For the first time this season, a team in the East has climbed above the Cleveland Cavaliers in the rankings — but it may be short-lived with Toronto taking on Cleveland on Monday night. The top of the West still dominates the top of the rankings.
1. Warriors (17-3, Last Week No. 1). The Warriors are running. They are third in the league in pace (103 possessions a game, per NBA.com) and 16.7 percent of their possessions are in transition, where they score at a 123.1 points per 100 possessions pace (best in the NBA). Bottom line, they get 23 points a possession from transition, and if you give that team easy buckets on the break it’s almost impossible to beat them. Golden State heads out on a five-game road trip Wednesday that includes the Clippers, Jazz, and Grizzlies.
2. Spurs (16-4, LW 3). Does it shock anyone the Spurs are the best catch-and-shoot team in the NBA? They don’t shoot the most (that’s Brooklyn, actually), but about one-third of their shots come this way and they get a league-best 118 points per 100 possessions off them. They move the ball, and they have shooters, it’s a system that works. Winners of 11 of their last 12, the Spurs start the week with three games on the road (including in Milwaukee and Chicago) before coming home to take on the Nets.
3. Clippers (16-6, LW 4). Thursday’s win in Cleveland was the kind of game Los Angeles lost in recent years — three losses in a row coming in, they didn’t point fingers but regrouped and blew out the defending champs. It looked like the Clippers had matured and taken a step forward, then they came home and had a sloppy loss with lots of complaining to the officials in a loss to Indiana. Which Clipper team do we get when the Warriors come to town Wednesday?
4. Raptors (14-6, LW 8). The Raptors are the hottest team in basketball. In their last six games, they have outscored their opponents by 138 points, playing well on both ends. Toronto’s defense the last couple weeks has been elite. But, they have beaten depleted teams, which still counts in the win column but has us hesitant to put them ahead of Cleveland. We did it anyway, but Monday is the real test when the Raptors take on the Cavs.
5. Cavaliers (13-5, LW 2). Losers of three in a row, and they still are playing with a championship hangover, as evidenced by their 20th-ranked defense. However, the offense is still humming. We’ll see if they bounce back Monday vs. Toronto. Great note via Brian Windhorst of ESPN: This season LeBron James is averaging the fewest shots (17.2) and most assists (9.3) per game of his NBA career. That speaks to the talent around him having learned how to play with him, and Kyrie Irving coming into his own.
6. Rockets (13-7, LW 7). The win over Golden State on the road Thursday in the best game of the season was impressive, but so was going to Denver the next night and getting a victory at altitude when tired. The Rockets are now 7-2 since the return of Patrick Beverley, but that has mostly been about the second unit as their defense has remained bottom five in that time. Celtics and Thunder on the schedule this week, providing good tests.
7. Celtics (12-8, LW 9). Good teams pad their record against the soft parts of their schedule and that’s what the Celtics have done the past couple of weeks. Al Horford’s return certainly helped, but Boston’s last six wins are against teams below .500. Better tests this week vs. the Rockets, suddenly-hot Magic, Raptors, and Thunder, as the Celtics head into a road-heavy part of their schedule.
8. Jazz (12-9, LW 11). This team just cannot stay healthy — George Hill is missing time with a sprained toe — but they keep on finding a way to win, and of late that’s been as much about a good offense as a lock-down defense. They head into a home-heavy stretch of the schedule where Utah should be able to pick up some wins and solidify its spot in the standings.
9. Thunder (13-8, LW 13). Russell Westbrook has 10 triple-doubles this season and the Thunder are 8-2 when he has one, they are 5-6 when he does not. OKC has a Top 10 defense, but they need him to carry the offense if they are going to win. Set the DVRs for Friday night when the Thunder takes on Houston: Westbrook vs. Harden is going to be entertaining.
