By Chris Mannix
March 16, 2009

The Lakers have turned the race for the top seed in the Western Conference into a coronation. Are the Cavaliers now poised to do the same in the East?

Since losing March 6 at Boston to fall into a virtual tie with the Celtics, the Cavs have won five in a row and opened a 3½-game lead over the injury-plagued defending champions and a four-game advantage over the Magic with 16 to play. What's more, beginning Tuesday against Orlando, the Cavs play seven of their next eight games at Quicken Loans Arena, where they are 28-1 this season.

Meanwhile, there could be at least one East race that goes down to the wire: the eighth-seed chase. Six teams entered the week separated by 2½ games.

(All stats and records are through Sunday.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 1
They have won five straight and 14 of 16 and share the best record in basketball. So why does LeBron James sound like he is captaining the Titanic? "We're letting teams get too comfortable," James told reporters after Friday's overtime victory at Sacramento. "That's something we don't want to do. It's something we know, and it is something we have to get better at."
2 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 2
Already running away with the West, their biggest issue these days is establishing a consistent rotation. Trevor Ariza replaced Luke Walton as the starting small forward last week, and the debate is already raging about whether injured center Andrew Bynum, who has begun running on a treadmill, should reclaim his starting spot when he returns or if Lamar Odom should remain in the first unit.
3 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 3
"I never question what the Spurs do," an NBA scout said last week. "Just watch -- Drew Gooden will wind up being great for them." What do you know, Gooden is off to a pretty good start. In his second game with the Spurs, Gooden scored 13 points and pulled down four rebounds in 15 minutes in Saturday's victory at Houston.
4 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 5
Orlando Magic (49-17)
Coach Stan Van Gundy knows why Dwight Howard isn't in the discussion for the MVP award: He's not sexy enough. "For a lot of different reasons, it's a perimeter league," Van Gundy told the Orlando Sentinel. "Leading the league in rebounding and blocked shots while still averaging 21 points a game is just not as sexy as those guys going out and having 40-point nights. It's just tough and I think people are failing to recognize the other end of the floor defensively and his contribution."
5 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 4
There has to be some uneasiness developing in Boston. Coach Doc Rivers said recently that making sure his team was healthy and rested come playoff time was more important than securing the No. 1 seed. That's fine, but Boston has been losing ground to Cleveland and is neither healthy nor rested right now. Kevin Garnett (knee) and Glen Davis (ankle) are still out, and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen played 37 or more minutes in back-to-back road losses to Miami and Milwaukee last week.
6 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 6
Ron Artest has managed to keep his famous temper in check all season. But that's not to say he has always been in control on the floor. After Artest's crunch-time performance in last Wednesday's loss to the Lakers (including poor shot selection and his bizarre trash talk to Kobe Bryant while Kobe was torching the Rockets for 37 points), coach Rick Adelman said he spoke to Artest about keeping a cool head late in the game. "Sometimes, he tries to make too much out of the play, rather than take the easier shot that's there," Adelman told reporters. "That's what he's got to figure out and learn."
7 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 8
No player gets into the lane as effortlessly as Chris Paul, who shredded the Washington defense for 30 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds in a comeback win last Wednesday. Paul recorded a triple-double in both games against the Wizards this season. "He's like Tiny Archibald," Wizards coach Ed Tapscott said. "It's almost impossible to match up with him."
8 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 9
How bad is Kenyon Martin's back injury? Bad enough that coach George Karl is considering sitting him down until the playoffs. "To me, that seems to be a small window of thought," Karl told the Denver Post. A 2-1 week bumped the Nuggets back into the No. 4 spot in the West, but with only a handful of capable big bodies available, they will need a healthy Martin to be a factor in the postseason.
9 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 7
Utah Jazz (41-26)
Is Carlos Boozer reconsidering opting out this summer? It sure sounds like it. "The economy sucks, man," Boozer told the Salt Lake Tribune. "Just to be quite frank about it, it sucks for everybody. My family, your family, you, me, everybody. It's something else we'll have to talk about this summer, too." Since returning to the lineup Feb. 23, Boozer is averaging 12.6 points (on 44.8 percent shooting) and 9.7 rebounds and says he feels "about 85 percent" healthy.
