Take a moment and celebrate internally: we’re halfway to the playoffs. And with the NBA’s bell-cow matchup on tap this week, and the Warriors and Cavs comfortably rolling through their conferences (and these Power Rankings) at mid-season, it seems like a good time to wonder aloud whether the rest of this season even matters about the teams that are angling to knock them off.
How many teams are we taking seriously? Well, the Warriors get the Cavs, Thunder and Rockets in a week that offers a chance to make a statement long-term. We know the Cavs are capable of beating the Warriors, and they also draw the always dangerous Spurs this week. The Rockets also play the Grizzlies, who have beaten them twice. There’s not really any fuzzy logic to unpack—the picture just might get a little less cloudy. The Raptors and Celtics are cruising, the Clippers are hot, the Jazz look good, and this paragraph contains the names of the only 10 teams I’m sure we’ll see come bracket time.
But it all circles back to the Warriors, who can either strongly alter the conversation with three convincing wins this week, or reinforce their issues if they can’t handle the Cavs. If they lose to the Rockets again, Houston will feel more and more capable of taking the West. And, for good measure, we get Durant vs. Westbrook. Not bad!
Let’s just hope the impending apocalypse doesn’t start this week and ruin everything, because… the Sixers are actually looking kind of good, and Joel Embiid miiiight actually start the All-Star game. And obviously, that was the massive national event you had in mind there.
(All stats and records through Jan. 15)
30. Brooklyn Nets (8–32)
Last Week: 30
Net Rating: -8.5
The Nets are now on a 10-game losing streak and mailing that pick straight to Boston, but hey, uh, they lead the league in pace…
29. Miami Heat (11–30)
Last Week: 27
Net Rating: -4.3
Well, the Heat have fallen behind the 76ers and are dead last in net rating this month. It won’t be the worst season in franchise history (remember, they only won 15 games in 2007–08), but it’s time for beachgoers to start reading mock drafts.
28. Los Angeles Lakers (15–30)
Last Week: 22
Net Rating: -6.4;">
Forget basketball, because this was my favorite thing that happened to the Lakers this week.
27. Orlando Magic (17–25)
Last Week: 23
Net Rating: -4.9
The Magic have hit a wall to start the New Year, but are scoring the ball a bit better their past couple of games. Evan Fournier has been out, but they’re beginning to get more out of Elfrid Payton (28–9–9 in a loss to Utah).
26. Dallas Mavericks (13–27)
Last Week: 26
Net Rating: -4.8
Here is some good Mavericks related content.
25. Phoenix Suns (13–27)
Last Week: 24
Net Rating: -4.8
Phoenix spent the week in Mexico City, and Devin Booker dropping 39 in a win over the Spurs (after scoring 39 two days prior against the Mavs) was one of the more impressive performances you’ll see all season. He’s averaging 28 points and shooting 54% from three in six January games. And hey—he’s now the NBA’s leading scorer in games played in Mexico.
24. Philadelphia 76ers (12–26)
Last Week: 28
Net Rating: -6.5
I might not be thinking straight thanks to the the rippling effects of #NBAVOTE Joel Embiid, but this is far and away the highest the Sixers have ever been in my one-and-a-half seasons’ worth of these rankings. The 76ers have looked like a competent NBA team on this 5–2 stretch dating to Dec. 30, and although their best win is the Hornets, these baby steps count for something.
Unfortunately, they directly count toward Philly’s odds of not winning this lottery, but it’s refreshing to see them succeeding, Embiid is legitimately fun, and Nik Stauskas is cooking people off the dribble. It’s getting crazy. Sauce Castillo sounds like a Quentin Tarantino antihero.
But for real, things are kind of trending up, even though the Sixers decided to reinstate Nerlens Noel and completely bench Jahlil Okafor instead. It’s like they’re running mental tests on which tradable big man will crack first. But the Sixers’ defense has pulled together around Embiid, playing Rob Covington and Ersan Ilyasova at the same time and squeezing minor production out of T.J. McConnell and Stauskas. Dario Saric is a player. This is interesting!!!
23. Sacramento Kings (16–24)
Last Week: 21
Net Rating: -3.8
“This isn’ t what I wanted,” George Karl said of his new book, Furious George. The best thing that happened to the Kings this season might be the fact he didn’t air out any of their dirty laundry.
22. Denver Nuggets (15–23)
Last Week: 25
Net Rating: -3.5
In the NBA’s other international swing, Denver hung a season-high 140 points on the Pacers in London, snapping a five-game losing streak. The Nuggets hold the belt as the NBA’s only undefeated team in England. I am pushing for a quip about all their European players, or at least a Brexit joke, but I got nothing.
