NBA Power Rankings: Who's Climbing, Who's Falling at Quarter-Season Mark?

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterDecember 13, 2013

NBA Power Rankings: Who's Climbing, Who's Falling at Quarter-Season Mark?

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    In putting together this week's edition of my NBA power rankings, I couldn't help but be reminded of Shel Silverstein's "Falling Up."

    For those of you who are unfamiliar with the classic children's poem and/or for whom 12 lines of verse qualify as tl;dr material, here's a quick synopsis: It's about someone who falls up instead of down.

    What does any of this have to do with figuring out how the league's hierarchy has changed since last week?

    Well, between injury-related struggles among some of the second- and third-tier squads in the Western Conference and the mess that remains in the East outside of the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat, arranging all 30 teams in a reasonable order has become a rather murky endeavor, particularly in the NBA's muddled middle.

    It's to the point where I felt at times as though some teams were "falling up" these here rankings. 

    But before we get too wrapped up in metaphors here, let's go ahead and see what's become of the league-wide totem pole at the quarter-season mark.

    (For you pop-music buffs out there, feel free to do so while blasting Beyonce's surprise album into your ears.)

30. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Milwaukee Bucks fans haven't had much to cheer about this season, what with their hopes for another fringe playoff push crashing and burning from the get-go and all.

    But rather than pile onto Milwaukee's misery, let's take a moment to accentuate perhaps the only real positive in Brew City these days: Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    The 18-year-old rookie (19 on Dec. 16) with the name that's nearly impossible to spell is starting to see some minutes amid the flaming heap of garbage into which this team has devolved. In his most recent outing, the "Greek Freak" tallied career highs in points (15), rebounds (eight) and minutes (33), in addition to two steals and a block.

    Granted, the Bucks were blown out by the San Antonio Spurs in that game, 109-77, and much of Giannis' opportunity has sprung from Caron Butler's injury-related absence. But that doesn't mean we should fault the kid for making the most of his opportunity here.

    And really, how could you not root for him? He's the youngest player in the NBA, he'd never tasted shrimp before he arrived stateside (and not because he kept kosher), he's already a physical specimen and he's still growing!

    That is a crazy thought because, well, LOOK AT HIS HANDS!!!

29. Utah Jazz

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    Is it too soon to start thinking of Richard Jefferson as something more than just another salary-cap casualty?

    The one-time New Jersey Nets mainstay is putting together something of a career renaissance with the Utah Jazz this season. Jefferson's not only played in all 24 of Utah's games this season; he's started every single one, with 12 double-digit scoring efforts therein.

    That includes a 20-point outburst in the Jazz's most recent result—a 122-101 blowout of the reset Sacramento Kings.

    Granted, Jefferson isn't exactly taking the Association by storm. He's shooting a near-career-low 41.7 percent from the floor, and the Jazz are markedly better on both ends when he sits, per NBA.com.

    In that regard, though, Jefferson is exactly what the Jazz need: a veteran who's been a part of winning situations throughout his career, a consummate professional who puts up passable numbers and a guy who, at the end of the day, will make Utah stink just enough to secure itself a prime prospect in the loaded 2014 draft.

28. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Don't look now, but the Philadelphia 76ers are settling into their long-term tank-a-thon as expected. They've strung together three separate four-game skids (including their current one) since mid-November, with but two wins keeping those downturns from connecting during that time.

    As it happens, Philly's most recent slide has coincided with the absence of Michael Carter-Williams, who's been out of commission with soreness in his knee stemming from a skin infection, per Bob Cooney of The Philadelphia Daily News.

    The good news: MCW's situation is under control, meaning the Rookie of the Year front-runner should be back in action soon. In the meantime, Sixers fans can continue to enjoy the eye-opening play of Tony Wroten, who's posted three 20-point performances in his last four starts as Carter-Williams' replacement.

27. Orlando Magic

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    The Sixers aren't the only presumed tankers who've hit the skids of late.

