NBA Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stand Heading into December?
After so much flux, you wouldn't be crazy to pick Oklahoma City and Miami as the best teams in the league, or at least the teams most likely to face off in the Finals. It takes a while for anything to change in this league. Good teams stay good. Bad teams stay bad, despite the best efforts of the NBA lottery system.
The league may be a little stagnant because its younger players are struggling to make an impact. Nobody from the 2010 draft has yet to make a substantial impact, for example. Derrick Favors would probably be taken No. 1 if the draft were held again, and he comes off the bench for Utah. John Wall sits sidelined, as his Wizards bumble along to the league's worst record. Greg Monroe has been good offensively, but he's such a defensive cipher that he can't help get Detroit out of the lottery zone.
As for the younger crop, No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving is hurt, as is No .1 pick Anthony Davis. It's almost as though the Oklahoma City Thunder took this youth rebuilding model and shut the door behind them. Until somebody else figures out how to turn lottery luck into wins, the NBA will more or less look like it does right now.
30. Washington Wizards
They did it! Fully defeated, no more. The Wizards finally pulled out a close one against Portland. But let the record show: Washington's only win in 14 games was by a mere basket. The Wizards might not be as bad as 1-13, but they're not that much better, either.
This is still home to the worst point differential in basketball. Nene's finally back, and that should help the Wizards mightily. For all the attention John Wall gets, the newly acquired big man is likely Washington's best player. It will be interesting to see how he handles a putrid, depressing, hopeless situation.
29. Sacramento Kings
This tweet from Sam Amick says it all in Sacramento:
The Kings were showing signs of life last week, but they've dropped three in a row since. DeMarcus Cousins, a big man, is shooting 41.7 percent from the field. I understand that he has a lot of potential, but his lack of accuracy is perhaps more concerning than his off-the-court issues.
If he were shooting better than 50 percent, DeMarcus should be allowed to yell at Sean Elliot every week. In the low 40s, Cousins deserves any suspension he gets. As Stringer Bell might lament, DeMarcus is bringing too many 40 percent days.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers
Goodwin Sports representative and tweeter extraordinaire Nate Jones threw this log on the fire:
Would you rather have Varejao or Aldridge right now?— Nate Jones (@JonesOnTheNBA) December 2, 2012
Interesting question, here. On the one hand, Aldridge can space the floor with his deadly jumper, enabling a smooth pick-and-roll game. On the other hand, Varejao can do almost everything else.
For now, I'm siding with Aldridge, and it's only because I fear that Varejao's defense has slipped as his rebound totals have climbed. If Varejao was defending like his 2010 self while grabbing an astounding 25 percent of misses, that'd seal the deal in his favor.
Right now, Cleveland has one of the worst defenses in basketball. Considering the impact on defense that big men have, some of this blame has to fall on Big V.
27. New Orleans Hornets
Man, this medical staff has not looked good of late. It's fine to boast of a roster with Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon, but what good is it to have those guys if they never play? Some mysterious ankle ailment has kept Davis out eight games, and we're not sure when he's coming back. And Gordon is still recovering from a knee injury. In Davis' absence, New Orleans has become the league's worst defensive team.
Austin Rivers has been terrible, but Greivis Vasquez has been capable running the point. I certainly wouldn't have expected more than eight assists per game from the Venezuelan combo guard. Ryan Anderson continues to shoot well from the perimeter.
But those are about the only two bright spots in New Orleans' horrible early season stretch.
26. Toronto Raptors
When are the Raptors going to emerge as the playoff team many of us thought they would be in the preseason? Kyle Lowry has returned and the clock is ticking.
Speaking of Lowry, he's a top defensive point guard, and his presence was supposed to improve the Raptors on defense. Granted, he hasn't had a lot of games with the team, but so far his presence has not had the desired effect.
I don't blame Lowry. He's fantastic at ball-pressure defense. A point guard just can't have the same defensive impact as a frontcourt player. A point guard can help, but an elite big like Dwight Howard can dominate.
