The 2017-18 season might be more than two-thirds over, but there's a lot we don't know coming out of the All-Star break, especially in the Eastern Conference.
How do we begin to appraise the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team with an entirely new backcourt and supporting cast? Can we call the Toronto Raptors a favorite in the East, given the sheer dominance of their play over the past several weeks? Are the Boston Celtics slumping, or is this who they are -- a league-average offense that struggles for long stretches?
In the West, it's the (first-place) Houston Rockets, it's the Golden State Warriors, then a morass of teams separated by the thinnest of margins, many of which are either missing important pieces, composed of new ones, or are still unproven.
For many a forlorn NBA fan, the real intrigue is down in the 20s, with a scrum of teams jockeying for better odds in the May lottery to find a franchise savior. Because in the NBA, you're just one player away!
Every week throughout the regular season, our panel (ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz, Amin Elhassan and Ramona Shelburne, The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears and FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring) will rank the league's 30 teams from top to bottom.
1. Houston Rockets
2017-18 record: 44-13
The Rockets are well on their way to becoming the first NBA team to attempt more 3-pointers than 2-pointers in a season, with more than 53.3 percent of their shots originating from beyond the arc. Put another way, the Rockets have heaved more 3-point attempts in the first seven seconds of the shot clock this season (632, according to Second Spectrum) than every NBA team other than the Celtics attempted for the entire 1987-88 NBA season.
2. Golden State Warriors
2017-18 record: 44-14
The Dubs' offensive attack is as lethal as ever, running up a gaudy 113.7 points per 100 possessions -- an NBA record. If you're looking for a vulnerability, it's on the other end of the court, where they stand fifth in defensive efficiency at 103.7, their least impressive ranking and total during their four-year run. The Lineup of Death, with Andre Iguodala in place of Zaza Pachulia, leaks like a sieve -- 111.6 points per 100 possessions. That would factor as the worst defense in the NBA, behind even Phoenix.
3. Toronto Raptors
2017-18 record: 41-16
With the exception of a 3-point win over Miami last Tuesday -- a game Toronto led by 16 inside of five minutes -- the closest margin of victory on the Raptors' current seven-game winning streak is 15. The starters clock in with a net rating of 12.0, and the bench unit is swamping the league to the tune of a plus-31.1 in its 172 minutes together. When trying to glean whether a team's regular-season dominance is real, these are the kinds of numbers to make note of.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers
2017-18 record: 34-22
LeBron James' prestige television drama fired half its writers room at the deadline, and the new scripts are scintillating. We'll likely have to wait for the postseason to discern whether the new additions give Cleveland the defensive personnel it needs to compete with elite playoff opponents, but absent another chaos-induced swoon, the Cavs look like a stable team with a two-month training camp ahead of them.
5. Boston Celtics
2017-18 record: 40-19
A team with a dynamo scoring point guard and an elite playmaking big man finds itself 21st in the league in offensive efficiency. Since Jan. 1, the Celtics rank 26th in shot quality, per Second Spectrum, and only Phoenix has compiled a worse true shooting percentage. To compound their problems, the league's top-ranked defense surrendered a combined 250 points to Cleveland and the LA Clippers in their final two games before All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford boarded their flights to Los Angeles.
6. San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 record: 35-24
The Spurs are 10-12 since New Year's Day, with road dates at Cleveland, Golden State, Oklahoma City and Houston scheduled over a 16-day stretch starting Sunday. The Spurs rank only 20th in true shooting percentage, after never ranking outside the top five between the 2010-11 and 2015-16 seasons. One factor? Only Minnesota and New York have attempted more 2-point shots outside the paint this season.
7. Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 record: 32-25
Even with the ghastly 134-point hemorrhaging to Denver last Thursday, the Bucks have been the league's second-stingiest defense since firing Jason Kidd (after clocking in at 25th the morning of the coaching change). Jabari Parker is still working back into shape with the second unit, but in the process has logged an encouraging true shooting percentage of 56.7, which would be a career high.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
2017-18 record: 36-25
The Wolves feature four of the league's top 10 players in minutes played, with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in the first and second slots. In news that might or might not be unrelated, the Wolves also rank as the NBA's worst fourth-quarter defense by a full three points per 100 possessions. Taj Gibson has tapped the fountain of youth in his finest season as a pro as one of those heavy-minutes contributors, topping his previous career-high true shooting percentage of 55.6 with an eye-popping 61.0 as the Wolves' elder statesman.
