Posted: Tuesday April 17, 2012 12:52PM ; Updated: Tuesday April 17, 2012 2:59PM
Britt Robson
Britt Robson>NBA POWER RANKINGS

Championship race looks wide open as regular season winds to a close

Story Highlights

As many as nine teams look capable of making a championship run this season

Clips and Pacers had good weeks, but none was better than that of the Hornets

With a 10-game losing streak, the listless Timberwolves fall all the way to No. 29

With more than 90 percent of the regular season completed, the number of teams with a viable chance of emerging from the playoffs as NBA champion seems larger now than it did at the opening tip on Christmas.

The preseason conference favorites, the Heat and Thunder, have been dominant at times, but they have faltered a bit down the stretch and are more impressive than intimidating. Last year's regular-season conference winners, the Bulls and Spurs, are repeating so far and have renewed determination in light of last season's playoff disappointments. The traditional war horses, the Celtics and Lakers, have shown their age and flirted with mediocrity, but they have been playing their best ball of the season in the second half. Even upstarts such as the Clippers, Pacers and Grizzlies face no longer odds than the Mavericks encountered at this time last season en route to their first title.

In this week's Power Rankings, then, these nine teams are bunched together heading around the final turn. San Antonio remains at No. 1 for the second week in a row, while the Clippers, Pacers and Lakers move up after perfect weeks.

(All stats and records are through Monday, April 16.)

NBA Power Rankings
1San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 1
During this intense, condensed regular-season schedule, there seems to have been more commentary about Tim Duncan resting than about the way he has played. That's probably because there has been very little decline during his 15th season. His shooting percentage is down slightly but his scoring average is up, as he has taken a few more mid-range jumpers than in previous years. Defensively, the Big Fundamental continues to set the standard for San Antonio, which allows its fewest points per possession when he is on the court. Despite all the chatter, he has missed only five of 60 games -- though he is likely to sit out either Tuesday or Wednesday, as San Antonio completes a stretch of three games in three nights -- and is logging the same 28 minutes per game he put in last season. Perhaps the biggest difference from a year ago has been the emergence of Tiago Splitter, who gives the Spurs another tall and capable rim protector aside from Duncan.
 
2Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 3
The Bulls have won without reigning MVP Derrick Rose and they have won without All-Star forward Luol Deng, but resting both banged-up players simultaneously for the first time this season resulted in a loss to the lowly Wizards on Monday. For most of the season, concerns over the lack of continuity in the injury-depleted rotation have been leavened by Chicago's gaudy record. But now there are only five games left before the playoffs, Rose and Deng still aren't close to 100 percent, and the team has split its last eight games, needing a 20-point, 17-rebound, nonstop hustle game from Joakim Noah to beat the 22-38 Pistons in overtime a night before succumbing to the 15-46 Wizards. On the bright side, Rip Hamilton finally seems to be regaining his vintage shooting stroke, reaching 20 points twice in the last four games while making 48.1 percent during that span.
 
3Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 2
At 5-5, the Thunder have already lost as many games in April as any previous month. They are also scoring nine fewer points per game (from 106.6 to 97.6) than they did in March, the result of both a slower pace and less-accurate shooting. Every player except Nazr Mohammed and Lazar Hayward is shooting below his season-long field-goal percentage this month, though in the case of Kevin Durant, the "drop-off" is from 50.1 to 50.0. Are the legs in the NBA's youngest starting lineup finally beginning to feel the effects of this breakneck schedule? Durant leads the NBA in minutes played and Russell Westbrook is 11th. More likely, after beating Eastern powers Chicago and Miami two weeks ago to finally gain respect as perhaps the league's best team, the Thunder unconsciously eased up on the intensity. Whatever their malaise, they have to hope it dissipates before any postseason encounter with the Clippers, who beat them twice in the past week and three out of four for the season.
 