    The Orlando Magic are getting in on the action as well. A nine-point road win over the Charlotte Bobcats merely stemmed the bleeding from what had been a six-game losing streak that dropped the Magic within two games of last place in the Eastern Conference.

    The whole team probably enjoyed the brief respite from the expected misery that a victory in the Queen City provided, though none more so then Glen Davis. "Big Baby" celebrated the "W" by getting up close and personal with Fox Sports Florida's Dante Marchitelli in one of the strangest postgame interviews you'll see this side of a Chris Bosh video-bomb.

    Must be something in the water down in the Sunshine State...

26. Sacramento Kings

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    Rejoice, Sacramento Kings fans! Rudy Gay's set to make his debut in purple on Friday against the Phoenix Suns, according to Kings coach Mike Malone.

    Then again, Sacramento's colors might not suit Gay so well. The last time we saw Gay in purple, he was still clanking bad shots off the iron and leaving some (i.e. yours truly) to question the efficacy of LASIK.

    Perhaps a second change of scenery in less than a year will bring clarity to Rudy's game. The Kings certainly have to hope so; they owe him the remainder of his $17.9 million salary for this season and will probably have to shell out another $19.3 million to him in 2014-15, assuming he opts into the final year of his current contract.

    And with two other high-usage stars (DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas) already in the starting lineup, the rest of Sacramento's roster had better kiss the ball goodbye. 

25. Toronto Raptors

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    Back in Canada, the Toronto Raptors are rejoicing now that Rudy Gay's no longer around to scold them for staring at stat sheets in the locker room. Nobody seems to be savoring the new status quo in Toronto more, though, than Terrence Ross and Amir Johnson.

    The former makes perfect sense. Ross was essentially buried on Dwane Casey's depth chart under the weight of Gay, DeMar DeRozan and Landry Fields.

    With Gay gone and Fields showing himself to be quite clearly inferior to the 22-year-old, Ross is just starting to settle in as a regular member of the Raptors rotation. He put up 11 points in 28 minutes off the bench in T-Dot's first game without Rudy (a road win over the Los Angeles Lakers) and followed that up with 14 points in 38 minutes during his first start of the season (a loss to the San Antonio Spurs).

    But Amir Johnson has been the real eye-opener for the Raps. He stuffed the stat sheet with a career-high 32 points on 14-of-17 from the field in L.A. and followed that up with 19 points and nine rebounds at San Antonio's expense.

    Sounds to me like a classic case of "addition by subtraction."

24. New York Knicks

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    Two steps forward and one step back sure beat slinking around the NBA's cellar for the New York Knicks.

    They one-upped themselves the day after their 30-point blowout of the Brooklyn Nets by mauling the Magic by a whopping 38 at Madison Square Garden.

    But in predictable Knicks fashion, they seemed to give away all that positive progress by putting themselves on the wrong end of consecutive stompings at the feet of the Boston Celtics (by 41) and the Cleveland Cavaliers (by 15).

    It's a good thing for all involved that the Chicago Bulls are struggling to the extent that they are. Otherwise, New York probably would've wound up on the losing end after surrendering what had been a 23-point advantage to a shorthanded Chicago squad.

    Good thing Tyson Chandler's due back soon. According to Newsday's Al Iannazzone, the former All-Star center expects to be back in action before the year is out.

    And not a moment too soon, either. He could find himself with a newer, feistier partner at point guard by the time he gets back if the Knicks up their offer for Toronto's Kyle Lowry, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.

23. Chicago Bulls

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    I've long been reluctant to endorse the idea of the Chicago Bulls scrapping their squad and retooling in time for Derrick Rose's next return, but I fear I may be turning. 

    Chicago's three-game slide has served as a reminder that its injury woes aren't limited to Rose's surgically repaired knees.

    Luol Deng, who's borne an impossible burden for Tom Thibodeau in recent years, is dealing with discomfort in his left leg between his Achilles and his calf. Jimmy Butler, Deng's presumed replacement, beat Lu to the punch, with a toe injury that's had the young swingman on the shelf since mid-November.

