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Spurs still No. 1, but no team is clear-cut favorite for title

With the All-Star break and the trading deadline nearly upon us, I can't remember a time in the last 10 years when the consensus on who will win the championship has been more fragmented. The Spurs have been winning at a rate duplicated -- with few exceptions -- only by eventual champions, but at best San Antonio is rated as a co-favorite alongside the Celtics and Lakers, with doubters casting aspersions on the Spurs' abnormally good health (can it last straight through to June?) and their lack of size and depth in defending the paint.

Meanwhile, the Celtics are still old and grizzled, but proud and a little desperate to bag another title before their window closes. And the two-time defending champion Lakers haven't played with the kind of consistency that would inspire any confidence.

The Heat, Mavericks, Bulls and Magic lurk on the perimeter as decent long-shot bets.

The big mover in this week's Power Rankings likely won't be around for the second round this postseason. But the 76ers, up five spots to 13th, just walloped Atlanta on the road and toppled the Spurs at home in a week that put their 3-13 start further in the rearview mirror.

(Stats and records are through Feb. 14.)

NBA Power Rankings
1San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 1
After shooting only 39.5 percent in January (albeit a respectable 37.9 percent from three-point territory), Gary Neal has rediscovered his stroke. Neal is connecting on 51.8 percent in the first eight games of February, including half of his 20 three-point attempts. A confident and aggressive Neal has added another dimension to a potent offense and contributed to San Antonio's 6-2 record on a nine-game road trip that concludes Thursday in Chicago. Neal is one of the better, under-the-radar stories in the NBA this season: a 26-year-old rookie averaging 19.7 minutes for a 46-9 juggernaut.
 
2Boston Celtics
Last Week: 3
An MRI on Paul Pierce's left foot showed a bruise but no break, so he'll forge ahead to the All-Star break and even defend his title in the three-point contest over the weekend. Meanwhile, Von Wafer -- who is in many ways a larger Nate Robinson -- made his case for more playing time in the absence of Marquis Daniels by getting 10 points (on 4-of-5 shooting) and two steals in 14 minutes while Pierce was shooting 0-for-10 in Sunday's victory against Miami. And Delonte West is due back Wednesday after missing two and a half months with a broken wrist. No doubt it has been an injury-prone season in Boston. But everything is relative, and unlike much of last year, or even the first couple of months of this season, when starters Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo missed extended time, there is nothing on the Celtics' current injury chart that seems particularly foreboding for the postseason.
 
3Miami Heat
Last Week: 2
Miami Heat (39-15)
Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but it is not hard to second-guess coach Erik Spoelstra for playing center Erick Dampier only six minutes at Boston. Celtics coach Doc Rivers was able to avoid a Dampier-Perkins matchup by resting his starting center during Dampier's brief time on the court. Otherwise, Perkins was able to get to the rim -- and the free-throw line, where he was 7-of-9 -- for a robust 15 points, his season high in 10 games, against the smaller Joel Anthony and the slower Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Spoelstra's other big adjustment, limiting point guard Mario Chalmers to 13 minutes and leaving Carlos Arroyo on the bench, made sense given how well Rajon Rondo has carved up the Heat. A steady dose of either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade on Rondo seems necessary in future meetings.
 
4Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 5
One of the few criticisms leveled at Chicago this season is its weakness at shooting guard. True, starter Keith Bogans not only is reinforcing his career sub-40 shooting percentage, but he also hasn't made enough of an impact as a defensive specialist, according to Basketball Value. But the other two-thirds of the platoon, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer, are frequently on the court together in crunch time (they form a three-man rotation with forward Luol Deng), and the Bulls lead the league in fourth-quarter scoring margin. The rest of the NBA should have such problems.
 
5Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 4
Since ending their six-game skid in mid-January, the Mavs have won 12 of 14 despite the absence of Caron Butler. The advanced statistics on Butler's primary replacement, Shawn Marion, show him hurting the team at both ends of the court. Watching the games, however, the 32-year-old Marion seems to flow naturally into whatever Dallas needs: an emergency rotation on defense, a steal and a putback, and an overall sense of pace and flow that prevents the team from settling into a flat-footed, half-court pace that relies too much on the ingenuity of Jason Kidd and the shooting of Dirk Nowitzki. Paired with Jason Terry and J.J. Barea off the bench -- and often during crunch time -- Marion is putting up solid numbers, including 11.6 points and 7.6 rebounds during this 14-game surge. The team-performance numbers suggest Dallas is winning in spite of him. So far, at least, coach Rick Carlisle is right to ignore them.
 
6Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 6
Let's face it: It won't be until about the second round of the playoffs before anyone really knows whether the Lakers are sandbagging this regular season like the Celtics of a year ago, or if their inconsistency is a sign of more fundamental and intractable flaws. The team that dispatched Boston in the most important contest of its seven-game road trip, which ends Wednesday in Cleveland, was a much crisper and more intense club than the one that lost rather handily to Orlando and Charlotte. Yes, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom are playing well, but nowhere near the inspired, well-rounded production they exhibited in November. And the point guard situation is a mess, with neither Derek Fisher nor Steve Blake able to shoot accurately or stay in front of his man on defense consistently.
 
7Orlando Magic
Last Week: 9
Sunday's thumping of the Lakers was a vital step forward for Orlando, which had lost eight consecutive games to teams with winning records. To solidify its prospects as team to be taken seriously beyond the first round of the playoffs, two things still must occur: First, management can't lull itself into thinking that the return of Brandon Bass solves its depth problem in the frontcourt. And second, coach Stan Van Gundy must alter his "whoever is open" methodology on the perimeter and find more open looks for Jason Richardson. Dwight Howard will own the paint, and the Magic should go to him often, as they did Sunday. But they don't seriously challenge elite teams without a hot and confident J-Rich, who is averaging only 12.2 points on 37.3 percent shooting from the field and 29.3 percent from three-point range in the last 10 games.
 
8Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 7
The Thunder have a unique style. They get to the free-throw line a ton and shoot a very high percentage there. They yield points in the paint in large bunches and rank 17th in defensive efficiency. They are among the bottom four in assists, primarily because their top two scorers, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, are so good at creating their own shot and/or drawing the foul. They can play odd games, like the one Sunday in Golden State, where they were minus-18 in offensive rebounds and minus-14 in rebounds overall, minus-16 on points in the paint and minus-12 in turnovers, yet were within one point with three minutes to play and lost by only six. The Thunder had a chance to win because they were plus-17 in made free throws and shot 52 percent from the field. Is this weird concoction a winning formula for the playoffs? Right now, the Thunder would have home-court advantage in the first round as they find out.
 
9Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 14
Was it really less than 16 months ago that the Grizzlies were a laughingstock? Remember, this was the franchise desperate enough to sign Allen Iverson and clueless enough to gift-wrap multiple rings for the Lakers via the Pau Gasol trade. But a turning point occurred when they quickly cut their losses and dumped Iverson. Then the much-derided acquisition of problem-child Zach Randolph paid off as he became an All-Star and low-post stud. Marc Gasol took some of the sting, and supposed stupidity, out of the deal for his brother. Second-guessers can still talk -- Memphis probably overpaid for Rudy Gay and Mike Conley, and taking Hasheem Thabeet with the No. 2 pick in 2009 was a Darko-sized blunder. But after a lousy defense (19th in efficiency) and the NBA's worst bench sabotaged last season's playoff run, the acquisition of free agent Tony Allen and the maturation of Darrell Arthur and Sam Young (and the superb, patient coaching of Lionel Hollins) have given the Grizzlies a solid nine-man rotation, the NBA's eighth-most-efficient defense and a chance to make good on owner Michael Heisley's guarantee of a postseason appearance this season.
 
10Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 13
It is safe to say that if the All-Star teams were being picked today instead of two weeks ago, LaMarcus Aldridge would be on the West roster. The conference's reigning Player of the Week just keeps getting better, improving his scoring and shooting percentage every month. What's most impressive is that Aldridge doesn't chafe in coach Nate McMillan's tightly controlled system. After Aldridge had scored more than 35 points in three straight games last week, the Timberwolves came at him hard with double teams to begin Monday's game, and his shrewd ball movement was a significant factor in Portland's 18-2 edge in the first six minutes. (Aldridge finished with 21 points and five assists.) As rumors of Brandon Roy's return from knee surgery swirl in the midst of a five-game winning streak (four of them on the road), it's worth asking if Roy can handle deferring to Aldridge as the team's go-to scorer.
 
11Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 8
The Hawks can't afford to have Jamal Crawford go cold, as he has the last 10 games, shooting 24 percent from three-point range and 35.1 percent overall. With Crawford and Joe Johnson struggling, the Hawks last week were wiped out 117-83 by the Sixers at home, then had three days to prepare only to blow a 22-point lead and lose on a last-second shot against Charlotte, also at home. Now comes the hard part: A five-game road trip right after the All-Star break that kicks off a month-long stretch in which Atlanta plays the Bulls three times, the Lakers and Blazers twice, the Heat and the Thunder. In all, 15 of its next 18 games are against opponents whose current records are .500 or better.
 
