While we wait breathlessly for the All-Star reserves to be announced, celebrate the signing of the new CBA and wait patiently (angrily? hopefully?) for Warriors–Cavs Round III, let’s appreciate the things we do have: the weekly Power Rankings.
Golden State’s huge week propels them, predictably, to the top of the heap. Maybe they’ll be there to stay this time. But the rest of the league stands on shakier ground, with most of the elite teams taking losses this week (unless you consider the Jazz elite). Guess what? Utah’s in the top five for the first time since I took over this column ahead of the 2015–16 season (and honestly, maybe since 1998). Beyond the upper crust, the whole league continues to be a giant puzzle, mostly because almost all the bad teams are still in the picture (sorry, Nets).
Here’s your weekly digest of the best alternative NBA facts.
30. Brooklyn Nets (9–34)
Last Week: 30
Net Rating: -7.8
Pushing the pace paid off for the Nets, at least a little bit, in a 143–114 win over the Pelicans (who’d been playing respectable defense lately!), posting the second-most regulation points in team history.
29. Los Angeles Lakers (16–32)
Last Week: 28
Net Rating: -6.9
The Lakers are on national TV so much that they’re basically a bad late-night variety show on the East Coast. Show up for Swaggy P once a week, turn on the fourth quarter for Lou Williams, and don’t watch when they’re losing by 49 to Dallas. For the record… worst loss in franchise history, on the 11th anniversary of Kobe’s 81 points.
28. Orlando Magic (18–28)
Last Week: 27
Net Rating: -5.3
Orlando’s now just 2–9 in January, Evan Fournier has missed five straight games, and they’re only a game up on the Sixers in the conference standings. So…that’s massively disappointing.
27. Dallas Mavericks (15–29)
Last Week: 26
Net Rating: -3.4
Harrison Barnes, reputation redeemed, as he recently scored in single-digits for the first time this season. And that was because, yes, the Mavs dropped the Lakers by 49. Remember when the Western Conference was super fun?
26. Miami Heat (14–30)
Last Week: 29
Net Rating: -3.5
Things are kind of dark these days when it comes to the Heat, but their first three-game win streak of the season couldn’t have come at a better time (well, depending where you stand with regard to a tank situation). We last visited the Heat in this space all the way back in the preseason, and it was never a secret that this would be a transition year. But it’s been even worse than expected—although Hassan Whiteside has been great from a production standpoint, they’ve lost Justise Winslow for the year, gotten little to no improvement out of Dion Waiters, and overall look like a team in need of an aggressive, DIY off-season from Pat Riley.
Tyler Johnson’s averaging 16 per game off the bench in January, which is nice, but Miami paid a whole lot to keep a guy who’s ideally a third or fourth guard long-term. Josh Richardson, their other find last season, has a similar type of ceiling and is currently injured. This team has been gutted by the gradual dissolution of the Heatles and lacks a clear identity, not to mention NBA-level talent, you get the picture. You can’t blame Erik Spoelstra. The only fun Heat question: what might Riley be planning?
It’s not surprising that Goran Dragic has come up in trade rumors, and finding the right deal there should be paramount, unless Miami believes they can net a quality free agent this summer. He (and to a way lesser extent, James Johnson) are really their only attractive, movable trade pieces, which is going to make it tough to get too creative before the deadline. All eyes should be on the draft lottery, where a handful of solid point guard prospects should be in play. That should make a Dragic deal more feasible. Can a 30-year-old Dragic pull them a first-rounder and a young player? Debatable. I don’t doubt Miami’s ability to make transactions work for them, but I do wonder how long it’s going to take for them to return to relevance.
25. Sacramento Kings (16–27)
Last Week: 23
Net Rating: -4.2
Losing Rudy Gay (and his trade value for this season) amid a streak of just one win in nine games adds insult to injury here. The Kings are in danger of falling out of the eight-seed race, and it’s not out of the question that the Sixers might actually be utilizing their lottery swap rights.
24. Phoenix Suns (15–29)
Last Week: 25
Net Rating: -4.4
Winning in Toronto on a back-to-back to close a four-day, three-city road trip has to be the Suns’ best win of the season. A season-high 40 points and 13 assists from Eric Bledsoe and a surging Devin Booker has at least made for decent television. The backcourt will have to be what keeps Phoenix hot, but that last playoff spot is truly up for grabs.
23. Philadelphia 76ers (15–27)
Last Week: 24
Net Rating: -6.0
Things were going well, the defense was looking legitimately great, and then Joel Embiid got hurt again, which is to say…this could get real ugly again, and real quick. That, and color me skeptical on reports of Ben Simmons coming back anytime soon.
