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Bulls blossom into East threat

Slowly but surely as the season has unfolded, it has become apparent that the Celtics' biggest challenge in the East might not be one of the Florida teams after all, but the Chicago Bulls.

Consider the ingredients for postseason success. Size certainly matters, and the Bulls are bigger and stauncher than Miami in the frontcourt and have much more front-line depth than Orlando, which underlines the phrase "foul trouble" whenever Dwight Howard is whistled too often. Defense is another staple of a legitimate contender, and the Bulls rank No. 1 in defensive efficiency despite injuries to key frontcourt players. Then there is familiarity, and while Chicago experienced a major roster shake-up during the offseason, it's no more jolting than what Miami did last summer or Orlando's dramatic overhaul in December.

Last but not least is star power. While Chicago can't compete with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (and Chris Bosh) in that category, Derrick Rose has emerged as a viable MVP candidate and Carlos Boozer is proving his value by both his presence in Chicago and his absence in Utah.

Put it all together, and no one should be surprised if it is the Bulls versus the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.

Of course, that's just the way it looks on Feb. 1, barely past the halfway point of the season. Fortunes can change quickly -- just ask the Mavericks. Two weeks ago, they were missing Dirk Nowitzki and dropping seven of eight games. Now Dirk is back, Tyson Chandler is hot at both ends of the court and Dallas is the big gainer in this week's Power Rankings, jumping five slots to fifth as it rides a five-game winning streak.

(All stats and records are through Jan. 31.)

NBA Power Rankings
1San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 1
The Spurs couldn't be more prepared for this week's start to their nine-game, 16-day road trip. They've won 11 of 12 and have trotted out the same five starters for 47 games, none of them averaging more than Tony Parker's 32.8 minutes. It's the same story in the last 10 games: No one has played more than Parker's 32.1 minutes. Saturday's victory against Houston showed the Spurs' typical relentless efficiency. Six players scored 12 to 22 points, four players had three to five assists and the team shot 51.4 percent from the field, 50 percent from three-point territory and 88.9 percent from the line. On the other end, the Rockets were held 10 points below their season average. Kevin Martin, the NBA leader in made free throws, never even got to the line. Tim Duncan sat out the final 14 minutes, and rookie James Anderson returned after missing more than two months with a broken foot.
 
2Boston Celtics
Last Week: 2
Welcome back, Kendrick Perkins, it's like you never left. The Celtics have to feel good -- and the rest of the NBA very queasy -- about how well Perkins was able to move laterally on his surgically repaired knee in his first four games back. Even with the rust on from having not played since Game 6 of last year's Finals, he demonstrated his value as a top pick-and-roll and on-ball defender from the center position. He'll almost certainly reclaim his starting job soon. Boston was a plus-18 in the 86 minutes Perkins played in those four games, compared to plus-7 in the 106 minutes he sat, capped by his plus-13 in 28 minutes of Sunday's 13-point win over the Lakers.
 
3Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 4
Here is more evidence that the Bulls are for real: Despite missing one of the league's premier low-post defenders in Joakim Noah, they have allowed just 83.6 points per game while winning six of seven. Even more impressive is the teamwide commitment to defense. The Bulls don't have a "defensive unit." Instead, they have been brutally consistent in those seven games, permitting 149 points (21.3 per game) in the first quarter, 147 (21.0) in the second, 148 (21.1) in the third and 141 (20.1) in the fourth. No team has scored more than 28 (Orlando in the second quarter) of any period.
 
4Miami Heat
Last Week: 5
Miami Heat (34-14)
Give Dwyane Wade credit for using the addition of LeBron James and Chris Bosh to improve his shot selection. The two shots per game Wade has pruned this season are the least desirable ones to take -- long-range two-pointers from 16-23 feet. According to Hoopdata, he's actually increased his attempts -- and his accuracy -- from within 10 feet. In deference to James and Bosh, he has also lowered his usage rate (the percentage of times he's directly involved in an offensive play) while increasing his percentage of assisted field goals, meaning he is less apt to create for himself off the dribble. By contrast, LeBron has cut his attempts at the rim and his three-pointers while jacking up about the same number of shots from 16-23 feet. His usage rate is also down, albeit not as much as Wade's, and his percentage of assisted field goals is down slightly from last year in Cleveland -- he's creating shots for himself as much as ever.
 
5Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 10
Center Tyson Chandler continues to thrive. He is increasingly supplementing his elite defense in the paint with more aggressive and well-rounded offense, fueling a five-game winning streak. Right after Dirk Nowitzki was lost for three weeks with a sprained knee, Caron Butler sustained a season-ending injury and Jason Terry endured a temporary slump. Chandler was the unexpected Mav to the offensive rescue, scoring 13.5 points per game in January (and more than 18 in his last five games), a near five-point increase from the first two months of the season. Chandler has been known as a good finisher at the rim (remember the alley-oops from Chris Paul in New Orleans?), but this season he has improved his accuracy at every distance, including at the free throw line, where he's shooting 77.4 percent compared to his career mark of 60.9 entering 2010-11. If the Mavs can regain their November-December mojo and seriously contend for a title, Chandler's January exploits will be an important footnote on the season.
 
6Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 3
General manager Mitch Kupchak told reporters Monday that he might explore a trade because "our performance is not living up to our talent level." His comments came in the wake of more defensive lapses: Sacramento dominated the paint for 50 points and 51.2 percent shooting in its upset win Friday, followed by the Celtics' dismantling of L.A.'s half-court defense on Sunday, when Boston shot 60.3 percent and Rajon Rondo registered 15 assists in the second half alone. Coach Phil Jackson benched defensive specialist Ron Artest in the midst of Paul Pierce's 32-point outburst, but with Matt Barnes injured, the alternative was Steve Blake on Ray Allen and Kobe Bryant on Pierce. And with aching knees and 41 points to go with zero assists, defense wasn't exactly Kobe's priority. In any case, the Lakers have dropped to 10th in defensive efficiency -- below almost all of the top title contenders, including the Spurs, Celtics, Bulls, Heat, Magic, Hornets and Mavs.
 
7Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 7
The twin perils of a shoddy defense and an unbalanced offense finally caught up with the Thunder in Sunday's loss to Miami, after they'd flirted with failure in overtime wins against the lowly Wizards and Wolves earlier in the week. Even in just the regulation 48 minutes, the Thunder allowed more than 100 points to Minnesota and Washington, who rank among the bottom third of the NBA in offensive efficiency. And while the stats and performances by Kevin Durant (who totaled 87 points in the two overtime victories) and Russell Westbrook (who posted a 35-13-13 triple-double against Washington) were dazzling, their dominance put the Thunder in a bind when quality defenders such as the Hornets' Trevor Ariza and Miami's LeBron James put the clamps on Durant. For those who prefer the glass half full, however, the Thunder's winning percentage is still the franchise's highest in 13 years.
 
8New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 6
The Hornets were walloped in the paint on back-to-back nights by the Kings and Suns. After DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings ended New Orleans' 10-game winning streak by scoring 52 points in the paint Saturday, 13 more than the Hornets typically allow, center Emeka Okafor went to the bench after straining his oblique with two minutes left in the first half in Phoenix on Sunday. Without Okafor, who has played in 306 consecutive games but didn't return, and is expected to be one to threee weeks, the Hornets were helpless against Marcin Gortat, who exploded for 21 points and eight rebounds in the final 17 minutes of Phoenix's 104-102 victory. The Hornets lack quality depth behind Okafor, so his presence is as vital to their prospects as go-to scorer David West and MVP candidate Chris Paul.
 
9Orlando Magic
Last Week: 8
After a nine-game winning streak following the blockbuster trades in mid-December, the Magic have split 12 games and need to figure out a few things if they hope to hang with the Celtics, Bulls and Heat at the top of the East. Is yielding partial control of the offense to Hedo Turkoglu messing up Jameer Nelson's game? How does Orlando get more open and frequent looks for Jason Richardson, who is shooting 37.1 percent over the last 10 games? As handy and heady as Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson have been beside Dwight Howard in the frontcourt, when will the Magic go out and get another big man, preferably a mobile defender? And is the impish and explosive Gilbert Arenas we remember and love gone forever?
 
10Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 9
The knocks on Josh Smith are that he's too emotionally volatile (he was fined $25,000 for an obscene gesture in Friday's victory against the Knicks) and has wretched shot selection. The data on shots is mixed: After a breakthrough 2009-2010 season in which he laid off the threes, Smith is back to jacking them up -- but at a career-best 37.5 percent, above the league average. Yet his overall accuracy has plummeted because he's down 2.6 attempts on those high-percentage, at-the-rim shots this season compared to last year, one reason his trips to the free-throw line are at a five-year low. The result is a wash: Smith's true shooting percentage is 53.5 percent, compared to 53.6 and 53.3 the previous two seasons, all slightly below the league average. On the other hand, Smith is rebounding better than ever, has a positive impact on the Hawks' defense and is not among the 21 players with five or more technical fouls this season.
 
11Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 13
If you don't think the uncertainty over Carmelo Anthony's future is affecting the Nuggets, go watch a tape of their pathetic defense in the first half against New Jersey on Monday. Lousy defense from Denver is nothing new -- the loss to the Nets was the 15th straight road game in which it's allowed at least 100 points. But yielding 63 points in the first half on 62.5 percent shooting to a team ranked 28th in offensive efficiency may have been a new nadir. Denver's rotations and close-outs were worse than slow -- they were incomplete. But even when a Nugget was near enough to affect a play, there was more spectating than ball-stopping happening. Put bluntly, Denver played defense like the game, and the season, didn't really matter. That attitude is unprofessional, no question, but under the circumstances, not unreasonable.
 
12Utah Jazz
Last Week: 12
Utah Jazz (29-20)
The Jazz are playing scared, trying not to lose instead of trusting they can win. This is especially true of Al Jefferson, who has played his entire career (except his rookie year) on losing teams and has voiced concerns about not wanting to "drag the Jazz down by my history." Never blessed with good instincts on defense, Jefferson had improved that aspect of his game earlier this season, mostly through shot-blocking. But he has regressed at that end of the court lately, to the point where coach Jerry Sloan called him out, increasing the pressure. Injuries -- to Deron Williams and Mehmet Okur, among others -- has also factored into the team's 2-7 tailspin. But the mental break for Williams as he waits for his strained wrist to heal could pay dividends in the long run, just as Okur's return should reduce the minutes and, more helpfully, the stress on Jefferson and allow Big Al to regain his confidence.
 
13Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 14
It's not Mike Conley's fault that management seems to have consistently overrated and overpaid him. Actually, a case can be made that Conley was worth the No. 4 pick in a very weak 2007 draft. But he didn't play like such a high pick while improving at a snail's pace his first three years, and along the way Memphis chose to unload Kyle Lowry to Houston for compensation that turned out to be little more than bit player DeMarre Carroll. Lowry, whose career numbers are better than Conley's, now has a four-year $23.5 million contract (only $1 million is guaranteed in the last year). In November, Conley signed a five-year, $40 million extension with Memphis. Consequently, there has been more talk about Conley's exorbitant deal than his growth at the point this season. The latest evidence came Monday, when Conley had 26 points and 11 assists in a victory against Orlando that extended the Grizzlies winning streak to three and moved them above .500. It was his first 20-10 game and his first time posting back-to-back games of 10 or more assists.
 
14Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 11
Center Joel Przybilla hasn't been able to fill the void left by Greg Oden and now Marcus Camby. Przybilla has had his own significant injury woes, with two recent knee surgeries and then a badly sprained ankle. The Blazers had hoped he could at least provide a staunch presence in the paint despite not being 100 percent yet. Instead, Portland's defense improves by less than a point per 100 possessions when Przybilla is on the floor, while the offense declines by more than seven points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Value. Worse, his once-feared shot-blocking has all but disappeared -- he has blocked only three shots in 21 games. No wonder the 31-year-old pending free agent is contemplating retirement.
 
