We’ve got a new team on top because the Bucks have been tearing up the league, and while they have some tough games coming up, the fact they are in the East means Milwaukee might hold down this slot for much of the season.
1. Bucks (18-3, Last week No. 2). Winners of 12 in a row with a top three offense and defense in the league over that stretch. All that, and this team still leaves points on the table from the three-point line — the Bucks take 40.2 threes a game (third most in the NBA) but hit just 35.1% of them (20th in the league). Gianni Antetokounmpo being willing to shoot from three now is part of that (4.9 attempts a game, hitting 30.4%).They miss Malcolm Brogdon on that front. Good test Friday night when the Clippers come to town.
2. Lakers (18-3, LW 1). Watch the Lakers play in person and two things that jump out at you. First, this is is a tall, long team. Second, they play hard. Those two things combined are why they have the fifth-best defense in the league right now. LeBron James sees what’s on the table this year and he’s not coasting, nor is he letting others coast defense, which is another reason he’s in the MVP conversation. That said, the Lakers have gotten sloppy and not played 40+ good minutes a game lately, they got away with that last month but not against Dallas, but showed they learned a lesson against Denver on Tuesday.
3. Clippers (16-6, LW 3). We have yet to see the full potency of this Clippers roster. For example, when the game is on the line their four best players are Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell, and that group together (with any other fifth player) is +38.3 per 100 possessions. But we have only seen it for 48 minutes (just five against Portland Tuesday night). It just sigs in Doc Rivers back pocket. The Clippers head out East for six games now (with two back-to-backs), including the Bucks on Friday.
4. Mavericks (14-6, LW 5). Luka Doncic averaged a 30-point triple-double in the month of November, which puts him in some rarified company — the only other people to accomplish that are Russell Westbrook (twice) and Oscar Robertson (eight times). Doncic fuel’s Dallas’ engine, but their ball movement gets them a lot of open threes, 40.4 a game, second most in the NBA, and they hit 36.1% of them (10th best in the league). This offense is not a one-man show.
5. Raptors (15-4, LW 6). Nick Nurse didn’t win a title his first season as an NBA coach just because he had Kawhi Leonard on his team (although, that helped). It was because this guy can flat-out coach, and we have seen that this season with Leonard gone, injuries piling up, and yet the Raptors had won seven in a row until Miami on Tuesday and have a top 10 offense and defense over their last 10 games. The Raptors keep finding guys deep on the roster — rookie Terrence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, among others — who can contribute. Tough tests coming up with the Rockets, 76ers, and Clippers as three of their next four.
6. 76ers (15-6, LW 8). Everyone — from Sixers fans to coach Brett Brown — keeps waiting for the offense to catch up with the defense. Hasn’t happened yet. Defensively they are fourth in the league (and 0.7 in net rating out of the top spot), and in the last five games that defense has only been better. The offense, on the other hand, is 17th in the NBA for the season and 2.8 per 100 worse in the last five games. Philadelphia needs that offense because the schedule gets much tougher in the next month.
7. Nuggets (13-5, LW 4). Can Denver get its offense rolling? The Nuggets are winning with the league’s second-best defense (a strange thing to type), but they are 20th in the league in offense. Denver doesn’t take a lot of threes (fourth-fewest in the league per game), and they don’t get to the free throw line much (fifth-fewest times per game), which leaves them working hard for the shots they do get. Plus, Nikola Jokic has not been the All-NBA dominant force on offense he was a season ago (the Lakers held him to 13 points on 12 shots Tuesday). Maybe the offense turns around, but we now have nearly a quarter of the season and we can’t just call it slow start anymore.
8. Celtics (14-5, LW 7). There are times the Celtics clearly miss his shot creation, but Boston has held up quite well since Gordon Hayward went down with a fractured left hand. The Celtics are 9-4 without Hayward with a +6.5 net rating, with a top 10 defense and a solid offense. Boston is also 7-0 at home this season where their offense has been dominant (and covered up for a sloppy defense in the Garden). Interesting showdown with the upstart Heat on Wednesday.
9. Heat (15-5, LW 9). Jimmy Butler is averaging 18.8 points a game, but some in Heat nation think he needs to score more to bolster the team’s offense. I don’t see it that way, what the Heat need is more of the triple-double Butler — 22 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists — from the win that snapped Toronto’s winning streak on Tuesday. That Butler gets other guys such as Duncan Robinson or Bam Adebayo involved, and when that happens the Heat are much more difficult to beat.
