NBA Power Rankings: Where Every Team Stands Heading into Week 5

Ethan Sherwood StraussNBA Lead WriterNovember 26, 2012

NBA Power Rankings: Where Every Team Stands Heading into Week 5

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    The NBA is seven-deep right now. What I mean is, by the arbitrary standards vested in me, there are seven teams that could feasibly win a title. 

    Q=While a Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks or Memphis Grizzlies championship feels so strange to fathom, it's not beyond the realm of possibility. A San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City, Miami Heat or Los Angeles Lakers title were all imaginable in the preseason and still are—even with L.A.'s recent struggles.

    Perhaps you would add Boston to this list, based on recent history. Maybe there are a few more teams on your radar—such as the preseason-hyped Denver Nuggets.

    The NBA only invites a few title outcomes, despite carrying 30 teams. As the season progresses, it will become increasingly clear that much of the league is window shopping while a select few battle for the biggest prize.

30. Washington Wizards

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    The Wizards were so, so close to that first win of the season. First, there was the Martell Webster buzzer-beater that wasn't.

    Next, there was the double-overtime loss against the Charlotte Bobcats.

    The greatest kindness I can bestow on the Wizards is that they're better than their 0-11 record. Still, being slightly better than 0-11 keeps them at No. 30.  

29. Detroit Pistons

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    The Detroit Pistons showed signs of life right before running into the New York Knick buzzsaw. Lawrence Frank finally played Greg Monroe and rookie Andre Drummond together for stretches, resulting in a thrilling home win over the Toronto Raptors.  

    While you digest a sentence that reads, "thrilling home win over the Toronto Raptors," I'll carp about how Frank went away from that Drummond-Monroe combo against the Knicks. Detroit seems oddly unwilling to trust their younger players, considering how hopeless the roster is.

    If you aren't contending, why not give playing time to the youth?

28. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    It is bleak in Cleveland right now, more so than usual. Last we checked in, they had an awful defense but a rising star in Kyrie Irving. Now? Irving's out with a broken finger, leaving the offensive reins to Dion Waiters.

    Waiters does not lack for confidence, but the rookie lacks for judgment right now. At least this experience can be counted towards his development, because it likely spells doom for Cleveland's season.

    The Cavs were a trendy Eastern Conference sleeper pick a few weeks ago. A few weeks from now, they will be incredibly lucky to have a better record than the Bobcats. 

27. New Orleans Hornets

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    Anthony Davis is hurt again, and the Austin Rivers experiment is going terribly—the Duke product has arrived on the NBA scene without a discernible pro skill.

    He is a "shoot-first" point guard who can't shoot and an "attacking" guard with a lack of quickness. 

    Players can change, and Rivers will have the right guidance under coach Monty Williams, but rarely has a lottery pick's future looked so bleak so early. But if the Hornets are expecting this kid to carry the offense, it's appearing to be more prayer than expectation. 

26. Toronto Raptors

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    Toronto worked really hard to cough up an overtime game against San Antonio. Andrea Bargnani is trying Raptor fan patience again after rustling up a bounce-back year last season. 

    The former No. 1 pick went 2-of-19 against the Spurs, stoking the latent fan rage that has been with him since roughly 2008. This could be a mere bump in the road, but it will be interesting to see how long defense-minded coach Dwane Casey handles Bargnani going forward. 

    On the positive side, Jonas Valanciunas had a breakout game against the Spurs. The 20-year-old rookie had 22 points on 13 shots, three blocks and three steals. More of that, please. 

25. Sacramento Kings

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    The Sacramento Kings are higher than I ever expected them to be this season, mostly on account of soundly beating the Lakers. They did the same to Utah on Saturday, shortly after nearly beating the Jazz in Salt Lake City.

    How are the Kings playing better? Well, the teams stars (DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans) aren't improving all that much, but Sacramento has gotten solid minutes from Jason Thompson, Thomas Robinson and even Jimmer Fredette. 

    I do wish that Keith Smart would run more pick-and-roll, but credit where it's due: The Kings have looked good of late. 

24. Orlando Magic

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    Orlando plays hard despite a lack of discernible NBA starter-level talent. After losing to the Hawks on Monday, the Magic almost went on a four-game win streak.

    The "almost" refers to the most recent loss against Boston, in which the Magic coughed up a fourth-quarter lead and got beaten in overtime by some savvy Rajon Rondo plays. 

    Here's a quick note from that game: The Magic drew up a last-chance play, when trailing by three at the end of overtime. The ball was supposed to go to J.J. Redick, but something went awry and Jameer Nelson ended up getting the pass for a clean jumper.

