NBA power rankings: Surprising Blazers hanging tough in West

Will Barton and the Trail Blazers appear intent on hanging with the elite teams of the Western Conference.

Troy Taormina/Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Here we are at the halfway mark of the NBA season, and it’s time time to start separating contenders from lottery squads. The West is a tough call because of the range of 11 competitive teams fighting for the top eight spots. Then there’s the Leastern Conference, where it’s even tougher because of the 11 to 12 mediocre teams all with a shot. We may see one to two sub-.500 records in the postseason. Here’s how we stand just before the midway mark:

Note: NBA rankings are updated each week before Wednesday’s games.

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

The Pacers are the best team in the league at the season’s halftime. They’re defensive masters and nearly unbeatable at home (21-1). Paul George has secured a spot as a top-five superstar, and Lance Stephenson should be an All-Star. Well, actually the entire Pacers roster should be made All-Stars given their dominance over such a weak conference. The East All-Stars: The Pacers plus LeBron.

Whoa, for a moment there it looked like the Trail Blazers might fade away a bit. After starting 24-5, Portland lost four of six games from Dec. 28 to Jan. 7. But then the Trail Blazers won five straight, including wins in San Antonio and Dallas. They couldn’t complete the Texas three-step, losing at Houston, but this remains a top squad. Who would have guessed the Trail Blazers would pull off 30-plus wins before the halfway mark?

The Spurs come into the halfway point with the best record in the West. Yawn, right? The Spurs are like a Shakespearean play: You know it’s good even if it’s not always easy to understand why. For the true basketball aficionados though, there’s an appreciation for the rhythm and systems that continue to make the lead actors (still Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) perform well season after season. The recent home loss to Portland bumps them down one.

The Thunder are sitting in a similar spot as the Spurs were last year: Injury isn’t allowing an authentic gauge of just how lethal they can be. Come postseason, all should be fine. But as it stands for OKC without Russell Westbrook, it’s hard to measure whether or not they’re the West’s dominant team. For now, the Spurs and Blazers sit ahead of them. Kevin Durant, just keep shooting.

It seems like the Heat are more on cruise control than they are vulnerable. Miami is currently four games behind Indy, but it appears to be more an issue of motivation. Maybe it would pump up the Heat if LeBron James got on the mic after a game and went Richard Sherman on everyone: "Well, I’m the best player in the game. When you try me with a sorry defender like Jeff Green, that’s the result you’re going to get. Don’t you ever talk about me.” The NBA world would explode. It might even liven up these sleepwalking Heat.

OK, on paper the Chris Paul injury hasn’t crushed the Clippers. In the eight games Paul has missed, the Clippers are 6-2. But read the fine print: Of those six wins, only one of those teams has a winning record. The Clippers have to be happy with where they are, but they still have yet to prove they’re ready to win a title.

The Rockets are on pace for a 53-win season. That’s about the right win adjustment for last year’s 45-win team after signing the biggest free-agent prize in Dwight Howard (who, by the way, is posting nearly identical numbers from last season when he was ridiculed in Los Angeles). The Rockets have made a step forward, but they haven’t made the leap to West favorites as some predicted this offseason.

You have to understand the hearts of these Golden State Warriors fans. They’ve been craving the upper hand for so long throughout the team’s long-term relationship with the West’s cellar. So even with recent stumbles, you can expect the fans to be a bit giddy about a fantastic first half that has Golden State on pace for more than 50 wins, a mark that hasn’t been reached in two decades.

Pacing close to 50 wins? Not bad. The combination of the ever-young Dirk Nowitzki, the efficient-in-an-early-Golden-State-way Monta Ellis and the three-point gunning of Jose Calderon has Dallas winning the games it should win (14-4 against losing records). The problem is, Dallas allows opponents to shoot 46.1 percent, the worst of any current West playoff team.

Time to give GM Masai Ujiri credit here. We could set a simple pace of 41 wins for the current .500 Raptors. But that isn’t an accurate reflection of post-Rudy Gay Toronto. The Raptors are 14-8 since trading Gay to Sacramento. That means if Toronto keeps that pace the rest of the way, that’s an approximate 27 more wins this season. A 47-win season would almost certainly give Toronto home-court advantage in the first round. Toronto has lost three of four, but the overall numbers are what they are.

The Grizzlies are 10-7 with Marc Gasol and 10-13 without their center. If he can stay on the floor, Memphis should grab at least that No. 8 spot out West. It’s hard to imagine a postseason without the Grizzlies, and it’s even harder to imagine that Phoenix, Denver or Minnesota will finish with a better record this season.

Suns spots

The Suns were 19-11 before Eric Bledsoe went out. Since then, Phoenix has lost six of its last 10 games. Goran Dragic has picked up his play during that 10-game stretch though, averaging 22 points on 49.7 percent shooting and 6.4 assists. That’s going to be a tough load to carry to keep Phoenix competitive out West.

The Wizards reach the halfway point in a good spot. The Wizards were a season-worst four games under .500 (9-13) after a Dec. 14 loss to the Clippers. Since then, the Wizards have a .611 win percentage (11-7). They did open 2014 with three consecutive losses but have since won six of eight. John Wall has played in all 40 games, and in this last stretch of eight games he’s averaging 21.4 points and 7.1 assists.

Paul Millsap went from being a sidekick to Al Jefferson in Utah to becoming the secondary punch to Al Horford in Atlanta. But with Horford out, this team belongs to Millsap. The versatile forward leads the Hawks with 19.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in the 11 games since Horford went out. With the third-best record out East, Millsap deserves the All-Star game.

