Posted: Tuesday April 10, 2012 1:34PM ; Updated: Wednesday April 11, 2012 1:48PM
Britt Robson
Britt Robson>NBA POWER RANKINGS

Spurs take their turn at the top

Story Highlights

The Spurs had won 11 in a row before resting their stars in Monday's loss at Utah

The Grizzlies have climbed to fifth and appear to be peaking for the postseason

Philadelphia, once comfortably in first place, is struggling to make the playoffs

Apparently, San Antonio's Gregg Popovich has struck a deal with his stars: Win 11 games in a row and you get the next game off to rest. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have taken their coach up on it twice this season and Manu Ginobili has done so once (Ginobili was hurt during parts of and immediately after the team's first 11-game streak). Yes, the short-handed Spurs lose that next game -- Feb. 21 in Portland and now Monday in Utah -- but at a combined 22-2, their fans are OK with the terms.

All kidding aside, driven by their latest 11-game winning streak during which 10 players averaged at least nine points, the Spurs are the obvious choice and the last of this season's four elite teams to ascend to the top spot in the Power Rankings. But with home games this week against the Grizzlies (up to No. 5 and winners of six of seven), Lakers (No. 8) and a Phoenix team (No. 13) fighting for its playoff life, it remains to be seen if the Spurs can lead the list for longer than the one-week stay for the last occupant, the Thunder. Oklahoma City falls to No. 2 this week, just ahead of Eastern Conference powers Chicago and Miami.

(All stats and records are through Monday, April 9.)

NBA Power Rankings
1San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 2
Here is why Popovich should be favored in the Coach of the Year voting: He has his team peaking at the right time and has played 15-year veteran Duncan only 1,452 minutes. By comparison, 16-year veteran Kobe Bryant, currently sidelined with a shin injury, has logged 2,153 for the Lakers, the equivalent of 20 extra 35-minute games. For Popovich, it's all about trusting the system. On Monday, he started three players -- Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills -- who have all been with the Spurs for less than a month, along with third-year center DeJuan Blair and swingman Danny Green, who is in his first full season with the team And yet, without their three stars on the road against a much bigger Jazz team that is scrapping to remain in the playoff hunt, the Spurs led with less than four minutes to play before losing 91-84.
 
2Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 1
After losing three straight, the Thunder have blitzed their last two opponents. They erupted for a 24-0 run over the third and fourth quarters against Toronto on Sunday, and then had a 19-5 spurt to open a 33-12 lead against Milwaukee on Monday. You can't decimate an opponent that quickly and thoroughly without a defense that is at once subsumed in the fundamentals and confidently opportunistic. OKC's rise to ninth in points allowed per possession solidifies its championship credentials. With 6-foot-5 Thabo Sefolosha back beside 6-3 Russell Westbrook as the guards and 6-10 Kendrick Perkins, 6-10 Serge Ibaka and 6-9 Kevin Durant near the rim, the Thunder have a killer combination of length and speed to jump the passing lanes. Three weeks before the start of the playoffs, they are obviously having fun getting stops. If that spirit continues, the Thunder will be a superior team to the one that made last year's conference finals.
 
3Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 3
A 3-4 record in their last seven games qualifies as the Bulls' worst stretch of the season. It is hard to second-guess Sunday's loss to the Knicks -- if Derrick Rose and Luol Deng make even one of their final four free-throw attempts, Chicago wins in regulation -- but the exclusive reliance on Rose in crunch time in his return from a 12-game absence seems ominous. Are the Bulls going to be that predictable again in the playoffs? With Rose back, C.J. Watson slid down to the second unit and John Lucas rode the bench. But Lucas was more effective than Watson when Rose was out and delivers as many assists with fewer turnovers. Watson is the only player on the roster with a negative plus/minus and it isn't even close. Finally, if there is one guy you want to chase off the three-point line, it is Kyle Korver. Since March 1, he is shooting 46.3 percent from distance (38-for-82) and 30.2 percent on two-pointers (16-for-53).
 