10. Rockets (13-7, LW 12). James Harden has found his three-point stroke. The Beard shot just 29.8% from three through the first 10 games of the season, but over the last 10 games he’s shooting 38.9%. And that is on 14.4 attempts from beyond the arc. Harden has 88 more attempts from three than the second person on that list this season (Buddy Hield) and is on pace to break his own record for most threes in a season (set last season).
11. Pacers (13-7, LW 11). The Pacers have been good — 11-4 in November — but it’s also a challenge to get a real gauge on this team between the soft schedule and rash of injuries they have faced. All that is about to change. The Pacers are getting healthy, the two-bigs lineup of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis are showing promise, and most important of all Victor Oladipo is taking some contact in practice and is getting closer to a return. That they have kept their heads afloat through all this is an impressive coaching job by Nate McMillan.
12. Timberwolves (10-9, LW 13). This is not getting enough attention: Karl-Anthony Towns is having an All-NBA (maybe First Team), bottom-of-the-MVP ballot kind of season. Towns is averaging 25.9 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks a game, is shooting 42.1% from three and is playing solid defense. He’s the reason this team is above .500. Minnesota is 7-2 on the road this season, where they score nine more points a game, and seem to play better defense. At home the Timberwolves are 3-7 on the season. So it’s good news that the Wolves start a four-game road trip on Wednesday.
13. Jazz (12-9, LW 10). Utah lost 4-of-5 on its recent road trip, including ugly losses in Toronto and Philadelphia. We knew the offense would struggle to start the season, but it’s 23rd in the league and Mike Conley is shooting 37%. The defense that was supposed to carry the team is good but not great, ranked in the league for the season, and in the last 10 games they have fallen to 17th in the league giving up 4.9 more points per 100 possessions than they averaged last season (Rudy Gobert did miss some of those games). The Jazz are a good team, but do not look like the potential contender some of us expected.
14. Nets (10-10, LW 14). Kyrie Irving is doing on-court work to return from his shoulder impingement but is not taking contact and will remain out through at least Friday. Brooklyn is 6-3 in the games he’s missed, with a basically even net rating, and last week split a home-and-home with Boston — they are playing well thanks to Spencer Dinwiddie. The point guard has averaged more than 25 points and 7 assists a game since Irving went down, and he has the ball moving and the offense flowing more like it did last season in Brooklyn.
15. Pistons (8-13, LW 17). The Pistons are getting healthier and playing better of late, and all that starts with Blake Griffin. He has played in nine games so far and the team is 4-5 in those games, plus the Detroit offense is 4.6 points per 100 better when he is on the court. Detroit is playing better of late (+8.7 point differential that past two weeks, sixth-best in the NBA, via Cleaning the Glass), which is keeping them in the hunt of a playoff spot in the East despite the slow start.
16. Suns (9-10, LW 15). Things have cooled off after the hot start to the season, having gone 2-6 in their last eight games with a -4.7 net rating. The offense has still been okay, but the defense has faded and is bottom 10 in the league over that stretch. The defense tends to be solid when Aron Baynes is on the court but drops off dramatically when he sits. The Suns will need to turn this thing around on the road, they have eight road games remaining this month.
17. Trail Blazers (8-13, LW 21). Portland is 3-4 since the return of Carmelo Anthony, which is a step forward (even if the Clippers on Tuesday reminded Portland how far it still needs to go). Those three straight wins for the Trail Blazers were less about ‘Melo and more about the return of Damian Lillard to the lineup, but when those two are paired the Blazers are +8.5 per 100 possessions (in 120 minutes), mostly because the offense is on fire. Hassan Whiteside set a franchise record with 10 blocks this week, when he is on he is impressive.
18. Magic (9-11, LW 19). Orlando has gone 3-3 and kept its head above water while Nikola Vucevic remains out with a right ankle sprain, although those three wins came against a softer part of the schedule. Still, the Magic will take the victories. Of all the young Orlando players, it is Jonathan Isaac who is emerging as a potential star, a defensive force already who is working on his offense game, check out our feature from Dan Feldman on Isaac’s development.
19. Thunder (8-11, LW 20). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the future of this team at the point, he’s already impressive in just his second season (18.2 points per game) and is ready for more responsibility. However, when the game is on the line, the Thunder turn to Chris Paul — he has more fourth-quarter points in the clutch than any other player in the league this season. It’s good that’s working out in OKC because Paul is going to be nearly impossible to trade in season (due to his contract). The Thunder are just a game out of the playoffs in the West but have a tough stretch coming up the next six games.
