With just a few days until Christmas, the top of the Power Rankings board remains stable (and likely will for a while), with the only change in the top 5 being Toronto jumping over the Spurs into fifth. The big fall down the board this week is the Sixers, who have lost 7-of-8 and drop nine slots to 18.
1. Rockets (25-4, Last Week No. 1). The NBA record for average number of three pointers made per game over a season is 14.4, and the most attempts averaged per game is 40.3. This season the Rockets are hitting 15.9 per game on 43.2 attempts per game, shattering the records. That strategy is working, the win streak is up to 14 in a row now. Chris Paul faces his former team the Clippers for the first time Friday in Houston. After that the Rockets have 6-of-8 on the road, and they take on Oklahoma City Christmas Day.
2. Warriors (24-6 LW 2). Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are out (Curry is out for Christmas Day), but Steve Kerr believes injuries have focused his team. “I think when Steph went out we realized we don’t have that margin for error, and if we’re going to win we’re going to have to do two things, take care of the ball and defend,” Kerr said Monday before his team beat the Lakers in OT (in a game they were not terribly focused). The Warriors have won nine in a row and now have seven straight at home, the biggest one against the Cavaliers on Christmas Day.
3. Celtics (26-7, LW 3). The come-from-behind win against Indiana Monday night was a microcosm of this team recently — inconsistent play bailed out by big shots (Kyrie Irving’s late threes) and timely defense (Terry Rozier’s steal and game-winning bucket). Boston has really struggled of late with Irving off the floor, something to watch going forward. The Celtics get to showcase their return to the top of the East on Christmas Day, going up against a Wizards team that is dangerous when focused (and they should be that day).
4. Cavaliers (23-8 LW 4). Cleveland has won 18-of-20 (even after the loss to the Bucks Tuesday) and in that stretch it is their offense that has carried them (second best offense in the NBA in their last 15, scoring 114.5 per 100 possessions). Of course, the Cavaliers should be packing on wins now, they have played the easiest schedule in the NBA to this point (things get harder starting Christmas Day against the Warriors). Also in this most recent win streak, LeBron James strung together three straight triple-doubles for the first time since the 2008-09 season (the first year he won MVP).
5. Raptors (20-8, LW 6). The Raptors have won 9-of-10 and separated themselves from the pack in the East — as the three seed they are 4 games up on the Pistons in fourth. The big change is the defense, giving up less than a point per possession and best in the NBA in the last 10 games. The offensive change in this team is for real: last season 41% of the Raptors shots came from the midrange, this season that is down to 30.1%, with the shots moving to more efficient spots on the floor (at the rim or from three).
6. Spurs (21-10, LW 5). The Spurs have gone 1-2 in games Kawhi Leonard has played, although one of those losses was to a very good Rockets team. Leonard has been efficient in limited minutes (16 per game) he getting, averaging 10.7 points a game with true shooting percentage of 65.3 (above the league average). That said, he clearly still needs to get his legs under him still. The Spurs have 6-of-8 on the road coming up, but if the game is close they know they can lean on Manu Ginobili.
7. Timberwolves (18-13, LW 10). Minnesota keeps winning, but here’s the thing that would concern me as a T-Wolves fan (or if I’m Tom Thibodeau): Minnesota has played the easiest schedule in the NBA to this point (tied with the Cavaliers). Well, that and the fact the defense still struggles (it’s bottom 10 in their last 10 games, 25th for the season). And the fact Thibodeau is again running his stars into the ground — Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jimmy Butler are all in the top 10 in the league in total minutes played. Minnesota has the point differential of a 16-15 team and those things tend to even out. They will play on Christmas Day against the Lakers in a game where the NBA wants to show off its young stars.
8. Pacers (17-14, LW 7). Indiana’s ball movement has slowed down recently, and on an offense-driven team that led to tougher, contested shots — but none of that seems to matter to Victor Oladipo, who keeps going off (38 in the loss to Boston Monday). The Pacers were one of the hot teams in close games to start the season, but that scale is balancing out (as it tends to) with close losses to the Thunder, Pistons, and Celtics recently. Good news is the schedule gets soft for the next week.
9. Wizards (17-14, LW 12). John Wall is back but the Wizards offense hadn’t found a groove again — despite a couple of wins in a row — until they ran into New Orleans Monday. Mike Scott has stepped up with Otto Porter out, in his last five games he has averaged 16.6 points per game on 67.9% shooting, and hitting 42.9% from three in that stretch. Washington will take on the Celtics on Christmas Day, with a chance to make a statement they belong in the top four in the East (despite the Wizards’ inconsistent play this season).
