Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
15. Brooklyn Nets (17)
The Nets aren’t hitting their week off in perfect shapeKyrie Irving hasn’t played since Feb. 1 and won’t even have his sprained knee reevaluated until after the All-Star breakbut they look a lot stabler than they did toward the end of January.
And just like the last time Irving sat out for an extended period, Brooklyn’s other guards seized the opportunity.
Spencer Dinwiddie totaled 30 assists and only three turnovers in his last three games before the break, and he also hit a game-winner to beat the Pacers on Monday. Caris LeVert’s team-high 20 points fueled Wednesday’s victory over Toronto, ending the Raptors’ 15-game winning streak. At 6-2 in their last eight games and with the East’s No. 7 playoff spot all but assured, the Nets shouldn’t feel pressured to rush Irving back.
It might feel unfair to rank Brooklyn ahead of the Pacers, given the disparity in overall record. Indy is 32-23, while Brooklyn is just 25-28. But the Nets have a higher net rating (plus-4.0 to the Pacers’ minus-1.1) and own the edge in record (7-6 versus 6-8) over the last calendar month. Throw in a head-to-head win by Brooklyn last Monday, and there’s enough justification to slot the Nets this high.
14. New Orleans Pelicans (13)
Tuesday’s 138-117 win over the Blazers may have been New Orleans’ most significant of the season. Zion Williamson pogo-sticked all over the floor for a career-high 31 points to go with nine rebounds and five assists, and the Pels kept the ball hopping, surpassing the season-high 38 assists they registered last week with 40.
The Pelicans are 16-9 since Dec. 23, and though they’re only 5-5 in games Williamson has played, his positive impact is far more pronounced than that record indicates. With him on the floor, New Orleans crushes opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions.
Williamson set and reset his career high in scoring with 31 points in Tuesday’s win over the Blazers, followed by 32 in Thursday’s 123-118 loss to the Thunder. He joined a select group of players to post back-to-back games with at least 30 points as teenagers.
Oh, and among players who’ve logged 200 minutes this season, only Giannis Antetokounmpo scores more points in the paint on a per-minute basis than Zion. He’s physically dominating the league at age 19.
That 13-game losing streak in December put the Pels in a hole. The playoffs are a long shot. But they’re a postseason-quality team right nowand even better than that when Williamson is rumbling around on the court.
13. Dallas Mavericks (12)
Dallas is 5-6 in the 11 games Luka Doncic missed with ankle sprains before the break, a surprisingly competent figure considering the sophomore All-Star’s total control of its attack.
In the tech-bro sense of the term, Doncic is disrupting NBA offense. He’s now operating as both the screener and the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, which isn’t usually how those sorts of plays work. When you think you’ve seen everything, Doncic busts out something new.
The 33 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists he pasted on the Kings in Wednesday’s 130-111 win (after missing the previous seven games with an ankle sprain) proved he’ll be ready to roll in the second half.
With Kristaps Porzingis logging five of his eight 25-point games since Jan. 31, Dallas’ one-two punch is looking more potent than ever.
12. Philadelphia 76ers (14)
By bringing Al Horford off the bench for the first time since the veteran’s rookie season, Sixers head coach Brett Brown may have landed on the key to maximizing the fit between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
For one game, anyway.
Tuesday’s 110-103 win over the Clippers ran Philadelphia’s home record to 25-2 and saw Simmons play one of his best games of the season. He led the Sixers with 26 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. Embiid, enjoying more space inside as Philly put four shooters around him, bullied the Clips for 26 points and nine boards, getting to the foul line 13 times in only 28 minutes of action.
It’s not ideal if Philadelphia’s optimal rotation involves a $109 million free agent coming off the pine, but there’s no denying the offensive breathing room Horford’s benching created.
The Sixers hit the break on a three-game winning streak. And though their road struggles and chemistry concerns are real, they’ve still flashed the top-end potential that makes them a threat to reach the Finals.
From The Athletic’s Derek Bodner: “For all of the controversy surrounding the Sixers’ season, they have wins over every top team in the league. From the East’s Bucks, Heat, Celtics and Raptors to the West’s Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets and Jazz, the 76ers have victories against them all. In fact, the Sixers hold a winning record (10-9) against those teams, who currently comprise the top four of each conference.”
11. Memphis Grizzlies (11)
Brandon Clarke was a ridiculous 12-of-14 from the field in Wednesday’s 111-104 win over the Blazers, and he’s on pace to post the highest true-shooting percentage by a rookie (among those attempting at least 300 shots) in NBA history.
Some of Clarke’s accuracy is owed to Ja Morant’s superhuman vision, but let’s not shortchange the springy forward. He’s the one running the floor, finding seams in the defense and finishing heaps of tough floaters with touch. If that 42.0 percent conversion rate from deep is remotely sustainable, Clarke is going to spend most of his career as one of the league’s most efficient scorers.
As for the Grizzlies, they look poised to retain the playoff spot they’ve improbably occupied for several weeks, and they’ll do it utilizing exactly the kind of uptempo style you’d want to see from superior athletes like Morant and Clarke. Only Milwaukee and Toronto get out in transition more frequently than Memphis.
The Grizz are 15-4 since Jan. 4, and they boast a plus-5.1 net rating that ranks sixth in the league during that span.
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images