20. Kings (8-11, LW 16). Sacramento has kept its head above water with young stars De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III both out — the Kings are 5-5 in games the pair has missed, with a -1.3 net rating. We’ll see if the Kings can stay in the playoff hunt in the West with 8-of-10 coming up on the road. Fox is going to be out at least another couple of weeks with his ankle sprain, but Bagley seems to be getting much close to a return.
21. Spurs (8-14, LW 24). Back in July at Summer League, it didn’t take much time watching Lonnie Walker IV to realize he is an NBA player who could dominate in Las Vegas and was ready for more and to break out in San Antonio. We may have seen that breakthrough Tuesday night, Walker scored 24 against Houston, with 18 of those coming in the fourth quarter, including eight consecutive points to tie the game. In what has been a rough season in San Antonio, Walker could be a bright spot.
22. Bulls (7-14, LW 23). There are positives when you watch the Bulls play — Wendell Carter Jr. has shown to be a solid big man on both ends of the court, with 12.6 pints and 9.7 rebounds a game, who can be part of the future in Chicago — but their offense continues to be a slog. The Bulls are 29th in the league in offensive efficiency and their offense has not been better the past five games. Chicago needed a lot more out of a healthy Lauri Markkanen than they have gotten this season.
23. Wizards (6-13, LW 18). The defensive book on playing Washington clear, and fairly obvious — blitz Bradley Beal whenever he has a screen set for him, and maybe double him even when he doesn’t. Get the ball out of Beal’s hands and force anyone else on that roster to beat you. That guy who beats you will not be C.J. Miles, who is out indefinitely after getting wrist surgery. At least Isaiah Thomas is keeping things entertaining.
24. Grizzlies (6-14, LW 28). Brandon Clarke, out of Gonzaga, has been one of the surprises as a rookie this season, averaging an efficient 11.8 points a game by getting to the rim and finishing, plus showing the ability to drain the three when he takes it (45.5 percent but just taking 1.2 a game). Unfortunately, an oblique injury will have him out for at least a week (he’s week to week). The Grizzlies have lost 7-of-8 and now head out on the road for their next four.
25. Hornets (8-14, LW 25). Reality has caught up with Charlotte, which has lost 7-of-9, and the reason is its defense. The Hornets are 29th in the league in defensive rating and in the past nine games they have been 4.5 points per 100 worse on that end of the court. The only wins in that stretch were a surprising sweep of a home-and-home against the Pistons where rookie PJ Washington stepped up and showed some promise.
26. Pelicans (6-15, LW 22). Six weeks after his surgery, Zion Williamson is doing some walkthroughs but has not yet done any on-court work, with coach Alvin Gentry adding they would be “overly cautious” with bringing the young star back. Which means don’t expect to see him Christmas Day. The Pelicans have dropped six in a row and 7-of-11 coming up on the road.
27. Cavaliers (5-15, LW 27). Darius Garland can shoot the three, the rookie is taking 40.4% of his shots from beyond the arc and hitting 37.2% of them. The problem comes when he steps inside the arc, he is shooting just 46% at the rim and is taking a lot of shots from floater range and hitting just 39.2% of them. It’s a project for the rookie to work on the rest of the season (if this continues into next summer and next season, then we start to worry). The Cavaliers have lost 10-of-11 and now have 5-of-7 coming up on the road.
28. Hawks (5-16, LW 29). Atlanta snapped its losing streak, and sure it came against the Warriors but that still counts. Atlanta’s offense remains the entertaining Trae Young show, but the team is going to struggle with wins so long as their defense is bad — and it’s 25 in the league for the season. The biggest problem there is in transition, where teams score at a 133.1 points per 100 possessions pace (second-worst in the league), and the Hawks allow teams to start 16% of their possessions that way (bottom 10 in the league). Transition D is a real issue for the Hawks. (Stats via Cleaning the Glass.)
29. Knicks (4-17, LW 26). It can be hard to figure out what the Knicks are trying to do with their rotations: Kevin Knox was consistently losing minutes and last Friday got a DNP-coach’s decision, then on Sunday he started against Boston. Knicks fans are focused on the future and RJ Barrett, who has played solidly as a rookie thrown into the fire this season. Barrett has averaged 14.7 points per game but with a dreadful true shooting percentage of 45.8.
30. Warriors (4-18, LW 30). D’Angelo Russell has missed his last nine games with a thumb injury, and obviously Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are out, which also has meant a decrease in Draymond Green’s minutes. Like Ralph Fiennes in Taken, Green has a very specific skillset, and it’s one that makes can make great talent better, but doesn’t lift up young or lesser players. Which is what the Warriors are now, so Steve Kerr has started to cut back Green’s minutes. The Warriors have started 0-3 on their current road trip and have lost 6 of their last 7.