4Miami Heat
Last Week: 4
Miami Heat (40-15)
The Heat have lost more often in the 21 games since the All-Star break (13-8) than they did in their first 34 games (27-7). Coach Erik Spoelstra keeps harping on defense as the team's identity and key to success, but Miami's defensive numbers are relatively unchanged before and after the break; it is the offense, scoring more than nine fewer points per game in the second half (94.5, down from 103.7), that is the problem. Shane Battier is one of the most respected players in the NBA, but it is time to acknowledge that his shooting has been abysmal, more damaging to the team than the good he provides on defense. (He is hitting career lows of 38.2 percent from the field, 34.4 percent from three-point range and 58.6 percent from the free-throw line.) Point guards Mario Chalmers (36.3 percent from the field and 29.1 percent on threes since the break) and Norris Cole (28.4 percent overall since the break) have cooled off, turning that position back into a Heat weakness. With three stars who are a constant threat to get to the rim, the Heat should be able to find somebody who can knock down an open three-pointer. Maybe it is Mike Miller, who was 0-for-4 from long range Sunday in his first action since missing 14 games with a sprained ankle. Or maybe it is James Jones, who probably doesn't defend well enough to please Spoelstra, but is a career 40.4 percent shooter from distance and hit 6-of-8 from there Sunday.
 
5Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 9
Memphis is getting healthy and solidifying roles at just the right time. In April alone, the Grizzlies have won at Oklahoma City and Miami, and they've beaten Dallas and the Clippers at home. While Zach Randolph gradually works himself back into playing shape on the second unit, and frequently joins center Marc Gasol at crunch time, power forward Marreese Speights has received a boost in confidence and productivity from remaining a starter. The Gilbert Arenas gamble is paying off, as the controversial vet is judiciously making 41.7 percent of his three-pointers (45.2 overall) and has turned the ball over only seven times in 136 minutes. He joins Mike Conley (36.6 percent) and O.J. Mayo (36.3) in providing the Grizzlies with their most credible three-point shooting in the last three years. Mayo, the subject of many trade rumors the last few years, has settled into his sixth-man role so securely that when starting shooting guard Tony Allen recently went down with an injury, coach Lionel Hollins replaced him with Quincy Pondexter to keep Mayo coming off the bench. This is a deep, confident team that plays grind-it-out, playoff-style basketball all season long and has its sights set on home-court advantage in the first round.
 
6Boston Celtics
Last Week: 6
Credit coach Doc Rivers for coming up with the idea of bringing Ray Allen off the bench, and Allen for accepting the role after starting his entire 16-year career. While Allen sat out six games with an ankle injury, it became apparent that Avery Bradley's basket cuts created better spacing and flexibility while complementing Rajon Rondo's pass-first, get-to-the-rim philosophy in the half-court. Having the jump-shooting Allen in the second unit provides a safety valve for point guards Keyon Dooling or Bradley (sliding over to the point when Rondo sits) and encourages him to be more aggressive. Of course, defense remains Boston's calling card, and here another reserve, center Greg Stiemsma, is coming up huge. With five blocks in nine second-quarter minutes, Stiemsma sparked a 12-0 run that permanently put the Celtics ahead in an important win at Indiana on Saturday. The next night, against a Sixers team that had thrashed Boston in their previous two encounters, Rivers replaced Kevin Garnett with Stiemsma after just five minutes, then kept the 7-foot rookie on the floor with KG through the first seven minutes of the second quarter. In that 14-minute span, Stiemsma didn't attempt a field goal but had two blocks, two assists, two rebounds, two made free throws and a steal while helping expand a one-point lead to 42-26.
 
7Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 8
The Pacers have moved up to third in the East by winning 10 of 14 as their starting frontcourt quietly leads the way. Power forward David West has been Mr. Steady, never demanding touches but always available with his reliable jumper. His monthly scoring averages from December through April are 12.3, 11.4, 13.5, 11.4 and 11.3. Center Roy Hibbert became a first-time All-Star this season, slumped right after the break but has since regained his equilibrium. At 7-2, he has developed an old-fashioned, unblockable, sweeping hook shot that he can make with either hand. The NBA's average conversion rate this season for shots taken 3-9 feet away is 37.7 percent, according to Hoopdata. Hibbert is sinking 51.4 percent and tied with Dwight Howard for the league lead in field goals from that distance. Then there is small forward Danny Granger, the team scoring leader and go-to guy down the stretch. He spurred wins over the Knicks and Thunder last week with 14 points and 13 points, respectively, in the fourth quarter.
 
8Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 7
Players who had terrible starts to this lockout-truncated season are frequently accused of coming in out of shape. Could the same be said of Metta World Peace? Would we even know if he added an ounce or two of fat on that wrought-iron frame? More likely, World Peace was straining too hard to fulfill his role (self-perceived, anyway) as a scorer off the bench. But for the last few weeks he's been, of all things, a stabilizing influence, and has canned big shots to help fill the void of Kobe's missing the last two games. Perhaps even more important, the Lakers don't function at their best without the near-maniacal intensity that only Kobe and/or World Peace seem capable of providing. Speaking of Kobe, his reaction to Andrew Bynum's recent ejection for foolishly taunting the opponents' bench shows Phil Jackson's unmistakable influence. Bryant's measured cadence, low tone and volume, and smart, pithy insight are taken straight from the scripture of the Zen Master.
 
9Houston Rockets
Last Week: 14
The streaky Rockets went unbeaten on a four-game road trip that included wins over the Bulls and Lakers, and they are primed to keep playing their best basketball of the season during this push to make the playoffs for the first time in three years. Point guard Goran Dragic has continued to thrive as a starter in place of Kyle Lowry. And now that Lowry has returned after missing 15 games with a bacterial infection, they can become a dynamic backcourt duo (as happened in the entire fourth quarter of Monday's win at Portland) or create a three-guard rotation with Courtney Lee, who has filled in nicely for the injured Kevin Martin. Up front, the acquisition of Marcus Camby has been a tonic for the defense. Camby, who was invaluable in much the same way after being obtained late in the season two years ago during Portland's playoff drive, provides savvy rim protection and keeps fellow center Samuel Dalembert more disciplined as he competes for minutes with the 36-year-old. Throw in rookie glue guy Chandler Parsons, and this is a team with an increasingly solid balance between offense and defense, capable of playing both up-tempo and in the half-court.
 
10Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 5
How much better could the offense be if small forward Caron Butler was making shots as accurately as he did a year ago when he played for Dallas? Last season, Butler converted 45 percent in an injury-shortened campaign; this year, he is down to 40.5 percent. From three-point territory, the disparity is even greater: 43.1 percent for the Mavs and 34.7 percent for the Clippers. With Chris Paul at the point and Blake Griffin at power forward, the Clippers have a devastating pick-and-roll tandem that should suck in defenders and leave plenty of space for shooters. On the other hand, despite his reputation as a scorer, Butler's accuracy in Dallas was somewhat of an aberration. Over the course of his 10-year career, he shoots 43.9 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from deep, both below average. His other numbers -- 3.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists against 1.2 turnovers -- are likewise mediocre. But just four months ago he signed a three-year, $24 million deal that will expire in 2014, when he is 34.
 
11Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 12
Even without Al Horford for all but 11 games, the Hawks are almost certain to finish with a better winning percentage than a year ago, and they are battling for the No. 3 seed. Six of their last nine games are at home, none of them against the NBA's four elite teams. (Unfortunately for Atlanta, Indiana also has only three road games among its final 10, with more cupcakes for opponents and one fewer loss.) Josh Smith and Joe Johnson get most of the attention, but it's point guard Jeff Teague who has led the team in minutes during its 10-4 stretch. Teague's production has been up across the board -- points, rebounds, assists -- except for his three-point accuracy. He and guard Kirk Hinrich have learned to mesh, and now that Jannero Pargo has returned from missing three weeks for appendix surgery, Teague should get a little more rest in preparation for the playoffs, the high-stakes forum that earned him the starter's job this season after his inspired play last year.
 
