The NBA's most complete contender rises to No. 1 in the Power Rankings this week.

By Matt Dollinger
December 29, 2014

Carmelo Anthony’s decision to spurn the Bulls might be the best thing that could have happened to them.

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).

1Chicago Bulls
last week: 14
record: 21-9 (4-0)

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, right? The Bulls might have been too low in our rankings last week, but outdueling two East rivals (Raptors and Wizards) in a matter of days was enough to catch our attention. 

2Golden State Warriors
last week: 1
record: 24-5 (2-2)

The loss of Andrew Bogut is proving predictably painful, with Golden State suffering three losses in nine games without him after going 18-2 with him. Festus Ezeli won’t be confused for a starting NBA center anytime soon and Marreese Speights fits in much better with the second unit.

3Portland Trail Blazers
last week: 3
record: 25-7 (3-1)

Wes Matthews hit more three-pointers last week (21) than eight teams. Having a third option as prolific as Matthews (16.8 ppg) is a luxury when your leading scorer, LaMarcus Aldridge, is missing action.

4Toronto Raptors
last week: 4
record: 24-7 (2-1)

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).

5Memphis Grizzlies
last week: 2
record: 22-8 (1-2)

The Grizzlies have lost four of five since Zach Randolph went down. Z-Bo’s net rating of 10.6 is a team high and the drop-off to Jon Leuer is exactly as steep as you would think.

6Washington Wizards
last week: 6
record: 21-8 (2-1)

Golden touch? Ernie Grunfeld’s is closer to silver after making stealthy veteran additions this summer in Paul Pierce (37), Rasual Butler (35) and Kris Humphries (29). After having so much success bringing in Andre Miller (38) last year, you can’t blame Grunfeld for going back to the same well.

7Atlanta Hawks
last week: 7
record: 22-8 (2-1)

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.

8Dallas Mavericks
last week: 5
record: 22-10 (2-2)

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.

9San Antonio Spurs
last week: 10
record: 19-13 (2-2)

With Tony Parker sidelined “a while,” according to Gregg Popovich, the Spurs turn the keys over to Cory Joseph, who has filled in admirably in 11 spot starts this season, averaging 12.6 points (53.3 FG% and 50.0 3P%) and dishing out 44 assists to just nine turnovers.

10Houston Rockets
last week: 8
record: 21-8 (2-1)

The arrival of Josh Smith is exciting, but it’ll take time to figure out how to utilize him correctly. Smith has experience playing alongside talented teammates (he played alongside Joe Johnson and Al Horford in Atlanta), but he has to unlearn some bad habits he developed in Detroit.

11Phoenix Suns
last week: 15
record: 18-14 (3-0)

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.

12Los Angeles Clippers
last week: 9
record: 20-11 (1-3)

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.

13Oklahoma City Thunder
last week: 12
record: 15-17 (2-2)

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.

14Cleveland Cavaliers
last week: 13
record: 18-12 (2-2)

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.

15New Orleans Pelicans
last week: 11
record: 15-15 (1-2)

A team with Anthony Davis and Omer Asik shouldn’t rank near the bottom of the league in defense nor should it be giving up the third-most points in the paint (46.7) to opponents.

16Milwaukee Bucks
last week: 16
record: 15-16 (1-2)

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.

17Sacramento Kings
last week: 18
record: 13-17 (1-2)

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.

18Denver Nuggets
last week: 17
record: 13-18 (1-3)

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.

19Miami Heat
last week: 19
record: 14-17 (1-2)

Dwyane Wade looked awfully spry in the Heat’s Christmas Day win over LeBron James and the Cavaliers, setting season highs in minutes and field-goal attempts. It’s amazing what a little adrenaline can do for one's knees.

20Brooklyn Nets
last week: 21
record: 13-16 (2-1)

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?

21Orlando Magic
last week: 24
record: 12-21 (2-1)

There’s concentration and then there’s dunking on LeBron James despite being slapped in the arm and briefly losing control of the ball. Victor Oladipo is still figuring things out, but the flashes of stardom are there.

22Indiana Pacers
last week: 25
record: 11-20 (2-1)

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.

23Utah Jazz
last week: 26
record: 10-20 (2-0)

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).

24Charlotte Hornets
last week: 22
record: 10-21 (2-2)

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.

25Los Angeles Lakers
last week: 23
record: 9-22 (1-3)

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.

26Detroit Pistons
last week: 27
record: 7-23 (2-0)

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.

27Boston Celtics
last week: 20
record: 10-18 (0-3)

Marcus Smart has twice as many turnovers (14) as he does field goals (seven) over his last five games, but the 20-year-old has caught the eye of at least one future Hall of Famer and notorious rookie bully. When Kevin Garnett says he admires how hard you play, you’re doing something right. 

28Philadelphia 76ers
last week: 29
record: 4-25 (1-2)

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).

29Minnesota Timberwolves
last week: 28
record: 5-24 (0-3)

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.

30New York Knicks
last week: 30
record: 5-28 (0-3)

“Jahlil Okafor” and “Patrick Ewing” both have 12 letters in their names. That’s the nicest thing I have to say.

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