The Suns and Warriors have been the best teams in the NBA this season and consistently on top of these NBA Power Rankings, but the play of the Jazz during their winning streak has them in second and in the mix as well.
1. Warriors (23-5, Last Week No. 1). Stephen Curry had already established himself as the greatest shooter the game had ever seen, but the coronation of that, and the celebration as he passed Ray Allen for most 3s in NBA history, just felt right. Curry earned that moment in the sun. Steve Kerr picked up a new side hustle — he will coach Team USA at the 2023 World Cup and 2024 Olympics in Paris. He fits the mold of what Team USA needs: a coach players want to play for, one that brings an uptempo, aggressive style to exploit Team USA’s athletic advantages.
2. Jazz (19-7, LW 3). Utah has found its groove: Winners of seven in a row, best offense in the NBA, best net rating in the league once you filter out garbage time (stat via Cleaning the Glass), and they play their next six tames at home. Even if everyone has a “wait and see” approach to the Jazz in the postseason, they are contenders. We can also wait and see if Danny Ainge taking on a new title with the Jazz and heading basketball operations changes much of anything. Utah has been one of the more stable organizations in the league.
3. Suns (22-5, LW 2). The win over Portland Tuesday improved the Suns to 12-1 in clutch games this season (within 5 points in the final 5 minutes) with a +49 net rating. The lineup responsible for a lot of that the core group of Chris Paul, Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crwoder, and Deandre Ayton, but that fivesome has just a +2 net rating for the season — they haven’t been blowing teams away. At least, not until the final minutes of a game.
4. Nets (20-8, LW 4). Kevin Durant continues to play at an MVP level, but if the Nets are going to be a threat come May and June, some other things need to come together. Kyrie Irving returning to the team would be nice, but despite the rumors Brooklyn can’t bet on that (you want to predict what Kyrie will do?). Mike Prada pointed out that the Nets have been spacing wider in recent games, spacing the floor, which has helped James Harden get downhill (he averaged 9 free throw attempts per game in the last three). If Harden can build on that it would be a big step forward for the Nets.
5. Bucks (18-11, LW 5). This team can’t seem to get its stars on the court all at once for very long: Giannis Antetokounmpo is now in health and safety protocols, and Khris Middleton is out with a knee issue. Starting center Brook Lopez hasn’t played since opening night, and there is a lot of speculation around the league the Bucks will try to add a center at the trade deadline. The good news on the injury front is Donte DiVincenzo is set to return, although that leaves coach Mike Budenholzer with a tough choice because Grayson Allen has played very well in his place. Both deserve some run.
6. Cavaliers (17-12, LW 13). If you think it’s a fluke Cleveland has the fourth best record in the East and have won 8-of-10, know this: The Cavaliers have played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far. This team is no accident, it’s just good. Interesting stat via Michael Pina: Jarrett Allen is shooting 70.7% this season on more than 10 shot attempts a game, and no player in NBA history has ever been that efficient with that many shots.
7. Clippers (16-12, LW 12). Add Brandon Boston Jr. to the long list of guys who were high recruits out of high school, didn’t thrive in the unique college environment at Kentucky, then got to the NBA and their athleticism and skill find a home — Boston had a breakout game scoring 27 points against Boston (yes, you read that sentence correctly). The Clippers have 7 of their next 11 on the road, where their strong record as a clutch team will be put to the test.
"REGGIE JACKSON, ARE YOU READY FOR YOUR CLOSE-UP?"
Reggie wins it for the @LAClippers. pic.twitter.com/XGmZK24raV
— NBA (@NBA) December 11, 2021
8. Heat (16-12, LW 11). How deep is Miami? The Heat have a +2.4 net rating when both Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are off the court — as both are right now due to injuries. The Heat beat the Bucks and Bulls without those two in the past week, and Kyle Lowry deserves credit for being an impressive floor general in those games. It’s also worth noting the Heat have racked up this record against the third toughest schedule in the NBA so far; things should get easier for them as the season moves along.
9. Bulls (17-10, LW 6). No team has been hit harder by COVID than the Bulls, who have 10 players in health and safety protocols and had two games (the Pistons and Raptors) postponed. The games DeMar DeRozan missed after he entered protocols (but before everyone else did) showed how much he means to their offense, they need his shot creation. When healthy, Zach LaVine is putting up numbers, impressing, and seems happy, but know most teams have him on top of their potential free agent board and are monitoring the situation, just in case.
