- While all eyes are on the Warriors and Cavaliers, the Spurs are quietly playing the best basketball in the NBA. Plus, a new team enters the top five this week.
Well now, would you look at that: we’re almost at the halfway point of the NBA season. I’m losing track of triple doubles, 50-point games and viral odds and ends, and scribes around the league are losing their minds searching for new stuff to write about. January is sort of the no-man’s land of the NBA calendar, post-Christmas but pre-All-Star, and pivotal in bridging the gap between promising starts and the playoff race.
In times like these, we turn to the comforting structure of the Power Rankings to sift through the pack. This week, we have a new No. 1, three hot East teams climbing up from the middle, a handful of squads fighting to stay afloat, and as usual, a giant mess at the bottom. Let’s unpack it all.
30. Brooklyn Nets (8–28)
Last Week: 30
Net Rating: -7.5
After another loss to the Sixers…it’s probably time to trade Brook Lopez and cash out.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves (11–26)
Last Week: 24
Net Rating: -2.0
Well, the Wolves are really not good, and Zach LaVine leads the league in minutes, and Andrew Wiggins is in the top 10, and Karl-Anthony Towns is in the top 15. I will always love Thibs, but I’m a little worried about those guys. The funny thing is, there’s technically still time to turn it around if they can figure out their second-half woes.
28. Philadelphia 76ers (10–25)
Last Week: 29
Net Rating: -7.0
The Sixers beat the Nets, now Joel Embiid thinks the Sixers have a chance to make the playoffs. #NBAVOTE.
27. Miami Heat (11–28)
Last Week: 26
Net Rating: -4.0
When Heat fans thought it couldn’t get worse, they lose Justise Winslow for the season. [Insert statement about Pat Riley’s long-accruing karma here.]
26. Dallas Mavericks (11–26)
Last Week: 25
Net Rating: -5.3
Everybody on the Mavericks is now healthy for the first time this season. We will find out how much that matters.
25. Denver Nuggets (14–23)
Last Week: 18
Net Rating: -4.3
The Nuggets are backsliding hard, but they’re scoring a lot of points: they’re just outside the top 10 in offensive efficiency, fifth in pace and a surprising fifth in scoring. I think Mike Malone has the right idea, and Denver has to look long-term. But at some point, they’ll need to figure out the defensive problem.
24. Phoenix Suns (12–26)
Last Week: 28
Net Rating: -5.0
Eric Bledsoe’s quietly averaging a 20-5-5 line. Can someone quietly come get Eric Bledsoe out of Phoenix?
23. Orlando Magic (16–23)
Last Week: 20
Net Rating: -5.0
Before any massive complaints about the Magic underperforming, remember that they’re on track to improve their record for a fifth straight season. That said, the on-court product has fallen backward, and after a promising defensive start, Orlando is three games out of the eighth seed (they posted the second-best efficiency in November before plummeting to No. 20). Bringing up the rear of the East’s middle class isn’t especially sexy, but it will land you in the middle of tons of (possibly fake) trade rumors, and probably back to the middle of the lottery. Let’s spin this forward a bit.
It’s one thing to say Orlando’s active off-season backfired, but what it has given them is flexibility. For a small-market team, there’s something to be said for compiling assets, making improvements and hoping to wait out a big free agent fish. The sometimes-maligned Serge Ibaka leads the team in win shares (per Basketball Reference), Evan Fournier, on a long-term deal, leads the team in scoring, and then there’s a smattering of pretty talented role player-types, most of them on cheap, movable contracts. Elfrid Payton is playing markedly better of late, cutting back on turnovers and making a productive impact. That said, there still doesn’t appear to be enough to take a leap forward without a talent injection. The moves they made certainly weren’t a waste of time, but the next set, and how they flip these parts, is the critical part.
There’s probably not a quick roster fix for the scoring issues. Barring a return to elite defensive performance, the Magic are on the outside looking in. They’ll likely pick in the lottery again, probably not high enough to cash in on the top tier of players, but in a relatively deep looking first round. Nothing here should be tied down. The front office has publicly said they want to be active in deals. They’ve got about six weeks to figure it out.
22. Los Angeles Lakers (14–26)
Last Week: 27
Net Rating: -5.0
The Lakers just won three of four, and with how malleable this bottom group of teams has looked, that’s enough to net them a nice spike. Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell have stepped up so far this month, too.
