The top four slots in our weekly rankings not only remain the same and that group has separated themselves from the pack. In reality, the top three separated themselves, then there is OKC on kind of its own tier, then we get to the great middle where teams five through 14 feel almost interchangeable week to week. Meanwhile, the Sixers are back on the bottom, proving the win over the Lakers was a fluke.
1. Warriors (26-1, last week No. 1). Great stat via Tom Haberstroh of ESPN: In the last two seasons, the Warriors are 18-13 in games where they trailed by 15 points or more; the rest of NBA wins .210 percent of those games. Golden State keeps on rolling. Fun showdown with full-squad Cavaliers on Friday.
2. Spurs (23-5, LW 2). We’ve talked about the Spurs having clear-and-away the best defense in the NBA, but they are fifth in offensive rating — and doing it in an anti-Warriors way. They play big, slow, methodical, and while you have to watch LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard plenty of other guys can beat you on a given night. They have won five in a row, nine of 10, and are heading into the soft part of their schedule.
3. Cavaliers (18-7, LW 3). Kyrie Irving is back and played 17 minutes in his return, moving well but looking understandably rusty at times. With him the showdown against Golden State’s small ball is fascinating because Cleveland can counter with Irving, Iman Shumpert, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson. Thank you Santa for that Christmas Day matchup.
4. Thunder (18-9 LW 4). They sit fourth because of the loss to Cleveland, which exposed their biggest flaw against the elite teams: After Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka there is nobody they can consistently trust. Real test Monday night against the Clippers.
5. Heat (16-10, LW 11). Miami’s top-five defense on the season has been pedestrian the past 10 games, 14th best in the NBA. They have been saved by an improving offense. They are feasting against the West (8-1) but that may change with a home-heavy, relatively soft schedule the next couple weeks where Miami should rack up wins.
6. Hornets (15-11, LW 5). They are up and down at times, but they have the fifth best net rating in the NBA over their last 10 games. Plus, watching Jeremy Lin drop 35 is fun. Nicolas Batum was only out for one game, he scored 14 in his return against the Wizards, showing how much their offense needs him.
7. Pacers (16-10, LW 10). They had quality wins against the Raptors and Mavericks last week, but it will be tougher test in the Spurs to open this week. The Pacers have been very strong at home (10-3) but have struggled much more on the road.
8. Clippers (16-12, LW 9). There are no must win games in December but the Clippers are looking at Monday against the Thunder as a real litmus test — Blake Griffin said the Clippers aren’t a team that is winning big games, Chris Paul says they are not a team others should fear. Five of their next six are road games, although one of those is against the Lakers Christmas night.
9. Hawks (17-12, LW 12). Quality wins against Boston and Orlando last week. In his edition of the PBT Podcast, A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com (their Celtics insider) said he thought the Hawks were one of the teams most likely to break out of the crowded middle pack in the East and grab the two seed (and/or make it to the conference Finals).
10. Pistons (16-12, LW 13). They should get bonus points for the 4-OT win over the Bulls, but that’s not the way the NBA works. Their struggling offense from earlier in the season is starting to find a groove, but will be tested this week against the Heat, Hawks, and Celtics.
11. Bulls (15-10, LW 7). Derrick Rose may still be the Bull best at creating his own shot, but late in games it seems to me the Bulls are better off running actions (read: plays) through Jimmy Butler than the Rose iso we see too much. Tough road back-to-back this week with the Thunder on Christmas Day followed by Dallas on Saturday.
12. Raptors (17-12, LW 6). They lost to the Pacers and Hornets, but found a win against the Heat in Miami last week. Their Top-10 offense has sputtered and is pedestrian of late (14th in NBA over last 10 games). Kyle Lowry struggled the last couple games and was ejected on Sunday, the Raptors need the MVP conversation Lowry of most of this season to stay up near the top of the East.
13. Mavericks (15-12, LW 14). They went 2-1 last week with wins against West foes Phoenix and Memphis, and you know things are going well when you get a quality, productive game out of JaVale McGee. Dallas is at Toronto and Brooklyn this week, but they have a winning record on the road.
14. Magic (15-12, LW 14). Monday’s game at Madison Square Garden the only road game for the Magic in a run of eight around the holidays. They are half a game out of a playoff spot in the East and it’s because of their sixth-ranked defense in the NBA over the last 10 games.
