You know how I can tell the 2013-14 NBA season has just about reached the quarter mark?
It's not the date on the calendar, though this milestone of the annual campaign usually falls right around early December. Nor is it the number of games that each team has played, though, I admit, that's actually the smartest and easiest way to figure it out.
(That kind of kills my more dramatic point, actually...but I'll share it anyway.)
Rather, it's from the chill outside my window, the falling of the leaves, the turning of the seasons.
Yeah, I know. We don't have seasons in Los Angeles. People in many other parts of the country would still be walking around in shorts and flip flops in the 50-degree temperatures and light showers that pass for "weather" in this part of the world.
I'll take the sunny skies and mild temperatures any day of the week. But, on this day of the week, I'll first take a stroll through the NBA to see how the power rankings are shaping up these days.
The last edition of November featured more than a minor shakeup of the league's totem pole. There are a few significant changes in store for the final month of the year, as well.
But don't take my work for it. Just click on through to find out!
Welcome to the cellar, Milwaukee Bucks! Your new place in the power rankings is well-deserved, to say the least.
You've got the third-worst defense, the worst offense, the worst point differential and (surprise, surprise) the worst record in the NBA to date.
How are you going to celebrate? Perhaps a return trip to Apartment 720, the nightclub at which Larry Sanders brawled his way into a busted thumb?
Maybe the video evidence will suffice. Or not.
For the first time since the eve of the 2013-14 NBA season, the Utah Jazz aren't dead last in these here power rankings.
You know what that means, Salt Lake City? Time to pop some...umm...oh, never mind.
Suffice it to say, the Jazz are playing some solid ball now that Trey Burke has settled in as Tyrone Corbin's starting point guard. Prior to their most recent home loss to the powerful Indiana Pacers, the Jazz had ripped off three wins in a four-game stretch. That slate saw Burke average a line of 17-4-4 with 1.3 steals while knocking down 47.6 percent of his three-point attempts.
Pretty amazing what a difference competent point guard play can make, isn't it?
The Brooklyn Nets didn't just lose to the rival New York Knicks in the nationally televised "Toilet Bowl," they got manhandled by a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad team in their own building by a score of 113-83.
Not that the continuation of the Nets' misery should come as any great surprise. You'd be hard-pressed to find any coach, even one vastly more experienced and accomplished than Jason Kidd, who could coax a winning operation out of a team starting Alan Anderson and Tyshawn Taylor on account of the absences of four of its top seven players (Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko).
Still, there's no excuse for getting blown out by a Knicks squad that came into Thursday on a nine-game slide. The Nets looked slow and plodding on both ends of the floor, with their paltry assist total (11 on the night) just scratching the surface of just how stagnant and unimaginative Brooklyn's offense really was.
Not that the New York Knicks should necessarily be gloating about their end of the blowout. If not for the Brooklyn Nets' oh-so-generous defense, the Knicks might still be drowning in what was a nine-game losing streak.
I'd caution anyone looking to take much of anything away from the result. After all, Brooklyn's defense is the league's most lenient, with an offense that also ranks among the bottom 10 in basketball.
But a win's a win, and the Knicks hadn't scored one since mid-November. What's more important is how New York builds on this result. A relatively friendly slate of games should give the Knicks ample opportunity to improve their record and creep ever closer to the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Assuming, of course, that this tidbit of progress isn't first chewed up and spit out by the rampant drama that's ravaged the Knicks' locker room this season.
I know, I know, five losses in a row for the Sacramento Kings don't look good on paper. But aside from a 14-point road loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Kings have been well within striking distance in each of those games.
And not against fellow scrubs, either. They've endured two-point losses to the Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder, and a pair of defeats to the Los Angeles Clippers—the first by a single point in regulation, the second by six in overtime.
The arrival of Derrick Williams (9.7 points and 4.3 rebounds in three games) has given Sacramento a much-needed infusion of energy and enthusiasm, as has rookie Ben McLemore's steady improvement as a starter.
Not to mention DeMarcus Cousins' nasty dominance up front.