4Miami Heat
Last Week: 4
Miami Heat (43-17)
Miami needs Mike Miller to get healthy and start sinking some three-pointers. The Heat's primary deep threat earlier in the season was point guard Mario Chalmers, who made 45.6 percent of his threes through February. But Chalmers has hit only 31.2 percent since then, a significant reason why the Heat's per-game point total has declined every month since December. Miller has a much better pedigree as a long-range shooter, converting 40.5 percent in his 12-year career, but he's been hobbled by a string of injuries that have limited him to fewer than 1,500 total minutes over the last two seasons. Without Miller, Chalmers or James Jones to stretch the floor, defenses will continue to swarm LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. LeBron may be able to score his team's final 17 points to eke out a win over a decimated Nets team missing Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez, as was the case Monday. But to prevail in the postseason -- and lessen what will already be an extraordinary amount of pressure on James to deliver -- somebody in red has to find his stroke from beyond the arc.
 
5Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 10
Given Chris Paul's all-around excellence during the Clippers' 12-2 surge, it is time to start thinking of the MVP race as a three-person contest, with CP3 joining LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Paul is proving again that no point guard can control the pace and flow of an offense with his command. Only Rajon Rondo and Steve Nash have a similar breadth of court vision and strategic intuition in their passing game, and at this stage, Paul is a more productive shooter than either one. Selfless almost to a fault, he calls his own number either as a last resort or when the stakes are particularly high and he knows taking the shot gives his team the best chance of winning. The frequency with which he has turned defeat into last-minute victory for the Clippers this season has made converts of his teammates and probably saved coach Vinny Del Negro's job. Remember how Paul almost single-handedly won two games for the Hornets in the first round of the playoffs against the Lakers a year ago? Consider what he can do with an inside force like Blake Griffin as an operative weapon. With Paul, the Clips are a dark-horse contender for a ring.
 
6Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 7
No team is hotter than the Pacers, who have won five in a row and nine of 10 to secure a three-game lead for the third seed in the East with just five games to play. Danny Granger has been a lights-out shooter in that stretch, making 50.9 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from three-point territory and 92.3 percent from the free-throw line en route to 22.3 points. George Hill has filled in for starting point guard Darren Collison so well that Collison is being eased back in from the bench after missing four games with a sore groin. After Tuesday's game in Philadelphia, the Pacers play their final four at home. Despite their recent momentum, they have a losing record against nearly all of their potential first-round opponents, including Orlando (1-3), Atlanta (1-2) and New York (1-2).
 
7Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 8
Beating New Orleans, San Antonio, Denver and Dallas in a row without Kobe Bryant isn't too shabby. Of course, the abiding question now is, WWKD -- What Will Kobe Do -- when he returns from his shin injury? Few players in NBA history have guarded their alpha-dog status more jealously, and yet Kobe Bryant is too intelligent not to have noticed how the offense has flowed since he's been out. In the last three games, Metta World Peace shot 10-for-15 against the Spurs, Matt Barnes was 9-for-11 against the Nuggets and Ramon Sessions went 8-for-15 against the Mavs. Will Bryant allow his teammates to keep getting those open looks when he returns? And will they continue to shoot when they have them? Given that Bryant has the second-highest shot frequency per minute and the lowest effective shooting percentage (which accounts for the added value of three-pointers) of his 16-year career -- and is less than 100 percent -- the answers to those questions should be "yes" and "yes."
 
8Boston Celtics
Last Week: 6
Because the Celtics allow the fewest points per possession in the NBA and rank 28th in offensive efficiency, the assumption is that they are winning almost strictly with defense. But those numbers mislead, and they are a product of coach Doc Rivers' philosophy of getting back on defense rather than hitting the offensive glass. Boston has grabbed 480 offensive rebounds (7.9 per game), 110 fewer than anyone else and 213 below the league average. That's a lot of possessions that aren't extended. But since limping into the All-Star break at 15-17, the Celtics are 21-8 because, while the defense has yielded 1.5 more points per game in the second half, the offense has scored an additional 4.8. Most of the credit here belongs to Rajon Rondo, who is averaging 13.2 assists with a 3.57-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio since the break, and Kevin Garnett, who is taking 3.1 more shots per game while increasing his accuracy from 50.3 percent to 51.2 percent. Garnett and Brandon Bass are both shooting 48 percent from 16-23 feet for the season. The only players who shoot more accurately with at least three attempts per game from that distance are Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant, according to Hoopdata.
 
9Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 5
The Grizzlies won two at home and lost two on the road last week to run their splits to 22-7 and 13-18, increasing the importance of their getting the fourth seed and home-court advantage. The circumstances are ripe for a surge, as four of their final six are at home, with Orlando, in the season finale, the only opponent with a winning record. (The Clippers, who lead Memphis by two games in the loss column, must visit Denver, Phoenix, Atlanta and New York.) Another X-factor heading into the playoffs is the slow but steady evolution of the offense, which is featuring more three-point shooting and less pounding the ball into the paint. Memphis has upped its three-point attempts every month this season, from 9.3 in December to 16.3 in April, the first month it has outscored opponents from beyond the arc in at least two seasons. That's why Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley are the top three scorers this month. The team is 7-3 in that span, but Marc Gasol is averaging just 12.2 points on 44.1 percent shooting, and Zach Randolph is at 9.5 points on 40.2 percent. Are their numbers down because they are not being featured as much, or because Gasol is wearing out and Randolph is still recuperating from his January knee surgery?
 
10Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 11
The Hawks continue to defy their skeptics, tied with the Celtics and Magic in the battle for home-court advantage in the first round. On an individual level, this was the season in which forward Josh Smith became an All-Star in waiting (succeeding Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge with that unofficial designation). Smith's breakout season has showcased different strengths and weaknesses than those he has displayed previously. He is averaging a career-high 18.9 points but has a career-low 49.4 true shooting percentage, thanks to 26.2 percent shooting from three-point range and 61.6 percent from the free-throw line. But Smith more than compensates for his poor shooting with the best rebounding average and highest assist percentage of his career, and Basketball Value shows him to be the only Hawk aside from the injured Al Horford who improves Atlanta's performance on both offense and defense.
 
11Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 16
The Nuggets finally seem to be physically healthy, emotionally engaged and ready to take on specific roles that maximize their depth. The dual-point backcourt of Ty Lawson and Andre Miller blends speedy penetration and savvy post-ups with crisp, low-turnover ball movement flowing out of both styles. The wing starters are Arron Afflalo, finally assuming team leadership after a lackluster first two months of the season, and floor-spacing shooter Danilo Gallinari, finally surmounting his myriad injuries. Depending on matchups, coach George Karl can go with a classic big man at center in Kosta Koufos, an uber-athletic leaper in the energetic Kenneth Faried or a gifted inside/outside scorer in Al Harrington. Corey Brewer is the sparkplug capable of jolts -- like his 11-point fourth quarter Monday in Denver's second key win in two days over Houston -- and center JaVale McGee is another wild card off the bench. If there are no further injuries or chronic mental lapses, Denver will scare a higher-seeded team in the first round.
 
12Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 13
Phoenix Suns (32-29)
The Suns are 7-3 in April and would be in the playoffs if the season ended today after entering the All-Star break with a 14-20 record. Such a dramatic reversal requires improvement from multiple players, and one of the recent unsung heroes is backup point guard Sebastian Telfair. Now 26, Telfair likely never will overcome the inflated expectations he created as an iconic high school player in New York. But for the last 10 games, he has enabled the Suns to rest 38-year-old Steve Nash without fear, compiling an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.7 to 1 while scoring 9.8 points on 48.1 percent shooting in 18 minutes. Given the high stakes involved, it is probably the most valuable stretch of games Telfair has played in his eight-year career. He'll need to keep it up, as Phoenix finishes with the Thunder, Clippers, Nuggets, Jazz (the lone road game) and Spurs.
 
13New York Knicks
Last Week: 12
Iman Shumpert has steadily enhanced his value to the point where he is probably the Knicks' third-most-important player behind Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony. Chandler gets most of the credit for fostering a culture of defense in New York, but Shumpert's size and athleticism in pressuring on the perimeter, particularly disrupting the rhythm of point guards, shouldn't be discounted. The 6-5 rookie is fifth in steals per game, and he creates those turnovers as much with his on-ball defense as by jumping the passing lanes. Woefully miscast as a point guard in the team's dysfunctional early months of the season, he has also become much better in his shot selection and ball movement. His shots per game have dropped from 10.8 to 7.7 in the second half in nearly the same amount of playing time, even as his percentage from the field and especially three-point range have risen, and his assist-to-turnover rate has improved. But it is on defense where he remains most valuable, and wise beyond his years, as the Knicks rely on him to guard an opponent's best perimeter scorer regularly.
 
