- Portland was one of the NBA's most surprising teams last season, but its been a disaster this season. Meanwhile, the Cavs reclaim No. 1 this week after a big Christmas win.
The holidays are all about the little things, such as discovering you own a mint condition Kwame Brown rookie card. They (specifically, Christmas) are also all about watching the NBA for 11 straight hours and trying to stay sane. That was a pretty difficult task Sunday, after the massive high of Warriors-Cavs was followed by the handful of Ambien that was the Bulls-Spurs, followed by an actual nap during the Thunder-Timberwolves game, and a full game of Ray Felton action in Los Angeles.
If you too are feeling the NBA Christmas hangover, you’re not alone. If you’re one of those types who waits until the holidays to start watching hoops, get caught up here. New Power Rankings, the last of 2016, are below. Thanks for reading, and see you in the New Year.
(All records and stats through Dec. 25)
30. Brooklyn Nets (7–22)
Last Week: 29
Net Rating: -8.0
The Nets just put up 100-plus points in 10 straight games, their longest streak since 1994, and are gradually improving. Getting stops, yes, is still a problem.
29. Philadelphia 76ers (7–22)
Last Week: 29
Net Rating: -7.9
Weekly Nerlens Noel update: Still on the team.
28. Los Angeles Lakers (12–22)
Last Week: 27
Net Rating: -6.7
The Lakers have only won one game in December. It was against the Sixers.
27. Phoenix Suns (9–21)
Last Week: 26
Net Rating: -5.0
Marquese Chriss was four years old when Tyson Chandler made his debut for the Bulls at age 19. Devin Booker was nine when Jared Dudley won ACC Player of the Year as a senior at Boston College. Dragan Bender was six years old growing up in Croatia when Leandro Barbosa came to the Suns from Brazil for the first time. This might make you feel super old, but it also underscores the differing directions that make this Suns roster one of the league’s more confusing.
There are vestiges of several visions on this roster, with developing Booker, Chriss and Bender the current M.O., Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight beginning their prime years, and the three aforementioned vets all pulling minutes along with P.J. Tucker. The Suns are tricky because it feels like they have good players, but none of them add up as parts. All of their old guys could ostensibly be helping playoff teams, but have minimal trade value. With the talent they do have, you figure they could at least hang on the playoff fringes given how bad the West has been. But they’ve mostly committed to neither direction, and are bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
These parts don’t fit, and they don’t fit long-term as constituted either. Booker’s untouchable, but nobody else should be. As many suspected, drafting Chriss and Bender has been an awkward fit, the former looking predictably lost as a starter and the latter struggling to find frontcourt minutes. It’s too early to bail on either (they had to know what they were doing when they took two of the draft’s youngest players), but half-committing to the youth movement slows the roll. It’s a mishmash they have to sort out. Bledsoe and Knight are both on reasonable long-term deals, Chandler’s actually playing well, and Dudley’s still a capable role player on a team-friendly contract. I hate calling for fire sales or full-tanks, but the Suns should be positioned fairly well as sellers as the season moves on.
26. Dallas Mavericks (9–21)
Last Week: 28
Net Rating: -5.4
The Mavs just won three of four games for the first time this season. Progress!
25. Minnesota Timberwolves (9–21)
Last Week: 25
Net Rating: -2.4
Karl-Anthony Towns carried a 10-game double-double streak into Christmas, and the Timberwolves had some cool black and green jerseys, but the Timberwolves are still not good yet.
24. Miami Heat (10–21)
Last Week: 23
Net Rating: -2.6
Goran Dragic says he wants to stay, which is nice, but they should totally just trade Goran Dragic. Maybe to the Magic. Dragic Magic.
23. New Orleans Pelicans (11–21)
Last Week: 23
Net Rating: -3.8
The Pelicans are just one game out of last place in the conference, but somehow only three away from a playoff spot. Nobody’s going to bet on them to do it, but if it happens, where would Anthony Davis’s MVP campaign stand?