The Kings figure to pile up many more narrow defeats before this season is through. What's most important, though, is that they learn from their mistakes, grow together and emerge on the other side with a greater understanding of what it takes to win in the NBA.
At long last, the Toronto Raptors have fallen from their perch atop the awful Atlantic Division. All it took was four straight losses—and a concurrent "surge" from the Boston Celtics—to unseat Canada's only NBA club from its playoff spot.
Most of those defeats haven't been particularly pretty, either. Aside from a respectable, seven-point loss to the Miami Heat, the Raps have staged a late-game comeback against the miserable Brooklyn Nets (and lost), gotten blown out by the Denver Nuggets and been on the wrong end of a 27-point comeback against the Golden State Warriors.
Now, if only general manager Masai Ujiri could find suitors gullible enough to take on the onerous contracts of Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan...
The Charlotte Bobcats may be unwatchable (by Grantland's Danny Chau's standards, anyway), but at least their commitment to playing hard-nosed, disruptive basketball had given way to a winning operation.
Or had until recently. The 'Cats have dropped two in a row and four of their last five, including an embarrassing 10-point defeat to the Boston Celtics.
To make matters worse, Charlotte's last loss—89-82 to the Dallas Mavericks—saw Michael Kidd-Gilchrist succumb to the broken hand "epidemic" that seems to be sweeping the NBA. The 'Cats won't miss MKG's busted jumper on offense, but his absence on defense, as one of the league's best young perimeter stoppers, figures to be felt in a big way. According to NBA.com, the 'Cats, who already rank third in defensive efficiency, have allowed just 94.8 points per 100 possessions with MKG in the lineup, and 101.2 when he sits.
If you're Orlando Magic GM Rob Hennigan, do you trade Arron Afflalo?
On the one hand, Afflalo's trade value has never been higher. The 28-year-old shooting guard ranks ninth in the NBA in scoring (22.6 points) and 14th in three-point percentage (.463), with 4.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists mixed in for good measure. The Magic could probably fetch a pretty penny for him on the market, especially given how reasonable his contract is (under $8 million per season through 2015-16), all the while freeing up space for Victor Oladipo in the backcourt.
On the other hand, Afflalo is a high-character guy who could serve as a veteran cornerstone to help guide Orlando through its post-Dwight Howard rebuild. Hennigan has to like that Afflalo's services come at such a passable price, and that Jacque Vaughn has found room to play him next to 'Dipo, even when Jameer Nelson's been healthy.
Either way, you can bet yours truly (a recent UCLA grad) is happy to see another fellow Bruin setting the NBA ablaze.
Speaking of Victor Oladipo, he and Michael Carter-Williams had themselves quite a showdown the other night. Those two became the first pair of rookies to post triple-doubles in the same game during the Philadelphia 76ers' 126-125 overtime win against the Magic on Dec. 3.
The Sixers must've been particularly happy to see MCW stuff the stat sheet once again. His efforts helped Philly snap a four-game skid, one that included three double-digit losses—one against the Magic.
Unfortunately, those 47 minutes appear to have taken their toll on Carter-Williams. According to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports, the Syracuse product will miss Philly's matchup with the Bobcats on account of soreness in his right knee. Steve Nash has been out with nerve root irritation in his back since mid-November
Don't call it a comeback (or do, I don't really care), but Andrew Bynum is starting to look like a productive NBA pivot again.
Bynum broke out with 20 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in 30 minutes against the Chicago Bulls, and followed that up with 14 points, seven boards, an assist and a block against the Denver Nuggets.
More importantly, the Cleveland Cavaliers won both of those games, snapping a five-game slide in the process. It's strange to think that Bynum, who sat out all of last season on account of his bad knees, might be the key to the Cavs' potential turnaround this season.
But with the way this team has struggled—between poor chemistry and even poorer play from some of Cleveland's recent draftees—the Cavs may have no other choice but to hope that Bynum can be a passable, low-post sidekick for Kyrie Irving over the long haul.
