As it has been for much of this season, the Suns and Warriors are on top of our NBA Power Rankings, but this time we get a nationally televised showdown between them on Christmas Day.
1. Suns (25-5, Last Week No. 3). Phoenix fans have felt their team is overlooked. Watch them play and it’s clear, the Suns are unquestionably one of the best teams in the NBA, a team that made the Finals a season ago and may be better now. But because there’s no drama — no big off-season moves, no resurgence narrative like in the Bay Area — the social media/press buzz has gravitated elsewhere. The Suns have a chance to right that on Christmas Day in a showcase nationally broadcast game against the Warriors. Phoenix will have Devin Booker for that game, he returned over the weekend, but in a sign of this team’s depth the Suns went 5-2 without him (in large part because they locked down on defense while he was out).
2. Warriors (25-6, LW 1). Golden State is 5-2 in its last seven, and went 3-2 on an East Coast road swing, but they have looked a little more vulnerable of late — they have an even net rating (0.0) over those seven games (that includes a throw in the towel game against Toronto). A big part of that is Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins being in health and safety protocols, both have become big parts of this Warriors attack. The schedule is about to get a lot tougher for the Warriors, starting with the hot Grizzlies on Thursday, then a Christmas Day showdown against the Suns (the best game of that slate).
3. Jazz (21-9, LW 2). Back-to-back losses last weekend to the Spurs and Wizards were a reminder of a weakness in Utah’s otherwise impressive regular season: They are not a very good clutch team. The Jazz are 5-6 in games within three points in the final three minutes (despite a +24 net rating in those minutes). The Jazz are 6-8 in games within five points in the final five minutes. Utah got the Christmas Day showcase game it believes it deserves, but against a shorthanded Mavericks team it may not be the showcase Utah had hoped for.
4. Cavaliers (19-12, LW 6). Winners of six straight, the Cavaliers are the hottest team in the NBA. How are they doing it? Part of it is backcourt success: When Darius Garland and Ricky Rubio are on the court together, the Cavs have a +17.7 net rating, and a lot of the success is on the defensive end, where they give up under a point per possession. Another part of it is role players getting hot — Isaac Okoro had scored at least 16 points in four straight games (until he was placed in COVID protocols). The Cavs fast start to the season has rumors swirling around the league they will be buyers at the deadline, looking to strike while the iron is hot and make a playoff push this season.
5. Nets (21-9, LW 4). Three straight games have been postponed because the Nets have 10 players in health and safety protocols, including Kevin Durant, James Harden, and LaMarcus Aldridge. Throw in the usual injuries (Joe Harris ankle surgery) and the Nets haven’t been able to field eight healthy players, and that’s despite signing four hardship replacement players. The Nets are in a prime Christmas Day slot against the Lakers — Durant vs. LeBron — but it’s fair to question if that game will happen, and if it does what will the Nets look like? The Nets have a run of home games coming up; we may not see much Kyrie Irving (if any) until a mid-January road trip.
6. Bucks (19-13, LW 5). Milwaukee has dropped two in a row and 3-of-4, but that’s not a shock with Giannis Antetokounmpo in health and safety protocols and Khris Middleton missing time with a hyperextended knee. No team may be more used to playing shorthanded this season than the Bucks, who have been without starters Donte DiVincenzo (health and safety protocols) and Brook Lopez (back surgery) all season. The Bucks have given DeMarcus Cousins a chance to fill in the Lopez role, but through nine games (two of them starts) he is shooting 37% from the field. Expect the Bucks to be active going after a center on the trade market.
7. Heat (19-13, LW 8). What does Erik Spoelstra want for Christmas? Just to get his team healthy. Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris are all out due to injuries (not COVID). Even without Butler and Bam the Heat have gone 5-2 in their last seven with a top-10 offense and defense in that stretch. Spoelstra is putting himself in the Coach of the Year conversation getting this much out of guys like Dewayne Dedmon and Gabe Vincent. It’s that Heat culture at work.
8. Bulls (19-10, LW 9). Arturas Karnisovas and the front office gave Bulls’ fans all their presents last summer. The DeMar DeRozan signing seemed like an overpay and questionable fit, but he’s been brilliant (including dropping 38 on the Lakers in his return). Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso gave Chicago needed defense on the permitter. Even the smaller moves, such as getting Derrick Jones Jr. in the Markkanen trade, have worked out. More good news, Zach LaVine could return from health and safety protocols in the coming days.
9. Grizzlies (19-13, LW 10). Memphis went an impressive 10-2 with Ja Morant out of the lineup, so of course upon his return this week some clowns courtside yelled at Morant he should have stayed out (during a sloppy loss to Oklahoma City). That bothered Morant, who ranted about it after the game and then said he is taking a break from social media. Word of advice, Ja: There are always fools yelling things, trying to get a rise. Ignore it. Or, better yet, go full Kobe and use it as fuel to come back harder and shut everyone up. Memphis sits fourth in the West and is in the midst of a breakout campaign, don’t let anything sidetrack you.