21. Sacramento Kings (15–22)
Last Week: 22
Net Rating: -4.1
Not to over-harp on scheduling, but it’s totally possible Sacramento is dead in the water by the end of this month if they aren’t careful: they get Detroit, Cleveland, Oklahoma City and Indiana before closing the month on an eight-game road trip out east. They’ve just lost three straight. This is going to pose a huge challenge.
20. Portland Trailblazers (16–23)
Last Week: 21
Net Rating: -2.5
The Blazers are still the most dangerous team in the sub-.500 Western Conference glut—they’re experienced and have two clinical late-game players in Lillard and McCollum.
19. New Orleans Pelicans (14–24)
Last Week: 17
Net Rating: -2.9
We last visited the Pelicans in Week 2, and things down in New Orleans are not quite as drastic as when the team was 0–8, even if the King Cake Baby is being dispatched to terrorize random civilians in their own homes. Buddy Hield won Rookie of the Month in December, Jrue Holiday’s been playing well, and the Pels are just outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency over their last 15 games (in which they are 7–8). In the West, that’s enough to keep them sniffing around the final playoff seed.
Anthony Davis has been playing more center, which seems prudent given how the league is leaning, particularly this season. He’s a nightmare on both ends no matter what role you assign him, but when you can play a quicker pace and open up the floor around him, it’s a no-brainer. It’s unclear why it took this long for it to happen, but the sooner the Asik-Ajinca experiment fully dies, the better for New Orleans’s future. A free half-season trial of a hopefully healthy Donatas Motiejunas helps big time. A defense built around the rangy, shot-blocking Davis can definitely work, but the trickier issue for the Pelicans has been bolstering the offense around him. Hield shot 47.8% from three in December and looks like the player people thought he’d be, and that’s a start.
Another big issue has been the injuries, which doesn’t help when you’re trying to figure out personnel—only one Pelicans lineup has played more than 100 minutes this season. Gentry’s most frequent lineup of late has been extremely effective on defense: Holiday, Hield, Dante Cunningham, Solomon Hill and Davis have a stellar +79.1 defensive rating in seven games together. It’s not a tenable offensive group (the ball sticks and Hill/Cunningham aren’t a good offensive pairing), but its overall success is also a testament to Davis’s impact. Bottom line: It really shouldn’t have to be this hard to build a playoff team around him. The new CBA means Davis will be able to cash all the way out in New Orleans long-term, which buys them time. Even amid what might be another one of their long losing streaks, there’s some reason to watch the Pelicans with a little optimism. Who wouldn’t mind Davis in the playoffs?
18. Detroit Pistons (18–21)
Last Week: 23
Net Rating: -0.9
It was encouraging watching Detroit (mostly Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) close out Portland late Sunday night. It doesn’t hide how downright awful the Pistons have been of late. Maybe they're not dead yet.
17. New York Knicks (17–20)
Last Week: 15
Net Rating: -3.8
After sitting at a respectable 16–13 entering Christmas New York has now lost seven of eight games (five on the road), conceding triple digit points in every one. The rest of the month will be pivotal: they get the Pelicans, Sixers, then nine of 11 games against Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls.
16. Milwaukee Bucks (18–18)
Last Week: 11
Net Rating: +2.6
The conceptual Bucks sit well above the .500 mark. The reality is that despite their Giannis-sized strides as a team, the overall results have been a bit average.
15. Washington Wizards (18–18)
Last Week: 13
Net Rating: -0.2
Although John Wall remains one of the league’s premier passers, the team on whole still struggles with ball movement and creating open looks. Tinkering with the bench might be an area to upgrade.
14. Charlotte Hornets (20–18)
Last Week: 10
Net Rating: +1.7
Did you miss Marco Belinelli almost making the greatest shot of all time? Indulge me.
13. Chicago Bulls (19–18)
Last Week: 19
Net Rating: +0.1
Jimmy Butler’s last six games: 34.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 46% shooting—plus the Bulls are 3–1 since Rajon Rondo was benched. We’ve entered like the sixth phase of this soap opera.
12. Indiana Pacers (20–18)
Last Week: 16
Net Rating: -0.3
Last week we were lamenting the Pacers in this space, now they’ve won five in a row and seven of eleven—all against the East. The starting lineup of Jeff Teague, Paul George, Glenn Robinson III, Thad Young and Myles Turner has been outstanding on both ends of the floor in that span (+15.1 net rating as a group). It’s also been their only worthwhile defensive unit…so we’ll see how long this holds up.
11. LA Clippers (26–14)
Last week: 12
Net Rating: +5.3
L.A. has followed six straight losses with four wins and is poised to take advantage of a cushy-looking January schedule, beginning with a five-game homestand. Chris Paul is back and Blake Griffin is making progress in his recovery. The arrow points tenuously upward.
