As loaded as the Western Conference is — and even moreso after the trade deadline deals — it’s looking more and more like whoever emerges from that side of the playoff bracket will have a whole other kind of hell to deal with coming out of the East. Onto the power rankings…
1. Detroit Pistons (42-15) — The team we all saw in Phoenix on Sunday was a straight juggernaut, a brick wall on defense and a relentless machine on offense. And you knew Rasheed would go off; he’s averaging 15 points (44% FGs) and 8 boards on the road this year, compared to 10 points (41% FGs) and 5 boards per at the Palace.
2. Los Angeles Lakers (39-17) — Did someone say the Gasol acquisition would free up Lamar Odom? The Lakers have gone 9-1 since the trade, with L.O. averaging 15.6 points and 12.3 rebounds a night. His glass-cleaning numbers for the season have climbed into double-digits, and he’s making the Lakers look even smarter for keeping him instead of giving him up for Kidd.
3. Houston Rockets (36-20) — T-Mac and Yao have been doing their thing as the win streak has stretched to 12, but it isn’t just them. Rafer Alston’s been good for 14.5 points and 7.6 assists per during the streak.
4. San Antonio Spurs (38-17) — If each year’s All-Star team is really based on the first half of the current season plus the second half of the previous season, Manu is making his case to start for the West in ’09. He’s been KILLING lately, dropping two 40-point games and two 30-point games this month.
5. Utah Jazz (36-20) — With huge games against the Pistons and Hornets coming up, will the Jazz fall into a trap at Minnesota on Tuesday? Friday’s national TV game between Deron and Chris Paul will match up the two hottest point guards in the League. Oh, and they both hate losing to each other.
6. Phoenix Suns (38-18) — Although the team is a disappointing 1-2 with Shaq, Project Amare Stoudemire is going fantastic. STAT has poured in 32 points per game since Shaq’s debut. And remember when Amare missed that huge free throw in the loss to San Antonio that very well might have facilitated the Shaq deal? Stoudemire’s nailed 89 percent of his freebies ever since.
7. Boston Celtics (43-12) — The first three-game losing skid of the season (Nuggets, Warriors, Suns) shouldn’t be met with too much panic. Be more worried that KG doesn’t look near the dominating force he was a few months ago.
8. New Orleans Hornets (37-18) — After riding high from beating the Mavs in J-Kidd’s debut, the Hornets got spanked by T-Mac/Yao and Manu/Duncan, then let one get away against the Wizards.
9. Dallas Mavericks (38-19) — If Chris Webber had been available when Dallas made the Kidd trade and left themselves with Erick Dampier alone in the middle, would they have taken a chance on C-Webb?
10. Orlando Magic (36-22) — Rashard Lewis is the richest third-banana in the NBA, putting up 18.2 points and 5.1 boards a night. And his 155 triples are good for second in the League.
11. Denver Nuggets (33-23) — The frustrating part about J.R. Smith is that just as easy as he can go off for 40 points and 8 threes one night, he can single-handedly lose the game for you the next night.
12. Cleveland Cavaliers (32-24) — Has anyone played with more teammates over the last 11 years than Zydrunas Ilgauskas? He’s seen everyone from Shawn Kemp to Andre Miller to Ricky Davis to LeBron to Big Ben come through Cleveland. Big Z even played with Danny Ferry for a couple years.
13. Golden State Warriors (33-22) — Was that a Brandan Wright sighting we had over the weekend? The rookie notched 8 points, 8 boards and 2 blocks against the Hawks in a season-high 26 minutes. On that note, can you imagine how sick North Carolina would be this year if Wright had stayed?
14. Toronto Raptors (31-24) — Even after he dropped everyone’s jaw at All-Star, Jason Kapono still can’t get consistent PT for Sam Mitchell. The three-point champ must be an AWFUL defender in order for Mitchell to justify keeping a weapon like that on the bench.
15. Sacramento Kings (26-29) — Seeing as all of their point guards have expiring contracts, and none of them are all that good in the first place, where do you think Sacramento will look in the ’08 Draft? We’ll take D.J. Augustin for $500, Alex.
16. Portland Trail Blazers (29-27) — Remember when they looked unbeatable? The Blazers have lost seven of their last eight (the lone win coming against Seattle), Brandon Roy is hurt (ankle), and this week they have the Lakers (twice).
17. Washington Wizards (27-29) — With all the major personnel changes going on around the League, it reminds us that the Wizards have a decision to make this summer if Gilbert Arenas chooses to opt-out. Will the Wiz ante up and keep him or give the franchise another facelift?
18. New Jersey Nets (25-31) — Since we’re bringing back ex-Nets from the Calipari era, does anyone know what Kerry Kittles is up to?
19. Philadelphia 76ers (25-32) — Overheard in the Dime office the other day: “Iguodala’s clearly the second-best player on that team now to Andre Miller.” Really? Actually, it’s not a crazy statement, and that’s more a compliment to ‘Dre Miller than a diss to ‘Dre ‘Dala.
20. Milwaukee Bucks (21-35) — In recent wins over the Pistons and Nuggets, the Bucks’ offense looked unstoppable. They live and die by the jump shot too much, though, and this season’s been Brick City.
21. Atlanta Hawks (22-32) — One of these days they’ll be able to consistently put together four quarters of good basketball. That’s one way a veteran point guard like Mike Bibby can help. Until then it’s still a good quarter here and a solid half there.
22. Chicago Bulls (22-34) — Drew Gooden: Goofiest power forward to hit Chi-town since Rodman. Too bad he’s one-fourth as effective as Worm on the court.
23. Indiana Pacers (22-35) — From his vagrant appearance to his odd behavior off the court to his (lack of) skills on the court, David Harrison has completely turned into the next Michael Olowokandi. And look out for Patrick O’Bryant to take over the mantle whenever Harrison’s out of the League.
24. Los Angeles Clippers (19-35) — A nightly competition between Corey Maggette and Al Thornton to lead the team in scoring. About the only thing worth watching with this team.
25. New York Knicks (17-39) — We’re starting to hear “Fire Isiah” chants at the Knicks road games now. Although, if you’re an Atlantic Division squad, wouldn’t you be urging Dolan to keep Isiah?
26. Charlotte Bobcats (19-37) — The last time the ‘Cats beat an above-.500 team was when they upset Orlando in mid-January. Since then, the few-and-far-between W’s have come against Memphis, Chicago, the Clippers and Atlanta. When does the potential kick in?
27. Seattle Supersonics (15-40) — Trade away the second-best scorer on the team (Wally) and you’re left with Mickael Gelabale and Earl Watson running wild with a green light. Take a deep breath and wait for the Lottery drawing.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves (11-43) — Rough week ahead for Al Jefferson: Boozer on Tuesday, Bosh on Wednesday, Ben Wallace on Friday. At least he doesn’t have to worry about getting scored on in that last one.
29. Memphis Grizzlies (14-42) — Guess who’s the highest-paid player on the ’07-08 Grizzlies? Hint: His last name is Brown, and his first name’s not Andre.
30. Miami Heat (9-44) — Enough with the moral victories. It’s nice that Miami got a little pep in their step since adding Shawn Marion, but now it’s time to win a damn basketball game.