I’ve used this annalogy before: To me the Clippers feel like the Cincinnati Bengals (minus the mental meltdowns, I hope). They can have a fantastic regular season — they have won nine in a row as of this writing – but their success this season will be completely judged in the postseason. Can they get out of the second round? I’m not sold, but they have climbed to fourth in these power rankings. As for the other end, the bottom teams remain the same, but Charlotte is suddenly trying to join them.
1. Warriors (35-2, last week No. 1). They have won six in a row and their offense continues to hum along (110.4 points per 100 in their last 10 games). This is how Stephen Curry described the Warriors’ ball-sharing offense to me this week: “For the most part we don’t call many plays. That flow is, we have a pretty good high IQ for whatever lineup is out there, and usually the ball finds the right spot and the right person and we trust them to make it.”
2. Spurs (32-6, LW 2). Winners of seven in a row and besting teams by 17 points per 100 possessions in their last 10 (tops in the league). The Spurs have had the easiest schedule in the NBA so far this season, having not had games against other top contenders, but that starts to change this week when they face the Cavaliers Thursday in a must-watch game.
3. Cavaliers (26-9, LW 4). One guy who has benefitted from the return of Kyrie Irving is J.R. Smith, who is getting more and better looks from three and shooting 41.9 percent from there since Irving’s return. Great test this week against the three Texas teams, highlighted by the Spurs on Thursday night.
4. Clippers (25-13, LW 5). Winners of nine in a row, eight of those without Blake Griffin, and in their last 10 they are scoring 110.4 points per 100 possessions (tied for third best in the NBA with Golden State). Without Griffin, the Clippers are doing it with more of a spread pick-and-roll in which Chris Paul (and J.J. Redick) are thriving.
5. Thunder (26-12 LW 3). OKC has been fun to watch the past couple weeks because their games become shootouts — they are scoring a league-best 113.5 points per 100 possessions in their last 10, but are allowing 106.2, 22nd in the league. For example, see Damian Lillard going off for 17 points in the final 3:07 to beat OKC Sunday. The OKC bench in particular has struggled defensively. That said, they are still 7-3 in their last 10.
6. Bulls (22-13, LW 6). Joakim Noah is healthy and returns Monday night, but that poses some challenges for coach Fred Holberg. First, statistically this team is best with Nikola Mitotic at the four, so you don’t want to chop his minutes at that spot. Second, Bobby Portis has been fantastic with Noah out, you don’t want to have him barely seeing the court either. It’s not going to be simple.
7. Raptors (24-15, LW 9). Every team would like some mid-season rest, some days off right now, and the Raptors get it — they have just one game this week. It’s against Orlando in London (the light week is needed otherwise jet lag would cost them games). Toronto has won three in a row. And Raptor fans, stop freaking out about DeMarr DeRozan, he’s going to stay in Toronto (so long as they pay him the going rate).
8. Mavericks (22-16, LW 11). When we’re talking about the things Dallas did right to build this surprisingly good team, make sure to put “got a lot of high IQ players” way up on the list. Then ignore the JaVale McGee signing. Brutal schedule this week: Cleveland, at Oklahoma City, at Chicago, at San Antonio.
9. Hawks (23-15, LW 8). Impressive win over the Bulls last week, but like its starting lineup the Hawks are inconsistent night to night. The Hawks are getting good guard play out of Kent Bazemore (47.1 percent from three this season) and of late from Tim Hardaway Jr. off the bench.
10. Pacers (21-16, LW 10). Holding on to leads has become a bit of an issue — the Pacers had double-digit leads over Miami and Houston last week and blew both. The return of George Hill didn’t change that. And as good as he has played, Dan Feldman and I don’t think Paul George is in the MVP conversation, as discussed in our latest podcast.
11. Heat (22-15, LW 7). Chris Bosh has been phenomenal of late — 23.6 points per game in his last 10 and shooting 46.3 percent from three in that time (plus grabbing 7.7 rebounds a game). Challenging week ahead on the road (where the Heat have been a .500 team): At the Warriors, Clippers and Thunder (and Nuggets, too).
12. Grizzlies (21-18, LW 15). They were so shorthanded last week that Tony Allen had to play some point guard — the fact they got some wins despite that is impressive. Zach Randolph has accepted his role off the bench and started to dominate some second units out there, giving the Grizzlies a boost.
13. Pistons (21-16, LW 16). Andre Drummond is quietly having a very strong defensive season — he is protecting the paint, bodying up bigs, and making sure opponents possessions end after one shot. He’s not going to win DPOY, but he should get mentioned for the third spot on ballot (behind Kawhi and Draymond, who are 1-2). Tough week ahead for the Pistons with the Spurs, Grizzlies and Warriors scheduled.
14. Celtics (19-18, LW 12). Last year’s draft pick Jordan Mickey has spent most of the season in the D-League, but he has impressed scouts down there. Wonder if he will get a chance with the big club, which has struggled of late dropping 5-of-6 and slid out of the playoffs into the ninth seed.