9. Washington Wizards
2017-18 record: 33-24
For all the chatter and drama, the Wizards rank fourth in the Eastern Conference standings -- where many projected them. The scheduling gods welcome the Wiz back from the All-Star break with five games in seven days bookended by the Cavs and Warriors. How about that recent emergency "point-less" starting lineup with Tomas Satoransky? In 175 minutes, that unit is a plus-21.2 per 100 possessions.
10. Utah Jazz
2017-18 record: 30-28
The reverberations inside the concrete bunker on South Temple are feverish again, as the Jazz have ripped off 11 consecutive wins. On the eve of the streak, Utah ranked 18th in offensive efficiency and 14th in defensive efficiency. Now, it's 13th and sixth, respectively. Four Utah starters have compiled a true shooting percentage better than 60 during the streak. The one who hasn't? Donovan Mitchell, who's doing just fine, thank you.
11. Portland Trail Blazers
2017-18 record: 32-26
As anticipated, both the Blazers' surprising early season stalwart defense and sluggish offense have reverted to the mean, as Portland now ranks near the upper-middle of the pack in both events. As a team, the Blazers rank a distant 30th in assist percentage; there's a greater distance between them and No. 29 [Lakers], than No. 29 and No. 19. Cause for concern, or just the nature of the beast in Portland?
12. Indiana Pacers
2017-18 record: 33-25
Relative to shot difficulty, only the Warriors and Timberwolves have overachieved more this season from the field than the Pacers, who won nine of 12 heading into the All-Star break. Curiously, the Pacers have been the fourth-slowest team during that stretch, as they've gradually settled where most Nate McMillan teams have traditionally resided -- bottom 10 in pace.
13. Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 record: 33-26
Coming out of the break, the Thunder are now one of four teams (Golden State, Houston, Toronto) that rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency ... yet OKC still hasn't found a cruising altitude. Here's an encouraging signal: After ranking 18th in shot quality on New Year's Day, the Thunder have compiled the sixth-best rating since, as they've refined their offense.
14. Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 record: 30-25
The Marco Belinelli signing might not have seemed like an iconic Philadelphia sports moment, but for the Sixers it meant the world that a buyout candidate with midseason options would choose them. The Sixers set as an aspirational goal a sweep of their five-game homestand just before the break -- and pulled it off. They have the league's best defense in 2018, and now the prospect of hosting a Game 1 for the first time in 15 years seems plausible.
15. Denver Nuggets
2017-18 record: 32-26
The Nugs have quietly assembled a nice little 6-1 February with wins over Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and at Milwaukee. Even more impressive? They did it while logging the league's third-worst defense over that period, and remain the NBA's worst pick-and-roll coverage, according to Second Spectrum. But when your three highest-volume producers all post true shooting percentages better than 58, there's some wiggle room.
16. Detroit Pistons
2017-18 record: 28-29
In their eight games with Blake Griffin against sub-elite opponents -- seven of the eight at home -- the Pistons have assembled the profile of a slightly above-average, albeit faster and more pass-happy, team. A playoff berth is within reach -- Detroit is one game behind Miami in the loss column for the No. 8 seed -- but with a high degree of difficulty. The Pistons will play 11 of their next 15 games outside of Wayne County, including a 5-in-7 with two road back-to-backs, and a six-game Western swing.
17. LA Clippers
2017-18 record: 30-26
What to make of these newly assembled Clips? Are they the versatile unit with the necessary firepower from the wings and length up front that whooped up on the Celtics in Boston just before the break? Or is this a transient team just biding its time until it reconstitutes itself yet again in early summer? After a road date on Thursday to tip off the home stretch, they have a gentle schedule that could vault them back into the West's playoff field.
18. New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 record: 31-26
The Pels, 4-5 since they lost DeMarcus Cousins for the season, are clinging to the No. 8 seed with the Jazz and Clippers in hot pursuit. Since the injury, Anthony Davis has filled the vacuum with high-grade inside-out production, averaging 31.3 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks and shooting 42.4 percent from beyond the arc.
19. Miami Heat
2017-18 record: 30-28
The Heat are reeling, losers of seven of eight, and had their hearts ripped out in the final game before the break, coughing up a 24-point lead at Philadelphia. Dwyane Wade's reintegration has been bumpy. In three games, he's 9-for-28 from the field, with a 35.8 true shooting percentage, and more turnovers (12) than assists (10).
