The Bucks and Lakers both dropped a game this week but kept the top two slots in these power rankings heading into their showdown Thursday night. Dallas has climbed to third, but it will be tough to stay there with Luka Doncic out for a couple of weeks.
1. Bucks (24-4, Last Week No. 1). Their 18-game win streak came to an end with an off night against Dallas, but they got that win streak with elite play on both ends: The second-best defense and the second-best offense in the NBA over the last 15 games. Even with that, Thursday night against the Lakers is the real measuring stick. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. LeBron James in a potential Finals preview (except for Eric Bledsoe, Kyle Kuzma, and others out injured, plus the fact both teams will evolve a lot before the playoffs even start).
2. Lakers (24-4, LW No. 2). If anyone needed evidence of what Anthony Davis means to this Lakers team, watch the video of the loss to Indiana from Tuesday night (which snapped the Lakers 14-game road win streak). Indiana grabbed the offensive rebound on 30% of their missed shots without Davis there to clean up the glass, and without those rebounds Los Angeles couldn’t get out and run to transition points like it normally does. Their spacing was off, too. We could go on, but you get the idea. If the Lakers want to prove they belong on top of this ranking, they get the chance Thursday night against the Bucks.
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3. Mavericks (18-8, LW 4). No Luka Doncic for two weeks (at least, due to a sprained ankle) is a huge test for Dallas — they passed the first part beating Milwaukee on the road. The Mavs offense will not be the same without the guy giving them 29.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game, the guy who runs their pick-and-roll based game. Where Dallas can make up for it is on the defensive end (they are 6.1 per 100 better defensively when he sits this season), and with Kristaps Porzingis stepping up.
4. Clippers (21-8, LW 5). Paul George has become as dangerous a three-point shooter as there is in the league. PG13 is hitting 40.3% from three on 9.8 attempts from beyond the arc per game (only James Harden and Buddy Hield attempt more). The Clippers face the Rockets Thursday night in what will be an interesting chess match: Last time these teams met the Clippers doubled and trapped Harden out near the mid-court line, and while the Clippers won the game (122-119) Harden still had 37 points and the Rockets’ offense was not slowed. What strategy does Doc Rivers test out this game?
5. 76ers (20-8, LW 6). Philadelphia is Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to being in the Wells Fargo Center or on the road. Philly is 14-0 at home, 6-8 on the road, and the real difference is on defense — the Sixers allow less than a point per possession (98.9 defensive net rating) and play with more emotion and energy at home. The Sixers have a +12 net rating at home and -2 net rating on the road. The Sixers have 4-of-5 coming up at home including the Bucks on Christmas Day.
6. Celtics (17-7, LW 3). How much Marcus Smart means to the Celtics defense was evident in losses last week to Indiana and Philadelphia, games where they gave up at least 115 points to teams outside the top 12 offenses in the league. Those games — particularly against the Sixers — exposed the lack of bench depth outside Smart on this team, the challenge is the Celtics do not have great options to trade for more depth at the deadline. Boston also doesn’t have a good answer for Joel Embiid (few teams do), and that will be a playoff challenge if they meet.
7. Pacers (19-9, LW 10). The Myles Turner/Domantas Sabonis big man combo is starting to work: In the last 15 games, they have played nearly 300 minutes together and the Pacers have an impressive 100.3 defensive rating and an impressive +9 net rating in those minutes. How well it worked showed up against the Lakers (without AD) when Turner was switching onto LeBron an others late and holding his own defensively, while Sabonis scored 26. The Pacers have won four in a row and have a fun showdown with the Bucks on Sunday.
8. Rockets (18-9, LW 7). Once again, James Harden is right at the front of the discussion for MVP, scoring 38.9 points per game. Once again, he scoffs at the idea of load management and taking a night off. And, once again, he is second in the league in total minutes played (only he and Devonte' Graham are over 1,000 already) and usage rate (38.6, tied with the Greek Freak for the most). That’s a lot on his shoulders and it’s fair to wonder if he will be able to hold up physically. The Rockets have 5-of-6 coming up on the road, starting with the Clippers Thursday.
