Perhaps we were a little hasty in conceding the conference titles to the Lakers and Cavaliers.
A Kobe vs. LeBron showdown still is the most likely conclusion to the 2009-10 NBA season, but a number of teams have moved into position to step forward should either Cleveland or L.A. slip. In particular, Orlando seems to have become the clear number three team in the league by methodically winning two of three and three of four all season. The Magic has not reeled off any gigantic winning streaks, but the overall record just keeps getting stronger. Orlando's power rating keeps crawling upwards and has reached the point where the Magic have reached a season-high 11.1 percent championship probability.
Now, Orlando is still six games back of the Cavs in the standings and at this point in the season, that's too much of a margin to overcome. That means that the Magic will have to overcome a homecourt disadvantage in a possible matchup in the East finals, which it was able to do last spring. However, with Orlando gaining very gradual momentum, the Magic may be able to close the power gap with the Cavs if O'Neal's injury, which will likely keep him out for the remainder of the regular season, results in a Cleveland slump. Not likely, but by the time Shaq returns, the gap between first and second in the East could be effectively erased on paper, if not the standings.
(Statistics through Feb. 28)
Rank. (Last week) Team (Power rating / Championship probability) [Win pace / Pythagorean win pace / Preseason projection ]
1. (1) Los Angeles Lakers (60.8 / 29.2%) [ 61 / 58 / 53 ]
Rankings: NET: 3; OFF: 11; DEF: 1; PACE: 9
Do you realize that the Lakers already project to outspend thier 2009-10 selves next season? Must be nice. The Lakers have become the Yankees of the NBA and if you buy the revenue figures offered up by Forbes' franchise valuations, there really isn't an NBA version of the Red Sox. If the luxury tax threshold drops far enough, the Lakers may actually no longer boast the league's largest operating surplus. Don't go taking up a collection for Dr. Jerry Buss just yet, though. The Lakers will remain plenty profitable. As we head into the murky waters of CBA negotiation, though, the player's union and the smaller market owners alike are going to be pointing at the Lakers' payroll as a prime reason the system needs to be changed. The players, of course, will simply suggest that the Lakers share even more of their wealth than the estimated $21.4 million luxury tax payment Buss faces this summer.
2. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers (60.7 / 32.3%) [ 62 / 59 / 54 ]
Rankings: NET: 1; OFF: 2; DEF: 8; PACE: 26
Despite the ominous portent suggested by my intro to this Hoops List, it's unlikely that Shaquille O'Neals absence is going to have much of an effect on the Cavs' run at the NBA's best record. For one thing, Cleveland's remaining schedule is soft. The Cavs could be double-digit favorites in half their 22 remaining games. O'Neal's injury does leave Cleveland short on length, so to speak, with Anderson Varejao the only player available listed as taller than 6'11". Unless the Cavs drop Darnell Jackson for 10-day big man filler, this will remain the case until Zydrunas Ilgauskas is eligible to return on March 22.
3. (3) Orlando Magic (56.3 / 11.1%) [ 54 / 56 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 2; OFF: 7; DEF: 4; PACE: 15
Twenty-one seems to be the magic number for Dwight Howard. In the 24 games he's reached that figure, the Magic is 19-5. In the other 36 games, Orlando is 21-15. Stan Van Gundy and his players seem to have gotten the message. After far too many games when it seemed like Howard was an afterthought in the Magic's offensive scheme, he averaged 12.6 field-goal attempts in February, up from 8.4 in December.
4. (4) Utah Jazz (55.3 / 6.3%) [ 52 / 54 / 53 ]
Rankings: NET: 5; OFF: 8; DEF: 11; PACE: 14
The Jazz's charge at the No. 2 seed in the West hit a lull last week, with a home loss to Atlanta and a road defeat at Sacramento. Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko both sat out the Atlanta loss. The home-heavy schedule Utah has enjoyed begins to even out tonight as Utah begins a stretch with six of seven games on the road. Utah is 14-13 away from Salt Lake City and have won seven of its last eight on the road. The degree to which the Jazz survive the next two weeks will determine if Jerry Sloan can position his squad for a run at the Lakers.
