By Britt Robson
March 01, 2011

The superstars headed East at the trading deadline, with Deron Williams leaving Utah for New Jersey and Carmelo Anthony going from Denver to New York. But after perhaps the most active swapfest in NBA history, the Western Conference controls the top spots in the Power Rankings.

The West's best are rolling. San Antonio is 49-10 with a franchise-record-tying 21-game home winning streak (though the injury bug finally bit the Spurs with the loss of Tony Parker for a couple of weeks). Dallas has won 16 of 17. And the Lakers, sensing that they could lose home-court advantage for two rounds, have refocused their enormous talent for the stretch drive, winning four in a row since the All-Star break.

Those three teams lead the way this week, followed by a foursome from the East.

(All stats and records are through Feb. 28.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 1
In one of the most riveting games of the season (better than Heat-Knicks going on at the same time Sunday), a confident and physical Grizzlies team nearly snapped San Antonio's 20-game home winning streak. Parker left in the first half with a strained calf after colliding with Mike Conley, Memphis' Zach Randolph banged in the paint (10 offensive rebounds) and the Grizzlies' Tony Allen beat on Manu Ginobili whenever Manu drove to the hoop. The Spurs blew a 20-point lead and trailed by six with 8:37 left to play -- just enough time for Ginobili to deliver a premier crunch-time performance. Feeding off the punishment Memphis was doling out, Ginobili drew eight fouls and scored 18 points in that eight-minute span, finishing with 35 points (plus six rebounds and eight assists) as the Spurs won 95-88. San Antonio has the benefit of a six-game cushion in the West as it deals with the injury to Parker, who is expected to miss two to four weeks.
2 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 5
The Mavs are 41-9 when Dirk Nowitzki plays, and three of those losses occurred in a four-game stretch right after he returned from being out three weeks with a knee injury. But Dallas is hardly a one-man team. Coach Rick Carlisle is incorporating Roddy Beaubois and Peja Stojakovic into a rotation that was already legitimately eight or nine players deep despite the loss of Caron Butler. His second unit (which features Jason Terry, Shawn Marion and J.J. Barea) frequently overwhelms opposing subs while Nowitzki and Jason Kidd rest. Dallas' only loss in a 17-game span came when Denver's Arron Afflalo made a game-winning buzzer-beater on Feb. 10. And yet, the Mavs are so deep that Carlisle probably still isn't sure what his rotation will be during the postseason.
3 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 6
Reliable production from core personnel is a hallmark of any championship team. During the four whole or partial seasons Pau Gasol has been in Los Angeles, he has averaged 18.3 to 18.9 points while never shooting less than 52.8 percent from the field or 78.1 percent from the line. His assists have ranged from 3.4 to 3.6, his steals from 0.5 to 0.6, his rebounds from 7.8 (immediately after coming over from Memphis) to 11.3 (last season) with 9.6 and 10.4 the other two years. In terms of advanced stats, his Player Efficiency Rating has been 22.2 to 24.0, his win shares per 48 minutes .220 to .239 and his usage rate 20.4 to 21.7. Translation: Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant and company know what they are going to get from Gasol and it is very good.
4 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 4
Chicago Bulls (41-17)
Now that the Celtics have inexplicably dealt centers Kendrick Perkins and Semih Erden, the Bulls own the deepest, most rugged frontcourt in the East -- not too shabby, considering they also boast the conference's top point guard. An uncharacteristic defensive pratfall in a 118-113 loss to Toronto the first game after the All-Star break indicates that they need their steady dose of hectoring from coach Tom Thibodeau to maintain focus. Another concern is the heavy minutes for Derrick Rose (37.9 per game) and Luol Deng (39.1), which could become a factor if the Bulls are fortunate enough to go deep in the playoffs.
5 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 2
Even those who defend the deal that sent Perkins to Oklahoma City for Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green acknowledge that president Danny Ainge weakened the Celtics' team defense -- the signature strength of a roster that was no worse that a co-favorite to win the championship this season -- in order to add depth on the wing and better position the franchise for the future. Winning titles is about creating matchup advantages when it matters most, and the ability of Perkins to guard the likes of Orlando's Dwight Howard and the Lakers' Gasol or Andrew Bynum on his own made him a compelling trump card in that realm. To rely on an aching, soon-to-be 39-year-old Shaquille O'Neal, a notoriously poor pick-and-roll defender, and soft 7-footer Krstic to replace Perkins makes no sense. And throwing in Green -- a 6-9 'tweener forward whom the Thunder didn't seem inclined to re-sign despite that fact that he's only 24 and has started alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for three seasons -- isn't enough to swing the deal in Boston's favor. Ainge and the Celtics will rue this trade.