10. Grizzlies (17-11, LW 15). Memphis is now 8-1 since Ja Morant went out, which bight be the most stunning stat of the season. They have done it with defense, allowing less than a point per possession in that stretch, and they have a league-best +19.6 net rating in those games. Desmond Bane has stepped up in those nine games to help carry the offense, the question is how do they carry this momentum over to when Morant does get out of protocols.
11. 76ers (15-13, LW 9). When Matisse Thybulle made the All-Defensive Second Team last season it raised some eyebrows among fans. However, he came out on national television Saturday night, harassed Stephen Curry into an off shooting night, and showed exactly why he got the votes of close league observers — Thybulle is one of the elite man defenders in the league. The Sixers are 1-2 through a brutal stretch of the schedule (losses to the Jazz and suddenly hot Grizzlies, beat the Warriors) and next up are the Heat and Nets on a back-to-back.
12. Lakers (15-13, LW 16). LeBron James returned from his abdominal injury 12 games ago (although he was out for a couple of those dozen), and since that moment the Lakers have the seventh-best defense in the NBA. For all the criticism, Frank Vogel has found lineups that are getting the job done. The Lakers will get Trevor Ariza back in the next couple of weeks, which also will help on that end of the floor. Still, it all comes down to LeBron and him raising the level of the team defense — he was locked in on the Magic Sunday night and had three huge blocks.
13. Mavericks (14-13, LW 19). Dallas may be the hardest team in the NBA to get a pulse on — they’ve had some ugly losses lately, then sat Luka Doncic because of ankle and knee issues, and rattled off a couple straight wins. It’s been like that all season, and it’s more than Doncic’s conditioning. The Mavericks take the six most 3-pointers in the league (37.9 a game) but hit just 33.1% of them (24th in the league).
14 Hawks (13-14 LW 8). New season, same old problem in Atlanta: When Trae Young is on the court the Hawks have a 118.8 offensive rating, which would be best in the NBA; when he sits that rating falls to 104.1, which would be bottom five in the league. Do keep an eye on the Hawks as the trade deadline approaches, this franchise has reached the “can we really pay everyone?” stage of team building and with that wing Cam Reddish is reportedly available, but it’s going to take a quality package (a first round pick, at least)
15. Nuggets (14-13, LW 20). Denver is going to face some big picture questions at the trade deadline and into next offseason. This team is a contender if healthy, but when does Jamal Murray return and how does he look? What does the future hold for Michael Porter Jr. and his back issues? Do the Nuggets hang on to players such as JaMychal Green and Jeff Green, or is it better to trade them and build for something farther down the line? Nikola Jokic remains MVP brilliant this season, but how do the Nuggets get the right players around him (and keep them healthy)?
16. Celtics (14-14, LW 10). Will Brad Stevens look to shake up the inconsistent Celtics team at the trade deadline? There have been reports the Celtics are open to trading point guard Dennis Schroder, who is averaging 17.5 points and almost 5 assists a game. He signed a one-year, $5.9 million contract and he’s outplayed what Boston can offer next season, so it makes sense to explore a trade rather than let him walk. Problem is, any team that trades for him faces the same restriction on re-signing him, so the offers will be low (Schroder would simply be a rental).
17. Hornets (15-14, LW 7). Another team hit hard by COVID, and that has contributed to them dropping 6-of-8. The loss in Dallas Monday was the start of 8-of-10 on the road for the Hornets. The big problem in this stretch is on the defensive end, which has been worst in the NBA for the season but is 13 points per 100 possessions worse over this losing stretch. The offense has remained top five in the league without LaMelo Ball, with a lot of credit going to Cody Martin (outside of the bad foul on De'Aaron Fox late in the Kings game).
18. Wizards (15-13, LW 14). Washington has dropped 5-of-7, with the difference being the top-10 defense that propelled them early in the season has been bottom 10 over those seven games (the offense is bottom 10 in the league for the season and isn’t good enough to cover it up). It doesn’t help that the Wizards keep digging themselves a hole, they have a -6.6 net rating in the first half of games, fifth worst in the league. One highlight sums it all up: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope drove baseline for a dunk, cocked it back for a monster slam — and got rejected by the backboard.
Not sure where KCP was trying to dunk this. 😅😅 @shaqtin pic.twitter.com/JFHNAjIQas
— House of Highlights (@HoHighlights) December 12, 2021
19. Raptors (14-14, LW 21). The Raptors went 4-3 on a big homestand, but it felt reversed from the rest of the season because the defense was good (top five in that stretch) and the offense was below average. Still, it left the Raptors in the same spot, sitting in the middle of the pack and looking average. Gary Trent Jr. is having some strong games and is looking like a good trade pickup, one Nick Nurse can take advantage of.
