Before we get into this week’s Power Rankings, a quick mea culpa regarding the New York Knicks. A month ago, I had them buried as low as 27—and perhaps that was a bit premature. See, there was this 11-game run scheduled ahead, with three back-to-backs and seven road games, 10 of which were played against the East and one against the Spurs. Every single opponent was over .500, and the Knicks were 11–14 after a four-game losing streak. It wasn’t hard to imagine their early-season flashes being shuttered by cold reality.
Well, that stretch resulted in five wins and six losses. It did include another four-game spell, but after a win against Detroit Dec. 29, New York had gone 5–2 and came within one shot of becoming the first team to win a game in San Antonio all season. The Knicks now have 19 wins; they won 17 games all of last season. By no means should hovering at .500 be considered a grand achievement, but relative to their expectations, and in the greater scheme of the season, it’s been a more than pleasant surprise.
Carmelo Anthony’s locked in and playing multi-dimensional basketball for the first time since who-knows when. Dating back to New York’s Dec. 19 win over Chicago (the beginning of the death slate), he’s leading the team in points (22.2), rebounds (8.5) and assists (4.6) per game and has shown visible defensive effort. He’s ceding shots to a rejuvenated Arron Afflalo and nuclear highlight generator Kristaps Porzingis. That trust has lent itself to his most inspired play in years, and the team appears to be following suit.
The Knicks have also sculpted a useful bench out of loose parts. Hustle plays are happening. The team is actually pretty entertaining. Even better, the recent surge has coincided with stumbles from Boston, Orlando and Charlotte. This is what a competent Knicks team looks like, and it’s been a minute. Spike Lee, eat your heart out.
1. Golden State Warriors
RECORD: 35-2 (4–0)
It is January, and the Warriors still have only two losses. And while Steph Curry playing through injuries makes me a little nervous, you can’t argue with the results when he's casually torching people for 38.
2. San Antonio Spurs
RECORD: 32-6 (3–0)
The Spurs are 20–0 at home entering a primetime matchup with the Cavs that could be an early Finals preview. I’d drop everything to watch Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James match up in just about any sport, honestly. That would make for some extremely dope water polo or table tennis.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
RECORD: 26-9 (4–0)
The Wizards are the only team to beat the Cavs at home this season, and Kyrie Irving decided to exact some revenge, throttling Washington for 21 fourth-quarter points and 32 total in a win. His production continues to fluctuate, but he’s closer to being all the way back, and that’s bad news for the other 29 teams.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
RECORD: 25-13 (3–0)
Nine straight wins makes the Clippers the hottest team around, and 52.8% three-point shooting from J.J. Redick during that winning streak makes him the NBA’s hottest shooter. He’s on one of the best runs of his career and has galvanized the league’s third-most efficient offense over that span.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
RECORD: 26-12 (2–2)
Although the Thunder haven’t beaten up on lesser teams the way you’d expect, this group remains a juggernaut. They’ve scored scored 100 points in 14 of the last 15 with the league’s fourth-highest net rating. Also, Russell Westbrook made wearing a poncho look cool.
6. Chicago Bulls
RECORD: 22-13 (2–1)
Chicago’s six-game win streak ended at the hands of Atlanta, and though the Bulls have been much-improved, they’re about to hit another crossroads: Joakim Noah’s return from injury will likely mean more tweaks to the rotation, but rookie Bobby Portis could be hard to shuffle out.
7. Toronto Raptors
RECORD: 24-15 (3–1)
The Raptors are second to just the Warriors with 13 wins on the road (out of 22 games), and their skewed schedule bodes well as they chase an East title. For comparison: the Cavs are 11–8 on the road, the Heat are 7–7 and the Bulls are just 6–8.
8. Miami Heat
RECORD: 22-15 (2–2)
Road tilts with the Warriors, Clippers and Thunder this week will offer a sense of how the Heat stack up against elite competition at midseason—if Dwyane Wade can play effectively through a bothersome shoulder, that is.
9. Atlanta Hawks
RECORD: 23-15 (2–1)
Two losses to the improving but beatable Knicks in one week was a setback, but an impressive beatdown of a hot Bulls team served as an adequate response. If Al Horford (33 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, four blocks against Chicago) maintains top form, I like Atlanta’s chances to gain a little separation from the non-Cleveland pack.
10. Dallas Mavericks
RECORD: 22-16 (3–1)
The Mavericks built themselves a little cushion before what might be the most brutal week any team will have all season: Cavs at home, at Thunder the next night, at Bulls on Friday and at Spurs Sunday. Hang in there, Dirk.
11. Detroit Pistons
RECORD: 21-16 (3–0)
Random fact: the Pistons are 19–2 when scoring more than 97 points. This points in part to a defense that’s quietly top 10 in efficiency, but also how much their success rides on leading scorer Reggie Jackson. He’s shooting 50% and averaging 22.9 points in wins, but his numbers dip markedly to 35.5% and 16 per game in losses.
12. Indiana Pacers
RECORD: 21-16 (2–2)
Indiana is playing .500 ball since Dec. 16, but with a few different bounces we could easily be having a different conversation. In those 10 games, they’ve led the league’s in defensive efficiency while their offense has been bottom-five, with their three-point shooting running especially cold. That said, the Pacers’ last five losses were all dropped by four points or less, and three of the five came in overtime. These are the breaks, as they say.
