By Britt Robson
February 14, 2012

The Mavericks began this season old, slow and 0-3, getting blown out at home by Miami and Denver and losing a close game at Oklahoma City. Since then, despite subpar seasons from Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and newcomer Lamar Odom, the defending champions have regrouped to go 18-8.

Coach Rick Carlisle has done a masterful job molding a 10-deep rotation to meet the demands of the compressed season for the NBA's oldest team. Dallas leads the league in minutes by players off the bench. It also executes a smart defense that pressures the ball, ranking fourth in steals and sixth in blocks. The Mavs are fifth in defensive efficiency despite the loss of Tyson Chandler, who finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season.

With four straight wins against quality Western Conference rivals last week, Dallas leaps from 14th to join the top five for the time this season. Also cracking the top five is San Antonio, which has won seven in a row.

(All stats and records are through Monday, Feb. 13 unless otherwise noted.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Miami Heat
Last Week: 1
Miami Heat (22-7)
Count the Heat among those who wouldn't mind seeing Dwight Howard leave Orlando. After splitting four games against the Magic last season, Miami was thumped in their first matchup of the year last week, as Howard registered 25 points and 24 rebounds against the team's small frontcourt. Compounding the matchup problem is the Heat's mysterious inability to defend effectively against three-pointers, and no team relies on long-range shooting more than Orlando. The Magic made 17-of-42 (40.5 percent) from long range, opening up space for Howard to go 9-for-14 from the field and grab seven offensive rebounds. No other opponent can attack Miami's uber-athletic but undersized defense with both an imposing big man at the hoop and a bevy of capable perimeter shooters.
2 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 2
Everybody knows that the Bulls won't go far without a healthy Derrick Rose, but recovery times from back ailments vary greatly, with a high risk of reaggravation. An MRI on Monday revealed no structural damage to the MVP point guard, who will continue to receive therapy for the back spasms that have cost him two games shortly after he returned from missing five games with turf toe. During his absence, C.J. Watson is playing with the starters and John Lucas with the more defensive-oriented second unit, although Watson went 42 minutes Sunday in an unsuccessful effort to deter Celtics guard Rajon Rondo, who had a triple-double on a season-high 22 field-goal attempts. The Bulls have a relatively easy schedule -- five straight home games with zero back-to-backs -- leading to the All-Star break, but they are just a half-game ahead of Miami in the chase for home-court advantage in a potential conference finals series.
3 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 3
The Thunder lead the NBA in turnovers, but the damage to their offensive efficiency has been relatively minimal. Offensive output has plummeted around the league and OKC's efficiency ranking has actually risen from fifth last season to fourth this year. That's because Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are flourishing while carrying even more of the offense -- which may not be a good thing come playoff time. The Thunder deserve praise for defining roles so well, but those duties are becoming extremely specialized. While Durant and Westbrook are shooting more often and more accurately than ever, the reverse is true for a handful of players, most of them operating near the basket. Specifically, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nazr Mohammed, Nick Collison and Daequan Cook have the fewest shots per minute and (except for Collison) lowest field-goal percentages of their careers. It's not the turnovers but the lack of a reliable post-up scorer that may be the greatest hindrance to the Thunder offense against quality opposition in the postseason.
4 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 7
There seems to be nothing but good news for the surging Spurs. They started 3-0 on their nine-game road trip, saw Tony Parker selected to the All-Star team and welcomed back Manu Ginobili for limited action on Saturday after he'd missed 22 games with a broken hand. Perhaps best of all, they have firmed up their defense, allowing less than the league-average field-goal percentage to seven of their last 10 opponents since New Orleans burned them for plus-50 percent shooting in all four quarters on Jan. 23. San Antonio is now a respectable 14th in defensive efficiency, after an opening month when it allowed more than 100 points eight times. By contrast, the only triple-digit point total against the Spurs in the last 10 games was the 101-100 loss to Dallas when Gregg Popovich played his bench the entire fourth quarter and overtime. Nine players averaged at least 20 minutes during that span -- and now Ginobili's back.