Remember when the Boston Celtics traded away Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry? Remember when they let Doc Rivers walk to coach the Los Angeles Clippers? Remember how, in light of all that and Rajon Rondo's ACL-related absence, the C's were supposed to be in full-on tank mode?
Well, guess what? They're now sitting not-so-pretty atop the Atlantic Division.
Granted, that's nothing to write home about, given how bad that division is and how underwhelming Boston's 8-12 record is in a vacuum. And with GM Danny Ainge now saying that Rondo isn't close to returning (via ESPNBoston.com's Chris Forsberg), the C's can only hope that whatever voodoo Brad Stevens does so well will hold up long enough to keep this club competitive.
That being said, Ainge has to be pleased with what he's seen from his team's wily, young roster. You won't see a star emerge from the likes of Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger and Avery Bradley, though those guys could constitute the core of a solid supporting cast once the Celtics get their franchise point guard back.
And, perhaps, once they pick up another big piece in next year's draft.
As long as we're on the topic of middling teams awaiting the return of incumbent superstars, why not pop in to see what the Los Angeles Lakers (i.e. Boston's historic rivals) are up to these days?
Just don't expect him to go for 81 points again. As he told the attendant media after the Lakers' practice on Thursday (via Lakers.com's Trevor Wong):
My sea legs aren’t there yet. The pull up jump shots and the fadeaways, my sea legs aren’t quite there yet to be able to do that. We have to see how it feels tonight. I’m going to try and get in another hard session in. Tomorrow morning I’ll try to push it again and same thing tomorrow evening. Just continue to keep on measuring it.
Until then, he'll have little choice but to watch the likes of Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Shawne Williams and Xavier Henry jack up jumpers against the Kings in Sacramento.
Which might not be so bad, if L.A.'s 9-9 record against the NBA's fourth-toughest schedule is any indication.
Just when the New Orleans Pelicans were finally getting their act together, Anthony Davis succumbed to a hand injury against the New York Knicks. With Davis now sidelined for four to six weeks with a fracture of his fifth metacarpal, the Pellies will have to lean all the more heavily on the likes of Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon to step up their respective games.
Those three have done remarkably well to make up for Davis' absence so far. Anderson went for 31 and 36 points against the Knicks and the Chicago Bulls, respectively; Gordon went for 23-7-3 with three steals in the Windy City; and Holiday tallied 26 points and nine assists in a three-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
As good as those three may be on offense, New Orleans' defense is bound to suffer in a big way without Davis' long arms around to swat shots. Even if Davis comes back on the shorter end of his projected timetable, his absence figures to be enough to seal the Pellies' fate as a lottery team in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
To be sure, Gasol's absence was entirely to blame for Memphis' 101-81 wipeout at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night. The Grizz held the Clips to just 30 points in the paint, while Kosta Koufos chipped in a Gasol-like 17 points and nine rebounds starting next to Zach Randolph.
Z-Bo, though, just isn't the same guy without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year by his side. According to NBA.com, Randolph has shot better than 51 percent when sharing the floor with Gasol this season, as opposed to a shade over 43 percent without him.
It's no wonder, then, that Randolph managed just 12 points on 4-of-13 shooting—with seven turnovers, no less—against L.A. If the Grizz are going to hold their ground without Gasol, they'll need better play than that from their pudgy pivot.
Winning without Derrick Rose will be a tough task for the Chicago Bulls, but so far, they've largely proved equal to the task. The Bulls bookended narrow defeats to the Cavs and the Pelicans with 20-point blowouts against the Pistons and the Miami Heat.
This team still has an excellent frontcourt on which to lean, between Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, who combined for 64 points, 29 rebounds and nine assists against Miami. Once Jimmy Butler returns from his current case of turf toe, Tom Thibodeau will have one more productive, tough-minded guard to whom he can turn in times of need.
And if the Bulls hang on to make the playoffs—which they should, given how bad the East is and how experienced they are at winning games without D-Rose—they may yet be made in the spring.
