11. Minnesota Timberwolves (11, NC): The Wolves will be in trouble if Nikola Pekovic has to miss an extended period of time after suffering an Achilles injury. Since Dec. 18, Pek has been on fire, averaging 20.7 points and 9.8 rebounds, but even with his production the Wolves can’t seem to get over the .500 mark. They sit at 22-22, and will need to go on a winning streak if they intend to make the playoffs.
12. Chicago Bulls (15, +3): Derrick Rose went down and Luol Deng got traded, but the Bulls have been resilient, winning 10 of 14 games in January, and moving their record up to .500. The addition of PG D.J. Augustin has been a key to their resurgence. Augustin was cast away by the Raptors, but since resurfacing in Chicago he has averaged 13.6 points and 6.0 assists, and an even more notable 21.6 points over his last five games. The Bulls have a real chance to land the 3-seed in the East if they can keep playing like this.
13. Denver Nuggets (10, -3): The Nuggets can’t seem to develop any consistency. They finished December with a seven-game losing streak (and ran that to eight after losing on Jan. 1), but immediately followed that with a five-game winning streak. Since then they are 3-4, but a win on Saturday vs. the Pacers might be just what they need to get to the next level. Danilo Gallinari has been officially ruled out for the season (knee) and JaVale McGee (leg) won’t be returning anytime soon, so they at least know that this current squad is what they have to work with. Ty Lawson has been on another planet, racking up 11 double-doubles during the month of January.
14. Phoenix Suns (12, -2): The loss of Eric Bledsoe to knee surgery has definitely put a dent in the Suns’ once bright playoff hopes, but the outcome hasn’t been as bad as expected. After losing three-straight from Jan. 10-13, the Suns have now won five out of their last seven and still lay claim to the 7th spot in the West. It will be a tough go the rest of the way, but if they can somehow make the playoffs, they’ll arguably be one of the biggest feel-good stories of the year.
15. Brooklyn Nets (18, +3): Winning 10 of their last 12 games, the Nets have risen from the dead to be competitors in the lackluster Eastern Conference. Aside from Brook Lopez who is out for the season, the Nets are finally at full-strength and we are seeing what they can do with that. Led by Paul Pierce (33 points vs. Raptors on Monday) and super-reserve Andray Blatche (16.4 points, 6.4 rebounds in last five games), the Nets are starting to look like people thought they would prior to the season.
16. Atlanta Hawks (13, -3): You gotta give credit to the Hawks – they’re really hanging in there – but eventually this ship is gonna sink…right? Paul Millsap (who somehow got the Eastern Conference Player of the Week Award over Carmelo Anthony) led Atlanta to a 3-1 week, and they barely lost to OKC on Monday night, who needed a Kevin Durant floater as time expired to pull off the win. If Jeff Teague can avoid missing a large chunk of games with his sprained ankle, the Hawks will be able to finish near the top of the conference. That’s how bad the East is.
17. Toronto Raptors (14, -3): The Raptors, like the Suns, are a great story this year. Left for dead after trading away Rudy Gay, they have proven critics wrong. Toronto is in first place in the Atlantic Division and has run up a 17-9 record since Gay left Canadian soil. There’s a possibility point guard Kyle Lowry will be traded, but until that happens Raptors fans can enjoy his excellent play. The former Villanova Wildcat is averaging 17.7 points, 8.1 assists and 4.7 rebounds in January, including a triple-double this past Friday vs. the Sixers.
18. Washington Wizards (19, +1): There has to be a little concern with Bradley Beal. Since returning from a stress fracture in his right leg, the second-year shooting guard is only scoring 14.6 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting. He’s failing to contribute in other categories as well, dishing out a paltry three assists and knocking down just 1.6 threes. The Wizards need him to regain his early season form if they want to remain in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
19. New York Knicks (17, -2): Carmelo Anthony has carried the Knicks on his shoulders all season, and Friday night’s game vs. the Bobcats was no exception. Anthony scored a Knicks franchise-record 62 points (23-35 FG) and grabbed 13 rebounds to lead the Knicks to a much needed win. The win broke a five-game losing streak. New York will need more consistent play from the rest of the team, but if they can manage that, they could find themselves in the playoff hunt.
20. Detroit Pistons (20, NC): Detroit has been one of the biggest disappointments in the NBA this season. After signing/acquiring high-profile players Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings in the offseason, the Pistons were in a prime position to compete in the East. Alas, they have strayed far from those expectations – and Smith and Jennings are largely to blame. Those two have not been afraid to shoot (and miss), combining for a dreadful 39.4 percent from the floor.