    Throw in Joakim Noah's usual bouts with his own body—and GM Gar Forman's desperate move to pluck D.J. Augustin off the waiver wire—and the Bulls are right where they should be, at 8-12.

    That's good enough to crack the playoffs in the awful East. Still, the Bulls can't simply ignore the health histories of their core players and hope that one of these years they'll all dodge the injury bug long enough to compete for a championship.

    I'm not advocating that Chicago slam the "reset" button just yet, though if the team continues its current descent into mediocrity, the powers that be in the Windy City would do well to at least entertain the idea of dumping salary (a huge plus for Bulls owner and noted spendthrift Jerry Reinsdorf) and scrounging up some valuable assets in return.

22. Brooklyn Nets

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    Would you look at that? The Brooklyn Nets are getting their act together.

    Their 102-93 win over the Los Angeles Clippers was Brooklyn's third in a row since a 30-point loss to the Knicks, and a coaching controversy between Jason Kidd and Lawrence Frank seemed to submarine the Nets' season in early December.

    Perhaps the decision by Kidd to squash any insubordination from his top assistant has had some positive effect on the Nets' performance.

    But really, Brooklyn's recent turnaround is all about improved health. Its 5-14 flub out of the gate had everything to do with injuries to five of the team's top seven players (i.e. Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, Andrei Kirilenko).

    The former three are back in action, while the latter two should return in due course. Health will never not be a concern for these old, expensive Nets, but if they can keep their big names fit, this team should have every opportunity to come together as a whole and creep back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture. 

21. Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Los Angeles Lakers can certainly empathize with the Bulls right now, especially at the point guard position.

    According to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Steve Blake is the latest casualty among L.A.'s floor generals, with a torn ligament in his right elbow that'll keep him sidelined for at least six weeks.

    That leaves the Lakers without a single healthy point guard of record on the roster; Steve Nash has been out since mid-November with nerve root irritation in his back, and Jordan Farmar is working his way back from a slight hamstring tear.

    In the meantime, it looks like the Lakers will have no choice but to turn to Kobe Bryant to orchestrate Mike D'Antoni's offense. The Black Mamba tallied double-digit assists on 11 different occasions last season while filling in for the oft-injured Nash.

    Trouble is, Kobe should be easing his way back into the action after spending nearly eight months rehabbing from a torn Achilles tendon. Instead, he'll be called upon to rescue the Lakers, victims of back-to-back bad home losses upon the Mamba's return, from what figures to be a rough stretch of six road games in their next seven outings.

    Beginning with a visit to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.

    Eek!

20. Boston Celtics

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    Another week has come and gone, and the Boston Celtics are still in the driver's seat in the Atlantic Division.

    That may not last long, though. The C's dropped their two legs of the Doc Rivers-Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce-Boston triad reunion. One of those losses came to a Nets team that's starting to play some better ball now that Deron Williams and Pierce are back in action.

    And the Knicks, while still pitiful, should have Tyson Chandler back in their employ in relatively short order.

    Moreover, with the trade market heating up around the Association, the Celtics could soon find themselves slinging some of their salary-cap flotsam in exchange for other rebuilding assets as the gravitational pull of the 2014 draft lottery takes its toll.

19. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    It was only a matter of time before Kyrie Irving hit his stride in year three. After holding his own against Chris Paul and torching the Knicks for 37 points and 11 assists, the Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star point guard appears to be back on track.

    Not surprisingly then, the Cavs have won four of their last five to move within a half-game of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. 

    Luckily for Cleveland, Kyrie hasn't had to do it all by himself. The frontcourt trio of Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson is putting up solid numbers as a collective, Jarrett Jack is settling in as Irving's backup and Dion Waiters (30 points versus the Atlanta Hawks) has shown just how explosive he can be off the bench.

    If only Mike Brown could get this group to win some games outside of Rock City (1-10 on the road this season), the Cavs might soon find themselves on the verge of their first post-LeBron James playoff berth.