10. Pistons (17-13, LW 13). The Pistons snapped out of their seven-game losing streak and won three in a row now, including a quality win over the Pacers on the second night of a back-to-back. The offense has seen a boost with Luke Kennard getting starts (Avery Bradley is out) and Reggie Bullock playing well and finding his stroke from three once he moved into the starting lineup.
11. Nuggets (16-14, LW 11). Denver struggled without Nikola Jokic, going 2-4, but he’s back now just in time for a key stretch of games against the other teams fighting for one of the last playoff slots in the West. The Nuggets beat the Pelicans in overtime but fell to the Thunder. Their next run of games: Timberwolves, at Trail Blazers, at Warriors, Jazz, and at Timberwolves. Rack up some wins here and it helps the playoff cause.
12. Bucks (16-13 LW 8). The Bucks had lost three in a row and in that stretch their defense had been the big problem — and it was again against the Cavaliers Tuesday night (Milwaukee is still 24th in the league on the season defensively). However, against the Cavs, their athleticism and offense overcame the defensive issues. Rumor is the Bucks have been active as potential buyers on the trade market, but the trade will have to be close to even financially (the Bucks are just about $5 million short of the tax line, and ownership does not want to cross it). Also, they get Jabari Parker back in February.
13. Knicks (16-14, LW 15). Kristaps Porzingis’ defense at the rim this season has been spectacular, opponents are shooting just over 40% in the restricted area when he is the primary defender, and when KP is switched onto the pick-and-roll ball handler they are shooting just 34.9%. The Knicks are playing on Christmas Day again, and interestingly their game against the Sixers has a higher secondary market ticket price than Cavaliers at Warriors (according to TickPick).
14. Trail Blazers (16-14, LW 17). They continue to surprise with a top-10 defense (4th in the league for the season, 8th the last 10 games) but struggling on offense. The Blazers went a respectable 3-2 on a five-game road trip, improving the team to 9-6 away from Portland (which is better than their 7-8 record at home). One other concern for Portland fans: Your team has played the third easiest schedule in the NBA so far. Things will get tougher.
15. Thunder (15-15 LW 18).. The Thunder have won three of four (including a triple-overtime thriller vs. the 76ers), and that got them up to .500 and the seven seed in the West. Don’t confuse that with the offense looking smoother, it just means Russell Westbrook is asserting himself again, especially late in games. OKC has 7-of-8 at home, and one of those is the Rockets on Christmas day.
16. Pelicans (15-16, LW 14). The buzz started up this week again about the Celtics and other teams keeping an eye on Anthony Davis’ trade availability (GMs are vultures seeking out potential steals). I’ve been told that the Pelicans do not have any plans to trade him, and nobody thinks they will go down that road for at least a year, maybe two (the summer of 2019 seems the earliest it gets considered). The Pelicans have lost 3-of-4 overall and the first two games of a four-game road trip.
17. Heat (15-15, LW 19). Miami had won 4-of-5 before the injuries — Justise Winslow, James Johnson, and Hassan Whiteside are out — caught up with the Heat Monday in an ugly loss to Atlanta. After playing at Boston on Wednesday, the Heat have 7-of-8 at home, many against teams under .500, and they need to rack up the wins before they hit the road and things get tougher in January.
18. 76ers (14-16, LW 9). The Sixers have lost 7-of-8, and those losses can often be traced back to turnovers — they give the ball up on 17.5% of their non-garage time possessions, worst in the NBA by a large margin (stats via Cleaning The Glass). Rookie Ben Simmons having the ball in his hands a lot is part of it, but plenty of Sixers, including Joel Embiid, are coughing it up too much. On the bright side, one bit of good news about the Sixers’ early season play: They have gone against the second toughest schedule in the NBA so far. It should lighten up.
19. Jazz (14-17, LW 16). The Jazz have dropped the two games since Rudy Gobert went down with his second significant injury of the season, although losses to Cleveland and Houston might well have come anyway. Donovan Mitchell continues to impress as a rookie playmaker and scorer, but he and the Jazz will be put to the test with this upcoming schedule: at Thunder, Spurs, Thunder, at Nuggets, at Warriors, Cavaliers.