15. Celtics (14-13, LW 8). Losers of three in a row and it’s because of an offense that has slipped (20th in the NBA in their past 10 games). During the Celtics-focused PBT Podcast last week, A. Sherrod Blakely says Danny Ainge is certainly going big game hunting for the No. 1 option kind of player they lack, the question is who is out there to get (and no, DeMarcus Cousins is not an option).
16. Rockets (14-14, LW 16). They climbed up to .500 again thanks to a quality win over the Clippers Saturday, but can they sustain it this time (Hornets, Magic and Spurs on the docket this week). The Rockets need to go big with Clint Capela and Dwight Howard paired more often, as they did against the Clips.
17. Grizzlies (15-14, LW 17). The Grizzlies are just 2-3 since moving Zach Randolph and Tony Allen to the bench, but the problem has not been the starters so much as the bench. Marc Gasol has played his way into shape/gotten fully healthy and the Memphis starters are thriving.
18. Knicks (14-14, LW 21). The showdown last Monday with Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns was fascinating, with Towns winning the box score (25 points) but Kristaps Porzingis getting seven blocks and showing his potential. New York has won four in a row, in part behind the offense of Aaron Afflalo (21 points per game in those four). Can they keep it going on the road in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Boston this week?
19. Jazz (11-14, LW 18). How much does Utah miss Rudy Gobert? They are 3-8 since his injury and their defense is 29th in the NBA in the last 10 games. The big man is reportedly making progress, but Utah will be cautious bringing him back so it could be January.
20. Wizards (11-14, LW 19). They picked up a nice win over Charlotte, but Washington remains inconsistent and plagued by injuries (Otto Porter was the latest). The issue remains the defense, which is 26th in the NBA over their last 10 games.
21. Kings (11-16, LW 23). Don’t look now, but at the ugly back end of the Western Conference Sacramento is just one game out of the playoffs, having won four-of-five. They are 10-9 when DeMarcus Cousins plays, he’s the face of the franchise and it’s most popular player as they move into a new building next season, so explain to me again why you think they want to trade him?
22. Timberwolves (11-16,LW 24). Karl-Anthony Towns is the guy in front of the Rookie of the Year race as we come up on Christmas, he is putting up consistent numbers. Minnesota just isn’t putting up consistent wins and have some challenging games this week with Boston, San Antonio, and Indiana.
< 23. Suns (12-17, LW 20). They are up and down, with Markeiff Morris trade rumors continuing to swirl around the team and the league. Of course, if you’re going to trade him you need to show him off, so Morris has been playing quality rotation minutes and looked good against New Orleans (one of his rumored destinations).
24. Nuggets (11-16, LW 28). They made a nice little run when the schedule got soft, but reality set in with losses to the Jazz and Pelicans last week. This week they are on the road against the Suns, Spurs and Thunder — so much for the easy part of the schedule.
25. Trail Blazers (11-18, LW 22). They have started 0-3 on their five-game road trip, and now comes the news Damian Lillard is battling plantar fasciitis. Their offense is 12.5 points per 100 possessions worse without him and his shot creation, they can’t afford to be without him for any lengthy stretch. Not that they are tearing it up with him.
26. Bucks (11-18, LW 25). Jason Kidd is out for six weeks (give or take) with hip surgery, leaving Joe Prunty in the big chair as they head into a difficult part of the schedule (well, after the Sixers). To the Bucks’ credit they played Golden State well again, although this time in a loss, if only they could sustain that level of play against everyone.
27. Pelicans (8-19, LW 27). They picked up a couple or road wins last week, leading to the latest round of “have they finally turned the corner and gotten on track” questions. The offense has found a groove, but we’ll need to see more consistent defense before we buy in at PBT.
28. Nets (7-20, LW 26). They have lost five in a row and the defense is a mess, signaling the end to the little run of nearly .500 ball in Brooklyn. The defense badly misses Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and his athleticism.
29. Lakers (4-23, LW 30). Despite all the losing and bad basketball, the Lakers remain the biggest road draw in the NBA thanks to the Kobe Bryant farewell tour. Kobe knows this and doesn’t want to sit out like he did with a sore shoulder against OCK (who they face again on Wednesday). You can see Kobe on Christmas evening against the Clippers.
30. 76ers (1-28, LW 29). As our Dan Feldman noted, the Sixers are in danger of the slowest 30-game start in NBA history — every NBA team has won at least twice in the first 30. The Sixers have a net rating of -18.9 points per 100 possessions in their last 10 games, which is worse than the numbers during their 0-18 start. We’ll see what Mike D’Antoni brings to the table, but nobody is winning with this roster.