18. Charlotte Bobcats

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    The fact that the Charlotte Bobcats' fourth-ranked defense was able to garner a close inspection from Grantland NBA guru Zach Lowe is reason enough to believe that Michael Jordan's future Hornets are making significant progress, even if much of it is all too easy to pick apart.

    Not that the Bobcats have to read Lowe's brilliant breakdown to understand where their strengths and weaknesses lie on the defensive end. They need only look to the Indiana Pacers, against whom Charlotte will be competing on Friday night, to get a glimpse of what a truly elite defense looks like.

    The 'Cats have a long way to go before they can so much as sniff Indy's level of competence on either side of the court. In the meantime, though, it's hard to argue with a team that's currently 10-12, with close losses to the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks and wins over the Sixers and the Golden State Warriors in its recent past.

    Especially when said team scrounged up just 21 victories in 2012-13.

17. Memphis Grizzlies

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    In theory, a potential trade involving Zach Randolph and Ryan Anderson (per Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling) makes a ton of sense for the Memphis Grizzlies. They rank at or near the bottom of the league in just about every statistical category pertaining to three-point shooting and have just lost Quincy Pondexter, one of their few long-range threats, to a stress fracture in his right foot.

    In Anderson, the Grizz would be getting a guy whose three-point percentage (.477) and frequency of attempts (8.4 per game) make him highly valuable as a floor-stretching power forward next to Marc Gasol.

    But Gasol's still sidelined by a sprained knee ligament, and Memphis' frontcourt depth has been further depleted by Ed Davis' bum ankle. Dumping the 32-year-old Z-Bo's onerous salary might be a smart move in theory, but the guy's an integral part of this team's "grit-n-grind" identity.

    And it's not as though an aging and expensive power forward would be all that appealing to what the Pelicans are trying to do.

    The Grizz are right to test the market in light of three double-digit losses to Western Conference powers in their last four outings. But Memphis might do well to sit tight until Gasol, the team's best and most important player, returns to action before the front office slams on the panic button.

16. Detroit Pistons

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    The frontcourt trio of Andre Drummond, Josh Smith and Greg Monroe has soaked up the spotlight for the Detroit Pistons this season—Drummond for the good publicity, Smith for the bad and Monroe as the subject of just about every Motor City-centric trade rumor.

    But it may be high time to turn our attention toward the team's true X-factor: Brandon Jennings.

    The 24-year-old point guard has been struggling with his shot (.404 from the field) and his handle (3.7 turnovers) on one end and with staying in front of opposing floor generals on the other end. Detroit's last two games have been witness to Jennings getting torched by Ricky Rubio and Jrue Holiday for a combined 34 points and 17 assists.

    Jennings' D has been so deplorable, in fact, that Pistons head coach Maurice Cheeks felt the need to challenge his point guard in public. As he told NBA.com's Fran Blinebury, in response to the suggestion that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope might get the call to defend Detroit's ball-handling antagonists:

    Yeah he’d be up for the challenge. But if you’re going to be good, and I’m going to say this again, a good point guard, I don’t like the word ‘hide’. I want the guy who’s guarding the ball, who’s running my team, to guard that guy, if you’re going to be good.

    Luckily for Jennings, Cheeks still has faith in his ability to improve on the defensive end:

    I think Jennings has a chance to be very good. I keep talking about steps. You take steps, you get better at defending your position. That’s how you become one of those elite players. You don’t become elite by having someone else guard your guy.

    We'll soon see if Cheeks is right to trust Jennings, with tilts against the Nets (Deron Williams) and the Portland Trail Blazers (Damian Lillard) on the docket.

15. Washington Wizards

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    Close losses to the Bucks and the Denver Nuggets have served to highlight just how much the Washington Wizards need their ever-growing contingent of walking wounded to heal up.