14Orlando Magic
Last Week: 14
Power forward Ryan Anderson showed why he's the leading candidate for the Most Improved Player award with his 26-point, 16-rebound performance to lead a Magic team missing Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis past the Sixers on Monday. Anderson's skill set and sharp jump in productivity make him a poor man's Kevin Love, who happens to be last year's MIP winner. The combination of stepping outside for three-pointers and crashing the boards to generate put-backs and foul shots is the template both Love and Anderson use. Now in his fourth season, the 6-10 Anderson leads the NBA in three-point takes and makes, shooting 40.1 percent. That's a slight bump up from his previous career high of 39.3 percent, but where Anderson has really improved is in rebounding, particularly on the offensive glass, where he is grabbing 3.6 of his 7.6 boards. According to Basketball Value, no player has a more positive impact on his team's offensive production than Anderson this season.
 
15Utah Jazz
Last Week: 18
Utah Jazz (32-30)
Power forward Paul Millsap's emergence as the team's leader and MVP is one reason that Utah has exceeded expectations. After the chaos following the departures of Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams last season, someone needed to be emblematic of a new Jazz regime, and Millsap has stepped forward with his versatile skills, persistent effort and understated emotional stability. After entering the league as an undersized but high-motor rebounder, he improved his shooting range and ball-handling, and, this season, became Utah's most capable defender among the starters while increasing his assist-to-turnover ratio for the fourth consecutive season. He also amiably shared his status as the go-to guy in crunch time with Al Jefferson, and didn't complain at the need to accommodate second-year man Derrick Favors and rookie Enes Kanter in a talented and crowded frontcourt rotation. Millsap went 39 minutes against New Orleans on Friday after being listed as doubtful because of a sore wrist, and on Monday he played 53 minutes in a triple-overtime win against Dallas in which Jefferson had 28 points and 26 rebounds and Utah boosted its playoff hopes.
 
16Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 17
It's been a real slog for the Mavs this season, typified by Monday's marathon loss to Utah the night after they fell in overtime to the Lakers. What's ominous is that Dallas has usually prevailed in close games during all the years Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry have been on the team. Terry has remained a beast in the clutch this season -- he's shooting 49 percent (16-for-33) from three point range during the last five minutes of games in which the margin is five points or fewer -- but Nowitzki has struggled, shooting just 33 percent overall (and 32 percent from beyond the arc) while committing three turnovers per 36 minutes in those late-game circumstances, according to NBA.com. Those overtime defeats have dropped the Mavs down to the seventh seed, just 1 games ahead of Wednesday's opponent, Houston, with whom Dallas already owns the tiebreaker.
 
17Houston Rockets
Last Week: 9
Like George Karl in Denver, Rockets coach Kevin McHale has been juggling lineups all season looking for the right combinations of size and pace, shooting and defense, aggressors and reactors. He has adroitly compensated for injuries to his original starting backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin and shrewdly nurtured second-round pick Chandler Parsons into an invaluable role player. But in the back-to-back losses to the Nuggets on Sunday and Monday that put a significant crimp in Houston's playoff chances, McHale left himself open to second-guessing. First, he didn't integrate Lowry -- Houston's best player in the first half of the season, who has been back a week after missing time with a bacterial infection -- very often in tandem with either point guard Goran Dragic or shooting guard Courtney Lee. Second, he didn't play center Samuel Dalembert the final 15 minutes Monday. Yes, after starting center Marcus Camby went down with a bad back, Dalembert was outplayed by Denver's Kosta Koufos in the game-changing third quarter Sunday. But Dalembert had seven blocks in 24 minutes Monday. Without Dalembert, Houston's small frontcourt couldn't protect the rim. Without Lowry, the team lacked a player aside from the rookie Parsons who craved taking and making the big shot.
 
18Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 15
Last season the Bucks ranked last in offensive efficiency and 25th in pace of play. This year they are 12th in offense and fourth in pace, averaging nearly eight more points per game in a season when scoring is down overall. They are 10-7 since going all-in with their go-go approach by acquiring Monta Ellis to pair with Brandon Jennings in the backcourt. But Milwaukee jeopardized its playoff hopes because it couldn't contain opposing big men in home losses to the Knicks and Pacers last week. Drew Gooden was overwhelmed by New York's Tyson Chandler in the first quarter and didn't return after the first five minutes. He came back with 26 points in 35 minutes in a victory over Detroit, but then couldn't contain Indiana's Roy Hibbert, who had 23 points (including 9-of-10 free throws) and 14 rebounds (half on the offensive glass) as the MVP of Saturday's game. There are no shortage of staunch defenders on the bench -- Ekpe Udoh and the undersized Larry Sanders and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute -- but Gooden is the center who best fits the Bucks' run-and-gun style. Unfortunately, if Milwaukee does manage to squeeze into the playoffs, its likely first-round opponent would be the Bulls, who have arguably the NBA's deepest and most rugged front line.
 
19Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 19
Whether the coach is too detailed and demanding, the players too sensitive and selfish or the talent simply not up to snuff, the Sixers are embarrassing themselves in the second half of the season. They blatantly choked at home Friday against a subpar Nets team that they had beaten by 19 three nights earlier in New Jersey, and followed that up by allowing 113 points to short-handed Orlando on Monday. In the fourth quarter Friday, Nets backup center Jordan Williams consistently established position and was able to receive the ball inside, scoring six of his 13 points. Down a point with less than three minutes to go, Jrue Holiday and Elton Brand missed wide-open jumpers. Andre Iguodala didn't move his feet or trust his teammates to stop penetration and hugged Deron Williams for a foul with three seconds on the shot clock. Thaddeus Young had a chance for an open layup or dunk and flubbed the pass moving through the paint. Brand committed a foul with two seconds on the shot clock. Evan Turner launched an airball. Then, despite being down only five with a minute to play, the Sixers offered no further resistance as the clock ran out. They close with five on the road, and judging from current trends, their playoff fate could be decided in their next-to-last game, in Milwaukee on April 25.
 
20New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 27
No franchise had a better week than the Hornets, who won four in a row and were purchased by Tom Benson, a billionaire with local ties, obviously deep pockets and ownership experience (the NFL's Saints are also in his portfolio). The Timberwolves continue to plummet, enriching the draft pick they owe the Hornets this season. Eric Gordon, who has missed all but seven games this season because of knee and back injuries, gave fans a sneak preview of what to expect next season when he erupted for 10 fourth-quarter points in eight minutes to lead New Orleans past Utah. The Hornets then limited the Grizzlies to 75 points with a defensive tenacity and the kind of teamwork that reinforce the notion that Monty Williams is one of the bright young coaches in the game. Holding the hapless Bobcats to 67 points in Charlotte capped off the week.
 
21Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 20
The last time Portland finished with a losing record, in 2006-07, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge were rookies and coach Nate McMillan was in his second year of trying to help the franchise shed its "Jail Blazers" image. Now Roy has retired after multiple knee surgeries; Aldridge is on the shelf the rest of the season while readying himself for hip surgery; McMillan is out of a job; and billionaire owner Paul Allen and his cadre of advisers have a more controversial reputation (for abruptly hiring and firing people) than the players on the roster. In other words, Portland is playing out the string, sitting Nicolas Batum and Jamal Crawford for games here and there and considering shutting down Raymond Felton for the rest of the season so it can get a longer look at Nolan Smith and Jonny Flynn.
 
22Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 25
It is not likely that Dwane Casey will receive many, or any, votes for Coach of the Year in what is a brutally competitive category this season. But anyone who has watched the Raptors play over the last three seasons has to marvel at Casey's impact in creating a culture of discipline that has enabled obscure but hard-working journeymen such as forward Alan Anderson and point guard Ben Uzoh to be productive at both ends of the court. Toronto beat the Celtics and Hawks in successive games last week without the injured Andrea Bargnani, Jerryd Bayless or Jose Calderon. That's because Casey rewards effort with minutes and knows how to maximize the fundamentals. The enormous improvement of small forward James Johnson on the defensive end and the ability of power forward Amir Johnson to reduce his penchant for fouling without sacrificing his defensive tenacity are both the result of Casey's handiwork.
 
23New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 24
One of the more interesting names on the free-agent market this summer will be power forward Kris Humphries, who proved his breakout season of a year ago was no fluke by averaging a double-double again (career highs of 13.9 points and 11 rebounds with four games left). Amid the carnage of injuries and disappointments in New Jersey, Humphries has been a constant positive while playing under a one-year, $8 million deal. He leads the team in minutes while grinding in the paint, ranking among the top five in rebounding for the second straight year and improving his recognition of defensive rotations. The 27-year-old could be an attractive option for teams like the Sixers, Suns and Bobcats.
 
24Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 22
Former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans' future remains uncertain. Two years ago, the Kings dealt then-leading scorer Kevin Martin because they didn't feel he was a good fit for Evans in the backcourt. But now rookie Isaiah Thomas is the point guard (with management talking up both Jimmer Fredette and Terrence Williams as potential point guards of the future) and leading scorer Marcus Thornton is the shooting guard, leaving Evans in the swingman/small-forward role and less integral to the offense. He is averaging career lows in points (16.5), assists (still a team high of 4.6), three-point percentage (21.3) and free-throw attempts (4.2). And on defense, where Evans distinguished himself as a rookie, the Kings allow more points per possession when he is on the court than anyone else in the regular rotation. Last month, my colleague Sam Amick reported that Evans was unlikely to receive a contract extension this summer, putting him on track to become a restricted free agent in 2013. His play since then hasn't helped his prospects, the nadir coming with his two-point game in Friday's loss to the Thunder.
 
25Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 26
A major reason why the Pistons rank 28th in assists and turnovers per game is because the roster is besotted with combo guards -- Rodney Stuckey, Brandon Knight, Ben Gordon and Will Bynum -- without a pure point guard in the bunch. On the other side of the ball, the team is 24th in steals, 27th in opponents' field-goal percentage and 29th in blocks. Unfortunately, president Joe Dumars has tied the hands of new owner Tom Gores is terms of any rapid upgrade. Assuming power forward Jason Maxiell picks up his option, Detroit would have $63 million already committed for next season. Gores could amnesty one of Dumars' free-agent fiascos, Gordon or Charlie Villanueva, but the only savings there is avoiding the luxury tax if he decided to add a free agent, and the team is more than one quality starter away from contending. Second-year center Greg Monroe is a good building block who carried the offense in the first couple of months and accommodated the emergence of a healthy Stuckey by increasing his shooting percentage even as his attempts and points declined. But Monroe needs to either toughen and bulk up or move to power forward, as the Pistons give up nearly 14 points more per 100 possessions when he is on the court compared to when he sits.
 
26Washington Wizards
Last Week: 28
Washington is doing the right thing by force-feeding minutes to No. 6 pick Jan Vesely, a 6-11 pogo stick who turns 22 next Tuesday. Compared to Andrei Kirilenko after playing in the Euroleague last season, Vesely has too frequently been overwhelmed on the court this year. Some of his troubles stem from simple inexperience. He seems unsure how closely he should guard shooters, not knowing their tendencies, and he takes unproductive angles following his man on defense or moving without the ball on offense. And his anticipation on rebounds, be it boxing out or judging caroms, isn't very good. On the plus side, Vesely is obviously growing accustomed to the physicality of the NBA, and his combination of size, quickness and leaping ability makes him a decent defender even without a firm grasp of the fundamentals. His offense is pretty much limited to what he can grab and put in next to the hoop; he is shooting better than 70 percent on shots at the rim and below 20 percent everywhere else. But the Wizards envision him as a combo forward who will be a matchup nightmare for opponents while galloping up and down the court beside John Wall.
 
27Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 29
Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter were college teammates at North Carolina who were taken with the fourth and fifth picks, respectively, in the 1998 draft and then promptly traded for each other. Fourteen years later, both are still in the NBA at age 35, with Carter easily enjoying the higher profile and more celebrated career, being selected to eight All-Star teams compared to Jamison's two. But a comparison of their NBA service shows that Carter has a bigger advantage in nicknames and fanfare than in his actual value on the court, where his statistical edge is more akin to the relatively small difference in their career salaries -- $155.4 million for Carter and $139.8 million for Jamison, according to Basketball Reference. The disparity in their career performances continues to diminish this season. While Carter has been a disappointment in Dallas and is in danger of having his three-year contract terminated by the team this summer, Jamison leads the Cavs in minutes, total points and rebounds and should make more than his fellow Tar Heel when he becomes a free agent after the season.
 
28Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 21
It doesn't seem to matter whether the coach is Don Nelson, Keith Smart or Mark Jackson; sooner or later the Warriors are up to their old tricks, enacting playground ball during garbage time. So it was Monday when Golden State entered the fourth quarter trailing the Spurs 96-72 and flipped the keys to the offense over to rookie sharpshooter Klay Thompson and vagabond gunner Nate Robinson, who proceeded to score 27 points between them on a combined 11-of-14 from the field. The rest of the team -- second-round picks Jeremy Tyler and Charles Jenkins and rookie free agent Chris Wright -- was a combined 0-for-11 but chipped in with three steals, three blocks and loads of hustle in the period to close out a 120-99 loss. Minus David Lee, Stephen Curry, Andrew Bogut, Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins, Golden State has lost five in a row and eight of 10 in its quest to retain its first-round pick, which goes to Utah unless the Warriors finish in the top seven in the lottery.
 
29Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 23
Lazy and inept during their 10-game losing streak, the Wolves are conjuring memories of their previous two seasons under former coach Kurt Rambis. Yes, injuries have decimated the roster, with Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Luke Ridnour the most significant casualties. But getting blown out 18-2 and then 32-7 in the first quarter of Monday's game at Indiana was just the latest and most blatant indignity committed by a team that has stopped trying to function as a unit. To choose just one example, Minnesota has yielded an average of 106.2 points in March and April. Chronic underachievers such as forwards Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph, who complain and pout, respectively, when they don't get minutes, are showing why they are benched when more passionate and selfless players are healthy. Shooting guard Wes Johnson, seemingly immune from coach Rick Adelman's season-long emphasis on accountability, has demonstrated conclusively in two dreadful seasons that he was a horrible pick at No. 4 in 2010, taken ahead of DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe and Paul George, among others. And Derrick Williams has been disturbingly underwhelming for the second pick in the 2011 draft. To watch these Wolves, one would guess they are tanking, except their first-round pick is owed to New Orleans (via the Clippers), sacrificed in 2005 along with Sam Cassell to obtain Marko Jaric, the point guard who was going to help Kevin Garnett win in Minnesota.
 
30Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 30
As the Bobcats wind down the worst season in franchise history, it is time to start making hard decisions about the future. At point guard, it makes no sense to keep both 6-footer D.J. Augustin and 6-1 Kemba Walker, who are too undersized to share a backcourt. The front office may have already tipped its hand by not extending Augustin, who becomes a restricted free agent this summer and will almost certainly be more expensive to keep than Walker, who is also three years younger. In retrospect, what's odd is how much the Bobcats repeated themselves; Augustin and Walker were both taken with the ninth pick and logged time at both guard spots as rookies. Those who imagine Augustin as more of a pure point and Walker as more of a shooting guard should check out this statistical comparison of their rookies seasons: Augustin was a much better shooter as a rookie in 2008-09 than Walker is this season, but had a lower assist-to-turnover ratio. In fact, Augustin finished ninth in the NBA in three-point percentage (43.9) and sixth in free-throw percentage (89.3) and was named to the All-Rookie second team. How will Walker profile three years from now?

 
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