22. New York Knicks (19–26)
Last Week: 22
Net Rating: -3.0
It’s been an especially agonizing month (season, really) for New York—this week included a one-point, last-possession loss to Atlanta, a surprise win in Boston, and then two narrow losses to the Wizards and Suns. They’ve lost their last six games decided by three points or less, dating to Dec. 13.
21. New Orleans Pelicans (17–27)
Last Week: 18
Net Rating: -2.3
I really don’t know how you give up 143 points to a Nets team on an 11-game losing streak—with Anthony Davis patrolling the paint—but cheers to the Pelicans, because they managed it.
20. Minnesota Timberwolves (16–28)
Last Week: 21
Net Rating: -1.3
Karl-Anthony Towns in January: 23.8 points, 13.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 blocks, 53% shooting. Wolves in January: 5–6. Karl-Anthony Towns: still excellent. Wolves: a slowly improving sort of ‘meh’.
19. Portland Trailblazers (19–27)
Last Week: 17
Net Rating: -2.6
A double-OT win in Boston doesn’t do much to mask the same defensive issues that have plagued the Blazers all year. Portland will have to find a defensive solution to stop their backslide. Don’t be shocked if they’re active leading up to the deadline.
18. Milwaukee Bucks (20–23)
Last Week: 14
Net Rating: +0.9
Make that five straight losses and nine straight games conceding more than 109 points for the Bucks, who’ve become Internet darlings but haven’t quite matured into the “good” category. The kicker: Khris Middleton could apparently make an unexpected in-season return. They better make sure they’re still in the race by the time he’s ready.
17. Denver Nuggets (18–25)
Last Week: 22
Net Rating: -2.4
I feel like every other Nuggets blurb here has to do with Nikola Jokic, but he just led the team in scoring in six straight appearances and has emerged as one of the league’s more prolific stat-stuffing bigs. Denver’s starting to play better at the right time, too: 3–2 in a five-game week ain’t bad.
16. Chicago Bulls (22–23)
Last Week: 16
Net Rating: -0.9
Dealing Jimmy Butler after last season in favor of a rebuild was at least a fair thought to entertain, but now much of that talk seems preposterous, given that legitimate stars are the league’s rarest currency. It’s hard to predict this front office, but the Bulls rarely make big deals in-season. Slow the roll on those rumors. Please?
15. Indiana Pacers (22–21)
Last Week: 12
Net Rating: -1.1
Indiana has played tangibly better at home, where they’re 16–5 with better offensive splits, particularly on the glass. Meanwhile, the Pacers are 6–16 on the road. While nobody feels great about them, their problems are correctable enough to offer second-half optimism.
14. Detroit Pistons (21–24)
Last Week: 19
Net Rating: -1.5
After stringing together three wins and halting a pretty crappy stretch, Detroit’s immediate slate gives them a chance to turn their season around. Five of the Pistons’ next eight come at home against teams with losing records.
13. L.A. Clippers (29–16)
Last week: 9
Net Rating: +5.5
Chris Paul is hurt, and that really sucks. There’s no beating around the bush here with the Clippers, who’ve faced seemingly every kind of existential curveball over the last several years. They’ve been able to fend for themselves consistently enough without Blake Griffin, but losing CP3 renders them a structurally different team (they’re 0–2 so far without him). So even with a nice 10-game postseason cushion in the standings and Griffin on the way back, L.A. takes a somewhat pre-emptive hit in these rankings.
They’re losing Paul at a bad time, too: over the next month, the Clippers draw the Warriors twice, have challenging matchups with the Jazz, Raptors, Hawks and Celtics on the road, and conclude that stretch of 13 games with the Spurs. The good news is a red-hot start to January bought them wiggle room. Given what’s currently a shoving match for a four-five seed matchup in the West, the Clips are going to need more than that. Griffin—who could suit up any day now—will obviously be key. Watch for him to step up even more as a distributor, but then the question becomes more about how they’ll hold up defensively. It’s murky.
But looking big-picture, the long-impending dissolution of this roster could really be on tap. Observers entertained a red-hot start, but the conference picture is thicker at the top than most imagined, too. It’s conceivably going to take even more than in past years to make it to the West finals, and that sure feels like L.A.’s ceiling. Get ready for more nihilistic Clippers takes, and hope CP3 gets back in time for them to pull together. As maligned as they’ve been, I have a feeling we’ll miss them eventually. Full disclosure: I still own a “Lob City” tee.
