By Britt Robson
January 17, 2012

The season is destined to be footnoted for its lockout-compressed schedule, with teams clanking shot after shot and missing assignments and rotations as they fill what should be practice time with games that count in the standings.

It is an unpredictable mess that, even more than usual, rewards teams that are healthy and familiar with each other and find ways to play well in the midst of the road grind. Miami, nearly invincible just a week ago, demonstrated how quickly things can come unraveled, dropping three consecutive road games and watching Dwyane Wade writhe on the court with an ankle injury.

The Heat tumble from first to fifth in this week's Power Rankings. Chicago moves up to first and Oklahoma City climbs to second, two teams that, not coincidentally, have enjoyed a lot of roster stability and road success.

(All stats and records are through Monday, Jan. 16 unless otherwise noted.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 2
Even Monday's loss at Memphis while Derrick Rose rested his injured toe can't bump the Bulls from the top spot, given that they've gone 7-3 in a league-high 10 road games, including victories over both L.A. teams and Orlando. If appropriate attention were paid to the defensive end, Luol Deng would be a no-brainer All-Star this season. In his eighth season, the 6-foot-8 small forward leads the NBA in minutes while drawing his opponent's best perimeter scorer for the game's most feared and rugged defense. Five of Chicago's next six games are at home, all but one against sub-.500 teams. Considering the Bulls already have been destroying the competition at the United Center, allowing 66.8 points per game while going 5-0, they should be able to tighten their grasp on the best record in the East over the next 10 days -- provided Rose is healthy enough to play.
2 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 3
Like nearly all of the truly great players, Kevin Durant keeps refining and broadening his skills. In a season when Eric Maynor is lost to injury and Russell Westbrook's decision-making has been questioned, Durant is distributing the ball more effectively. His assist percentage is 19.5, well above his previous season best of 13.5, with only a slight increase in turnover percentage. Many of those added assists are in place of wayward shots, as Durant is enjoying career highs in field-goal and true shooting percentage (which takes three pointers and free throws into account), in large part because he has laid off the low-percentage long two-pointers. The fifth-year forward is attempting fewer shots from 16-23 feet and converting a higher percentage than ever, according to Hoopdata. Throw in career-high percentages for blocks and defensive rebounds, and you have a high-volume scorer who came into this season determined to find other ways at both ends of the court to help his team.
3 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 4
Center Spencer Hawes' vital role in the Sixers' leap forward this season was dramatized by his absence (because of a back sprain) in a recent loss at New York. Of the other big men, Elton Brand and Tony Battie aren't fast enough to stay with mobile centers, and promising rookie Nikola Vucevic is too unseasoned to be reliable. Otherwise, the Sixers continue to roll, enjoying a competitive vacation in back-to-back games with Washington and then knocking off the visiting Bucks. But this week will be illuminating, as Philadelphia faces three foes -- Denver, Atlanta and Miami -- with the length and athleticism to match up with the top trio of Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young.
4 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 8
Chris Paul had his real coming-out party as a Clipper with brilliant play in home victories against the Heat and Lakers. That he limped off with a strained hamstring in the fourth quarter of Saturday's L.A. battle (he missed Monday's win over New Jersey) is further proof of the wisdom of keeping all three veteran point guards -- Paul, Chauncey Billups and the injured Mo Williams -- on the roster, along with second-year player Eric Bledsoe, who is recovering from knee surgery. And speaking of shrewd depth protection, the signing of Reggie Evans, an absolute steal at the veteran's minimum, is already paying off. After getting outrebounded in their first six games (all but one without Evans), the Clippers have won the board battle in three of the last four, including on Saturday, when Evans corralled eight rebounds in 17 minutes and played staunch defense against the Lakers.
5 Miami Heat
Last Week: 1
Miami Heat (8-4)
There is no shame in closing a five-game road trip with losses to the Clippers and the Nuggets, but of course it's not that simple for the Heat. Miami dropped both games coming up short in the second half, on the heels of blowing a 17-point lead with a fourth quarter that had two field goals and five turnovers against an inferior Warriors team. All of this brings back the specter of playoff losses past, especially for LeBron James, who can't do anything but muffle or amplify the whispers and doubts until June. In the meantime, Miami plays eight of its next nine games at home.
6 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 6
Not that Kobe Bryant ever needed an excuse to shoot, but with Steve Blake out up to a month with a rib injury, the options for Kobe's backcourt mate now include Derek Fisher, who clearly spent his offseason negotiating instead of practicing and is off to a dreadful shooting start, and rookie second-round picks Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock. That's not a great scenario for an offense that was already positioned near the middle of the pack in efficiency with Blake healthy and Kobe gunning for 40 every night.