15New York Knicks
Last Week: 15
When the Knicks embarked on their highly entertaining 13-1 run in late November and early December, the buzz about point guard Raymond Felton's making the All-Star team wasn't so far-fetched. But now that Felton's poor shot selection and bouts of inconsistency have brought the Knicks back to flirting with .500 as surely as he helped elevate them before, his credentials seem more specious. Perhaps the best evidence of this is to compare Felton with the player who took over his point guard duties in Charlotte, D.J. Augustin. This side-by-side stat sheet reveals that Augustin has a higher Player Efficiency Rating and true shooting percentage while playing in a slower offense without a scorer of Amar'e Stoudemire's capability to boost his assist totals.
 
16Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 17
Behind forward Thaddeus Young and guard Lou Williams, the Sixers lead the NBA in bench scoring. The pair epitomizes coach Doug Collins' practice of blurring traditional positional roles. Williams and starter Jrue Holiday can switch off point guard and shooting guard assignments on the court together. At forward, Andre Iguodala can take the tougher cover, provided the power forward isn't too large -- his defense on Carmelo Anthony when Denver went small with 'Melo at the 4 is one recent example. This flexibility enables Collins to insert Young and Williams at times when their matchups are optimal. (According to Basketball Value, Young really thrives alongside Iguodala.) On the other hand, Collins' extensive use of strategic bench maneuvers -- Evan Turner and now Marreese Speights are also playing significant minutes -- might factor into Philadelphia's proclivity for blowing big, late-game leads. During the 16-minute period when the Sixers coughed up a 21-point second-half advantage against Memphis on Friday, Collins deployed 10 different lineups compared to the Grizzlies' five. Familiarity breeds composure on the court, and those are things the deep, youthful Sixers don't possess.
 
17Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 18
Phoenix Suns (22-24)
Marcin Gortat has five double-doubles in the last seven games, and aside from the loss in Philadelphia where he played just 10 minutes and scored two points on 1-of-3 shooting, the center has hit two-thirds of his field goals (38-for-57) and gone 23-of-25 from the line for a 16.7-point average. Meanwhile, playing with Steve Nash has not improved Vince Carter's offensive game. He's shooting 34.6 percent and averaging about 11 shots per game during the last seven games. Despite taking and hitting a higher percentage of three-pointers in Phoenix than he did in Orlando this season, his true shooting percentage is down slightly because of his inaccuracy inside the arc. In Sunday night's win over New Orleans, one of Nash's 15 assists went to Carter.
 
18Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 17
Randy Foye is providing good minutes at shooting guard in place of the injured Eric Gordon. While Foye's overall numbers remain pretty ugly, he has started the last four games and averaged 19 points. He can't be trusted to run the point for very long, and at 6-4, defending taller shooting guards can be a problem (although Gordon is only 6-3). But his nine fourth-quarter points in a close win over Milwaukee on Monday served as a reminder that he has never shrunk from crunch-time pressure. If he can help keep the Clippers competitive while Gordon is out, he could still justify L.A.'s two-year, $8.5 million investment.
 
19Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 21
Contrary to what many people feared, the Bucks did not fall down the rabbit hole during the six weeks point guard Brandon Jennings was out with a broken foot. (He returned for Saturday's victory against the Nets.) Milwaukee was 10-15 at the time Jennings was injured and a respectable 8-11 while he was sidelined, despite a brutal schedule that included two games apiece against the Heat, Bulls and Hawks, and single matchups with the Spurs, Lakers, Mavericks and Magic. While the fine play of undersized scorer Earl Boykins is the catchier story, Keyon Dooling was the better Jennings replacement. Dooling makes a larger positive impact on the Bucks' vaunted defense than anyone on the roster and he ranks fifth in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio.
 
