NBA Power Rankings: Celtics, Hornets crash the top of Eastern standings
Alright, the Warriors lost. Let’s get on with the season.
It probably won’t be quite that easy to focus your attention elsewhere as Golden State’s historic season rolls on, but perhaps we can give a little more love to what’s going on around the league.
With the omnipresent streak over, take the time to check out stifling San Antonio, healthy Cleveland, or surging Oklahoma City and Toronto. The Celtics and Hornets have crashed the East’s upper tier as the Pacers, Heat and Bulls tread water, creating a murky, intriguing landscape. Meanwhile, the rest of the West is a gigantic mess. When someone tries to make a point about abolishing conference-based seeding, remember these things go in cycles.
But anyway, in case you’re tired of hearing about the soon-to-be 81–1 Warriors, we ranked the other 29 teams again this week, just for fun.
All good things come to an end, but the Warriors are in no danger of losing this spot. Five straight games at home without a back-to-back offers a welcome respite from the grind. And at this point, it’s safe to bank on the champs responding.
If not for the Warriors, we’d be talking even more about just how much these guys have been cruising. Over the past 15 games, the Spurs are 12–3, lead the league in net rating, and 15 of their 20 wins have come by double digits. Their stability is downright staggering after an off-season that brought more change than usual.
Cleveland snapped a three-game skid nicely, landing its largest win of the season with a 35-point road win in Orlando. Despite some inconsistency, they’re where they needed to be at this stage, with Iman Shumpert back and Kyrie Irving getting close. Nationally-televised dates with Boston and Oklahoma City should be great opportunities to build confidence.
With five straight wins and the league’s second-best offensive rating, the Thunder might be rounding into form. They’ve been beatable, but their current groove and a mostly welcoming rest of December gives OKC a chance to finally join the league’s best teams.
This resumé looks strong, as the Raptors are one of just two teams in the league to beat the Spurs, Cavs and Thunder (plus, nearly the Warriors twice). They’ve won seven of 10 playing at the league’s second-slowest pace in that span, while deploying Bismack Biyombo in lieu of Jonas Valanciunas. It’s hot up in the 6.
Indiana’s defense has slipped of late, allowing 118 points four of its last five games, all losses. Paul George’s hot shooting has largely slowed in that same span. It’s a long haul, and the Pacers’ start still feels tenable, but let’s remember George hasn’t strung together this many games since before his leg injury.
After a frustrating week, it was fun to see Dwyane Wade come up big down the stretch against Memphis to snap a three-game losing streak. But for all the talent on this roster, the Heat are averaging just 95.6 points and has cracked the century mark just twice in their past 10 games. Getting more out of Goran Dragic (11 points, 44.6% FG) would help.
Two strong weeks have the Celtics in great shape in the standings and boasting a top-five defensive rating. Boston responded well to a challenging section of its schedule, nearly became the first team to topple Golden State and can prove itself further with Cleveland, Detroit and Atlanta next up.
I hedged the wrong way on Charlotte last week with the news of Al Jefferson’s injury and five-game suspension. They’re overachieving, sure, but it sure has been impressive: they’ve somehow formed a lineup that rates in the top 10 in defensive efficiency (minimum 10 games) that features Jeremy Lin, Frank Kaminsky and Spencer Hawes.
The Bulls can be downright ugly to watch at times, and, despite a sunny-looking record, are narrowly outscoring opponents per 100 possessions and are bottom-five in offensive efficiency. They essentially have the same roster as last season but are still tough to peg. Not even Derrick Rose’s new haircut can bring back old times.
The Clippers have essentially righted the ship, but are 4–7 against teams over .500 and are still without a statement win. They’ve begun to share the ball a bit better, but a lot of their guys need it in their hands and Blake Griffin remains their second-best point guard.
A blowout loss to the Spurs at home raises some concerns, and though it feels like we know who the Hawks are, they aren’t winning 60 games again. As the conference improved around them, they’ve slipped into a competitive pack, and with Miami, Boston and Orlando on the docket, Atlanta can point things back in the right direction.
If he maintains his current marks, Andre Drummond will become the first player to average more than 17 points and 16 rebounds over the course of a season since Moses Malone in 1979. What’s more? Only 12 players have ever done that, and all are in the Hall of Fame. One caveat: Drummond’s shooting 36.6% from the free-throw line.
The Grizzlies have given up 120 points twice in the past seven days. The Grizzlies had not allowed 120 points in a game, regular season or playoffs, since Dec. 22, 2012. No, their defensive issues aren’t news, but even as they hover above .500, it’s tough not to be concerned.
Orlando’s offense has sputtered a bit in December, and an ugly blowout at the hands of Cleveland has this team at an interesting juncture. Evan Fournier, the team’s biggest three-point weapon, has seriously cooled off. With just two road games the rest the rest of the month and six of nine against .500 or below opponents, some successful adjustments could pay quick dividends.
In their last 10 games, the Rockets are 7–3 with 100-plus points nine times, but they've also given up triple-digits in seven of those games. This is the new reality for the Rockets, who are allowing six more points on average than last season but getting it done in December.
The unenviable task of facing the Thunder in consecutive games fell to the Jazz, who narrowly lost both times. They’ve lost by double-digits just twice this season and always seem to be a tough out, but sit in a bit of limbo right now without injured Rudy Gobert to anchor the defensive paint.
Eric Bledsoe has a great case for his first All-Star Game, sitting fifth in scoring, third in steals and Top-10 in rebounds and assists among Western Conference guards. He’s led the Suns to wins in three of the past four games, helping to somewhat correct two rough weeks.
This is probably not a playoff team, but that’s a lot better than “clearly not a playoff team,” which was what everyone thought 25 games ago. The Blazers embark on a challenging five-game road trip this week, which could expose them quickly.
Someone beat Golden State! It was these guys! The Bucks may not have been the streak-stoppers you expected, but credit high-level effort and a little bit of Warriors fatigue for the upset. Milwaukee’s collection of young talent remains enticing, and we’ll see if that win serves as a catalyst for overall improvement.
The soap opera continues, with Rajon Rondo now suspended a game for swearing at an official, but the good news is the Kings ended a three-game losing spell and DeMarcus Cousins busted out of a mini-slump. They aren’t out of the hunt, but at the same time, not much help is in sight for this porous defense.
New Orleans has shown some signs of life and a productive Tyreke Evans (15.5 points, 7.2 assists, five rebounds) has given the Pelicans a jolt, yet they’ve still couldn't pick up much winning traction. They’ll get four winnable road games this week (Portland, Utah, Phoenix, Denver), but are running out of time to produce results.
Subtract the 1–9 start and the Nets haven’t been all that bad, with Lionel Hollins getting good effort out of his veterans, particularly Thaddeus Young who’s having arguably the best season of his career. It’s easy to envision him as an intriguing trade target for someone with more serious playoff aspirations.
The old Knicks have returned, dropping four of five and seven of 10 and appearing generally hapless of late. This is closer to what most expected, and there’s no clear end in sight: facing the Bulls this week kicks off a run of 11 straight games against above-.500 teams. Look away while you still can.
I watched the Sixers in person this week and they’re a mess—but at least not for a lack of on-court effort. Hiring Jerry Colangelo and extending Brett Brown at least lends the franchise some long-term accountability. With that in place, the rest of the season should be even more about player development and evaluating what’s worth hanging onto. Which is... more than anyone’s been able to say for a while.