Sorry these arrive a little late on the day after Christmas, blame me for getting sucked into watching Elf and all the Christmas Day games. The Cavaliers have earned their spot at the top with their Christmas Day performance.
1. Cavaliers (23-6, Last Week No. 4). The Cavaliers have won five in a row, have handled the loss of J.R. Smith well so far, and reminded everyone on Christmas that the road to any NBA title goes through them. And LeBron James doesn’t just give rings away, some team is going to have to play better and take it. Also, the technical for Richard Jefferson for winking takes over the title for most ridiculous technical foul ever in NBA history. It’s a few weeks until the rematch, this week’s interesting game for the Cavs is against up-and-coming Celtics.
2. Warriors (27-5, LW 1). This team can use Christmas as a motivation, and they know June series are not decided in December. Here’s why statistics — advanced, regular, whatever — can miss the reality of the Warriors: More than 20 percent of their time on the court this season has been in what statistically is “garbage time.” Those blowout fourth quarters — like against a good Utah team last week — warp the number, often toward the negative because the bench guys get all the run and they aren’t as good. The Warriors start a string of 9-of-10 at home.
3. Spurs (25-6, LW 2). San Antonio has won 7-of-8 and showed us on Christmas how they can make a defense look bad with their ball movement, especially if said defense not that fleet of foot (like the Bulls). Also, Christmas was an example of what they can do to a traditional big who wants to stay near the basket, because both LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol can space the floor. Soft schedule this week should keep the wins coming. Even if the questions about how good this team really is linger.
4. Raptors (21-8, LW 5). Why isn’t this team playing on Christmas? They’ve earned it, NBA schedule gods — they are entertaining. Winners of 7-of-8, the Raptors started out their six-game West Coast road trip with a win in Utah, but their are tough stops ahead in Portland (tough place to win even with the Blazers’ recent struggles), Golden State, and San Antonio. This trip is a measuring stick again for Kyle Lowry and Toronto, who are 0-3 against Cleveland but can try to gain some confidence against the best of the West.
5. Rockets (22-9, LW 3). Losses last week to the Spurs and Grizzlies showed how much the Rockets miss Clint Capela in the paint. Montrezl Harrell and Nene got roasted by Zach Randolph. The lack of Capela means more small ball from Mike D’Antoni, but maybe they will call up Chinanu Onuaku and give him a chance (he’s averaging a double-double in the D-League but reports are he is painfully raw still). Also, expect the Rockets to get a Christmas Day slot next year. Just a guess.
6. Clippers (22-10, LW 6). This team can survive the loss of Blake Griffin and keep winning (they seem to do it every year, their offense gets more efficient running CP3/DeAndre Jordan pick-and-rolls), but they can’t lose Chris Paul too. His hamstring injury has cost them two games (including to the Lakers on Christmas), and he is expected to be out at least one more (Monday) and possibly Wednesday and Friday as well.
7. Grizzlies (20-12, LW 8). It took a few games after his return, but Mike Conley looked like himself again in the win over Houston last week (24 points, running the offense). The team needs that Conley with six of Memphis’ next seven are on the road, and the one home game is against Oklahoma City. Also, consider this a reminder that Marc Gasol is shooting 43 percent from three this season.
8. Thunder (19-12, LW 9). Of course Russell Westbrook had a good game on Christmas, but it was the hustle of Steven Adams that also stood out. He was physical on the boards, and simply out-hustled Karl-Anthony Towns down the floor all game long. Adams and Enis Kanter also are strong passers out of the post, which makes the thunder tough to stop.
9. Celtics (18-13, LW 10). Winners of five-of-six, including holding off the Knicks on Christmas Day, the Celtics look like a team coming together. Most underrated streak going right now: Isaiah Thomas 15 straight 20-point games. As trade rumors start to heat up you know Boston — with a lot of young players and picks — is going to come up, but with no superstars looking to be moved at the deadline don’t be surprised if they stand pat. Interesting games this week vs. Cleveland and Memphis.
