The NBA has a clear top four teams (although I would argue that the Thunder at four are sort of on their own tier a notch below the top three), but after that the next seven (you could argue 8-9) teams are in a bunch. They could be in almost any order and it would be reasonable.
1. Warriors (24-1, last week No. 1). Now that we’ve been reminded the Warriors are human, we can ask: Do they take their foot off the gas a little — maybe rest guys — before Christmas and drop another game or two? They need to focus on the work of the regular season now such as staying healthy, tightening up their defensive rotations, and finding lineups that work outside starters and the small ball ones.
2. Spurs (20-5, LW 2). I’m a big believer in point differential being the most telling stat about a team. Well, so far this season the Warriors are +14.8 and the Spurs +12.7, a close second, and if you look at just the last 10 games the Spurs are +3.5 per 100 better than the Warriors (stats via NBA.com). Which is to say, this team is a real threat to Golden State’s repeat chances.
3. Cavaliers (15-7, LW 5). Iman Shumpert is back in the rotation (5-of-7 in his debut), and Kyrie Irving likely returns in the next week, which makes the Christmas Day Finals rematch more interesting. Before that interesting game next week the
5. Hornets (14-9, LW 9). Now we are into the part of the rankings where the next seven teams could be in almost any order, they are so tightly clumped. Charlotte gets this spot because it has won of seven of 10. At +5.8 per 100 possessions, Charlotte has the best net rating in the Eastern Conference this season. Better than Cleveland, Chicago, Boston and everyone else. Al Jefferson being out won’t hurt too much, their defense is elite and 10 points per 100 possessions better when he is out.
6. Raptors (16-9, LW 11). They have won four in a row (including beating the Spurs) in part due to fantastic play from DeMar DeRozan, picking up the offense while DeMarre Carroll remains out. Real tests this week on the road with Indiana, Charlotte and Miami.
7. Bulls (13-8, LW 7). They are winning despite having the third worst offense in the NBA this season, scoring just 97.2 points per 100 possessions (only the Sixers and Lakers are worse). Maybe Derrick Rose ditching the mask and getting a haircut will help with that, although probably not.
8. Celtics (14-10, LW 12). That loss to the Warriors showed a couple very positive things for Boston. First, it showed off how great a defender Avery Bradley can be, he denied Stephen Curry getting the ball better than anyone so far this season. Second, it shows how valuable Kelly Olynyk can be on offense in the right situation.
9. Clippers (14-10, LW 13). They are 7-3 in their last 10, but it’s hard to read too much into that as they have done it against a soft part of the schedule. The big question is this: Their defense is sixth in the NBA in the last 10 games, can they sustain the play on that end against better teams? Pistons and Spurs on the docket this week.
10. Pacers (13-9, LW 3). For a couple games leading up to facing the Warriors the Pacers’ defense had struggled a little, of course Golden State tore that wide open. The defense is an issue. Candace Buckner told us in the PBT Podcast that Myles Turner is at least a few weeks, maybe longer, away from returning.
11. Heat (13-9, LW 4). Losers of three in a row until they ran into the struggling Grizzlies Sunday. Miami has struggled against the other teams in that middle tier (and even a little below it) in the East, which is something to watch with Atlanta and Toronto on the schedule this week.
12. Hawks (14-11, LW 8). There is no silver bullet as to why this team isn’t off to the fast start we saw last season, the Hawks are just a little bit worse across the board on both ends of the floor. Their bench has struggled in recent weeks, which has been part of the reason they are 5-5 in their last 10 and are tied for the eighth spot in the West as of Monday AM.
13. Pistons (14-11, LW 16). Reggie Jackson had a strong game — 21 points and 9 assists — against the Pacers and the Pistons got the win. Not a shock, he’s key to their offense. Good tests for them this week against the Clippers, Celtics, and Bulls.
14. Mavericks (13-11, LW 15). This team is a gambler’s nightmare, one capable of beating or losing to anyone on any given night, and it all feels random. They lost to the Hawks and Wizards at home last week, this week it’s an interesting set of games against the Suns, Pacers, and Grizzlies.
