• Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers break out of their slump with wins over the Raptors, Clippers and Mavericks. When Lillard and C.J. McCollum have it going, this team is beautiful to watch.
By Khadrice Rollins
December 24, 2018

It’s almost Christmas, so to most of the world, the NBA season is just about to get started.

But for those of us who understand that every game counts and just love watching great basketball, Christmas just means one day where the whole world knows we want to avoid people to just watch hoops.

This could be the turning point in the season for several teams, and The Crossover is here to point out which teams are most in need of a surge as the calendar creeps closer to 2019.

David Dow/Getty Images

30. Knicks |  Last Week: 0-3 | Overall: 9-25 | Previous Ranking: 25

How many other fan bases around the league would argue their team had a great week when it lost to the Suns and Hawks at home? Who else is excited to start their Christmas watching the Knicks without Mitchell Robinson?

29. Wizards |  Last Week: 1-3 | Overall: 13-21 | Previous Ranking: 27

Trevor Ariza gets traded to a team he already played for and immediately gets to play the last two teams he played for. At least the Wizards beat the Suns after letting the Rockets set the record for threes in a game. Washington needed to play three overtimes to make it happen, but at least they got the win.

28. Cavaliers |  Last Week: 1-3 | Overall: 8-26 | Previous Ranking: 29

If it wasn’t for Larry Nance Jr. getting away with an obvious foul on Victor Oladipo, the Cavaliers would be on a six-game losing streak. Instead, they’ve lost five of their last six, which is just as unimpressive.

27. Magic |  Last Week: 0-3 | Overall: 14-18 | Previous Ranking: 24

When the best thing during your week was dropping a game to the Bulls by only 10 points, all you can do is go back to the drawing board and hope things get better next time on the court.

26. Bulls |  Last Week: 2-2 | Overall: 9-25 | Previous Ranking: 28

Lauri Markkanen is looking great since coming back from injury, but now Zach LaVine is banged up.

Kris Dunn and Justin Holiday will naturally look to pick up what's lost with LaVine sidelined, but the key to more success might be getting Wendell Carter Jr. involved offensively. On a team full of young players, everybody needs chances to grow, but trying to work inside out through the rookie while LaVine is down could make life easier on the perimeter while also giving Carter a real chance to take a major leap in his production early into his rookie year.

It’s obvious things aren’t great out in Chicago, but the rookie is clearly already comfortable taking on a bigger role within the team as seen by how he helped with the near mutiny. He could provide a way to get some life into this team. Markkanen is going to get his and will need more touches as he continues to show he is the real deal. And relying on Carter to put added pressure on the opposing bigs could make life easier for Markkanen.

In today’s NBA, you need to play through your guards, but when Ryan Arcidiacono is one of your starters after only playing in 24 games last season (13 less than he played in the G League) you won’t be able to do but so much banking on the perimeter. Now is a good time to see just how much you can trust the big men who were drafted with top picks in the last two years. You already know one of the guys can put people on posters, let’s see just how much more the newer big can add.

25. Suns |  Last Week: 2-2 | Overall: 8-26 | Previous Ranking: 26

Who was expecting the Suns to go on a four-game winning streak that doubled their win total on the season? If only Devin Booker could have hit just one of his two game-winner attempts or the free throw at the end of the first overtime in Washington. Now Phoenix is back where we're used to seeing it. On a losing streak.

24. Pistons |  Last Week: 1-3 | Overall: 15-16 | Previous Ranking: 20

The Pistons started December by beating the Warriors by nine points. They’ve won only two games since. And Sunday’s loss to the Hawks has them below .500 for the first time this season. If something is going to change in Detroit, it needs to happen this upcoming week when the team plays the Wizards, Pacers and Magic.

23. Pelicans |  Last Week: 0-3 | Overall: 15-19 | Previous Ranking: 23

The further this team slips out of the playoff picture, the harder it’s going to be to squash rumors about Anthony Davis leaving. The current four-game losing streak isn’t quite as bad as it seems with each of those games going down to the wire. But when the spotlight is on because there’s talk about your best player getting traded, it would go a long way to at least win one close game.