12New York Knicks
Last Week: 15
Sunday's overtime win over the Bulls was Carmelo Anthony's best game of the season. Even with the 31 field-goal attempts and relatively few shots at the rim, his shot selection was solid against a defense that discourages penetration and often seemed willing, especially in the second half, to allow J.R. Smith or Iman Shumpert or even three-point specialist Steve Novak to beat it from outside instead of Anthony. He frequently passed up his own contested look for the sake of ball movement; that the aforementioned trio was 11-for-35, including 4-for-23 from three-point range on mostly open looks, was hardly his fault -- indeed, his persistence fed team camaraderie. And when the Knicks desperately needed a basket late in regulation and overtime, Anthony stepped up and nailed two crucial three-pointers. He finished 4-of-5 from long range and 16-of-31 overall while his teammates shot 23-for-71. With a rematch Tuesday in Chicago, it will be interesting to see if the Knicks go back to Sunday's effective crunch-time lineup, with Shumpert at the point and Baron Davis on the bench. The Knicks then visit Milwaukee on Wednesday in a game with huge playoff implications.
 
13Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 18
Phoenix Suns (30-27)
The Suns sorely missed Grant Hill's wing defense during their only loss of the week, in Denver on Friday, when Arron Afflalo shredded them for 30 points on 11-for-19 shooting. But the Phoenix offense has been on a year-long climb, rising each month from 89.3 points per game in December to 107.7 in April. Steve Nash has a better true shooting percentage (which takes three-pointers and free throws into account) and a higher assist rate this season than in his first MVP year of 2004-05 -- it's less noticeable because he doesn't take as many shots and his team hasn't won as many games. As the Suns have gone 18-8 since mid-February, however, the depth of his supporting cast has been enhanced by former All-Star Michael Redd's slow-but-steady comeback; backup point guard Sebastian Telfair's more productive floor game; and the belated emergence of Shannon Brown, who has done an admirable job filling in for Hill. If its playoff chances aren't squashed after games this week in Memphis, Houston and San Antonio, Phoenix plays five of its final six at home, albeit against tough competition.
 
14Orlando Magic
Last Week: 10
The fault lines surrounding the latest melodrama in the Magic kingdom predictably come down to the ex-players blaming coach Stan Van Gundy for the debacle, the ex-coaches casting aspersions on Dwight Howard and neither side having much good to say about the Orlando front office. The bottom line is that no one involved has covered himself in glory. Before Monday night, I regarded the rift as mostly a guilty pleasure for gawkers, less meaningful than Howard's aching back, Hedo Turkoglu's fractured cheekbone and especially the sprained ankle of Ryan Anderson, the team's second-best scorer and rebounder and the only guy in the rotation playing better this season than he was a year ago. But the fact that Orlando scored a season-high 119 points in Monday's victory against Detroit seemed only partially the result of Anderson's return. The other players appeared determined to prove that they could not only win but also be dominant without Howard.
 
15Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 19
Milwaukee will have its most important game of the season Wednesday against the Knicks. A home victory would clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker for the Bucks, who trail the Knicks by 1½ games (two in the loss column). The Sixers have the same record as New York and visit Milwaukee in the next-to-last game of the season, with the winner taking the tiebreaker. Milwaukee has by far the easiest remaining schedule of the three: Philadelphia closes with eight of 10 on the road and New York must play Chicago, Miami, Boston and the Clippers among its final 10 games. Along with playing host to the Knicks and Sixers, the Bucks face the Pacers twice and close in Boston among their final nine.
 
16Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 16
The now-ridiculous amount of roster churn continues unabated, as Al Harrington suffered a torn meniscus on the same night that Danilo Gallinari returned after being out three weeks with a broken thumb. Both players are vital to the Nuggets' playoff hopes. Gallinari spreads the floor as a 6-10 forward with three-point range, and Harrington has been coach George Karl's favorite frontcourt performer because of his ability to score inside and outside and stay active in transition at both ends. The welter of injuries that has ravaged the rotation also has likely affected Denver's mental toughness, which goes missing in action with some frequency. But the overall depth of talent also powers spectacular blowouts when the team is on its game. This week was typical: ugly losses to New Orleans and Golden State, counterbalanced by a gritty win against Phoenix and Monday's 39-point annihilation of the same Warriors who beat them Saturday.
 
17Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 13
Every year since the last lockout season of 1998-99, Dallas has ranked in the top 10 in points per possession -- until now, when it is 23rd. Dirk Nowitzki has his lowest true shooting percentage since his rookie year, which, not coincidentally, was 1998-99. Shawn Marion has the lowest field-goal and true shooting percentage of his 13-year career. At the beginning of the season, the additions of Lamar Odom, Vince Carter and Delonte West were expected to provide the lineup with flexible firepower. But Odom's woes have been well-documented (Dallas has mercifully cut ties with him), Carter has his lowest true shooting percentage since 2003-04 and West has never shot worse except in 2007-08. The Mavs actually miss defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler more at the other end of the court, where he shot 65.4 percent from the field and 73.2 percent from the free-throw line last season, both far more efficient than the production of the three centers replacing him this year.
 
18Utah Jazz
Last Week: 17
Utah Jazz (30-28)
Utah caught a break when the Spurs rested their stars Monday. But if the Jazz miss the playoffs, they will rue home losses to Sacramento and Phoenix by a combined three points in the last 10 days. As it is, the Jazz are longshots for the postseason, facing a two-game deficit in the loss column to eighth-place Denver and burned by a 23rd ranking in defensive efficiency and a 9-20 record on the road, where half of their final eight games will be played, including three in a row this week. But playoffs or no playoffs, the improvement of second-year players Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors alone makes this a relatively successful season for Ty Corbin and his crew.
 
19Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 11
On Jan. 4, the Sixers made what turned out to be an ill-fated trade. With their sense of frontcourt security bolstered by the auspicious start of center Spencer Hawes (who had averaged 12 points, 12.5 rebounds and four assists in four December games), Philadelphia dealt 24-year-old big man Marreese Speights to Memphis for two second-round picks. Speights is hardly a star, but he has played well enough to remain the starting power forward while the Grizzlies bring Zach Randolph back slowly from his knee injury. He also averages more shots at the rim and more free throws and offensive rebounds per minute than either Hawes or Sixers starting power forward Elton Brand. Philadelphia could have used his inside presence when Hawes went down with various injuries, leaving rookies Nikola Vucevic and Lavoy Allen to fill the void. For that matter, the Sixers could use it now, having lost 18 of 27 and finding themselves struggling to make the playoffs.
 
20Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 20
Two pending free agents have done a good job recently of repairing some of the damage to their reputations. Point guard Raymond Felton continues to play with much more passion and panache under interim coach Kaleb Canales than he did for Nate McMillan. In 42 games with McMillan, Felton shot 50 percent or better nine times; after just 14 games with Canales, he has already done it eight times. The situation is similar for games in which Felton produced at least twice as many assists as turnovers: He did it 16 times in 42 games for McMillan and already 12 times in 14 games for Kanales. As an unrestricted free agent whose first-half performance probably wore out the welcome mat in Portland, Felton needed this surge to rekindle memories of last year's tenure with the Knicks and Nuggets. Meanwhile, forward J.J. Hickson, who washed out in less than a year with Sacramento, has flourished in 11 games in Portland, benefiting from better spacing and the presence of LaMarcus Aldridge to improve his shooting percentage and cut down on his turnovers. Hickson's ability to crash the boards and stick a mid-range jumper could make him a valuable player off the bench -- if not in Portland (which can make him a restricted free agent and match any offer), then with another team with the time and insight to develop him.
 
21Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 23
If Stephen Curry's ankles turn out to be made of papier-mâché again next season, the Warriors will be better prepared after giving second-round pick Charles Jenkins plenty of on-the-job training at the point. The 6-3, 220-pound Jenkins has good size for the position, and in recent weeks the rookie has shown an ability to score at the rim while maintaining excellent ball-control skills. In the last 10 games, he has averaged 11.3 points (on 52.7 percent shooting), 5.7 assists and only 1.4 turnovers in 27.2 minutes. Nate Robinson, and for that matter Curry, are shoot-first point guards who prefer to score in three-point bunches. Despite his record as a scorer at Hofstra, Jenkins seems naturally inclined to distribute, penetrate and defend -- qualities that will come in handy if the Warriors are finally going to take a significant step forward in their rebuilding process next season.
 
22Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 21
Jimmer Fredette was clearly a reach with the 10th pick in last year's draft. The 6-2 guard is neither tall enough nor quick enough to create his own shot, he can't dribble or see the court well enough to become a reliable pro point guard, and, despite energetic effort, he is a below-average defender. The Kings hold out hope that the point-guard adjustment is simply a matter of time -- they still believe Jimmer can run an offense -- but that's wishful thinking. The Kings should just pretend that their other rookie point guard, current starter Isaiah Thomas, was their top pick and that Fredette was the final player taken in the second round, where Sacramento landed Thomas. In any case, injuries to Marcus Thornton and John Salmons have enabled Fredette to get more minutes per game in April than any other month (including January, when he started six games). He's averaging 10.6 points in 23.5 minutes but has required 10.6 shots to do it, with shooting percentages of 39.6 overall and 33.3 from long distance. The Kings are 1-4 in April and failed to take advantage of a home-heavy part of their schedule by dropping six of their last seven in Sacramento. They finish with five of their last nine on the road, including the next three at Dallas, New Orleans and Oklahoma City.
 
23Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 22
No. 2 pick Derrick Williams has been a mild disappointment. His pedestrian numbers -- 8.9 points (on 43 percent shooting) and 4.8 rebounds in 21.7 minutes -- can be partially blamed on his being locked out of his natural power-forward slot by the presence of Love and the emergence of center Nikola Pekovic, the latter reducing the need for Love to play in the pivot. At 6-8 and 241 pounds, can Williams become a small forward? The answer to that question will help determine his immediate value to the Wolves. Though he looks heavy, Williams has a sneaky, explosive athleticism. He can get to the rim and seems like a better three-point shooter than his 28.4 percent accuracy would indicate. Defensively, he lacks either the experience or the motivation to be fully engaged. When he "shows" on the pick-and-roll, he doesn't really obstruct the dribbler so much as reach him like a game of tag before scrambling back to his original assignment. As he closes out his rookie season, he remains a tantalizing talent -- but not a surefire star in the making.
 
24New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 24
There was a bit of a clamor when MarShon Brooks logged some point-guard minutes in the fourth quarter of Friday's blowout win against Washington, but the half-court sets were basic and the rookie wisely played it safe except when he was looking for his shot. The temptation to imagine Brooks at the point is understandable. Deron Williams could leave after the season, and in Brooks, Anthony Morrow and Gerald Green, the Nets have a glut of natural scorers on the wing. But there are no combo guards among them, meaning that Jordan Farmar (assuming he picks up his $4.3 million option for next season) and Sundiata Gaines, a potential restricted free agent, are the current roster options if Williams does indeed bolt via free agency. As for the present, the Nets have won five of seven but lost Gerald Wallace to a hamstring injury in Sunday's OT victory over Cleveland.
 
25Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 25
Just as Andrea Bargnani was regaining his rhythm, he aggravated his chronic calf injury for the third time this year in Sunday's loss to the Thunder. Coach Dwane Casey has hinted that the Raptors' leading scorer may join point guard Jerryd Bayless (oblique injury) on the sidelines for the rest of the season. At the other forward slot, James Johnson was benched for two games for disciplinary reasons and still hasn't regained his starting position. Instead, Casey has opened the last four games with Alan Anderson, a 29-year old journeyman signed late last month, who last played in the NBA in 2006-07. Toronto continues to play hard, enabled by a deliberate pace (25th fastest in the NBA) and a near-average No. 17 ranking in points allowed per possession that is a far cry from its last-place finish in that category the previous two years.
 
26Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 26
Even after being demolished Monday by a Magic team missing Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu, the Pistons, remarkably, have played .500 ball (17-17) since the end of January. Yet it is hard to stay positive about Detroit this season. Guard Rodney Stuckey can't stay healthy. He came into Monday already hobbled by a sore toe, and didn't play the second half because of a sore knee. Watching Charlie Villanueva record season highs of 10 points and 19 minutes against Orlando just dredges up the thought that he will be paid another $16.6 million over the next two seasons unless he is amnestied. Then there is the bittersweet sight of Ben Wallace, a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, still putting forth maximum effort at age 37, less than three weeks before his retirement, but no longer able to make a significant impact.
 
27New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 27
Eric Gordon played last week for the first time since early January, returning from a knee injury to average 18.7 points and attempt a total of 22 free throws in three games. The Hornets won two of those games to improve to 3-2 with Gordon in the lineup. But he suffered tightness in his lower back and was forced to sit out Monday's loss to the Lakers. That 93-91 home defeat dropped New Orleans to 3-9 in games decided by three points or fewer, an indication of how they've missed having Gordon as a go-to scorer. But credit to Monty Williams, who has done a fabulous job generating consistent effort from his frequently outmanned roster.
 
28Washington Wizards
Last Week: 28
After Denver traded Nene just three months after signing him to a five-year, $65 million contract, the rap on the multitalented center was that he couldn't be motivated to play through minor injuries. Since arriving in Washington, he's played six games and missed seven games with plantar fasciitis and announced on Monday that he hopes to return later this week. Power forward Trevor Booker is sidelined with the same injury, paving the way for 6-9 second-year forward-center Kevin Seraphin to start eight of the last 10 games and score in double figures every start. Still raw after playing professionally in France, Seraphin has learned to use his 268-pound frame to finish at the rim much better and more frequently than in his rookie season, and his pick-and-roll defense may be the best of the Wizards' big men. He is just average on the boards, but the 22-year-old has shown enough improvement this season to be in the mix in the frontcourt if the Wizards manage to part ways with Andray Blatche and keep Jan Vesely as a small forward next season.
 
29Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 29
Whether or not the Cavs are tanking is a moot point, given the state of their lineup. Presumptive Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving tweaked his sprained shoulder against the Spurs last week and could be lost for the season. Center Anderson Varejao reportedly will begin practicing again this week, but he will have to knock off the rust after being out since early February with a broken wrist on his shooting hand. Daniel Gibson is out for the season after undergoing foot surgery, and Ramon Sessions was traded to the Lakers. The bulk of the playing time in the backcourt is going to Lester Hudson, a 27-year-old journeyman with 204 total NBA minutes before joining the Cavs on March 30; and Donald Sloan, a 24-year-old rookie on his third NBA team this season after extensive time in the D-League. Both are hungry and enthusiastic; Hudson has back-to-back 20-point games and hit a clutch three-pointer to send Sunday's game with the Nets into overtime. But they're here to help the Cleveland play out the string, and then the franchise hopes lightning strikes against so it can slot another top lottery pick beside Irving in 2012-13.
 
30Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 30
The sifting stage is in full swing for the Bobcats, who have nothing to lose besides games -- 12 in a row after the 28-point pasting from Washington on Monday in Charlotte -- as they audition their young talent to determine where, or if, they belong in next year's rotation. Byron Mullens, who scored a career-high 31 points against Milwaukee last Friday on the heels of back-to-back 20-point performances, seems worth of the 2013 second-round pick that Charlotte sent to Oklahoma City, even if another dismal season puts it in the low 30s. Undrafted rookie Cory Higgins had a personal-best 22 points against Atlanta on Saturday, a rare outburst for the son of Bobcats president Rod Higgins, which of course complicates any decisions about his future. More significant, rookie Bismack Biyombo continues to display more poise and nascent polish than anyone has a right to expect from a 6-9 teenager playing center in the NBA, and Kemba Walker has a strong 3.19-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio over the last 12 games.

 
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