25. Detroit Pistons
Oh, Detroit, I thought you were done with Charlie V. But much like Andris Biedrins with the Warriors, Villanueva is an unpopular player who just won't go away.
He had a good run over the past few games, but finally met his Waterloo in Dallas, going 0-5 in 15 minutes and that was that. Villanueva's return is just another example of Detroit not being able to shake its underwhelming veterans.
On the upside, Kyle Singler has been sneakily good. The rookie is shooting 51.2 percent from the field and 44.2 from distance. Since he's 24, there probably isn't much room for improvement. But at least he isn't Austin Daye, I suppose.
24. Phoenix Suns
More minutes for Goran Dragic, please. I wonder if he regrets signing a contract with a barren team that won't play him more than 40 minutes per game. Then again, perhaps he'll benefit long term by staying "fresh." In the shorter term, though, playing 30 MPG will kill what meager All-Star chances Dragic has. (He was added to the ballot, by the way).
Meanwhile, the Suns have lost three in a row, losses that include a blowout at the hands of Detroit. At least the 40-point Pistons humiliation was on the road? I'm grasping at straws, here.
The Suns aren't one of the worst teams in the league, but they're certainly in the bottom third. They're the kind of bad that doesn't get you a good lottery pick, which in the end, is the worst bad of all.
23. Orlando Magic
I don't care if they've lost three in a row. I still want to throw this team in an interrogation room, shake them by the shoulders and demand to know why they aren't worse.
Here's a sentence I've constructed to encapsulate my disbelief. If this team's best player isn't Jameer Nelson, it's most assuredly Glen Davis or J.J. Redick. How is this a professional basketball franchise? How did Orlando trade Dwight Howard and wake up to this particular collection of "talent?"
These are about the only interesting questions surrounding the Magic, as their style of play and collection of players commands no such attention. They've done a good job playing roughly league-average defense, though. That's a feather in their cap.
22. Charlotte Bobcats
Luck has caught up to everyone's favorite formerly terrible team. Finally, after pulling out close win after close win, the Bobcats are racking up close losses.
All is not lost, despite all the losses. The Bobcats still have Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 pick, and all his breathtaking transition buckets. Bismack Biyombo is showing offensive competence—between fouls, that is.
OK, I'm grasping at straws. Altogether, Charlotte's dalliance above .500 was fun, but probably not to be relived for a sustained period. This isn't a playoff team, despite Mike Dunlap's admirable efforts.
21. Portland Trail Blazers
You would have expected the Blazers to have an excellent opportunity against Boston, which was without a suspended Rajon Rondo. Instead, the Portland defense was terrible and the Blazers were crushed, losing their fourth game in a row.
The Blazers recovered by winning a double-overtime squeaker against Cleveland. It might be tempting to call such a win "gutty," but we're talking about the Cavs without Kyrie Irving, here.
Portland still has lot of potential with Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum as its core three. The core just doesn't look to be playoff-ready, at least not yet.
20. Utah Jazz
Every week, I struggle to write about the Utah Jazz. Emerging defensive force Derrick Favors languishes on the bench as the Jazz give up point after point. Enough already. Play the kid.
Or at least, play him when he returns from injury. In Favors' absence, Utah demonstrated how defensively troubled it can be, giving up 124 points to the Rockets.
Small sample size? Certainly. But based on the larger sample size of the last two years, I can tell you that the less the Jazz play Favors, the more points they'll give up.
19. Milwaukee Bucks
Perhaps I need to stop saying it, but Monta Ellis needs to stop shooting. Every time Ellis shoots, an angel gets hit in the wings by an errant jumper. Right now, Ellis is taking 18.1 shots a game. The result? So far, it's been 40.1 percent from the field and 18.5 percent from three-point range.
Many of these tries come early in the shot clock and a good chunk of them happen off the dribble. Why does this continue? It's wretched, misguided offense and it nearly lost Milwaukee another game.
Going against Rajon Rondo-less Boston should have been an easy win for Milwaukee. Instead, Ellis and his 6-of-20 shooting made it an all-hands-on-deck chore.
