As we continue to flush the past 365 days down the drain and turn our eyes toward 2017, let’s preface these Power Rankings with a few loosely connected thoughts regarding this season:
• There are plenty of incredible players having incredible seasons, but few teams that captivate night in and night out.
• No team has a defensive rating below 100 points per 100 possessions, which means every team in the league scores a point for every other trip down the court.
• So are team and individual stats inflated this year? Yes. Am I actually inclined to give Oscar Robertson more credit for averaging a triple double with no three-point line and more physical play? Completely.
• Am I going to slight Russell Westbrook and James Harden for being the brightest spots in what’s been a sort of dull season? Not at all.
• That’s because this is the new normal, brought on by the NBA’s rule changes that have largely done away with hard-nosed defense, and smart franchises with the means and intelligence to take advantage of where the league started heading a decade ago.
As teams gradually move toward adapt-or-die territory when it comes to pace and space, there might be less room for cohesive units to really win our hearts with fresh personalities and aesthetic. But the speed and nature of the game does leave added room for the best players to truly take over from a statistical standpoint, which we’re seeing more than ever in so many places this season. The new CBA will pay those guys accordingly, for good reason. This is the league’s reality in 2017. Get used to it.
Here are the first Power Rankings of the calendar year.
(All stats and records used through Jan. 1)
30. Brooklyn Nets (8–24)
Last Week: 30
Net Rating: -7.7
For what it’s worth (probably not a ton unless you’re the Celtics), the Nets are a league-worst 1–16 on the road.
29. Philadelphia 76ers (8–24)
Last Week: 29
Net Rating: -7.7
Philly is a respectable 4–6 over its last 10 games, and 5–6 on the year when Joel Embiid scores 20-plus.
28. Phoenix Suns (10–24)
Last Week: 27
Net Rating: -5.6
Brandon Knight’s been marginalized of late, trade rumors are starting to crop up, and a belated move would be a step in the right direction. I, for one, want more Tyler Ulis in my life.
27. Los Angeles Lakers (12–25)
Last Week: 28
Net Rating: -6.7
The Lakers’ coveted first-round pick goes to the Sixers if it falls outside the top three. The good news is, L.A.’s lottery odds look more favorable by the day.
26. Miami Heat (10–25)
Last Week: 25
Net Rating: -3.2
Can you identify any of these players?
The highly-injured Heat started a lineup of Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder, Wayne Ellington, Luke Babbitt and Willie Reed on Sunday. They lost.
25. Dallas Mavericks (10–24)
Last Week: 26
Net Rating: -5.4
The Mavs were tangibly better in December, finishing in the middle of the pack for the month despite having a healthy Dirk Nowitzki for just four games. Harrison Barnes (20.4 per game last month) and a rejuvenated Wes Matthews (who’s missed just one start and is shooting 38.1% from three) have given them a nice offensive boost.
24. Minnesota Timberwolves (11–23)
Last Week: 24
Net Rating: -1.7
Quietly, the Wolves are playing improved ball. They ended December on a 5–4 stretch, their best of the season. Wiggins, Towns and LaVine are all now averaging 21-plus points. It’s the connectivity that requires work right now, more so than the talent.
23. Detroit Pistons (16–20)
Last Week: 19
Net Rating: -0.9
Well, this has gotten ugly fast. Over the final 10 games of December, the Pistons owned the league’s worst net rating (-10.7) and least efficient offense. The defense has fallen off a cliff. And since Reggie Jackson returned, Detroit is 4–10. There are almost too many dots to connect here. Here’s one: “When other guys get opportunities to have the ball in their hands, it's a dangerous thing,” Stan Van Gundy said Sunday after beating the aforementioned Miami Mystery Men.
Stan is on point there—the Pistons are near the bottom of the league in assist percentage. Jackson likes to shoot the ball and Ish Smith is playing reduced minutes, and those are Detroit’s two biggest playmakers. When you look around, there aren’t many secondary passers or shooters to benefit from their creativity. The Pistons have averaged 107.3 points in their 16 wins and 91.9 in their losses, which is a pretty stark contrast. Some of that’s tied to streaky three-point shooting, and that trickles down into the ball movement problem.
Teams like the Hornets and Celtics have shown you can be successful with a sum-of-the-parts approach, particularly in the East, but you wonder if the Pistons have the talent to pull it off. Jackson’s not Kemba Walker or Isaiah Thomas, and I feel pretty good in saying he’s not the point guard that’s going to unlock Andre Drummond, either. Plus, those teams play respectable defense. Detroit has time to turn it around because of the state of the conference, yet it’s the long-term construction here that’s a bit worrisome—every player in their dubious rotation remains under contract next season. Change is gonna come with gritted teeth.