10. Bulls (11-8, LW 5). They have suspended Rajon Rondo for one game due to “conduct detrimental to the team” — he got into an argument with an assistant coach during the loss to Dallas last week — and he will sit out Monday against Portland.They picked up a quality win against the Cavaliers last week, but surrounded it with bad losses to the Mavericks and Lakers. Blazers, Pistons, and Spurs will not make it easy this week.
11. Grizzlies (13-8, LW 6). The Grizzlies were -30 in total points for the week but managed to go 2-2, which is kind of what they need to do for the next month or so to keep their heads above water until Mike Conley’s return. The games this week against Portland, Philly, and New Orleans are also the kinds of games where they might be able to steal wins.
12. Bucks (10-8, LW 19). They have won four in a row (who cares if half of that was a home-and-home with Brooklyn). Giannis Antetokounmpo outdueled LeBron James last week and just has the ability to get the the rim and finish — he leads the NBA averaging 14 points in the paint a game — is breathtaking. It almost makes up for the lack of a jumper that should limit him more than it does. Going to be tough to keep the win streak going opening the week against the Spurs and Trail Blazers.
13. Knicks (11-9 LW 17). While I am loath to use the term “vintage” with Derrick Rose there is this: He is getting to the rim for 38.4% of his shots, his highest percentage since his rookie season. Combine that with the exciting change of pace and dynamic energy that Brandon Jennings brings off the bench and the Knicks have found a working point guard combo. Now they just have to figure out what to do with Joakim Noah. Good measuring stick game against the Cavaliers this week.
14. Pistons (11-11, LW 18). Reggie Jackson is back in the lineup and while that didn’t get them a win Sunday it will help them down the line. They won three-of-four on a recent road trip, a good sign with four of their next six still away from The Palace. They face Chicago, Charlotte, and Minnesota this week, the kinds of week where playoff teams find a way to get a couple of wins.
15. Hornets (11-9, LW 12). With Frank Kaminsky starting in place of the injured Marvin Williams the Charlotte offense has stumbled, and because of that they lost two-of-three last week in what were winnable games. That needs to change with games against Dallas, Detroit, and Orlando to start the week before the Hornets head out on a five-game road trip that starts in Cleveland.
16. Trail Blazers (11-10, LW 17). They get Al-Farouq Aminu back Monday after a 13-game absence, which will be a boost to their defense. They are going to need it — they head out on the road for eight of their next nine (they are 4-6 on the road so far this season). That road trip starts in Chicago, then heads to Milwaukee, followed by a back-to-back in Memphis.
17. Pacers (10-10, LW 16). Paul George and Cj.J. Miles are back healthy and in the rotation for the Pacers, which couldn’t have come at a better time. The Pacers also have gotten better bench play of late as Rodney Stuckey has started to thrive in that role. The Pacers just seem to have the Clippers’ number, and a quality win Sunday has them splitting the first two games of a five-game swing through the West.
18. Lakers (10-12, LW 14). Julius Randle has been a revelation on a lot of levels this season, but he has work to do. Like defending at the rim — he has a defensive field goal percentage of 60%, which is worst in the NBA for players with at least 70 attempts. The Knicks come to Los Angeles Sunday, hopefully this doesn’t lead to another stupid round of “Phil Jackson to the Lakers” talk — even if Jackson does opt-out in New York the Lakers are on the right track and better off without him.
19. Hawks (10-11 LW 10). Losers of six in a row and 9-of-10, I’m not sure I dropped them far enough in these rankings. They are banged up (no Paul Millsap the last three games), but this is more than that, it’s an entire offense coming undone. Early in the season the Hawks looked like a Mike Budenholzer/Spursian team the way they moved the ball, but that has fallen off and we see more isolation and far more contested looks. The players say they recognize the problem, but will they fix it?
20. Magic (9-12 LW 26). Before the season we said the Magic should be a defensive powerhouse — they have finally figured that out and over the last 10 games have the best defense in the NBA. The offense is still a work in progress, but it’s improving, and the Magic picked up some quality wins against the Spurs and Pistons recently. Is Orlando going to be a playoff team? We get some measuring stick games against Boston and Charlotte this week.