21. Minnesota Timberwolves (14–27)
Last Week: 29
Net Rating: -1.1
Minnesota’s first three-game streak of the season included wins over the Rockets and Thunder, both of which came without injured Zach LaVine. There’s obviously a pretty talented team in here somewhere. And after all the disappointment, it still bears mention that one more stretch of success could insert this team into the playoff picture.
20. New York Knicks (18–23)
Last Week: 17
Net Rating: -3.6
If there’s one thing that’s been made clear by Phil Jackson’s notable absence this week, Derrick Rose is not the biggest problem with the Knicks. Carmelo, he of the no-trade clause, is talking about getting traded, Jackson is probably sending passive-aggressive media messages, Kyle O’Quinn is flagrantly fouling everyone and poor Kristaps is watching his family fall apart. I could spend time defending Rose, and for some it’s become a storyline that he might want a max (something that was easily assumed).
But the bigger Knicks problems have always been organizational. The Rose trade (a gamble that’s going to the team in a contractually awkward spot this summer) and the Joakim Noah contract (love Noah, but the length and cash didn’t make sense) were surface-level fixes. I respect Carmelo for (apparently) not demanding a trade long ago. He should cut his losses. He’s declined, but it’s easy to see him going to a team like the Cavs or Clippers, per rumors, and fitting in just fine. The logistics are the tricky part, and his no-trade clause just complicates the power struggle, but as long as that cloud hangs over the team, things aren’t moving forward. Something has to give, and it’s the Knicks. Expect the weird.
On the basketball end, the Knicks still can’t guard much and have only beaten four teams that currently have winning records. Guess what? Six of their next nine opponents have winning records right now. It’s probably going to get worse. At this rate, there’s a bleak alternate future where we’re hashtagging Free Porzingis.
19. Detroit Pistons (19–24)
Last Week: 18
Net Rating: -2.2
I’m starting to think Kentavious Caldwell-Pope might actually be the Pistons’ best player, which isn't all that great for them. Their supporting-type pieces are actually pretty nice, but how far can they really go long term riding the tandem of Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond?
18. New Orleans Pelicans (16–25)
Last Week: 19
Net Rating: -2.2
The Pels now own the league’s most efficient defense over their last 10 games. They can’t score, but the ship is trending in the correct direction.
17. Portland Trailblazers (18–24)
Last Week: 20
Net Rating: -1.9
It was not a bad week for the Blazers, who battled bad weather and travel to beat the Cavs on a back-to-back, winning the previous night in L.A. 48 hours after a double OT, one-point loss to the Pistons. I want to feel good about them as the eight seed, and recent defensive improvements help that feeling.
16. Chicago Bulls (21–21)
Last Week: 13
Net Rating: -0.7
Jimmy Butler’s stomach problems directly (and predictably) led to a full halt of Chicago’s momentum. The three-point strapped Bulls are dead last in effective field goal percentage and remain a game to game enigma.
15. Charlotte Hornets (20–20)
Last Week: 14
Net Rating: +1.0
The Hornets’ defense has fallen apart across a 1–6 stretch dating to Dec. 31, allowing 113.6 points per 100 possessions and 113 per game. They’re giving up extra points in transition, too (17.6 is the NBA’s second-worst mark in that span). Suddenly, they’re back on the bubble.
14. Milwaukee Bucks (20–19)
Last Week: 16
Net Rating: +2.6
I still have zero words to describe this appropriately.
13. Washington Wizards (20–19)
Last Week: 15
Net Rating: 0.0
As noted expert-level Wizard Andrew Sharp explained, Brad Beal’s step forward has basically saved this iteration of the team. On a separate note, I secretly want the Wizards to miss the playoffs, draft Lonzo Ball, and deploy a Dr. Seuss-worthy lineup of Wall, Ball, and Beal.
12. Indiana Pacers (20–19)
Last Week: 12
Net Rating: -1.0
Things have broken mostly right for the Pacers lately. It’s a small sample size but they’ve been January’s top scoring team. Let’s hope that unsuccessful London trip won’t throw them off: they play just two teams currently over .500 in their next10 games and are in position to in theory separate from the pack.
11. Atlanta Hawks (23–17)
Last week: 10
Net Rating: +0.6
Atlanta falls out of the Top 10 this week, but mostly because the Clippers got hot: the Hawks have won eight of their last nine, Tim Hardaway Jr. is randomly crushing it, and it sure sounds like Paul Millsap isn’t getting traded anymore.