Ellis is a good passer and has the capacity for better decisions. But if the Bucks can't get him to use his better judgment, they should trade him.
18. Indiana Pacers
This team creates the ugliest games in the NBA. They accomplish this through an odd mix of smothering defense and nonexistent offense. When the Pacers play, nobody scores. When Indiana makes, say, a 12-0 run, it can take longer than cliff erosion.
Considering their odd ability to keep stopping their opponent only to have the offense never capitalize, the Pacer mascot should be Sisyphus. Credit to Roy Hibbert and Paul George for spearheading this defensive attack, but, man, have they been offensive disappointments. George was especially bad against the Warriors on Saturday night, going 0-7 for no points.
A star in the making he isn't.
17. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks had two road losses, followed by a home win against Detroit. This is the profile for this Dirk-less, middling team. Beat the bad teams, lose to the good teams, keep yourself in the right position for Nowitzki to give you a playoff run.
A disconcerting amount of Dallas' offense is running through O.J. Mayo. "Glass-full" types would say that the Mavericks have finally allowed Mayo to optimized his long-touted potential. A negatively minded person would worry about a team that claims Mayo as its second-best player.
Points might be hard to come by, even after Nowitzki returns.
16. Denver Nuggets
Andre Iguodala was supposed to fix the Denver defense, just as Arron Afflalo before him was charged to do. It's not happening, and the issue has little to do with Iguodala. We might just be learning that perimeter defense just isn't as important as frontcourt defense.
I mentioned this before in regard to Kyle Lowry and point guard defense, but perhaps it applies to perimeter defenders as well. With the Lakers steadily improving on the defensive end with their addition of Dwight Howard and with top wing defender Andre Iguodala making no impact on Denver, one might surmise that a perimeter defensive ace can do little to help a broken team defense.
Centers can clean up a lot of mistakes at the rim with blocks and rebounds. Wing defenders aren't capable of the same kind of plays.
15. Philadelphia 76ers
The long-term prospects for Philadelphia do not look good, but it's admirable how the 76ers keep churning out the victories. As of now, Jrue Holiday is an All-Star. He's averaging more than nine assists, 18 points, and he has the ability to guard two (possibly three) positions.
The 76ers shouldn't be as good as their 10-7 record. They have an average point differential and have played an easy schedule. But, considering that I figured this team for a worse early fall, it's possible I've underestimated what Doug Collins can wring out of this squad.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves
The new Kevin Love looks like the old Kevin Love, as far as weight bearing goes. As in, it looks like Kevin Love borrowed Louis CK's body when he was out with his wrist injury.
Minnesota's star will play himself back into shape. Right now, he's struggling from the field at 33.7 percent. Considering that Love is still maintaining his monstrous rebounding average, the chances are that he's fine and will regain his form rather quickly.
It remains to be seen whether Love and Andrei Kirilenko can man the frontcourt together, as AK-47's been out with back spasms. Ricky Rubio has begun practicing again, so the Wolves should have their full roster available soon.
13. Houston Rockets
The new-look Rockets remind me of the old-look Rockets. They'll trundle along, probably finishing a bit better than .500. They'll either narrowly make or miss the playoffs. And later, should they make the postseason, the Rockets will threaten no one.
Daryl Morey's big play for a superstar was an admirable move. But on the short term, it will leave this team in quite familiar territory. Houston is still one star away, unless James Harden grows substantially between now and his prime.
Too much of the offensive burden is falling on him, as he's averaging more than four turnovers a game. He needs to improve his right hand to avoid the turnovers. In the meantime, the Rockets have to develop more offensive options than Harden.
12. Chicago Bulls
Can Luol Deng get a breather? Tom Thibodeau is playing his starting small forward a grueling 40.7 minutes a game.
This wouldn't be notable if Deng were a superstar, or if he was an incredibly durable player. But Deng is, generously, an upper-tier role player and someone who often battles nagging injuries.