5 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 14
The veteran leaders are finally starting to round into form. Dirk Nowitzki is regaining his confidence and not looking quite so decrepit at the defensive end. Jason Kidd finally had his old aplomb back, particularly in crunch time, during close wins over Portland and the Clippers. Dallas faces a tough stretch before the All-Star break, with games against the Nuggets, Sixers, surging Knicks, Celtics and Lakers.
6 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 4
What makes Chris Paul such a superb point guard the first 46 minutes of the game creates perhaps his only weakness in the final two minutes -- he trusts his teammates to finish the plays he facilitates for them. The latest example was Monday in Dallas with the Clippers down by two with 9.8 seconds left. Paul stole the ball and -- rather than call timeout or try to reprise the heavily guarded three-point make he had executed just eight seconds earlier -- zipped a pass to Caron Butler for an open three-pointer that clanked off the rim. What Clippers fan doesn't want Paul attempting that game-deciding shot? Meanwhile, free-agent signee Kenyon Martin debuted last week with an average of 21.5 minutes in four games. He brings a toughness and commitment to defense that enables coach Vinny Del Negro to better mix and match his front-line components of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Martin and Reggie Evans.
7 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 5
Home losses to the Spurs and Clippers last week hurt the Sixers' credibility as a viable championship contender, solidifying their place in the East's second tier with Atlanta, Orlando, Indiana and Boston, behind the Heat and Bulls. That's likely to be their ceiling if center Spencer Hawes can't overcome a nagging Achilles strain that has kept him out of all but two games since Jan. 16. The Sixers are 12-2 when Hawes plays and 8-7 when he's sidelined, compelling coach Doug Collins to go with rookies Nikola Vucevic and Lavoy Allen as replacements. The Sixers' deep contingent of well-rounded, athletic wing players can overwhelm less talented teams at both ends of the court with their speed and quickness -- hence their league-best point differential. But they need more size, spine and health in the paint to be formidable in the postseason.
8 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 9
For a team that won two of its last three to split a six-game road trip, the situation still feels grim. The Lakers are 7-8 over the last month. They rank last in three-point shooting percentage and in generating turnovers. After Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, the next four players with the most field-goal attempts are shooting a collective 35.2 percent. That lack of easy points or supplemental scoring puts enormous pressure on the three stars to execute in the half-court. Fortunately, the defense under coach Mike Brown has been fairly solid (11th in efficiency), and Gasol (18.3 points, 14.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists) and Bynum (16 points, 13.5 rebounds. 2.67 blocks and a game-saving block of Ray Allen in Boston) delivered on the trip.
9 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 11
Atlanta Hawks (18-10)
Of all the All-Star "snubs," perhaps the biggest outcry was over forward Josh Smith. That makes sense: Because both his virtues and his vices are so apparent, Smith generates polarizing opinions about his value. Fans remember the sky-walking blocks, the lateral quickness, the keen court sense and the emphatic dunks and layups in transition. Critics (a group that presumably includes more than a few Eastern Conference coaches) remember the horrible, frequently selfish shot selection, the high-risk freelance gambles and the lapses into indifference or petulance when events aren't going his way. Naturally, both sides have their statistical ammunition: The Hawks are winning despite the loss of Al Horford and Smith is launching more of those unwise 20-footers than ever.
10 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 12
Orlando Magic (18-11)
Orlando's reluctance to trade Dwight Howard, even at the risk getting nothing in return if he leaves via free agency, is understandable, if you consider that he is more valuable than Carmelo Anthony or Deron Williams and is close to LeBron James territory in terms of recent high-profile team-switchers. At 18-11, with a recent win over Miami, the front office can gull itself into believing it has a shot at a title with the status quo, and that the resultant goodwill will prompt Howard to re-sign. It is an appropriate fantasy for a franchise based near Disney World, but the schedule toughens up in the 15 games before the March 15 trading deadline and the three-point shooting that is Orlando's stock-in-trade on offense can be a mercurial enterprise. But at the very least, both Howard and the team's brain trust have acquitted themselves well during a difficult period for all concerned.
