Can the Bulls and Clippers challenge their respective conference powers? Or will both dwindle on the peripherals? They're this week's notable risers in the NBA Power Rankings.

By Jeremy Woo
January 04, 2016

Here we are, getting closer to the midway point of the season, and on a macro scale things really haven’t changed much. The Warriors are soldiering through Stephen Curry’s nagging leg injury, the Spurs are making a strong case to take the number one spot and the Cavs and Thunder are chugging along behind them. There’s been little action within our top four, justifiably. We know what to expect. So let’s talk for a second about the Bulls and Clippers.

Both teams feature well-tested rosters and still cling to some degree of title hopes, though the weight of expectations often exceeds their respective on-court products. Both turned in 4–0 weeks, the Bulls reversing course from a tumultuous run of games and the Clippers taking care of business without do-it-all Blake Griffin. It was enough to loft them into the five and six spots, which have featured different teams for each of the last three weeks. 

Whether they’ll remain there is another question. Chicago’s still searching for its identity and Derrick Rose is dealing with a new injury. Perhaps the biggest personality, Jimmy Butler, just put up his most impressive performance of the season. The Bulls have the talent to return to the East finals, but staying healthy and peaking at the right time remains a major question.

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The Clippers have yet to lose in five games without Griffin and are on their longest win streak of the year. Their schedule has certainly played a part in that, but getting those types of results under the circumstances bodes well for the continued resilience of their roster—especially given the strange mishmash of stars, veterans and castoff role players. Their long-term ceiling can still feel capped at times, and they’ve been overshadowed by superior West powers, but L.A. has gotten the job done and perhaps deserves a little more respect.

There’s a wide variety of outcomes for both teams, which should continue to make for fascinating case studies in management. Whether the Bulls and Clippers stay hot, fall apart or strangely float somewhere in the middle, the Power Rankings will remain constant. So, without further adieu.

1Golden State Warriors
last week: 1
record: 31–2 (3–1)

If Curry’s injury lingers any longer, we might have to drop the Warriors down to the No. 2 slot for the first time this season. Credit the defending champs for getting things done this week, even though it hasn’t been beautiful without Steph. Their two back-to-backs on the upcoming schedule are fairly palatable.

2San Antonio Spurs
last week: 2
record: 29–6 (3–0)

It’s pretty hard to ignore the Spurs as they beat the pulp out of pretty much everyone. They’re off to their best start through 35 games in franchise history, they’re 20–0 at home, and are really more 1B than 2. My superlatives have run dry.

3Cleveland Cavaliers
last week: 3
record: 22–9 (3–0)

Sometimes it feels like Cleveland is sleepwalking through the season, and this was one of those types of weeks. Closer-than-necessary wins over Phoenix and Denver were followed by a convincing blowout of a quality Orlando team. Championship expectations remain, and when you’ve got LeBron James, sometimes it doesn’t really matter how you get to the playoffs.

4Oklahoma City Thunder
last week: 4
record: 24–10 (3–0)

The Thunder are now 13–2 over the past 15 games, posting a ridiculous 109.3 points per game in that span and outscoring opponents by 12.2 points on average. They’re still outside the Spurs-Warriors conversation, but not by far.

5Chicago Bulls
last week: 11
record: 20–12 (4–0)

Jimmy Butler scored 40 points in the second half Sunday, breaking Michael Jordan’s franchise record and leading a 15-point comeback win over the Raptors (with Derrick Rose out). That, and an undefeated week, is about the best a team can do to flip its short-term outlook.

6Los Angeles Clippers
last week: 9
record: 22–13 (4–0)

L.A.’s start has paled in both comparison and hype to the West’s big trio, but they were 23–12 this time last season and have now won six straight. Five of those came without the injured Griffin, and though the schedule has been soft, the Clippers are getting results. Can’t hate too hard on that.

7Toronto Raptors
last week: 6
record: 21–14 (2–2)

Two losses to the Bulls involving second-half letdowns definitely hurt, but the Raptors are still top-five in offensive efficiency and their defense allows the fourth-fewest points per game. Next up: five straight road games beginning with another measuring-stick matchup in Cleveland.

8Atlanta Hawks
last week: 7
record: 21–14 (1–2)

Kyle Korver is in midst of possibly the worst shooting slump of his career, hitting at just a 29% mark from deep since Dec. 2. and making a measly four out of his last 31 attempts. The Hawks have held their own the last couple of weeks, but their postseason ceiling and Korver’s success go hand-in-hand. This is something to keep an eye on.

9Miami Heat
last week: 5
record: 20–13 (2–2)

The Heat play 14 of their next 18 games on the road, which means Hassan Whiteside won’t be spending much quality time with DJ Khaled, but it also means that Miami will be pressed to keep up with the pack. That stretch includes five back-to-backs, so start icing up now.

10Indiana Pacers
last week: 8
record: 19–14 (2–2)

It was an up-and-down month for the Pacers, who went 7–9 and fell back to earth a bit after losing just twice in November. The New Year is already off to a better start—just ask Paul George, who scored a ridiculous 21 straight points to close out a win over the Pistons.

11Orlando Magic
last week: 12
record: 19–15 (2–2)

Orlando moves up a spot by default after Boston’s rough week, but losses to Washington and Cleveland highlighted some defensive inconsistencies. Elfrid Payton’s ankle injuries won’t help, especially with the young point guard making some strides of late.

