NBA power rankings: East playoff race is no laughing matter

Knicks guard Raymond Felton and forward Carmelo Anthony share a laugh on the Knicks bench during this week's game vs. the Bobcats.

Sam Sharpe/Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Here’€™s a laughable answer for a question that needs to be taken seriously: How many wins will it take to make the playoffs in the East? The answer is likely somewhere around 35 wins.

Don’€™t believe it?

The current No. 8 seed, the Bobcats, are 16-23 and pacing toward 33 to 34 wins. There’€™s your embarrassing news update for the week. Of course, none of that matters anyway since the East’€™s monsters of Indiana and Miami will devour whatever is put in front of them come postseason.

Follow the NBA season through the lens of Jimmy Spencer on Twitter at @JimmySpencerNBA.

The Pacers are the best team in the NBA as it stands today. Danny Granger hasn’t been an All-Star by any means — he’s shooting 36 percent for 9.1 points in 23.3 minutes per game — but he also hasn’t disrupted things. Indy is 10-2 since his return, shooting a higher percentage and tallying more assists while actually playing better defensively, holding opponents to just 83.5 points on 39.7 percent shooting.

Imagine an NBA fanatic waking up from a 10-year coma. ‘€œHey, uh, doc? Who has the most wins in the NBA these days? The Spurs? Wow, they must have really had another great few drafts or signed some big-time free agents. Wait what, the nucleus is still Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker?’€ (Goes back to sleep.)

Why is everyone treating the Warriors like some sort of ponzi scheme? There’€™s an attitude the Warriors aren’€™t legitimate title contenders either because, well they’€™re the Warriors, or because they thrive on three-point shooting and that’€™s not considered sustainable. But look around the league and tell me a team they can’€™t compete with in a seven-game series? Getting Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks from Boston gives further guard depth.

Portland’€™s recent stretch of five games couldn’€™t have been any easier. Four of those games came at home against non-playoff teams in the East (yes, that bad) and a lone road game in Sacramento. It’€™s hard to call going 3-2 in those games ‘€œtaking care of business’€ though. Losses against Sac and home against Philly were stumbles, but at least the Blazers won convincingly against Charlotte, Orlando and Boston.

There’€™s little motivation to impress when you work in a graveyard. So sure, we all get it when the Heat don’€™t appear motivated in January. Truth be told, a lull this time of year probably won’€™t affect the Heat five months from now. One extra home game isn’€™t worth grinding down long-term health anyway.

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Oklahoma fans know enough about football to understand that when a No. 2 wide receiver goes down, it becomes much more difficult for the No. 1 to get open. This is Kevin Durant’€™s issue without Russell Westbrook. Durant’€™s 53.5 percent shooting in December on 19.4 shots per game has dropped to 47.4 percent on 22.3 shots per game.

The Clippers made another mortgage payment toward Los Angeles ownership when they destroyed the Lakers by 36 points last week. Without Chris Paul or Kobe Bryant, no one really noticed though.

The Rockets have faced just one winning record so far in 2014, against the Hawks, which, oh by the way, they lost. Other than that, James Harden has been eating up losing teams, as he’s tallying 28.2 points and 5.2 assists per game in January.

It’s still difficult to gauge these Mavericks. They’ve won four of their last five games, all wins coming against losing teams and the lone loss against the Spurs. They’ve been cleaning house all season against bad teams and are 18-4 against below .500 squads. However, Dallas is just 5-12 against teams .500 and above. No other current playoff team in the West is that bad against winning teams.

There’€™s some love to be spread all around, but how good of a GM is Masai Ujiri? The guy has come in, gotten rid of both Andrea Bargnani and the team’€™s worst contract in Rudy Gay. Now, the Raptors are above .500 this far into the season for the first time since January 2010.

What Nuggets team will show up tonight? It’s always a good question for an NBA team more unpredictable than Dennis Rodman’€™s diplomatic strategy. Denver started the season 4-6 before winning seven in a row at the end of November. The Nuggets then dropped seven straight into January, which was then followed by five consecutive wins — that ended Monday with a loss to Utah. Is another losing run in store?


The Suns came out of nowhere because that backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic played like an on-fire NBA Jam duo. Bledsoe’s last game before getting surgery on a torn meniscus came against the Clippers just before New Year’s, a victory that put the Suns at 19-11. Now, forced to rely on Gerald Green as a starter, Jeff Hornacek’s team is just 3-5 since. Green shot just 2 of 16 in that OT loss to the Knicks.

