The Lakers three-game losing streak — although it has its reasons — dropped the team a couple of spots in this week’s rankings, so the hottest teams in the East and West moved up.
1. Bucks (27-4, Last Week No. 1). Milwaukee locked itself into this top spot with a comfortable win last Thursday over the Lakers — and Giannis Antetokounmpo locked himself in as the early MVP leader with his performance that game. Milwaukee has a Christmas Day showdown with Philadelphia — a team built with beating the Bucks in mind — but then the schedule softens up with 10-straight against below .500 teams.
2. Celtics (20-7, LW 6). Jayson Tatum has gotten hot. Nowhere was that more evident than Sunday night, when he dropped 39 points (on 29 shots) against Charlotte, including 22 in the fourth to spark the win. More importantly to Brad Stevens, Tatum is playing fantastic defense on the perimeter, using his length to contest shooters and disrupt passing lanes.
3. Nuggets (21-8, LW 9). After a rough start to the season Denver has found its offensive groove — and it looks like they are having fun again. The Nuggets have won seven in a row and have the third-best offense in the NBA over that stretch, using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers (which filters out garbage time). Jokic is making highlight passes nightly again, guys are cutting off the ball, and the big shots are falling. That includes Jamal Murray’s jumper with 3.2 seconds left to beat Phoenix Monday night.
Jamal Murray makes a clutch step back to give the Nuggets the lead with 2.5 seconds to go pic.twitter.com/Wdaw5iyPVn
— The Render (@TheRenderNBA2) December 24, 2019
4. Lakers (24-6, LW No. 2). Los Angeles has lost three in a row, but all can be explained away: No LeBron James for one, no Anthony Davis for another, and any loss to the Bucks is no upset. Yet, the health issues are a concern (LeBron’s back, Davis’ knee), and both L.A. stars are officially questionable for the big Christmas Day showdown with the Clippers (although both practiced Tuesday so expect them to go). That is the marquee matchup of the day, a potential Western Conference Finals preview, lets’ hope it’s not marred by injuries to the team that has scoffed at the idea of load management.
5. Rockets (21-9, LW 8). Ask Russell Westbrook why he’s hot — 30.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.2 assists a game his last five, shooting 36.4% from three — and he’ll talk about being healthy finally. Remember, he dislocated a finger during the preseason, and that’s right now. Whatever the reason, his 40-points against the Clippers, sparking a 15-0 fourth quarter run and a comeback win for the Rockets, was Houston’s defining win of the season so far. James Harden passed Elgin Baylor for fourth on the all-time 40+ point game list with 89 last week.
6. Clippers (22-10, LW 4). One of the reasons to look forward to the Christmas Day showdown with the Lakers: We may finally get a look at what a healthy, everyone-playing Clippers roster can do. It’s still hard to get a handle on this team because most of their losses (like in Oklahoma City) come against good teams when Los Angeles rests one of their stars. Against the Lakers we likely will get the full Clippers squad (hopefully we get the full Lakers’ one as well).
7. Heat (22-8, LW 10). Miami went into Philadelphia and handed the Sixers their first road loss of the season last Wednesday, a statement win that came the way all the Sixers wins do — a lot of Jimmy Butler and one of their rookies or second-year players stepping up. That day it was Kendrick Nunn with 26. Miami is the best team in the NBA not playing on Christmas Day, a testament to how much they have exceeded expectations this season for coach Erik Spoelstra.
8. Pacers (21-10, LW 7). Quietly, the Pacers have been one of the hotter teams in the NBA of late, having won 6-of-7, with the only loss being to Milwaukee. Of course, Malcolm Brogdon leads them, but it’s been the sneaky good offensive distribution of Domantas Sabonis, plus play from Aaron Holiday at the point and Myles Turner in the paint, that has the Pacers looking like a tough out in the playoffs — and they still don’t have Victor Oladipo back yet.
9. 76ers (22-10, LW 5). After losing three in a row trying to figure out how to beat a zone defense, the Sixers got a win and took out their frustrations on the worst defense in the NBA in Washington, then followed it up crushing a shorthanded Pistons team on the road. We’ll see on Christmas Day if that built up the Sixers confidence enough as they take on the Bucks. Philly will have to win that game without impressive rookie defender Matisse Thybulle, who is going o miss a couple of weeks with a knee sprain and bone bruise.