12New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 10
The Hornets are 2-6 since Emeka Okafor strained his oblique in the second quarter with New Orleans ahead of Phoenix on Jan. 30. Of the substitutes in the pivot, Aaron Gray has been beefy but slow and foul-prone, and Jason Smith isn't staunch enough -- no surprises there. New Orleans plays eight of its next 10 on the road, but of that stretch Okafor is expected to miss only the two games before the All-Star break. With Utah and Denver fading and in disarray, and the Thunder's defense still suspect, home-court advantage in the first round remains a distinct possibility for the Hornets.
 
13Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 18
Doug Collins won't be a factor in the Coach of the Year balloting, but he has slowly and steadily reared the Sixers to the point that they are now humming with teamwork at both ends of the court. "I love the way Philly moves the ball," Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis said Saturday after the Sixers routed his team by 20 with seven players in double figures and 24 assists against only eight turnovers. Philadelphia commits the second-fewest turnovers in the league, led by Andre Iguodala, who is fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.39 to 1) and the only non-point guard in the top 15. Collins has responded by restructuring the offense around Iguodala's playmaking. Iguodala is also paramount at the other end of the court: His defense on Manu Ginobili, combined with the hot outside shooting of Jrue Holiday (coming out of a brief slump), keyed Friday's upset of the Spurs.
 
14Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 16
Phoenix Suns (26-26)
The key to last season's surprising run to the Western Conference finals was coach Alvin Gentry's ability to mold an energetic, defensive-oriented second unit that functioned well together but could also mix in with the starters. A similar dynamic has keyed the Suns' 6-2 spurt. On the wings, Jared Dudley and Mickael Pietrus are dogged defenders who can nail the three-pointer and love to try. Inside, center Marcin Gortat can be a grinder or a finesse guy depending on the matchup, and Hakim Warrick is a lithe shot-blocker. Soon, Goran Dragic will return from a foot injury and replace Zabian Dowdell at the point. None of them start, but have given the Suns enough of a defensive identity that Vince Carter has scored a total of 29 points the last four games and Phoenix won three of them.
 
15Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 12
Two years ago, the Nuggets made it to the West finals as much on the strength of their defense -- rated eighth in points allowed per possession -- as their offense, which was seventh in efficiency. Remarkably, seven of the top eight in minutes from 2008-09 are still with the team (Linas Kleiza, sixth in minutes, is now with Toronto). So is coach George Karl. Yet the 2010-11 Nuggets have plummeted to 23rd in defensive efficiency while ranking first in offense. The imbalance has not been successful, as Denver has dropped seven of 10 while yielding an average of 110.9 points. Its rotations and close-outs are half-hearted, its focus and intensity sporadic, its commitment to teamwork obviously insufficient. Denver fans must long for the trading deadline, when Carmelo Anthony is either in or out for the entire season, and there are no more excuses for the Nuggets' lack of pride.
 
16Utah Jazz
Last Week: 11
Utah Jazz (31-24)
The sound track of a basketball game coached by Jerry Sloan was constant whistles by the officials. Under Sloan, the Jazz frequently led the NBA in fouls committed, and that is the case this season, too. But Sloan's teams also got themselves to the free-throw line, finishing in the top three in attempts the last five years with their grind-it-out, half-court style of offense. This season they are down to seventh, and managed just 12 in their ugly loss to open the post-Sloan era against Phoenix on Friday. Even worse, aggressive point guard Deron Williams and their chief low-post threat, center Al Jefferson, were both shut out at the charity stripe.
 
17Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 20
The Pacers were 2-18 when trailing after three quarters before reversing that trend with a 33-15 fourth-quarter shellacking of the Timberwolves on Friday. The period included 19 points from Dahntay Jones, who couldn't get off the bench under former coach Jim O'Brien. The next night Roy Hibbert outplayed Andrew Bogut in a win over Milwaukee that ran new coach Frank Vogel's record to 7-1. Nearly everyone is playing better, but a big surprise is how Vogel's more freewheeling, fast-paced style has benefited power forward Josh McRoberts, whose 22 assists (versus only nine turnovers) under Vogel include an eye-opening, behind-the-back baseline bounce pass for a Hibbert slam against Charlotte.
 