5. (6) Denver Nuggets (54.0 / 7.1%) [ 54 / 53 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 6; OFF: 3; DEF: 16; PACE: 5
Sunday's missed opportunity in Los Angeles probably ended any lingering hopes the Nuggets had of catching the Lakers for the top seed in the West. A win could have brought Denver within 3 1/2 games of L.A., but it's hard to imagine the Lakers losing enough games to allow the Nuggets to make up the 5 1/2-game deficit they now face.
6. (5) Atlanta Hawks (53.2 / 6.1%) [ 52 / 52 / 30 ]
Rankings: NET: 9; OFF: 6; DEF: 14; PACE: 25
Did you see that incident in the Hawks' home loss to Dallas last Friday? Late in the game, Mike Woodson was standing on the court barking instructions at his defense when the always-alert Jason Kidd dribbled his way and drew contact. Woodson went ballistic and the pair had to be separated. Uh, sorry, Mike ... you can't stand there. It was a great play by Kidd. NBA fans that remember Woodson as a player will note that his ability to get good position on defense hasn't really improved in the 19 years since he retired.
7. (8) Dallas Mavericks (52.0 / 3.4%) [ 53 / 47 / 50 ]
Rankings: NET: 12; OFF: 10; DEF: 12; PACE: 20
The Mavericks have jumped three spots in our power rankings in the last two weeks, a precipitous jump this late in the season. Dallas lost its first game after acquiring Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, but has won seven straight since. They've beaten Phoenix and the Lakers at home, plus Orlando and Atlanta on the road during the current streak. Guess that trade is working out.
8. (7) Boston Celtics (51.2 / 1.9%) [ 51 / 53 / 56 ]
Rankings: NET: 4; OFF: 13; DEF: 2; PACE: 23
The Celtics say they are bored with the regular season, but they better find something to spark their interest, because Saturday's home loss to New Jersey was pitiful. Boston has lost five of nine at the point in the season in which you'd expect things to be crystallizing. The Celtics have a soft schedule this week, the last before Paul Pierce is expected to return, but after the debacle against the Nets, you'd hope they aren't taking anyone for granted.
9. (10) Oklahoma City Thunder (50.9 / 1.6%) [ 49 / 51 / 32 ]
Rankings: NET: 7; OFF: 15; DEF: 3; PACE: 13
The bad thing about February for the Thunder is the fact that the All-Star break robbed them of a few games during the stretch in which Oklahoma City was playing its best basketball of the Kevin Durant era. The Thunder was 9-2 in February and find itself positioned to make a run at a top-half seed in the West. I'm looking forward to Wednesday's game at Denver, as the Thunder will try to cut into the Nuggets' lead atop the Northwest Division and Durant will get a shot at rolling up some big numbers in a fast-paced game.
10. (9) Phoenix Suns (50.7 / 0.4%) [ 49 / 48 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 11; OFF: 1; DEF: 28; PACE: 3
The Suns' current 11-3 surge has suddenly put Phoenix back into the race for a top-four seed, a task that may have gained momentum from Phoenix's decision not to deal Amare Stoudemire at the deadline. Stoudemire was dominant in a 41-point outing against the Spurs on Sunday, but poor execution down the stretch robbed the Suns of a golden opportunity to move closer to the West leaders. First, Jason Richardson missed a breakaway dunk that would have given the Suns a late lead. Then, with Phoenix down three, Steve Nash passed off at the buzzer rather than hoisting up an attempt at a game-tying three-pointer. Nash explained after the game that he was off-balance and thought the shot would get blocked from behind, but it was still a disappointing outcome for the Suns.
11. (11) San Antonio Spurs (49.6 / 0.6%) [ 47 / 52 / 57 ]
Rankings: NET: 8; OFF: 9; DEF: 10; PACE: 21
The Spurs have long been constructed by fashioning a roster that complements the core trio of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. Parker has not performed like a core player this season and now Duncan's physical woes have led Gregg Popovich to a plan in which Duncan will sit out the second game of back-to-backs. The Spurs have four such games left this season. San Antonio is probably in good enough shape to avoid missing the playoffs altogether, but a first-round matchup against the Lakers looms as a real possibility.
12. (12) Portland Trail Blazers (47.4 / 0.0%) [ 46 / 48 / 50 ]
Rankings: NET: 10; OFF: 5; DEF: 15; PACE: 30
The Blazers finish a five-game Eastern swing tonight in Memphis. Portland is 3-1 so far on its trip, with the only loss coming in overtime in Chicago last Friday. It's been an encouraging stretch for Portland, which is currently battling San Antonio for seventh in the West. The winner of that battle gets to avoid the Lakers in the first round. The Blazers' remaining opponents have a .525 winning percentage, versus .498 for the Spurs. However, you have to like the way Portland is playing much more than the recent performance of the Spurs.