10. Jazz (18-13, LW 7). Losers of three in a row, and that 30-point thrashing at the hands of Golden State was a reality check. Still, things like the blown lead (or inability to stop Toronto’s guards) might be different when George Hill gets healthy. Soft schedule this week (Lakers, Sixers, Suns) can help them get right before a rough road trip the following week.
11. Hornets (17-14, LW 11). I’m going to keep saying this every week — Kemba Walker deserves to be an NBA All-Star. The coaches need to pick him as a reserve (fans aren’t going to vote him in). He’s carried Niclas Batum on offense, as the Frenchman has turned into a jump shooter and stopped attacking the rim. Charlotte has won three in a row and should be able to extend that with a soft start of the week (Nets, Magic, Heat) before running into Cleveland.
12. Bucks (14-14, LW 12). They lost both games of a home-and-home to Cleveland, but in doing so made everyone both respect them and want to see that as a first-round playoff matchup. If you want the bright side: The sign of a contender is being top 10 in offense and defense and the Bucks are there (one of four teams, although the Cavs will get there). The Bucks are 10th ranked in offense and ninth in defense, and their point differential suggest they should be 16-12.
13. Knicks (16-14 LW 16). The Knicks fell on national television Sunday — exposing their defense as the weakness it is, particularly in the paint — but wins earlier in the week against Orlando and Indiana were the kind of wins playoff teams rack up. This seems like a team that can get one of the bottom few seeds in the East this season, which is a step forward for Phil Jackson’s roster.
14. Pacers (15-16, LW 13).. Indiana is 11-5 at home, 4-11 on the road, which gets to what Paul George was saying this week that the team’s “identity is inconsistency.” Glenn Robinson III is struggling to knock down shots in Monta Ellis’ place. The Pacers are the eight seed in the East as this goes live Monday, but they have road games against the Bulls and Wizards — the two teams behind them in the standings — to start the week. The Pacers need to string a few wins together.
15. Hawks (15-15 LW 20). Dwight Howard is expected back in the rotation Monday, but the Hawks won 2-of-3 without him beating the Thunder and Nuggets. They did it by going smaller for stretches, including Kyle Korver as the most deadly stretch four ever, and Paul Millsap looked great at the five spot. Also Dennis Schroeder seemed to have more driving lanes. Knicks, Piston, and Spurs come to Atlanta this week.
16. Wizards (13-16, LW 14). Bradley Beal had an eight-game streak scoring 20+ points (before Friday against the Bucks), John Wall has been putting up numbers, but then the offense has not been what is holding the Wizards back. It’s the defense, particularly when they need to go to the bench. That’s not helped by Ian Mahinmi being out for another six weeks.
17. Bulls (14-16, LW 18). Not surprisingly, the Bulls take the fewest three pointers per game of any team in the league (19.6) and shoot the lowest percentage when they do (31 percent). That lack of spacing has caught up with the starters. What was a surprise on Christmas Day was the bench pulling Chicago back into the game in San Antonio. But the Spurs had the tools to expose the Bulls weaknesses, as do a lot of playoff teams.
18. Kings (13-17, LW 22). They are on a three-game winning streak (and have won 4-of-5) and with that, they are the eight seed and in the playoffs if the postseason started today. They are playing their best basketball of the season, but it’s fair to question if they can sustain it and make the postseason. The Kings face the Trail Blazers again on Wednesday, which means another round of the Boogie Cousins vs. Meyers Leonard feud.
19. Magic (14-18 LW 19). They have been beating inferior teams and looking good doing it, but play a decent team and Elfrid Payton comes apart off the bench, the team looks like it has no depth, and they lose. Orlando is only 1.5 games out of the playoffs, but they need wins against teams like Charlotte and Indiana this week to climb up those standings.
20. Pistons (14-18, LW 15). Losers of five in a row, but Stan Van Gundy broke out a new starting lineup on Friday, sliding Jon Leuer in and bringing Tobias Harris off the bench. Tough way to break that lineup in, against Golden State, but they hung close. It doesn’t get easier Monday against Cleveland. But after that comes a string of five games against other teams they are battling with to get into the playoffs — starting Wednesday against Milwaukee, Detroit needs to get back on track and rack up some wins.
