All the attention this week has been on LeBron James, and his first return to Cleveland since leaving the Cavs to sign with the Miami Heat last summer. While we're all extremely interested to see how that circus is plays out, the reality of things is that it's really just an average team taking on a below average team in a game that ultimately won't mean much (from a purely basketball perspective) for either side.
If you want to see real basketball being played, just shift your focus to Texas. The Mavericks top our rankings this week based on the strength of their seven-game winning streak, while the Spurs sit atop the overall standings with the league's best record 18 games into the season.
- 1. Mavericks (14-4) | Prev.: 8
Dallas has won seven straight, which includes handing the Spurs one of their three losses on the season in San Antonio. The Mavs have been doing it with defense, holding their opponents to 95 points or less in six of those seven wins.
- 2. Jazz (15-5) | Prev.: 5
Utah has its own seven-game win streak to brag about, and similarly to Dallas, has held all seven of those opponents to 97 points or less. Deron Williams had 16 assists without a turnover in Wednesday's win over the Pacers, which is a feat not quite as uncommon as it seems. His performance was the 45th time since the 1986-87 season a player recorded at least 16 assists with zero turnovers, but it wasn't even the first time this season: Boston's Rajon Rondo dished out 17 assists without a turnover in a win at Detroit on November 2.
- 3. Magic (14-4) | Prev.: 7
You may remember Derek Anderson of the Arizona Cardinals going off on a reporter who asked him about laughing on the sidelines during his team's blowout loss on Monday Night Football this week. Well, Dwight Howard remembered it too, and gave us his own version after Tuesday night's win over the Pistons.
- 4. Celtics (14-4) | Prev.: 4
Doc Rivers was named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for November on Wednesday, and it was the sixth time in his career he's received the honor. All of the other Celtics coaches combined have won four since the inception of the award in the 1982-83 season.
- 5. Spurs (15-3) | Prev.: 2
What a difference a day makes. Had we compiled the Rankings a day earlier, San Antonio may have had a claim to the top spot. But despite having the league's best record, you just can't be there when your most recent performance was a road loss to the lowly Clippers.
- 6. Lakers (13-6) | Prev.: 1
L.A. is riding a four-game losing streak, and the statisticians will tell you that no Phil Jackson-coached team has ever won a championship in a season where it had such a streak. Early on, there's been too much reliance on Kobe Bryant on the offensive end, and too much reliance on Pau Gasol in general. The Lakers have played Gasol 39.4 minutes per game, the sixth highest average in the league, wearing out the talented big man to the point of diminished returns, as well as a recent hamstring injury.
- 7. Hawks (12-7) | Prev.: 14
The news that Joe Johnson will be out at least a month after having surgery on his right elbow obviously isn't great for a team that has won four straight. But while Johnson leads the team in scoring at 17.1 points per game, his absence may not hurt too badly. The next three players in that department -- Al Horford, Josh Smith, and Jamal Crawford -- are fairly close, averaging 16.5, 15.4, and 14.1 points per game respectively.
- 8. Thunder (13-6) | Prev.: 3
The Thunder won a triple-overtime thriller over the Nets on Wednesday, thanks to a monster performance of 38 points, 15 rebounds, and 9 assists from Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant missed the game with a knee injury, but the team seems to step up sufficiently in his absence -- OKC has won all three games that Durant has missed this season.
- 9. Nuggets (11-6) | Prev.: 9
Thanks to an ejection on Wednesday, Carmelo Anthony now leads the league in technical fouls with six through his team's first 17 games. Once a player picks up 16, it's an automatic one-game suspension -- and another one-game suspension for every other tech after that. Anthony will need to slow down considerably if he wants to prevent that from happening. As Chris Tomasson noted afterward, he's currently on pace for almost 34 this season.
- 10. Hornets (13-5) | Prev.: 6
New Orleans has come back to earth considerably after its 11-1 start: the team is just 2-4 over its last six games. The schedule-makers might have had something to do with it, however, with a tough back-to-back against the Spurs and the Thunder accounting for two of those losses.
- 11. Heat (11-8) | Prev.: 11
After the bump and the players-only meeting, all seems to be forgiven, as the Heat have gotten back on track by blowing out the Wizards and the Pistons. LeBron's return to Cleveland is sure to be every bit of a circus as we're anticipating, but after it's all said and done, Miami will need to get back to the business of trying to figure out how to make things work with a team that doesn't appear to have the championship-level talent that most thought they might at the beginning of the season.
- 12. Knicks (10-9) | Prev.: 16
Landry Fields was named the Eastern Conference's Rookie of the Month for November. Nothing personal against Fields, but either the people who give out these awards were penalizing John Wall for missing some games due to injury, or they simply haven't been watching as many Knicks games as they should.