12Dallas Mavericks
last week: 13
record: 19–15 (2–2)

The Mavericks became the second team to beat the Warriors this season after lucking into a Curry-less matchup. But after a four-game win streak, Dallas blew games against Miami and New Orleans to start 2016 with inconsistent energy. They’re in good shape relative to the rest of the West, but also hard to buy in a seven-game series right now.

13Boston Celtics
last week: 10
record: 18–15 (0–2)

Inexplicably, the Celtics lost to the Lakers and Nets—at home. This came during a short week, after winning four in a row. Boston is now the only plus-.500 team with a .500 record at home (9–9), and if they hope to return to the playoffs, these are the type of results they can’t afford.

14Detroit Pistons
last week: 14
record: 18–16 (1–2)

At present, the Pistons hold an elusive 0.0 net rating (they have allowed exactly as many points per 100 possessions as they have scored), which is good relative to preseason expectations but not ideal given the highs they’ve shown as we near mid-season. It all depends how you view the glass.

15Memphis Grizzlies
last week: 17
record: 18–17 (1–1)

An overtime win against the Heat, an overtime loss to the Jazz, and the Grizzlies’ inconsistencies continue on. On the bright side, they’ve allowed 100 points just once in the past three weeks.

16Charlotte Hornets
last week: 15
record: 17–16 (1–3)

Make that seven losses in the last 10 games for Charlotte, who is now just a game over .500. A degree of correction was predictable for a sum-of-its-parts team coming off a hot start, but the Hornets haven’t looked like a playoff hopeful lately.

17Utah Jazz
last week: 19
record: 15–17 (3–1)

The Jazz are moving the needle in the right direction, winning three of four for the first time since early November. Utah has been as racked by injuries as anybody, and former first-round picks Trey Burke and Rodney Hood are easing into big minutes. All things considered, it could be much worse.

18Houston Rockets
last week: 16
record: 16–19 (0–3)

After the Christmas Day win over San Antonio, Houston lost three tight games…and then the Spurs got revenge. The Rockets allowed 110 or more points in all four losses and now play a home-and-away against the Jazz with some potential long-term eight-seed implications.

19New York Knicks
last week: 21
record: 16–19 (2–1)

Arron Afflalo’s 38 points against the Hawks was the highest total by any non-Melo Knick since Jeremy Lin. New York’s hellish stretch of schedule ends this week, but not before road tilts in Atlanta, Miami and San Antonio. Hang in there, guys.

20Washington Wizards
last week: 18
record: 15–17 (1–3)

A 22-point loss to Miami at home confirms how far Washington has fallen, but their last two weeks are an improvement on the whole. The erratic Wiz have a chance to gain some ground in the East, with the Cavs, Raptors, Magic and Bulls due up, but the odds of them scraping back to .500 this week aren’t outstanding.

21Portland Trail Blazers
last week: 24
record: 15–21 (2–1)

With four wins in five games, the Blazers are just a half-game out of the eighth playoff spot. If the improved play keeps up, they have a chance to gain some real separation in January, with 10 of 13 games at the Moda Center.

22Milwaukee Bucks
last week: 26
record: 14–21 (2–2)

O.J. Mayo’s antics overshadowed Khris Middleton turning in the two highest-scoring performances of his career, with 36 in a loss to OKC and 33 in a win over Indiana to cap a terrific month. As for the team, they’ve pulled off two in a row, but still can’t gain much traction in the win column.

23New Orleans Pelicans
last week: 22
record: 11–22 (1–2)

How’s Anthony Davis doing? The 22-year-old star has seen a slight downturn in his numbers, with an uptick in three-point attempts hurting his field goal percentage, but he’s still averaging 23 points, a career-high 11.1 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 1.3 steals. How are the Pelicans doing? Eh…

24Minnesota Timberwolves
last week: 25
record: 12–22 (1–3)

Minnesota has hit its worst slide of the season, with one win in the last seven games and just four in December. That said, Karl-Anthony Towns (18.6 points, 9.5 boards and 1.6 blocks on the month) continues to run away with the Rookie of the Year race. Trust the process?

25Sacramento Kings
last week: 20
record: 13–20 (1–2)

The Kings have the league’s third-highest scoring offense, averaging 105.3 points. But…after giving up 122, 110 and 119 to the Warriors, Suns (!) and Sixers (!!), they now have its worst defense, giving up 107.7. The marathon continues.

26Brooklyn Nets
last week: 28
record: 10–23 (2–1)

Wins over Boston and Miami would have made this arguably Brooklyn’s best week of the season. Then Jarrett Jack went down for the year, leaving a burning swath and Shane Larkin at point guard.

27Denver Nuggets
last week: 23
record: 12–23 (0–4)

Danilo Gallinari and Jusuf Nurkic returned from injury, but that was about it: the Nuggets have won one out of their past 10, totally wiping out a pretty decent couple weeks of results.

28Los Angeles Lakers
last week: 29
record: 8–27 (3–1)

The Lakers won three games in a week for the first time since December 8, 2014, closing out Kobe’s farewell to Boston and beating the Sixers and floundering Suns. In a nice side plot, they might have a useful part in unheralded Larry Nance Jr.

29Phoenix Suns
last week: 27
record: 12–25 (0–5)

At halftime against the Lakers, the Suns were seriously threatening the fewest-points-in-shot-clock-era record of 49 (they had 24…as a team). The takeaway: firing two assistants did not help, predictably. Nine losses in a row and counting…

30Philadelphia 76ers
last week: 30
record: 3–33 (1–3)

A nice, positive PR spin: acquiring Ish Smith has given the Sixers a little jolt, and they now play six straight at home. That’s all I got.

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