NBA Power Rankings: Where Every Team Stands Heading into Week 7
What a shakeup this league has undergone. I would imagine that if the public were to choose in some hypothetical battle between the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, the Knicks would be the favorite even if the Lakers were fully healthy.
Could you have imagined such a scenario two months ago?
Oklahoma City exemplifies how quickly public opinion can change. After trading James Harden, I and others figured them for fringe contention. Now? I might just call them the favorites.
Note: I said "might." You'll have to click through to find out.
30. Washington Wizards
Washington keeps the top spot on this list, despite beating the Miami Heat. This is partially because the Wizards still claim the league's worst record and point differential. It's also because they had absolutely no business winning that game.
Throughout the second half, Miami got endless open three-pointers. When the Heat were down by three with six seconds left, a situation in which they obviously needed a three-pointer, the Wizards still gave up a wide-open corner try to LeBron James. He missed, and Miami lost, but it was hard to come away from the game feeling fantastic about the Wiz.
Sometimes, you get lucky. And while it's better to be lucky than good, Washington is rarely so lucky.
29. Cleveland Cavaliers
For the love of Naismith, bring back Kyrie Irving! I don't care if he's only using his non-broken hand, he must be better than the other Cleveland players. The Cavs have gone 1-9 over the last 10, but that record doesn't appropriately represent just how unwatchable this team is.
I recoiled at the notion of an offense run by Dion Waiters. Then Waiters got hurt, and I had to suffer watching an offense run by Daniel Gibson. If it weren't for the occasional Alonzo Gee dunk, this team would be wholly irredeemable.
By the way: Remember when Dan Gilbert predicted that Cleveland would win a title before Miami?
Note: The Cavaliers expect Irving to play on Dec. 11 against the Los Angeles Lakers (h/t SportingNews.com)
28. Toronto Raptors
Man, the Raps were really vying for that No. 30 spot. GM Jerry Colangelo said the following of his team in the Toronto Star: "This situation is, from all standards, unacceptable. It’s disappointing, it’s embarrassing but this is where we find ourselves.”
Buy tickets, people of Toronto! Of course, Colangelo is to blame for a lot of the disappointment. Cashing out Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan were moves that nobody supported. Bargnani has been especially bad, on both ends of the floor.
I had some hopes for this squad in an anemic Eastern Conference, but it's hard to see how they'll ever bounce back from the current state of things.
27. New Orleans Hornets (Pelicans)
After much rumination, the Pelicans is a great name going forward. Even if you accede to the dubious assumption that Pelicans aren't intimidating, why does a team name have to be intimidating? Can't it just be novel and fun? The more people scoff at the Pelican name, the more it becomes an amusing choice. There's nothing wrong with that.
As for the basketball they're playing, there's plenty wrong with that. Austin Rivers is shooting .311 from the field and playing 26 minutes per night. His defense is about as bad.
If the goal is to tank, down to the ocean deep, the Pelicans are making the right move in playing Rivers so often this season.
26. Charlotte Bobcats
Here's a blast of winter cold for ya:
Bobcats exec Rod Higgins signed forward Jeff Adrien and waived his son/guard Cory Higgins.— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) December 9, 2012
Oof, that is rough. It's also fair. Corey Higgins had no business being on an NBA roster, and this smacked of embarrassing nepotism. Perhaps the Charlotte Bobcats are becoming a professional basketball team. In the foreground, the Bobs are disintegrating.
They've lost their last seven, but it's hard to blame anyone other than the folks who built this roster over the years—that, and regression to the mean. This team lacks the talent to compete right now. The Bobcats are still a draft pick or two away until further notice.
25. Sacramento Kings
The Kings beat the Blazers by 19, and they're .500 over the past 10 games. This could be seen as recently hopeful signs, but I'm not so optimistic. DeMarcus Cousins keeps shooting like an inefficient 5'10" guy, and Tyreke Evans keeps missing games with knee trouble.
Actually, per that last statement, one wonders if the recent Kings success can be partially attributed to Evans missing games. It sounds cruel, but one would be hard-pressed to find evidence of Tyreke helping this offense or defense.
The Warriors are probably reaping the "addition by subtraction" benefits of letting Monta Ellis go. Could the Kings experience something similar by trading Tyreke Evans?
24. Phoenix Suns
Goran Dragic might be getting All-Star buzz if his team weren't so bad. Of course, we can all make hypotheticals like that. Goran Dragic would be devastating were he seven feet tall. Goran Dragic would be so celebrated if here were simultaneously on the Los Angeles Lakers and prime minister of his native Yugoslavia.
Credit to Goran, but he only accounts for 32 of Phoenix's minutes. The other minutes are going to mostly mediocre players, most specifically Michael Beasley.