10. Oklahoma City Thunder (25–17)
Last Week: 9
Net Rating: +1.4
It isn’t juuuuust Russ: Enes Kanter’s last 14 games: 18.4 points, 58% shooting, 8.6 rebounds.
9. L.A. Clippers (28–14)
Last week: 11
Net Rating: +5.9
Don’t look now, but the Clippers are a perfect 6–0 in a home-heavy January. Blake Griffin could be back soon. But before you start to think about it, no, they aren’t a better team without him.
8. Utah Jazz (26–16)
Last Week: 8
Net Rating: +5.7
The Jazz hold the league’s third best net rating over their past 10 games and boast its most efficient and lowest-scoring defense through 42. Their formula has remained same as ever under Quin Snyder, maximizing the talent they’ve got, playing the slowest pace in the NBA, funneling ballhandlers toward Rudy Gobert and churning out wins in an offensive-minded league behind a truly elite defense. Ten games above .500 is about as much as anyone could have asked, and you should be taking Utah seriously.
Last season, everyone knew Utah was short a point guard, but did you realize their net rating is 18.2 points better with George Hill on the court? Hill’s playmaking has opened things up for the supremely efficient Gordon Hayward and an improving Rodney Hood, he’s averaging 18 a game shooting 48% from three and has bolstered them on the defensive end, his no-frills style fitting perfectly with the team concept. It’s not that often that the obvious on-paper improvements directly translate in the way you predict. The Jazz won that trade, safe to say. They’ve filled out a deep bench. I mean, Joe friggin Ingles is shooting 45% from deep.
To stretch for analogies, Jazz games aren’t like jazz at all: the offense isn’t overly exciting or improvisational, the playmaking is more discerning than creative. The team skews young, and they’ve got some contractual questions to solve down the road, with Gobert’s big deal about to kick in, Hill set for free agency this summer, Hayward holding a player option and Derrick Favors due up a year later. But the now of this situation is way more captivating than anyone thought. I hesitate to think they can score enough to trade punches with the Warriors or Rockets in seven games if it gets to that point, but it’s the systemic way they’re adding talent and executing a plan that makes you believe in the formula. The Jazz are out of the middle tier and back from obscurity. John Stockton, rejoice.
7. Memphis Grizzlies (25–18)
Last Week: 7
Net Rating: +0.5
The Grizz continue to impress, holding a remarkable 4–0 record against the Warriors and Rockets and again looking like a team nobody will want to face in the postseason. Marc Gasol should be back in the All-Star game.
6. Houston Rockets (32–11)
Last Week: 4
Net Rating: +6.8
Worthy of praise for Houston is Montrezl Harrell, who’s been an exceptional fill-in for Clint Capela (who could be back this week). The 2015 second-rounder has averaged 14.2 points and 4.9 rebounds over the past 15 games without him, and looks like another viable bench piece going forward.
5. Boston Celtics (25–15)
Last Week: 5
Net Rating: +2.6
Boston was 13–12 on the morning of Dec. 16. One month later, they’re 25–15. In those 15 games, Isaiah Thomas is averaging 31.3 points and 6.2 assists and every key regular save for Al Horford is shooting over 35% from three. This is a recipe for success, indeed.
4. Toronto Raptors (27–13)
Last Week: 6
Net Rating: +8.0
It’s telling that Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are both among the league’s 15 highest fourth-quarter scorers this season. For perspective, the only other set of teammates in that mix: LeBron and Kyrie.
3. San Antonio Spurs (31–9)
Last week: 1
Net Rating: +9.5
A career-high 38 points made for a nice reminder never to forget how ruthlessly efficient Kawhi Leonard can be.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (29–10)
Last Week: 2
Net Rating: +4.6
I’m excited for Kyle Korver to enter the Cavs-Warriors rivalry this week, but I also have a feeling Klay Thompson will be running around screens with Korver’s head on a pike for a decent chunk of the game. Won’t be surprised if Golden State finally gets one.
1. Golden State Warriors (34–6)
Last Week: 3
Net Rating: +11.6
It’s kind of annoying from a base entertainment standpoint that the Warriors and Cavs only play twice per regular season. What if the NBA changed the rules so that every year’s Finals teams have to play a three game series every regular season to determine home court advantage for the playoffs? That might be a terrible idea, actually. Whatever. Enjoy Round II, and maybe (probably) see you in June.