11. Denver Nuggets (8, -3): From November 21st till December 15th the Nuggets won 10 of 13 games and were finally gelling under new coach Brian Shaw, but a 5-game losing streak has made that seem like a distant memory. The ineffectiveness of Kenneth Faried, as well as season-long injuries to Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee, has taken a toll on the team. The Nuggets now find themselves a game-and-a-half out of the final playoff spot in the West.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves (11, -1): You know that movie that has all the great actors, special effects and funny lines, but just keeps missing its mark throughout? Every time you think it’s destined to win an Academy Award, there’s a 10-minute scene that just makes you say “huh?!?” This is what it’s like to watch the T-Wolves: a team that has all the promise of a great finish, but usually comes up short in the final chase scene.
13. New Orleans Pelicans (13, NC): Much to the joy of Pelicans fans, Anthony Davis unexpectedly beat his timetable to return from a non-displaced fracture in his hand. He’s averaging 20.8 points, 9.8 boards and 1.5 blocks in his first 4 games back, but it’s not all rainbows and unicorns (gators and crawfish?) in N’awlins. Perennial E.R. patient Eric Gordon is on the shelf yet again, this time with a hip injury. We’ve yet to see how the Pelicans could do at full strength, as their core of Davis, Gordon, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Tyreke Evans have spent little to no time out of street clothes at the same time.
14. Chicago Bulls (18, +4): Losing Derrick Rose really hurt. The Bulls are an atrocious 4-11 at the United Center and have fallen out of the playoff picture in the East. There’s a silver lining though. With Jimmy Butler back, and Luol Deng about ready to play again, the Bulls have the same talented group of players that was able to win a 1st-round playoff series last year. The East is so bad, and the slumbering Bulls won’t stay dormant for long. Expect them to make a push.
15. Detroit Pistons (16, +1): When you play at home you’re supposed to have an advantage, right? Well, the Pistons don’t seem to understand that. While they’re a respectable 8-7 on the road, the team is just 6-10 at home in the Motor City. If they can turn around their home court blues, the Pistons have the fire power be a top tier team in the East.
16. Atlanta Hawks (12, -4): The Hawks are one of only three teams in the Eastern Conference with a record above .500 (Indiana, Miami), but that “pristine” record won’t stay untarnished for long. The team’s best player, Al Horford, tore his pectoral muscle on Thursday and will miss the remainder of the season. They were already lacking in depth, so losing Horford, who was averaging 18.6 points and 8.4 rebounds, is a huge blow to the Hawks’ chances. Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver, to a lesser extent, simply aren’t enough to carry this team.
17. Charlotte Bobcats (22, +5): The Bobcats are making strides under new coach Steve Clifford. They rank 3rd in the NBA in defense, allowing only 93.4 points per game, but they’re also scoring only 92.2 points per contest, which is 29th in the league. No matter how fantastic your defense is, if you’re being outscored by your opponents you’ll end up like Charlotte – with a 14-16 record.
18. Washington Wizards (23, +5): A gasp was let out among Wizards Nation on Friday night when Bradley Beal had to be helped off the court with what looked like yet another injury to his leg, but there was a sigh of relief when it was revealed to only be a bruise. If players like Beal and Nene can stay out of the trainer’s room, the Wizards are a team to watch out for.
19. Toronto Raptors (21, +2): Since trading Rudy Gay to the Kings the Raptors are 6-3 and have found themselves in 1st place in the Atlantic Division. It’s a classic case of addition by subtraction. Gay was shooting them out of games and seemed unhappy. The Raptors are playing well as a unit, but that could soon change. Kyle Lowry is the next man on the chopping block and DeMar DeRozan is losing steam of late, averaging 17.5 points on just 37 percent shooting over his last 4 games, compared to 21.8 points and 44 percent shooting in his other 23 games. Coach Dwane Casey says he’ll limit his young star’s minutes, but somehow I don’t think that’ll happen.
20. Boston Celtics (19, -1): What rookie coach Brad Stevens is doing with this team is quite incredible. Sure the Celtics 12-17 record isn’t appealing to look at, but this is a team that was supposed to contend in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes, not be the 8th seed in the East. The East is bad, I get that, but the Celts are playing with tenacity and heart – contrary to what people thought would be a “tanking” situation.