12. Washington Wizards (23–20)
Last Week: 13
Net Rating: +0.6
Whether you’re shocked or not, the Otto Porter breakout is still going: the former third overall pick is shooting 53% from the field and 45% from three. Wall and Beal nab the headlines, but having a legitimate floor-spacer in the frontcourt makes life a whole lot easier.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder (25–19)
Last Week: 10
Net Rating: +0.3
Russ may not be starting the All-Star Game, but at least we know how he’s going to…
10. Charlotte Hornets (23–21)
Last Week: 15
Net Rating: +2.3
After navigating some mid-season doldrums for a few weeks the Hornets appear back in form, and that starts with defense. They’re 15–1 when keeping opponents under 100 points per game.
9. Memphis Grizzlies (26–20)
Last Week: 7
Net Rating: +0.2
The Grizz have come back to earth a little bit this month, dropping a couple close games, getting blown out by the Rockets, and playing a bit closer to what expectations portended. They start a six-game in-conference road trip this weekend—their longest of the season.
8. Toronto Raptors (28–16)
Last Week: 4
Net Rating: +6.4
In midst of their first three-game losing streak since November 2015, should the Raptors be worrying us? Considering that the losses came to the Sixers, Hornets (by 35!) and the Suns off a back-to-back, the answer is a hard, definite maybe. My one, dedicated Raptors fan friend says he’s concerned, citing a small margin of offensive error and teams applying high ball pressure on Kyle Lowry and All-Star starter DeMar DeRozan and forcing the other guys to figure it out. A lot of this rings true, considering the overall good health that backcourt has had and the number of games their core guys have logged over the last couple years, Olympics included.
Offensive margin for error is a true story—the Raptors own the league’s second-worst assist rate, and this is not a team full of exceptional playmakers beyond Lowry. They’re the fifth-best three-point shooting team in the league, but take the second-fewest attempts from downtown. That has to do with leaning heavily on the star guards to initiate offense, which means a smattering of night-to-night scoring help from a range of role guys—DeRozan doesn’t really shoot threes, so others have to. Neither DeMarre Carroll nor Terrence Ross has been the most consistent of contributors. They’ve also really benefited from hot starts—the Raptors are remarkably 14–5 when leading after the first quarter.
None of this points to one massive problem, but when you talk about the type of scoring consistency the Raptors need to be at their best (and look back at last year’s conference finals against the Cavs, when they shot just 28% from deep as a team), it’s reason to think their recipe might be in trouble come playoff time. The fact they own the league’s second-most efficient offense in spite of the holes they have is remarkable and a credit to the organization. They’re one of the league’s winningest franchises the past few years, after all. But be wary for the possibility of some stat correction, especially with how last week went down. They get four of five at home to figure it out.
7. Atlanta Hawks (26–18)
Last week: 11
Net Rating: +0.6
Atlanta owns the East’s best net rating over the past 10 games and is creeping on into the Toronto-Boston second tier, at least record-wise. The swiftness of their in-season turnaround has really been impressive.
6. Boston Celtics (26–17)
Last Week: 5
Net Rating: +2.4
I didn’t have a media vote for All-Star, but I would have voted for Isaiah Thomas. Just saying.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers (30–12)
Last Week: 2
Net Rating: +3.7
Cleveland has now lost four of their last six games, albeit three came on a long road trip out west and two were against the Warriors and Spurs. January hasn’t been especially kind to the Cavs, but something tells me getting back to the Eastern Conference might be.
4. Utah Jazz (29–16)
Last Week: 8
Net Rating: +5.6
The Jazz debut in the top five after winning six straight, most notably Cleveland head to head a week ago. As suggested here a week ago, start taking this team seriously: if their defense can hold up over the course of a series, Utah has the right type of talent to make things spicy.
3. Houston Rockets (34–13)
Last Week: 6
Net Rating: +6.6
Props to Sam Dekker for carving out a real role and dropping 30 in his first career start. He should probably try to dunk on fewer people. But it’s always nice seeing guys come back from early-career injuries and help playoff caliber teams. Houston’s sudden depth has been a worthy undercard to the whole “Harden is incredible” plot line.
2. San Antonio Spurs (34–9)
Last week: 3
Net Rating: +9.7
Kawhi dropping 41 on 50% shooting in an overtime win against LeBron (and the Cavs) just underscores how quietly ridiculous he’s been. That’s six straight games with 30-plus and counting.
1. Golden State Warriors (38–6)
Last Week: 1
Net Rating: +12.6
Since losing to the Cavs on Christmas, the Warriors are 11–1, and this week’s convincing wins over Cleveland, Oklahoma City and Houston served plenty of notice. They’ve now won seven straight with an average victory margin of 19.4 points.