The power rankings took a week off so they could go out and celebrate New Year’s Eve last week, but they’re back — and nothing at the top has changed. It’s still Bucks and Lakers on top.
1. Bucks (32-6, Last Week No. 1). Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe both missed time in the past couple of weeks, and the Bucks just kept right on winning. Milwaukee is on pace to win 69 games and run away with the top slot in the East, but at what point does the franchise start to think about resting Antetokounmpo and others to make sure they are fully rested and healthy heading into the playoffs? It’s a little early for that now, but as we move into the coming weeks it’s something Mike Budenholzer needs to consider.
2. Lakers (29-7, LW No. 4). Anthony Davis had a nasty fall on Tuesday night and has a bruised tailbone. The good news is the MRI came back clean and it’s just a bruise, but expect the Lakers to be without AD’s 27.1 points and 9.4 rebounds a night. Also expect a lot of Kyle Kuzma trade rumors in the coming weeks, but most likely they get Darren Collison out of retirement and he’s a better playmaker than just about anyone they land for Kuzma. Which is to say, don’t expect a trade. Also, the Lakers are ready for some football.
🏀 + 🏈 = 😂 pic.twitter.com/CPejWdbnpi
— NBA (@NBA) December 30, 2019
3. Celtics (25-9, LW 2). Dealing with Danny Ainge at the trade deadline should scare teams, he tends to win everything he touches as a GM. For example, that four-year, $107 million Jaylen Brown extension this summer — he has arguably been the most important Celtics player this season and that contract looks like a steal for Boston. The Celtics could use a center that can shoot threes and is more on the age timeline of Brown and Jayson Tatum. That guy may not be available at the deadline. And no, the CBA does not allow Boston to trade to get Aron Baynes back (they could re-sign him next summer).
4. Jazz (24-12, LW 12). Winners of six in a row and 11-of-12, and in those last dozen games the Jazz have a league-best +8.7 net rating, with the second best offense in the land (the defense is 10th in the league, good, but not what we expected from this team). Donovan Mitchell is at the heart of the offensive resurgence averaging 24.9 points per game on 50% shooting from the floor over his last 10 games — he won’t be a starter, but he should be an All-Star this season in Chicago.
5. Rockets (24-11, LW 5). Russell Westbrook has been more efficient of late because he is getting to the rim more and not settling for the mid-range jump shots defenders are completely willing to give him. Combine Westbrook with Harden, and eventually Eric Gordon, and you have the offense of a contender. However, unless Clint Capela can suddenly turn into a defensive force, the Rockets middle-of-the-pack defense will let them down in the postseason.
6. Clippers (26-12, LW 6). The lack of an identity for these Clippers nearly halfway into the season is a concern for Doc Rivers — he said as much after last Saturday’s ugly loss to Memphis — but this mostly stems from health issues. Rivers has had his full compliment of starters and top four bench players exactly one game this season, and that makes it hard to develop chemistry and continuity. The good news for Rivers: The Clippers have easiest schedule of any team in the West in January.
7. Nuggets (25-11, LW 3). There are moments it feels like Michael Porter Jr. is going to break out, like the 19-point game against the Kings or the 25 against the Pacers. But it’s not consistent, the next game after the Pacers he scored just seven and was -16 against Washington (I know single-game plus-minus is flukey, but it illustrates the point here). The Nuggets were counting on him this season, but he’s playing the up-and-down ball of a rookie, as we should have expected of him. The Nuggets have gone 2-2 so far on a five-game road trip that ends in Dallas Wednesday.
8. Heat (26-11, LW 7). Miami is the luckiest team in the NBA this season. The Heat are outplaying their point differential by four games (via Cleaning the Glass), meaning they have played like a 22-14 team but have gotten lucky. Part of that, Miami is 6-0 in overtime games this season, which involves some luck. Also, teams are getting decent shots and just not hitting them — they have the 10th best eFG% against, but based on the shots they give up that should be 22nd (using Cleaning the Glass’ location eFG% tool). Miami’s a good team, but maybe not as good as their record suggests.
9. Mavericks (23-13, LW 11). LeBron James is impressed with the Dallas bench: “We know not only the season that Luka’s having, but they’ve been successful because of their bench as well. Their bench gives them so much of a push. Luka comes out, KP comes out, their starters come out and their bench seems to rise to the occasion.” The Mavericks are 2-1 halfway through a six-game homestand.