10. Raptors (21-9, LW 11). Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell are all out injured, and yet with the players left Kyle Lowry was able to spark a 30-point comeback against Dallas to pick up a win. Chris Boucher has been giving Nick Nurse solid minutes at center, which would cushion the blow if the Raptors decided to move Gasol or Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline.
11. Mavericks (19-10, LW 3). Dallas has gone 2-3 without Luka Doncic in a run through the five best teams in the East (we’re counting the game against Miami, where Doncic played less than two minutes, as one of the games without him). That’s not bad considering the competition, but the blown 30-point lead against Toronto showed just how much they missed the 20-year-old and his ability to settle them down. There is hope Doncic could return to the court on Thursday against the Spurs.
12. Jazz (18-12, LW 13). Utah’s bench has been a weak spot all season, scoring 27.1 points per game, second-lowest in the league. The hamstring injury to Mike Conley, forcing Joe Ingles into the starting lineup, makes things worse. That’s why they traded Dante Exum and a couple of second-round picks for Jordan Clarkson — he can get buckets off the bench. Clarkson isn’t much of a playmaker or defender, but he can score, and the Jazz need that right now.
13. Thunder (15-14, LW 14). Winners of four in a row, but they were doing it the hard way coming from 26 back against Chicago and 24 back against Memphis. Dennis Schroder has been red-hot scoring 24.6 points per game and shooting 42.9% from three over that stretch, drawing him attention both as a potential Sixth Man of the Year and as a trade target for other teams (OKC remains open for business on that front).
14. Nets (16-13, LW 12). The Nets have gone 12-6 without Kyrie Irving (still trying to work his way back from a shoulder issue) or Caris LeVert in the lineup. Yet the injuries just keep piling up, the latest one being David Nwaba lost for the season to a torn Achilles. The Nets host the Knicks on Thursday then head out on the road for 4-of-5.
15. Trail Blazers (14-17, LW 18). Portland had won 5-of-6 before stumbling against New Orleans on Monday, and the key reason may be their defense with Kent Bazemore in the starting lineup. When Rodney Hood was lost for the season (Achilles), Bazemore was moved up and with him the starters — Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Carmelo Anthony, Hassan Whiteside — have given up less than a point per possession. Where they are paying the price is off the bench, which is why making a trade for some scoring depth makes sense.
16. Magic (13-17, LW 16). There was a lot of buzz at the G-League showcase in Las Vegas last week about teams inquiring about Evan Fournier in a trade. something to watch. Orlando needed Monday’s win against Chicago, they had lost 6-of-7 and after Christmas get the Sixers and Bucks in a back-to-back. Orlando is beating up the bad teams in the league to stay in the playoff hunt, but struggles against good teams — all six of those recent losses came against teams that made the playoffs a season ago.
17. Spurs (12-17, LW 21). About that 22-season playoff streak, it may not be dead yet. Because nobody has run away with the last couple of slots in the West, even with the Spurs slow start they are just one game out of the eight seed (Portland). Point guard Dejounte Murray got his starting spot back and San Antonio and the Spurs are 3-2 in that stretch, with Murray scoring 14.2 points per game on 62.7% shooting.
18. Kings (12-18, LW 17). Sacramento is finally getting healthy and had its young stars De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III back in the rotation the last four games — and they lost all four. The reason is a dreadful defense during that stretch surrendering a 116.7 defensive rating for those four — that’s worse than the Wizards season average. The Kings have 9-of-11 at home and if they are going to make a push to get up into the playoffs in the West now is the time.
19. Bulls (12-20, LW 24). It seems Lauri Markkanen has broken out of his early-season slump. In his last 10 games, Markkanen is averaging 16.9 points per game, shooting 37.3% from three and 50% overall. He’s not giving the Bulls great rebounding or defense, but at least he’s getting buckets now. Chicago went 2-2 on their recent road trip, now it is home for four starting Saturday against Atlanta.
20. Pistons (11-20, LW 15). This team can’t get healthy. Blake Griffin missed three of the last five games (knee issue), Reggie Jackson is still out, Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown have missed time, and Monday against the Sixers Andre Drummond came off the bench (because he missed shoot around). Detroit hosts the Wizards on Thursday then head out of the road for six straight games, mostly through the West (including both Los Angeles teams).