20. Pacers (12-17, LW 22). As soon as the report about the Pacers wanting to trade everything not nailed down hit the street, the players rattled off a three-game winning streak. Rick Carlisle would be pleased if he were not isolating at home due to COVID-19 protocols. While the Pacers are talking trades, nobody around the league expects them to really strip it all the way down and rebuild from the ground up (like OKC), this will be another rebuild on the fly.
21. Spurs (10-16, LW 24). As much is this is a young team still learning some hard lessons, they also look like a Gregg Popovich team — plenty of ball and player movement. It also looks like a Popovich team because they don’t shoot a lot of 3s (29 a game, last in the league). San Antonio is 2-2 so far on a five-game homestand that ends tonight against Charlotte, then the team heads West for four on the road, including both Los Angeles teams.
22. Timberwolves (12-15, LW 18). Despite the up-and-down nature of this season — Minnesota snapped a five-game losing streak beating Portland on Sunday — this team is still sitting ninth in the West, in the play-in mix. Their next five games are all against West foes, a chance to climb the ladder in the conference. With Karl-Anthony Towns playing his best ball in years and the growth of Anthony Edwards, there is enough talent on this team to at least make the play-in, if not there needs to be hard questions.
23. Knicks (12-16, LW 17). While it was good to see rookie Quentin Grimes announce his presence with 27 points (7-of-13 from 3) against the Bucks, the fact Kemba Walker didn’t see the court in that game despite Alec Burks being out has led to questions. Walker was the guy benched out of the struggling starting lineup, but since then the Knicks have gone 2-7. Maybe it wasn’t all Walker. Kemba has enough in the tank — 11.7 points per game, 41.3% from 3 — that Thibodeau has to find some role for him.
24. Rockets (9-18, LW 26). Expect a lot of trade talk around Houston as the deadline nears, playoff-bound teams have their eyes on veterans such as Eric Gordon and Christian Wood. The rebuilding want picks and young players back. Houston has not been a great fourth quarter team this season (they have a negative net rating in every quarter), but the comeback against Atlanta on Monday showed the fight of the team that won seven in a row is still there.
25. Kings (11-17, LW 25). Sacramento is 5-6 since Alvin Gentry took over and have a -5.8 net rating in those games. Which is to say, things haven’t really changed, the team’s offense is okay but the defense is dreadful. Will the Kings be sellers at the trade deadline? They could get first-round picks for players such as Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes, but with ownership desperately wanting a push up into the play-in games, it’s hard to predict what direction they might go.
26. Trail Blazers (11-17, LW 23). Even Damian Lillard expressing his love for Portland can’t calm all the anxiety around this team as they struggle. The Trail Blazers have lost 9-of-10 and the problems have been on both ends of the court — Portland is bottom five in offense and defense over their last 10. Chauncey Billups is trying to shake things up a little. Larry Nance Jr. moved into the starting lineup in place of Robert Covington, a move that probably should have happened weeks ago. With CJ McCollum still out, Norman Powell moves into his more natural position as a two (rather than an undersized three).
27. Pelicans (8-21, LW 27). Another week, another Zion Williamson setback. It makes it hard to be optimistic about this team, as does the rumor they want to make a bold win-now move at the trade deadline so they can climb out of last in the West to make the play-in. New Orleans needs to be thinking long term, not short. Brandon Ingram is healthy and averaging 22.9 points a game — when he is on the court the New Orleans offense is 5.3 points per 100 possessions better.
28. Thunder (8-18, LW 28). The Thunder are going to get a lot of calls around the trade deadline because they are the only team with cap space ($34 million) to facilitate a big deal. Teams may also call about Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, although the cost of trading for him may be too steep for teams. Luguentz Dort could help a lot of playoff-bound teams with his defense (and his offense has taken a step forward this season), but again the cost will be steep.
29. Magic (5-23, LW 29). The Magic will be an interesting team to watch at the trade deadline as they are rebuilding but have a couple of veterans who would draw interest around the league in Terrence Ross and Robin Lopez. Ross could draw a first-round pick because of the demand for wings who can help on both ends of the floor. The Magic have the worst net rating in the league (-10.5) but it’s been worse in the first half, -16.1. The Magic seem to start every game in a hole.
30. Pistons (4-22, LW 30). Cade Cunningham is showing flashes — he boldly went shot-for-shot with Kevin Durant — but the question now becomes which of their young players can grow around him and be part of the future. Saddiq Bey needs to shoot better if he wants to be part of this future. It will be a surprise if Jerami Grant is not traded at the deadline; many suitors see him as a fit (the Lakers like him a lot but may not have the players to make a deal).Follow @basketballtalk