1. LA Lakers (2): It’s going to be hard for someone to knock the Lakers from this perch going forward. Of all the elite teams, they’ve looked the hungriest all year. I have no idea what’s driving Kobe Bryant  ‘ the rings, Shaquille O’Neal , the Next Michael Jordan  comparisons ‘ but he’s been an incredibly determined player the entire season.
2. Cleveland (1): Speaking of Shaq, he volunteered the legs of Kobe, LeBron James  and Vince Carter  to raise money for Haitian relief. I wonder if it ever occurred to ShaqStimulus that with his massive contract (and endorsements) he’s also well-positioned to do what he’s asking of others.
3. Dallas (4): Dirk Nowitzki  was an innocent bystander when Rasheed Wallace  and the NBA both lost their minds. Wallace, after running into foul trouble against Dirk, said the officials don’t like to see tough D played against the big man. So the league fined him 35 grand. Silly on both counts. Wallace has to admit that Dirk is a tough matchup, and the NBA has to stop being so insecure about criticism. Thirty-five grand for a comment like that? Come on.
4. Atlanta (7): As scary a team as you’ll see in the Eastern Conference. Before, the Hawks’ weakness was obvious: no bench. I see a team with few weaknesses now, and plenty of confidence ‘ especially when playing the Celtics .
5. Denver (9): The Nuggets are a great team when Chauncey Billups  is healthy. Carmelo Anthony certainly can hold his own without Billups, but he’s a much more dangerous player with him on the floor.
6. Boston (3): I understand that the Celtics haven’t had their full team on the floor together once this season, but that makes their lack of energy, hustle and toughness even harder to rationalize. I’ve seen them give away too many games this season, at home and on the road, and in many cases you can point to their lack of Tommy Points. Rajon Rondo  has called himself out for poor defense, and his analysis is dead-on: Jason Kidd  and Rodney Stuckey  torched him this week. Simply, they’ve played like a bad basketball team in 2010.
8. Portland (10): The Trail Blazers already know how to play at a high level without Greg Oden . Imagine if he’s able to return and make it through an entire season without a major injury; they’d be a title contender.
9. San Antonio (6): Why do the Spurs get it and other teams don’t? There’s no way you could have watched DeJuan Blair  the last couple of years and said to yourself, “He’s the 39th best player in the world.” Yet, on draft day, that’s where he was waiting for the Spurs. What a steal.
10. Oklahoma City (11): I don’t just like the Thunder because their best player is 21 and averaging nearly 30 points and seven rebounds a night. I don’t just like them because they have already passed their win total from last year. I like them because they’re an anomaly: Young teams aren’t supposed to understand how to defend, yet these pups are near the top of the league in opponents’ field goal percentage.
11. Utah (13): It wouldn’t shock me to learn that the Jazz  invent Carlos Boozer trade rumors, just to provide some creative tension. Every time they seem to be prepared to deal him, he plays great.
12. Houston (14): I’m all for the NBA All-Star voting process, and most of the time the fans get it right. But what’s David Stern  going to do if Tracy McGrady  is voted on the Western Conference team? The most graceful way to handle it would be a “thanks … but no, thanks” from T-Mac. Otherwise, you’ll have a player representing the Rockets, even if they hate him and he hates them even more.
13. Phoenix (8): Had this thought the other day: Has Phoenix EVER had a great defensive team? Think about it. The Suns are not great now. They weren’t when Charles Barkley  was there. Larry Nance was the man, but his team couldn’t lock you down. Tom Chambers? Alvan Adams? I don’t think they’ve ever seen good defense in the desert.
14. Memphis (15): If this continues, Lionel Hollins will be wrestling for Scott Brooks  for Coach of the Year. And Chris Wallace will be Executive of the Year for getting Zach Randolph  for Quentin Richardson , as well as correcting his own mistake: He brought in Allen Iverson  and then quickly figured out it was the worst thing he could have done.
16. Charlotte (16): I wonder if Larry Brown  knows Marty Schottenheimer . Before Brown’s title with the Pistons, he essentially was Marty: Take over a mess, clean up the mess, look for new mess. And Brown didn’t look for any old normal junk pile to untangle; he’s on his way to saving the executive reputation of Michael Jordan.
17. Toronto (17): All right, maybe Chris Bosh is not a franchise player in the sense that you’ll win at least 50 if he’s on your team. But I like him because you know exactly what you’ll get night to night. Fun stat: He’s averaged some form of 22 points per game — 22.5. 22.6, 22.3, 22.7 — the last four years.
18. Miami (18): Hands down, the most thoughtful gesture of the year goes to Dwyane Wade  and Alonzo Mourning. The current Heat guard teamed up with Miami’s former center to raise money for Haiti. They quickly raised $800,000 ‘ and even got Gilbert Arenas  to add money to the cause.
19. Chicago (20): Give Vinny Del Negro credit: Tyrus Thomas  coming off the bench is not just a good move, it’s a brilliant one. Thomas still is playing starters’ minutes, but coming off the bench seems to energize him and keep him focused.
20. LA Clippers (19): I’m not sure how it happened, but Marcus Camby  is now one of my favorite players in the league. Earlier this year I told you that teams such as Portland and Oklahoma City were missing a solid, I-don’t-need-the-ball veteran. This is the guy. His numbers vs. the Bulls: 25 rebounds in 36 minutes.
21. New York (21): This is how I look at NBA reporters: If Marc Spears says it happened, it probably happened. Since that’s the case, sure, I believe the Celtics are interested in acquiring Knicks guard Nate Robinson . I’m paranoid enough to believe that the more I speak out against Nate, the chances of him wearing green increase. So I’ll shut up now.
22. Milwaukee (22): I’m not surprised that Jerry Stackhouse is back in the league. I’m just surprised that he’s back with the Bucks. He’s a career 18-point scorer who, yeah, knows how to score. He’d be a great bench addition for a playoff team.
23. Detroit (28): This probably says more about the state of the league than the state of the Pistons, but this team is only three games out of a playoff spot. In fact, if they can get themselves healthy, I think it’ll be an upset if they’re not one of the top eight teams in the East.
24. Washington (26): How did they move up in the rankings? It’s nothing they did; you’ve just got a cluster of bad basketball teams. This team quit on Flip Saunders  a good six weeks before any of us knew Gilbert Arenas was a gun fiend.
25. Sacramento: (23): Terrible week for the Kings: They continue their losing streak (now up to five games) and star rookie Tyreke Evans  is one of four defendants in a wrongful death lawsuit.
26. Philadelphia (24): It’s too bad Allen Iverson doesn’t understand who he is at this stage of his basketball life: At 34, he could be a great off-the-bench guy … if he didn’t view the bench with such disgust.
27. Indiana (27): Really, the Pacers are lucky they’ve won as many games as they have. They’ve got exactly two players who I’d want on my team: Danny Granger  and Troy Murphy . OK, yeah, I’d take Larry Bird , too. Even at 53 years old. (My God. Can you believe Larry Bird is 53 freakin’ years old? I know 50 is the new 30, or some nonsense like that, but he’s really 53?)
28. Golden State (25): If you can look at this roster and A) figure out what the hell they’re trying to do in Oakland and B) come up with a realistic plan of how to maneuver and make this team better, you really do need to be an NBA general manager. Seriously. I’ll be one of your references.
30. New Jersey (30): The Nets  went 3-38 in the first half of the season. Does anyone think they can manage to win seven of their final 41 to avoid the worst record in NBA history? I’ll take the under.