11 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 8
What combination of mental and physical fatigue occurred to create the terrible loss in Toronto on Friday? The situation was an obvious "trap" game, sandwiched between the Lakers and the Bulls on the schedule. And, the last time the teams played, the Celtics annihilated the Raptors from the onset and won by 23 points. As for the physical part, after losing in overtime to the visiting Lakers, Boston didn't get into Toronto until 3:30 a.m. for their back-to-back. Once the game started, the Celtics were down double digits in the first quarter, with six turnovers and just 14 points. The youngest legs among the starters belonged to Rajon Rondo, who shot 2-for-10 and committed five turnovers, yet coach Doc Rivers played him more than 40 minutes in a 12-point loss. After Wednesday's home game against the Pistons, Boston will play its next five on the road, the beginning of NBA's most road-heavy schedule -- 24 of 38 -- to close the season.
12 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 10
Swingman Corey Brewer has always thrived in chaos, which makes him a valuable component on a team that plays at the NBA's fastest pace. A string-bean 6-9 with a nonstop motor, Brewer loves to poke-check balls from dribblers, pester passing lanes and fly down the court on the break after turnovers. While Brewer's finishing at the rim and shooting in general can be adventures, he's a better gambler on defense than most of his fellow roaming teammates and is hitting a career-high 49.5 percent. On Saturday at Indiana, Brewer sparked runs of 15-2 and 8-2 in the second and third quarters during a season-high 34 minutes to help Denver end a five-game losing streak.
13 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 6
Indiana hadn't lost two in a row until dropping three straight last week, as different players from the NBA's most consistent starting lineup experienced hiccups in their performance. Paul George, whose play has been something of a bellwether for the team, shot a combined 3-for-21 in losses to the Hawks and Grizzlies. Center Roy Hibbert was stymied by fellow first-time All-Star Marc Gasol in Memphis, and point guard Darren Collison was outplayed by Ty Lawson in a home defeat against Denver. More important, the defensive tenacity that has become the team's signature under coach Frank Vogel was absent. The Pacers yielded more than 46 percent shooting in all three games (they had been allowing less than 42 percent) and were victimized for a combined 48 fast-break points by Atlanta (28) and Denver (20).
14 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 15
For three straight games, Houston's bench outperformed the starters to the point where coach Kevin McHale had three or four subs closing out opponents in the final period. The trend abruptly ended Sunday when Golden State blistered the second unit with a 17-5 run to open the fourth quarter en route to a 106-97 victory. But the upgrade in bench performance was a tonic for the confidence of swingman Chase Buddinger, solidified minutes for Courtney Lee and showed McHale that he could play Patrick Patterson and Jordan Hill at times without getting blown out in the paint. More tangibly, the Rockets were able to win three in a row while Kevin Martin searched in vain for rhythm on his jumper and Kyle Lowry's doldrums continued after a wonderful first five weeks of his season.
15 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 16
Saturday's 97-94 double-overtime loss at Dallas was Portland's ninth defeat in 10 games decided by five points or fewer. Two years ago, and even some last season, the team could go with Brandon Roy or Andre Miller, two capable closers, running the offense. This season point guard Raymond Felton may be having the worst year of his career, and the trade of Miller for Felton with Denver can be second-guessed easily. Of course, Felton is being at least partially scapegoated here, as the ball is often in the hands of Jamal Crawford at crunch time. One thing is certain: LaMarcus Aldridge's blossoming stardom is extending to the confidence and ingenuity he shows as the Blazers' go-to guy. Three times against Dallas, the newly named All-Star hit tough buckets from the left block that either tied the game or put Portland ahead during the fourth quarter or overtime. Portland has a wealth of talented players enjoying very good seasons -- particularly Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum in addition to Aldridge -- and rank fourth in defensive efficiency. But if the Blazers don't begin to figure out how to win close games, it is going to become a psychological problem.
