9. San Antonio Spurs (47-35): Last time: 9th
Three nights after losing to the Lakers minus Kobe Bryant, the Spurs beat Denver without Tony Parker. The results do not obviously add up, but what has for the Spurs this season? They are the least potent team among the elite teams, are likely to be bumped out by the Thunder, and are barely a .500 team when at full strength. It looks like the Richard Jefferson acquisition has been a lateral move at best.
Chances of winning: 1.8%
8. Dallas Mavericks (48-34): Last time: 7th
Dallas beat the Warriors again, but were destroyed by the Nuggets. The Mavs have been able to keep their record agaisnt playoff and top ten teams at better than .500, which is good. They are playing poorly overall of late, however, losing six of ten, and do not seem like a legitimate contender at this point. Meanwhile, trade rumors haunt the team.
Chances of winning: 4.5%
7. Boston Celtics (51-31): Last time: 8th
The Celtics were worked over by the Magic and then lost to the Hornets. While Boston has a very good record when they are at full strength, they have the second worst overall record against top ten teams. At full strength, they surely can advance to the second round, but they have lacked the knockout ability against elite teams. Their championship odds seem bleak, and Rasheed Wallace has not obviously helped them.
Chances of winning: 5.0%
6. Atlanta Hawks (53-31): Last time: 6th
The Hawks earned a split in their games this week, working Memphis but getting obliterated by Miami. As both opponents are borderline playoff teams, you see Atlanta revealing part of their nature here. While Atlanta has won more than half of their games against playoff teams, their win percentage against elite teams is now just 41%. Both the Magic and Cavs are elite teams, so the road to the Finals looks tough for Atlanta.
Chances of winning: 6.0%
5. Utah Jazz (54-28): Last time: 4th
Utah took the Wannabe list by storm, rising to #4 last week. Their lengthy win streak was extended against the Clippers, but the Bryantless Lakers beat the Jazz on their home court in humbling fashion. The Jazz are still playing well, are still a very good home team, and have done well against playoff teams. They have not done so well against elite teams, however, and are not elite among full strength teams.
Chances of winning: 8.3%
4. Orlando Magic (55-27): Last time: 5th
The Magic are looking more and more like the team that earned a trip to the Final last season. In fact, they were looking quite dominant until they ran into the Cavaliers. As it stands, Orlando is able to win against all teams, regardless of skill level, is playing well of late, and has a great shot at the ECF. Remember: most people (myself excluded) thought the Cavs would walk over the Magic and into the Finals. So things look eerily similar to last year in the East.
Chances of winning: 9.4%
3. Denver Nuggets (54-28): Last time: 2nd
After breaking the Lakers' backs (with Kobe and without Carmelo), the Nuggets dropped two of three against Western Conference powers. In fact, they lost even when Anthony returned to the lineup. Denver is still the best in the West against playoff and elite teams, but they are a step behind the Lakers overall. It is worth keeping an eye on how the team shapes up as Anthony works back into a groove.
Chances of winning: 14.5%
2. Los Angeles Lakers (63-19): Last time: 3rd
Bryant went down and the other Lakers rose to the challenge, issuing beatdowns to three Western Conference playoff teams. Still the best team when at full strength, the Lakers showed they can do it without Bryant, even against good competition. Los Angeles is now in the top three in all indices that determine these rankings, sporting a 60%+ win percent against playoff and elite teams. The Ron Artest Experiment receives a tentative passing grade because even with Artest struggling with injuries before the Break, the Lakers are 41-13 (compared to 44-10 last season at this point).
Chances of winning: 19.0%
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (67-15): Last time: 1st
Cleveland protects their #1 standing. They have a 13-game winning streak, the likely MVP, the best record against elite and playoff teams, the second best record at full strength, and the best record in the NBA. It would be criminal not to have them at #1. Shaq makes this team a better championship team. He doesn't make it any worse during the regular season either (Cleveland finished 66-16 last season).
Chances of winning: 31.6%