13. (13) Miami Heat (43.1 / 0.0%) [ 39 / 43 / 44 ]
Rankings: NET: 13; OFF: 18; DEF: 9; PACE: 28
The streaky Heat are mired in a depressed cycle that threatens to lock them out of the playoffs and leave Dwyane Wade with a bad taste in his mouth entering the coming turbulence of summer. Beginning Jan. 31, Miami lost five straight, then won five straight, and now have dropped four in a row. The bipolar tendencies could swing back the good way beginning Tuesday, when the Heat begin a stretch of eight out nine games at home. However, there are some pretty tough visitors to AmericanAirlines Arena coming up, including Lakers, Hawks, Bulls, Spurs and Magic. It's a crucial stretch for Miami, whose overall remaining schedule is the league's easiest.
14. (14) Houston Rockets (42.6 / 0.0%) [ 41 / 39 / 50 ]
Rankings: NET: 17; OFF: 17; DEF: 17; PACE: 8
The Rockets have lost 11 of 16, but only Miami has an easier slate of remaining opponents. This year's version of the Rockets really depends upon three-point shooting, but Houston has been inconsistent in that regard. Only two teams take a greater portion of their shots from behind the arc, but the Rockets stand 21st in eFG%. As for recently acquired Kevin Martin, he's shot under 40 percent and gone 4-of-15 as a Rocket. However, Martin had 32 points on just 13 field-goal attempts in his last game at Utah. That's the Kevin Martin statheads know and love.
15. (16) Charlotte Bobcats (42.3 / 0.0%) [ 40 / 43 / 45 ]
Rankings: NET: 14; OFF: 23; DEF: 5; PACE: 27
The Bobcats eked out a much-needed win at Memphis on Friday and then enjoyed the weekend off. They needed the time to prepare for a week against the Mavericks, Celtics and Lakers. Even one win would be a boost to Charlotte's playoff hopes, as the schedule in the weeks to come is a lot more appealing. Two wins in that stretch could reinvigorate Bobcats fans who just learned that Michael Jordan will become their new owner. Charlotte fans should enjoy this season while they can, because Jordan is going to have some hairy future finances to sort through.
16. (17) Milwaukee Bucks (41.8 / 0.0%) [ 41 / 43 / 26 ]
Rankings: NET: 15; OFF: 24; DEF: 7; PACE: 16
I was a little hard on the Bucks for their trade deadline deals, but the benefits were immediate and dramatic. The Bucks reeled off six wins in a row beginning the day after the deadline. My feeling at the time was the Milwaukee should have been doing everything possible to shed salary, rather than taking on John Salmons' contract. In reality, however, Milwaukee isn't going to be able to clear significant cap space until Michael Redd's contract expires at the end of next season. Given Redd's inability to stay healthy, it's unlikely the Bucks will find a taker for the $18.3 million he has coming next year, at least until next year's deadline. By then, however, the whole trading environment could be poisoned by the labor negotiations, so there is a definite possibility Milwuakee will have to pay out every penny of the onerous contract they handed to Redd in 2005. As for me, I had soured on Salmons after watching him play many times this season for the Bulls. He just wasn't efficient this season and had a touch of what I call the Reggie Bush Syndrome, where an athlete takes on the airs of being a hero when his abilities don't necessarily warrant it. I was always a fan of Salmons' game when he was in Sacramento and he was terrific in the playoffs for Chicago last spring. If he keeps playing as well as he has in Milwaukee, we might have to look at Vinny Del Negro for the reason he underachieved this season for the Bulls.
17. (15) Toronto Raptors (41.1 / 0.0%) [ 43 / 38 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 16; OFF: 4; DEF: 30; PACE: 11
The Raptors have dropped three straight and are lucky Chicago stubbed its toe a couple of times last week, or else Toronto would be looking up at the Bulls in the standings. An interesting tidbit I picked up from a Raptors telecast the other night: The Toronto roster has only been wholly intact for one game this season. Chris Bosh has missed the Raptors' last five games and is questionable for their game tonight in Houston.
