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Blazers, Suns lead this season's biggest surprises

Photo: Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images

After finishing in the lottery last season, the Blazers and Suns are in the midst of huge turnarounds.

There's a reason why NBA writers dread making predictions like Craig Sager dreads asking Gregg Popovich questions.

The exercise is futile. As much as we know -- or would like to think we know -- some things are just impossible to see coming. Who knew that the Suns would be in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race? Or that the Brad Stevens-led Celtics would be atop the Atlantic Division? Did you peg the Bobcats for a better record than the Knicks or Nets in mid-December? Or how about the Trail Blazers leading the NBA in victories?

Yeah, me neither.

In fact, that's just the start of this season's surprises. How about individual performances? Pacers forward Paul George was barely an All-Star last year, but he's an MVP candidate this season. Sixers point guard Michael Carter-Williams has been the most impressive rookie despite being selected 11th. Forward Michael Beasley is contributing to a contender. Repeat, Michael Beasley is contributing to a contender. And Brooklyn's Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are averaging fewer points combined than Goran Dragic.

It's unlikely that all of these trends will last all season, but it's getting more difficult to label any of them flukes as we near the New Year.

Dragic and the Suns (No. 6) leap five spots after another strong week, while the 76ers -- one early-season surprise that hasn't held up -- bottom out as their struggles continue.

Here's where all 30 teams stand in this week's SI.com Power Rankings.

(Note: All statistics and records are through Dec. 15.)

NBA Power Rankings
 
1 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 1
Since: 4-0
It's one thing to reach No. 1 in the Power Rankings, but it's another thing entirely to stay on top. The Blazers have now done both after another perfect week, while improving to 10-0 against the Eastern Conference. Terry Stotts has emerged as the front-runner for Coach of the Year in light of Portland's transformation from a 33-win lottery team into the Western Conference leader.
 
2 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 2
Since: 4-0
Reggie Jackson has scored in double digits off the bench in nine consecutive games. Just as important are the contributions from rookie Steven Adams, who is averaging more points, rebounds and blocks per 36 minutes than Kendrick Perkins, the man keeping the starting position warm until Scott Brooks hands it over to the 20-year-old.
 
3 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 3
Since: 3-0
The Heat are using the regular season as an 82-game tune-up. The Pacers are using it to hunt down the No. 1 seed. Indiana looked ready for an inevitable conference finals rematch with a hard-fought victory over Miami last week, improving to 5-1 in its last six home games against the Heat. Indiana visits Miami on Wednesday for a rematch.
 
4 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 5
Since: 4-0
Just when you think the 37-year-old Tim Duncan is starting to show his age, he puts up December numbers like these: 17 points, 12.7 rebounds and 55.3 percent shooting in six games, five of which San Antonio has won.
 
5 Miami Heat
Last Week: 4
Since: 1-1
Miami Heat (17-6)
With Dwyane Wade showing the benefits of increased rest, finding a little backcourt help is a good idea for the Heat. Wade is only 32, but he's played 5,214 career playoff minutes -- more than Kevin Garnett, Pau Gasol or Steve Nash -- which is the equivalent of two additional regular seasons. Miami is smart to follow San Antonio's blueprint in terms of treating a veteran star.
 
6 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 11
Since: 2-0
The Suns' rebuilding project is so far ahead of schedule that they're reportedly seeking to trade a first-round pick in next year's loaded draft for a star right now. That'd be a bold move for a young team just 25 games into the season, but one that could pay off with a surprise trip to the playoffs, something Phoenix's ownership likely didn't think was coming for years.
 
7 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 8
Since: 3-1
Coach Doc Rivers has inserted Jamal Crawford into the starting lineup for Willie Green, who struggled with the first unit after J.J. Redick went down with a broken hand. Until Redick returns, starting Crawford and shifting Darren Collison into the sixth-man role is likely in Los Angeles' best interest.
 
8 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 6
Since: 1-2
The Rockets are playing hurt, and not particularly well. James Harden and Jeremy Lin are both uncertain for Wednesday's game against Chicago, with the former dealing with a "very, very painful" ankle injury. Houston has lost four of seven, giving general manager Daryl Morey just a little bit more urgency to complete a trade for Omer Asik and acquire reinforcements.
 
9 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 10
Since: 2-1
Despite the presence of two other point guards in the rotation, Nate Robinson is getting his in Denver. He's scored in double digits off the bench in 12 of his last 14 games, which is a good thing for the Nuggets considering they're 9-3 when he hits his scoring average of 11 points.
 
10 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 7
Since: 1-2
With Monta Ellis leading the team in time of possession, according to NBA.com, Jose Calderon has seen his playmaking numbers decline. Calderon's assist rate is only 22 percent, down from 39.8 percent last season in Toronto and Detroit, and his average of 4.5 assists is well off his career mark of seven. But Calderon is still making an impact as a shooter, recording career highs of 46.9 percent from long range and 2.7 three-pointers per game.
 
11 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 9
Since: 1-3
All is not golden for the Warriors, who have lost four of six and nine of 14 after an 8-3 start. Said coach Mark Jackson: "I am finding that the guys in the suit and tie want it more than the guys in uniform." The Warriors play five of their next six games at home, where they are 7-3.
 
12 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 12
Since: 3-1
Carrying the Wolves to the playoffs is apparently going to take a superhuman effort from Kevin Love. The big man was up to the task last week, averaging 31 points and 13.5 rebounds to help Minnesota win three of four and get back to .500.
 
13 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 13
Since: 1-2
The Hawks have two of the best all-around big men in the NBA, but only a .500 record to show for it. Al Horford and Paul Millsap are the only players in the league averaging at least 16 points, eight rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal while shooting at least 50 percent.
 