22. Sacramento Kings (14-19)
Last Week: 18
Net Rating: -3.9
Boogie taking Zach Randolph one-on-one for a good 10 seconds after the whistle and then missing a fadaway jumper perfectly captures the Kings’ considerable franchise ennui in one clip.
21. Portland Trail Blazers (15-21)
Last Week: 20
Net Rating: -2.8
It’s encouraging to see C.J. McCollum drop 43 and nab a win with Damian Lillard out. It’s also encouraging for his trade value, if the Blazers ever decide to break up that backcourt. Love them as an offensive tandem, but on the other end of the ball, you do start to wonder if it can work long term.
20. Orlando Magic (15–20)
Last Week: 21
Net Rating: -5.0
The Magic had the NBA’s second-best defensive efficiency in November, then fell to No. 24 in December. Although the offense ticked upward, Orlando needs to find a happy medium sooner than later.
19. Chicago Bulls (16–18)
Last Week: 15
Net Rating: -0.6
It didn’t take long for the predictable Rajon Rondo exodus to get going. He’s handling it like a pro, which is nice, but it would behoove the Bulls to be proactive for once.
18. Denver Nuggets (14–19)
Last Week: 22
Net Rating: -3.2
Nikola Jokic in November: 8.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, three assists, 23 minutes per game.
Nikola Jokic in December: 17 points, 8.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 25.7 minutes per game.
The Nuggets: improved.
17. New Orleans Pelicans (14–21)
Last Week: 23
Net Rating: -2.6
The Pelicans made the most of a five-game homestand, pulling out four wins and vaulting back into the eight-seed picture. They’re reportedly close to adding Donatas Motiejunas on the cheap, too. For now, 2017 is trending up.
16. Indiana Pacers (17–18)
Last Week: 17
Net Rating: -1.4
It was an interesting week for the Pacers, a microcosm of their season replete with Paul George frustration, two annoying losses and two somewhat convincing wins. If that sounds like .500 team behavior, bingo. There’s been some progression for Indiana, but never enough to make headway in the standings. Indy’s 13–5 at home, but inconsistent on the road and just 1–6 on the second leg of back to backs. The Pacers have lost to the Sixers, Heat, Suns and Mavericks this season too, which is the difference between eighth place and third place in the East.
And hey, they’re still in eighth place in the East with enough talent to in theory hang on. But people thought this was a team that could finish near the top of the conference. I was bullish, too. As it turns out, there was never enough defense here to hold up an offense prone to ball-stopping. The front line relies heavily on Myles Turner and a smattering of undersized offense-first bigs, including a nicely utilitarian player in Thaddeus Young. They have to get George his shots, but Jeff Teague and Monta Ellis need the ball, too. I really don’t know why this seemed like it might work.
On a bigger level, the Pacers are a case study in the small ball era and stand as evidence that overhauling an offense for the modern game can be really, really difficult. The teams that have done it best have been built from the lead ballhandler on down, with enough shooting and size to prop themselves up on both sides of the ball. You can try to play small and fast on offense, but the ball can't stick and you need systemic commitment. Indiana’s still dumping it in to Al Jefferson for a good chunk of every game. Paul George looks frustrated and admits he’s frustrated, but it may take an increased willingness to bend from him, too. He’s also been inconsistent. There is talent but not identity, not to mention a new coach after five years of Frank Vogel. It’s going to take team-wide adjustment to make headway.
15. New York Knicks (16–17)
Last Week: 12
Net Rating: -3.5
Four losses in a row, Kristaps Porzingis might have an Achilles issue, and concern stands about how much longer this ship is going to hold together. Then again, the last part is every other week in New York City.
14. Atlanta Hawks (18–16)
Last week: 16
Net Rating: -1.1
Reports surfaced over the weekend that the Hawks are considering a Paul Millsap trade. He’s 31, he’s sure to opt out and sign a new deal this summer and the team’s fighting to tread water. It would suck to watch Atlanta break up the band, but as we said here a few weeks ago, imagine how fun Millsap could be on basically any playoff team (cough Raptors cough).
13. Washington Wizards (16–16)
Last Week: 14
Net Rating: -0.1
The Wizards performed like a top-10 team last month and have been especially effective at home. You know it’s going great when Brad Beal casts an All-Star vote for John Wall. And himself…but it’s a start.
12. LA Clippers (22–14)
Last week: 7
Net Rating: +4.9
While Blake Griffin is off fighting the Monstars injured, the Clippers are in full swoon, with J.J. Redick also missing time, Doc Rivers yelling at referees, and that awesome start completely erased. L.A.’s gonna make the playoffs, but would be the No. 7 seed if they started now.
