The second-most difficult question to answer in the NBA right now -- outside of "What is VivekRanadivé thinking?” -- is "Which team is best in the East?"
We’re nine weeks into the season and we've seen five teams lay claim to the throne at some point. The Cavaliers sat atop the conference before the season, the Bulls held the distinction last week,the Raptors owned the top spot for most of the weeks in between and the Wizards haven't trailed far behind.
This week, a new challenger emerges: the Hawks. Not only has Atlanta won 18 of its last 20 games, but also it has taken down several Western Conference foes along the way. Atlanta's offense has ranked near the top of the league all season and is No. 1 in assist percentage, but it's the team's defense that has been most dominant of late, ranking No. 1 in efficiency (96.4 points per 100 possessions) since Nov. 28.
While the Hawks have been nearly unbeatable the last few weeks, they still fall short of No. 1 overall. Let's get to this week's NBA Power Rankings.
(All stats and records through Jan. 4).
1. Golden State Warriors
RECORD: 26-5 (2-0)
Marreese Speights can’t come anywhere close to replacing Andrew Bogut defensively, but he’s a superior offensive option. Speights is actually averaging a team-high 25.4 points per 36 minutes and scored 49 points in 49 minutes over his last two games while shooting 65.6 percent.
2. Atlanta Hawks
RECORD: 25-8 (3-0)
All hail the Hawks! Atlanta benefited from an easy schedule to start the season, but it has taken down the likes of the Blazers, Clippers, Mavericks, Rockets and Bulls in recent weeks. And if the Hawks' play of late has really impressed you -- and you have an extra couple hundred million lying around -- you can actually buy "100 percent" of the team. Kickstarter, anyone?
3. Chicago Bulls
RECORD: 24-10 (3-1)
The Bulls are winning in spite of Derrick Rose right now, not because of him. Rose went 20-of-78 from the floor (25.6 percent) last week, but Chicago still managed to win three games. His 2-of-15 effort in a loss to Brooklyn was simply too much to overcome. The Bulls don’t need Rose to be an MVP-caliber player to win the title, but they do need him to be a threat and keep opponents honest, as he admitted himself last week.
4. Portland Trail Blazers
RECORD: 26-8 (1-1)
Ever so slightly, Nicolas Batum appears to be crawling out of his shooting slump. Recent signs have been encouraging, including a season-high 17 points last week. But Batum scored at least 17 points in more than a fourth of his games last season, a reminder that he still has a ways to go before fully regaining his form.
5. Dallas Mavericks
RECORD: 25-10 (3-0)
It’s no surprise that Rajon Rondo is creating offense in Dallas, but it is surprising the way he’s doing it. Rondo scored 29 points in his return to Boston on Friday and is averaging career highs in points (15.4) and field-goal attempts (14.7) as a Maverick. The directive from Rick Carlisle is clear: if you’re open, shoot it.
6. Memphis Grizzlies
RECORD: 24-9 (2-1)
Memphis’ usual starting lineup of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Courtney Lee, Tony Allen and Mike Conley boasts a 6.1 net rating on the season, according to nba.com. The current starting five with Jon Leuer replacing Z-Bo? -0.7.
7. Toronto Raptors
RECORD: 24-10 (0-3)
Toronto's defense has ranged between terrible and non-existent over the last two weeks. The Raptors have lost four of their last six games, surrendering a league-worst 114 points per 100 possessions over that stretch.
8. San Antonio Spurs
RECORD: 21-14 (2-1)
Kawhi Leonard is still “weeks” away from his return, according to Gregg Popovich. Maybe the Spurs coach is resting him until the Finals. San Antonio downed the Wizards and Pelicans last week without Leonard or Tony Parker.
9. Los Angeles Clippers
RECORD: 23-11 (3-0)
A shiny 3-0 mark last week is less impressive when you consider it came against the Jazz, Knicks and 76ers. Then again, winning cures all, which probably includes locker-room feuds.
10. Oklahoma City Thunder
RECORD: 17-17 (2-0)
The NBA’s MVP this season? It could be the same one as last year. Kevin Durant is averaging 25.5 ppg while shooting 54.9 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from deep. The Thunder are 9-2 when he plays and averaging 114.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor and just 103.6 when he’s not.
11. Houston Rockets
RECORD: 23-10 (2-2)
After just five games, the Rockets have already removed Josh Smith from the starting lineup -- and maybe that’s a good thing. Smith played poorly and looked like an awkward fit as a starter, but he’s averaged 16.5 points and shot 50 percent in two games as a reserve. Both also yielded wins, compared to Houston’s 1-4 stint with the ex-Piston as a starter.
12. Washington Wizards
RECORD: 22-11 (1-3)
Washington took its lumps on a Western road swing, going 1-4 and getting roughed up by the powers that be in the other conference. The Wizards are still one of the best teams in the East, but that doesn't mean much when going against the West.
13. Phoenix Suns
RECORD: 20-16 (2-2)
The Suns have won eight of their last 10 and lead the NBA in offensive efficiency (115.1) over that stretch. Phoenix crushed Toronto in its latest victory, eventually letting off the gas in the second half to show mercy. Said Jeff Hornacek after the game: "We could have won by 40 if we left our starters in."