    He missed, and all the while Redick had his arms out, griping about what just transpired as the rebound caromed to his side of the court into the hands of the Celtics.

    There goes the streak. 

23. Phoenix Suns

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    I struggle to write about the Suns. They masterfully toe the line between "bad" and "average" while featuring no All-Star level talent. It doesn't make for incredibly compelling subject material.

    We like to discuss "great" or "terrible," and a shade above the latter plays worse than a shade below the former. 

    Anyway, I could be speaking too soon on "no All-Star level talent." He's only a shade over 33 minutes per game, but Goran Dragic has been fantastic. He may not have the best court vision, but he more than compensates with his driving and sudden three-point shooting abilities.

22. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Jrue Holiday is all that stands between the Sixers and utter unwatchability. This ranking may seem too low, but I'm pricing in the increasingly bad Andrew Bynum news. If he's not coming back for awhile, this team's prospects change for the worse. 

    But back to the aforementioned Jrue, who's been doing yeomen's labor. He's averaging over 18 points and nine assists per game while locking up the opposition's best scorer. Is he All-Star game worthy? The tests are right ahead, as Philadelphia emerges from a soft schedule.

    Something tells me he makes it through the thickets against steeper competition. Philadelphia certainly needs that considering the lack of offensive punch elsewhere on the roster. 

21. Indiana Pacers

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    Without Danny Granger, what are the Pacers? In hopeful theory, they should have been about Paul George finding himself. In practice, they're offensively marooned and wedded to an increasingly questionable Roy Hibbert contract.

    Hibbert is blocking over three shots per game so far, but 38 percent shooting from the field is scary bad. 

    Lost amid Roy's disappointing offensive production is how he's averaging less than 30 minutes per game, just like last year. Why would you give a max contract to someone you plan on playing that sporadically?

    It just doesn't make much sense to me. 

20. Charlotte Bobcats

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    This year's feel-good story has to run aground at some point, right? A close shave against the Wizards and Raptors can't bode well for the future, can it?

    While all of this may be true, I'm enjoying the ride of Charlotte success for now. It's nice to see this quirky team clicking. Ben Gordon and Ramon Sessions are providing veteran leadership off the pine. Kemba Walker is enjoying a breakout season of sorts. Rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can't shoot at all, but he's been fantastic in other areas to make up for that deficiency.

    The Bobcats might not be consistently good in the future, but at least they will be consistently fun. 

19. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Damian Lillard is your Rookie of the Year front-runner and it's not even close. Well, it's not even close so long as Anthony Davis keeps sliding in and out of the Hornets lineup on account of injuries. 

    The sixth-overall pick in the draft has been nothing short of incredible. Few rookie point guards come in with this clean of a three-point stroke (nearly 42 percent shooting from deep so far), let alone an advanced knowledge of the run pick-and-roll. 

    Of course, the Blazers have their issues. The defense remains a mess and will probably stay that way until some of the younger players develop. 

18. Dallas Mavericks

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    Yes, Dirk Nowitzki is out. But, as a rule of thumb, good teams don't get blown out at home. The Mavericks suffered an absolutely embarrassing trouncing at the hands of the inconsistent Lakers. 

    Dallas has been mediocre defensively, an area where missing Dirk theoretically shouldn't have hurt them. But there are so many new faces on this roster that they could be struggling to get guys on the same page.

    In the past, Dallas has succeeded with older players who perform well as a communicative unit. If the communication isn't there, then this roster risks just being old and slow on the defensive end.  

17. Houston Rockets

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    The Rockets could certainly be higher after running the Knicks off their floor. New York had it cooking offensively, but it didn't matter. The Rockets racked up free throws to go along with 14 threes of their own to bury the opposition. 

    Houston's strategy is simple: Shoot threes and get to the rim. It's easier said than done, and the Rockets were shaky in the early going. Many of their three-point attempts were off the dribble and hopeless. It's one thing to bomb threes, but quite another to actually go out and do it effectively. 

    James Harden and company might have it all worked out now, though. It's possible to be a three-heavy team and succeed. Just ask the Miami Heat, the league leader in made trifectas. 

16. Chicago Bulls

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    The Bulls ended their three-game losing streak with a win against freeway rival Milwaukee. Wait, are these teams rivals? I'm not from the Midwest, so somebody please get back to me on that one. 

    Chicago is a bit like Dallas-East right now. They have a great coach and the makings of a fine defense, but they also suffer from a lack of offensive talent on account of their star being out with an injury.

    The main difference is that Dallas should get Dirk back this season, while it appears that the Bulls would be wise to wait a year on Derrick Rose

    Credit to this organization for gutting through this season with excellent defense, but its prospects look poor. Chicago's ceiling appears to be a first-round postseason exit at this juncture. 