16 New York Knicks
Last Week: 22
Belatedly piling on, here is yet another Jeremy Lin scouting report: He looks bigger than his listed 6-3 and combines that size with excellent footwork when penetrating, using large strides to protect the ball on his crossover dribble. He has a soft touch for such a high-arcing shot, sees the court well, has solid instincts on the pick-and-roll and is good, but not great, at delivering the ball in a variety of ways to his teammates. Defensively, Lin moves his feet well and puts forth an effort, but he isn't especially quick, particularly for a point guard. Unless he's playing way above his head, it's extraordinary that someone with his skill set went untapped for so long. Red flags: He likes to shoot and is a "pure" point guard only compared to the low standard set by his teammates. And after he went 1-for-12 in the second half against Minnesota on Saturday, Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman revealed that the plan was to force him left because he is much more comfortable and aggressive going to his right.
17 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 19
Is Rudy Gay only the third-best player on his own team? That provocative conclusion could be drawn from the fact that when last year's All-Star forward, Zach Randolph, went down with a knee injury, it was center Marc Gasol, and not Gay, who elevated his game to the point he became a first-time All-Star. Gay's numbers are typically solid, as befits his versatile skill set, but they are not spectacular. Like Joe Johnson in Atlanta, he is penalized by the inflated expectations that come with a maximum contract. And the harsh reality is that the Grizzlies' best ball over the last two years occurred when Gay was shelved with an injury.
18 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 17
Utah Jazz (14-13)
The widespread suspicion that the Jazz were overachieving the first month of the season is being confirmed. Utah has lost six of eight, including Monday's road defeat to a Hornets team that had dropped 17 of 18. Coach Ty Corbin benched all of his starters except for second-year swingman Gordon Hayward for nearly the entire second half. Forward Paul Millsap is shooting just 40.4 percent over the last five games. But Millsap was overdue for a rough patch, as opposed to point guard Devin Harris, perhaps the only Utah player who has played consistently below expectations. Part of the problem is that Harris performs best when he's dominating possessions and penetrating. During his All-Star season in 2008-09, he averaged 5.9 shot attempts at the rim and was among the league leaders in "and-one" finishes. But with the offense going through Millsap and low-post workhorse Al Jefferson, Harris' attempts at the rim have plummeted to 1.9, less than half of his previous career low of 4.0. Maybe the team would be better off with Harris on the second unit with defensive-oriented youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, while capable journeyman Earl Watson -- who has outplayed Harris -- goes with the veteran starters.
19 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 13
Nikola Pekovic's emergence seems destined to hinder the development of No. 2 pick Derrick Williams. Darko Milicic rarely played more than 15-20 minutes per game as the Wolves' starting center, allowing Kevin Love to slide over to the pivot and Williams to come off the bench as a power forward in a small lineup. An effective Pekovic keeps Love at power forward and Williams on the bench more often. Coach Rick Adelman was asked recently if he was comfortable and confident of Williams' ability to defend most small forwards. His answer: Not really. How the Wolves fit Williams into their plans -- or use him as one of their precious few trade commodities to acquire a much-needed shooting guard who can handle the ball, score on the wing and defend lengthy swingmen -- is a significant X factor in their return to relevance.
20 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 24
The Warriors have won three in a row and they're 9-8 since Jan. 10, closing within 2½ games of the eighth spot in the West. Golden State has embraced its ability to run-and-gun and tempered it with just enough of coach Mark Jackson's disciplined teaching to avoid a few of the ridiculous losses that piled up under Don Nelson. After a close loss to the Thunder, the Warriors defeated Denver, Houston and Phoenix while averaging more than 108 points. Five players are shooting better than 41 percent from three-point range during the last 10 games, led by rookie Klay Thompson at 56.7 and Brandon Rush at 56.3. All that said, Golden State still gets too overwhelmed by the disparity in free throws and offensive rebounds to sustain a winning record -- this isn't a vintage Phoenix Suns team. But like those clubs, the Warriors are fun to watch, especially when they're hot.