21. Nuggets (12-18, LW 21). It’s a sign of the trouble coach Mike Malone has had in creating stability this season — no five-man lineup for Denver has played more than 77 minutes together this season. Worst in the NBA.
22. Trail Blazers (13-19, LW 17). They have lost 9-of-10, fallen out of the playoffs (if they started today), and it feels like this ranking may actually be too high. The defense is always an issue, but the offense has been inconsistent of late, the ball sharing that made them fun last year seems gone most nights, and now Damian Lillard’s ankles are bothering him. Raptors and Spurs are tough this week, but the Kings and Timberwolves are the kinds of wins they need to turn things around.
23. Pelicans (11-21, LW 24). I would love the Pelicans to just embrace Anthony Davis at the five, Terrence Jones at the four and run with it (bring Omer Asik and/or Alexis Ajinca off the bench) but they lack the shooters and wing defenders to make that work for any stretch. Coach Alvin Gentry said this was a crucial homestand, if they have even the faintest of playoff dreams they need to rack up wins this week against the Mavericks, Clippers, and Knicks.
24. Heat (10-21, LW 23). That was a good comeback last Thursday night, on Shaq’s jersey retirement night, from down 19 to beat the Lakers. But the fact they were down 19 to Los Angeles and could not come back on Orlando or New Orleans shows where this team is right now. Justise Winslow is not consistent on offense but they are leaning more and more on him. The Goran Dragic trade rumor mill is in high gear and will remain there the trade deadline or he gets moved.
25. Mavericks (9-21, LW 29). Dallas is getting healthy — Dirk Nowitzki is back — and they have won 3-of-4 and 5-of-9. The Mavericks are doing it with strong defense. The good news for the Mavericks is their toughest in the league schedule is about to soften up, although you wouldn’t know it with the Rockets and Warriors up this week. But Dallas has become a tougher out now.
26. Lakers (12-22, LW 26). They got the Christmas Day win against what’s left of the Clippers, but that just makes the Lakers 1-12 in December, and their defense remains a disaster. Los Angeles is getting off to strong enough starts, leading or hanging with their opponents, only to have it come undone as the game moves along because they cannot get stops.
27. Timberwolves (9-21, LW 27). Karl-Anthony Towns is a snail getting back in transition defense. He seems slow to recognize and doesn’t explode with his first step, nor does he run hard much of the time — Steven Adams torched him all game on Christmas on national television. It was just hustle. The Timberwolves picked up a couple of wins last week and started to show promise, but then fell to the Kings and Thunder, and everything feels like it took a step back.
28. Suns (9-21, LW 25). You see flashes of offense in Phoenix — from Devin Booker or T.J. Warren, sometimes Eric Bledsoe — but it doesn’t matter when the defense is bottom give bad. The roster remains just an oddly constructed mess — it’s hard to see the overarching plan. What’s worse, the schedule gets a lot tougher for the next few weeks, starting with the Rockets, Spurs, Raptors, and Jazz this week.
29. 76ers (7-22, LW 28). Brett Brown has wanted to give the Jahlil Okafor/Joel Embiid front court time to work out, but that pairing is getting outscored by 17.1 points per 100 possessions and is a defensive disaster. Soon he will try Embiid and Nerlens Noel. But he knows he has one combo that does work pretty well: Embiid and Ersan Ilyasova (they are +5 per 100 possessions in more than 200 minutes together). That doesn’t mean Ilyasova is the long term answer, it does mean a stretch four may be the answer. Hello Dario Saric?
30. Nets (7-22, LW 30). The good news is the team is scoring — the Nets scored more than 100 points in 10 straight games until Cleveland last Friday (they scored 99). The problem for Brooklyn is they went 2-8 in those 10 point games because they can’t get stops. Still, they are at least entertaining and a little bit dangerous when Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez are all on the court together.