10 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 12
Atlanta Hawks (39-28)
The key to their success is ... Maurice Evans? There might be something to it. They are 12-1 with Evans in the starting lineup, a spot that is his to lose with Marvin Williams out indefinitely with an ailing back. In Saturday's win over Indiana, Evans scored 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting. "We're going to have to lose three or four in a row before somebody can convince me that [starting] is anything but a positive thing," Evans told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Meanwhile, the Hawks are 5-0 on their seven-game homestand.
11 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 10
It's time for the obligatory Greg Oden update. Oden, who has missed the last 14 games with a left knee injury, has been doing some basketball activities and is with the team on its five-game road trip. Coach Nate McMillan told reporters that Oden is taking shots in the paint, shooting free throws and running to set screens on pick-and-rolls. "He should be close," McMillan said. "I wouldn't say he's definitely going to play [on the trip], but he's getting better."
12 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 11
They are riding Jason Kidd pretty hard down the stretch. Kidd is averaging 38.2 minutes in nine games this month, including a 46-minute outing in Sunday's loss to the host Lakers. Two nights earlier, Kidd recorded his 102nd career triple-double with 21 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists in a loss at Golden State.
13 Miami Heat
Last Week: 13
Miami Heat (36-30)
Dwyane Wade has been on a scoring binge but don't discount the production of Jermaine O'Neal, who has given the Heat a legitimate option in the low post. O'Neal scored 28 points in Saturday's triple-overtime victory against Utah and followed it up with 20 points the next day in a loss at Philadelphia.
14 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 16
They are up. They are down. They can run. They can't. They hit threes. They miss them. Figuring out which Sixers team is going to show up each night isn't easy. Philadelphia beat the Raptors, Bulls and Heat at home last week, but the good times could be short-lived. Scouts say teams have been able to slow the Sixers' vaunted running attack by mixing in zone defense and scoring against their mediocre pick-and-roll defense.
15 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 14
Phoenix Suns (36-31)
Matt Barnes is averaging 16.9 points (on 51.4 percent shooting), 5.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists in nine games this month. He has been a fixture in the starting lineup since Alvin Gentry replaced Terry Porter as coach. "I can jump on him and the next play he's going to shoot it or do whatever it takes to help us win the game," Gentry told the Arizona Republic. "He wants to win. I'd never think about sitting Matt because he's what we should be all about. He's got a toughness about him where he's not afraid to stick his nose in there."
16 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 15
The NBA lost another ownership icon when the Pistons' Bill Davidson died Friday at 86. Never one for the spotlight, Davidson was content to simply be known as one of the most successful owners in sports history. He will be remembered for, among other things, winning three championships with the Pistons and becoming the first NBA owner to finance a new arena entirely with private funds. His success extended to the NHL (he bought the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1999; they won the Stanley Cup in 2004) and the WNBA (the Detroit Shock won titles in 2003, '06 and '08).
17 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 19
It's intriguing to think about what they could do next season with a full complement of players. Charlie Villanueva and Ramon Sessions have emerged as legitimate starters at power forward and point guard, respectively, and if you plug in injured stars Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut to a team starting to play Scott Skiles-type defense (witness the 77 points they yielded to Boston on Sunday), you just might have something.
18 New York Knicks
Last Week: 22
They didn't break on a five-game, make-or-break road trip, going 3-2 to stay within 1½ games of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. Now they must take advantage of playing five of their next six games at Madison Square Garden, including visits from the fading Nets and the dreadful Kings and Clippers.
19 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 17
Chicago Bulls (30-37)
They dropped three more away from the United Center last week, extending their road losing streak to seven. The good news is the Bulls will be home for two of their three games this week. The bad news is the opponents are the Celtics and Lakers.
20 New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 18