10. Raptors (24-13, LW 10). Injuries continue to hobble the Raptors: Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell all missed the Raptors most recent game (a loss to the Trail Blazers. That’s why Toronto is 2-3 in its last five. Nick Nurse has done an impressive coaching job this season, getting young players to step up and veterans to take on larger roles, but if the Raptors are going to be a threat in the East they need to get everyone healthy.
11. Thunder (21-16, LW 13). Chris Paul has been the most clutch player in the NBA this season. CP3 has scored 103 points in clutch minutes this season (the final five minutes of a game within five points), and that’s far and away the most in the league. He is shooting 54.5% in those clutch minutes and has dished out 11 assists as well. Paul was at it again Tuesday night, scoring 20 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, lifting OKC past Brooklyn.
12. Pacers (23-14, LW 8). Victor Oladipo’s return is now targeted for Jan. 29 (this past week he was practicing with the Pacers’ G-League team) — and they could use him. Malcolm Brogdon has been battling back issues which have kept him in and out of the lineup, and the Pacers offense feels the pinch. After a tough game Wednesday night against Miami, the Pacers head out on the road for 7-of-9, and Indy is 8-10 away from home this season.
13. 76ers (24-14, LW 9). Ever since the impressive win against Milwaukee on Christmas Day, the Sixers are 1-4 with a -3.9 net rating, having played rather pedestrian ball on both ends of the court. The offensive issues are not a surprise (Ben Simmons needs to attack the rim in crunch time and stop fearing fouls because of his trouble from the stripe), but it’s the defense that is supposed to keep the Sixers afloat through tough times and that has not impressed lately. Brett Brown has to find a way to get this team out of its malaise.
14. Magic (17-20, LW 16). The loss of Jonathan Isaac in a breakout year for him — he looked like a guy who could make one of the All-Defensive teams at the end of the season — is a real blow. He’s out for two months, which will dent this team’s top-10 defense, but his activity will be missed on offense as well. And Orlando can’t have their offense get any worse if they plan to hold on to one of the last couple of playoff spots in the East.
15. Trail Blazers (16-22, LW 15). As disappointing as Portland has been this season — and they are in the running for “most disappointing team in the league — they still sit tied for the nine seed, just 1.5 games out of the playoffs thanks to the surprisingly soft bottom of the West. However, Portland faces a difficult January schedule, playing a lot of quality offensive teams that will test the Blazers’ bottom 10 defense. The schedule will make it tough to climb the ladder in the West. Well, unless they can get more Carmelo Anthony game-winners.
16. Spurs (15-20, LW 17). LaMarcus Aldridge, three-point marksman. Apparently that’s a thing now. In his last five games Aldridge is averaging 4.6 attempts from three a game, a huge leap from the 0.5 attempts a game he made last season, and it doubles the less than two attempts a night from the first 20 games of this season. More amazing, he’s hitting 69.6% from three in the last five games. It could be a rough month in San Antonio the Spurs have toughest schedule in the West in January.
17. Nets (16-20, LW 14). Kyrie Irving got a shot in his shoulder, hoping to numb the pain so he can get back, but if you listened to the press conference he sounded like a guy who could well be headed for season-ending surgery. That adds to the woes in Brooklyn — the Nets have lost six in a row, and it doesn’t get easier with the Heat and Jazz on the schedule this week (and it actually gets tougher the week after that).
18. Kings (14-23, LW 18). The three players the Kings are counting on to be their core — De'Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III, and Buddy Hield — have played a total of 49 minutes together this season due to injuries. Kings fans can blame Luke Walton because their team went from one of the fastest-paced teams in the NBA last season to one of the slowest, but it’s tough to judge his performance without the players the Kings need healthy enough to play. The Kings had the league’s worst record over the last 10 years but have started the new decade winning 3-of-4.
19. Grizzlies (16-22, LW 22). Ja Morant is the clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, but more than that he can be a cornerstone for Memphis to build around (probably with Jaren Jackson Jr.). Morant is incredibly fluid, his trust in his shot is growing, and he is fearless — more than once on Saturday Kawhi Leonard got switched onto him and Morant went right at him (with mixed results). Morant is also walking highlight reel and has become must-watch League Pass viewing.
— Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) January 4, 2020
20. Timberwolves (14-22, LW 28). Karl-Anthony Towns remains sidelined with a sprained knee (11 games and counting), but the Timberwolves have found some spark and have won 3-of-5 without him. This remains a team to watch at the trade deadline, with Robert Covington still drawing interest from teams. Also, stop with the Towns trade talk, that is not happening, he may be frustrated with the losing, but that’s different than going Anthony Davis and forcing his way out. Plus, in the first year of a five-year extension, everyone wants to find a way to make this work.
21. Bulls (13-24, LW 19). Chicago’s defense is tied for fifth best in the NBA this season (they have the same defensive rating as the stacked Sixers), but that hasn’t translated into wins because of their 28th-ranked offense. Still, the Bulls have the net rating of a 16-21 team (which would have them half-a-game out of the playoffs). The Bulls have lost four straight against some of the league’s better teams, but the schedule does soften up going forward.
22. Suns (14-22, LW 23). Devin Booker is on fire, having scored at least 30 points in seven straight games, setting a new franchise record (Charles Barkley had held it at five games). Phoenix is 3-4 in those games seven games, and Booker has lifted their offense up to middle of the pack). He’s not going to be a starter, but Booker should travel to Chicago next month to play in his first All-Star game as a reserve.
23. Hornets (15-24, LW 21). Devonte' Graham is the clear early frontrunner to win Most Improved Player this season, he is averaging 19.1 points and 7.8 assists a game. He deserves the award, but it is all fueled by the three-ball — almost 60% of his shot attempts come from deep. To take the next step, Graham has to become a better scorer inside the arc and in he paint. Just look at his shot chart for the season.
24. Pelicans (12-25, LW 27). Derrick Favors has been the guy at the heart of New Orleans winning 5-of-7, with him on the floor they are 6.5 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits. The Pelicans just look like a different team when he plays. The Pelicans are a top-10 defense in the last 10 games thanks to Favors and a scheme where they now drop their bigs back to protect the paint on pick-and-rolls. No word yet on Zion Williamson’s return, but it should be soon. Or, at least soonish.
25. Pistons (14-24, LW 20). Blake Griffin had surgery to clean up issues in his knee, and while no official timetable has been given it would be a surprise to see him back this season. That will add to the growing buzz around an Andre Drummond trade, which seems to be more and more likely at the deadline. The silver lining in the Griffin injury is that it clears the way for more Sekou Doumbouya, who has started to look like the future of that franchise.
26. Wizards (12-24, LW 24). It’s a “what actually happened to the passengers on flight 828” level
mystery — in the past week a Wizards team without Bradley Beal or Thomas Bryant or
Rui Hachimura or Davis Bertans or John Wall have beaten the Heat, Nuggets, and Celtics. Why? How? Some things are just better left unexplained.
27. Knicks (10-26, LW 29). Marcus Morris scoring 38 points against the Clippers on Sunday almost felt like an audition for playoff teams watching — “look, I can help you against elite teams.” The Knicks were competitive in that game, as they have been against some other top teams of late, and New York is 6-9 with Mike Miller as the interim coach. They are at least competing.
28. Cavaliers (10-27, LW 25). Kevin Love is clearly unhappy — even if the way he is venting it on the court is not the most professional of moves — and wants to be traded. It’s just hard to see that coming together thanks to him being in the first year of a four-year, $120 million contract extension. Love still brings value on the court, but not at the level he’s being paid, and that has team balking when it comes to making a trade. Still, the rumors are flying around.
29. Hawks (8-29, LW 30). Trae Young is going to be an All-Star this year, and if the fans get their way he will start (he led East guards after the first round of fan voting). While we can talk about his lack of defense or how he needs to grow to be the kind of guy who can lead a team deep in the playoffs, Young is a walking highlight reel and that’s what you want at the glorified exhibition that is the All-Star game.
😳 THE. TRAE. FAKE. 😳 pic.twitter.com/73zT7btcry
— NBA (@NBA) January 7, 2020
30. Warriors (9-29 LW 26). The focus in the Bay Area has turned to the next draft, understandably, with some calls for the Warriors to get a center or rim-protecting big, wherever they end up picking. That’s the wrong strategy. If James Wiseman falls in your lap, great, but take the best player on the board. Try to draft for position and you end up saying things like “we don’t need to draft Luka Doncic we have De’Aaron Fox” or “we don’t need to draft Michael Jordan, we have Clyde Drexler.” Take the best player and work the rest out later.Follow @basketballtalk