This 2014 thing looks good on Brooklyn. The Nets entered the new year with a 10-21 record. Since Jan. 1, however, the Nets have won eight of nine games, including a road win in OKC and home wins against Golden State and Miami. Joe Johnson has been leading the way this month, shooting 49.6 percent for 20.3 points per game. They’re doing it mostly without Deron Williams, who has missed time with an ankle injury and might be coming off the bench in the near future.

Disappointment wasn’t supposed to look this way for the Wolves. If the Wolves were going to be under .500 at the halfway mark, it was supposed to because of injuries. A losing record after 41 games isn’t easy to explain: Kevin Love has been fantastic, they’re ranked second in the league at 106.5 ppg, they rebound, mostly defend and share the ball. The problem is that the Wolves can’t beat good teams (6-17 against records .500 and above) and lose their close games (0-5 in games decided by three points or less).

The erratic Nuggets seem to be starting another losing binge. Danilo Gallinari won’t be coming back either, as it was announced Tuesday he’s out for the season. Of course, no one really cares in Denver; the Broncos own the state, and it’s Super Bowl time.

Some deals work out for both sides, and it’s clear in Sacramento that the Rudy Gay acquisition has helped both the Raptors and the Kings. The Kings aren’t suddenly a playoff team, but they are much improved (9-11) in their 20 games with Gay. Not known for his efficiency, Gay has shot a fantastic 52.5 percent since joining Sacramento, and he’s averaging 21 points per game. The Kings are 9-3 when Gay scores 20 or more points.

The Derrick Rose injury was crushing. It completely ruined the Bulls’ season and any chance of contending. At the 40-game mark though, the Bulls are sitting at .500 and, sadly for the East’s legitimacy, that puts them right in the mix of the postseason race. Other than the woeful East, the other reason they’re still in it? They own the second-best defensive rating in the league, allowing 97.3 point per 100 possessions.

It’s strange that Charlotte has a better shot at making the playoffs than they do reaching .500 this season, but that’s the landscape we’re dealing with. Either way, it’s still an improvement from last season’s 21 wins. Steve Clifford has done a nice job with the young defense, which ranks 7th in defensive rating at 101 points allowed per 100 possessions. The Bobcats may not get a top lottery pick, but how many Cody Zellers do you really need anyway?

The Cavaliers are two games out of a playoff spot at the halfway mark of the season. A Cleveland fan might have gratefully taken that entering this season, but probably not by these terms. At five games under .500, the Cavs have been a disappointment. Andrew Bynum was a mess, No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett has been a tremendous flop thus far, and Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark aren’t hitting expectations. The positives? Kyrie Irving is still standing, and Luol Deng is now on board. The Cavaliers should be a playoff team.

The Detroit Pistons are better than this. It’s easy to blame big free agent Josh Smith, but that would be misinformed. He might have been slightly overpaid, but Smith’s stats are his typical numbers. If you want to blame a free agent, blame Brandon Jennings, who is still trying to determine if he’s a shoot-first or pass-first point guard. Greg Monroe is out of position and thus a step behind defensively, which only makes sense for Detroit, because Andre Drummond looks so good (though also not defensively). Right now, the pieces just aren’t fitting.

Ah, what a tease. There was a stretch to begin 2014 when the Knicks looked like they’d make some noise. They won six of seven to start January, including road wins in San Antonio and Dallas and at home against Miami. A recent four-game slide quickly throws New York back into disappointment mode. The Knicks are on pace to win just 30 games.

It’s become somewhat of a wasted season for the supposed-to-be upstart Pelicans. It’s too bad, as this team was a dark-horse favorite by so many coming off an offseason of excitement. But with significant injuries to Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday and earlier time missed by Anthony Davis, the Pelicans are too far behind to catch up now. Eric Gordon, and now perhaps Tyreke Evans, are on the trade block.

There was a weird mental conflict entering this Lakers’ season. On one hand, there were realistically low expectations for a team with a lacking roster and an injured superstar. But that was clouded with a warped expectation that Kobe Bryant would come back like a superhero and turn LA into a playoff team. Bryant’s unfortunate knee injury solved that, and the Lakers crashed into reality.

It’s hard to forget that 1-14 start. The early leaders in the lottery odds sweepstakes, the Jazz looked young and awful to begin the season. Since then, 13-15 actually looks pretty darn good. The youngster core of Trey Burke, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter is the right foundation — now they need a superstar (or two, by NBA standards) to emerge or be added.

Rajon Rondo might not be enough to lift the Celtics into the playoffs, and Boston fans should be happy about that. There’s nothing worse than NBA purgatory. Rondo is shaking the rust, as he’s averaging 22 minutes per game with 5.0 points and 4.3 assists. Boston has fallen in each of those three games, including losses to the Magic and Lakers.

The highlight of the 76ers’ season came in the season’s first week. Philly went 3-0 and Michael Carter-Williams looked like Dr. J with an Iverson crossover. Then everything settled mostly back into reality. The 76ers may have the Rookie of the Year this season, and they have a good shot at getting next year’s Rookie of the Year through the lottery.

Orlando isn’t headed anywhere this season, one of just two (or three if you include Philly) teams that can’t even remain competitive in the East. They’re destined to win less than 25 games. The team would be wise to ship guys like Jameer Nelson and Glen Davis if it can improve its future.

The biggest losers of the first half are also the best when it comes to tanking. The Bucks are currently four games ahead of the Orlando Magic in the chase for the best lottery odds.