7 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 9
The Blazers had quickly trimmed a 14-point deficit to nine with about four and a half minutes left Friday in San Antonio when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich re-inserted Tony Parker for Gary Neal. Parker immediately forced a foul penetrating to the hoop, hitting both free throws. Then he jumped the passing lane for a steal and layup. When Kawai Leonard made another steal, Parker hit one of his patented, drifting jumpers from the left key. In 65 seconds, the lead was back to 15 -- game over. With Parker, Tim Duncan and (when healthy) Manu Ginobili, the Spurs have plenty of this proven killer instinct. That's why role players who were nondescript on other teams shine in San Antonio. The ring-laden trio and Popovich simultaneously inspire quality, disciplined play and take the pressure off. All that said, the Spurs still have to win a road game (they are 0-4, and 9-0 at home) to crack the top five.
8 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 11
The Pacers have been blessed with good health, as their starting five ranks among the top units in both minutes played and plus/minus. They are using their length (the four starters alongside point guard Darren Collison range from 6-8 to 7-2) to allow fewer than 90 points per game. They'll improve even more defensively as backup center Jeff Foster gets healthier. Foster has good chemistry with fellow frontcourt reserve Tyler Hansbrough -- like Omer Asik and Taj Gibson in Chicago, they wear down teams. The offense, especially Indiana's 41.3 shooting percentage, should improve once the team's leaders in shots per minute, Danny Granger (33.5 percent) and Hansbrough (38.8), learn to fire it up less frequently or more accurately.
9 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 12
Neil Paine had an excellent post at Basketball Prospectus on Friday comparing stretch power forward Ryan Anderson's season to those of the great outside shooter Peja Stojakovic in his prime. Even before he erupted for a career-high 30 points and went 7-of-13 from three-point range in Monday's victory at New York, Anderson was improving the Magic offense by more than 17 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court compared to when he sat, according to Basketball Value. He is also spearheading the NBA's most efficient offense and prolific long-range game, with Hedo Turkoglu likewise shooting better than 44 percent and J.J. Redick hitting 38.6 percent from beyond the arc.
10 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 15
How do we explain the Mavs' extreme down-then-up start? Psychologically, the time warp of the lockout and preseason was probably even more disorienting to a veteran core that had spent the extended offseason basking in a championship that had been so long in coming. Then there was the misfortune of facing a deep and fast Denver team in between two revenge games against clubs they had beaten in the final two rounds of last year's playoffs (Miami and Oklahoma City). Add in Tyson Chandler's absence and Lamar Odom's funk, and the blitz was on. Give credit to coach Rick Carlisle -- exactly the sort of smart, steady hand necessary for the task -- for re-emphasizing defense and patiently patching the holes caused by a lack of speed and new personnel.
11 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 10
With their breakneck pace and deep roster, the Nuggets are undeniably fun to watch. But as coach George Karl pointed out after Sunday's home loss to Utah, the team is too easily satisfied with itself, resulting in too many games where it isn't prepared to do the dirty work on defense, or even setting up plays in the half-court. Yes, the Nuggets miss the toughness of Kenyon Martin and Wilson Chandler from last season's post-Carmelo Anthony roster; Nene and Arron Afflalo were both signed to long, lucrative deals to take up that slack, and because of a combination of injury and lassitude, they haven't done the job. Nene, in particular, seems bedeviled by a heel injury that is limiting his hops, and a preoccupation with officials not calling fouls on opponents muscling him in the paint. Add in a brief slump by Andre Miller -- one of the precious few calming influences on an excitable roster -- and the Nuggets haven't come close to maximizing their considerable talent.
12 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 5
After a roaring start, the Blazers have split their last 10 games and lost the tail end of their last three back-to-backs. But the caliber of their opponents has been high and the roster did reveal genuine depth in the midst of consecutive defeats to Orlando, San Antonio and Houston. As he did in Chicago last year, Kurt Thomas displayed his old-school credentials filling in for Marcus Camby (who is day-to-day with an ankle injury), hitting mid-range jumpers, setting crunching picks and dutifully moving his 39-year-old frame in the spot required by the defensive rotation. Craig Smith, a little-used but brutish power forward, exploited a mismatch with Houston's Patrick Patterson in the low block and scored 11 points in 16 minutes. And Nicolas Batum put together his best pair of games this season, playing active defense and finishing with eight three-pointers combined in Saturday's loss to Houston and Monday's win at New Orleans.