15. Magic (12-11, LW 14). They have lost three of four to quality teams (Cavs, Clippers, Suns) and the reason is their defense, which had been stout but seemed exposed last week. Orlando gets some home cooking starting the middle of this week with eight games in a row at the Amway Center.
16. Rockets (12-12, LW 29). Fattening up on the soft part of the schedule the Rockets have finally climbed back to .500. We need to see it against better teams before we fully buy in, but both the bench and defense have looked improved of late.
17. Grizzlies (13-12, LW 10). This record is an illusion, they have the point differential of an 8-17 team. They tried bringing Tony Allen (whose offense is dragging them down) and Zach Randolph off the bench, and starting Matt Barnes and Courtney Lee (it didn’t work, they lost to the Heat, but that lineup was +2 on the night). All this has rumors of coach Dave Joerger’s job being in real jeopardy.
18. Jazz (10-12, LW 17). Despite some strong play from Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward for stretches, the Jazz are 2-6 without Rudy Gobert. They are not the same without him. The schedule softens a little with the Pelicans and Nuggets this week, but right now the Jazz can’t look past anyone.
19. Wizards (10-12, LW 21). As noted on twitter by Mike Prada, back on Dec. 1 John Wall said he needed to play better for the Wizards to have a chance. Since then he’s averaged 27.3 points per game on 54.6% shooting and dished out 10.9 a night. However, the Wizards are 3-4 during that stretch and now no Bradley Beal for a couple weeks due to a leg injury.
< 20. Suns (11-14, LW 23). This team seems to just hang around in every game, and that led to some close losses in recent weeks but last week led to some close wins (led by Mirza Teletovic‘s game winner against the Bulls). Why does it already feel like they will finish ninth or 10th in the West again?
21. Knicks (11-14, LW 18). The young Knicks are looking tired. For example, Langston Galloway is in a serious shooting slump (24.2 percent in his last 10 games), and the Knicks had looked flat losing four straight until a nice win at Portland Saturday. Kristaps Porzingis has looked tired as well, but he has both Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns on the schedule this week.
22. Trail Blazers (10-15, LW 20). Nobody can give up a lead and a potential win like the young Trail Blazers, who did it three times last week. We’ll see if they can get and hold on to a lead on a road trip this week that includes stops in Oklahoma City, Orlando, and Miami.
23. Kings (9-15, LW 26). They picked up a couple wins last week (vs. Knicks and Jazz) thanks to strong nights from DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo, but Rondo is out Tuesday for what he said to referee Bill Kennedy in the game in Mexico City, and now that we know what was said he’s lucky it was just one game.
24. Timberwolves (9-14,LW 22). This s a young team trying to figure out how to win, and losing six-of-seven shows how far they have to go in that regard — they led Denver by 15 points and couldn’t hang on last week. Looking forward to the Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Kristaps Porzingis showdown Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
25. Bucks (10-15, LW 24). They got the win of the week knocking the Warriors from the perch of the unbeaten and it showed off how the Bucks are again playing the kind of defense that got them to the playoffs last season. Can they sustain that defense on a West Coast road swing this week is the question.
26. Nets (7-16, LW 28). They are 5-5 in their last 10 games and they are playing much better of late (which is killing Celtics’ fans, Boston has the Nets first round pick this June). Thaddeus Young has looked good, it will be interesting to see how many teams make a run at getting him before the trade deadline.
27. Pelicans (6-17, LW 25). New Orleans has played better of late in the Big Easy, but on the road New Orleans remains 1-11 on the season. Which is bad news when you look see that seven of their next 10 games are on the road.
28. Nuggets (9-14, LW 27). Emmanuel Mudiay continues to struggle but also continues to get minutes and show signs of improvement, which is all you can ask of a rookie. The Nuggets have the third worst point differential in the NBA over the last 10 games.
29. 76ers (1-24, LW 29). They did the right thing giving Brett Brown an extension, but it will be interesting to see if they hire Mike D’Antoni and what role they might give him. Of course, to run his offense you need a strong point guard and that remains an issue in Philly.
30. Lakers (3-21, LW 30). Byron Scott finally let the kids finish out a game, but says it may be a month or more before he starts doing that regularly. Ugh. Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell have not thrived coming off the bench.