    Nene (right foot tendinitis) and Martell Webster (sprained left ankle) have recently joined Bradley Beal (sore right leg) and Al Harrington (right knee surgery). The former two should be back in relatively short order, while Beal is making significant strides toward his eventual return, according to Michael Lee of The Washington Post

    The sooner those guys can play, the better. The Wizards may not be able to scrape by on the strength of John Wall, Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat if they're to survive an upcoming stretch of six road games in eight outings before the calendar turns to 2014.

14. New Orleans Pelicans

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    If I'm New Orleans Pelicans GM Dell Demps, I won't be parting ways with Ryan Anderson unless I can get significantly more in return than just, say, Omer Asik or Zach Randolph.

    Anderson's playing the best ball of his career right now, with personal bests in points (21.7), field-goal percentage (.455), three-point percentage (.477), field-goal attempts (16.4) and minutes (35.5). He isn't and will never be the sort of all-around impact player that Anthony Davis is, least of all on the defensive end.

    But Anderson's hot shooting has almost single-handedly kept the Pellies afloat since Davis went down against the Knicks on Dec. 1. They'd do well to hang on to him for a while if they truly intend to compete for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

    And if someone comes along and makes Demps a "Godfather offer" for Anderson, one that either doesn't include a cap-clogging salary and/or is sweetened by picks and cheap prospects, then he can always pull the trigger at that point in time.

13. Atlanta Hawks

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    No offense to Kyle Korver, but there's no clearer indication of just how average the Atlanta Hawks have been in 2013-14 than the fact that their season has been defined by an NBA-record streak of consecutive games with a made three-pointer by one of their role players.

    That being said, the Hawks have been competitive throughout, with recent wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and the Cavs and narrow defeats to the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder on their resume.

    Paul Millsap's productivity (16.5 points, 7.9 rebounds) and cap-friendly contract give Atlanta an intriguing piece to sling into potential upgrade trades once Dec. 15 comes and goes.

    And with a fairly favorable schedule upcoming (four home games in their next five, with a trip to MSG to play the Knicks mixed in), the Hawks might finally find some solid footing above .500 before 2013 comes to a close.

12. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    What better way for a Western Conference club to get its groove back than by taking down a pair of middling Eastern Conference opponents?

    The Minnesota Timberwolves would likely agree. With Kevin Love back in the lineup after attending to a death in the family, the T-Wolves promptly put together their first sweep of a back-to-back this season, thanks in large part to the giving spirit of the Pistons and the Sixers.

    If Love (consecutive games of at least 26-15-5) and Ricky Rubio (18-4.5-8 with 47.6 percent shooting from the field in his last two) can keep up their stellar play in tandem, Minny may yet escape its upcoming stretch of five out of six games on the road with its playoff hopes intact. 

11. Dallas Mavericks

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    For better or worse, the Dallas Mavericks have been party to more games decided by three points or fewer than any other team in the NBA.

    This past week was a perfect example of what each side of that coin can offer the Mavs. On one hand, there was Monta Ellis' buzzer-beater to upend the scorching-hot Portland Trail Blazers in Rip City. On the other hand, there was Stephen Curry's dagger to down Dallas in Oakland.

    (We won't dig into the 15-point slip-up in Sacramento.)

    Normally, teams that subject themselves to so many nail-biters could be said to be playing with fire. But with end-of-clock shot-creators like Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki on their side, the Mavs can stride into every close contest with confidence.

    Though, truth be told, they'd be better off if they could put their opponents away a bit earlier.

10. Golden State Warriors

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    Stephen Curry's aforementioned game-winner against the Mavs moved the Golden State Warriors to an even 5-5 since Andre Iguodala's hamstring first strained. The Dubs should be pleased that Iggy is so eager to return, per the Associated Press (via USA today), even if they don't intend to allow him to rush back.

    In truth, Golden State could use him in the lineup right about now. The Warriors' upcoming schedule borders on brutal, with six of their next eight against teams currently in the Western Conference playoff picture and their only respites against the Pelicans and the Lakers.

    Worse still, the injury bug has yet to vacate Golden State's locker room. Jermaine O'Neal (wrist) will be the next key contributor to go inactive, per Warriors beat reporter Marcus Thompson, thereby leaving the Dubs dangerously thin up front behind Andrew Bogut and David Lee.