14 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 15
Since: 1-2
The Kobe Bryant experiment at point guard got off to a rough start when the Lakers lost by 25 to the Thunder and Kobe totaled an uneven four points and 13 assists. But a more balanced effort (21 points, eight assists) the next night led to a victory in Charlotte. Now there's the matter on cutting back on turnovers, as Kobe has racked up 25 in four games.
 
15 New Orleans Pelicans
Last Week: 20
Since: 2-1
At this time last year, Austin Rivers was starting and playing 30 minutes a game as a rookie. But with the return to health of Eric Gordon and the arrival of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, last year's No. 10 pick has had few opportunities this season. With Evans nursing a sprained ankle, however, Rivers logged a season-high 22 minutes Sunday and responded with 17 points.
 
16 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 14
Since: 1-3
Zach Randolph is right: "There ain't no loyalty or love" in the NBA. That's why coach Lionel Hollins was let go after winning a franchise-record 56 games and reaching the conference finals. And that's why Randolph will be discarded, too, if the Grizz keep sliding and they think his departure can help them get better.
 
17 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 23
Since: 2-1
Toronto is 3-1 since trading the shot-happy Rudy Gay to Sacramento. Power forward Amir Johnson is averaging 20 points and shooting 70.7 percent (53-of-75) in the last six games, raising his scoring average to a career-high 11.8 points and moving up to third in the NBA in field-goal accuracy at 60.9 percent.
 
18 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 16
Since: 1-2
I mentioned Jordan Crawford's startling efficiency in a post last week, but here's another statistic that shows just how far the gunner has come: 5.5 That's the fourth-year guard's assist average, the highest of his career and twice that of anyone else on the team.
 
19 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 22
Since: 2-1
Cleveland is 5-2 since going with a starting lineup of center Andrew Bynum, forwards Tristan Thompson and Alonzo Gee and guards C.J. Miles and Kyrie Irving. The group also boasts a plus-5.9 net rating, validating its status as the Cavs' best first unit.
 
20 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 19
Since: 1-3
Ben Gordon played only nine minutes in the Bobcats' first 16 games, but he's appeared in each of the last eight as Charlotte deals with the loss of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Bobcats surely hope that the 30-year-old shooting guard can show enough to find a taker for his $13.2 million expiring contract before the trade deadline.
 
21 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 18
Since: 1-3
Forget players-only meetings; it's time for the Pistons to stage an intervention. Josh Smith is shooting 26.4 percent from three-point range, but that hasn't kept him from launching 4.2 per game. Just how irrational is that? Smith has the worst shooting percentage of anyone attempting at least four threes per game. And it's not like Smith is in a shooting slump -- he's a career 28.1 percent shooter from deep!
 
22 Brooklyn Nets
Last Week: 25
Since: 2-1
Kevin Garnett, who is averaging a career-low 22.3 minutes, has scored fewer than 10 points in 18 of his first 21 games as a Net. He had seven such games in 68 appearances with Boston last season and six in 60 the year before. The career 49.7 percent shooter is hitting a career-low 36.7 percent.
 
23 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 17
Since: 0-3
Marcin Gortat is never one to mince words, but his complaints about how he's being used on offense are legit. The Wizards are 7-4 when he scores 13 or more and 2-9 when he doesn't. Washington would be wise to create more opportunities for a player shooting a team-best 53.9 percent.
 
24 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 21
Since: 1-3
The Bulls are depending on Mike Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich to buoy their offense. Dunleavy has averaged 14.8 shots in the last five games, which is about what Derrick Rose (16.4) was averaging before he injured his knee. Dunleavy averaged fewer than 14 shots even in his highest-scoring season, in 2007-08, when he put up 19.1 points with the Pacers.
 
25 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 27
Since: 2-2
Be warned, Kings fans. The man pretending to be Rudy Gay is not who he says he is. Sure, Sacramento's new star has shot 18-of-32 (56.2 percent) in his first two games, but that type of efficiency is unlikely to last from the chucker who shot 38.8 percent this season in Toronto.
 
26 New York Knicks
Last Week: 24
Since: 2-2
Can it be considered a good week if you lose to the Cavaliers and Celtics? It's all relative in New York these days. The Knicks face three struggling teams this week: Washington, Milwaukee and Memphis.
 
27 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 26
Since: 1-3
Victor Oladipo is making half of his shots at the rim, but just 34.7 percent from everywhere else. That and the fact that he's attempted just five corner three-pointers (the rookie guard has missed all of them) tells you that he's still finding his way around the NBA floor. After making 44.1 percent from the shorter college three-point line last year, the No. 2 pick is hitting just 28 percent from the big-boy line.
 
28 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 29
Since: 2-2
Utah Jazz (6-20)
The Jazz have played the toughest schedule in the league, and things won't get easier this week as they open a five-game road trip in Miami. Still, Utah is 5-6 since a 1-14 start, including an impressive victory at Denver last week.
 
29 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 30
Since: 1-3
It's tough to win when three of your top four scorers and seven of your top nine are shooting under 40 percent. The only exceptions are second-year players John Henson (12 points, 52.5 percent) and Khris Middleton (10.6 points, 46.2 percent).
 
30 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 28
Since: 0-4
The Sixers haven't won a game in regulation since Nov. 8. In 19 games since then, they've lost 16 and won twice in overtime and once in double overtime. Over that span they've played 19 games, losing 16, winning two in overtime and one in double-OT. It's going to be a long winter in Philadelphia.
 

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