20Houston Rockets
Last Week: 19
While Luis Scola has no chance of making the All-Star team in the crowded Western Conference, he deserves a salute for being a reliable low-post force and a mainstay on a team going through a disappointing, injury-ravaged season. Scola has played all 49 of Houston's games, registering 13 double-doubles and failing to score 10 or more points only twice. His rebounding numbers are down slightly, but his assists and blocks are easily career highs and, despite his shaky reputation on defense, the Rockets are actually playing slightly better at that end with him on the court. In the last two games, he scored 30 points against Dallas' staunch crew of 7-footers, then served as Houston's go-to guy, overwhelming DeJuan Blair in a 23-point effort, after the Spurs had shut down Kevin Martin.
 
21Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 23
Back-to-back road losses to the Jazz and Clippers have left Charlotte clinging to eighth place in the East, with the Bobcats, Bucks and Pacers all with 27 losses, one more than seventh-place Philadelphia. But by at least one measure, Milwaukee and Indiana have played a much tougher schedule than the Bobcats. And while the Bucks get Brandon Jennings back and the Pacers presumably receive their boost from a coaching change the way Charlotte benefited from Paul Silas' taking over in late December, the Bobcats are staring at the Heat, Mavericks and Celtics (albeit all at home) after playing the Pistons on Wednesday.
 
22Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 20
The Warriors are on the hook to pay Andris Biedrins $9 million per year through at least 2012-13 season, and they remember how he earned that contract by protecting the rim and gathering garbage points without needing touches from 2007-09. But it's increasingly obvious that rookie Ekpe Udoh deserves more minutes for many of the same reasons, and with Louis Amundson returning from an ankle injury and David Lee finding the rhythm that made him an All-Star last season for the Knicks, Golden State suddenly has a logjam in the frontcourt. Cutting Lee's minutes from the more than 38 he's averaged the last 10 games would likely improve the defense and prevent burnout. With Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry and Dorell Wright, the Warriors have ample firepower; they need big men who can guard against penetration without fouling, yet Biedrins, Udoh and Amundson have all been foul-prone. Getting value on their investment in Biedrins, developing Udoh and not letting an energy guy like Amundson languish on the bench is a challenge for coach Keith Smart.
 
23Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 14
Gutting out a home win against the hapless Raptors wasn't exactly a sparkling debut for new coach Frank Vogel, but Larry Bird's comments in announcing that Vogel would take over for Jim O'Brien should be sweet music to Pacers fans. Bird correctly highlighted second-year forward Tyler Hansbrough and rookie swingman Paul George as players who deserve more minutes. With his long college career and reliance on hustle, Hansbrough wouldn't seem to have that much more room for improvement, but he has played well enough that it's worth finding out the level of his ceiling. George's lack of playing time is understandable, given that former All-Star Danny Granger is a franchise cornerstone and that Mike Dunleavy has been playing as well as anyone on the roster. But George has the potential to be a lockdown defender and a gifted scorer. With the woeful Cavs up next and the cantankerous O'Brien as the immediate point of comparison, the 37-year-old Vogel couldn't step into a better short-term situation.
 
24Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 26
DeMarcus Cousins' monster back-to-back games will be the focus after the Kings' jaw-dropping wins over the Lakers and Hornets. But Sacramento's secret weapon -- one it should have been deploying weeks ago -- is the two-center lineup when Samuel Dalembert joins Cousins. The tandem delivered against the Lakers' huge front line, compiling a plus-19 in 10:27 together of a five-point win. On Saturday against New Orleans, Westphal leaned on Cousins-Dalembert again in the fourth quarter and the duo delivered a plus-4 in the final 5:45, and plus-4 in 14:29 overall, of a six-point win. The reason for the success was revealed on the game's key play, when Emeka Okafor consumed himself boxing out Cousins while both Dalembert and 6-9 Omri Casspi vied for three put-backs before Dalembert's tip-in gave Sacramento a four-point lead with 53 seconds left.
 
25Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 22
The Pistons may be Team Turmoil because of the fallout from the Rip Hamilton benching, but imagine how much fun Tracy McGrady is having. Derided for his inability to play through injuries or win a playoff series, the two-time scoring champion is getting the chance to command an offense from the point guard position for the first time in his 14-year career. He's dished 44 assists versus just 13 turnovers in the last eight games, highlighted by a masterful performance Friday at Miami, where he had 14 points, eight rebounds and four blocks to go with his 10 assists and just one turnover.
 