"I mean, if I'm healthy, and the situation is right, I'm going to be back playing," Rose said at a press conference prior to Chicago's latest win (via Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick). "If I'm healthy, and my meniscus is fully healed, of course I'll be out there playing. But if it's something totally different, and the outcome is not how I would want it to be, there's no need."
It might be a good thing that the Minnesota Timberwolves got smoked out of their matchup with the San Antonio Spurs in Mexico City on Wednesday. The T-Wolves have been struggling of late, losing four of their last five and seven out of 10 since their 6-3 start.
A game against the Spurs would've only added to that misery—not that the schedule gets much easier for Minny.
The T-Wolves' schedule for the week ahead features a home game against the Miami Heat, a road date opposite the surging Detroit Pistons, a return to Minneapolis to take on the scrappy Sixers and a trip down to the Alamo City.
Stretches like these can make or break a team's playoff hopes, particularly in a conference as crowded with quality squads as the West is right now. This isn't to suggest that the T-Wolves are doomed to yet another trip to the lottery if this week doesn't pan out well for them, though a few wins wouldn't hurt.
If you didn't know that Andre Drummond was well on his way to NBA stardom, you sure should now. In his last three games, the second-year stud out of UConn has averaged 21.7 points, 18.7 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 3.3 steals, bolstered in large part by a 31-point, 19-rebound, six-steal, two-block masterpiece against the Sixers.
Coincidentally (or not), the Detroit Pistons are on a three-game winning streak, despite the fact that Drummond is still shooting under 40 percent from the free-throw line.
Remember, folks: This kid just turned 20 this past August. He's got plenty of time to figure out how to shoot stationary 16-footers.
And develop a dominant post game, for that matter.
No conversation about young, up-and-coming teams in the Eastern Conference would be complete without at least a nod to the Washington Wizards. They've won five out of their last six games and seven of nine dating back to mid-November to even their record at 9-9 and move into the fifth spot in the East.
This also all happened despite the absence of Bradley Beal, who's missed Washington's last five games with a stress injury in his leg. It certainly helps that Trevor Ariza has picked up the slack, with 17.8 points (.483 from three) in Beal's absence.
John Wall hasn't been too shabby, either. The 23-year-old point guard has averaged 20 points, 9.8 assists and 2.8 steals since his backcourt buddy left the lineup.
That sort of "next man up" production is the staple of any good team—the sort of team into which the Wizards are turning before our very eyes.
The Atlanta Hawks are the third-best team in the East because...well, somebody has to be, right?
To be sure, the Hawks aren't just a bunch of scrubs who wound up behind the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat by happenstance. They've got one bona fide All-Star (Al Horford), two other borderline All-Stars (Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap) and, perhaps, the most lethal three-point shooter in the NBA today (Kyle Korver).
And they apparently have a pretty good head coach in former San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer. The Hawks came within a clutch jumper from Tim Duncan of going to overtime against Budenholzer's old club, and followed up that effort by handling the Los Angeles Clippers, 107-97.
The Hawks are hardly contending material in the Eastern Conference, but snagging a three seed the season after parting ways with Josh Smith ain't half bad.
Even if the East is mostly garbage.
If the Phoenix Suns were in the East, they'd be ahead of Atlanta in the race for that No. 3 seed right about now. Instead, they're stuck in ninth place in the Western Conference, a game back of the Golden State Warriors. Hence, the decision by the Suns' social media staff to piggyback off the Portland Trail Blazers' good-natured Twitter ribbing of the Eastern Conference.
But if Phoenix is going to spend its time and energy on anything via the Internet, it should take up a concerted campaign to get Eric Bledsoe into the 2014 All-Star Game. Bledsoe's overall numbers (18.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.6 steals) aren't on that level just yet, though those from his most recent outing in a win over the Houston Rockets (20 points, seven assists, three rebounds, two steals and a block) point to a player who will be there soon enough.
The Dallas Mavericks have a habit of playing close games, to say the least. They've already been involved in 14 games decided by single digits, with an 8-6 record therein.
It's all well and good that the Mavs are pulling these ones out more often than not—as well they should, with a pair of crunch-time killers in Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis.
