Chicago had a big win over Oklahoma City on Christmas Day, but it doesn't prove that they're out of the woods just yet.
Yes, 2016 is nearly upon us, and jeez, can things change in a year. At this time 365 days or so ago, the West felt like the infinitely deeper conference, people were demanding playoff realignment, the Pacers and Heat were bad, the Pelicans and Trail Blazers were good, and nobody had the slightest idea who Kristaps Porzingis was.
We like to think we’ve got a pretty good feel for things now, with everyone having played around 30 games, but the truth is that the landscape changes quickly in this strange, modern NBA. With the New Year on deck, a tight playoff race shaping up, and more big spending expected in free agency, take a step back and soak in the state of the league as we enter the final week of 2015, because the only thing we can count on is it’s sure to be fleeting.
To hammer home that point, let’s hop in the DeLorean, back to Matt Dollinger’s Power Rankings from exactly one year ago. Entering 2015, the Bulls—at present, scuffling through an identity crisis—were streaking and ranked first, one ahead of the Warriors, who had just lost Andrew Bogut to an injury and didn’t know what to do at center (funny how that one worked out). The Blazers, starring LaMarcus Aldridge and Wes Matthews, and were third. The Spurs were, again, looking kind of old and sitting in ninth, and the now-troubled Suns were somehow 11th, ahead of the Thunder and Cavaliers. The Pistons, at No. 26, had just cut Josh Smith to begin their journey back to relevance. And the Knicks, not the Sixers, were in dead last.
You might look back at a year from now and laugh at me while wearing your new Kevin Durant Warriors jersey (technically, it could happen) and opening up your Ben Simmons Timberwolves rookie card (wishful thinking, admittedly). But until that future arrives, here’s 2015’s final set of Power Rankings.
Though it wasn’t the prettiest game from either side, the defending champions sent a message against the Cavaliers on Christmas in one of their biggest wins of the season. Just like clockwork, their small-ball lineup got it done in crunch time. And speaking of small-ball, Harrison Barnes could return this week.
Over the past 15 games, the Spurs—not the Warriors—lead the league in point differential (+16.9) and are shooting close to 50%, which also rates as best in the league. Sample size is important, of course, but the gap in quality here is not as wide as popular narrative suggests. Now that Christmas is over, circle the Jan. 25 Spurs-Dubs meeting on your calendars.
LeBron and Co. missed a ton of open shots and a chance to make a statement against Golden State. That alone isn’t a massive cause for concern, but they followed it the next night with perhaps the stinker of the year in Portland, a 31-point loss to a team on a five-game losing streak. No other team has aggressively claimed this third spot yet, but Cleveland’s hold here is a little tenuous.
After rallying to beat the Nuggets in a rousing, dunk-heavy fourth quarter, the Thunder are now 15–2 against the Western Conference. Their offensive upside remains scary, and the January schedule looks more than favorable.
While the results have been good and the bench is getting healthy, jump-shooting struggles could really hamper Miami going forward. That said, the Heat shot 50% from three in a big come-from-behind win that established some in-state superiority over the surging Magic. Overall, they’re pretty much where they need to be entering the New Year.
The Hawks have won six in a row, became the third-fastest team to 20 wins, and are right back into the mix. Moving Kent Bazemore back into the starting lineup has helped key that run: he’s averaging a decent 12.9 points in that span, but what's more telling is that they’re 15–5 with him as a starter.
It’s been a rough week or so for the Pacers, who broke a three-game losing streak with a big fourth quarter against the Timberwolves. They’re heavily dependent on Paul George, who’s shot under 30% over the past four games, and need to get things clicking again with dates against the Hawks, Bulls and Pistons coming up.
Blake Griffin will miss at least two weeks with a quad tear, which is pretty much the worst thing that could have happened to a team that hasn’t beaten an above-.500 team in more than three weeks. They’re so much better with him on the court than off it that it’s not even worth listing the splits here.
Chicago falls out of the top 10 for the first time this season. A great win over OKC was not enough to prove this team is totally out of the woods. Though the apparent locker-room turmoil has somewhat quieted, the Bulls’ execution was poor in a loss to the Mavericks. And with the Raptors and Pacers next up, this could get uglier. The record doesn’t reek yet, but these guys are a mediocre 7–8 against in-conference opponents.
