"Mind the gap" is something savvy subway travelers always take to heart. It's also sound advice when studying the NBA's current hierarchy.
Three teams stand above the rest when examining the league's best right now. The Warriors have three fewer losses than everyone in the league. The hard-charging Hawks hold a 3.5 game lead on the rest of the Eastern Conference. And the Blazers notched their NBA-best 30th win of the season on Sunday.
On the other side of the spectrum are the Knicks, Manhattan's lovable loser. New York has managed to lose 35 of its last 40 games, giving the team a four-game "lead" on the 76ers in the East cellar. Judging by the way the Knicks have played of late, it's going to take divine intervention for that team to release its stranglehold on No. 30 in these rankings.
Dethroning the Warriors, Hawks and Blazers won't require a deity's involvement, but it will require quite the run, as the trio has distanced itself from the rest of the pack. With the NBA's middle class growing each week, let's take a look at where all 30 teams stand in this week's NBA Power Rankings.
(All stats and records through Jan. 11)
The rest of the West is playing catch up with the Warriors, pulling the trigger on trades in search of the missing piece. Golden State could look to make a deal with David Lee (now in a bench role) still on the books and Draymond Green due for a big payday this summer, but it also could hold pat and have reason to be believe it can win a title as is.
Pau Gasol’s 46-point explosion was a reminder that the 34-year-old still has plenty left in the Gatorade bottle. Gasol’s numbers (18.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 22.3 PER) are nearly identical to the stats he put up in 2009-10 (18.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 22.9 PER) when he won his last title with the Lakers.
As Ben Golliver wrote Sunday, this was the right time for the Grizzlies to go all-in on a Finals bid and trade for Jeff Green. The former Celtic not only gives Memphis some much-needed punch at small forward (17.7 points per game in Boston), but gives them a stretch-four option if they want to go small. For all of the Grizz’s many abilities, small-ball wasn’t one of them until now.
Josh Smith’s arrival drew more headlines, but the midseason addition of Corey Brewer has been the bigger boon for the Rockets. Brewer is a defensive menace on the wing and has provided some unlikely scoring (averaging 12 points in 22.9 minutes off the bench) as an added bonus. Smith is in the limelight, but Houston isn’t reliant on the ex-Piston to win.
Outside of 38-year-old Tim Duncan miraculously averaging 15 and 10, Danny Green has been the most consistent contributor for San Antonio this season. Playing in all but one game, Green is averaging a career-high 12.5 points and remains one of the league’s best three-point shooters (2.4 per game on 40.7 percent from beyond the arc).
Awkward: Dallas’ offense has been noticeably better with Rajon Rondo off the floor (115.6 offensive rating) than on it (105.7). Rondo’s ball-dominant days are a thing of the past with the Mavs and the point guard is being asked to shoot more than ever (12.7 FGA per game) despite his suspect shot (39.3 percent).
No need for brazen hashtag campaigns to send Kyle Lowry to the All-Star Game — he’s a lock. Lowry has solidified his reputation as one of the best point guards in the league and is averaging career highs in points (20.7), assists (7.6), rebounds (4.8), field-goal percentage (44.3) and steals (tied, 1.6).
For a team that doesn’t shoot a lot of three-pointers (No. 28 in attempts at 15.6), the Wizards sure shoot at a high rate (NBA-best 39.3 percent). This goes against everything in the Byron Scott Book of Basketball, but Washington might want to consider lofting more triples to boost its offense, which has been susceptible to disappearing (like Sunday’s 31-point blowout loss to the Hawks).
This team is tougher to predict than Steve Ballmer’s dance moves. After pounding the Mavs by 20, the Clips were blown out at home by the Heat, who had lost five-of-six. L.A.’s starters are sound, but the team’s second unit -- particularly Jamal Crawford (32.6 percent from the field this month) and Spencer Hawes (30.3 percent) -- is struggling of late.
The Pelicans appear ready to cut their losses with Austin Rivers, a 2012 lottery pick who has failed to show much in his 2.5 seasons with New Orleans. The burden now falls on starting shooting guard Eric Gordon, who has also failed to meet expectations during his time in New Orleans, to carry the load.
Denver didn’t just land two first-round picks for Timofey Mozgov, it also cleared the stage for 20-year-old Jusuf Nurkic, who has shown plenty of promise when given minutes. Nurkic had scored in double-digits in four straight games before the Nuggets sent Mozgov packing, a sign the rookie was ready for more playing time -- and a starting role. Nurkic is averaging 11.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in 22 minutes per game this month.
Boogie is back, treating the rest of the league like a rag doll, but the rest of the Kings aren’t nearly as intimidating. Ben McLemore is averaging just 10 points and shooting 19 percent (4-of-21) from deep this month. And Jason Thompson has gone 13 games without scoring in double-digits and reached double-digit rebounds just once over that span.
The Cavaliers are 1-8 without LeBron James this season, a sign that their newfangled Big Three is more like a Big One. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving should be talented enough to carry the Cavs, but the supporting cast has been so wretched the team is fighting just to stay in games. Cleveland is now 6.5 games behind Chicago in the race for home court advantage in the first round. And this isn't helping anyone.
Well, well, well, if it isn’t the Hornets squad we’ve been waiting to show up all season. Charlotte has won a season-high five straight, including a road win against the Raptors last week. Kemba Walker looks like he’s back in the Big East, averaging 30.2 points (49.5 percent shooting), 6 rebounds and 4.8 assists during the Hornets’ current streak.
Hassan Whiteside takes the title for most unlikely 20-point scorer this season. Whiteside posted 23 points (10-of-13 shooting) and 16 rebounds off the bench in a road win against the Clippers. The 7-foot center, who had been out of the league since 2011-12, has now scored in double-digits in four straight games and is injecting life into a team that badly needs it. He’s doing it on defense too -- averaging 3 blocks over his last six games in just 21.5 minutes per game.
Nerlens Noel has struggled offensively this season, but he’s finding other ways to help Philly. Noel is averaging 1.5 blocks and 1.4 steals, putting him in the running to become the first rookie since David Robinson to average 1.5 of each.
It’s been two weeks since the Magic have hit the century mark, which explains why it’s also been two weeks since a victory. Orlando is 9-1 when scoring at least 100 points this season and 4-26 when it doesn’t.
Brad Stevens knew what he was getting into when he signed a six-year deal with the Celtics, but having your GM trade every useful player on the roster can’t be fun when you’re sitting just 2.5 games out of a playoff spot.
It’s been more than a month since the Wolves last won a game (Dec. 10), the longest drought in the league.