13 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 14
Utah Jazz (8-4)
It is early yet, but the Jazz are announcing themselves as serious playoff contenders with a week that included a tough overtime loss to the Lakers and a convincing 106-96 win at Denver -- two opponents who had thrashed them to start the season. The victory over the Nuggets was especially impressive, given that Utah was completing a back-to-back in the high altitude without sixth man Josh Howard or, for the second half, an injured Derrick Favors. Members of their potent frontcourt tandem scored at will early in the game (Al Jefferson) and then in crunch time (Paul Millsap), but the win was secured on sustained grit and hustle. Denver was frequently able to generate the faster pace it prefers, but the Jazz sprang back remarkably well in transition -- speedy Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson was only 4-of-9 on shots at the rim. At the end, Utah had simply worn out a Nuggets team that had run Miami off the court two nights earlier, as the Jazz permitted just two fast-break points in the second half and held Denver to 4-of-19 from the field in the fourth quarter.
14 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 7
So how does a team go 3-1 for the week and drop seven spots? Like my colleague Zach Lowe, I am pessimistic about the Hawks' future without its best player, Al Horford, for three to four months. (Although I do think they'll make the playoffs.) Last week's wins came against Charlotte, Toronto and a squeaker against Minnesota that was gift-wrapped by a questionable foul call on Kevin Love. The Hawks are filling in for Horford with Zaza Pachulia or Jason Collins, a steep drop-off, especially on offense. Horford was always the one cleaning up for the iffy decisions and shot selection of Josh Smith and (to a lesser extent) Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams, and he was superb at facilitating ball movement. Upcoming games against Portland and at Philadelphia will provide a better read on whether the often-maligned Smith and Johnson can maintain Atlanta's top-seven ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency and prevent a sharp decline in record.
15 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 18
Coach Lionel Hollins has help transform the Grizzlies into one of the NBA's grittiest and most relentless teams -- the sort of opponent nobody wants to play -- since about the midpoint of last season. A glaring exception was the 104-64 shellacking the Bulls put on Memphis on Jan. 1, the night Zach Randolph tore his MCL. So it wasn't surprising that Memphis dominated the boards (even without Randolph) and outscrapped Chicago (which was missing Derrick Rose) in Monday's rematch. With Randolph sidelined, the Grizzlies needed Rudy Gay to pick up the slack, and the max-contract swingman has responded by averaging 24.3 points on 58.5 percent shooting during a three-game winning streak. A crucial stretch in the schedule looms with six of the next seven games on the road against mostly inferior opponents.
16 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 22
Kyle Lowry has been one of the top three point guards in the Western Conference (the others are Chris Paul and Ty Lawson), carrying Houston during a brutal early-season schedule while top scorers Luis Scola and Kevin Martin endure below-average shooting. Lowry is the NBA's top rebounder among point guards and just behind elite playmakers Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo in assists. He's also raised his scoring average by getting to the rim more frequently and knocking down a higher percentage of three-pointers, developing a trademark move of stepping into a trey from the top of the arc coming down the court. Despite the gaudy stats, he's even better in the flesh than he is on paper.
17 New York Knicks
Last Week: 13
The Knicks are starting to become an unlikable team, and not just because they are performing below their collective talent. There is very little poise and sense of collective identity. Coach Mike D'Antoni leads the NBA in anguished sideline whines, and point guards Iman Shumpert and Toney Douglas go 8-of-33 from the field in an embarrassing loss to Memphis on Wednesday while supposed alpha dog Amar'e Stoudemire (Carmelo Anthony had left early in the third quarter with an ankle injury) is relegated to a lone field goal in just seven attempts. Before that Grizzlies game, Anthony, emboldened by a four-game run of decent defense by his team, declared that he was on a "personal vendetta" to reverse the impression that he and the Knicks don't guard very well. Two quarters later, Anthony's primary cover, Rudy Gay, had 18 first-half points on 8-for-9 shooting.
18 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 20
The Rookie of the Year race is shaping up as a point guard battle between the Cavs' Kyrie Irving and the Timberwolves' Ricky Rubio. Both were very productive in the last week. Irving has averaged 22.2 points and 5.2 assists in just 29.4 minutes in his last five games. He is turning the ball over at a high rate (3.3 per game overall) and still needs work on defense, but the teenager with a mere 11 games of college experience is shooting 48.2 percent from the field, 41.9 percent from three-point territory and 86.7 percent from the free-throw line. He is the main reason Cleveland's offensive efficiency ranking has jumped from 25th to 13th since last season.