22. Hawks |  Last Week: 3-0 | Overall: 9-23 | Previous Ranking: 30

Not only did the Hawks have a perfect week, but Jeremy Lin closed out two of the three wins (Tuesday against the Wizards and Sunday against the Pistons) and he won a game at Madison Square Garden.

It feels like February 2012 all over again thanks to Linsanity.

21. Hornets |  Last Week: 2-1 | Overall: 16-16 | Previous Ranking: 22

It was all good for the Hornets until they traveled to Boston. There must be some sort of spell making this team stay right around .500.

David Sherman/Getty Images

20. Timberwolves |  Last Week: 2-2 | Overall: 15-18 | Previous Ranking: 21

The Timberwolves put together one of the most Timberwolves-esque weeks they could. They had great wins over the Kings and Thunder, but also lost to the struggling Pistons and got trashed by the Spurs.

19. Mavericks |  Last Week: 0-4 | Overall: 15-17 | Previous Ranking: 12

It’s not that Luka Doncic is the best rookie in this class. It’s that he’s the greatest rookie in the history of organized sports since we began using the term to describe first-year players.

But seriously, the way this team closed out overtime in Portland was just gross.

18. Grizzlies |  Last Week: 1-3 | Overall: 17-16 | Previous Ranking: 15

The Grizzlies were in desperate need of a win when they went into Staples Center on Sunday, and then Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Jaren Jackson Jr. delivered big-time performances to end a five-game losing streak.

With only two games this next week and both at home, Memphis needs a couple victories to make sure this losing stretch doesn’t fester any longer and drop the squad lower in the standings.

Outside of Monday’s loss in Oracle Arena to the Warriors, the Grizzlies have kept their losses close. But close doesn’t mean anything in the jam-packed West where 4.5 games separates fourth from 14th.

Conley and Gasol will naturally be charged with leading the way, but JJJ could be the difference in the five seed or the 10. The rookie has impressed everyone with his play next to Big Spain and as he continues to better shoulder the load as the third offensive option, life will get easier for the aging holdovers from the Grit ‘N Grind days.

If Chandler Parsons can stay on the court, he adds another body to the rotation, which could prove to be a major difference in deciding which teams survive the regular season to make the playoffs and which enter April thinking “What if...”

The last two games might have shown the Grizzlies that embracing the three could be their key in making sure they don’t get lost in the shuffle. They are near the bottom of the league in makes per game, but 13th in three-point percentage. And with their three top players all being capable threats from deep, it might fall on them to make that adjustment to assure the Grizzlies play more than 82 games.

17. Clippers |  Last Week: 2-2 | Overall: 19-14 | Previous Ranking: 13

The Clippers had lost six of seven before Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams guided them to victory over the Mavericks. After such a great start, this team needs to find a way to keep its footing.

That may be easier said than done.

16. Jazz |  Last Week: 2-2 | Overall: 16-18 | Previous Ranking: 16

A week where the Jazz knocked off the Warriors and beat the Trail Blazers by 30 should feel more encouraging. But James Harden inventing the step back step back just to ice Monday’s game and Donovan Mitchell making a free throw he tried to intentionally miss are the type of plays that happen when a team just can’t quite get to the tipping point. It feels like the Jazz are on the verge of a big run, but right now they are just another team that’s below .500.

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15. Rockets |  Last Week: 3-1 | Overall: 17-15 | Previous Ranking: 14

The Rockets broke the record for most threes in a game and now will be remembered for bringing in Austin Rivers for an injured Chris Paul (as if those two didn’t have beef with the Clippers) and James Harden inventing a new dance move.

Such is life in Houston.

