The calendar has flipped to December and things are starting to really take shape across the NBA.
The bottom and top of the standings are starting to separate in the East, while it’s being established that every team not named Suns still has a chance to make a splash in the West. Whether it’s the addition of a veteran from another team, a player returning from injury, or just a shift in the lineups and rotations, franchises are going to need to find ways to improve and make a jump from where they are now.
Keeping that big picture in mind, let's look back on the past week of action and project how that has helped start to shape the playoff and championship race going forward.
30. Suns | Record Last Week: 0-4 | Previous Ranking: 28
Things kept getting worse and worse in Phoenix this past week until the Lakers finally dropped the hammer in a 24-point win over the Suns. If Devin Booker’s left hamstring is going to keep him sidelined for an extended period, the Phoenix offense is going to have a difficult time doing just about anything. It’s still not too late to invest in another guard.
29. Bulls | Record Last Week: 0-4 | Previous Ranking: 29
With Zach LaVine playing at a high level and and Lauri Markkanen returning from his elbow injury, I want to be more excited about the Bulls. However, this current six-game slump and Fred Hoiberg's firing are making them less intriguing. Markkanen should help Chicago climb from last in the NBA in points per 100 possessions, and if he and LaVine develop a solid two-man game, they could change this team’s current course of direction. But it’s going to take some time.
28. Cavaliers | Record Last Week: 0-4 | Previous Ranking: 27
The back-to-back wins Cleveland had two weeks back seem like an even more distant memory than the 2016 Finals. The Cavaliers are now on a streak of four consecutive losses, the last three of which were all by double digits. But when a team is last in the NBA in defensive points per 100 possessions and 26th in offensive points per 100 possessions, do you really expect winning streaks to go much past two?
27. Hawks | Record Last Week: 1-2 | Previous Ranking: 30
Atlanta’s three-game road trip started with a nice last-second win against the Heat, but ended with sizable losses to the Hornets and Thunder. Getting the win in Miami marked the Hawks’ first winning streak since their first two wins of the season. The losing streak they are currently on, however, is much more representative of their play this season.
26. Nets | Record Last Week: 0-3 | Previous Ranking: 26
The Nets are in the middle of their worst stretch so far this season, and it could get much worse if they can't perform well against some of the league’s bottom-tier teams. D’Angelo Russell can’t start this week shooting 16-of-52 if Brooklyn is going to get back in the win column. But with the team being 23rd in the league in shooting percentage, there’s probably another player waiting to go into a short shooting slump.
25. Wizards | Record Last Week: 2-2 | Previous Ranking: 24
After tarnishing The Beard’s 54-point showing to start last week, the Wizards ended up on the wrong end of a pair of blowouts. With Dwight Howard out for an extended period, it seems like just a matter of time before pieces on this roster start moving. Maybe these upcoming contests away from home against the Knicks, Hawks, Cavaliers and Pacers will inspire the team to ride out with its current construction and see how it fits into the playoff picture come the end of the month. Or maybe this road swing will confirm what many thought about the Wizards needing to blow it all up ASAP.
24. Heat | Record Last Week: 2-1 | Previous Ranking: 25
I loved everything about Miami’s last play against the Hawks on Tuesday until Josh Richardson shuffled his feet before taking the final shot. That loss hurt, but the Heat bounced back with close wins over the Pelicans and Jazz. If they can keep this rolling with a win over the Magic on Tuesday before a six-game West Coast trip, Miami could find itself back in the top eight of the Eastern conference.
23. Knicks | Record Last Week: 1-2 | Previous Ranking: 23
New York’s home win over the Bucks Saturday was a nice showing following a 26-point loss to the 76ers. And having four players score at least 20 points (Emmanuel Mudiay with 28, Kevin Knox with 26 and Tim Hardaway Jr. and Damyean Dotson with 21) is a great sign for just what the future could be in New York, especially since Knox and Dotson scored their 47 combined points off the bench.