13. Memphis Grizzlies
RECORD: 21-18 (3–1)
The widespread perception is that the Grizzlies are old, but they’ve actually gone 8–2 in the second game of back-to backs this season, the best mark outside of the Warriors and Spurs. That said, going without playing two days in a row until February remains preferable—that and fielding just two road games the rest of the month.
14. New York Knicks
RECORD: 19-20 (3–1)
In case you skimmed all the way down to read this capsule, this team is not that bad, the Celtics and Magic swooned a bit, and the Knicks receive their highest ranking of the season accordingly. Scroll back up for more.
15. Boston Celtics
RECORD: 19-18 (1–3)
The Celtics were in good shape two weeks ago, but are 4–10 against the eight teams currently ahead of them in the Eastern Conference after dropping five of their last six games. They’ve lucked out in the eight-seed race with the Magic and Hornets struggling at the same time.
16. Orlando Magic
RECORD: 20-18 (1–3)
These December darlings have hit the skids a bit, dropping five of their last six. That includes two losses to the division-rival Wizards, meaning the Magic will finish 0–4 on the season in Harry Potter Bowl matchups. No, I don’t have a great Harry Potter followup joke to make.
17. Houston Rockets
RECORD: 19-19 (3–0)
Houston has enjoyed four streaks of three or more wins, endured four streaks of three or more losses, worked back to .500, and remained in playoff position. Might that comeback overtime win against the Pacers at home spark something bigger?
18. Utah Jazz
RECORD: 17-20 (2–3)
Without Rudy Gobert, the Jazz went 7–11 and hung onto a playoff spot just fine, thanks to some help from a lukewarm conference. Gobert blocked four shots in his return to the starting lineup, contributing to a solid win over the Heat, and could give the team a significant boost with just one plus-.500 team on tap the rest of January.
19. Sacramento Kings
RECORD: 15-22 (2–2)
All-NBA caliber play from DeMarcus Cousins (four straight double-doubles, averaging 32.4 and 13 in January) has the Kings starting to string together competitive, high-scoring performances. It’s still a bit early, but I, for one, would not hate a Warriors-Kings first round series.
20. Charlotte Hornets
RECORD: 17-20 (0–4)
Charlotte has dropped in a seven-game loss streak, which included some tough opponents and a four-game trip out west. But… they’re shooting at a league-worst 39.9% in those losses and allowing 112 points per 100 possessions. Regression police, do you copy?
21. Washington Wizards
RECORD: 16-19 (1–2)
Consider that the Wizards have played just 11 games against sub-.500 opponents, the lowest number in the league. The schedule’s been rough, and they aren’t as far out of the hunt as it feels like—but they will need to improve on a 6–5 mark against those teams in order to generate any type of push.
22. Portland Trail Blazers
RECORD: 16-24 (1–3)
There were massive highs (Damian Lillard torching the Thunder) and odd lows last week (C.J. McCollum’s accidental scratch). But that big win over OKC has to inspire a little confidence, at least internally, given Portland’s next 10 games (seven at home, and Brooklyn, Philly and Washington on the road).
23. Denver Nuggets
RECORD: 14-24 (2–1)
They’re as close to full strength as they’ll get now that Emmanuel Mudiay has returned, but that poses some new rotation issues. Breakout sixth man Will Barton’s numbers (and minutes to a lesser degree) are way down in the past four games. The Nuggets have actually aggregated some decent young parts, but now Mike Malone has to make it all work.
24. Milwaukee Bucks
RECORD: 15-24 (1–3)
I’ll say it: this is just not the year for these guys. If you’re still holding out for the Bucks to find some sliver of last season’s fortitude, it’s time to lower those expectations. Given the way other youthful East teams have stepped forward, it’s far less clear now where Milwaukee’s future is headed.
25. New Orleans Pelicans
RECORD: 11-25 (0–3)
Anthony Davis’s injury history got a little longer, with a bruised back from diving into the stands marking the latest ailment of his four-year career. The Pelicans need him back quickly as they hit what could be a forgiving few weeks of games.
26. Minnesota Timberwolves
RECORD: 12-26 (0–4)
The growing pains are very real. The Wolves have lost six straight, failing to crack triple digits since a Dec. 20 win in Brooklyn. And beyond Karl Towns, it’s tough to know exactly what they have here. Andrew Wiggins’s scoring is up on volume but the rest of his numbers are down from his rookie season, and Zach LaVine—who I still don’t buy as a point guard—is in the same boat.
27. Phoenix Suns
RECORD: 13-26 (1–1)
The unraveling Suns managed to snap their nine-game losing streak against the similarly tailspinning Hornets in what happened to be Jeff Hornacek’s 100th win as head coach. How many more he wins in Phoenix, one way or another, is anyone’s guess.
28. Los Angeles Lakers
RECORD: 8-31 (0–4)
L.A. unexpectedly moved into the “sorta entertaining” category this week, with D’Angelo Russell and Lou Williams (44 points!) turning in great performances. Then Russell injured his ankle. It’s that kind of season.
29. Brooklyn Nets
RECORD: 10-27 (0–4)
Firing Lionel Hollins and reassigning Billy King signals a new direction for the Nets, but exactly where the organization turns next is unclear. The direction of this team in the standings is much more predictable.
30. Philadelphia 76ers
RECORD: 4-36 (1–3)
The Sixers have won a game in three consecutive weeks, but they have still won just four games. In more surprising Philly sports news, Sly Stallone just won a Golden Globe for portraying Rocky.