Did you know that Beasley leads this team in attempts? This is a crime against a Suns fanbase that was treated to Steve Nash's prime years.
23. Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic are the most impressive bad team in recent memory. I'm still not sure how they've won eight games out of 20, but it's enough to warrant Early Season Coach of the Year (Note: fictional award) for Jacques Vaughn.
Andrew Nicholson has been one of the most impressive rookies and is entirely under the radar. On Sunday night, he went 9-of-11 from the field in 25 minutes. He may never be anything close to a star, but Nicholson has demonstrated an ability to shoot at the NBA level. He could be a steal at the 19th pick, and he's playing as well as any rookie selected.
22. Detroit Pistons
Detroit is .500 over its last 10 games. That surprised me, and I watch most of their games. How is Detroit suddenly competent?
Though I'm tempted to say, "They're playing Andre Drummond more," the truth is probably a bit more complicated. The overall defense has picked up. Rodney Stuckey is playing a lot better than he was in the early season. It's all coming together to make the Pistons "mediocre" as opposed to "woefully horrendous."
The Pistons aren't exactly earning their spot in my League Pass rotation, but at least they're capable of beating anyone on their home court. You could not say this earlier in the season.
21. Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard is running away with Rookie of the Year, but it's not for making his team better in the short term. It's not on Lillard that the Blazers are so bad; he's merely an observer to this mediocre defense. Still, it's an odd circumstance that the ROY will probably hail from a team that's been wildly disappointing.
The offense has also run into some problems—namely, that Nicolas Batum's been terrible of late. Over the past five games, Batum is averaging 11.6 points on .321 shooting. I expect those kinds of stretches from Austin Rivers, not from someone who's now making $11 million per year.
20. Milwaukee Bucks
Larry Sanders is as fun as it gets. It's shame he's on a team with 102,389 other lanky frontcourt shot-blockers, because I'd love to see what he'd get done with more playing time. This guy could swat a rainbow's apogee. Okay, that's hyperbole, but he could certainly contest the rainbow into a trickier light reflection.
Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are battling for worst shooting percentage from the guard spot. Milwaukee fans have my full sympathy, as both undersized chuckers hover around the low 40s in field-goal percentage.
Why does Scott Skiles like this strategy? As a defensive-minded coach, wouldn't he love any scenario where the opposition provided that kind of offensive inefficiency?
19. Indiana Pacers
David West is the best player on this team, which isn't the best indication of overall quality. It's nothing against West. He's an above-average contributor. It's just, it's so hard to flaunt an above-average team when your best is merely above average.
The Pacers can't be faulted much for losing to Oklahoma City on the road. According to Jared Wade, it was their "best loss of the year." Indiana's a good enough defensive team to where a victory against virtually any opponent comes as no surprise, but man, has their emerging 2011-2012 talent been a letdown.
A few months ago, Indiana was on the cusp of being favored to make the NBA Finals. Now, it wouldn't be shocking to see them miss the playoffs with roughly the same collection of talent.
18. Philadelphia 76ers
If Philadelphia isn't defending well, I worry for its prospects. After defensive stinginess in the beginning of this season, the Sixers have fallen out of the top 10 in D efficiency.
This is problematic because the offense doesn't exactly run smoothly. The 76ers rank near the bottom in pace and still chuck a lot of long two-pointers.
It took awhile, but the 76ers might finally be missing Andre Iguodala. He could create a shot in dire situations and also happened to be the team's best defensive player. Philadelphia lacks frontcourt defensive quality, so losing Iguodala hurts all the more.
17. Houston Rockets
Perhaps James Harden needed Kevin McHale? The Rockets coach had taken a leave of absence due to his family tragedy, which was more than understandable. What wasn't understandable was how Harden's game went a bit haywire after submitting brilliant performances in his first two Rocket outings.
On the night of Kevin McHale's return, the Rockets-debut version of Harden scored 30 first-half points. It was all for naught, as Houston dropped the game to a hungry Dallas team.
Though Houston lost, Harden's half awoke new hope that he'll return to his formerly efficient ways.
16. Denver Nuggets
Perhaps the Nuggets should have kept Nene? This was lost amid all the talk of that Carmelo Anthony trade, the one that many assumed had swung in Denver's favor as recently as a few months ago. The Sunday night game at Madison Square Garden was seen as a referendum on that decision, but I mostly perceived Denver's lack of frontcourt defense as something for which the franchise should answer.
Lost in what Denver got for Carmelo is that they saved a whole bunch of money in the process. So, yes, Anthony showed out nicely with 34 points and reminded Denver of what a great player he can be. But Denver should be measured by how wise (or unwise) they were for spending cash on Ty Lawson and JaVale McGee.