22. Magic | Record Last Week: 1-2 | Previous Ranking: 19
The Magic had the Warriors dead to right and let them out of their sights. And despite putting up a strong fight in Portland, Orlando couldn’t get it done. However, one more absurd Nikola Vucevic stat line was enough to get a win in Phoenix to finish off the West Coast portion of the Magic’s six-game road trip. Now they get to gear up for a matchup with the Heat before welcoming the Nuggets to town for the teams’ second meeting of the season.
21. Kings | Record Last Week: 1-1 | Previous Ranking: 18
Saturday’s win over the Pacers was big for a team in the midst of drama between the coach and front office. The longer the Dave Joerger situation hangs in the balance, the more likely this season goes downhill quickly despite all the promise the Kings have shown. Sacramento either needs to fully commit to pulling the trigger on another coach or actually allow their current coach to establish a culture with his team.
20. Hornets | Record Last Week: 2-2 | Previous Ranking: 15
The Hornets seemed destined to be a .500 team barring a major move. That will be enough to keep them in contention in the East, but it still has to be annoying when Kemba Walker is having the season he’s having. But as last week showed, all of this usage is going to take a toll on Walker, and there’s going to be stretches where he can’t keep up the Superman act.
19. Jazz | Record Last Week: 2-2 | Previous Ranking: 22
The trade for Kyle Korver could backfire on the Jazz. The sharpshooter is sure to open up the floor on offense and be a reliable option from distance, but he could also be too much of a defensive liability for a team that is only 14th in the league in defensive rating.
Rudy Gobert on the back end should help cover up some of Korver’s deficiencies, but with more and more teams pulling their big men from the basket, there’s no guarantee Korver will consistently have a seven-foot French security blanket waiting at the rim.
But when Donovan Mitchell is shooting almost seven threes a game while making below 30%, adding one of the greatest shooters in league history is probably the right call no matter how much he may hurt the defense. The Jazz are the fourth worst three-point shooting team in the league this season, and that wasn’t going to change without a move.
Utah is no longer taking anybody by surprise, and that could be playing a role in its slow start. Injecting Korver into the rotation might be the difference between going on a December run or falling into a slump like the one the Jazz had last season.
18. Pelicans | Record Last Week: 2-2 | Previous Ranking: 21
If Tim Frazier can be this lethal as a passer on a consistent basis, New Orleans will need to keep his minutes as high as they were the past three games. Having another player outside of Jrue Holiday to run the offense while Elfrid Payton is out is going to be paramount as the Pelicans try to get back in the postseason this season. It will take a group effort, but Frazier could potentially handle a large chunk of the responsibility.
17. Spurs | Record Last Week: 2-2 | Previous Ranking: 14
San Antonio has hit a bit of a rough patch recently. Finishing off last week with a win over the Trail Blazers was a step in the right direction. It’s hard to imagine Gregg Popovich missing the playoffs, but without weeks like this become the standard for the season, San Antonio could find itself on the outside come April.
16. Rockets | Record Last Week: 2-2 | Previous Ranking: 17
Without Chris Paul in the lineup, the Rockets are an average team at best. Paul’s return from a leg injury was a big help for a Houston squad that had dropped three straight. Clint Capela providing more impact as a scorer could take this team to new heights. And if he can force defenses to react even harder to his pick-and-rolls, it might allow Eric Gordon and Gerald Green some extra space on the perimeter to pick up their shooting from beyond the arc.
15. Mavericks | Record Last Week: 2-1 | Previous Ranking: 16
Dennis Smith Jr. is officially as tough as every hockey player ever after having his tooth knocked out and winning the subsequent jump ball.
For the Mavericks as a whole, it was another respectable week. And Sunday’s contest against the Clippers without Luka Dončić opened the door for Harrison Barnes to continue his recent scoring tear and put up 20 points for the fourth time in the last five games.