15. Utah Jazz

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    Why don't they play three bigs more often? Why doesn't Alec Burks get a chance to prove himself? When are they just going into a full rebuild and play all their young guys? Have we exhausted all of the most common questions surrounding the Utah Jazz yet?

    These questions might be a thing of the past if Utah struggles against a soon-to-be-tougher schedule. Derrick Favors has been waiting in the wings for awhile, and this team needs to improve its defense. Should this .500 ball club slip, a welcome change might be in order. 

14. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Humble suggestion: Perhaps Monta Ellis shouldn't shoot so much? The former Golden State gunner is averaging nearly 20 shots per game for Milwaukee while hitting on .407 of his attempts. 

    Sometimes a field-goal percentage can be deceiving. If a player gets to the line a lot, or hits a lot of threes, his true field-goal percentage can far exceed that statistical shorthand. 

    This is the not case with Ellis, who's been hitting on .209 of his three-point attempts and doesn't get to the line frequently for a guard with his usage rate. Monta's effective field-goal percentage (a mark that incorporates threes and free throws) is only .428. For comparison to another off guard, Ray Allen's effective field-goal percentage is .639.

    Just something to think about on the team's three-game losing skid. 

13. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    This, I didn't expect. When Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic returned to the lineup, I anticipated that Minnesota would receive a boost. Instead, the T-Wolves struggled to incorporate their lethargic star and have gotten themselves mired in a five-game losing skid. 

    The smart money is on Rick Adelman finding a way to make a Pekovic-Kirilenko-Love frontcourt work for the better. An Adelman team just won't stay ranked No. 24 in total offense for very long.

    One also senses that Minnesota won't continue its recently stout defense. Love isn't a bad defender per se, but he's not a good one, either. When froncourt defensive minutes go from Kirilenko to Love, a dip on D is inevitable. 

12. Golden State Warriors

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    Wait, what are you doing here in the top 12, Golden State? Did I make some kind of typographical error? 

    No, it's just a Warriors team that suffered all the common maladies (injuries, playing Andris Biedrins) and somehow persevered. They're two games above .500, albeit with a point differential that's slightly in the negative. 

    But considering that the Dubs had a horrid shooting slump that seems to be correcting itself, and Andrew Bogut's imminent return (via Yahoo! Sports), I'm shading towards Oakland optimism.

    Fine, I'll admit it. Their rankings boost is almost a direct result of this Harrison Barnes dunk

11. Denver Nuggets

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    Here come the Nuggets! Denver won their trade with the Sixers when Andre Iguodala showed up with working knees. On top of that, Iggy is starting to play markedly better. 

    He had 23 points on 13 shots in his last game against the Hornets and 29 points on 19 shots in the game before that. Denver has had a collectivist offense, but Iguodala is slowly taking the reins.

    So far, it's not an altogether bad strategy. The Nuggets have won four in a row, and they absolutely blasted New Orleans off the floor in their last outing. 

10. Boston Celtics

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    With a win against Oklahoma City, the Celtics finally got some love from the Sports Guy

    The JET is in the house!!!!!! Good Celts win tonight, I was starting to silently freak out about this team's ceiling. Needed a good W.

    — Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) November 24, 2012

    That was nice, but the victory came amid some more discouraging factors. The defense is not fixing itself, and it's utterly absent whenever Kevin Garnett retires to the bench.

    Rajon Rondo has been playing some of his best basketball, but it's often for naught on account of the team's overall defense. It's nice to see Rondo play more assertive, efficient basketball if for no other reason than pure enjoyment.

    In all seriousness, improved play from the star point guard will pay real dividends if and when Boston's defense returns to its former glory. 

9. Brooklyn Nets

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    The Brooklyn Nets emerged from their soft schedule to play well against tough opponents.

    Their besting of the Clippers was as impressive, and Brook Lopez has been well worth the massive contract he signed thus far. If big Brook plans to keep on scoring 25 points per 40 minutes on 55 percent shooting, his rebounding deficiency becomes acceptable. 

    Deron Williams got off to a rocky start but did almost everything in the Nets' recent win against the Blazers. D-Will clamped down on Damian Lillard in the second half, while contributing four blocks and three steals. If it weren't for the 12 assists, I might have mistaken him for Gerald Wallace. 

8. Atlanta Hawks

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    I was singing their praises all preseason, so my intellectual vanity appreciates the recent run of Atlanta Hawks success. The basketball-loving part of me appreciates it as well because this team has a lot of talent.