21 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 21
Phoenix Suns (12-16)
While Steve Nash heads to the All-Star Game at 38, the 39-year-old Grant Hill is having a more low-key twilight to his career. Hill hasn't missed a game and his playing time has increased gradually, but the 16-year veteran is still averaging career lows in minutes, field-goal percentage, rebounds and assists. Instead, he invests his energy guarding the opponent's best wing scorer. He can take much of the credit for Tyreke Evans' 1-for-9 shooting during the Suns' victory at Sacramento on Saturday. It is a role and a profile almost exactly opposite what he experienced in his prime, when he was feted as a star but couldn't overcome injuries and prove his worth. Now he is barely noticed as he goes head-to-head with some of the game's greatest athletes and prolific scorers, nearly all of them a decade or more younger. It's a class act.
22 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 18
The bad news is that Brandon Jennings appears to be reverting to the inefficient scoring that plagued him during most of his first two seasons. He began the season as a career 37.9 percent shooter but was converting 44.3 percent through January -- an important improvement because, with the injury to center Andruw Bogut and shorter absences of other scorers such as Mike Dunleavy and Stephen Jackson, Jennings was carrying the load. But in eight games this month, Jenning is shooting 33.3 percent from the field and 29.1 percent from three-point range, and the Bucks have lost five of seven. Dunleavy has picked up some of the slack, and Drew Gooden continues to supply at least as much offense as Bogut generated. But with the ball in Jennings' hands so much, his struggles have a big impact.
23 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 23
Sacramento has won four of six, boosting coach Keith Smart's record to 8-12 since taking over for Paul Westphal. If the Kings can continue to play at a .400 clip while developing their young talent, it should be regarded as a successful season. That said, the offensive execution is horrendous. They rank last in field-goal percentage despite concentrating on the more efficient shot locations, at the rim and beyond the three-point arc. Through Saturday, they were seventh in shots at the rim yet 24th in accuracy, mostly because DeMarcus Cousins was ninth in attempts while converting a wretched 51.2 percent (the league average is 63 percent), according to Hoopdata. On the perimeter, they are ninth in attempts and 25th in accuracy, a group failure that exempts leading chuckers Marcus Thornton (35.5 percent) and Jimmer Fredette (38.3), but includes four players -- Donte Greene (22.2), Tyreke Evans (23.0), John Salmons (28.8) and Francisco Garcia (29.2) -- with more than 40 three-point attempts. And a dishonorable mention for Travis Outlaw, who is 3-for-24 (12.5 percent) from long distance.
24 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 25
The magic that coach Dwane Casey used to transform Andrea Bargnani into a capable defender didn't work on point guard Jose Calderon, who remains well below-average at that end of the court. But Calderon has been almost heroic in his efforts to provide Toronto's 28th-ranked offense with a smidgen of respectability. All the scorers on whom the Raptors count have either been hurt (Bargnani, Jerryd Bayless, Linas Kleiza) or disappointing (DeMar DeRozan, Rasual Butler), frequently leaving the pass-first Calderon with no choice but to shoot. On Sunday, he had a career-high 30 points on 13-of-18 shooting as the Raptors came back from 18 points down to nearly beat the Lakers. Two days earlier, Calderon outplayed Rajon Rondo and made 7-of-12 to help Toronto topple the Celtics. More to his liking, he also had 20 assists and two turnovers in those two games. Calderon ranks second to Chris Paul, well above the rest of the league, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.5 to 1.