11. Milwaukee Bucks (16–16)
Last Week: 13
Net Rating: +3.3
Milwaukee has become one of the league’s most entertaining teams to watch thanks to Giannis and Jabari. Let’s also give rookie Malcom Brogdon (a second-round pick who just nabbed his first triple double) some credit. I would like the Bucks back in the postseason, please.
10. Charlotte Hornets (19–15)
Last Week: 11
Net Rating: +2.3
The occasionally maligned non-Kemba Hornets actually stepped up in December, namely Nicolas Batum (16.1 points/8.6 rebounds/6.8 assists ain’t too shabby). It’s still hard not to worry a little bit about the quality of the supporting cast. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is averaging just 9.1 points per game in a starting role. What gives?
9. Utah Jazz (21–13)
Last Week: 10
Net Rating: +5.9
Utah has been busy cashing in on a cushy slate, erasing three straight losses with wins over the Lakers, Sixers and Suns. The Jazz get the Nets on Monday, but that kicks off a run of five road games in seven days. Their mettle will be tested.
8. Memphis Grizzlies (22–14)
Last Week: 9
Net Rating: +1.1
Sometimes I just wish everyone loved Tony Allen as much as I do. The Grindfather leads all shooting guards (20+ MPG) in Real Plus-Minus, according to ESPN’s metrics. I hope these trade rumors are lies.
7. Boston Celtics (18–13)
Last Week: 8
Net Rating: +2.2
Isaiah Thomas just scored 52 points and deserves a lot more national attention than he receives. But the success of IT and Avery Bradley—who will both be up for contract renegotiations this summer—might put the Celtics in a bit of a financial pinch going forward.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder (21–13)
Last Week: 6
Net Rating: +1.1
As good as Russell Westbrook has been, it’s honestly still a small shock to the system that the Thunder have been quite this successful. It’s not that the formula—an explosive scorer, a top-10 defense and elite rebounding—has been surprising, it’s just that it’s been this sustainable. The Thunder are not a good three-point shooting team nor are they an especially well-rounded one. This type of success comes with a tip of the cap to Billy Donovan, but of course, would be impossible without Westbrook.
OKC may have lost Kevin Durant this off-season, but it hasn’t lost much of its identity at all, and that’s due to Russ’s gratingly consistent dominance. The percentages actually speak louder than his triple doubles. His 41.2% usage rate is ridiculous but functional. During his minutes, he’s been responsible for two-thirds of Thunder assists, more than 60% of their made free throws and nearly a third of total rebounds. If you combine points and assists, he’s responsible for 39.1% of points scored while on the floor.
This team is going to the playoffs, God forbid this guy begins to wear down. The Thunder are not a pretty team, but they’re an effective one. Purists may not love the whole one-man-show thing, but here’s a counterpoint: in the absence of consistently great NBA rivalries (Cavs-Warriors happens sparingly and I’m not hearing it otherwise), you can always turn on Westbrook and just imagine how much he might conceivably hate the other team. He looks the part, at least. It’s thrilling television and even better in person. It’s one of the redeeming things about this season.
And the stat chase and MVP race are going to make Thunder games matter down the stretch, too. Think of all the times where you can substitute “Westbrook” for “Thunder” and still make perfectly correct statements about their basketball games. “Westbrook won the game last night,” or you could say, “Westbrook needs more shooters around him,” or “I really hope Westbrook gets a good playoff seed and home court,” or something like that. You can say the same for James Harden, sure, but take this one to the water cooler this week: if you swapped the two players, how would their teams fare? I’m not sure Harden could thrive playing OKC’s physical style, but I feel great saying Westbrook would do the same stuff within Houston’s offensive machine. Chew on it.
5. Toronto Raptors (22–10)
Last Week: 3
Net Rating: +8.9
Patrick Patterson’s injury sucks, but I also don’t quite buy the hard argument (based largely on on/off numbers) that he’s irreplaceable to the Raptors. These guys will soldier on.
4. Houston Rockets (26–9)
Last Week: 5
Net Rating: +7.5
James Harden’s 53-point, 17-assist, 16-rebound stat line against New York almost gave me a heart attack on New Year’s Eve, but it’s also a reminder that there are like five legitimately good defensive teams in the NBA. Full credit to Harden, but the Knicks are not one of them.
3. San Antonio Spurs (27–7)
Last week: 4
The Spurs went 12–2 in December and bested their November net rating by 8.8 points per possession. They were 11–4 in November. They’re…improving. They're...alive.
2. Golden State Warriors (29–5)
Last Week: 2
Net Rating: +12.1
Just gonna leave this here (it didn’t count).
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (25–7)
Last Week: 1
Net Rating: +6.3
Barring some unforeseen disaster, the Cavs are probably gonna hang on to this spot until the Warriors rematch on Jan. 16. That game comes at the end of a 10-day, six game Cleveland road trip.