6 Miami Heat
Last Week: 3
Miami Heat (43-17)
The psychological obstacles Miami faces in its title quest are becoming increasingly treacherous. The Heat have probably overcome the challenge of being viewed as villains, but their chronic inability to either win close games (3-7 in games decided by four points or fewer) or beat elite teams (1-7 against Boston, Chicago, the Lakers and Dallas; they have yet to play the Spurs) creates seeds of doubts that can sprout in the hothouse of the playoffs. Yes, I know there are arguments to debunk this notion, but I think it is fair to say that the LeBron James situation is a special case --- no other player has created such a "championship or bust" mandate by which to scrutinize his career. His teams have been upset in the postseason the last two years, and he knows that players who can't translate superior talent into titles ultimately have their character questioned. That makes this brutal two-week stretch in Miami's schedule -- home against Orlando, Chicago, Portland, the Lakers, Memphis, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, as well as a visit to San Antonio -- a crucial precursor to the playoffs.
7 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 7
Orlando Magic (38-22)
Remember last year's first-round playoff series against Charlotte, when early foul trouble limited Howard to under 30 minutes in each of the four games? Well, there is no Marcin Gortat to the rescue if a similar scenario arises this season. With the trade deadline passed, the options for a quality backup center are much diminished, leaving Orlando vulnerable. Coach Stan Van Gundy briefly deployed a large front line of Brandon Bass, Earl Clark and Ryan Anderson against Charlotte on Saturday, and at least one or two of those guys would have to come up big (literally) in Howard's absence during the postseason.
8 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 9
It's hard not to love the way the front office and coach Lionel Hollins have reinvented the identity of this team. Reacquiring popular swingman Shane Battier for Hasheem Thabeet (quite possibly the worst player ever taken among the top two picks in an NBA draft), 10th man DeMarre Carroll and a lottery-protected first-round pick provided the Grizz with yet another quality defender to go with Tony Allen and Sam Young -- who have helped Memphis improve its defensive efficiency from 19th to ninth (and from 109.9 points per 100 possessions to 104.8) in a year's time -- on the wing and lessened the sting of losing Rudy Gay for a month with a shoulder injury. The deal also gave Memphis, which attempts and makes the fewest three-pointers in the league, a career 38.5 percent shooter from deep. Add in the signing of playoff-tested point guard Jason Williams, and the team that had the league's weakest bench last season now can go 10 deep in quality when Gay returns.
9 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 10
It remains to be seen how coach Nate McMillan uses his new and returning personnel, but imagine how well Portland can deploy zone traps with the likes of Nicolas Batum, Gerald Wallace, Wesley Matthews and Rudy Fernandez, with Marcus Camby protecting the rim. McMillan now has more offensive options, too, with the addition of Wallace and the comeback of Brandon Roy, who, while being brought along off the bench in limited minutes for now after a 30-game absence, was his vintage clutch self in Friday's thrilling overtime win over Denver. How the Blazers handle Roy's playing time and the distribution of shots with a healthier roster will be interesting to watch. If McMillan can make the pieces jell, Portland will be extremely dangerous come playoff time.
10 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 8
The Thunder really helped themselves at the deadline. Neither Krstic nor Green was part of their long-term plans, and the acquisition of Perkins enables backup center Serge Ibaka to slide into his natural power forward position as a starter. Center Nazr Mohammed (acquired from Charlotte) is a quality backup for Perkins, and when OKC wants to go small, James Harden is a better perimeter scorer than Green. All that said, two things must happen for the Thunder to become a force in the postseason: The knee injuries to Perkins and Mohammed must heal in time for them to become acclimated to their teammates; and Durant and Westbrook must both buy into the defensive schemes the way they did for former assistant coach Ron Adams (now working under Thibodeau in Chicago) last year.