Finding a way to win that game shows the Mavericks will likely be hanging around in the mix out West until at least the end of the month.
This upcoming week is going to be a big one for Dallas establishing itself as a serious playoff contender, and Dončić needs to be back for all three games (vs. Trail Blazers, at Pelicans, vs. Rockets) if they are going to make it happen. If J.J. Barea can keep providing the occasional 20-point game off the bench, this might be the season Dallas really gets back on track.
14. Timberwolves | Record Last Week: 2-1 | Previous Ranking: 20
Robert Covington has completely transformed the defense in Minnesota. The team has done a 180 on that end of the court and the sixth-year wing from Tennessee State deserves the bulk of the credit. He’s averaging almost three steals a game in nine contests with the Timberwolves and his off-ball instincts combined with his ability to switch onto almost anybody have helped create even more turnovers.
With the amount of halfcourt offense going through Karl-Anthony Towns, having Covington there to jumpstart fast breaks and steal a few possessions here and there goes a long way in helping other players establish their rhythm within the game. Derrick Rose for instance has been a huge part of the offense this season, but he hasn’t been as focused on facilitating as he’s been in the past. With the way he’s shooting the three, though, he could add more impact than ever when off-ball, especially if he can get a couple breakaway dunks early in the game. For Andrew Wiggins though, Covington’s arrival means a chance to boost his confidence with some easy buckets. Wiggins is shooting below 40% for the season and only has two games where he shot 50% or better.
When you can turn defense to offense, everything gets astronomically easier. Covington has the defense playing at a much higher level. Now the Timberwolves need to improve their 17 points off turnovers per game, which is only 15th in the NBA.
13. Pacers | Record Last Week: 2-2 | Previous Ranking: 11
The Pacers are staying afloat without Victor Oladipo and for now that’s enough. With the team’s star out indefinitely with a right knee injury, things could have gotten really ugly during this past road stretch. Doug McDermott has stepped up in extra minutes, and other players will need to make a similar increase in production for the Pacers to slide back into the top four in the East. If the former Creighton star can be anywhere close to this useful when Oladipo returns, Nate McMillan and the Pacers could takeoff.
12. Trail Blazers | Record Last Week: 1-2 | Previous Ranking: 9
After Dame Lillard exploded against the Magic to get Portland a win, the squad let one get away against the Nuggets. With the West so tight from top to bottom, the Trail Blazers saw themselves slide down the standings by losing five of their last six. Losing four of those games to teams in the West will also feel like a killer when it’s time for tiebreakers to determine playoff seeding.
11. Grizzlies | Record Last Week: 1-2 | Previous Ranking: 8
It wasn’t the best week in Memphis, but since the defeats were to the Raptors and 76ers, the Grizzlies should be able to get over it. Memphis could easily be coming off its fifth straight defeat, but instead it’s in position to look at the Clippers matchup as a chance to defeat one of the NBA’s best.
10. Celtics | Record Last Week: 3-0 | Previous Ranking: 13
Moving Gordon Hayward to the bench is paying off. It’s been most helpful for Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris in terms of increased production and value, but Saturday’s contest against the Timberwolves could be a showcase for Hayward. You can’t expect 30 points, nine boards, eight assists and 50% shooting overall (4-of-5 from three and 10-of-10 from the line), but Hayward should become one of the NBA's top sixth men as he gets more comfortable with the new role.
9. Pistons | Record Last Week: 3-0 | Previous Ranking: 12
This current homestand has done wonders for the Pistons. They’ve racked up five consecutive wins and Monday offers the chance to extend their season-long winning streak. Everybody on the team chipped in to ruin Stephen Curry’s return Saturday, and that type of balance will be needed throughout the year in order for Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson to stay fresh.
8. Lakers | Record Last Week: 3-1 | Previous Ranking: 10
If the playoffs started today, it would be Lakers vs. Warriors in the first round. But the playoffs don’t start today. Still, the Lakers climbing this quickly up the ladder out West is impressive considering how this season started. If Luke Walton can keep LeBron’s minutes down during the regular season and not wear him out just to make the postseason, it could make all the difference for how far they advance.
