NBA Power Rankings: Cavs continue to climb as NBA takes over spotlight
Football season is finally over, which means the NBA can rightfully reclaim the national spotlight once again. In case you’ve been inundated with talks of deflated footballs and Super Bowl controversies the last few weeks, I’ve broken down the 2014-15 NBA season in the most digestible manner possible for the modern sports fan. In exactly 140 characters:
Hawks are historically good. Dubs close behind. Cavs were bad, now gr8. Don’t watch Knicks. Thunder quiet. Kobe gone. Spurs will win it all.
And there you have it. But just in case 140 characters weren't enough to scratch your NBA itch, scroll down for this week's full Power Rankings. The Hawks and Warriors stay on top, but two hard-charging teams are close behind. The Raptors rise from their midseason slumber and the Thunder remain more mind-boggling than Pete Carroll's play-calling. Enough football references. On to the rankings:
(All stats and records through Feb. 1.)
Atlanta’s success this season has become almost numbing. The Hawks have won 19 straight games and 33 of their last 35. They went undefeated in January, had three players named to the All-Star team and are even selling out Philips Arena on a nightly basis. What a world.
Golden State had two of its worst shooting nights of the season last week, dropping to 2-4 when shooting 43 percent or lower from the field. Rarely are the shots not falling for the Warriors, but the jumper-reliant team is susceptible to off nights like anyone else. Just not as often.
The Grizzlies might be the league's most feared playoff opponent due to their draining defense. They are allowing an absurd 87.7 points per 100 possessions during their six-game winning streak, and are coming off routs of the Mavericks, Nuggets and Thunder.
The sleeping giant has finally awoken. Cleveland has led the league in offensive rating (115.1) over its 10-game winning streak and is second only to Atlanta in net rating. The Cavs are 27-12 when LeBron James plays, which gives them a winning percentage (.692) that would rank fourth-best in the league on the year.
The Rockets are well equipped to deal with Dwight Howard’s absence, as evidenced by their 3-1 start since he went down. Going a month without your star center isn’t easy, but it’s manageable with capable big men like Donatas Motiejunas, Josh Smith and Terrence Jones waiting in the wings. Houston’s defense has been surprisingly stingy this season -- No. 3 in defensive rating -- and its performance hasn’t dipped much without Howard.
In a rare case of adding injury to insult: Gregg Popovich was struck in the head by a last-second heave during the Spurs’ blowout loss to the Clippers. In true Pop fashion, he showed as little reaction as possible after getting hit by a basketball from 50 feet away.
The Clippers have started a brutal eight-game road trip off strong, winning two of three including a 20-point rout of the Spurs. With its roster fully healthy, L.A. is short on excuses these days. The team’s defense is rounding into form with Spencer Hawes providing a much-needed interior presence off the bench.
The Raptors have risen from their midseason hibernation to win six straight and vault up the rankings. Toronto’s offense had been mysteriously absent for most of January, but the team is once again leading the NBA in offense efficiency (116.5) over its last five games.
Portland’s first three-game losing streak of the season came at the hands of Eastern Conference foes, who had their way with the banged-up Blazers. LaMarcus Aldridge is fighting admirably, but Damian Lillard’s shooting has been snubbing Portland. Lillard has shot under 40 percent from the field in each of his last eight games. He hit just 24.1 percent of shots last week.
After losing four of six, Marcin Gortat decided it was time for a change. The struggling Wizards center elected to shave his mohawk in hopes of getting back to his old dominant form. Gortat had his two worst games of the season last week, scoring four and two points, respectively, against the Blazers and Raptors.
For just the second time in 14 years, Dirk Nowitzki will not take part in the All-Star Game. The Mavs star is averaging less than 30 minutes for the first time since his rookie season, but is just as efficient as ever. His shooting percentages and numbers per 36 minutes are right in line with his career averages. Dallas will gladly take proficient over prolific.
Brandan Wright is averaging just shy of 18 minutes in his first nine games with Phoenix. Expect that number to climb. Wright is having a positive influence on both ends of the floor for the young Suns and is second only to Markieff Morris in net rating (+6.2).
Debating the Bulls’ most valuable player is a lengthy exercise, but one name that won't come up is Mike Dunleavy, who has been out since Jan. 2 with a sprained ankle. Still, Dunleavy's importance to Chicago can't be understated. The Bulls are 23-10 when Dunleavy plays this season. They're only 7-9 when he doesn't.
