If you’ve been wondering “when do the Western Conference powers start beating up each other?” the answer is pretty much now. As we head into the Christmas day slate of games things will get interesting, but for now the top remains the same as Golden State is just winning and winning and winning.
1. Warriors (21-2, Last Week No. 1). When Andrew Bogut was out we quickly saw how much he meant to this team — the rim protection on defense was not nearly the same, and equally important his passing on offense that helps them move the ball strong to weak quickly was gone. For about a half. By the time Golden State rolled into Dallas Saturday they were again a force again in an impressive win. Still, Bogut is key for them come the playoffs, best to get him fully healthy now.
2. Rockets (18-5, LW 3). The Rockets were 8-3 with Dwight Howard out (surprisingly Rockets had fifth best defense in league in last 10 without Howard) and in that time James Harden averaged 29.1 points a game, shot 39 percent from three, dished out 6.1 assist and pulled down 6 rebounds a game. James Harden is playing like an MVP, and that didn’t change on Howard’s return when Harden dropped a triple double Saturday.
3. Grizzlies (19-4, LW 6) I only moved them up to third because while they beat Charlotte and Philadelphia they didn’t exactly look good doing it. This coming week is different, win these games any way you can and you move up: Warriors, Spurs, Bulls and Cavaliers.
4. Trail Blazers (18-6. LW 4). They have a top 10 offense, a top 10 defense, they look like they can beat anybody, but they also are fully capable of mailing it in and losing to Minnesota. Tough stretch coming up with the Spurs twice this week, plus the Rockets and Thunder on the road to start next week.
5. Spurs (17-7, LW 2). That loss to the Lakers was the kind of game which leads to the :45 second, angry Gregg Popovich press conference. What should make him feel better — not happy, Popovich is never happy — is the return of Tiago Splitter to the lineup. Splitter even started on Sunday night. That should improve their defense.
6. Clippers (16-7, LW 5). Doc Rivers said the key to Chris Paul’s improved shooting this season is he is taking the first good, open look he gets. “That’s what we need him to do, take the open shot. I jokingly tell him, the option you are looking for is you. When you’re coming wide open off the pick and roll, he’ll do it tonight at least once or twice, he’ll look around and I’ll be ‘what is the better option than right now.’ And he’s doing it.”
7. Mavericks (17-8, LW 7). They are 0-6 vs. Western Conference playoff teams and 17-2 vs. everyone else. That can’t make Mark Cuban comfortable. Chandler Parsons isn’t comfortable due to lower back soreness, he missed one game and could miss more.
8. Cavaliers (13-9 LW 8). Has LeBron James lost some bounce this season? Probably, he’s not as aggressive going to the rim. But his playmaking skills and his desire to use them with his new teammates is part of the reason he’s not attacking as much. Also, there’s just not the space in the Cavs offense yet that there was in Miami.
9. Raptors (18-6, LW 7). Kyle Lowry must make the All-Star team in the East. I know the point guard spot is loaded (Irving, Rose, Wall) but Lowry is simply playing too well (PER of 23.2, as a snapshot) to be ignored.
10. Bulls (15-8, LW 12). Derrick Rose is getting his points a little differently (that floater is a weapon) but he’s starting to get them again and that’s good news in Chicago. The best sign of a title contender is a top 5 offense and defense (in terms of efficiency), the Bulls have that.
11. Wizards (17-6, LW 11). Quality win over the Clippers last week, showing on the right night this team can beat anyone. Consistency is always the question, they had down games against Boston and Orlando. Still, they won those two and eight of their last nine.
12. Hawks (16-7, LW 10). It wasn’t pretty when their winning streak was snapped by the Magic. The Hawks have played the easiest schedule in the NBA so far but that is about to change: Bulls, Cavaliers (twice), Rockets, Mavericks, Clippers, and Bucks (twice) make up the next eight games.
13. Thunder (11-13, LW 18). Winners of five in a row and eight of nine, they could be the eight seed inside a week as after the top seven in the West things have fallen off. On Tuesday Kevin Durant should get to 15,000 points in his career, second youngest to do it behind LeBron.
14. Bucks (12-12, LW 15). Maybe the most entertaining team in the league and also one of its biggest surprises at .500 and in the playoffs in the East. What’s been impressive is the quality play Jason Kidd is getting out of his bench, which is not flush with big names.