- 13. Pacers (9-8) | Prev.: 15
The Pacers have impressive road wins over both the Heat and the Lakers this season, which is obviously the good news. The bad news is that they can no longer sneak up on anyone, as their 22-point loss at the hands of the Utah Jazz on Wednesday would seem to indicate.
- 14. Bulls (9-7) | Prev.: 10
The Bulls list both Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer as 6-foot-9 forwards from Duke. Whether or not you believe the measurements, it caused a bit of confusion on Thursday, as Boozer made his debut in Chicago's starting lineup. When the announcer began with "a 6-9 forward from Duke," Deng ran out first -- even though the call was for Boozer.
- 15. Suns (8-9) | Prev.: 13
Phoenix has plenty of work to do to improve their league-worst defense, while trying to figure out if playing Hakim Warrick in the starting lineup is going to be the right long-term solution to some of those issues. Fans of the team might have an equal amount of work to do themselves if they want to figure out exactly what the heck this Channing Frye video clip is all about.
- 16. Raptors (7-11) | Prev.: 18
Toronto had been playing better lately, winning four straight before dropping two in a row to good competition -- the Celtics and the Hawks. The team did get back on track on its last outing, however, and posted a 19-point win over the Wizards in John Wall's first game back from injury.
- 17. Grizzlies (8-11) | Prev.: 19
Memphis joined the "Pacers Club" on Tuesday, adding the Lakers to their list of conquests after defeating the Heat 10 days earlier. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are 4-2 since moving Xavier Henry into the starting lineup and bringing in O.J. Mayo off the bench.
- 18. Rockets (6-12) | Prev.: 28
Shane Battier scored 11 points in the final three minutes to help his team hand the Lakers their fourth straight loss on Wednesday. The performance was fluky at best -- it was only the seventh time in 18 games all season where's he's even totaled at least 11 points.
- 19. Cavaliers (7-10) | Prev.: 23
Cleveland's Super Bowl is Thursday night. The fact that there won't be a game that means anywhere close to this much for this team the rest of the season goes without saying.
- 20. Warriors (8-10) | Prev.: 17
Since starting the season with a record of 7-4, the Warriors find themselves two games under .500 after going 1-6 in their last seven, with the only win coming against the lowly Timberwolves.
- 21. Blazers (8-10) | Prev.: 12
Tough times in Portland, as the Blazers are riding a five-game losing streak. At least they were competitive in their latest loss, losing by just four points in Boston on Wednesday.
- 22. Bobcats (6-12) | Prev.: 25
Stephen Jackson was suspended by the league for his team's loss in New Orleans on Wednesday after failing to leave the court in a timely manner following an ejection Saturday in Milwaukee. It cost him about $103,000 in pay according to the Charlotte Observer, which hardly seems worth giving the referees a little extra lip before exiting.
- 23. Pistons (6-13) | Prev.: 22
The Pistons failed to reach 80 points in either of their last two games, posting 79 in a loss to the Magic, and then 72 (behind an awesome nine-point third quarter) against the Heat. They'll try to make it three in a row when they'll once again face the Magic on Friday.
- 24. Bucks (6-12) | Prev.: 24
The Bucks are just 1-7 over their last eight games, but they did get a bit of good news on Wednesday. Corey Maggette returned to the lineup after missing the last two games with a sore ankle, and scored 17 points in 22 minutes.
- 25. Nets (6-13) | Prev.: 20
The Nets competed as well as could be expected on Wednesday without starting point guard Devin Harris, who was sidelined with a knee injury. New Jersey forced the Thunder to go three overtimes before finally falling in the loss.
- 26. Sixers (5-13) | Prev.: 29
Philadelphia has now won two straight, but the wins haven't necessarily been because of the play of Andre Iguodala. The team's star tied a season-low with just seven points in 42 minutes of action in Philadelphia's win over the Blazers on Tuesday.
- 27. Clippers (4-15) | Prev.: 30
The Clippers might be bad, but they've been better lately at home. The team has won three of its last four at Staples, including a Wednesday night shocker over the team with the league's best record, the San Antonio Spurs.
- 28. Wizards (5-12) | Prev.: 21
A report surfaced on Wednesday that the Wizards were in talks to trade Gilbert Arenas to the Orlando Magic, and you wonder if it might have affected his play. After averaging 25 points per game over his last three, Arenas was a dismal 1-for-10 from the field and finished with just seven points in a loss to the Raptors.
- 29. Timberwolves (4-14) | Prev.: 27
Minnesota is just 1-7 over its last eight games, but Kevin Love continues to impress, and leads the league in rebounding with an average of 14.9 -- a full 2.5 more per game than the player in second place, the Bulls' Joakim Noah.
- 30. Kings (4-12) | Prev.: 26
As if things aren't bad enough for the Kings right now, who have won just once in their last 12 games, Tyreke Evans was YouTube'd for all of eternity by Derrick Rose and his ridiculous crossover.