What happened to Yi Jianlian's jump shot? Billed as a solid-shooting big man when he came into the league, the second-year player is connecting on only 40 percent from the field. Nevertheless, he continues to start at power forward. "Remember, we're trying to do two things," coach Lawrence Frank told the Newark Star-Ledger. "He has a big upside, and we're giving him an opportunity. And, we're trying to win the game. We said it's not going to be easy. But we said it at the beginning of the year, and there will be days when his playing time will be less."
21 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 20
Yes, they are competitive this season. Yes, that is a good thing for a franchise that floundered in its first four years of existence. But in becoming competitive, Charlotte has taken on some awful, flexibility-destroying contracts (DeSagana Diop, Boris Diaw, Vladimir Radmanovic). And for what? A sub-.500 record and the chance to get wiped out by the East's top seed in the first round?
22 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 21
Danny Granger returned from an 11-game absence to score 10 points off the bench in Sunday's 110-87 loss at Toronto. "I played 18 minutes, I thought I had played 32," Granger said after the Pacers' third loss in a row. "That's how it feels but it will come around. It just takes a while to get back into the rhythm."
23 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 23
They scored 130 points Sunday ... and lost by 24. Phoenix scored 154 (on 62 percent shooting), including 56 fast-break points and 84 in the paint. Stephen Jackson had nine assists in the first half but was ejected in the third quarter for arguing with the referees. Jackson faces a one-game suspension after picking up his 16th technical of the season.
24 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 24
Toronto has figured out how to keep Chris Bosh north of the border: Let him freelance as a weatherman. In his latest small-screen foray, Bosh delivered a seamless "CB4-kast" on a local Toronto newscast. Frankly, Bosh looked more comfortable giving the forecast than he has during some stretches on the court this season.
25 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 26
Is Kevin McHale's time with the Timberwolves winding down? Owner Glen Taylor told reporters that McHale would not be returning to the team's front office but would be welcomed back as coach. McHale, however, has been reluctant to commit beyond this season. "Guys want him back, especially me," point guard Sebastian Telfair told The New York Times. "I feel when he came in, we started playing basketball the right way."
26 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 25
Coach Scott Brooks knows what Russell Westbrook is going through. In college, Brooks alternated between the point-guard and shooting-guard spots before going on to play 11 years in the NBA, primarily as a point guard. Now Brooks is trying to pass on the lessons he learned to Westbrook, who is still adjusting to the position after two years as a part-time point guard at UCLA. "He's unique," Brooks said. "He can be really good at either guard spot but we want him to focus on becoming a very good distributor at the point-guard position."
27 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 28
Rookie wall, meet O.J. Mayo. The guard has shot better than 42 percent just three times in the last 17 games. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Grizzlies have won only four of those games. "There's time when he doesn't get the shot when we call something for him," coach Lionel Hollins told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "We have to find ways to make sure he does get his shot. We have to keep working. He has to keep working, and when he does get his shots he has to make them."
28 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 30
Add Magic assistant and former Georgetown star Patrick Ewing's name to the growing list of those interested in the Wizards' soon-to-be-vacant head-coaching position. But from what I hear, the Wizards are still focused on hiring an experienced, defensive-minded coach to lead what is expected to be an extremely talented roster next season.
29 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 29
Zach Randolph's career can be summed up in last Tuesday's 87-83 loss to the Cavs. Randolph stuffed the stat sheet as usual, tallying 20 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. But he was on the floor as the Cavs charged back from 19-point deficit, and he launched a horrendous, 26-foot bomb with five seconds left and the Clippers down by two. Coach Mike Dunleavy's reaction to the air ball was priceless. No surprise that Randolph was on the bench when backup forward Steve Novak knocked down the game-winning three-pointer against New Jersey on Sunday night.
30 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 27
Funny, I didn't hear about Ewing's throwing his name into the mix for the Kings' impending coaching opening. Nor do I hear anyone else jockeying for it either. The Kings are bleeding money, have a CBA-caliber roster and may be bound for another city in a couple of years. What, that doesn't sound enticing?
Got a different view than Chris?

You May Like