19 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 21
After the Wolves unsuccessfully tried to climb out of another steep first-quarter deficit, against the Bulls last week, coach Rick Adelman finally gave in to the chorus clamoring for Ricky Rubio to start. Rubio was already averaging nearly 30 minutes and playing the entire fourth quarter, yet the move still made a difference. The young passing wizard has become noticeably more confident commanding teammates while running the offense. What his rapid ascension up the pecking order means, among other things, is that ball-stopper Michael Beasley will have to change his ways when he returns from a sprained foot. But the next step for Adelman, Rubio and the offense is refraining from calling for a three-point fadeaway by Kevin Love at the buzzer. The play hasn't come close to working in two win-or-lose situations this season.
20 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 16
Having covered Kevin Garnett every year he played for the Timberwolves, I understood how much energy he expended in doing everything from defending the point guard on the perimeter in Flip Saunders' 1-2-2 zone to leading the team in points, rebounds, blocks and nearly assists on a regular basis. Celtics fans should remember that before he came to Boston, he already had logged more career regular-season minutes than Larry Bird or Kevin McHale. But the one thing KG didn't like was being the de facto center and banger -- he and then-Wolves vice president McHale used to argue about how he grabbed rebounds over people instead of boxing out. That's why it is so tough to watch him now, bereft in the paint with Kendrick Perkins gone, Jermaine O'Neal lacking lift in his legs and even 26-year-old rookie curio Greg Stiemsma getting minutes. And while the Celtics are now "Rajon Rondo's team," in the words of coach Doc Rivers, the once-gifted passer who averaged at least five assists for six straight seasons in Minnesota should be getting more than 10 assists in the last six games.
21 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 24
Drafting Wisconsin senior Jon Leuer with the 40th pick last June turned out to be one of the shrewdest personnel moves of the offseason. The 6-10, 228-pound Leuer is smart and polished, exercising great shot selection and possessing enough fundamental sense to mostly compensate for the negative mismatch aspects of his 'tweener forward status. He raised eyebrows when he outplayed No. 2 pick Derrick Williams to help the Bucks beat the Timberwolves in the second game of the season. Last week, with Milwaukee in dire need of accurate shooters, coach Scott Skiles inserted Leuer (52.9 percent for the season) into the starting lineup in place of Ersan Ilyasova (40.5 percent) and hasn't regretted it yet.
22 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 17
Can shooting guard Michael Redd help? The potential is certainly there. The Suns start Shannon Brown, who is converting just 36.4 percent from the field and 25 percent from beyond the arc, one reason they rank near the middle of the pack in accuracy despite the presence of Steve Nash at the point. Redd has been an All-Star and an Olympian in the course of scoring more than 21 points per game for six straight seasons in Milwaukee. But that was two major knee surgeries ago, a period in which Redd has struggled to get back on the court the last three seasons, playing between 10 and 33 games. After signing for the veteran's minimum, he says he is fully rehabilitated and ready to be more than a role player. But after hitting his first two shots for Phoenix, he is 3-for-16 from the field and 1-for-8 from long distance in limited minutes over a three-game stretch.
23 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 27
Last year, the Warriors finally gave then-rookie Ekpe Udoh expanded minutes in March and April. His stolid post defense enabled them to go 8-10 in his 18 starts to finish 35-47. For the season, Udoh's presence on the court improved Golden State by a team-best 11.73 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Value. With new coach Mark Jackson making defense his mantra, you'd think playing Udoh would be a top priority. Instead, he'd been averaging a mere 15.5 minutes behind high-salaried big men Andris Biedrins and Kwame Brown. But with Brown out three months with a pectoral injury and the Warriors routed for 112 points by Charlotte's anemic offense the night before, Jackson belatedly gave Udoh a season-high 27 minutes as Golden State's 26th-ranked defense faced Detroit on Sunday. Udoh responded with four blocks, three steals and a team-best plus-13 in a 99-91 win. Yes, Udoh is raw to the point of inept on offense. But he pairs up well with power forward David Lee, his positive impact has been consistent and he shores up a glaring weakness on the team.