18. (18) Memphis Grizzlies (40.3 / 0.0%) [ 41 / 38 / 30 ]
Rankings: NET: 20; OFF: 12; DEF: 23; PACE: 12
Memphis has lost 10 of 15 after hitting its high-water mark of six games over .500 and hasn't won two games in a row since January. The Grizzlies are playing better of late, having won three of five. One of the losses was a one-point heartbreaker at home to the Lakers, thanks to another Kobe Bryant flourish to finish a game. The other loss was a four-point loss to Charlotte. So Memphis has been on the verge of putting together a streak. The Blazers, Hornets, Bulls and Spurs loom ahead on this week's schedule.
19. (20) New Orleans Hornets (40.0 / 0.0%) [ 42 / 36 / 44 ]
Rankings: NET: 18; OFF: 14; DEF: 19; PACE: 17
To say that the Hornets are 6-8 since Chris Paul was injured on Jan. 29 detracts from the great news in New Orleans stemming from the emergence of rookie guards Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton. Thornton averaged 18.8 points and shot over 40 percent from three-point range during February, while Collison averaged 21.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 8.3 assists. Collison also committed 62 turnovers in 13 February games, so there are definitely some areas for improvement. However, for a franchise that hasn't done too well in the draft in recent years, the play of its rookies is a hopeful sign.
20. (19) Chicago Bulls (39.9 / 0.0%) [ 43 / 37 / 45 ]
Rankings: NET: 19; OFF: 27; DEF: 6; PACE: 10
The Bulls are 21-11 since hitting bottom back in December at 10-17 and are in position to make a run at the No. 5 seed in the East. However, losses at Washington and Indiana demonstrated that the young Bulls are in no position to play like an entitled team. Chicago is at home for its next four games, but the opponents are tough: Atlanta, Memphis Dallas and Utah.
21. (21) Philadelphia 76ers (31.9 / 0.0%) [ 31 / 33 / 40 ]
Rankings: NET: 21; OFF: 20; DEF: 21; PACE: 22
Here's a sobering thought for Sixers fans hoping for better days ahead: If Jason Kapono and Willie Green exercise their player options for next season, Philly will likely be a luxury tax payer with basically the same moribund roster as this season. That could change if they find a taker for the last year of Samuel Dalembert's contract, but that's the way it stands right now.
22. (22) Los Angeles Clippers (30.4 / 0.0%) [ 33 / 28 / 27 ]
Rankings: NET: 23; OFF: 25; DEF: 18; PACE: 19
The Clippers have been anointed as one of the precious teams with maximum money available this summer, but when I finally finished updating my financial data after the whirlwind of deadline activity, I just don't see how it's possible. They're close, but once you account for roster holds and their upcoming first-round pick, I think the Clips are going to come up just short of the $16.2 million needed to give a max deal to LeBron James or anyone else. That, of course, depends on where you think the salary cap is going to end up, but it's going to need to be at least $54.1 million for L.A. to have enough space. It's possible and it also might not matter. If James or Wade decide the Clips are the team for them, is it really going to matter if the L.A. is a few hundred thousand short of max?
23. (23) Washington Wizards (29.3 / 0.0%) [ 30 / 31 / 26 ]
Rankings: NET: 25; OFF: 22; DEF: 22; PACE: 18
What in the world has gotten into Andray Blatche? Blatche had all sorts of problems with Flip Saunders early in the season stemming from a perceived lack of opportunities in Saunders' offense. Now that the Wizards are without four of their opening night starters, Blatche has the run of the joint and is making the best of it. Since Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood were all dealt prior to the trade deadline, Blatch has averaged 26.6 points and 11.7 rebounds. He's also getting 20 shots per game, which should make him happy.
24. (24) New York Knicks (28.5 / 0.0%) [ 28 / 32 / 31 ]
Rankings: NET: 22; OFF: 16; DEF: 25; PACE: 7
The Knicks have lost 17 of 22 and it doesn't look like the acquisition of Tracy McGrady is going to do much to curb that trend. At least it gives Knicks fans a familiar face to watch as New York plays out the string. Unfortunately, a byproduct of the roster shuffling is that Danilo Gallinari has become timid. Since the deadline, Gallinari has only taken six shots per game.