18New York Knicks
Last Week: 15
Little more than a week ago, coach Mike D'Antoni expressed a desire to see center Timofey Mozgov remain a starter to create a bigger lineup. But if the Knicks want to remain above .500, the primary player in the middle should be Ronny Turiaf and not the 24-year-old rookie. Mozgov has had two notable performances the last two weeks, against the lowly Pistons and Clippers. But overall the Knicks are only 3-9 when the Russian 7-footer plays more than 15 minutes, and, according to Basketball Value, he costs the team about nine points per 100 possessions when he's on the court compared to when he sits. Even after making 8-of-9 from the field in a loss to the Clippers last week, Mozgov is shooting only 45.9 percent for the season.
 
19Houston Rockets
Last Week: 17
Aside from Denver's obvious need to somehow resolve the Carmelo situation, no franchise seems more primed to make a deal before next week's deadline than the Rockets, who are over the luxury-tax threshold and on the fringe of playoff contention. Aaron Brooks is a disgruntled point guard who won't be re-signed. Assuming forward Luis Scola and guards Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry are cornerstones, there aren't enough swingman minutes for the likes of Courtney Lee, Chase Budinger, Shane Battier and Terence Williams. The Rockets also have bargaining chips in second-year big man Jordan Hill, the expiring contracts of Yao Ming (covered mostly by insurance), Battier and Jared Jeffries and a $6.3 million trade exception.
 
20Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 19
Remember when there were doubts about Stephen Curry's ability to command an offense as an NBA point guard? His 13-assist, no-turnover performance in Sunday's 100-94 upset of the Thunder was a textbook display of how to play the position on the offensive end. Yes, it came against Russell Westbrook, whose own offensive fireworks have overshadowed his wretched on-ball defense this season. But OKC is among the elite at closing out tight games, and from the time Curry entered with seven minutes to play and his team leading 80-78, he endured the pressure with pinpoint passing that yielded four assists. None of Curry's dimes were prettier than when he penetrated into the lane and zipped a pass to David Lee for an easy layup that sealed the game (see the 50-second mark here).
 
21Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 21
For a while, it looked like the peak seasons for forward Gerald Wallace had come to an end. Although Wallace is only 28 and made the All-Star team last year, he's had as many high-flying crashes and logged more rugged minutes over the last four or five years as most anyone in the game. Slowed or sidelined by knee injuries for much of the first half of the season, he simply didn't look as sharp, and he still has his lowest true shooting percentage (which takes into account two-pointers, threes and free throws) and Player Efficiency Rating in six years. But the numbers for eight February games are encouraging: 18.1 points, 11 rebounds and 3.1 assists while carrying a heavy burden on defense and playing an average of 40 minutes.
 
22Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 24
All season, the Bucks have hoped and assumed that their guards would shoot more accurately, but there is the dreadful possibility that the current situation may not improve that much -- not in this or any other year. Second-year point guard Brandon Jennings is considered a franchise cornerstone, but over the first 117 games of his career, his numbers have been pretty consistent -- he's nudged his true shooting percentage from 47.5 as a rookie up to 48.0. Only a passing wizard or a shutdown defender can be accommodated when shooting so poorly, and Jennings is neither. Beside him in the backcourt is John Salmons, who has battled injuries in his ninth season while compiling a true shooting percentage of 48.8, his lowest mark since the 2003-04 season. Salmons has looked like an old 31 this season and the Bucks are on the hook for at least three more seasons after this one at about $8 million per year.
 
23Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 23
Ben Gordon, who signed a five-year, $58 million deal in 2009, is officially a free-agent mistake, on the verge of being an outright bust. Gordon could blame his 2009-2010 season, the worst of his then-six-year career, on an assortment of injuries, and attribute his slow start this season to the tension surrounding Rip Hamilton's refusal to gracefully cede his starting spot. But now that Hamilton has been shunted aside, Gordon is still missing jumpers much more frequently then he ever did in Chicago, and he's setting career lows in field-goal and free-throw attempts and points and assists per minute. Since arriving in Detroit, he's performed at what an optimist would call league-average production while pulling down a guaranteed eight-figure salary every year on a contract that lasts through 2013-14.
 
24New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 27
This is a pivotal stage in the career of 24-year-old point guard Jordan Farmar, who enjoyed a high profile as a backup on two championship Lakers teams before signing a three-year, $12 million deal with the Nets last summer. Although clearly a second-stringer behind Devin Harris, Farmar was missed when he was sidelined for six games with a back ailment; the Nets were 1-5 with Ben Uzoh running the second unit. Farmar's 2.27-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is easily a career high, but he needs to develop a floater or short pull-up jumper, as, according to Hoopdata, he's making just 26.8 percent of his shots from outside the rim to within 10 feet, way below the league average of 39.1 and the main reason his overall field-goal percentage is just 38.6.
 
25Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 22
Three wretched road losses to opponents who were reeling before playing the Clippers -- Cleveland, Toronto and Milwaukee -- have exposed L.A.'s immaturity and lack of depth. The Cavaliers and Bucks are the NBA's least efficient offensive teams, yet both shot 50 percent or better against the Clippers. On the perimeter, Baron Davis, never a stalwart defender to begin with, is playing on an aching knee, rookie Eric Bledsoe is frequently late or nonexistent on his rotations, and Randy Foye is undersized when defending shooting guards. Up front, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan remain a team strength, propelling the Clippers to the second-most points in the paint per game behind Memphis while helping them rank in the top 10 in fewest paint points allowed. But the incessant hype surrounding Griffin -- and perhaps the infamous rookie wall he might be hitting 55 games into the season -- seems to be draining him on this road trip.
 
26Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 25
It wasn't a coincidence that the Kings playing gritty, synergistic basketball Sunday without DeMarcus Cousins, who was not with the team for the victory against the Suns after his latest display of petulance. The rookie big man reportedly was pulled from the team's Phoenix-bound plane after an altercation with teammate Donte Greene, who had the temerity not to inbound the ball to Cousins for Sacramento's final shot in a loss to the Thunder on Saturday. Against the Suns, the Kings used their frontcourt depth -- Carl Landry and Jason Thompson filled in nicely beside center Samuel Dalembert -- and Greene's 12 points in the decisive fourth quarter to cool off Phoenix and snap a five-game losing streak.
 
27Washington Wizards
Last Week: 29
Since I criticized Nick Young for being a gunner in last week's rankings, he sandwiched two quality shooting performances -- 10-of-19 against the Bucks and 14-of-21 versus the Cavs -- around a lackluster 2-for-10 night against the Spurs. Because Washington won both of his hot-shooting games, I won't hold the measly one assist versus six turnovers in those three contests against him. Speaking of shooting, maybe Rashard Lewis can beat his season-long blues by varying his shot selection. According to Hoopdata, Lewis converts 73.8 percent of his attempts at the rim -- significantly above the league average -- and 60 percent of his shots from 16-23 feet, second best in the league (behind New Orleans' David Andersen) among players who have more than two attempts per game at that distance.
 
28Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 26
Three of the Raptors' best players happen to play power forward: their most expensive free-agent signing last summer, Amir Johnson; their 2010 lottery pick, Ed Davis; and the league's third-leading rebounder at the time he went down with a broken foot, Reggie Evans. Although he's in his sixth year, Johnson won't turn 24 until May and will be paid an average of close to $6 million per season through 2014-15. Davis is 21 and bound to Toronto, should it choose to exercise options, through 2013-14. Evans turns 31 in May and has a $5 million contract that expires after this season. Evans is a prime candidate to be moved before the trading deadline if and when he can assure teams that his foot has healed enough to help them.
 
29Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 28
With the Wizards and Cavaliers both ending notorious losing streaks in the last week, the Timberwolves are stepping into the competition for the NBA's biggest doormat. The Wolves followed up solid road wins at Houston and New Orleans -- characterized by good ball movement and a boost from the bench -- with a fourth-quarter collapse against Indiana, a home thrashing at the hands of the Sixers and Monday's home fiasco against Portland. Along with eliminating any suspense by coughing up an 18-2 deficit in the first six minutes Monday, the Wolves had three starters -- lottery picks Corey Brewer, Jonny Flynn and Wes Johnson -- who failed to register a field goal, assist or rebound, a first in Basketball-Reference's 25-year database.
 
30Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 30
The way returning point guard Mo Williams was able to elevate and stabilize the offense in Friday's streak-busting win over the Clippers indicates how much injuries have hurt Cleveland. Williams and Anderson Varejao function in roles not that dissimilar to those of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in Boston. No, they're not of the same caliber, nor can the Cavs otherwise be likened to the Celtics. But Williams and Varejao are two-thirds of Cleveland's veteran core (along with Antawn Jamison) and their prolonged absence probably won't be noted when historians consider how far the Cavs fell in their first post-LeBron season. The bottom line is that Cleveland is 8-23 with Varejao (who is out for the season) and 7-28 with Williams -- and 0-13 when both players are sidelined.
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