15. Pelicans (11-12, LW 16). They got great guard play Sunday night from Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans but this team needs Anthony Davis back in the lineup (chest contusion) if they are going to start winning more consistently.
16. Kings (11-13, LW 14). Ownership wants to play faster (more Spurs-like) and Tyrone Corbin is going to oblige now that Mike Malone has been fired. One problem: This roster really isn’t built to play faster or move the ball like the Spurs. DeMarcus Cousins is a halfcourt guy (Team USA tried to get him to run more with limited success) but at least he can pass, their starting two guard doesn’t have the handles or the passing skills, Rudy Gay’s legs aren’t as young as they once were and he’s a volume scorer, and there’s just not enough overall athleticism. We’ll see how this strategy goes.
17. Suns (12-13, LW 13). P.J. Tucker was given some starts for defensive reasons and nightly he gets the toughest opponent assignments — he had DeMarcus Cousins against the Kings, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin against the Clippers. That’s versatility. His defense hasn’t helped much as they have lost five in a row and are falling fast down the Western Conference standings.
18. Nuggets (10-14, LW 17). JaVale McGee is going to be out for months, just another of the guys they would normally have in their rotation who are banged up (that’s five now). This team is still dangerous, however. Just ask the Raptors.
19. Nets (10-12, LW 21). They have been beating up lottery bound teams but are struggling with any team looking like a playoff squad. Which could be trouble this week against Miami, Toronto and Cleveland.
20. Heat (11-13, LW 19). Josh McRoberts is out for a while and that is a blow to Miami on both ends of the floor — the team’s defense has struggled all season but the offense has become disjointed in recent weeks. Chris Bosh missing time doesn’t help.
21. Magic (10-16, LW 23). There are a number of holes in Tobias Harris’ game, but if you need a game-winning play he should be in your top 10 because the guy just gets buckets in the clutch. The Hawks learned that the hard way.
22. Lakers (8-16, LW 24). They get to keep their first round pick in the next draft if it is top five, they keep their second round pick if it is in the first 10 of the second round. The Lakers picked up a trio of nice wins this week — including an upset of the Spurs — and currently they sit tied for eighth worst record. Magic isn’t only Lakers fan rooting for losses.
23. Celtics (7-14, LW 20). Rajon Rondo is dropping triple-doubles (three this season) but has been sat at the end of games as well. All of that has to be viewed through the prism of free agency/trades — do the Celtics need to move him so they don’t get nothing when he walks?
24. Pacers (7-17, LW 23). They have Roy Hibbert and David West back in the lineup but it hasn’t mattered against a string of tough competition. The Pacers have lost eight in a row and are about to face a series of games against the deeper West, much of it on the road.
25. Hornets (6-17, LW 25). Jeff Taylor can come back from his suspension due to domestic violence this week, which could make it easier on Charlotte if they can find someone to take on Lance Stephenson. Also, more Michael Kidd-Gilchrist please.
26. Timberwolves (5-18, LW 26). Kobe Bryant said he saw himself 17 years ago in Andrew Wiggins. That’s high praise. But what Kobe came in the league with was a chip on his shoulder, a crazy work ethic, and a drive to prove himself every night. Does Wiggins?
27. Jazz (6-17, LW 27). If you’re a Jazz fan your hope stems from the flashes you see from this team, like the win over San Antonio. They have moments but like a lot of young teams they simply are not consistent. Yet.
28. Pistons (5-19, LW 29). Surprising wins over Phoenix and Sacramento on the road to end their losing streak. Now they have Jodie Meeks back in the rotation and once he shakes the rust off he will really help their outside shooting and spacing. Things they desperately need.
29. Knicks (5-21, LW 28). With the New York media feeding a storm around this team — “they don’t like each other or the triangle” — they snapped their 10-game losing streak. But next week will be rough with Dallas, Chicago, Phoenix and Toronto.
30. 76ers (2-21, LW 30). They are playing hard — they were up 18 on Memphis in the fourth — but are learning the hard way about closing out victories. Right now it’s about seeing what players can be part of the future, and K.J. McDaniels and Robert Covington can be.