Toronto Raptors: While they just lost the other night in Denver, the Raptors were the hottest team in the NBA, previously winning 11 straight games including a dominating victory over the Clippers. Kyle Lowry somehow gets better every year, and his backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan has been a spectacular scorer, bulldozing his way to the line over eight times a game. They were just named the Eastern Conference Players of the Month for January, and somehow have the Raptors just 3.5 games back of the Cavaliers. It is notable to say that the Raptors are doing all this without the services of DeMarre Carroll, who is probably their third best player. While they aren't quite on the Cavaliers' level yet, if Carroll comes back healthy and they make a tweak or two at the deadline I think they could beat the Cavs in a playoff series.
Portland Trailblazers: The Blazers lost four of their five starters from last year, including their best overall player. Those losses were replaced with an odd combination of veterans and youngsters; they are carrying nine new players this season. Somehow, GM Neil Olshey pulled a rabbit out of the hat, and he created a mix that turned the Blazers competitive at least a season before most people thought they would be. Powering it all is point guard Damian Lillard, an All-Star snub for a second straight season (he was an injury replacement last year). Yes, he still can't play defense, and his efficiency isn't always great. But even with those flaws, it is remarkable what he has done with a team as lacking in creators as the Blazers. He is the second best "floor bender" and off the bounce 3 point maker after Steph Curry, taking eight threes a game. Lillard has received a huge boost from first year starter (third year pro) CJ McCollum, who has proven a revelation as a secondary playmaker and ball handler. CJ should have the Most Improved Player award about locked up, and it is well deserved. The rest of the roster each has their part, chipping in rebounding (Mason Plumlee), shooting (Allen Crabbe), or overall tool kit (Al Farouq Aminu). It would be a great story if they make the playoffs, though they have a lot of competition for that 8th spot.
Indiana Pacers: Paul George has had a triumphant return from injury, and rookie Myles Turner would be getting a lot more spotlight if his class wasn't so amazing. Unfortunately for the Pacers, they have scuffled since a hot start to the season, and have fallen all the way to the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference. George is still a terrific two way player, but efficiency has never been his strong suit, and his FG% is all the way down to 40.9. Monta Ellis has been nowhere near the player he was the last two seasons in Dallas as his stats are down all across the board. It appears he was injured earlier in the year, so maybe he will improve down the stretch. CJ Miles came out of the gates absolutely on fire, but had a horrific month of January, shooting 30.2% from the field and 21.6 from three. While he will revert to the mean from those numbers, his struggles have been brutal for a team that already doesn't have a lot of outside shooting. George Hill, Rodney Stuckey, and Ian Mahinmi have all been dealing with injuries, though Mahinmi's absence has led to the growth of Turner. Speaking of, Turner has been incredible for a rookie on defense (his offense has been great too). He is averaging 1.5 blocks a game in just 18.8 minutes of run, and his pick and roll coverage is already smothering. In a league suddenly blossoming with amazing young big men, it is huge for the Pacers that Turner looks this good this soon.
Orlando Magic: There is perhaps no bigger disparity between thought and reality of NBA teams than the Magic. On one hand they have perhaps the largest stable of young talent in the entire league, with six different promising youngsters, some of whom have already proven themselves as quality starters. On the other hand, they are 1-9 in their last 10 games, and rank only 25th and 17th on offense and defense respectively for the whole season. Their future is still bright, but they just can't seem to win games right now, and it has pushed them all the way back into the lower end of the playoff hopefuls in the Eastern Conference. There is also the issue of fit amongst their young players. Victor Oladipo and Evan Fournier appear to play the same position at SG, but while Oladipo is a more promising prospect, he is also a terrible fit alongside starting point guard Elfrid Payton as neither can shoot. Tobias Harris and Aaron Gordon have a similar problem as both are SF/PF tweeners, neither is a legit floor spacer, and they just don't seem to work well together. While its obviously good to have so many talented prospects, tough decisions might be coming in the next year or two on who to keep or not. In the meantime, it might be a struggle for the Magic to reach the playoffs, which would provide valuable experience for all the young guys.
Los Angeles Lakers: The other team in LA has been nothing short of an abject disaster this year. The Titanic. The Hindenburg. Other catastrophes. The Lakers are comparable to all of them. Captaining the sinking ship (or burning zeppelin, take your pick) is Coach Byron Scott, who has turned in quite possibly one of the worst head coaching seasons of all time. The Lakers are 10-41 (beat an awful T-Wolves team at home last night) despite investing in veteran talent in the offseason and possessing several promising young players. They run no coherent system on either end of the floor, which has led to their posting the 2nd worst offensive rating in the league (ahead of only the 76ers, and well behind every other bottom dweller), as well as by far the worst defensive mark. They allow an incredible 108.2 points per 100 possessions, which is only below three team's offensive ratings: the Warriors, Thunder, and Spurs. Basically, every team turns into the Clippers or Cavaliers when playing the Lakers. It is an embarrassing performance, made even worse when considering the comments of top draft picks D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, who are confused about their place on the team and what they are doing wrong. Instead of being given minutes and encouraged to take control of the offense, they are stifled and benched for things that veterans are allowed to do freely. While Brooklyn has a far worse future and the 76ers remain below them in the standings column, no team has been nearly as miserable as the Los Angeles Lakers this season.