NBA Power Rankings: Bulls hit No. 1 after wave of injuries hobbles West
The temptation of adding a superstar talent like Carmelo is obvious. He’s one of the best scorers in the game and a trio of Melo, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah is formidable on paper. The interest from Anthony was even more obvious — looking to play for a title contender for the first time in his career.
Anthony was impressed by Chicago — even calling it the “perfect” situation for him earlier this month — but he elected to stay in New York, taking the guaranteed money over the guaranteed relevancy.
Let's cut to the chase of this week’s Power Rankings: the Bulls are first and the Knicks are last.
While New York “won” the Melo sweepstakes, Chicago “settled” for a variety of less-heralded players now playing critical roles. It landed Pau Gasol, who is playing his best basketball in years and thriving alongside Noah. It added Nikola Mirotic, a Rookie of the Year candidate and a dangerous stretch-four off the bench. And it’s been rewarded by turning over the reins to Jimmy Butler, who has miraculously leapt from role player to MVP candidate in a matter of months.
Without Carmelo dominating the ball, Rose is getting the reps he needs to knock off the rust, averaging 18.1 points per game. The Bulls are also proving they didn’t need a superstar to transform their offense, going from No. 28 in offensive efficiency last year to No. 6 this year.
The Bulls are deep, versatile and experienced -- the trifecta when looking for contenders. But Chicago does have its share of concerns, which go beyond the obligatory mention of Rose’s knees. The most glaring is that its defense is no longer as stout as it used to be, allowing opponents to top the century mark 13 times in 30 games after allowing the feat just 16 times in 82 last season.
The good news is Chicago’s defense has tightened of late, yielding more impressive results. The Bulls have won nine of their last 10, leading the league in net rating (10.8) and ranking No. 7 in defensive efficiency over that span. With the offense also near the top -- and the Warriors hobbled without Andrew Bogut -- it's tough to argue there's a more complete contender right now than the Bulls.
Let's take a look at where all 30 teams stand in this week's NBA Power Rankings.
(All stats and records through Dec. 28).
Kyle Lowry was No. 4 among East guards in the first All-Star balloting returns, but he should be in the running for No. 1. The eight-year veteran has never played in the midseason showcase before, but he’ll be impossible to keep out this year with the Raptors in first place (despite DeMar DeRozan’s absence) thanks to Lowry’s play (20.5 ppg, 7.7 apg).
Dennis Schroder continues to be critically underplayed, with the Hawks a perfect 10-0 when he plays at least 20 minutes. Atlanta also went 4-0 with him as a starter when Jeff Teague was sidelined with a hamstring injury. With Teague back, Schroder has played 19 and six minutes, respectively, in his last two games.
The downside of the Rajon Rondo trade? The likes of Charlie Villanueva, Greg Smith and Richard Jefferson playing critical roles — and often big minutes — off the bench. Rick Carlisle has done an expert job of monitoring Dirk Nowitzki’s playing time this season, but that was done so with the luxury of Brandan Wright.
The streakiest and most unpredictable team in the league continues to confound. Two weeks ago the Suns had lost six straight games and appeared destined to fall short of last year’s surprise campaign. How did they respond? By winning six in a row, five of which came on the road. Don’t ask me where the Suns will rank next week -- I don't know.
The Clippers have lost six of their last 10 games, giving up 107.8 points per 100 possessions (No. 27 in the NBA) over that span. L.A. has taken a strange step back defensively this year after boasting a top-10 unit last season.
Watching Russell Westbrook have free reign is exhilarating basketball, but it’s not always efficient. Oklahoma City is just 3-7 when Westbrook shoots under 50 percent this year, proving the Thunder need Westbrook to be more than just prolific.
LeBron smiled his way through the Cavaliers’ Christmas Day loss, but the homecoming defeat had to be humbling. With Kyrie Irving now hobbled, things aren’t coming easy for Cleveland, which has gone .500 over its last 10 games.
Jason Kidd has not only done an admirable job of developing Milwaukee’s youngsters, but also in keeping its veterans sharp and interested, too. Both Zaza Pachulia (11-year veteran) and Jared Dudley (seven) have been solid in reserve roles. Dudley went a perfect 10-of-10 from the field against the Hawks last week.
DeMarcus Cousins can beat you in so many ways — ask the Knicks, who had a season-high 39 hung on them Saturday -- but maybe the most improbable way is at the stripe. Unlike other dominant centers who we won’t name, Cousins makes you pay when he’s fouled. He’s shooting a career-high 80.5 percent and attempting 8.9 freebies per game, fourth-most in the league.
The return of Arron Afflalo hasn’t panned out as planned. The Nuggets have lost 10 of their last 14 and their starting shooting guard has seen his numbers dip significantly (18.2 ppg to 14.6, 42.7 3P% to 24.1) from his breakout campaign in Orlando last season.
Billy King deserves Executive of the Year if he finds a taker for Deron Williams. Anyone interested in a 30-year-old point guard who is due $60-plus million over the next three years, has had surgery on both ankles, is shooting a career-worst 39.9 percent and appears to have lost all confidence in his game? Bueller?
I don’t recommend watching many Pacers games, but I do recommend marveling at Frank Vogel’s coaching ability. Indy ranks No. 8 in defensive efficiency this year despite losing two of the best perimeter defenders in the league and enduring a host of other injuries.
Quin Snyder has quietly done wonders for Utah’s offense this year. The Jazz ranked No. 25 in offensive efficiency last year, but are up to No. 16 this season with essentially the same roster. This also comes despite starting point guard Trey Burke ranking dead-last among starting guards in field-goal percentage (36.1).
Lance Stephenson doesn’t have to go home (Brooklyn or Indiana) — but he can’t stay here. The Hornets have gone 4-2 since Stephenson was sidelined indefinitely with a hip injury. Even more convincing: Charlotte is scoring 99.7 points per 100 possessions with Stephenson on the floor this year and 105.3 with him off it.
Los Angeles lucked into a promising 23-year-old in Tarik Black, who the Rockets reluctantly waived to clear room for Josh Smith. Black started 12 games for Houston when Dwight Howard went down and proved to be a strong presence on the glass for the Rockets, averaging 11.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. He should get plenty of burn in L.A. with the Lakers’ thin frontline.
The Pistons are 2-0 since releasing Josh Smith, including Sunday’s 23-point road romp of the Cavaliers. If there were ever proof you’re willing to do whatever it takes to win, it's letting your starting power forward walk even though he’s due $26 million over the next two seasons.
Robert Covington is turning out to be a revelation for the 76ers, who are benefiting from giving the big man big minutes. Covington, who was second in the D-League in scoring last year (23.2 ppg) is averaging 15.7 points and 5.5 rebounds this month and displaying a deft touch from deep (43.5 percent in December).
The emergence of Shabazz Muhammad made Corey Brewer expendable, but it also netted the Wolves a potential rotation player in Troy Daniels. The 23-year-old struggled to find floor time (6.4 mpg) and make shots (30.2 3P%) in Houston, but he proved to be a valuable spark as a rookie in the Rockets’s first-round playoff loss last season.
“Jahlil Okafor” and “Patrick Ewing” both have 12 letters in their names. That’s the nicest thing I have to say.