NBA Power Rankings: Thunder surge, Knicks approach rock bottom
Will the Thunder make the playoffs? is an obsolete question. Oklahoma City is just a half game back of the Western Conference's No. 8 seed after winning eight of its last nine games.
The question now becomes, Where do the Thunder rank as title contenders?
With Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant rounding into playing shape after missing 14 and 17 games, respectively, Oklahoma City has been nearly unbeatable. Its only loss since Westbrook returned on Nov. 28 came at New Orleans. Even as the Thunder work out the kinks, they look like the elite team that has made the conference finals in three of the last four years -- which explains their rise from 17th to sixth in this week's NBA Power Rankings.
Just how good have they been of late? Since Westbrook rejoined the lineup eight games ago, Oklahoma City ranks second in the NBA in net rating (13.4) and defensive efficiency (94.7). The Thunder have also seen their offensive efficiency skyrocket to No. 10 (109.1) during that stretch, well above their season mark of 24th (99.6).
In addition to having its two stars back, Oklahoma City is also benefiting from an improved supporting cast. Reggie Jackson (16.6 points per game) gained valuable experience as the top scoring option when Westbrook and Durant were sidelined, Serge Ibaka continues to expand his offensive repertoire and youngsters such as Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson have received much-needed playing time.
With a postseason berth no longer in doubt -- I'm happy we burned all of those calories discussing that topic last month! -- OKC's new quest becomes home-court advantage. That'll be a much more challenging catch-up game because coach Scott Brooks' team trails the fourth-seeded Trail Blazers by seven games. Still, with Russ and KD healthy, the Thunder represent yet another threat in the stacked West.
Let's take a look at where all 30 teams stand in the rankings.
(All stats and records are through Dec. 14.)
Forwards Harrison Barnes (No. 7 pick in 2012) and Draymond Green (No. 35) serve as reminders that you draft for talent, not position. Both have found their way into the starting lineup despite their supposed redundancy. Both are also having career years, as are many of their teammates during the NBA's ninth start of at least 21 victories in 23 games.
Dwight Howard finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds in his first game in almost a month, a 108-96 victory over Denver on Saturday. Just in case you thought the time off to heal a knee injury helped his free-throw shooting, he shot 8-of-17 from the stripe. Guess you can't have everything.
Six of the Spurs' seven losses have been by five points or fewer, proving that San Antonio shows up even when not at full strength. Still, injuries don't excuse losses to the lowly Jazz and Lakers, games in which Tim Duncan played at least 36 minutes apiece.
That 3-12 start seems like ages ago. Don't let their record fool you: The Thunder belong in the upper echelon. Finally at full strength (rookie Mitch McGary made his debut in Sunday's 112-88 rout of Phoenix), OKC might have its deepest roster in years.
Making the playoffs for the first time since 2011 will be difficult, but there's undeniable growth in New Orleans. The Pelicans took the Warriors to OT on Sunday without Anthony Davis (bruised chest) after defeating the Cavs largely without him. With Eric Gordon sidelined by a shoulder injury, the backcourt of Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday is thriving.
Larry Sanders should be averaging roughly 12.4 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. Instead, those are his per 36 numbers, and his stat line is only 7.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. The reason? Foul trouble has helped limit Sanders to 21.7 minutes. His 6.3 fouls per 36 minutes are the most of any starter in the league.
Phoenix hasn't been as dynamic on offense or been able to recreate last year's success, a surprising 48-win season. The Suns have lost five in a row, their longest skid under second-year coach Jeff Hornacek, and play seven of their next nine on the road.
Only the Kings' front office thinks Sacramento is underachieving this season. Maybe those expectations are a good thing long term, but they look silly in the short term. Replacing coach Mike Malone with Tyrone Corbin (on an interim basis) is an obvious downgrade.
In looking like a playoff team one week and a lottery-bound squad the next, the Nuggets continue to be the league's most volatile team. Denver is due for a hot streak after losing six of seven.
As SI.com's Rob Mahoney pointed out last week, the Nets won't have an easy time unloading any of their stars, who are higher on compensation than production. One of them, Brook Lopez, has been out for a week with a back injury, opening the door for Team USA center Mason Plumlee to average 13.0 points and 10.3 rebounds in three consecutive starts.
After going winless for a month, the Pistons won back-to-back games last week and put up a season-high 105 points against the Suns. The victories coincided with the return of floor-spacing shooter Jodie Meeks, who missed 22 games with a back injury.
Andrew Wiggins' flashes of brilliance are becoming more like extended glances. The 19-year-old swingman topped 20 points twice last week, including the first double-double (23 points, 10 rebounds) of his career in an upset of the Blazers. Said Kobe Bryant after narrowly edging Wiggins' Wolves: "I see a reflection of myself 19 years ago."
Maybe Phil Jackson is just a huge Mel Brooks fan and decided to use the 2014-15 Knicks as his remake of The Producers. If so, bravo. The casting of Derek Fisher was pure genius.
Well, yeah, this makes sense.