14. Heat |  Last Week: 3-0 | Overall: 16-16 | Previous Ranking: 18

Losing Goran Dragic for such a long stretch is punch to the gut. But with Dion Waiters working his way back from injury, the revolving door that is the Heat’s backcourt will have another solid piece to keep the rotation intact. Now let’s see how much they can keep up this current hot streak (five-game winning streak and 9-3 in their last 12).

13. Spurs |  Last Week: 3-1 | Overall: 18-16 | Previous Ranking: 17

The loss in Houston was a sour note to end this past week on, but San Antonio should feel good about what happened in its last four games. Getting three wins by 26 or more is no small feat. The Spurs are 7-2 in their last nine games and could be setting themselves up for a big run to close out 2018 and to start 2019. Especially if DeMar DeRozan has defenders skating like this.

12. Nets |  Last Week: 3-1 | Overall: 16-19 | Previous Ranking: 19

The Nets became one of the hottest teams in the league after their eight-game losing streak. Friday’s loss to the Pacers was their first since Dec. 5 and there’s a solid chance it will also be their last loss of 2018.

With D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie setting the tone as the lead guards, Brooklyn can always put pressure on its opponents from the lead guard spot. The depth on the wing now that Rodions Kurucs is really healthy won’t make up for Caris LeVert, but it does give coach Kenny Atkinson some options to mix and match with.

Joe Harris and Allen Crabbe stretching the floor, DeMarre Carroll and Jared Dudley keeping the locker room together as veteran leaders and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson proving defensive versatility have all been key in flipping things around in Brooklyn. And in the East, that kind of depth can take you above most of the competition.

As can a true defensive presence, which the Nets have with Jarrett Allen. The Texas product could use some work on the glass, but overall, you can’t complain about what he’s been able to do in year two. With a shot blocker like Allen at the rim, life becomes so much easier for the other defenders. Not many teams can expect this to happen when LeBron James is coming down the lane.

11. Lakers |  Last Week: 1-2 | Overall: 19-14 | Previous Ranking: 9

Question: Who would want Anthony Davis when you already have Ivica Zubac protecting the rim?

Answer: The Lakers. LeBron James. Fans who understand Los Angeles’s front court is still really thin even with Tyson Chandler and JaVale McGee playing well. Anybody who ever watched Anthony Davis play basketball for a minimum of 30 seconds.

Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

10. Celtics |  Last Week: 1-2 | Overall: 19-13 | Previous Ranking: 7

The Celtics looked good Sunday taking care of the Hornets with Al Horford back from his seven-game absence. But they still lost to the Suns. And then lost to the Bucks following a team meeting. Maybe a healthy Horford can get them back on track again now that they ended their three-game losing streak.

9. Trail Blazers | Last Week: 3-1 | Overall: 19-14 | Previous Ranking: 11

Portland looks to be breaking out of the mini-slump it was on at the start of the month. Winners of four of their last five, the Trail Blazers picked up three big wins over other Western Conference contenders last week.

Damian Lillard looked great, and his ability to get to the line and close out contests from the charity stripe is just gorgeous. And as if containing Lillard wasn’t already hard enough, he’s also shooting a career-best from three-point land this season.

C.J. McCollum on the other hand is in the midst of the worst season of his career from three. He has had increased success when it comes to attacking the rim and he’s taking less long twos, while also connecting at a higher rate on those attempts than he ever has.

If the Trail Blazers are going to really hit their stride and elevate in the West though, their role players will need to be more consistent. It’s great to have the confidence to go 10-deep every night with even the 10th man being capable of making a big play when the time comes. However, knowing that guys four through 10 are just as liable to go for single digits as they are to score 15 makes life rough on everyone, but especially the two stars. So long as Lillard and McCollum have faith in the others, though, there’s a chance one or two guys hit a major stride and prove to be more reliable contributors.

Seth Curry and Maurice Harkless seem like the guys who could really take over as as main role players because of they could space the floor and force defenders to stay home on drives from Dame and C.J. But until somebody really steps up, Portland will continue to rely on everyone to chip in to make things work.