    Al Horford is clearly the star of this team and its subsequent five-game winning streak. He's Atlanta's defensive rock and probably their best offensive player. In short, he's one of the game's best big men, and he happens to be playing in relative anonymity.

    Check Mr. Horford out on League Pass sometime.  

7. Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Laker media freakout was loud, but brief. A loss to Sacramento, followed by a loss to the infinitely more imposing Grizzlies, had the masses bemoaning the D'Antoni era. 

    The Dallas Mavericks loomed on the back-to-back. The Mavs had gotten the ill-fated Mike Brown era off to its awful start on opening day, and there they were, ready to serve D'Antoni a similar fate.

    But something different happened. The Laker defense clicked into place, snuffing out all hope for their opponents from the outset. Antawn Jamison, formerly symbolic of an anemic Laker bench, has been suddenly serviceable of late, hitting 7-of-11 shots in consecutive games.

    Don't look now, but Los Angeles could be righting itself. 

6. Los Angeles Clippers

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    The Los Angeles Clippers continue to eclipse their Laker neighbors. But if trends continue, this might be the last week the Lake Show looks up to the Clipps in the power rankings for some time. 

    We rarely talk about any kind of Clipper home-court advantage, but the road has not been kind to this team. Los Angeles has lost their last three on this road trip. A mitigating factor would be that all three opponents—the Thunder, Nets and Hawks—are likely playoff attendees. 

    The Clips have a bit of an awkward situation with all this Eric Bledsoe success. He can't supplant Chris Paul in the rotation, but his talents exceed that of a player averaging less than 20 minutes per game.

    For Bledsoe's sake, I hope he's traded to his own show. 

5. New York Knicks

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    Despite their high point differential, I'm not ready to annoint the Knicks so quickly.

    The power rankings are supposedly a measure of "who's playing the best right now," but let's examine that statement. With the current small sample size, it's impossible to truly know which team is playing the best.

    You could have the No. 1 offense today, suffer a bad game, and have the No .15 offense tomorrow New York suffered a similar fate when its stoutly-ranked defense got buried in Houston Rocket three-pointers. Also, teams are facing schedules that differ in difficulty, and we don't even know what the difficulty level is, on account of some teams being over or undervalued.

    So, no, this isn't just a measure of recent quality. A few weeks of basketball doesn't exist in a vacuum, especially when we're examining a team with largely the same roster as last season.

    In short, the Knicks have a lot of potential, and I like them as the East's second best team, but let's settle down and wait for the first sustained success of the James Dolan era. 

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Oklahoma City is a dangerous team, especially if Scott Brooks wises up and stops playing his worst lineups. The Thunder seriously struggle to score points when Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha play at the same time. By some strange coincidence, this is OKC's starting lineup.

    Kevin Martin has shown himself to be human with 3-of-16 shooting over his last two games. He's been fantastic in his new role, but on his off nights, the Thunder probably can't survive these "defensive" lineups. 

    Overall, though, the Thunder remain one of the league's best. 

3. San Antonio Spurs

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    Had San Antonio lost to the Toronto Raptors, they probably would have fallen a spot. But two overtimes later, the Spurs are safely at No. 3. 

    San Antonio might only have a 5.6 point differential, but it's hard to knock a team on a three-game win streak. Lost in the well-reported Kobe Bryant resurgence has been Tim Duncan's time warp.

    Timmy's current 27-plus PER would qualify as his best in eight seasons. Of course, there's plenty of season left, but the old man's killing it.  

2. Miami Heat

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    Miami played down to the competition, letting a depleted Cleveland Cavaliers hang close until Ray Allen sent them packing

    That's one way to look at it. The other is to wonder why Miami is even coming close to losing a game against Cleveland. Or to wonder when the Heat's vaunted defense will return from this continued sabbatical.

    The defending champions have been winning games, but concerns are cropping up. Chief among those concerns might be that Dwyane Wade playing like half of his former self.

    In theory, an offseason of rehab should have cured what ailed him last postseason. In reality, he's dinged up again and looking a little out of place in an offense predicated on three-point shooting.

1. Memphis Grizzlies

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    It wasn't a blowout, but the Lakers were never really in their game against the Grizzlies. It was an impressive win for Memphis, enough to outweigh a close home loss against a desperate Denver Nuggets team.

    So far, Lionel Hollins' team has beaten Miami, Oklahoma City, New York and Los Angeles. That's quite a run, especially when you consider that none of these victories were by less than eight points. 

    Marc Gasol may have the least impressive raw numbers of any MVP candidate at 15 points and seven rebounds, but not every big man can wall off the lane on defense and notch five assists per night on offense.