26New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 27
According to Basketball Value, the player who has the most positive impact defensively among the regular members of the Nets' rotation is rookie Derrick Favors. Meanwhile, as someone who has criticized Brook Lopez for his lackluster rebounding totals, I feel duty-bound to point out another interesting nugget from that data: The Nets' rebounding rate on both the offensive and defensive glass is better when the center plays compared to when he sits. Coupled with his recovery from mononucleosis and his second straight month of significant scoring improvement (capped by his 27-point average and 60.3 percent shooting the last three games), Lopez joins with Favors in seemingly giving New Jersey two simpatico cornerstones for its frontcourt.
 
27Washington Wizards
Last Week: 25
Watching John Wall fail four straight times in the last eight days to help halt his team's season-long road winless streak (now at 24 games), one wonders if the 20-year-old rookie's development is being maximized or hindered by the gauntlet. On Friday, he went to the line for two foul shots with 1:17 left in regulation and the Wizards down one to the Thunder. In late October and early November, when he was the toast of the league, I think he makes both shots. On Friday, he wasn't close with either one. After early-season injuries, he is enmeshed in the NBA grind, having played twice as many minutes in January than any other month (and averaging 38.4 per game). His assists are up but his shooting accuracy and points per minute are down -- along with his spirits, one would presume. Yet those worried about how the struggles will affect Wall down the road can take heart from this comparison of Wall's current season with that of then 20-year-old rookie Derrick Rose two years ago. Rose logged even more minutes than Wall, put up very similar numbers and seems to be turning out OK.
 
28Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 28
Ankle woes have had something to do with it, but the feel-good story Michael Beasley was compiling in Minnesota after two star-crossed seasons in Miami hit a snag in January. After averaging better than 23 points in November and December, Beasley dropped to 15.4 in January, shooting season lows of 43.8 percent from the field, 30 percent from three-point range and 74.1 percent at the line. Two signs point to the Wolves' increasingly becoming Kevin Love's team, rather than a Love-Beasley tandem. One, the lone statistical category in which Beasley's numbers didn't tumble in January was assists, which increased from less than two to 2.8. Two, where Beasley averaged 36.7 points in the Wolves' three November wins and 23.3 points in three December wins (he also missed one victory), he scored just 17 total points (8.5 per game) in two January victories (and sat out the team's third).
 
29Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 29
Few players are less productive than Andrea Bargnani when his shot isn't falling. In the last two games, the 7-footer has gone 8-for-39 from the field; during the last five, he is 1-for-18 from three-point range. But porous defense is the primary cause of Toronto's 12-game losing streak. The Raptors exhibit probably the worst fundamentals of any NBA team, as they are frequently caught out of position not only in their rotations but also in the way they square up or play the angles between the men they are guarding and the basket. They are last in the league at taking charges, defensive efficiency and field-goal defense. They don't have anyone who is well above average at protecting the rim (although rookie Ed Davis shows promise) or anyone who can really lock down his man on the perimeter. So, even when he's hot, Bargnani is usually just reducing the margin of their loss.
 
30Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 30
A little more than a year ago, J.J. Hickson was a whirling dervish, constantly being rewarded for moving without the ball with layups and open jumpers off nifty passes from LeBron James. Now LeBron is gone and a slew of injuries has forced the 6-9, 22-year-old Hickson to perform as a dreadfully undersized center. His rebounding average doubled in January, to 10.8 per game, many of them attempted put-backs of misses by his teammates -- or himself, as his shooting percentage plummeted to 40.8 last month. Hickson has gone from freewheeling slasher on a 61-win team to overmatched grinder on a club that has lost 20 in a row and 29 of 30. Add his clashes with coach Byron Scott, and Hickson becomes the favorite for the unofficial Hard Knocks award for the 2010-11 season.
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