21. Heat (7-13, LW 22). Goran Dragic leads the NBA in drives per game at 15.5, but he only ends up with about 7 points per game on them as he passes out of nearly half those drives (he gets an assist on 15 percent of the drives). Overall, it’s just not very efficient. Still tough to judge how good this team would be healthy, but they should get Derrick Williams back in the rotation this week.
22. Pelicans (7-14, LW 21). If you’re looking for the best player on a bad team this season, may I submit Anthony Davis, who leads the NBA in scoring (31.8 per game), blocks per game (2.8), and PER (31.9). The Pelicans dropped four-of-five against a tough stretch of the schedule, but there are winnable games this week with Memphis, Philadelphia, and Phoenix — if they want to get back in the playoff hunt in the West they need to rack up some wins.
23. Kings (7-13, LW 24). I’m not sure what happened in the nightclub in New York over the weekend with Matt Barnes, but I do know it’s not the kind of distraction the Kings need if they have playoff dreams. As James Ham told us in our Kings-centric podcast last week, Sacramento remains convinced they can make a run into the postseason this year — and no, they are not thinking about trading DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings need wins, they are 1-3 on a current road trip that ends in Dallas, but four of their next five are on the road (where the Kings are 3-8 this season).
24. Wizards (6-12, LW 25). Bradley Beal is finding his shooting groove — in his last five games he is averaging 24.8 points per game, hitting 48.8 percent from three, and the Wizards are +4.8 points per 48 minutes when he is on the court. That’s not been enough, as a poor Washington defense tends to get them in trouble, particularly late in games when they cannot get a stop. The Wizards need wins this week against the Nets, Magic, Nuggets, and Bucks.
25. Timberwolves (6-14, LW 20). The Timberwolves early-season struggles (particularly on defense) have been exacerbated by the schedule — 11 straight games against teams over .500. They are 1-4 so far in this stretch and this week get the Spurs, the red-hot Raptors, Pistons, and Warriors. Maybe the comeback win against Charlotte was the kind of win this team needs, but it’s going to be hard to build confidence in this stretch.
26. Nuggets (7-13, LW 23). Jamal Murray is looking special, and Wilson Chandler is playing in a way that should boost his trade value as the deadline nears, but the Nuggets are just not finding an offensive groove. They lost the first game of a six-game road trip in Utah, but have some winnable ones coming up in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Washington.
27. Suns (6-14, LW 28). With the Suns’ guard-driven lineup, it shouldn’t be a surprise no team has the pick-and-roll ball handler use more possessions a game than the Suns (28.2 a contest, via Synergy sports). They have an eFG% of 43.5 percent on those, which isn’t great but is more middle of the pac in the league. The Suns tried starting a three-guard lineup of Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker and Brandon Knight but have abandoned that plan and Knight is coming off the bench again.
28. Mavericks (4-15, LW 29). Dirk Nowitzki is going to be out “a while” as the Mavs are rightfully cautious with the 38-year-old’s Achilles. Dallas has dug too deep a hole to get back in the playoff chase, but with six of their next eight at home and plenty of winnable games in there, they hope to make their record look more respectable.
29. Nets (5-14, LW 30). It’s a strange thing to say, but as Sean Kilpatrick goes so go the Nets. When he is on the Nets can pick up wins, he dropped 38 on the Clippers and Brooklyn picked up an OT victory. Can he replicate that against Washington or Denver this week? They’ll need it as the Nets still have a bottom 5 defense to overcome nightly.
30. 76ers (4-16, LW 27). When Joel Embiid is on the court the 76ers allow just 98.8 points per 100 possessions on defense (which would be best in the NBA this season) and are only outscored by 1.4 points per 100 possessions. However, when he sits the Sixers give up 110.6 per 100 (worst in the NBA) and are outscored by 14.6 per 100. Boosting his minutes limit to 28 a night will help a little, but the Sixers need to find who else on that roster is a keeper. And get Ben Simmons back this season, hopefully.