But one can't help but wonder about Dallas' long-term prospects if they need heroic efforts just to overcome the Bobcats and the Anthony Davis-less Pelicans. Then again, it's not as though many (if any) had pegged the Mavs for Western Conference finalists. So long as they make the playoffs, which they're on track to do at the moment, this season will likely be looked upon as a success in Big D.
The Los Angeles Clippers can take heart in their 20-point pounding of the rival Memphis Grizzlies.
They needed a win like this, after barely escaping Sacramento and suffering back-to-back losses to Indiana and Atlanta. They needed a strong result to serve reminder that this team is talented, even if they're not quite in the championship conversation just yet.
Sure, the Grizz were without Marc Gasol once again, but it's not as though the Clips are exactly whole. They're missing J.J. Redick's sharp three-point shot on account of a busted wrist.
Then again, this team isn't one to weep after losing a player like Redick. If there's any position at which the Clips can afford an injury, it's at shooting guard, where the reliable Willie Green and the scores-in-bunches Jamal Crawford complete the depth chart.
The Clips could feasibly sweep through this eastward swing unscathed. Fatigue may be an issue at certain stops, but if this team can keep its wits about it, L.A. can seize this opportunity to solidify its standing in the Western Conference.
Chatter about the Houston Rockets has thus far focused on the contributions of Dwight Howard to a team that was ostensibly James Harden's, but if their recent games are any indication, we might do well to look more closely at the contributions of the supporting cast.
Jeremy Lin's been out for pretty much the last five games with a knee injury. Chandler Parson's back has given him fits through the last two. Omer Asik sat out the last one with a thigh contusion.
You can probably figure out, then, how the Rockets managed to lose at Utah and at home against the Suns. Both have recently welcomed back their young point guards and are playing better as a result.
On the flip side, Houston is wiling away without three of its five most important players. Harden and Howard are elite talents, but they can't transform the Rockets into championship material on their own. They're going to need their supporting cast intact.
Which might be difficult if Kevin McHale insists that the Rockets keep pace with their own uptempo style.
You can forgive the Denver Nuggets for their recent loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, if you're among those who expect the Cavs to improve and crack the Eastern Conference playoff picture at some point this season.
Even more so when you consider that Andrew Bynum's been on a good run.
Either way, don't let that result dissuade you from taking into account the seven-game winning streak that preceded it. Four of those games were decided by double digits, including W's against the Bulls and the Mavs.
Nobody's about to put the Nuggets in the realistic running for the 2014 title. But this squad still has good players, even after losing Andre Iguodala (to the Warriors), Kosta Koufos (to the Grizzlies), Danilo Gallinari (to a knee injury) and JaVale McGee (to a left leg injury). Those on hand—particularly Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and Timofey Mozgov—are only getting better together.
We're not talkin' conference finals with this crew, but a playoff series win isn't out of the question by any means.
Not bad after the summer this team recently endured.
You could nitpick the Golden State Warriors if you wanted to. You could point disapprovingly at the porous defense the Dubs played in surrendering 113 points to Sacramento and 102 to Toronto.
But then you'd be missing the fun that the Warriors have put together on the other end. You'd be ignoring the 64 points for which Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined against the Kings. You wouldn't be enjoying the epic comeback Golden State staged from 27 down against the Raptors.
This team needs Andre Iguodala back in the fold to be considered a legitimate championship contender. This team needs his passing, his scoring, his rebounding, his ball-handling and his ball-hawking defense to fill in the gaps and fortify its foundation.
In the meantime, though, it can survive just fine with largely the same crew that nearly cracked the Western Conference Finals this past spring. Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry may be gone, but Andrew Bogut is healthy and the Dubs' bench hasn't been too shabby.
More importantly, the trio of Curry, Thompson and Harrison Barnes is getting better by the week—individually and as a unit—because that's what young stars like these guys usually do in the NBA.
I don't expect the Miami Heat to fall much further down the power rankings than they are right now, though I can't say I'd be entirely surprised if they did.
