11. Minnesota Timberwolves (12, +1): The Wolves are just average, point and simple. The stats actually back that up, too. The currently sit at 18-18 and have failed to get over the .500 mark for seven-straight games. Chase Budinger returned this week after a season-long absence following meniscus surgery, but they’ll need a fair amount of bench production from him to contend. Minnesota’s bench accounts for just 22 percent of the teams scoring, which is 28th in the league.
12. Phoenix Suns (10, -2): They went from lottery favorites, to playoff contenders and back to lottery hopefuls – all because of Eric Bledsoe. He carried them in the early parts of the season, but a menisectomy will keep him sidelined for at least 4-6 weeks, which could ultimately end the Phoenix’s playoff aspirations. The Suns are just 5-7 without their star point guard this season.
13. Atlanta Hawks (16, +3): It’s been a year full of injuries, and there may have been none bigger than the torn pectoral muscle that will keep Al Horford out for the remainder of the season. The Hawks have the luxury of playing in the weak Eastern Conference and haven’t done much to take advantage of that, going just 13-10 within the East, which makes it difficult to exude much confidence in their chances.
14. Toronto Raptors (19, +5): You gotta hand it to Raps’ GM Masai Ujiri. The guy wasn’t the 2012-13 NBA Executive of the Year for nothing. Since trading Rudy Gay to Sacramento the Raptors are 12-5.
15. Chicago Bulls (14, +1): I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I thought the Bulls were good enough to still finish in the top five in the awful Eastern Conference and in their last 10 games, the Bulls are 8-2. Sure, that could change following the trade of Luol Deng to Cleveland, but as long as they keep their current core of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson intact, they’ll be one of the better teams in the East.
16. Memphis Grizzlies (22, +6): Marc Gasol’s timetable to return from an MCL injury has wavered during the past month. He mentioned being 10 to 20 days away, but today will be the 22nd day since he made that announcement on Dec. 23. Coming on the heels of a five-game losing streak, the Grizz have won six of their last 10, but even if their play has been improved of late, they need their star center back in order to be competitive out west.
17. New York Knicks (24, +7): After enduring two months of failed expectations the Knicks might finally be turning the corner – and just at the right time. They have won four in a row and five of their last six and are poised to make a run for those 3rd-8th Eastern Conference playoff seeds. The Knicks have stepped up their defense during their current winning streak, allowing an outstandingly low 87 points per game to the opposition. Talent is not the issue with New York, so keeping the enigmatic J.R. Smith out of trouble, and Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire healthy, will go a long way if they want to succeed.
18. Brooklyn Nets (21, +3): Just like their New York City counterparts, the Nets have been rolling of late as well, winning five of their last six games. Brooklyn’s had numerous injuries this year, but traveling to London means they’ll only play one game this week, giving them some more time to rest their ailing players. Deron Williams will stay back in the States to rest his balky ankle, which is a smart move, because without him the Nets have little chance to make noise in the East.
19. Washington Wizards (18, -1): The Wizards can be hard to decipher sometimes. They have one of the most talented backcourt duos in the NBA in John Wall and Bradley Beal, but the team can’t seem to figure things out as a whole. Trevor Ariza (14.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 2.3 threes) has been fantastic – and uncharacteristically healthy – but big men Marcin Gortat and Nene have left Wizards’ fans wanting more.
20. Detroit Pistons (15, -5): Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings are very good basketball players, but might also have the worst shot selection in the NBA. Unluckily for Detroit, they both play on the same team. Smith has shot 40.7 percent from the field — including 25.3 percent from three — and Jennings has been even worse — if that’s possible. The Pistons’ point guard is hitting just 37.7 percent of his shots this season, with a junior varsity-like 26.1 percent in five January games. If the Pistons want to make noise in the East, they’re gonna have to spend some more time working on their shots in practice.