15. Dallas Mavericks
I have no clue what to make of what O.J. Mayo's doing in Dallas. Who gets this good, suddenly, after four seasons of average work? Mayo dinged up Houston for 40 points, but it was more indicative of his year than aberrational.
Mayo's "true shooting" (a mark that takes threes and free throws into account) is a humongous 10 percent better right now than it was last season. Of course, those numbers will regress a bit, but this production still deserves accolades and inquiries into its sustainability.
If this is the guy Dallas plucked from the market, what an incredible find. There are very few elite 2-guards; Mayo is making his case for inclusion on that list.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves
Now that's the playoff-level team I expected Minnesota to be. Winners of four of their last six, the Wolves have finally found a way to integrate Kevin Love.
K-Love is rebounding at his old levels but shooting in the 20 percent range from downtown. His three-point shooting should, ahem, rebound (rim shot!). When it does, the Wolves will be even more potent offensively.
Alexey Shved is an increasingly fun player to watch on the ol' League Pass. He's a breathtakingly irresponsible gunner who manages nearly six assists per 40 minutes on flashy passes. It's like Jason Williams was reincarnated in Russia. I love it.
13. Utah Jazz
First, a moment to congratulate the Jazz on causing two Laker media frenzy tailspins this season. Sunday night's road victory over L.A. was the more impressive of the two, though. The Lakers never seemed in control of the game at any point.
I said Derrick Favors was the best 2010 draft prospect, but now he has plantar fasciitis. Without him, the Jazz have soldiered on, maintaining their roughly .500 trajectory by losing two, then winning two.
If Favors misses more time, it should significantly hurt Utah's defense. The only upside is that it creates opportunities for Enes Kanter, who had been relegated to "fourth big" status. Kanter responded to a start against Toronto by scoring 18 points and then punishing the Lakers for 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Let's see if the newly skinning kid can build on that.
The Jazz are lurking in much the same way they did last season. I can foresee them sneaking in again, after a solid year of doing almost nothing to gain the nation's interest.
12. Boston Celtics
I am not a Jeff Green fan, and I thought his signing was a terrible Celtics decision. Credit where it's due, though: The 26-year-old forward has played well of late. In the last five games, Green has averaged 16 points on .544 shooting, with a scalding .571 from three-point territory. Is he piecing his game together after a horrid start?
Boston certainly needs the help. Defense has been their lynchpin, but they've struggled this year on account of bringing in players like Green. Boston's offense has improved, but it's nowhere near elite level.
The Celtics are badly in need of somebody, anybody, other than Kevin Garnett to help in the frontcourt. Perhaps Green is finally here for that job.
11. Chicago Bulls
In theory, Chicago should have sank like a rock after giving up nearly its whole bench and losing Derrick Rose to injury. But here come the Bulls, winners of three straight and owners of one of the league's top defenses.
How did they do it? Coach Tom Thibodeau has employed a fairly simple solution of giving heavy minutes to the defensive players he still has. Whereas Joakim Noah averaged 30.4 minutes per game last season, this season he's at roughly 40 minutes per game. Luol Deng has always played a lot, but now he's at an incredible 41 minutes per contest, despite an injury history.
This might not be the best long-term planning on Chicago's part, but it's certainly the best short-term strategy for getting victories.
10. Golden State Warriors
I am terrified to write up Stephen Curry praise. It feels as though any mention of how fantastic he's been over these past two weeks might incur the wrath of his ankle. It looms over every movement like the sword of Damocles.
Curry sure doesn't seem phased, though. So far in December, he is averaging 23.4 points, 8.4 assists and 50 percent shooting from three. He's playing at an All-Star level at a time that coincides with Klay Thompson's return to competence. I have little faith in their defense sans Bogut, but this is a potentially explosive offense with Curry at the helm.
I know that Golden State hopes for Stephen Curry or David Lee to make the All-Star team, but I have a different suggestion: Can "No more Monta anchor" make the Western 12-man roster?
9. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets are sliding back to earth, having lost their last four games. The defensive issues that everybody predicted for this team are finally coming to the fore. The Nets even gave up a large offensive night to the poor-shooting Milwaukee Bucks, ceding an efficient 8-of-13 night to the oft-errant Monta Ellis.
Brooklyn now ranks 19th in defensive efficiency (via ESPN), after looking stingy in the early going. Could it be that the defensively maligned Brook Lopez was essential to this team's D? He's been out with foot problems, and the Nets look completely lost without him.
8. Los Angeles Lakers
Well, that was a brutal home loss to Utah. L.A.'s defense was abysmal, especially Kobe Bryant's. The Lakers hit 15 threes against Utah, at a 53 percent clip. They also hit 83.3 percent of their free throws.
It's almost impossible to lose when this happens, but the Lakers defense was just that forgiving. The final score (117-110) reads a lot closer than the game actually felt.