24 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 25
Taken between James Harden and Ricky Rubio in the 2009 draft, Tyreke Evans went on to win Rookie of the Year because the 6-6 point guard leveraged his bulk and quickness to get to the hoop and defend the perimeter. But Evans' development has been fitful and disappointing since then, and it would probably be a bigger story if not for the feud, firing and fallout that unfolded between center DeMarcus Cousins and deposed coach Paul Westphal during the past two seasons. While this year's performance has generally been an improvement over Evans' injury-plagued sophomore season, the prospects for him becoming either more of a floor general for his teammates or expanding his shooting range as an off-guard seem increasingly remote. Even after Monday's 10-assist performance against the Timberwolves, he is averaging only 4.1 assists, well below his career norm. His shooting percentage is 42.4, including just 6-for-28 (21.4 percent) from three-point range. The turmoil and underachievement in Sacramento have done Evans no favors; on the other hand, his lack of progress and clearly definable backcourt role have contributed to the negativity.
25 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 19
Providing Washington with its lone victory began a dreadful five-loss week for the Raptors, who were without leading scorer Andrea Bargnani (calf) for three of those games. While new coach Dwane Casey has done an admirable job incorporating defense into the Raptors' identity, the offense has likely suffered from inattention, falling from 21st to 28th in efficiency compared to last season. Bargnani has the highest true shooting percentage of his career, but DeMar DeRozan is shooting just 41.4 percent, Jose Calderon has cooled off after a prolific start and Leandro Barbosa, who leads Toronto in shots per minute, is converting only 43.2 percent. Part of the problem is a plethora of mid-range jump shooters. No one on the roster has a distinguished history of either making three-pointers or getting to the rim and the free-throw line.
26 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 23
New Orleans has dropped 10 of 11 since opening 2-0, but with the slow pace and big bodies deployed by coach Monty Williams, the Hornets keep it tight and wait for lightning to strike -- which it will when Eric Gordon returns from his knee injury. Meanwhile, the resourceful Williams will reward bench players who work hard, like 6-10 rookie Gustavo Ayon. The 26-year-old is shooting 70 percent and has been active in the paint in double-digit minutes the last three games, including a 20-minute stint with nine points, seven rebounds and five assists to fuel an ultimately unsuccessful comeback against Memphis on Saturday.
27 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 26
After watching rookie Brandon Knight play these first few weeks of the season, it is a mystery why the Pistons made him their top pick. Knight is a 6-3 combo guard who can score, especially from outside (41.4 percent on his team-high 58 three-point attempts), but he has 40 turnovers and 39 assists. His skill set seems incredibly redundant on a team that has Rodney Stuckey and Ben Gordon signed to expensive long-term contracts and still puts Will Bynum in the rotation. Meanwhile, the Pistons play at the league's slowest pace, but they have a frontcourt cornerstone in Greg Monroe and power forward in Jonas Jerebko (recently signed to an extension) who would seem to thrive in transition. The immunity granted team president Joe Dumars for the championship rings he brought to Detroit as a player and personnel boss should be close to reaching its statute of limitations.
28 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 28
Going 1-2 on a homestand against Detroit, Golden State and Cleveland is a step backward, but coach Paul Silas is beginning to sort through the roster more purposefully in hopes of settling on starters and a set rotation. Center Byron Mullens has started the last four games, earning nearly as many minutes in that span as he had played the previous two seasons. He has seized the chance with gusto, averaging 17 points and 7.5 rebounds with a high motor and surprising shooting range. More problematical has been the starting backcourt of 6-1 rookie Kemba Walker alongside 6-foot point guard D.J. Augustin the last two games. The undersized duo helped the Bobcats ambush Golden State on Saturday but was overrun in Monday's loss to the Cavs. The biggest casualty in this experimentation has been Boris Diaw, who had started 235 consecutive games as a Bobcat before being benched last week. But with his experience, court knowledge and passing skills, he a logical fit to lead the second unit.
29 New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 29
Kris Humphries is having an excellent year, averaging 13.8 points and 9.8 rebounds and shooting 53.2 percent. According to Basketball Value, he's also having a phenomenally positive impact on his team's play -- better than 15 points per 100 possessions on both offense and defense, meaning more than 30 points per 100 possessions overall. Yes, it is a relatively small sample size, and the enormous impact is guaranteed to shrink over time. But Humphries improved New Jersey at both ends of the court last season, too. The point is that Humphries is doing his part to help a desultory team.
30 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 30
It is safe to assume that the status quo is failing miserably. So why not make a radical change? Specifically, with the team's primary asset being one of the game's fastest point guards, John Wall, and with an array of quick-footed big men such as Andray Blatche and rookie Jan Vesely and shooters like Nick Young, Rashard Lewis and Jordan Crawford, why not race up and down the court like Denver or the old Suns? The Wizards rank 11th in pace and last in offensive efficiency. Is coach Flip Saunders worried about installing bad habits, encouraging a lack of discipline or failing to execute the system? Compared to what?

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