21. Hornets (13-20, LW 19). It’s a sign of how thin the Charlotte roster is — and how solid the rookie has been — that the Hornets have gone 1-4 and scrambled to find rotations that work without P.J. Washington. He had surgery on his finger and while there is no timetable he should return soon and be put straight into the starting lineup again. The Hornets are three points per 100 possessions better with Washington on the court, with an improved defense accounting for a lot of that.
22. Grizzlies (11-20, LW 22). Ja Morant is just electric to watch running the Memphis offense and has become the clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. He’s averaging 18.2 points and 6.5 assists per game, is shooting 40 percent from three, and there’s nobody as dynamic an athlete currently playing in this class (we all keep waiting for Zion). Moron’s best play of the last week was a missed dunk trying to leap over Kevin Love.
Ja Morant nearly ended Kevin Love's career pic.twitter.com/xzCwGsuM58
— The Render (@TheRenderNBA2) December 21, 2019
23. Suns (11-19, LW 20). Deandre Ayton finally gets back on the court after a 25-game PED suspension, then promptly rolls his ankle and has had to sit out the last three. That’s just the way things have gone for Phoenix after a fast start. The Suns are losers of seven in a row, and the reason is on the defensive end where they are 28th in the league over that stretch (using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers).
24. Wizards (9-20, LW 25). Washington didn’t make a trade and instead extended Bradley Beal’s contract — and he’s working hard to earn it. Beal is scoring 28.3 points and dishing out 6.8 assists per game, both career highs, but he continues to struggle from three — 28.4% from deep his last 10 games. Davis Bertans could miss a week or more with a right quad strain, which is bad news, but don’t think that means the Wizards want to trade him.
25. Cavaliers (9-21, LW 28). Winners of three in a row, one of those against Memphis when Jordan Clarkson dropped 33. Now Carkson is in Memphis and the Cavaliers get to see if a new environment can help Dante Exum stay healthy and look like a role player, plus the Cavs pick up a couple of draft picks to help with the rebuild. It’s a smart move for Cleveland, thinking long-term and getting value back while giving up a guy who could help a playoff team now.
26. Warriors (7-24 LW 29). Another Christmas Day game that looked great on paper — Stephen Curry vs. James Harden in a shootout — that has gone flat because of injuries. One player to watch on the Warriors Christmas Day is rookie forward Eric Paschall, who has averaged 15.4 points and 4.9 rebounds a game this season (although he has cooled off recently). When the Warriors get to full strength next season Paschall is going to have a key role off the bench.
27. Pelicans (8-23, LW 30). At the G-League Showcase in Las Vegas, the name I heard brought up the most in trade scuttlebutt was Jrue Holiday — there are a lot of teams that covet the point guard. It’s going to take a lot to pry him away from New Orleans, but there was a sense among the sources I spoke with someone would step up and pay the price. It’s something to watch. We all thought Zion Williamson would be back by now, and without him it takes the air out of the Christmas Day game against a hot Denver squad.
28. Timberwolves (10-19, LW 23). Losers of 11 games in a row, with a -9.4 net rating in those games (worst in the NBA over that stretch). The problem is on defense, where Minnesota has surrendered 117.9 points per 100 possessions in those games. Adding to the issues, Karl-Anthony Towns has missed four straight games with a knee sprain.
29. Knicks (7-24, LW 26). New York has gone 3-6 since firing David Fizdale and throwing Mike Miller in the big chair. They had a couple of wins early — on the road at Golden State and Sacramento — but have now lost 4-of-5 and are about to head out on the road for 6-of-7. Rookie R.J. Barrett looks good in flashes, but up against good teams recently — Miami and Milwaukee — the former Duke star has looked overwhelmed. The question with him isn’t, “is there potential?” There is. The question is, can the Knicks develop it?
30. Hawks (6-25, LW 27). John Collins returned to the rotation Monday after a 25-game suspension for PEDs, Atlanta went 4-21 without him. Even with him they lost their eighth straight game, falling to Cleveland. While we expected the Hawks to struggle defensively, they have the 30th ranked offense in the NBA over the past two weeks, using Cleaning The Glass stats, Trae Young is not saving them on that end.