 39 ]
Rankings: NET: 30; OFF: 26; DEF: 30; PACE: 8

I've been sounding the same bell about the Kings, so why change now? The Kings are bad. No one is watching--Sacramento is last in attendance. Worse than bad, the team is boring, with its top players--John Salmon, Brad Miller--ill-suited for where the Kings reside on the success cycle. Despite all of that, I still see a young five-man lineup on this roster with upside: Spencer Hawes, Bobby Brown, Kevin Martin, Francisco Garcia and Jason Thompson. Until Kenny Natt rolls that lineup out there and sticks with it, this will remain one of the harder NBA teams to watch on a consistent basis.

30. (30) Oklahoma City Thunder (18.0) [ 15 / 22 / 23 ]
Rankings: NET: 29; OFF: 29; DEF: 20; PACE: 6

The Thunder were projected to struggle in their first season in Oklahoma City and that's certainly been the case. Team architect R.C. Buford (Ed. Note: Sam Presti, actually.--JSS) made a coaching move, replacing P.J. Carlesimo with Scott Brooks, and the switch seems to have had a positive effect on the team. In his second year, Kevin Durant is showing signs of stardom while fellow sophomore Jeff Green is also getting better all the time. Add in keeper rookie Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City has the foundation for brighter days ahead.

Definitions:

NBAPET = stands for National Basketball Association Projection, Evaluation and Tracking = A database and system of metrics for analyzing professional basketball.

gRATE = a one-game metric that measures a player's offensive and defensive contribution and expresses it as a net point total. The sum of a team's gRATE figures for a game will equal its actual point differential for that game.

Adjusted winning percentage (AWP) = ((home wins x 0.6)+(road wins x 1.4)) / (((home wins x 0.6)+(road wins x 1.4)) + ((home losses x .1.4)+(road losses x 0.6)))

Opponents winning percentage (OWP) = aggregate percentage of games won for each team's opponents, based on the number of times the team has faced that opponent.

Pythagorean winning percentage (PYTH) = uses the basketball-reference formula of Games x (Points scored^14) / ((Points scored^14) + (Points allowed^14))

Power rating = (((PYTH + AWP)/2)*(OWP/.500)) x 82

WP82 = wins produced per 82 games, adjusted for playing time

WP3K = wins produced per 3,000 minutes

RANKINGS: NET = net efficiency ratio; OFF - offensive efficiency; DEF - defensive efficiency; PACE: average possessions per game

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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