It's symptomatic of how Thibodeau is trying to do more with less, with Derrick Rose out and so much of Chicago's old bench playing elsewhere. The Bulls have done well with their situation so far. But if Deng goes down with another injury, it's hard to see how Chicago keeps up its recent run of quality play.
11. Boston Celtics
Holy Jeff Green adequacy! It was a surprise to see Green play two consecutive good games in Rajon Rondo's absence. But perhaps he benefited from trying to initiate more of the offense.
Boston split their two Rondo-less games, looking unbeatable against the defensively wretched Trail Blazers and offensively bereft against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Jason Terry is playing a lot better than he was in the earlier part of the season. Ray Allen is playing even better in Miami. But for Boston's purposes, Terry's ability to run pick-and-roll with Garnett is more of a need. If both teams could swap shooting guards, I bet both teams wouldn't.
10. Golden State Warriors
Can the Warriors make the playoffs without Andrew Bogut? Put me down in the "no" column. Be that as it may, Golden State has an excellent shot at emerging from the next two games (Orlando at home, Detroit on the road) with a 12-6 record.
They also play eight straight against the relatively anemic Eastern Conference. This is a long-winded way of saying that the Warriors could stack up a lot of wins before their center comes back, if he ever comes back.
Credit a few of the victories to Carl Landry, who's possibly been Golden State's best player. It's odd that such an effective bench player can be had for so little. A two-year, $8 million dollar deal is such a bargain when you consider that guys like Jeff Green get paid more than twice as much for twice as long.
9. Atlanta Hawks
That six-game winning streak was nice, but what do you make of it ending at home against the Cleveland Cavaliers? The strangest aspect of the loss was that Atlanta hit 60 percent of its attempted threes.
That was just another night in the wacky NBA, I suppose, but I might fear a rocky patch for Atlanta. The Hawks are playing as well as they did last year defensively, but the offense has gotten bogged down.
As impressive as a six-game winning streak might sound, it included two victories against the Bobcats, a win against the Wizards, a win against the Magic and a besting of the mighty Sacramento Kings.
If Atlanta doesn't get its 18th-ranked offense in gear, times might be tougher against the league's good teams.
8. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets have impressed, but Kris Humphries provides a fun subplot amid his team's success. After much (perhaps unearned) unpopularity due to his Realty TV show turn, Humphries is seeking to fully earn his unpopularity as a basketball villain.
The fight he got immersed in with Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo is more the symptom than the disease. Humphries has become a ludicrous flopper, even outdoing teammate Reggie Evans in the acting department. No player is causing more anger on opposing teams from night to night.
Deron Williams and Brook Lopez account for half the reason I watch this team. Humphries' hilarious, ridiculous flailing accounts for the other half.
7. Los Angeles Lakers
I congratulate the Lakers on finally looking like the team we'd envisioned...is what I typed, right before they ran aground at home against Orlando. Our collective schizophrenic Lakers coverage continues.
Before Sunday, they had righted all wrongs. After coughing up a 40-point quarter to the Magic, it's panic time in Los Angeles again.
If you'll stop freaking out for second, you'll notice that Mike D'Antoni-ball is working wonders for Jodie Meeks. Could you imagine Meeks going off for seven-of-eight three pointers in a game outside of the NBA Summer League? Meeks did just that in L.A.'s thrashing of Denver, a game in which the Lakers were so offensively dominant that they barely had to play any defense (Note: Such a tendency came back to haunt them against the Magic).
On defense, D'Antoni's guys are learning how to operate comfortably with each other. Kobe Bryant's shooting has regressed to the mean, but that was to be expected. He's still been great, and that early start at least shows what Bryant might be capable of in a playoff run.
Antawn Jamison has also found his stride in the offense, and it will be fun to see if he can recapture some of his form with D'Antoni, who takes average players and makes them appear worthy of star contracts. Meeks and Jamison could be getting that boost.
There are positive signs here, despite Sunday's loss to the Magic in the Dwight Howard Bowl.
6. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers are back and rolling again, though one wonders how much longer Jamal Crawford keeps this up. Not everybody's convinced that his And-1 style can sustain this level of efficiency:
Does Jamal Crawford know that this isn't an And1 game? You don't get marks for degree of difficulty. Crossing over air isn't +ev— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) December 2, 2012
Crawford and Eric Bledsoe have compensated for whatever has gone wrong with Blake Griffin. Between all his commercials, I'm still waiting for Griffin to show up. He's shooting less than 50 percent, which is hard to pull off considering his shot selection.
Of course, it could all be because of a small sample size. That's what's so difficult about this stage of the season. It's so hard to tell if what you're seeing is part of a larger problem or just a blip in an ever long slog.
5. San Antonio Spurs
I know that San Antonio has been playing actual basketball games, but permit a few thoughts on the recent Miami benching controversy.
This was a reminder that sports is actually a business. You can say, "Gregg Popovich has the right to do whatever he wants with his team," but there is no hoops-specific Bill of Rights. There is, however, a giant national broadcast contract that's being negotiated between the NBA and future TV rights-holders.
National television rights are booming across sports, and it would not shock me to see TNT pay a billion for NBA fees in 2016. With that in mind, you don't want to anger the broadcaster.
Popovich probably knows this, but delights in thumbing his nose at the system anyway. He certainly has his reasons (it's a shame the Spurs must play four games in five nights), but such a move risks a fine from the commissioner.
4. Memphis Grizzlies
Oh, they missed a great opportunity to stick it to the Spurs and Gregg Popovich. I doubt that Memphis cares about Pop's fight with David Stern, but Saturday night would have been a fantastic chance to assert its dominance in this rivalry.
Memphis was in control for almost the whole game, right up until a late, fourth-quarter surge by San Antonio. But the Spurs pulled this one out in overtime, despite the best efforts of Marc Gasol, who isn't far from being the league's best center.
Memphis still looks sturdy and gritty and grindy and all that business. I wish the Grizzlies would play and look for Rudy Gay a bit less, but that's a minor quibble about a major contender.
3. New York Knicks
If there was such a thing as an "Early Season Coach of the Year," Mike Woodson might get my vote. But there is no such thing, and I have no such vote. Regardless, what a job Woodson has done blending Mike D'Antoni's old style with the desires of Carmelo Anthony, New York's current superstar.
The Knicks are playing a three-point-heavy, drive-and-kick game, while somehow getting Anthony his shots. Of course, a lot of that "somehow" has to do with playing Anthony at power forward. Still, credit Woodson for proceeding against conventional wisdom.
As an aside, how does Rasheed Wallace get ejected for yelling "Ball don't lie!" That's like Ray Allen getting ejected for hitting a corner three, or James Harden getting ejected for having a beard.
How do you get punished for your signature?
2. Miami Heat
Rumors of Dwyane Wade's demise have been greatly exaggerated. D-Wade rose from the ashes of a small sample size to be his old, superstar self against the Brooklyn Nets. It was a welcome role reprisal for Miami, as concerns were slowly building regarding Wade's off-kilter play and lethargic defense.
Perhaps the 34-point, seven-assist performance was an aberration for D-Wade, but Heat fans have to feel relieved. This was the first game this season in which Wade looked like himself, which means that his star power isn't gone forever.
We may never see Wade play quite like he did in the 2011 NBA Finals again, but the Saturday night flashback bodes well.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Well, they've worked their way to the No. 1 spot. Take that, haters, doubters and anyone who might think the Thunder so fragile as to collapse from lacking James Harden's playmaking (Note: I may have been among such haters and doubters).
This year's Oklahoma City is a lot like last year's Oklahoma City. It bludgeons opposing defenses with slashing and the free throws that come from its inexorable forays to the rim.
The difference is that the Thunder are shooting threes a lot better this season, thanks in part to Kevin Martin's accuracy from behind the arc.
Related to that, could Serge Ibaka suddenly become a much better fantasy player on account of the three? He's taking fewer than one per game, but a three-point shot would give us an odd shot-blocking, deep-threat combo.