8. Kings |  Last Week: 2-2 | Overall: 18-15 | Previous Ranking: 10

The highest scoring team in the fourth quarter plays in Sacramento. The Kings will stay in contention as long as they can keep closing out games like they did against the Pelicans. But it is a bit harder to look at them as a young team now that we know Buddy Hield is actually an old man.

7. Pacers |  Last Week: 2-2 | Overall: 22-12 | Previous Ranking: 4

The Pacers aren’t going to beat the top teams in the league committing 23 turnovers like they did against the Raptors Wednesday. They also aren’t going to beat even the worst teams if the refs miss obvious fouls at the end of the game.

6. Thunder |  Last Week: 3-1 | Overall: 21-11 | Previous Ranking: 8

Paul George and Russell Westbrook continue to look better and better together. But Westbrook can’t keep fouling out like he did in both games of the most recent back-to-back. Knowing how much he will be needed late in games, the combination of him averaging the most fouls per game of his career and shooting the worst free-throw percentage of his career is not going to work if this team is really going to compete for a title this season.

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5. 76ers |  Last Week: 2-1 | Overall: 22-12 | Previous Ranking: 6

Philadelphia only played in blowouts this past week. After getting waxed in San Antonio, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons decided it would be fun to be the team delivering the spanking instead of taking it. Taking care of the Raptors the way they did in the fourth quarter also has to be a great feeling, even if Kawhi Leonard didn’t play.

4. Nuggets |  Last Week: 1-1 | Overall: 21-10 | Previous Ranking: 1

A light week is exactly what an injury-riddled squad like the Nuggets need. And a 21-point loss to another contender in the West is a nice smack in the face to help make sure everything is in order right before the end of the calendar year.

3. Bucks |  Last Week: 3-1 | Overall: 22-10 | Previous Ranking: 5

Playing in Miami on the second night of a road back-to-back isn’t as much of a trap as playing there on a Sunday afternoon, but the result was the same for the Bucks. It’s hard to imagine Khris Middleton going 2 for 11 from three on the same night Giannis goes 3 for 12 from the field again, but it’s always nice to know just what the ugliest version of yourself looks like.

2. Raptors |  Last Week: 2-1 | Overall: 25-10 | Previous Ranking: 2

Getting blitzed during the fourth quarter in Philadelphia on the second night of a back-to-back is not an indicator the 76ers are right on Toronto’s level. But it is a bit odd they chose to play Kawhi Leonard against the Cavaliers instead of looking to see if he could give the Raptors a 3-0 series lead over a team they will likely be close to in the standings come the end of the year. But at least the home fans got to see Leonard go off twice this week.

1. Warriors |  Last Week: 3-1 | Overall: 23-11 | Previous Ranking: 3

I’m not normally the type to get too excited when watching guys in practice situations, but watching Boogie dunk on KD as if the reigning two-time Finals MVP was a small child and not a seven-foot alien sent to revolutionize basketball made me yelp with glee.

This team is nearing full strength and that should make you feel scared if you’re still spending all your time hating on them. But if you root for them or just want to see how their brand of basketball works once they add in one of the game’s most dominating and versatile bigs you should feel giddy with anticipation.

Draymond Green’s offensive woes this season could just as easily be rooted in his foot injury as they are a sign of him falling off. DeMarcus Cousins should take some pressure off him on that end of the floor assuming the Warriors plan to allow Cousins to create for others. Whether from the high post or the block, allowing Boogie to take on a heavy passing role will allow Green to play more as a screener and should give him the chance to get open looks on back cuts and offensive boards as the defense will inevitably lose him from time-to-time when Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant also need to be accounted for.

Green has become one of if not the best player in the league at making the little plays. All the while his ability to function as Golden State’s main facilitator while anchoring the defense is just beautiful to watch. But he will once again be asked to take a lesser role for another All-Star. This time a lighter workload could mean an increase in his production when it comes to scoring and defensive playmaking.

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