And not just because I'm the one pulling the strings.
Rather, it seems that the Heat have already slipped into their usual midseason slog. In the last week alone, they've barely held off the Raptors, needed a stirring comeback just to upend the Bobcats and suffered back-to-back blowout losses to the Pistons and the Bulls.
But those two defeats came without Dwyane Wade in the lineup. And if the bad times keep rolling for much longer, LeBron James will just have to go off on his teammates again.
The last time he did, the Heat rattled off 10 straight wins.
It seems like everybody's losing to the Portland Trail Blazers these days. In that context, you can't "hate" on the Oklahoma City Thunder too much for their last loss in Rip City.
I mean, that eight-game winning streak right before has to count for something.
This team is starting to find its footing with a deeper, more versatile bench. The Thunder still deserve some questioning for not squeezing more out of the Houston Rockets for James Harden, but you can't blame GM Sam Presti entirely for his reasoning. It's all well and good to have one great player on your bench, but solid depth among reserves is important, especially when you're asking Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to do so much.
OKC may not find a single breakout star among Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and Perry Jones III. But those young guys are all proving to be solid rotation players now, which gives Scott Brooks that much more flexibility to try some different things on the court.
And (fingers crossed!) expand his team's offense beyond pick-and-rolls between Westbrook, Durant and Serge Ibaka.
If you appreciate the game of basketball and you have League Pass at your disposal, you should really be watching the San Antonio Spurs as often as you can.
Sure, there's a lot to love about their beautifully run sets, their disciplined defense and their flawlessly selfless teamwork. Their apparent commitment to doing what's best for the greater good is both inspiring and somewhat creepy.
But, really, tuning into San Antonio nowadays is all about watching the final sky-crossing flares of the Tim Duncan comet.
Though, the word "flares" doesn't really do him justice. Check his last three games from San Antonio's last three games: 19-9-2 with a steal and a block at Orlando; 20-8-3 with a steal and blocks against Houston; 23-21-2 with a steal, two blocks and a game-winner opposite Atlanta.
The Big Fundamental can't come out in full force as consistently or quite as strongly as he did in his heyday. Still, it wouldn't be off base to suggest that there's still some "vintage Duncan" left in Timmy's 37-year-old body.
Let's do a quick rundown of some characteristics of a superstar-caliber player and see if Paul George fits the bill.
Top 10 in two or more major statistical categories? Fourth in scoring (24.6). Sixth in steals (2.2).
Comes through in the clutch? I mean, I know it's one game, but did you see the shots he hit down the stretch against Portland?!
Is the best player on a solid-to-strong playoff team? Absolutely. He's soon to get paid like one, too.
Will be in the running for multiple major awards, including spots in the All-Star game and on All-NBA and All-Defensive teams? He was last year (in the latter three categories, anyway) and has been leaps and bounds better this year.
Truth be told, it's not at all far-fetched to say that Paul George is one of the four-to-five best players in basketball right now. And he's only 23, which means he's only going to get better!
Don't count me among those who think the Portland Trail Blazers will have top billing in the Western Conference at season's end. I love watching their offense, with the low-post play of LaMarcus Aldridge; the pick-and-roll game of Aldridge and Damian Lillard; and the flurry of three-pointers from Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright.
But I worry about their defense (22nd in efficiency), particularly their play on the glass (23rd in defensive rebounding percentage) and their inability to force turnovers (29th in opponent turnover rate).
That being said, there's no denying that Portland has the most impressive resume in the NBA to date. They've won eight games by double digits, they've already racked up victories against the Spurs, the Pacers and the Thunder, and their only losses have come against solid squads (Houston and twice to Phoenix).
Also, Aldridge looks ready to fill the "best power forward on the planet" vacuum, if his 38-point explosion against OKC's strong defensive front is any hint.
I'd still take San Antonio, OKC and (perhaps) Golden State over the long haul. At the moment, though, let's give Rip City its due and leave the door open just in case this team, with its deeper bench and much-improved chemistry, turns out to be the real deal.
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