9. Phoenix Suns

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    So far, so good for the Eric Bledsoe-Goran Dragic Backcourt Spectacular. Those two have been on fire of late, combining for an average of better than 39 points per game during the Phoenix Suns' current three-game winning streak.

    They're not the only duo that's thriving and driving the Suns' recent success. The Morris twins (Marcus and Markieff) have begun to hit their stride, with upward of 29 points per game between them over the same aforementioned span.

    Those trends may not hold over the long haul, and Phoenix's defense is already slipping toward the middle of the pack. But for now, there's plenty to like about this plucky, pace-pushing bunch whether the Suns hang around the playoff picture in the weeks and months to come or not.

8. Denver Nuggets

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    The Denver Nuggets' last two wins are reasons enough for Brian Shaw to count himself among the fortunate ones for the depth on his bench. Those victories, against the Sixers and the Wizards, both came without Ty Lawson, who strained his left hamstring in a loss to the Celtics.

    Thankfully, Andre Miller and Nate Robinson were ready, willing and able to step in for their fallen teammate. The former tallied 12 assists between those two W's, while the latter made up for Lawson's scoring with a total of 36 points off the bench.

    That arrangement may work well against middling Eastern Conference competition and should suffice against the Jazz on Friday. But don't expect the Nuggets to finish 2013 in style without their borderline All-Star point guard back in action.

    Denver will play its last eight games of the year against teams that currently own records of .500 or better.

7. Los Angeles Clippers

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    A six-game East Coast swing has been none too kind to the Los Angeles Clippers. Sure, their wins over the Grizzlies, the Sixers and the C's (in Doc Rivers' return to Boston) are respectable enough.

    But for a team that fancies itself a championship contender, losses to the Hawks, the Cavs and the Nets are nothing if not worrisome. 

    The 102-93 defeat in Brooklyn was particularly disconcerting. L.A. fell behind by as many as 23 points in the fourth quarter after building up a 12-point lead in the opening frame. A poor scoring night from the frontcourt combo of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (18 points on 4-of-11 shooting) didn't help.

    Neither did the lack of a three-point threat between Jared Dudley and new signee Stephen Jackson (a combined 1-of-7 from long range). Those two have struggled to compensate for the prolonged absence of J.J. Redick (wrist).

    It's a good thing Chris Paul is still playing like an MVP and Jamal Crawford like the Sixth Man of the Year. The Clips should also be pleased that they'll be returning to Staples Center next week after a long, grueling road trip.

    Otherwise, L.A.'s straits would likely be much more dire at the approach of the new year. 

6. Houston Rockets

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    The Houston Rockets weren't able to duplicate on Thursday night the success they enjoyed during their first visit to the Moda Center this season. This time around, they slunk away from Rip City with a 111-104 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

    Not that there's any shame in doing so. The Indiana Pacers, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs have all succumbed to similar fates in attempting to tackle the Blazers in their own building.

    That said, the Rockets' inability to get stops down the stretch when they needed them was troubling, even when taking into account the sheer efficiency of Portland's top-ranked offense. The Blazers scored on six of their seven possessions between the four-minute mark and the one-minute mark of the fourth quarter, with the final four coming on layups and/or free throws.

    Championship-caliber teams don't let that happen, certainly not as easily as Houston did.

    Don't get me wrong: The Rockets are close to that particular conversation and are getting closer week by week. For now, though, they'll have to settle for being the "best of the rest," at least until Dwight Howard and James Harden start to pick up their effort on the defensive end. 

5. Miami Heat

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    It's still way too early to worry about the Miami Heat. They've lost three of their last five games, but two of those defeats came without Dwyane Wade, while the third was suffered against the league-leading Indiana Pacers.

    The result of the return leg of Miami's December dance with Indy may be more indicative of where the former stands in its pursuit of a three-peat. The Heat will host the Pacers in South Beach on Dec. 18 in the same building where Indy's hopes of sneaking into the 2013 NBA Finals were snuffed out in a 99-76 win for the now-two-time defending champs.