11 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 14
Phoenix Suns (31-27)
Back in October, the 2010-11 season was regarded as one of Vince Carter's final chances to reverse his reputation as a big-game bust who can't provide synergy to his team. Two months into the season, Orlando punted on its Dwight Howard/Carter championship formula and traded the guard to Phoenix. Now the Suns have sharply reduced his role, playing him just twice in the fourth quarter over the last nine games while going 7-2. It has become obvious that Phoenix's best lineup includes reserves Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley joining starters Grant Hill, Steve Nash and Channing Frye at the expense of Carter and Robin Lopez.
12 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 13
Like Memphis and Phoenix in the West, the Sixers have moved into the bottom of the playoff picture on the basis of increased depth and a commitment to defense. Yes, they lead the NBA in points off the bench (due largely to Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner), but the real change has happened at the other end of the court. After ranking 24th in defensive efficiency under Eddie Jordan last year, the Sixers have jumped to eighth under Doug Collins, reducing their points per 100 possessions from 110.3 to 104.8. The leadership for this defensive emphasis comes from Andre Iguodala and Young. The biggest improvement has probably been exhibited by backup center Marreese Speights, who was poor defensively while playing for Jordan. But with Speights on the court this season, the Sixers allow only 97.65 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Value.
13 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 15
Few teams are more enjoyable to watch than the Nuggets right now. Freed from the Carmelo trade rumors and the nagging reality that the team's best player didn't want to be there, the holdovers are playing with gusto and camaraderie. At the same time, the Anthony trade fetched a wealth of talented role players who were orbiting around Amar'e Stoudemire in New York and are now eager to prove their worth in a star-free environment. The result is a high-tempo offense featuring a lot of ball movement and an extraordinary improvement and recommitment to defense. Coach George Karl has grinned more in the past week than he did in the previous three months on the sidelines. Denver is a Brandon Roy three-pointer away from being 4-0 in the post-'Melo era.
14 New York Knicks
Last Week: 18
Last season, Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry convinced Amar'e that a consistent effort on defense was the ticket to playoff success, elevating Stoudemire from horrendous to mediocre (a significant upgrade) when guarding his man. Last week, Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni was again blessed by his coaching brethren, as Karl called out Carmelo's selfish inattention to defense while with the Nuggets -- a blatant fact for anyone who watched 'Melo play the last few years. Who doubts that Anthony has the physical skills -- size, strength, quickness -- to become an above-average defender? Karl's harsh truth-telling seemed to motivate Anthony against the Heat on Sunday, when he asked D'Antoni to put him on LeBron down the stretch, then played with a defensive intensity we haven't seen since the 2009 Western Conference finals against Kobe and the Lakers.
15 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 12
Opponents' scoring jumped from 90.2 per game in January to 96.3 in February, nearly four points more than any other month of the season, which helps explain the Hornets' season-worst 4-8 record for the month. While injuries to Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza damaged the defense, offensive sparkplug Chris Paul made only 41.2 percent from the field (continuing a decline that began in January) and 30 percent from long range, capped by his 2-of-12 shooting and scoreless second half Sunday as the Hornets blew a 16-point lead in a loss to Houston. The Hornets play five roads games over the next seven days, including trips to New York, Memphis and Chicago.
16 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 11
Atlanta Hawks (36-24)
New point guard Kirk Hinrich has lost a step and is overpaid (he's owed the rest of this season's $9 million and then $8 million next year), but the Hawks -- who have limited future financial flexibility and are widely perceived to have peaked with their core -- were the one team that needed to make a change simply for the sake of change. Hinrich, the key piece in a five-player deal with Washington that also cost Atlanta a first-round pick, is an upgrade over the weak link in the Hawks' starting lineup, Mike Bibby. Will he make enough of a difference to affect Atlanta's postseason fortunes? Probably not. But opting for industry over inertia was the right move.
17 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 19
GM Daryl Morey couldn't snag the star he was seeking at the deadline, but his moves helped clarify roles in the rotation while adding two mid-level first-round picks. Freed from the constraints of shoot-first point guard Aaron Brooks, off-guard Kevin Martin had two more 30-plus-point performances and was named the Western Conference Player of the Week. Second-year swingman Chase Budinger seized on the minutes left behind by Battier to score 27 points in Saturday's win against New Jersey, the third of four straight victories. Even underutilized forward Terrence Williams got some long-overdue burn. More personnel decisions are inevitable, but at least now the players will have a better chance to earn their keep (or release) by what they do on the court.
