11. Dallas Mavericks (17, +6): Spurred on by a red-hot Monta Ellis and a 7-0 record at American Airlines Arena, the Mavs are silencing critics who said they couldn’t compete in the West. Ellis is averaging 26.2 points and 6.8 assists over his last five games, four of which were Dallas wins.
12. Atlanta Hawks (21, +9): The Hawks are a team that benefits tremendously from playing in the Eastern Conference. They are easily an average team at best, but squaring up against sub-par competition has padded their win-loss total. Overall they are 8-6, but are only 1-3 vs. teams in the Western Conference, and in those games they have a -14 point differential. The Hawks will make the playoffs, but make another unenthusiastic first-round exit.
13. Denver Nuggets (24, +11): Their record (6-6) doesn’t exactly exude “13th overall ranking”, but the Nuggets have played better of late, winning five of their last seven, and the team seems to finally be gelling under new coach Brian Shaw. The roster is not much different from the one that won 57 games last year and Danilo Gallinari should be making his return by the end of December. Look for the Nuggets to make a push.
14. New Orleans Pelicans (10, -4): Let me start off by saying this: I still can’t get used to the name “Pelicans”. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve called them the “Hornets”. I even started this article by calling them the Hornets and had to edit it. Wait until next year then the Bobcats become the Hornets, we’ll all be screwed. But all ridiculous monikers aside, the PELICANS have the potential to breakout. You can see it. Anthony Davis has been an absolute beast, averaging 20.7 points, 11 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 4 blocks per game, but the team itself has not been consistent. They began the season going 3-3, then lost 3 in a row and are now riding a 3-game win streak. Of course, a .500 record isn’t terrible, but that’s not gonna get you far in the West.
15. Memphis Grizzlies (12, -3): Marc Gasol sprained his MCL on Friday night and will miss 6-8 weeks. This hurts the team a lot, considering he was the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and because his 16 points-per-game represented 17 percent of the scoring for a team that was already struggling in that category, ranking 23rd in the NBA at 94.1 ppg. The Grizzlies can only hope to tread some water while they await his return. They’ll win games, but they must continue to play stellar defense to do so.
16. Toronto Raptors (22, +6): The Raptors just shoot and shoot and shoot. Although being atop the Atlantic Division is not the loftiest of feats, first place is first place. As poorly as they shoot from the field (42.3%), they’ve got to play immaculate defense to keep their success going. They are allowing 2.2 points less per game to the opposition than they did last year, so a decline looks inevitable.
17. Los Angeles Lakers (20, +3): Give credit to the Lakers. The front office put together a band of rag-tag misfits, and it’s working so far. Guys like Steve Blake and the Jordans — Farmar and Hill — have been keeping the team afloat while they wait for Kobe Bryant to make his triumphant return to Staples Center. If the Lakers can stay around .500, it’d be a miracle – but that’s not too out of the question, is it?
18. Orlando Magic (18, NC): Victor Oladipo, the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft, made his first start on Wednesday, and boy was it something. He finished the night with 20 points (8-8 FT), two assists, four rebounds, two blocks and five steals in 36 minutes of action. You can’t overlook the eight turnovers he committed, but the Magic instantly become a more competitive team with him in the starting lineup. “Big Baby” Glen Davis made his season debut on Saturday night and Tobias Harris will make his shortly. Watch out for Orlando as a sleeper in the laughable Eastern Conference.
19. Washington Wizards (15, -4): The Wizards got off to a sluggish start, but have won three of their last four games, and are starting to look like the team that many predicted to make a statement in the East. The backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal has been outstanding. Wall has scored 37 and 31 points in his last two games, respectively, and Beal has averaged 22.8 points and 3.0 three-pointers made over his last five. With Trevor Ariza hurt, Martell Webster has picked up the slack, averaging 14.8 points in 5 starts.
20. New York Knicks (11, -9): New York City is in an uproar. The professional teams in the Big Apple have not done well so far this year, and all the talk this offseason were that the Knicks were going to be the saviors. Fast forward a couple of months and the Knicks look as bad as their NYC predecessors. It’s a jumbled mess in Madison Square, but if they can figure out the chemistry, they have the talent to turn it around. Getting Tyson Chandler back before New Year’s would go a long way in accomplishing that.