It has been a while since Eric Gordon was mentioned for reasons other than being injured or underachieving, but the guard has topped 20 points in three of his last seven games, and put up a season-high 28 in Anthony Davis’ absence in an upset of the Clippers.
If this were any other season, Jason Kidd would be the runaway frontrunner for Coach of the Year. Instead, his remarkable work in Milwaukee is overshadowed while Mike Budenholzer and Steve Kerr take their outfits to new heights.
Oklahoma City’s offense continues to deteriorate. The Thunder rank No. 22 in offensive efficiency this year after ranking No. 7 last season. OKC has lost four of five and failed to top the century mark in each of those contests.
The stage is set for Lance Stephenson to take over Charlotte’s offense in Kemba Walker’s absence, but Stephenson’s offensive troubles are as dire as ever. The Hornets guard has scored in double-digits in just one of his last six games. He has gone 5-of-25 from the field over his last three.
Stan Van Gundy continues to get the most out of his point guards. D.J. Augustin, who has stepped in for Brandon Jennings, totaled 28 points and 12 assists in a win over the Rockets. Detroit also has another capable ball handler on the bench if need be.
Hassan Whiteside’s confidence continues to grow, as he put up a career-high 17 field-goal attempts -- and scored 20 points -- in a win over the Celtics on Sunday. With Dwyane Wade out indefinitely, Miami will ride Hassan’s hot hand as long as it lasts.
The Kings’ recent plight almost sabotaged DeMarcus Cousins’ All-Star hopes, but the 24-year-old snuck in as an injury replacement. Cousins has been the most dominant true center in the NBA this year, averaging 23.6 points and 12.6 rebounds, and deserved to be in the midseason showcase regardless of his team’s lackluster showing (6-16) under Tyrone Corbin.
The Jazz will take the bad with the good when starting a teenager at point guard. After posting back-to-back double-digit performances in wins two weeks ago, Dante Exum didn’t fare so well last week. The rookie missed 10 of his 12 three-point attempts and scored a combined six points in three games.
If the Nuggets were looking for rock bottom, they hit it against the Grizzlies. Denver managed just 69 points, losing by 30 and going an unsightly 2-of-26 from three-point range. The talent is there, but the effort is not. The Nuggets have lost nine of 10 after climbing two games within .500 in mid-January.
Here’s hoping Kevin Garnett gets traded before the Feb. 19 deadline. The future Hall of Famer deserves a final chapter better than the debacle in Brooklyn. The Nets have lost four straight and 12 of 14. Even if they were to climb their way into the playoff picture, there isn’t much hope.
Rodney Stuckey’s reclamation attempt in Indy has looked more like a re-run of his final days in Detroit. His biggest weakness is inconsistency. Some nights -- like his 22-point effort in a win over the Knicks last week -- he looks like a starting guard capable of beating his man on both ends. On others -- like his two-point effort in a loss to the Kings last week -- you wonder why Donald Sloan isn't playing.
No one plays the underdog role better than Brad Stevens. The depleted C’s managed to go 3-3 on their recent Western road swing, downing the Blazers, Nuggets and Jazz.
The tricky predicament of Kobe Bryant’s season-ending injury? Los Angeles is significantly worse this season when Kobe is off the floor (by 11.3 points per 100 possessions). If L.A. wins too many games -- like its double-overtime win over Chicago last week -- it’ll play itself out of its top-five pick in the 2015 draft.
Orlando has failed to take a step forward in its rebuilding process this season, and it appears Jacque Vaughn will be the one to pay the price. Vaughn has just a .271 winning percentage (58-156) as head coach of the Magic, but starting his coaching career in the wake of the Dwight Howard Era was unenviable.
Defense has made the Sixers a surprisingly tough out this year. Philly ranks No. 13 in defensive efficiency (up from No. 27 last season) and allowed a season-low 69 points in a win over the Pistons last week.
The five-man lineup of Carmelo Anthony, Lou Amundson, Jason Smith, Jose Calderon and Langston Galloway has logged the most minutes of any Knicks' group this season. It has also produced a 5-2 record as New York’s starting five.
Andrew Wiggins capped an incredible January with a career-high 33 points against the Cavaliers. The Rookie of the Year frontrunner has seen his scoring average steadily climb the last three months (12.3 to 14.6 to 19.8), giving Minnesota fans something to be excited about despite their spot in the Western Conference cellar.