25. (27) Sacramento Kings (28.0 / 0.0%) [ 27 / 29 / 30 ]
Rankings: NET: 26; OFF: 21; DEF: 24; PACE: 6
Most people think I'm crazy, but I still think Tyreke Evans is neck-and-neck with Brandon Jennings in the race for Rookie of the Year. Well, not really, because I'm in the vast minority. Evans fans, never fear, because Tyreke caught Jennings in one of my two key metrics last week and will likely catch him in the other in the next week or two. Based on recent trends, even I have to relent and declare Evans as the favorite.
26. (25) Detroit Pistons (27.8 / 0.0%) [ 29 / 28 / 44 ]
Rankings: NET: 28; OFF: 26; DEF: 20; PACE: 29
The Pistons are on pace to win 29 games, their fewest in a full season since Grant Hill's rookie season./p>
27. (26) Golden State Warriors (27.3 / 0.0%) [ 24 / 32 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 24; OFF: 19; DEF: 26; PACE: 1
Speaking of the Rookie of the Year race, Stephen Curry has come on strong and might make it a three-headed monster before the season is over. He may be there already, given that his excellent play of late has gained so much attention. Best as I can tell, Curry has stepped up by basically saying to heck with Monta Ellis. For half the season, Curry was far too deferential to his ball-hogging backcourt mate. Still, my metrics see too many problems with Curry's defense to put him on a par with Tyreke Evans or Brandon Jennings.
28. (28) Indiana Pacers (27.1 / 0.0%) [ 27 / 28 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 27; OFF: 28; DEF: 13; PACE: 2'
For the life of me, I can't think of anything to say about the Pacers, so I'll just report that Indiana waived guard Travis Diener on Monday. Diener played just four games for the Pacers this season because of a toe injury. He is expected to be picked up by Portland on Monday after clearing waivers. Monday is the deadline for adding players for the postseason.
29. (29) Minnesota Timberwolves (18.7 / 0.0%) [ 18 / 19 / 32 ]
Rankings: NET: 29; OFF: 29; DEF: 27; PACE: 4
It's too soon to say what effect Al Jefferson's weekend arrest might have on his future trade value. However, if David Kahn was thinking of shopping Jefferson this summer, this may have been a clincher. Minnesota has over $12 million in cap space this summer, maybe more depending on what they do with Ryan Gomes. While the Timberwolves aren't going to be making a run at a max free agent, the combination of Jefferson and the cap space could help Kahn to land a premier scorer via the trade route.
30. (30) New Jersey Nets (11.4 / 0.0%) [ 8 / 14 / 40 ]
Rankings: NET: 30; OFF: 30; DEF: 29; PACE: 24
Well-traveled Kris Humphries has performed well since coming to New Jersey, out-producing his counterparts by 2.1 points per 100 possessions. That's right in line with what he was doing in Dallas in a more limited role. This is nothing new for Humphries, who has always been an effective per-minute player. While he's in his sixth NBA season, Humphries is still only 24 years old. Will someone please give this guy a regular rotation role?
RANKINGS: NET = net efficiency ratio; OFF - offensive efficiency; DEF - defensive efficiency; PACE: average possessions per 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)))
Championship probability (CHAM) = percent of championships won out of 10,000 simulations of the "as of today" playoff bracket, based on each team's POW
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.
Playoff Potential (POT) = suggests the highest likely postseason round a team might advance to, based on comparing its POW to other teams in our database
Power rating (POW) = (((PYTH + AWP)/2)*(OWP/.500)) x 82
Pythagorean winning percentage (PYTH) = uses the basketball-reference formula of Games x (Points scored^14) / ((Points scored^14) + (Points allowed^14))
WP82 = wins produced per 82 games, adjusted for playing time
WP3K = wins produced per 3,000 minutes
SKILL RATINGS: player performance is quantitatively tracked in a variety of categories that represent a cross-section of basketball skills; in each category, the player's performance is measured against others at his position, then slotted in a league-wide percentile ranking. The percentile ranking is converted to an integral rating between +5 and -5, with 0 being average. Skill ratings are tracked for overall production (TOT), offensive production (OFF), on-ball defensive ability (DEF), overall rebounding (REB), passing (PAS), ballhandling (HND), shooting (SHT), athleticism (ATH), foul-drawing (FOU), blocks-plus-steals (BPS).
Statistical Plus Minus (SPM): measures a players net effect in points per 100 team possessions.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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