14. New Orleans Pelicans
RECORD: 17-16 (2-1)
The Pelicans are weathering an absolutely brutal stretch of schedule fairly well, beating the Suns and Rockets last week and falling just short in OT against the Spurs. Things lighten up soon with seven of their next eight games against the East.
15. Milwaukee Bucks
RECORD: 18-17 (3-1)
Even former Atlanta Hawks are playing ridiculously well right now. Zaza Pachulia has started the last six games for the Bucks, averaging 12.8 points and 10.5 rebounds. Even with Jabari Parker and Larry Sanders sidelined, Jason Kidd is finding ways to win.
16. Cleveland Cavaliers
RECORD: 19-15 (1-3)
Life without LeBron is just as hard as you would think, but injuries are decimating the Cavaliers all around. With Anderson Varejao out for the season and Kevin Love, Shawn Marion and Kyrie Irving all missing time, Cleveland’s been stretched impossibly thin of late. Get well soon, LBJ.
17. Brooklyn Nets
RECORD: 16-17 (3-1)
It was about this time last month that the Nets were out of the playoff picture and rumored to be attempting to unload all of their "stars." But in fitting Brooklyn fashion, the team is finally showing some resiliency, winning six of its last eight, including a gutsy road victory in Chicago.
18. Denver Nuggets
RECORD: 14-20 (1-2)
Bravo to the Nuggets for experimenting with their game day schedule in order to promote better sleep habits. It’s been proven by Harvard researchers that athletes suffering from “sleep debt” don’t perform at the same level. Dr. Charles Czeisler, known as the “Sleep Doctor,” told me last spring that “only a “fraction” of NBA players get the recommended amount of sleep.
19. Sacramento Kings
RECORD: 14-20 (1-3)
Just how mind-bogglingly bad of a decision was it to fire Mike Malone? Sacramento has gone 3-6 in his wake, seen DeMarcus Cousins get thrown out of his first game of the year and do this in the fourth quarter of a game.
20. Indiana Pacers
RECORD: 13-22 (2-2)
The Pacers will remain in the East playoff hunt so long as David West remains in the starting lineup. Indy’s 34-year-old leader simply has too much heart (and, more importantly, game) to let this team bottom out.
21. Miami Heat
RECORD: 15-20 (1-3)
It must have been hard for Chris Bosh to endure the Heat's 36-point blowout loss to the Rockets last week. The big man flirted with joining Houston this summer, only to return to Miami at the last minute. The Rockets are fringe contenders, while the Heat are struggling to keep their heads above water amid a trying season.
22. Detroit Pistons
RECORD: 10-23 (3-0)
Detroit hasn’t just gone 5-0 since trading Josh Smith, but also it has been rejuvenated on both ends of the floor. Over the last four games, both the Pistons’ offense (113.7 rating) and defense (91.7) are putting up numbers that would lead the league on the season.
23. Utah Jazz
RECORD: 12-22 (2-2)
Trey Burke had two of his best games of the season last week, dropping 26 and 28 points respectively. Unfortunately for the Jazz’s starting point guard, wedged in between those two games was a horrific 2-of-19 effort, including an 0-of-11 showing from three-point range.
24. Orlando Magic
RECORD: 13-24 (1-3)
After a scintillating start to the season, Evan Fournier is currently mired in an ugly spell. Since being demoted from the starting lineup eight games ago, Fournier is shooting just 34.9 percent.
25. Los Angeles Lakers
RECORD: 11-23 (2-1)
Kobe connected on a game-winning floater against the Pacers on Sunday, but he's just 3-of-24 in "clutch" situations this season. Something tells me that isn't going to deter him.
26. Charlotte Hornets
RECORD: 11-24 (1-3)
It’s never a good sign when three of your four leading scorers are shooting under 40 percent. It’s probably worse when three of your regular reserves are doing it, too.
27. Boston Celtics
RECORD: 11-20 (1-2)
Brad Stevens hasn’t been in a rush to play Brandan Wright, with the ex-Maverick averaging just 10.6 minutes per game in six contests with the Celtics. Wright’s highly effective when utilized correctly (shooting 72.4 percent and blocking 1.4 shots per game in Dallas earlier this year), but it could take some time for Boston to figure out where he fits in. As an unrestricted free agent, the C’s get a four-month audition to figure out if Wright fits into their long-term plans.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves
RECORD: 5-27 (0-3)
The lackluster Rookie of the Year race will completely cease to exist if Andrew Wiggins keeps up his recent tear. The No. 1 pick has topped 20 points in five of his last six games.
29. Philadelphia 76ers
RECORD: 4-28 (0-3)
The Sixers lost by an average of 30.6 points per game last week, which isn’t very good.
30. New York Knicks
RECORD: 5-31 (0-3)
Let’s see, Carmelo Anthony is on the brink of being shut down for the season, the Knicks lost their franchise-record 10th straight home game and the Madison Square Garden faithful chanted “Fire Fisher” during the team’s most recent loss. Just your typical Knicks week.