1. Cleveland (7): The Cavaliers ‘ improvement has very little to do with the addition of Shaquille O’Neal  (who looks slower than ever). It’s about what we all knew it would be about: the talent and urgency of LeBron James . This is his last year in his home state, and he’s playing like he wants to make it memorable.
2. LA Lakers (2): The Lakers, along with the Celtics  and Spurs and other smart teams, are basically playing chess right now. They know if they show up and give a decent effort, they’ll win three out of every four. So it’s more about pacing themselves for June than anything else.
3. Boston (1): Doc Rivers  was fined 25 grand for arguing an awful call against the Hawks. He took it too far, and his team often takes it too far, but NBA officiating is generally atrocious. Why not encourage more former players to transition to officiating? I’m not saying Hall of Famers such as Magic Johnson , Michael Jordan  and John Stockton  would be interested, but the journeymen (like current refs Leon Wood and Haywood Workman) would eat it up.
4. Dallas (5): Dirk Nowitzki  lost me a couple years ago. The 67-win team that lost in Round 1 put me in a bad place, and I didn’t think I’d ever come back. Well, he’s got me back now. I don’t care what the numbers say: He’s playing the best ball of his career.
5. Orlando (3): Of all the elite teams in the league, the Magic are easily the most inconsistent. My guess is that they’ve got a couple guys on the roster griping about minutes. As crazy as it sounds, I’ll bet they make a trading deadline move that will actually result in shortening their rotation.
7. Atlanta (4): If the Hawks treated every night like a Celtics night, they’d be the best team in the league. It’s funny to watch Joe Johnson  now and remember what the knock was on him in Boston: The coaches and some players didn’t think he was tough enough. It’s too bad no one took the time to consider he was just a kid who still couldn’t legally drink. Even at 20 years old with just two years of college experience, his game was more complete than most of his teammates’.
8. Phoenix (9): Is it fool’s gold or can it last? The Suns score more than anybody in the game. They also allow the most points, even more than Toronto. Good for them if they can turn that into a contending formula, but I don’t see it.
9. Denver (6): From now on, this space is the official Carmelo Anthony  For MVP Consideration headquarters. And I’m not even a Syracuse guy (I wonder if your office is like mine: Turn a corner and there’s a ‘Cuse type holding down a corner office). He’s a much better shooter than LeBron and Dwyane Wade . He’s a clever scorer. His team wins. He could play better D and rebound more, but I’m just saying he should be in the MVP conversation more than he is.
11. Oklahoma City (16): Sit back and enjoy it. This team is at least a year ahead of schedule. I don’t think the Thunder’s fans expected them to make the playoffs and possibly win a round this year, but they look like they have the ability to do both.
13. Utah (8): The last time I wrote about Utah, which was admittedly a LONG time ago, I mentioned the ongoing Chris Paul  or Deron Williams  point guard debate. I didn’t even get a chance to ask Rajon Rondo  who he thought was better; unsolicited, he raved about Williams being the best in the game right now.
14. Houston (10): A reminder that you should have worked on your jump shot more, practiced more free throws, and been born to parents with genes that allowed you to be 6 feet, 8 inches and in the NBA: Tracy McGrady  is making over $600,000 a day to stay away from the Rockets. They’re not sure they’re going to trade him. And they don’t know where to play him. So they just continue to pay him.
15. Memphis (22): I’ve flip-flopped on the Grizzlies  all season. I loved them at the beginning of the year, gave up on them too early, and now I’m back on the bandwagon. This is no fluke, either. They’ve got a trio of stars in O.J. Mayo , Rudy Gay  and the combustible Zach Randolph .
16. Charlotte (20): The biggest reason for the Bobcats’ turnaround? Stephen Jackson , the craziest ‘Cat of them all. He’s on his sixth team, and he’s nuts (how many people do you know who A) bring guns to a nightclub and B) shoot into the air to get the crowd’s attention? Even Plaxico Burress  had the good sense to shoot into his own pants … never mind). But at 6-8, he’s a tough matchup for a lot of 2 guards. And when he gets hot, he can be scary ‘ in a good way.
17. Toronto (23): Theo Epstein , meet the Raptors. The Red Sox  general manager has been on a “run prevention” kick lately; the Raptors are a if-we-can’t-stop-you-we’ll-outscore-you kind of team. The truth is somewhere in the middle, no? These kids should talk.
18. Miami (13): Whether the Heat realize it or not, Dwyane Wade  is sending them a reminder about this free agent summer each time he takes the floor. He is their Atlas, and every time Atlas shrugs they have no chance of winning. Get the man some help, Pat Riley .
19. LA Clippers (17): The Clippers have brought plenty of bad things on themselves over the years, but a season-ending injury to No. 1 pick Blake Griffin  seems unfair. Then again, this is the franchise that suspended its regular TV duo for a game because, according to a viewer, they pronounced “Iran” in a mocking manner. Which leads you to the conclusion that the poor Clips can’t even correctly get politically correct.
20. Chicago (25): Vinny Del Negro really does work for spineless people. The Bulls have talked about firing him. They’ve leaked stories about him being fired. They’ve supposedly argued about his replacement. As they ride the fence over what to do with him, he has finally figured out which of his talented young players (Tyrus Thomas ) should ride the bench.
21. New York (24): So far, my worst moment of 2010 was watching Nate Robinson  drop 41 on the Hawks. I despise this guy so much that I need to give myself an intervention.
22. Milwaukee (15): The scouting reports finally have figured out Brandon Jennings . Now the rookie point guard will have to counter what defenses are doing to him. After an incredible start, he’s gone the way of his Twitter account (which is to say he’s fallen off; he used to be one of the top tweet men in the league).
24. Philadelphia (28): Allen Iverson  was able to give the 76ers some temporary buzz, but the problem is too big for AI. With or without him, this team is boring and hopeless. The Sixers’ last 50-plus-win season was at the beginning of the decade.
25. Golden State (26): Usually you have to be skeptical of players who put up big numbers on bad teams. That’s not the case with Monta Ellis . The fans have given him little to no All-Star voting love, but he’s one of the most dynamic players I’ve seen all year.
26. Washington (27): Seriously, what was Gilbert Arenas  thinking? Hell, I’ll bet there are high-ranking NRA people who wouldn’t bring guns to work. It’s clear that Gilbert will never play for the Wizards again, but anyone who endorsed his $111 million contract as a good idea should be out of Washington, too.
27. Indiana (21): I love Larry and I respect the hell out of Jim O’Brien . But do I think either of them can fix the Pacers? No way.
28. Detroit (18): If you have a little bit of a pulse, you feel sorry for the whole area: Pistons hoops, Lions football (last title was 53 years ago), Michigan football, former mayor sexting on taxpayers’ dimes, and the real estate market in the toilet. At least they have the Red Wings.
29. Minnesota (29): Believe me, I’m all for guys who try to get dates way out of their range, so to speak. The Wolves were that guy, trying to pry Danny Granger  from the Pacers by dangling Medic-Al Jefferson . Uh, no chance, Bubba. But nice try.
30. New Jersey (30): Which group from Jersey would you rather watch for 10 minutes: the Nets  or the kids from “Jersey Shore”? I admit that “Jersey Shore” can be predictable, offensive and dumb. But unlike the Nets, the stars from “The Shore” are all of those things while also being mildly entertaining.