    The Heat have yet to beat an elite team this season—unless you count the Clippers in that category. Surely, they could use a marquee win at some point, if only to reassert themselves as the team to beat.

    Then again, it's not as though anyone's yet forgotten who won the last two titles...

4. San Antonio Spurs

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    As for the team that nearly beat the Heat in the 2013 Finals, the San Antonio Spurs haven't exactly come out swingin' against top competition either. Their 111-100 loss to the Indiana Pacers last weekend dropped the Spurs to 0-4 against teams whose win-loss records currently place them among the six most successful in the NBA so far this season.

    Of course, honing in on that clump of negativity ignores the fact that those are San Antonio's only four losses of the season. On the whole, the Spurs are doing just fine, thanks.

    Their plus-10 average point differential is the best in basketball, they're the only club other than Miami that can count itself among the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency (per NBA.com), and, most importantly, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are averaging well under 30 minutes per game.

    Tony Parker, for his part, is playing just a shade over 30 a night.

    Like Miami, San Antonio is much more concerned with keeping its guys fresh for another deep playoff run than it is with making statements during the regular season. Losing to really good teams means not that the Spurs can't hang with the cream of the crop anymore, but rather that the Spurs, like everyone else, aren't invincible.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    In case you hadn't noticed, the Oklahoma City Thunder are the hottest thing going in the NBA right now. They've won four in a row, including a 24-point pounding of the Indiana Pacers on Dec. 8., and 11 of 12, with a seven-point loss in Portland as the lone blip therein.

    A blip that, given the Trail Blazers' success, is hardly cause for alarm.

    Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are doing what Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook usually do (i.e. terrorize the opposition), the bench is still performing about as well as it ever has and the team as a whole is taking care of business on the defensive end (fifth in points per possession allowed, third in opponent effective field-goal percentage).

    All of which is pretty much on par with where the Thunder were when we checked in with them last week. Simply put, OKC is on a roll right now, albeit one that could run into some trouble with trips to Denver and San Antonio on the horizon.

2. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Is it safe to throw LaMarcus Aldridge into the MVP conversation yet?

    It certainly should be after the night he had on Thursday. The two-time All-Star amassed an impressive line of 32 points, 25 rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks to propel Portland to a 111-104 win over the visiting Rockets.

    That eye-popping evening cemented Aldridge's status as one of four players in the NBA currently averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds, along with Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and DeMarcus Cousins.

    Of course, what sets Aldridge apart is that his work has contributed significantly to a team that now owns the best record in the ultra-competitive Western Conference at 19-4. Aldridge may not be an incumbent favorite like LeBron James and Chris Paul or a flashy newcomer like Paul George.

    But at the age of 28, in the midst of his professional prime, Aldridge is no less deserving of serious recognition for playing by far the best basketball of his life.

1. Indiana Pacers

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    To be the best, you have to beat the best. For the most part, the Indiana Pacers have done that.

    They went 3-2 on their five-game tour through the Western Conference, albeit with an epic defeat in Portland and a blowout loss in OKC, and returned home to take down the Heat—and improve their record at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to a squeaky clean 10-0.

    That perfect mark in their own building is of particular importance to Indy. The Pacers won't soon forget the sting of getting stomped on the road in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. So far, they seem determined to ensure that they won't have to worry about having to handle any winner-take-all scenarios in less-than-friendly confines.

    And soon enough, they'll have another key piece at their disposal to help them build on the best record in the NBA. Danny Granger is inching ever closer to making his season debut after suffering through a calf injury; though, according to Curt Cavin of USA Today, that won't come until Dec. 16 against Detroit at the earliest.

    Regardless of the delay, that means the Pacers will soon add a former All-Star and career 18-point-per-game scorer to a team that's already in the thick of the championship chase.

    A scary thought indeed for any team that doesn't call the Circle City home.

     

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