The 2009-10 NBA season has just passed its midway point, and with the trade deadline and all-star game approaching, it won’t be long before we are fully entrenched in the playoffs.
The league standings have begun to take shape and resemble a glimpse of what they may look like at the end of the season.
There is no time like the present to run through the Playbook’s new "Power Eight" in both the Eastern and Western conference.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (36-11)
The Cavaliers hold the best record in the NBA, but it’s hard to call them the most dominant. They did beat the Lakers on Jan. 21, and LeBron James has scored over 30 points in eight of his last 10 games, but look at the Cavs’ recent wins. One-point victories over Miami, the Clippers and Oklahoma City, a three-point win over Golden State highlight the eight wins in Cleveland’s last nine games. In order for the Cavaliers to finally break through and win a title, they need to prove they can lay the hammer down on opponents on a nightly basis.
2. Atlanta Hawks (29-15)
The Hawks are 18-5 at home, but only 11-10 on the road. Josh Smith has been tremendous, averaging 15 points, almost nine rebounds, and over two blocks per game, as well as four assists. Jamal Crawford comes off the bench to score 17.5 points per game, second most on the team.
3. Boston Celtics (29-14)
Kevin Garnett’s return from injury helps this club out, but a 4-6 record in the Celtics’ last ten games marks their recent struggles. They began a crucial three-game stretch Thursday night with a 96-94 loss to the Magic on the road. Friday they face the Hawks in hopes of avoiding a season sweep. They return home Sunday to face the Lakers. After already falling to Orlando, the Cetlics need to win at least one of their next two games to give them confidence heading into a softer part of their schedule prior to the all-star break.
4. Orlando Magic (30-16)
The win over Boston helped the Magic rebound from a loss in Memphis Monday night, and keep them heading in the right direction. After a disappointing start to the season, Orlando has won four of five and have a stretch of winnable games over the next two weeks. Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson both need to return to their 2008-2009 form for the Magic to make a run at Cleveland down the stretch and in the playoffs.
5. Chicago Bulls (22-22)
After head coach Vinny Del Negro stared being fired square in the face, the Bulls have turned their season around in January and have won eight of their last ten games. Derrick Rose is quickly becoming one of the most productive point guards in the league. However, the Bulls will not make it very far if Rose is their go-to option on offense as the point guard. The cries for Dwayne Wade this off-season are right around the corner.
6. Toronto Raptors (25-22)
Chris Bosh has single-handedly put Toronto in the thick of the playoff race, but with an expiring contract he made be on the trading block. The Los Angeles Lakers have been rumored to be willing to offer Andrew Bynum, among others for Bosh’s services. It would seem like a long shot, but the Lakers end up getting what they want far too often to not take those rumors seriously. If Bosh hangs around until the end of the season, the Raptors should have no trouble making the postseason.
7. Miami Heat (23-22)
The Heat nearly knocked off Cleveland Monday night, but instead lost 92-91. Miami’s biggest problem is their inconsistency with such a young team. Just a week and a half ago, the Bobcats throttled the Heat 104-65. The night before that, however, Miami blasted the Pacers 113-83. This is the type of team that could get hot at the right time and shock a favored team in the playoffs.
8. Charlotte Bobcats (22-22)
The abysmal start to the season is a distant memory for the Bobcats, who now find themselves in the playoff race. Their next two games are on the road against Golden State and Sacramento; both of which are very important. After that, the next three games for Charlotte are against Portland, the Lakers, and the Hornets. Nine of the Bobcats’ next 13 games are on the road.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (35-11)In its last ten games, Los Angeles faced five teams in the Power Eight from their respective conferences. In those games, the Lakers were 2-3. Pau Gasol’s return from injury should separate the Lakers from the pack down the stretch. Kobe Bryant nearly recorded a triple-double Wednesday night against the Pacers with 29 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists.
2. Denver Nuggets (31-14)
Denver is riding an eight-game win streak into Friday night’s game in Oklahoma City. The three-headed monster inside of Kenyon Martin, Nene Hilario, and Chris Andersen average 24 rebounds per game between them. Carmelo Anthony has taken another step this season in his ability to lead his team. He is on the short list for the MVP award with nearly 30 points and seven rebounds per game. The X-factor for the Nuggets is J.R. Smith, who is the leading candidate for the sixth man of the year award, averaging 15 points off the bench.
3. Utah Jazz (27-18)
The Jazz are 8-2 in their last ten games, including statement wins over Portland, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Cleveland. Not too many teams enjoy a stretch of games like that. Six players average double-digit points per game, giving them one of the most balanced line-ups in the league.
4. Dallas Mavericks (30-16)
The Mavericks have struggled as of late. Their only win against a Power Eight team in their last ten games came against Boston on the road. Rumors of Josh Howard being packaged in a trade have been swirling during the month. Possible pieces that Howard could be shipped away for include Kevin Martin in Sacramento, or Toronto’s Bosh (a long shot).
5. Portland Blazers (27-20)
The Blazers have been ravaged by injuries this season. 11 different players have started a game already, but they have managed to keep the team together and stand in prime position to make a run at the playoffs. Brandon Roy is carrying this team with 23 points per game, but LaMarcus Aldridge’s play down the stretch will be the key to Portland’s success. How he battles against the elite post players of the Western Conference will determine how far the Blazers can go.
6. Phoenix Suns (27-21)
The Suns still boast the league’s most potent scoring offense, but it’s hard to imagine them making a late-season push to the top of the standings. They have lost seven of their last ten games. One of the three wins in that span came against the
worst team in history Nets.
7. Memphis Grizzlies (25-19)
Zach Randolph has re-invented himself in Memphis, and he is making a case for the All-NBA team by scoring 21 points and nearly 12 rebounds per game. The Grizzlies have much younger legs than teams like the Mavericks and Suns, which leads to the thought they may surpass one if not both of those teams in the second half of the season. It’s only a matter of time before Marc Gasol’s name is known throughout the league because of his own success, not Pau’s.
8. San Antonio Spurs (26-18)
The Spurs are hard to decipher. Common logic says they are washed up, and that the youth movement across the conference has pushed the Spurs out of the conference picture. Case and point would be Tim Duncan, the living legend whose prime passed about five years ago. Instead of fading in his older age, Duncan still dominates the paint, averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds per game. Richard Jefferson needs to increase production for San Antonio to safely make the playoffs.