25 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 21
When center Anderson Varejao broke his wrist against Milwaukee on Saturday, it was a significant blow to Cleveland's season and a shame for fans who enjoy industrious, team-oriented performance. Given that Varejao is now a veteran leader instead of LeBron James' sidekick, his standard of play before the injury might have been the best of his career. At just 6-10 and 230 pounds, he ranks among the elite big men in his ability to come out a great distance and show hard defending the pick-and-roll, and in gaining position for offensive rebounds. There is a steep drop-off from Varejao to undersized banger Samardo Samuels, tentative Semih Erden and clueless Ryan Hollins at center, and none of those three complement the skills of power forward Antawn Jamison. Add the time lost by Rookie of the Year candidate Kyrie Irving to a concussion, and the bottom could easily fall out of what has been an overachieving season in Cleveland.
26 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 27
A day after tying Avery Johnson for the most games by an undrafted player since the NBA/ABA merger, Ben Wallace announced Monday that he would retire after the season. Wise choice. The Pistons went 1-9 during their 10-game experiment of starting Wallace in place of Jonas Jerebko at power forward. They are 3-2 since coach Lawrence Frank gave the starting nod to Jason Maxiell ahead of Jerebko, relegating Wallace to an average of fewer than 10 minutes. Obviously, the 37-year-old Wallace is long past his prime. But it wouldn't hurt the Pistons, who rank 28th in defensive efficiency, to heed the counsel and past example of Big Ben, who will be remembered as the muscular, undersized center whose gritty play led to four Defensive Player of the Year awards and helped Detroit topple Shaq and the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals.
27 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 28
Second-year power forward Trevor Booker, not heralded rookie Jan Vesely, has been getting the minutes as Andray Blatche sits out with a strained calf, a decision by interim coach Randy Wittman that is hard to dispute when you watch the two perform. On a team with no shortage of athletes but a distinct lack of court sense, Booker is a grinder who knows his strengths and weaknesses, shoots a high percentage and leads his team in steals per minute. He is an undersized but relatively rugged defender down low (especially compared to Vesely). In Sunday's win over Detroit, Wittman frequently used Booker on Greg Monroe, letting JaVale McGee tangle with Jason Maxiell. His upside may not be as lofty as Vesely's, but Booker has averaged 14.5 points (on 58 percent shooting) and 8.3 rebounds in the last four games.
28 New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 26
No injury has damaged a franchise more this season than the broken foot suffered by center Brook Lopez a few days before the opener. Before it happened, New Jersey was considered a front-runner to land Dwight Howard at the trading deadline. But given Lopez's unavailability, the odds of Howard's becoming a Net have diminished considerably. That, in turn, has put Deron Williams' future very much in doubt. Instead of Howard or Lopez, Williams has been playing all season with Johan Petro, Shelden Williams or Mehmet Okur as his starting center, a morale-sapping state of affairs. In New Jersey's back-to-back losses to the lowly Pistons last week, Detroit center Greg Monroe shot 18-for-25 (72 percent) and averaged 19 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists.
29 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 29
From the trading block to the low block, center Chris Kaman has had an interesting few weeks. Late last month, the Hornets told him to stay home while they tried to trade him and his $14 million expiring contract. A rash of injuries rescinded those plans and put Kaman back in uniform. On Monday, playing with a sprained ankle, Kaman started his first game since Jan. 14 and erupted for 27 points and 13 rebounds as the Hornets beat Utah. That bit of odd good fortune for the long-suffering fans in New Orleans was counterbalanced by the news that guard Eric Gordon will undergo knee surgery and miss at least six more weeks of a season in which he has played two games.
30 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 30
The numbers are brutal. Fifteen straight losses, leading to a 3-25 record (.107 winning percentage). A defense that yields the most points (100.8) and an offense that scores the fewest (86.4). There are no genuine cornerstones to build around, and yet four players -- Corey Maggette, Boris Diaw, Tyrus Thomas and DeSagana Diop -- each will make anywhere from $6.9 million to $10.3 million this season. It's quite possible that their competition is no longer with any current team in the NBA, but with the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who finished with a .110 winning percentage and league-worst 9-73 record in a full 82-game season.

You May Like

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)