20. Charlotte Hornets
2017-18 record: 24-33
The Bees aren't good enough to contend, nor bad enough to tank. Kemba Walker has distinguished himself as an All-Star, but what do you say about a team whose starting unit averages almost 29 years of age with a salary of $16.8 million, yet stands nine games under .500? Reloading won't be easy, as the Hornets are well over the cap into next season.
21. Los Angeles Lakers
2017-18 record: 23-34
It has been a tough 2018 for Kyle Kuzma, whose 48.0 true shooting percentage is the lowest among Lakers regulars. The highest? Fellow rookie Josh Hart, whose 64.0 clip ranks him 20th in the league since New Year's Day among players averaging 20 minutes per game. The Lakers have been a net-positive team when he's on the floor with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Brook Lopez.
22. Chicago Bulls
2017-18 record: 20-37
Zach LaVine's first month as a Bull was a mixed bag but promising overall, given the extent of the injury he returned from. He shot at a respectable 37.1 percent from the 3-point line, but his shot selection (measured by Second Spectrum's quantified Shot Quality metric) is the worst on his team -- not a desirable quality as the Bulls' highest-volume shooter.
23. Brooklyn Nets
2017-18 record: 19-40
Energy and grit have their virtue, but the talent deficit has finally caught up with the Nets. They've lost seven in a row and 11 of 12. Only the Rockets take a greater share of their shots from beyond the arc, but only the Lakers and Suns hit their 3-pointers at a lower clip. And nobody is happier about the Nets' shooting woes than Cleveland, which owns Brooklyn's first-round pick this June.
24. New York Knicks
2017-18 record: 23-36
Life without Kristaps Porzingis leaves much to be desired for the Knicks, who have lost four straight since the big guy went down and eight consecutive games overall. That's trouble, since Porzingis is the only Knicks regular with a positive net rating. They've lingered well above the dregs of the East for most of the season, but with this misfortune, New York could free fall. The Knicks return from the break with five of seven games on the road -- the only home dates against Boston and Golden State.
25. Orlando Magic
2017-18 record: 18-39
After a promising but unsustainable spurt to start the season, the Magic reverted to the mean and will draft in the lottery for the sixth straight June. Crazy as it sounds, the Magic are a more efficient offensive squad than the Celtics, and they should be more productive once they get Aaron Gordon back from a hip injury.
26. Dallas Mavericks
2017-18 record: 18-40
What's more astounding -- that Dirk Nowitzki topped 50,000 career minutes this month or that he's converting 42.9 percent his 3-point attempts, which would be a career best in his 20th NBA season? Alas, by trading his teammate Devin Harris, the Mavericks broke up one of the most productive lineups in the NBA this season, composed of Dirk, Harris, Yogi Ferrell, J.J. Barea and Dwight Powell, who were a plus-19.4 per 100 possession in a not-insignificant 231 minutes.
27. Sacramento Kings
2017-18 record: 18-39
The Kings are on target to pick in the top 10 in this year's draft for the 10th consecutive season (their 2011 pick was traded to Charlotte). Buddy Hield hasn't been exceptional in many regards, but he has posted a lights-out 74.3 effective field goal percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers this season -- best in the NBA.
28. Atlanta Hawks
2017-18 record: 18-41
Less than three years after winning 60 games with an overachieving, veteran-laden roster, Atlanta is tied for the league's worst record at the break -- but it's not all bad news. The Hawks will pick near the top of the board for the first time since they nabbed Al Horford with the third pick in 2007 (and have two additional first-rounders). Rookie John Collins is establishing himself as a heady big man with some serious game, and he leads all rookies in player efficiency rating (19.84).
29. Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18 record: 18-38
Losers of seven straight, the Grizzlies haven't won a road game in 2018. It's exceedingly difficult to struggle as badly as Memphis has and feature a heavy-usage player who rates as statistical net positive, but yes, the Grizzlies are outscoring opponents this season when Tyreke Evans is on the floor.
30. Phoenix Suns
2017-18 record: 18-41
The Suns, who have lost 15 of 17, have assembled the NBA's least efficient defense since the 2008-09 season, yet oddly they rank 10th in quality of shots surrendered, according to Second Spectrum. Phoenix isn't without some positive trends: Dragan Bender's true shooting percentage since Jan. 1 is 56.4, and Josh Jackson's is over 50 percent after a bumpy start in his rookie season.