18 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 16
Utah Jazz (32-29)
Al Jefferson is performing in a manner eerily similar to his three years in Minnesota. He was relentless scoring down low in February, averaging 23.8 points on 55 percent shooting to go with 10 rebounds. His scoring was a rare bright spot during perhaps the worst month in franchise history -- Utah lost Jerry Sloan, Deron Williams and all six of its home games while going 3-9 overall. Jefferson's defense contributed to those woes. Although he's blocking more shots than ever, he has still never mastered the basic rhythm and flow of team defense, which requires intuition, anticipation and persistence. A throwback, low-post power forward, he is also once again playing out of position at center. Unfortunately, his skills (and weaknesses) greatly overlap with those of power forward Paul Millsap. After just three games and 47 minutes on the court for Utah, teenager Derrick Favors seems like a superior defender on both the pick-and-roll and interior rotations compared to Jefferson and Millsap. Where that leaves Jefferson -- yet again a noteworthy scorer and subpar defender on an underachieving team -- is anybody's guess.
19 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 17
Too bad the Pacers couldn't finalize a proposed deadline trade for Grizzlies shooting guard O.J. Mayo, who would have been a solid replacement for the injured Mike Dunleavy. But hanging on to Josh McRoberts, who would have gone to Memphis in the deal, maintains an effective platoon with Tyler Hansbrough at the power forward slot. The two are averaging a combined 21.4 points and 9.7 rebounds in 48.8 minutes in the last 10 games, a span in which McRoberts has recorded 24 assists (second only to point guard Darren Collison) while shooting a team-best 68.3 percent.
20 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 21
Shaun Livingston, a 6-7 combo guard, figures to be one of the beneficiaries of the 39 minutes per game Charlotte must replace now that Gerald Wallace has been dealt to Portland. Livingston was already averaging close to 20 minutes in the weeks before the trade, with his length creating matchup advantages at the point and his presence improving the Bobcats' defense by more than eight points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Value. Because Stephen Jackson can stay at shooting guard or slide into Wallace's slot at small forward, and Livingston can play beside or instead of diminutive point guard D.J. Augustin, coach Paul Silas has plenty of flexibility as Charlotte begins its unlikely playoff push.
21 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 20
The Warriors are lousy at rebounding and preventing points in the paint, yet they will pay frontcourt starters David Lee and Andris Biedrins more than $20 million per year combined through 2014, assuming Biedrins isn't crazy enough to opt out of his final year. Coupled with their offensively dynamic but defensively undersized and foul-prone backcourt of Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry, they have a lot of expensive (or in Curry's case, potentially expensive) pieces that often don't complement each other. Lee was never going to be the rim protector to bail out the guards, but it would help if he could put a body on his own man: Opposing starters at power forward have shot at least 50 percent in seven straight games. Meanwhile, with a lot of ground to make up and four teams to pass to reach the eighth spot, the Warriors' long-shot odds at a playoff berth are pretty much down to nil.
22 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 23
Continuing the season-long pattern, absolutely nobody comes out with their reputation intact in the clash between coach John Kuester and a handful of disgruntled, mostly veteran players. If there is a silver lining, it's that Rodney Stuckey's dominance of new Jazz point guard Devin Harris in Saturday's victory demonstrated once again -- as with Ben Gordon over Rip Hamilton at shooting guard and Greg Monroe over Ben Wallace and/or Charlie Villanueva in the frontcourt -- that the Pistons get better this season as well as prepare for the future when they opt for youth on the court.
23 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 22
It's time to concede that it just isn't going to happen for the Bucks this year. They've already matched last season's loss total with 22 games left and just finished a 3-9 February despite playing seven of those 12 games at home and eight against teams that had losing records at the time. Worse, their presumed cornerstones are shaky. Since his return from a foot injury in late January, Brandon Jennings is shooting less than 34 percent and averaging under four assists. He's complained recently about his diminished role as coach Scott Skiles seeks more effective playmakers. Meanwhile, unlike last year, Andrew Bogut is struggling against quality defenders, averaging just 6.0 points on 24.2 shooting in the three losses to Chicago.
24 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 26
As the Maloof brothers weigh a move to Anaheim, longtime president Geoff Petrie is making sensible, less dramatic decisions to improve the team. Petrie wisely resisted entreaties from teams wanting to acquire center Samuel Dalembert, who is playing well, is good insurance against the outbursts of erratic rookie DeMarcus Cousins and might be persuaded to return to Sacramento for much less money than his expiring $13 million contract. Petrie also loosened the logjam in the frontcourt by trading Carl Landry to New Orleans for second-year shooting guard Marcus Thornton, who promptly went off for 29 points in Sacramento's win over the Clippers on Monday.