Healthy or not, Pau Gasol is incongruous in this Mike D'Antoni system. Great or mediocre, Gasol isn't right for a four-out, pick-and-roll style.
So now trade rumors swirl around this disappointing team. It's amusing to hear Ryan Anderson come up in the rumors because such a move would make no sense to New Orleans. The Pelicans are rebuilding and don't need Pau's hefty contract. More to the point, Anderson is outplaying the Laker big man by a wide margin.
7. Atlanta Hawks
The team nobody cares about marched into Memphis and beat the Grizzlies. Memphis dwarfs Atlanta, but Atlanta plays a smothering, communicative style of D that can more than make up for size deficiencies.
The Hawks are not thought of as a savvy or experienced squad, but think on how long this core has been together. Josh Smith might take dumb shots, but don't let that fool you into dismissing an otherwise cohesive veteran group. Atlanta was a smart defensive team last year, and it's been just that in this season.
As Josh Smith said to Zach Lowe of Grantland, "We’re unselfish, and when guys are willing to sacrifice and buy in, you can have success. If we can keep this chemistry up, we’re gonna have a shot to be in the conference finals.”
6. Memphis Grizzlies
They lost to Atlanta at home, and while there is no shame in that, home losses can knock you down a rung or two among elites. Losses will happen when Rudy Gay goes 7-of-25, but that leads me to wonder why he is shooting 25 shots in a game.
This is my biggest concern for a team that's so great in many other facets of the game: Gay takes the most shots on that team—by a wide margin. Gay's never been an especially efficient shooter. This year has been no exception, with Rudy going .418 from the field this year so far. When Memphis desperately needs a shot, I fear that it'll too often be a long, contested Rudy Gay two-pointer.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
Is it really so necessary to play Chauncey Billups? He's missing some time with tendinitis, but I was surprised to see him get so many minutes upon return. The Clippers already have a few better guards. I get that Billups is a veteran; I get that he provides leadership. What I don't get is why can't he do that from the bench?
I'm picking nits, because the Clippers have been good of late. It may just be luck, but this team does seem prone to peaks and swoons over these past two seasons. When the Clippers are right, they're as good as any team. When the Clippers are off, that defense is more forgiving than a priest.
4. Miami Heat
Much of the focus has been on Dwyane Wade's 2012-2013 struggles, but I find Chris Bosh's play to be equally concerning. He's been fine offensively but an utter disaster on the other end. In the blowout against the Knicks, Bosh was switched onto Raymond Felton a few times, and he gave absolutely no resistance as Felton romped to the rim.
When the Heat weren't switching, Bosh was a disaster at "showing" and trapping the ball. On a few plays, his hands were at his waist as the ball zipped by to the likes of Tyson Chandler and Rasheed Wallace near the rim.
Miami can survive a lack of defensive effort from Wade, but they cannot survive bad defense from their lone competent big man.
3. San Antonio Spurs
I yawn in the direction of San Antonio's typical annual regular-season brilliance. It's nothing personal; it's just expected.
While I love watching this team play, I hate analyzing them. It's a little like being the weatherman in San Diego. What's Spurs' forecast? Sunny, again.
The Spurs are once again near league bottom in allowing free throws. Their non-fouling strategy is an intriguing one, considering how many teams are all too happy to wrap up a guy once he's on the cusp of a layup or dunk. San Antonio, despite their advanced age, maintains a top D in part due to restraint.
2. New York Knicks
How did they Knicks beat Miami, on the road, without Carmelo Anthony? Obviously, pouring in 18 three-pointers will carry a team, but a lot of credit should go to Tyson Chandler. Much has been made of New York's "four-out," three-heavy style, but it cannot work without Chandler.
Chandler is so efficient and so expert on pick-and-rolls that it keeps defenses from fully defending driving point guards. This helps New York to suction in the defense, opening up three-pointers for everyone else.
Much is made of Tyson's defense, but his offense is minimalist brilliance. He can't create his own shot but somehow converts nearly 70 percent of all attempts. Chandler also excels at creating for others, quickly moving to wherever New York needs a screen.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook is playing much better of late, and in a way that can quiet his critics. After averaging 5.5 assists last season, he's averaging over eight a game this year. The "not a real pure point guard" charge will be harder to maintain if Westbrook keeps dishing at this pace.
Meanwhile, in the frontcourt, Serge Ibaka has flourished offensively. The athletic big man is shooting a better percentage on roughly three more attempts this season, splashing long-range jumpers like never before. His improvement should take Oklahoma City far.
Of course, OKC is still paced by Kevin Durant and his ridiculously efficient shooting. There's no such thing as "Quarter-season MVP," but if there were, Durant would probably win.