22. Denver Nuggets (12–18)
Last Week: 20
Net Rating: -3.6
It took way longer than necessary to install Nikola Jokic back at center, but it’s made Denver tangibly better on offense. The defense remains pretty questionable for the foreseeable future.
21. Orlando Magic (14–18)
Last Week: 21
Net Rating: -4.6
The Magic are getting better contributions up and down the roster and have actually been beating inferior teams this month. It’ll take a little more than that to put together a meaningful run, though.
20. Portland Trail Blazers (13–19)
Last Week: 19
Net Rating: -3.4
After carving out space in our hearts as a lovable, entertaining team last season, there’s no way to not be disappointed in Portland’s product. I, for one, loved watching Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum zip off screens, share ball-handling duties and needle opposing defenses last year. Well, now they’re 3–9 in December, can’t guard a lick, and fighting the Kings and Nuggets for position in the standings.
What did we expect? That’s a fair question. The Blazers made some expensive off-season additions to round out their rotation (Evan Turner, Festus Ezeli) and paid up to retain Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard. And statistically, although Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have taken steps forward and Mason Plumlee has been solid, there’s been regression. There are probably too many cooks here from a minutes standpoint, but the most glaring problem is a total loss of defensive competence.
Portland now owns the league’s worst defense, allowing 111.1 points per 100 possessions. They foul a lot, conceding the second-most free throws in the league, and haven’t guarded the three-point line, allowing teams to shoot 38%. The Blazers were not especially great defensively last year (No. 20 in efficiency), but they weren't miserable. While they’ve had a small uptick offensively, the defensive regression is glaring, particularly as teams around the league are pushing the ball, shooting more threes, and adapting a style that doesn’t favor Portland’s mix of smaller guards and offensive-only bigs. Having Ezeli healthy might help tip the scales a bit, but the fixes have to come internally. They don’t have the right parts to be a quality defensive team, but they should have enough to shrink that margin and move back toward .500. If it doesn’t happen, some tinkering might be in order.
19. Detroit Pistons (14–18)
Last Week: 18
Net Rating: -0.7
The backslide here has been pretty remarkable: they’re 3–8 since Reggie Jackson returned, and have lost five in a row. The good news for Detroit is that most of their conference peers haven’t made a ton of headway, either.
18. Sacramento Kings (13–17)
Last Week: 22
Net Rating: -3.3
It’s hard to get too caught up in a three-game win streak, but this is Sacramento’s best stretch of the season. The eighth seed in the West is wide open, and if the playoffs started today, they’d be in. Imagine that.
17. Indiana Pacers (15–16)
Last Week: 16
Net Rating: -1.9
This team really can’t string any games together. Paul George told reporters that Indiana’s “identity is inconsistency.” Not great.
16. Atlanta Hawks (15–15)
Last week: 17
Net Rating: -1.0
Paul Millsap at center? Kyle Korver at the four? Dennis Schröder wrecking in December? With Dwight Howard banged up, maybe the small-ball Hawks are on to something…
15. Chicago Bulls (14–16)
Last Week: 13
Net Rating: +0.2
Weirdly enough, it was Chicago’s bench that pulled it back against San Antonio. The Bulls just can’t get all their ducks in a row right now. You really wonder how long Fred Hoiberg’s leash is as the New Year approaches and the team is two games under .500.
14. Washington Wizards (13–16)
Last Week: 15
Net Rating: -1.4
The Wizards successfully saved their season in December, with a 7–5 mark hoisting them out of the basement. John Wall’s averaging 24.6 points, 10.1 assists and 2.7 steals and helping elevate a roster with next to no bench help.
13. Milwaukee Bucks (14–14)
Last Week: 11
Net Rating: +2.8
This is already just so absurd.
12. New York Knicks (16–14)
Last Week: 14
Net Rating: -3.0
The Christmas Day loss underscored two points. 1) The Knicks are quite possibly going to make the playoffs (!), but 2) they are also probably not going to be able to consistently guard anyone when they get there.