7. Warriors | Record Last Week: 1-2 | Previous Ranking: 7
After barely surviving against the Magic at home on a night Kevin Durant drooped 51, the Dubs went on to lose two games on the road—including Stephen Curry’s return on Saturday against the Pistons. As this team gets back to being healthy, they'll regain three-peat form.
6. Thunder | Record Last Week: 2-0 | Previous Ranking: 6
This was a great week in Oklahoma City. The Thunder took care of business in two games most expected them to win. Russ is in triple-double form and looking more and more comfortable since returning from injury. But another setback for Andre Roberson did put a bit of a dark cloud over all the positivity with the Thunder right now.
5. Bucks | Record Last Week: 1-2 | Previous Ranking: 2
It’s good for the Bucks to get these close losses out of their system now, but they need to take at least two games against the Hornets, Bulls and Knicks if they're going to compete for the No. 1 seed. Milwaukee is 2-3 in games against teams that currently sit below .500 since beating the Trail Blazers by 43. Khris Middleton getting the chance to deliver in the clutch could make a much more lasting impact this season than the two ugly road losses though.
4. Clippers | Record Last Week: 2-1 | Previous Ranking: 4
Doc Rivers and his squad are still at the top of the West. However, Sunday’s loss to the Mavericks knocked the Clippers out of sole possession of the lead, and the schedule is going to get a bit rougher over the next few weeks. Tobias Harris is going to need to step up during this upcoming stretch and move past his 5-of-18 shooting performance in Dallas. He’s been playing at an All-Star level, but with all the big names out West it will be hard to see him getting the bid.
3. Nuggets | Record Last Week: 2-0 | Previous Ranking: 5
Jamal Murray’s late-game turnover in Portland almost did the Nuggets in, but they survived and pushed their winning streak to a season-high five games. It’s the second winning stretch of this length already for Denver, and the last time it happened, the victories were followed up by a four-game skid. With the Raptors up next, the Nuggets will get a chance for a statement win early in December. Or it could be the start of a rough East Coast swing.
2. 76ers | Record Last Week: 3-0 | Previous Ranking: 3
Philadelphia’s defense saw a bit of regression following the Jimmy Butler trade. It makes sense when you look at how Robert Covington has improved Minnesota on that end. But as Butler gets more comfortable with his new team, you can see that the team defense has been improving a bit over the past few games. All of the 76ers’ opponents last week shot below 42% as Philly put together a perfect week.
Despite all the noise on the outside surrounding Markelle Fultz and his shoulder, the 76ers seem completely unfazed on the court. Landry Shamet and T.J. McConnell have made Fultz’s lack of production a minor issue on the court, but the idea of the 2017 No. 1 pick not having a spot in the rotation seems wild. And when Fultz is ready to go, Brett Brown is going to have a decision to make. But considering where the team is right now, that’s a pretty great problem to have.
1. Raptors | Record Last Week: 3-0 | Previous Ranking: 1
“Nick Nurse know what he doing,” was a text message I received from a friend as he watched a replay of Raptors vs. Heat at 3:45 a.m. last week. Three games later, and it should be clear to everyone that Nick Nurse has this team clicking in a way that could make this a championship or bust year.
Of course, it’s a bit easier to look like you know what you’re doing as a coach when you have Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry putting together amazing seasons. And when you have a guy like Danny Green to light it up from deep and provide serious help on the defensive end. There’s also Pascal Siakam putting together a campaign worthy of earning him the Most Improved Player award. Serge Ibaka is still holding things down in the paint as the rim protector and versatile center against small-ball lineups. Add in Jonas Valanciunas, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles and it’s even more understandable why Nurse feels so good about his first 24 games on the job. Life couldn’t be much better for his club right now.