I’m bullish on the Magic, who slipped a little defensively over the past couple weeks, but have won five of seven. Nikola Vucevic, their best All-Star case, has averaged 20.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists in that span.
Detroit emerged 4–3 from a seven-game stretch against playoff-level competition; strong results for a team some thought might have been exposed by now. Andre Drummond (23.3 points,15 boards in those games) and Reggie Jackson (23.3 points, 6.3 assists) have proven capable of driving this team, and Stan Van Gundy’s done a remarkable job of maximizing his pieces.
The Hornets look like they could be coming back to Earth, losing five of seven after a dreamy start to the season. They’re 6–6 in December and suffering from some shooting regression. How they handle the next five games could be telling, with the Clippers, Raptors, Thunder and Warriors on tap.
In a season already packed with unexpected twists, the Rockets turned in its best defensive performance of the season against the Spurs, holding their in-state rivals to just 84 points on Christmas. This is still as bipolar a team as any, as evidenced by J.B. Bickerstaff”s rant after losing to the Pelicans one day later.
The strange blowout losses appear to be in the past, and Memphis has mostly cleaned up against beatable teams. They’ve been up and down against everyone else and still hold a negative point differential on the year. For now, with the rest of the conference scuffling, staying the course will do.
The Wizards have strung together four in a row behind red-hot three-point shooting, firing at a 47.9% clip from deep and averaging 108.3 points in that span. John Wall has nine games in December with at least 20 points and 10 assists, and the supporting cast has begun to thrive off of him. Even so, there’s a lot of ground to make up here.
Already without Dante Exum for the season, losing leading backcourt scorer Alec Burks (14.3 PPG) really hurts. Derrick Favors is battling back spasms, Rudy Gobert’s return date is still unclear, and though Utah’s benefiting from a watered-down West, its overall outlook might be at a low point.
The Kings have recently eked out solid road wins against the Pacers and Raptors, but still can’t quite find stability. George Karl’s frustration after losing at home to the Blazers is just the latest hiccup. For any other team, it’d feel like a bigger deal.
Well, that didn’t last long. An exceedingly rough schedule took its toll on the Knicks, who followed their second four-game winning streak of the season with their fourth losing streak of three or more games. They’d be in playoff position in the West…
As ready as I’ve been to write the Pelicans off for good, they’re only three games out of the eighth playoff spot and have won four of six. The wins haven’t always been impressive, but if New Orleans continues to take care of lower-tier teams it could return to the conversation faster than we thought.
Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Emmanuel Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic were all expected to be major contributors before the season. All four are injured, but the Nuggets have come up on some useful-looking pieces in their absence. We highlighted Will Barton’s emergence last week, and rookie center Nikola Jokic has averaged 14 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists his past five games.
Damian Lillard has missed four straight games, but Portland got big showings from Allen Crabbe (26 points against Cleveland) and C.J. McCollum (35–11–9 in Sacramento) to pull out back-to-back wins. If the supporting cast begins to coalesce, staying in the weird eight-seed mix is certainly possible.
Three consecutive double-digit losses to quality teams shows the Wolves have a ways to go, but Sam Mitchell has handled their young core well and given them opportunities to grow and make mistakes. At the very least, that’s far more than another notable rebuilding team in their conference can say.
The Bucks are 9–6 at home and 3–13 on the road. They are 9–4 against sub-.500 teams and 3–15 against teams at or above average. They play 11 of the next 15 on the road. They play 12 of the next 15 against teams currently at or above .500.
This confounding mess appeared to have hit a boiling point before Eric Bledsoe went down with a knee injury…while losing to the Sixers. Markieff Morris literally throwing in the towel might take on a more figurative meaning real soon.
The Nets have now lost seven of eight, six straight at home, and allowed 100 points in eight straight. Their next eight games come against plus-.500 opponents, including two against the Celtics, who can’t wait to inherit Brooklyn’s unprotected, essentially sure-to-be lottery pick.
Kobe makes his last trip to Boston this week, to wrap up a December that really wasn’t bad from a statistical perspective On those legs, 18.9 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 14 games is pretty respectable. His 38% shooting is just indicative of the Lakers’ greater reality.
Most importantly, the Sixers won another game! They also made a solid move in adding Ish Smith, who was impactful at times for the Pelicans. They did lose two second round picks, but with so many undrafted guys already cycling through this roster, who’s really counting?