9. Nuggets (17-8, LW 11). Denver is a team to watch heading into the trade deadline, with them trying to package players such as Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez to get an upgrade to their rotation. Both of them are expiring contracts, if there’s a team seeking some cap relief, but finding a deal that gets them quality back will not be easy. After losing 5-of-6 and struggling on the road, Denver came home and has strung together three straight wins (against a soft schedule, but still wins). Good test in Los Angeles Sunday against the Lakers.
10. Heat (19-8, LW 8). Bam Adebayo is on a tear and is putting up All-Star numbers of late: 19 points, 12 rebounds, and 7.4 assists a game over his last five, all while shooting 58.1% from the field. There are no moral victories in the NBA, but the Heat’s three-point loss to the Lakers where they hung with an elite team all game was a good sign for this team heading forward. Another good test Wednesday night in Philadelphia (where the Sixers remain undefeated).
11. Raptors (18-8, LW 9). After losses in the past weeks to quality teams (Heat, Rockets, 76ers, Clippers), Toronto may want to step back, assess where they are in the East (and NBA pecking order), and see if they can make deadline trades for Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka. The challenge is the money — Gasol makes $25.5 million, Ibaka $23.2 million — because teams don’t have cap space, but expect Toronto to be active and at least talking to teams. Good test next Monday against Indiana.
12. Nets (15-12, LW 12). Kyrie Irving has been out 16 games now, the Nets are 11-5 with a top-10 defense in the league during that stretch. Wilson Chandler is back from his 25-game PED suspension, and while he has come off the bench and played a limited role, he ads some much needed veteran depth at the forwards spots.
13. Jazz (16-11, LW 13). Donovan Mitchell took over late against Orlando Tuesday, which bailed out another rough performance by the Utah bench (Royce O’Neale had 11 points but the bench as a total had just 14, and they are wildly inconsistent night to night). Winners of three in a row (against a soft part of the schedule) the Jazz now head on the road for 7-of-9. Away from home the Jazz are 5-8 and are getting outscored by 2.4 PPG.
14. Thunder (12-14, LW 16). Billy Donovan doesn’t go to a three-guard lineup of Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander all that much — he’s used it in 26 games but for fewer than six minutes a game — however, when he does, they destroy teams. That trio holds teams to less than a point per possession and has a net rating of +25.9 points per 100 possessions. Expect a lot of Danilo Gallinari trade rumors between now and the deadline, he is going to be on the move.
15. Pistons (11-16, LW 14). We learned this week that Andre Drummond has a strong Avocado allergy and some ceviche in Mexico sidelined him for a few days. Throw in Blake Griffin’s painful knee and you have a team that has lost two-of-three. Derrick Rose is trying to keep them afloat, averaging 16.6 points and 6.1 assists a game off the bench, and keeps making his case for Sixth Man of the Year.
16. Magic (12-15, LW 15). The Magic have dropped 4-of-5 through a difficult part of the schedule, with games at Denver and at Portland still ahead. Orlando is banking n the return of All-Star center Nikola Vucevic to start their lowly offense (25th in the league). Even with all that, the Magic sit as the current eight seed in the East.
17. Kings (12-15, LW 19). De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III are back in the lineup, and while that didn’t mean a win in Charlotte Tuesday it does mean Sacramento is close to whole again. Even with the loss, Sacramento has won 4-of-6, they got their best players back, and starting Dec. 23 (against Houston), the Kings have 10-of-12 at home. Make a run there and the Kings can start to solidify a playoff spot in the West (for the first time in 13 years).
18. Trail Blazers (11-16, LW 20). Carmelo Anthony’s defensive reputation was both well earned and the thing that made other teams slow to sign him this summer. However, watch him play now and he is putting in the effort on that end of the floor — he had three blocks and two steals against the Suns on Monday night. He’s active and trying, and that’s a good start. Portland starts a run of 6-of-7 at home on Wednesday against Golden State, if the Blazers are going to turn their season this is the time to do it.
19. Hornets (13-17, LW 22). Charlotte remains the team playing the most over its head this season, Cleaning the Glass has them as a 10-win team (9.6, to be specific) but the Hornets keep winning close games. Charlotte is 4-1 in their last five but they are just +8 in those games (and have a 1.2 net rating). Devonte’ Graham continues to impress every time he steps on the court, including dropping 40 on Brooklyn a week ago.