10. Atlanta Hawks (21–16)
Last week: 14
Net Rating: 0.0
It’s funny that all these Hawks trade rumors are swirling just as the team rips off a six-game win streak. Atlanta’s had issues, but it's worth mentioning that the lineup of Dennis Schroder, Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard has been the league’s most efficient defensive group (minimum 100 minutes played). Whether or not they deal Millsap will tell you how the front office sees the long-term ceiling.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder (22–16)
Last Week: 6
Net Rating: +1.1
Going to jump on the Millsap-to-Thunder wishful thinking train. If OKC thinks they can get him to stay, his versatility on both ends would make him an incredible compliment to Westbrook. Let the man shine.
8. Utah Jazz (23–16)
Last Week: 9
Net Rating: +4.6
The Jazz went 2–3 during a brutal five-game road trip that lasted seven days and included two back-to-backs. That said, losses to the Celtics, Raptors and Grizzlies underscore their struggles to beat good teams over the past month or so.
7. Memphis Grizzlies (24–16)
Last Week: 8
Net Rating: +0.8
In a long, occasionally dull regular season, the mettlesome Grizzlies owning the Warriors has been a welcome, if relatively niche subplot. That series is near the top of my postseason wish list.
6. Toronto Raptors (24–13)
Last Week: 5
Net Rating: +7.3
Toronto falls out of the top five for the first time this season after an up-and-down couple of weeks, and as Boston heats up. I wouldn’t say I’m concerned, but blowing a 19-point lead to the Bulls doesn’t help.
5. Boston Celtics (23–14)
Last Week: 7
Net Rating: +2.7
It took longer than expected, but the Celtics are pulling it together. Of note: since Dec. 1, their six losses have come to the Rockets, Raptors, Thunder (twice), Spurs and Cavs. Those are the kinds of wins the Celtics will need to start collecting to prove they belong in the league’s upper echelon.
4. Houston Rockets (30–9)
Last Week: 4
Net Rating: +7.1
Beating the Raptors made it eight wins in a row (and 19 of 21!) and James Harden has four triple doubles and 10 straight 20/10 games in that span. Rob Mahoney took a good look at how Mike D’Antoni has ramped up the pace in Houston.
3. Golden State Warriors (32–6)
Last Week: 2
Net Rating: +11.4
Not to overreact too heavily, but the Warriors looked vulnerable against Memphis on Friday, squandering a 24-point second half lead, being outscored 49–21 in the fourth and OT, and reverting dangerously to rushed shots and isolation plays. I’m not worried about them, but the point is, they’re human. I’m also not concerned about Draymond Green being mad at Kevin Durant or anyone else —Green takes a lot of flak, but frankly, it might be healthy to get it out now.
Moreover, Green’s anger at Durant for taking a late, iso three at the end of regulation and opting out of a pick and roll with Steph Curry (remember, the MVP?) was far from misplaced. Smash Mouth doesn’t know anything about basketball. If anything’s going to derail the Warriors, it’s falling into that style of play when adversity strikes. It’s a trap that Golden State will have to navigate when it matters. Better to deal with it now. The glaring problem for the Warriors down the stretch involved the matchup between Durant and Zach Randolph, a two-way mismatch that Memphis effectively exposed.
Randolph frequently got into Durant’s body in the post and got basically whatever he wanted within 10 feet. Conversely, the ball-stopping kept the Warriors from using Durant’s mismatch on offense, where he should be able to get whatever he wants over Z-Bo. Durant and his high-scoring point guard took turns, and it ultimately hurt (heard this one before?). Broken and stagnant possessions led to clock mismanagement, rushed shots and deep threes. The cookie crumbled. It may not be a weakness teams can pick on for seven games, but the fact the Grizzlies could do it for one—and have now beaten the Warriors twice—means it’s worth your attention.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (28–8)
Last Week: 1
Net Rating: +5.5
The addition of Kyle Korver looks like a no-brainer, upgrading on Mike Dunleavy and easing the absence of J.R. Smith. I just love that the Cavs are going for it again. I love it.
1. San Antonio Spurs (30–7)
Last week: 3
Net Rating: +9.6
Death, taxes and the Spurs. San Antonio boasts a league-best +16.1 net rating over its last 10 games, playing the NBA’s most efficient offense and defense and moving in full stride. Their last seven wins have come by 20, 19, 21, 26, 28, 28 and 17 points. Let’s hand them proper credit, at least until next week.