Losing Al Horford is obviously a crushing blow, but back-to-back wins at home against the Pacers and Rockets demonstrates the Hawks have plenty of fight left.

What more do you want out of the Grizzlies? After dropping to a season-worst five games under .500 on Dec. 18, the Grizzlies have climbed back to .500. And now Marc Gasol is back plugging up the middle. Watch the Grizzlies crawl back into the West playoff picture.

Has there ever been a team more entwined with the word potential? Year after year, the Wolves have been given somewhat of a pass because the future was supposedly right around the corner. This season, you can’€™t blame injuries. This squad is mediocre at best.

You keep putting quarters in that slot machine. You keep getting disappointed. Yet you believe eventually it will pay off. Yes, you are a degenerate Wizards fan.

It’s hard to ignore what the Nets have been doing since the start of 2014. Before getting crushed by the Raptors on the road end of a back-to-back on Saturday, the Nets won five consecutive games. They weren’t cheapies either, as wins came against the Thunder, Hawks, Warriors and Heat.

It’s crazy that the Knicks could make a roster move or two and become good enough to contend in the East. Why wait until the offseason? There’s so much time because of the poor East if New York could find the right deal.

Luol Deng hasn’€™t had enough time to make an impact yet, but his acquisition should eventually become just enough to get Cleveland over the hump. If the Cavs play just .500 ball in their final 47 games, they will win approximately 35 games. Read the math up top again; that’€™s enough for a No. 8 spot.


DeMarcus Cousins won Western Conference Player of the Week honors, making him the first Kings player to win it since back Brad Miller back in 2008. Remember when Brad Miller was good? Yes, it’€™s been that long since the Kings were last relevant. They’€™re on their way back.

Tom Thibodeau’€™s worst fear used to be that one of his Bulls players might give up an offensive rebound or miss a help assignment. Then he battled last season’€™s wave of injuries, including the Derrick Rose debacle, and things got much worse. Now? The front office has traded away Luol Deng. Tom T. doesn’€™t deserve this, but what else was Chicago supposed to do?

The Pistons are supposed to be good. Say that three times and maybe Josh Smith and company will start to believe it. The roof was caving in after Detroit’s six consecutive losses, all against losing teams, but two straight wins and a five-day break gives Detroit a chance to reset before the halfway mark.

Anthony Davis is back, but New Orleans is far from healthy. Jrue Holiday is out indefinitely, Ryan Anderson is gone til at least mid-March and Tyreke Evans’€™ ankle has been bothersome. Eric Gordon has been a likely trade candidate all season, but with the Pelicans seemingly going nowhere, it’€™s now officially the time to move him.

After that quick exit by the Carolina Panthers, all eyes move to the Bobcats and whether or not they could make just their second postseason in franchise history. The weak East provides the perfect opportunity, but even then it will probably take 35 wins to make the playoffs. The Bobcats can do it, and the return of 20-year-old Michael Kidd-Gilchrist helps.

Utah has won four of its last six games, including wins against Oklahoma City and Denver. Gordon Hayward had averaged 27 points per night in his last three games before a hip injury sidelined him.

The Lakers aren’t competing this year. Even if Kobe Bryant comes back to full strength. Even if Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol come back to full strength. Even if Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash come back to full strength. See where I’€™m going with this? It’€™s best to trade Gasol for anything that can help down the road.

The 76ers will never regret being cautious about when Nerlens Noel makes his debut. They would absolutely regret any type of setback, however. The rookie hasn’€™t played in nearly a year, but he did say last month he wouldn’€™t rule out returning before the end of the season. Just relax, Nerlens. Let next season be your pure rookie year. This season is headed straight to the lottery.

There’s a handful of conflicting truths here: 1) The Celtics have collapsed back to original expectations. 2) They have the fourth-worst record in the East yet are just three games out of the playoffs. 3. The near return of a healthy Rajon Rondo makes them a playoff team. That’€™s the East.

The Magic are playing miserable basketball. Orlando has dropped eight in a row, and these losses haven’t been close. Other than the OT loss to Cleveland to start the losing streak, the Magic have not come any closer than 16 points. They’re losing by an average of more than 20 points in their last four games.

Milwaukee’s losing stretch has reached six games, but at least there’€™s some life in Ersan Ilyasova. The Turkish big man had a season-high 29 points against Toronto and in his last five games is averaging 16.6 points on 51.6 percent shooting and 52.9 percent from 3-point range.