NBA Power Rankings: Knicks on the rise, league leaders stand pat up top
The NBA’s annual Christmas slate has become one of the most anticipated days of the year for hoops fans, regardless of what holiday they celebrate. And with respect to this week’s Power Rankings, seven of our top 10 teams will be in action, presenting some opportunities for shakeup at the top.
This year’s slate offers a particularly intriguing window into the state of the league, with the Warriors and Spurs both playing close to—or at, depending how you feel—peak form, the Cavaliers getting a nice jolt from a healthy Kyrie Irving, and the Thunder starting to join this top tier of squads that should contend come spring.
For a quick look at the other involved parties, the Heat, Bulls and Clippers have been hard to figure out at times. They all have flaws but should make for fun viewing on pure talent. As for the Rockets, Pelicans and Lakers, well… it’s anyone’s guess these days.
Anyway, there are five basketball games in a row, so everyone wins, except for the concerned family members left stranded at the dinner table until halftime. Here are Power Rankings to help get you through the week.
Insert your own “They don’t have to play the Bucks again” joke here, and then get excited for Warriors–Cavs on Christmas.
Not a new storyline here, but the clip at which Kawhi Leonard continues to expand his offense is utterly mind-boggling. While anchoring the NBA’s top defense from the perimeter, he also leads the league in spot-up points and in three-point percentage (49%) among qualifiers. Who would have thought?
Irving’s return to the lineup was modest, with 12 points, four assists and two steals in 18 minutes, but his presence should give the Cavs a shot in the arm as they approach full strength for the first time since last season. They’ve won five in a row and are trending upward heading into the big Finals rematch.
Indiana’s three-point shooting has regressed a bit, but few teams can match the experience and depth in the backcourt After getting back on track defensively in three double-digit wins last week, the Pacers get a great litmus test in San Antonio.
The Heat were the league’s worst three-point shooting team entering Sunday’s game against the Blazers, but rectified that with Chris Bosh, Luol Deng and Gerald Green combining for 12 threes. Their defense has helped cover for those inconsistencies on the other end, led by Hassan Whiteside, who surpassed 100 blocks this week. For contrast, no other player has more than 69 this season.
It was one of those weeks for the Raptors, who opened a 21-point lead against the Pacers and lost by 16, lost to the Hornets in overtime, rallied to beat the Heat convincingly the next day, then were sluggish against the Kings. Their constant lately has been DeMar DeRozan (20-plus points in seven straight), who remains a bit underappreciated nationally.
A quadruple-overtime loss to the Pistons, an uglier one to the Knicks, and Jimmy Butler calling out Fred Hoiberg marks the early low point of what’s been a strange season to date. Butler’s earned the right to speak his mind and all coaching transitions take time, but all of a sudden there’s reason for alarm.
In what could have been a statement win, the Clippers crumbled late against the Spurs and continue to have trouble closing games against quality opponents. They’ve corrected the win-loss situation, but look predictable at times from the outside looking in. With a revolving door at small forward and a cluttered bench, some moves could be in order.
After ranking dead last in three-point percentage last season, Charlotte’s shooting nearly four points better and scoring 29.7% of their total points off the deep ball. Talk about extreme makeovers…
The Hawks have looked more like their playoff-caliber selves while winning three straight. If a season-high six threes can’t help the struggling Kyle Korver (32.6% from three in December) get back on track, then maybe an inviting next few weeks of schedule will.
December’s been kind to the Pistons, who are 7–3 since the start of the month and remain squarely in the playoff picture. They’ve already beaten fellow hopefuls Miami, Atlanta and Boston this season and can solidify their standings in rematches with all three this week.
When these guys guard, good things happen. Orlando’s won nine of 13 dating back to Nov. 25, and the Magic held opponents under 100 points in all nine of those wins. Taking that theory further, these guys are 0–8 when they allow 100 points in regulation. Behold, the gospel of Scott Skiles.
Let’s check in with future Hall-of-Famer Dirk Nowitzki, who at age 37 is averaging 17 points on 48.1% shooting and seven rebounds, with all of his percentages up from last season. He’s leading the Mavs in scoring, has them in solid position in the standings, and he’s 30 points away from passing Shaq in career points. Appreciate all of this, please.
After cracking the top 10 for the first time this season, the Celtics had a frustrating week against three quality opponents. They’re third-best in defensive efficiency, top-10 in net rating, but if the season ended today, would not be in the playoffs. Welcome to life in the new Eastern Conference.
The Grizzlies have gone small the last five games, sending Zach Randolph to the bench and starting Matt Barnes and Jeff Green together at forward, and it worked out in a quality win over the Pacers. Memphis’s re-calibration bears monitoring, particularly given the talk about Dave Joerger’s job security.
Houston’s effort continues to be flaky and was noticeably lacking in a loss to Sacramento, but a win over the Clippers brought its record back even. They’ve got more things to figure out to avoid embarrassment on Christmas against the Spurs.
The Knicks have won four in a row, assisted by lucking into a very tired Bulls team, but are back at .500 nonetheless. If they can navigate an especially brutal next three weeks, who knows? Then again…these are the Knicks.
After dropping three games in four days, the young Jazz halted a backslide by ending Denver’s three-game winning streak. Utah continues to operate at the league’s slowest pace, which doesn’t matter much when its defense has gotten this leaky. The Jazz holds the fourth-worst point differential in the league over the past five games.
“Quietly” may not ever be a good descriptor for anything the Kings do. That said, they’ve quietly won four of five, including perhaps their best showing of the year in a win over the Raptors that assuredly left sometimes-kings-fan Drake in a conflicted, contemplative state.
Early in the season the Suns could score but not guard, and now they can’t do much in the way of either. The return of big-money signing Tyson Chandler to the lineup hasn’t moved the needle much, as the veteran center is averaging just 4.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in five games since returning from a hamstring injury.
The Blazers are 10–3 when they score more than 105 points, and 1–15 when they don’t. When Al-Farouq Aminu is the only one averaging double digits outside of the trigger-happy Lillard-McCollum pairing, hitting that mark on the regular isn’t the easiest.
Denver has strung some wins together the past couple of weeks, and in the process, Will Barton is looking like a serious find off the bench. The fourth-year wing dropped a career-high 32 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in a loss to the Pelicans and is averaging 19.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.2 steals on the month.
It’s been a terrific December for Karl-Anthony Towns, who’s averaging 17.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 55.1% on the month. Consecutive Rookie of the Year awards for the Timberwolves are within reach, even if the playoffs aren’t.
We’re nearing the two-month mark and the Pelicans are healthy, but the defense still hasn’t shown much improvement, allowing a league-high 108.2 points per game. Until they can stay consistent and put together some wins, it’s hard to take them seriously.
Being able to match up with the Warriors sure is nice, but the Bucks are still seven games below .500. With Jason Kidd now forced away from the sidelines with a hip injury, it’ll take some backbone from Milwaukee to hang around.
Every week it feels like I qualify Brooklyn being somewhat competitive, but after five straight losses the results just haven’t been there. And now nine of the Nets’ next 10 games come against teams currently in the playoff hunt.
Second-to-last in defensive efficiency, second-to-last in offensive efficiency, second-to-last in net rating and a lasting sense of Byron Scott-bred confusion. Still, the Lakers snapped a six-game losing streak and move out of the bottom spot as the Sixers flounder.