20. Suns (11-15, LW 17). Deandre Ayton returned from his PED suspension Tuesday and put up 18 points and 14 rebounds in loss to the Clippers. It’s a good start, they need his offensive production in the paint. The Suns have lost four in a row and 5-of-6, with their struggling offense being the main reason for the slide.
21. Spurs (10-16, LW 21). Nobody on the Spurs was happy making history by playing in four straight overtime games, but the Spurs won three of them. Even with that it looks like they will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years this season, which leads to the next question: Will San Antonio be a seller at the trade deadline? Even if they want to be, is there much of a market for the big contracts of DeMar DeRozan ($27.7 million) or LaMarcus Aldridge ($26 million, but only $7 million guaranteed next season)?
22. Grizzlies (10-17, LW 24). Ja Morant returned to the lineup and the Grizzlies have won 4-of-5 (with the only loss coming to Milwaukee. Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are -6.4 per 100 possessions when paired together this season, and not particularly strong on either end of the court. That comes with being a young team. Morant’s dunk over Aron Baynes may be a week old, but you can’t see this one enough.
23. Timberwolves (10-15, LW 18). Losers of seven in a row, with a frighteningly bad 123.5 defensive net rating over that stretch. Just for some context, the Wizards have the worst defense in the league this season and their net rating is 116.7. Minnesota has slid back so far they might become sellers at the trade deadline, but the play of Robert Covington during this stretch — on both ends of the court — is going to make teams hesitant, and if nothing else will lower what they could get for him.
24. Bulls (10-19, LW 23). Looking for a bright spot on a team that is stumbling along, having lost 5-of-7, a team that keeps blowing big leads? Zach LaVine has added to his offensive arsenal, becoming a far more consistent three-point shooter this season, hitting 40.5% from beyond the arc on 7.6 attempts per game.
25. Wizards (8-17, LW 25). New GM Tommy Sheppard is going to get a lot of calls before the trade deadline about the availability of Davis Bertans, who was a steal from the Spurs this past summer. He’s averaging 15.4 points a game, shooting 45.7% from three as a stretch four, and is on an expiring contract. Sheppard has said he doesn’t plan trade Bertans, but if a good enough offer comes through he has to consider it.
26. Knicks (7-21, LW 30). The Knicks got Elfrid Payton back seven games ago and the Knicks are 3-4 in those games with an offense that just looks smoother (in part because rookie R.J. Barrett doesn’t have to play out of position at the point). Their defense is still dreadful, but at least New York is competitive. Marcus Morris trade rumors are going to heat up fast as we get closer to the deadline, a lot of teams could use his toughness and shooting.
27. Hawks (6-22, LW 26). Losers of five in a row, there is disappointment and frustration in the Atlanta locker room, which has led to questions about the job safety of coach Lloyd Pierce. For now he is safe, according to reports. But there were expectations Trae Young (who has been streaky this season), John Collins (suspended for PEDs), and company would take a step forward this season. If anything, it feels like their regressed, and the defense is a disaster. Not living up to expectations is often what leads to a coach being let go.
28. Cavaliers (6-21, LW 29). Cleveland’s only win his their last 11 games was in overtime against the Spurs. The Cavs will be one of the most discussed teams in the run-up to the deadline, but Kevin Love’s contract makes him very difficult to trade. Tristan Thompson makes more sense for a lot of teams, if he is made available.
29. Warriors (5-23 LW 28). Looking for a positive? Alan Smailagic, the No. 39 pick in the last draft, just had a 29-point game for Santa Cruz in the G-League. Expect a lot of D’Angelo Russell trade discussion in the run up to the deadline in February, but I keep hearing from sources that is far more likely a summer trade, not one rushed in February.
30. Pelicans (6-22, LW 27). Brandon Ingram has played his way into a max contract this summer: 24.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Sources say he is not available via trade (J.J. Redick and Jrue Holiday, however, are). Is Ingram someone the Pelicans, or any other team, should feel comfortable maxing out? No. But in a down market, a guy who can get buckets the way he can is going to get paid. Also, nobody should blame the Pelicans for not extending him, considering health risks (blood clots last season) and they weren’t sure how he would fit next to Zion Williamson (and still aren’t).￼