20. Hornets (11-19, LW 21). In their last 10 games, the Hornets have the second best defense in the NBA but the worst offense, and that has them still getting outscored by 2 points per 100 possessions. The Hornets continue to struggle in close games. All of this has led to speculation around the league that Charlotte could be sellers at the trade deadline, if they decide to move out of the Kemba Walker era and rebuild.
21. Nets (11-18, LW 20). Last season, the Nets didn’t have 11 wins until March, a sign of the steps forward this team is taking. Nik Stauskas has hit 5-of-9 from three since the trade (but is 1-of-5 inside the arc) since being traded out of Philadelphia. Much like Jahlil Okafor (who is still getting his legs under him), Stauskas will get a chance to prove his worth in Brooklyn.
22. Clippers (11-18 LW 22). How much do the Clippers miss Chris Paul? Last season they scored an excellent 1.02 points per possession on pick-and-roll plays, one of the tops in the league, this season that is down to 0.89 per possession, near the bottom of the league (and 36 percent of Clipper possessions are a pick-and-roll this season). Also, the Clippers have lost three in a row and have not scored more than 91 pints in any of those games.
23. Bulls (9-20 LW 27).. The Bulls are 6-0 since the return of Nikola Mitotic to the lineup, and he is averaging 20.3 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 65.1. One difference in his game, he is not hesitating now — not nearly as many pump fakes. He feels he can get his shot off and the confidence shows. After Orlando at home Wednesday the win streak will be put to the test with a three game road trip against the Cavaliers, Celtics, and Bucks.
24. Lakers (10-18 LW 24). The Lakers honored Kobe Bryant Monday night retiring both his numbers, 8 and 24. The question for the future is, will a player on the roster such as Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram ever get their name and number up next to him? The Lakers have a lot of nice young players on the roster — including Kyle Kuzma — but are any of them future top 10 players in the league you can build a contender around? Tough schedule for L.A. with the Rockets and Warriors both on the road coming up.
25. Suns (11-21, LW 29). After dropping their first four games after Devin Booker went down, the Suns have won a couple in a row — and both because of their bench play. Isaiah Canaan had 11 fourth quarter points against Dallas to spark a comeback, and against Minnesota the game before both Troy Daniels and Dragan Bender stepped up with 17 points. We’ll see how sustainable that is, but the Suns will take the wins.
26. Magic (11-20, LW 23). Playing for his next contract (and wanting it to be in the NBA not Europe), Mario Hezonjia went off for 28 points Sunday, including 8 threes. Hezonjia has started the last five Orlando games (with Aaron Gordon out) and has been up and down depending upon the day. Remember, the Magic didn’t pick up his option for a fourth season, he’s an unrestricted free agent this summer.
27. Mavericks (8-23 LW 25). Dallas gets all the best players from Wurzburg, Germany. First was Dirk Nowitzki, and now they have forward Maxi Kleber, who is averaging 7.3 points per game, shooting 56.5% overall and 38.7% as a starter. He’s a 25-year-old rookie seasoned in the German and Spanish leagues. Dallas has lost 6-of-7 but been competitive in those games, only one was by 10 points or more.
28. Kings (10-20, LW 28). As of right now, the Kings have the worst offensive rating (98.4 points per 100 possessions) and worst defensive rating (108.7 per 100 allowed) in the NBA, but they keep winning enough games (such as against shorthanded Philadelphia on Tuesday) to stay out of the cellar in this ranking. No team has ever finished the season with both the worst offense and worst defense in the league. The Kings have the net rating of a 6-24 team according to Cleaning the Glass, but they keep finding some unexpected wins.
29. Grizzlies (9-21, LW 26). A few years back, Marc Gasol was a deserving Defensive Player of the Year — he wasn’t flashy, but he always made the right play and anchored a very good Grizzlies defense. It feels like Father Time is winning the race with him this season, opponents are shooting 60.4 percent at the rim when he is there as the rim protector this season. That doesn’t mean he is available yet via trade, all the buzz around the league is the Grizzlies have no plans to move either of their stars.
30. Hawks (7-23, LW 30). The good news is that rookie John Collins is back in the lineup. Well that and the Hawks upset the Heat Monday night behind big games from Taurean Waller-Prince (24 points) and Dennis Schroder (23 points). Atlanta has 3-of-4 at home before heading into a heavy road stretch to ring in the new year.