10. 76ers (16-15, LW 11). The 76ers are pretty simple to figure out this season: They outscore teams by 4.1 points per 100 possessions when Joel Embiid is on the court, they get outscored by 4.8 per 100 when he sits. That said, the 76ers feel incomplete: Until we see what comes back in the eventual Ben Simmons trade, it’s hard to say if this team is a threat to the Nets and Bucks, or a tier below that. As long as they have Embiid healthy, they will be a tough out, he is a force of nature.
11. Nuggets (15-14, LW 15). Heading into Christmas — where the league didn’t give a slot to the reigning MVP — the Nuggets remain the best candidates for a Marvel “What If?” episode. Nikola Jokic is putting up better advanced stats and playing at a higher level than he did last season, but without the team’s second (Jamal Murray, ACL) and third (Michael Porter Jr., back) best players, they continue to be good but inconsistent. The Nuggets have 5-of-7 on the road coming up.
12. Clippers (16-15, LW 7). Paul George returned to the lineup Monday, not that it helped as San Antonio blew out Los Angeles. Over their last six games (five without George) the Clippers have the 25th ranked offense in the NBA, but that is really no difference than the season on the whole where the team is 24th on offense. Chalk the recent losses up to the top-four defense looking far more pedestrian the last week. Next Monday starts a run of games against quality teams from the East, including two against the Nets.
13. Lakers (16-16, LW 12). Frank Vogel (and right now, David Fizdale with Vogel in protocols) have used 15 different starting lineups in 32 games this season. That’s a reflection of two things: 1) Injuries and COVID issues that have hit the Lakers this season; 2) The coaching staff’s search for combos and lineups that work. That search will continue for the next month (at least) with Anthony Davis sidelined with a sprained left knee. The challenge for the Lakers until Davis returns is to keep their heads above water. Monday’s loss to the Suns sums up the Lakers right now: They played Phoenix even in LeBron’s 34 minutes, but the 14 min he sat they were outscored by 18.
14. Hawks (14-15 LW 14). Trae Young remains out in health and safety protocols, and that could spoil a return to Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day (Danilo Gallinari and Clint Capela are out for sure). The Hawks could be in trouble against the Knicks even with Young because they can’t get stops — Atlanta is 2-5 in their last 7 with the 25th ranked defense in the league over that stretch. Not that the Hawks played good defense at all this season. Starting Thursday the Hawks have 8-of-9 on the road.
15. Mavericks (15-15, LW 13). Dallas has been hit as hard by injuries — Luka Doncic‘s ankle (and knee), Kristaps Porzingis‘ toe — and now, just as Doncic is set to return, he enters COVID protocols and will be out on Christmas Day. All of this is compounded by concerns about Doncic’s defense — the team is 7.3 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when he is on the court. Not all of that is on Doncic, but he’s part of the problem. That defense will be tested on a national stage on Christmas Day, going against the Jazz and the best offense in the league.
16. Celtics (15-16, LW 16). The Celtics are finally starting to look like themselves, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both healthy and on the court together. In the non-garbage time minutes those two have played together, the Celtics have a +4.8 net rating. Those two are expected to be healthy and ready to go on Christmas Day, but is that enough for a team that is 2-4 in its last six and could have to face a healthy and back Giannis Antetokounmpo? The Jays will have to live up to the hype to compete in that one.
17. Timberwolves (15-16, LW 22). The up-and-down Timberwolves — lose five in a row, win four in a row — have bet big on their trio of Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards, and when those three are on the court together in non-garbage time Minnesota has a +14.2 net rating. That’s been in a relatively small sample size due to injuries. For Christmas, coach Chris Finch would like to string together some wins and not have it followed by a losing streak, but that could be tough with 6-of-9 on the road, including a couple of games against the Jazz.
18. Spurs (12-18, LW 21). Dejounte Murray might be the most underrated, or at least underappreciated, player by casual fans in the league right now. He is taking his star turn this season (his fifth), averaging 18.1 points a game, with 8.4 rebounds and 8.6 assists a night, while shooting 34.7% from 3. He had 49 points in two games against the Kings and Clippers this week. The Spurs remain the unluckiest team in the NBA — they have the point differential of a .500 team — but that might be tough to turn around with the Lakers, Jazz, and Heat as three of their next four.
19. Raptors (14-16, LW 19). Toronto’s game Wednesday was postponed after OG Anunoby entered the league’s health and safety protocols (just after he returned from missing 13 games due to injury), making it eight Raptors in protocols now. It’s been a frustrating Raptors season at points, but the bright spot remains standout rookie Scottie Barnes: 15.6 points and 8.3 rebounds a game, shooting 35.6% from 3. He can be a core part of whatever is next in Toronto.