11. Charlotte Hornets (17–13)
Last Week: 9
Net Rating: +2.1
Ben Golliver made a strong case for Kemba Walker to make his first All-Star Game. The numbers favor Kemba. Only problem is, the four talented guards who kept him out last year remain in top form.
10. Utah Jazz (18–13)
Last Week: 7
Net Rating: +5.3
A three-game losing streak brought Utah back to earth a bit, including a 30-point L at Golden State, a blown double-digit lead at home against Sacramento, and an inability to stop Toronto’s Kyle Lowry. The caveat: an injured George Hill and a sick Rodney Hood. I wouldn’t be too worried.
9. Memphis Grizzlies (20–12)
Last Week: 8
Net Rating: +0.2
I had no idea Marc Gasol has never averaged 20 points per game before. With his scoring and assist numbers at career highs—and the fact he’s suddenly a 43% three-point shooter credit Gasol's steady hand amid roster turbulence. He’s a Comeback Player of the Year candidate.
8. Boston Celtics (18–13)
Last Week: 9
Net Rating: +1.9
The Celtics are beginning to pull it together a little bit, it seems. They looked fairly good in beating the Knicks on Christmas, making it five of six wins and underscoring some improved consistency. Isaiah Thomas has strung together 15 straight 20-point games (the longest active such streak) and they’re 14–5 against the Eastern Conference, where simply being competent is going to get you into the playoffs this year.
They don’t belong in a tier with the Cavs or Raptors, but the C’s have managed a top-10 offensive efficiency on the season. They own a top-10 defense in the month of December and maintain the league’s second-best assist rate and third-best turnover rate, underscoring the type of contributions necessary for Boston to keep overachieving. This is not a starry or flashy roster, and they’ve been predictably bad on the glass, but as they’ve gotten healthier, the performances have trended upward. They might need a superstar to win a title, but not to keep winning this way.
You’ll hear Boston's name and its cache of draft picks and movable assets in trade rumors again, but at this point, staying the course is also defensible. Part of me thinks they’re better off angling for a big free agent again rather than searching for the perfect deal, and those Nets lottery picks are obviously enticing. They’ve got a hard-nosed (if not crazily dynamic) backcourt, skilled bigs, and one of the game’s most talked-about young coaches in Brad Stevens. It’s unspectacular, but gets the job done just fine. Sometimes, patience is the hardest thing.
7. LA Clippers (22-10)
Last week: 6
Net Rating: +7.6
They’ve made do without Blake Griffin plenty in the last year or so, but it’s an undeniable bump in the road, and maybe a bit of a reality check. Their long-term expectations are tied to his play. And now, Chris Paul is banged up, too.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder (19–12)
Last Week: 10
Net Rating: +1.2
Westbrook is Westbrook, but the Thunder’s bench has begun to play better and there’s an identity here. There are definite positive spins to be had. But, yeah, most of them involve Russ.
5. Houston Rockets (22–9)
Last Week: 2
Net Rating: +6.3
Dear NBA, I really would have liked to see James Harden playing on Christmas…but maybe that’s just me.
4. San Antonio Spurs (25–6)
Last week: 4
Net Rating: +7.8
This group has been regular-season dominant as usual, but exactly how the Spurs can make a run come playoff time is a more complicated matter. Read Rob Mahoney’s recent piece for more.
3. Toronto Raptors (21–8)
Last Week: 3
Net Rating: +10.6
Add the Raptors to the list of teams we all would have liked to have seen playing on Christmas. Boxing Day isn’t good enough!
2. Golden State Warriors (27–5)
Last Week: 1
Net Rating: +12.3
Golden State took a punch in the mouth on Christmas Day. They’re still the scariest team in the league night in and night out, but they’re going to continue being judged relative to Cleveland. The good news is that a Jan. 16 rematch in Oakland is coming up fast.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (23–6)
Last Week: 5
Net Rating: +7.2
A late comeback capped a strong all-around effort against the Warriors, meaning the Cavs have won four straight in this rivalry dating back to the playoffs. They've earned at least one week atop the Power Rankings. Cleveland has earned this flex. (I heard the Browns won a game this week, too.)