25 New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 24
Although his upside is still well below what is eventually expected of Favors, late-blooming power forward Kris Humphries' play made it easier for the Nets to send the rookie No. 3 pick to Utah in the great gamble to acquire Williams without a contract extension. Humphries quietly ranks second to Kevin Love in rebounding percentage, providing a nice complement to scoring center Brook Lopez, who has struggled on the glass. And with an expiring $3.2 million contract, Humphries can receive a tidy raise and still not break the bank on a new deal.
26 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 25
Blake Griffin isn't exactly hitting the fabled "rookie wall," but he is being gradually ground down as the season progresses. February was Griffin's worst full month for rebounds and shooting percentage and featured his lowest assist average since November. He's also absorbing an extraordinary amount of punishment, as opponents seek to thwart his grind-it-out game and his brute image compels refs to allow contact that is nearly akin to what Dwight Howard receives. (Even with that reluctance, Griffin is second only to Howard in free-throw attempts.) Griffin's lowly 62.6 percentage from the line likewise entices opponents to foul him, whether they are whistled for it or not. The return of top scorer Eric Gordon, who is expected back this week after being out since late January with a wrist injury, will ease Griffin's offensive burden and help spread the floor so Griffin has more room to operate. It will also provide a morale boost to a team that has dropped 12 of 14.
27 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 28
The deal for Jerryd Bayless hasn't worked out and the pressure is increasing for the 6-3 guard to show some signs of progress. Put simply, it doesn't make sense to look for your own shot when your career accuracy is 39.9 percent, including 30.2 percent from three-point range. Bayless isn't a combo guard; he's a 'tweener -- too selfish to play the point and too small to defend shooting guards. In both Portland and Toronto (he didn't stay long enough in New Orleans), he's exploded with the occasional 30-point game but lacked consistency. One would think the Raptors are the best franchise to be patient with an intriguing talent who is not yet 23, but they also need a legitimate distributor like Jose Calderon to foster the development of the other kids in the lineup, like second-year swingman DeMar DeRozan, newly acquired forward James Johnson and rookie power forward Ed Davis. And even as an offensive-minded sixth man, Bayless is a poor man's Leandro Barbosa, who is also on the team.
28 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 30
Too often, other pundits and I focus on the drama between a player and a coach and then move on to the next shiny object. This time, let's all note that after a nasty feud earlier this season between Byron Scott and J.J. Hickson, in part because of Hickson's lack of commitment to rebounding, the Cavs are now riding the third-year big man's tenacity in the paint to a series of surprisingly competitive games, including upsets of the Lakers and Knicks. In 11 February games, the 6-9 Hickson grabbed 11.5 rebounds and scored 18.4 points on 64.3 percent shooting, all well above his career norms. He and Scott both deserve enormous credit and respect for moving past their rancor while leveraging their conflict to achieve a common good. Newly acquired point guard Baron Davis -- who also had his differences with Scott, when both were in New Orleans -- should be taking notes.
29 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 29
After the Grizzlies won in Minnesota last week, some of their personnel, stung that Love was chosen for the All-Star Game over Zach Randolph, belittled Love's tying of Moses Malone's double-double streak that night. Lionel Hollins correctly pointed out that Love had run over and snatched a rebound away from his own teammate, and Tony Allen noted how few wins Love's exploits were producing. Sure enough, Love's numbers were down across the board in February, and his struggles on defense contributed to 10 losses in the team's first dozen games of the month. That changed in Sunday's win over Golden State, as Love scored 35 points, made 18-of-23 at the free-throw line and grabbed 23 rebounds (seven offensive) against an opponent that yields the most second-chance points and offensive rebounds and the third-most free throws in the NBA.
30 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 27
Three pieces of good news for an otherwise moribund team: A healthy John Wall is averaging 18 points, 4.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists and shooting 43.6 percent in the last 10 games; Washington added a first-round pick and significantly trimmed its payroll for next season by dealing Hinrich for Bibby (who subsequently agreed to give up his entire $6.2 million salary for next season in a buyout agreement); and a soft patch in the schedule has the Wizards playing host to Golden State, Minnesota, Milwaukee and the Clippers and visiting Detroit over the next five games.

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