20. Hornets (16-17, LW 17). Charlotte fans would like Santa to bring them a defense for Christmas — as unquestionably entertaining as the Lonzo Ball-led offense is, wins will be hard to come by with the 30th ranked defense in the league. Charlotte has gone 1-4 on its current road trip through the Western Conference, which ends Thursday night in Denver.
21. Knicks (14-17, LW 23). Give Kemba Walker credit, he handled his demotion well, stayed ready while racking up DNP-CDs, and when he got called upon Saturday — only because five other guards were in COVID protocols — he dropped 29 points and had the best +/- on the team (in a Knicks loss). The Knicks have dropped 8-of-10 and have the third-worst defense in the NBA over that stretch. That terrible defense will be on display for the whole nation on Christmas Day against the Hawks, then after that New York heads out on the road for four.
22. Pacers (13-19, LW 20). Rick Carlisle is out of protocols and back on the sidelines, which is good news for Indiana. He’s come back to a team where Domantas Sabonis is on a roll — averaging 21.1 points a game over his last eight — but that begs the question: Is this streak just upping his trade value, or will the Pacers want to keep Sabonis around?
23. Wizards (16-15, LW 18). The days of the Washington team that started the season 10-3 and were the darlings of the league seem like a lifetime ago. The Wizards have dropped 7-of-9, and over that stretch have a -9.6 net rating (second worst in the league). They have a bottom five offense and defense over that stretch. Despite all that, they knocked off the Jazz in their last game and now have two key East games coming up against the Knicks and 76ers.
24. Trail Blazers (13-18, LW 26). Damian Lillard has looked more like himself since returning from five games off to rest his abdomen issue. In those five games he is averaging 30.2 points a game and shooting 36.1% from 3 (both much closer to his career numbers than his averages to start the season. “I feel like he’s moving so much better,” coach Chauncey Billups said, via the AP. “A lot of his game is creating space. He’s not a 6-6 point guard and when you can shoot it that well, you have to create space. And I think lately since he’s been back he’s been able to do that.”
25. Kings (13-19, LW 25). Despite their record and bottom three defense, the Kings sit as the No. 10 seed in the West, making the last play-in spot as of this writing. That leads to big picture questions: Will Sacramento be sellers at the deadline or make a playoff push? Forget the buzz about a possible De'Aaron Fox deal (although the Kings would listen to offers), in players such as Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield, Sacramento has players other teams could use for a stretch run. Will ownership let key players be traded to think about the future or is it all about the play-in?
26. Pelicans (11-21, LW 27). Great note from Tom Ziller on his Good Morning Basketball substack, which you should definitely subscribe to: The Pelicans are 11-14 in games Brandon Ingram plays, but 0-7 when he does not. Since his return, the Pelicans are 10-9 with a league average net rating. That speaks to what a scorer and force he has become, averaging 23.5 points a game with 6.3 rebounds a game and shooting 35.7% from 3. He is toiling in anonymity in the Big Easy, but Ingram is playing brilliant ball.
27. Thunder (10-19, LW 28). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been Mr. Clutch the past week, hitting what should have been a game winner against the Pelicans (until Devonte Graham’s three-quarter court prayer fell), and then he did bury the Clippers with a beautiful setback 3. Josh Giddey had 10 assists and 18 rebounds in that win against the Clippers, plus a key bucket late, he continues to blossom and provide another reason to think things are on the right track in OKC.
— NBA (@NBA) December 19, 2021
28. Rockets (10-21, LW 24). Houston waived journeyman Danuel House — who should land with another team quickly — so they could convert Garrison Mathews from a two-way deal to a four-year contract (but on very team-friendly terms, including only partial guarantees after the first year) because Mathews has been that good. He has started 13 games, is averaging 12.1 points a game and shooting 37.2% from 3, the Rockets are 11.2 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court, and 8-5 since he moved into the starting lineup. He’s also the only NBA player out of Lipscomb college.
29. Magic 6-25, LW 29). Orlando’s seven-game losing streak came to an end because of two things: The Brooklyn Nets are beyond depleated, and Robin Lopez stepped up. Not known as the better offensive player of the Lopez brothers, Robin dropped 20 in the win. The problem in Orlando is this should be a season about development but Cole Anthony (ankle), Mo Bamba (ankle), Wendell Carter Jr. (knee), Jonathan Isaac (knee), R.J. Hampton (health and safety) and Moritz Wagner (health and safety) are all out and missing time.
30. Pistons (5-25, LW 30). It doesn’t matter who didn’t play or what else was going on with the Heat, the Pistons will take the win that snapped the 14-game losing streak. Cade Cunningham has started to show his No. 1 pick potential, averaging 17.9 points and 6.2 assists a game shooting 40.4% from 3 in the month of December, which is why its unfortunate he has entered league health and safety protocols and will be out for a while.Follow @basketballtalk