At the midpoint of the 2011-12 NBA season, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat are neck and neck.
While the Heat has obliterated everything in sight, the Thunder are calmly moving about its business. Nevertheless, the teams have combined for 13 straight wins and are the hottest after the All-Star break.
The Heat is playing like a No. 1 team, but it will have to wait at least another week in hopes that the Thunder slips up.
Elsewhere, the Rockets are moving in the rankings, thanks to a three-game winning streak heading into the break. All three wins came over teams above .500 (at the time).
Maybe Chase Budinger will get more recognition for his play than his dunking.
On to the rankings:
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (27-7) The Heat was poised to take this spot, but the same record and a tougher schedule keeps the Thunder on top. Kevin Durant edged LeBron James in the All-Star game for MVP. How can the Thunder be demoted after that?
2. Miami Heat (27-7) The Heat has the same record as the Thunder, but the Thunder’s division is significantly tougher. Cupcakes like Washington and Charlotte don’t appear on Scott Brooks’ schedule multiple times. In all seriousness, these two teams are the clear favorites to meet head on in the NBA Finals.
3. Chicago Bulls (27-8) This team is flawed, but only playoff time will expose the nature of this beast. As of now, the train continues to roll.
4. San Antonio Spurs (24-10) Gregg Popvich with an interesting strategy. Rest the stars and tank an away game in the process. Why hasn’t this happened more during lockout ball? Just don’t pull that stunt at home.
5. Los Angeles Clippers (20-11) The Clippers are flawed as well, but they have two of the 10 best players on the planet comprising their roster. Only the Thunder and Heat can make similar declarations. The record isn’t bad either.
6. Orlando Magic (22-13) Dwight Howard is poised for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors. If I’m Otis Smith, I keep him and take my chances. There was a market for Carmelo Anthony. Any trade for Howard is lopsided from the start. LeBron and Kobe might be the only other players that statement holds true for.
7. Indiana Pacers (21-12) The Pacers got healthy by playing the Hornets and Bobcats (twice) before the break. They play the Hornets again coming out of the break. Enjoy the success now, because nine games follow… all against playoff teams.
8. Dallas Mavericks (21-13) The Mavs are pretty good this year, but what happens if Deron Williams doesn’t come to Dallas? There are no foregone conclusions about player destinations at this point. The Mavs will have talent a year from today, albeit aged talent.
9. Atlanta Hawks (20-14) If Al Horford doesn’t return this season, a first-round exit awaits the Hawks. This Atlanta team screams of that No. 5 NCAA seed that is destined for an upset to a 12.
10. Houston Rockets (20-14) The Rockets and Grizzlies get less attention than any other winning teams in the league. Fact: the only time the Rockets have been mentioned in the last two weeks was to second-guess their release of Jeremy Lin. Including here!
11. Los Angeles Lakers (20-14) Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, and an on-the-way-out Pau Gasol. There is literally nothing else in Los Angeles. How did that come to be? Mitch Kupchak, your thoughts…
12. Portland Trail Blazers (18-16) The Blazers are far better than their record indicates. Sadly for Nate McMillan, appearances mean very little in the playoffs. The Blazers have top five talent, yet are just two games over .500. Nate, your thoughts…
13. Memphis Grizzlies (19-15) How about the job Lionel Hollins has done in Memphis? No Zach Randolph and this team is four games over .500. Marc Gasol is a revelation this season for those who weren’t aware of him before. About that Pau for Marc swap, hmmm…
14. New York Knicks (17-18) The Lin-Sanity was tempered with a home loss to the reeling Nets, coming off their third straight. Oh, but Iman Shumpert missed the game. The Knicks get this ranking because of their potential and talent on paper. No game has ever been won on paper, though. They still aren’t in the same class as the Heat, and likely never will be.
15. Philadelphia 76ers (20-14) Losers of five straight, the Sixers are in danger of losing this division. It won’t happen overnight, but it will likely happen.
16. Minnesota Timberwolves (17-17) The T’Wolves would have signed on for 17-17 when the season began. Hold the applause, the Clippers and Lakers await.
17. Denver Nuggets (18-17) As much promise as Kenneth Faried has, he’s no Nene. Losing Danilo Gallinari hurts as well. The Nuggets need to get healthy to make a playoff push.
18. Boston Celtics (15-17) Why should I say it when Doc Rivers says it best: “We’re losing, No. 1, because we’re not playing well and, No. 2, because we’re injured.”
19. Utah Jazz (15-17) The Jazz are in prime position to make a trade to shake things up. With four young big men, one could be moved to put more talent in a position of need.
20. Golden State Warriors (13-17) Lost in the tragedy that was getting rid of Jeremy Lin, the Warriors have won two straight. They’re only three out of of eighth…
21. Phoenix Suns (14-20) The Suns are only four out of the playoff picture, but when a team’s best player is 38-years old, and there’s not much beside him… Playoffs aren’t likely.
22. Cleveland Cavaliers (13-18) Hopefully Kyrie Irving treats Cleveland better than LeBron did. He’s not LeBron good, but he’s definitely a franchise star.
23. Milwaukee Bucks (13-20) Quote of the week: “I’ve seen a lot of great performances and that’s right up there,” Scott Skiles said of Ersan Ilyasova’s 29-point, 25-rebound effort in a win before the break. “There’s absolutely no question about that. That was a phenomenal performance. He probably can never do that again, realistically. It’s one of those things that just don’t happen very often.” His opponent: the Nets!
24. Detroit Pistons (11-24) This is a toss-up between the Pistons and Kings. Both bad teams, both played each other right before break. The winner.. You guessed it.
25. Sacramento Kings (11-22) Keith Smart on teams checking out before the break: “I’ve been around it when I look in the tunnel and the limos are already there—ready to go to the next spot.” Sorry Keith, the reporters weren’t asking about your team THIS SEASON!
26. New Jersey Nets (10-25) The Nets are seriously talking playoffs with Brook Lopez’s return. The beauty of Eastern-Conference basketball!
27. Toronto Raptors (10-23) DeMar DeRozan: “We’re not that many games off the playoffs.” See above.
28. New Orleans Hornets (8-25) The Hornets are no doormats, they’ll fight for 48 minutes. They usually wind up on the wrong end but not for a lack of trying.
29. Washington Wizards (7-26) No need for the Wizards to worry about the playoffs, not that the Raptors and Nets need to either.
30. Charlotte Bobcats (4-28) The Draft is when…