15. Rockets (19-19, LW 19). Three-game winning streak (two against the Jazz, but they still count the same) and Houston is back up to .500. They get Ty Lawson back from suspension this week, but the way Trevor Ariza has played of late coach Bickerstaff may want to consider his minutes distribution.
16. Magic (20-18, LW 13). This team’s offense doesn’t run as smoothly without Elfrid Payton and it shows with him out injured — the Magic have dropped 5-of-6. They get some rest with only one game on the schedule this week, against Toronto in London.
17. Wizards (16-19, LW 17). Bradley Beal is getting closer to a return to the court, and they could use his playmaking, but the Wizards offense has been 6.7 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the court this season. John Wall has turned the ball over much more lately, leading to a very inconsistent team.
18. Knicks (19-20, LW 20). Carmelo Anthony is sharing the rock and trusting teammates the past couple weeks like we haven’t seen since, well, probably the Olympics. It’s a good sign for this team. Last week New York passed last season’s win total of 17, and if they can beat Boston Monday they climb to .500 (and the playoffs are not out of reach).
19. Jazz (17-20, LW 18). The good news is Rudy Gobert is finally back. The bad news is Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood are still out (not to mention Alec Burks and Dante Exum). Still, Gobert solidifies the defense and gives them a shot in games, such as the win against Miami Sunday.
20. Kings (15-22, LW 22). If the price tag for bringing in John Calipari is 10-years, $120 million, you’d have to think the Kings are out of that running. But there still feels like a push and pull between the players on the roster and what coach George Karl (and presumably owner Vivek Ranadive) want from their team. So they struggle even as Cousins puts up insane numbers.
21. Trail Blazers (16-24, LW 21). Damian Lillard went off for 17 points in the final 3:07 Sunday night to spark a win over Oklahoma City — he and C.J. McCollum make this team dangerous any given night. Portland is 2.5 games out of the playoffs in the West, but with a soft schedule coming up this is the time to make a push to join the dance.
22. Hornets (17-20, LW 14). Losers of seven in a row, which not-so-coincidentally is when Al Jefferson went out injured. Throw in Nicolas Batum missing the last four and things get ugly in Charlotte. Steve Clifford has done a great job coaching this team, but he can’t cover this talent gap. Charlotte is now 11th in the East, 2.5 games out of the eight seed.
23. Pelicans (11-25, LW 23). We said this last week but it’s worth repeating: The Pelicans had the league’s toughest schedule up to this point, but January gets much easier for them. I’m not sure they can make up the 5.5 games to get back in the playoff hunt, but we should start to see more wins.
24. Nuggets (14-24, LW 27). Emmanuel Mudiay returned to the court Monday, and the Nuggets picked up a win (although the rookie looked understandably rusty after missing 14 games). It’s good he’s back because it’s time to see how he fits with the Nuggets’ other interesting young pieces— big men Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic. There is a core there to build around.
25. Bucks (15-24, LW 24). It’s been a disappointing season, but this team still shows flashes that remind you overall they seem to be on the right track. For example, there was the win last week against Dallas. Still, no playoffs for this team this year and GM John Hammond needs to go find some shooters this summer.
26. Timberwolves (12-26,LW 25). It seems hard to talk about the promising young core of a team that has dropped 10-of-11, but as Dan Feldman and I discussed in the latest PBT Podcast Karl-Anthony Towns is the clear leader for Rookie of the Year, just like Andrew Wiggins the season before. This team desperately needs shooting to give Towns and Wiggins some space to operate.
27. Nets (10-27, LW 26). The Nets have fired Lionel Hollins and Billy King, which leaves a lot of challenging long-term questions in the air, but in the short term Tony Brown will be tasked with getting the Nets to suck less. It will be interesting to see who gets shopped at the deadline (besides Joe Johnson, no other team will bite on that contract). Can the Nets get quality in return for Thaddeus Young?
< 28. Suns (13-26, LW 29). They picked up a win over plumeting Charlotte, and Brooklyn kindly took over the title of “most dysfunctional franchise” from them, so things seem a little quieter. The Suns’ perimeter defense is a mess without Eric Bledsoe, and Tyson Chandler isn’t young and healthy enough to clean up that mess anymore in the paint — teams are putting up numbers on the Suns.
29. Lakers (8-31, LW 28). I’ll have whatever Lou Williams is having, he’s had a couple huge games including dropping a career-high 44 last week. The better news is that coach Byron Scott has been letting the young Lakers in need of development play more in the fourth quarter.
30. 76ers (4-36, LW 30). Stat of the week: In nine games, Ish Smith had garnered 22 assists to Jahlil Okafor, which is more than any other Sixers guard has done all season. We’re even starting to see signs of Okafor and Nerlens Noel playing better together. Consider that your silver lining for the day.