The approach of the holiday season—at least that which follows Hanukkah this year—has brought with it an eventful week in the NBA.
The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers went head-to-head for the second time in eight days. Some contenders (San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers) ran into roadblocks against talented teams (Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves) hoping to make moves in 2013-14.
The Oklahoma City Thunder stayed scorching hot, while several squads (Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks, Memphis Grizzlies) slipped further toward tanking territory, wittingly or otherwise.
A pair of younger stars (Bradley Beal and Andre Iguodala) returned from injury, just in time for two of the league's biggest names (Tony Parker and Kobe Bryant) to rejoin the ranks of the walking wounded.
Naturally, there's been some noteworthy shuffling of these here power rankings since the last edition hit the virtual presses. Read on to find out how all the recent excitement has shaken up the standings that yours truly so carefully crafts each and every week.
Welcome to the bottom of the barrel, Philadelphia 76ers!
The Sixers have dropped their last seven games in a row by an average of nearly 18 points, including their last two by more than 30 points apiece. Look back a bit further, and you'll see that Philly is just 2-15 since handing the Houston Rockets a surprising loss in overtime on Nov. 13.
Not surprisingly, Michael Carter-Williams has missed 10 of those games, most notably the last seven in which the Sixers have been stomped. Perhaps Philly's just trying to boost MCW's Rookie of the Year candidacy by showing the voters just how much he means to the team.
Or, maybe the Sixers are just trying to stink up the joint on the way to a top-five pick in the loaded 2014 draft.
Yeah, probably more the latter.
It's that time again, when we seek out silver linings for the mess that most would otherwise refer to as the Milwaukee Bucks.
This week's winner? Brandon Knight. The 22-year-old combo guard out of Kentucky seems to be settling in as an intriguing part of the future in Brew City. He's failed to hit double digits in the scoring column just once since Nov. 29, averaging 16.7 points in that time.
That run includes Knight's career-high 36-point explosion during the Bucks' double-overtime loss to the New York Knicks. The fact that Knight played 50 minutes in that game may, in some ways, detract from the impact of his breakout performance.
That is, until you consider that he needed just 25 shots to rack up those 36 points.
Then again, New York playing the role of victim here is probably more damning to Brandon's personal best than anything else.
Coming into the 2013 NBA draft, there was concern in some corners that Trey Burke, at his size (generously listed at 6'0", 190 lbs) and with his so-so strength and athleticism, might not be able to cut it at basketball's highest level.
In some instances, he's performed that way. Case in point: his three-point, four-assist no-show against the Miami Heat's trapping defense in a 23-point loss for the Utah Jazz.
But by and large, Burke has been a bright spot in the lineup for the Jazz. His poor play against Miami was bookended by a 20-point, five-assist night opposite Tony Parker in a 16-point pounding at the hands of the Spurs and, most recently, a 30-7-8 outburst to propel Utah to a W in Orlando.
Don't be surprised, if/when Burke winds up firmly in the mix for Rookie of the Year honors by season's end.
Like the Sixers, the Orlando Magic are steadily making their way toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings—right where many expected them to be before the season began.
Unlike Philly, though, the Magic are doing so in more surreptitious fashion. Rather than subjecting themselves to blowout after blowout, they are, for the most part, playing hard and losing close games. They've lost nine of their last 11 games, but only three of those defeats have come by more than 10 points.
Better yet, Orlando has a potential All-Star in shooting guard Arron Afflalo to hold the attention of its tortured fanbase.
All of which is to say, when it comes to tanking, the Magic seem to have sussed out the most palatable formula.
So much for Rudy Gay's arrival ushering in better days in California's capital.
The Sacramento Kings have dropped four of their last five, with three of those losses featuring Gay in the starting lineup.
Not that Gay is to blame. He's averaging 19 points on an astonishingly efficient 52.9 percent shooting from the field since his debut at Sleep Train Arena.
The Kings' other power players also seem to be enjoying life with Gay. DeMarcus Cousins has posted 24.5 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.2 steals since the trade went down, while Isaiah Thomas has celebrated his return to the starting lineup with 22.2 points and 7.2 assists of his own.
Too bad those positives haven't translated to the defensive end just yet. According to NBA.com, the Kings have surrendered 112.8 points per 100 possessions during their first 112 minutes of on-court time together.
Even when they win, the New York Knicks find a way to lose.
They needed two overtime periods to overcome the Bucks on Wednesday—despite the return of Tyson Chandler—in large part because Andrea Bargnani's itchy trigger finger caught up to him at the end of OT No. 1, when simply holding the ball would've secured the win for New York.
On the bright side, at least that mixup didn't result in another loss for the Knicks.
The same can't be said of New York's one-point loss to the Washington Wizards on Monday. It was bad enough that the Knicks' defensive discombobulation left Beno Udrih without a helper to impede Bradley Beal's path to the basket for what turned out to be the winning layup.
New York had a foul to give if it had chosen to do so, but that wasn't even the worst of it. Rather than use one of their three remaining timeouts, the Knicks opted to push the ball up the floor...for a Carmelo Anthony brick from beyond the arc.
When a two would've won the game.
Are we sure Mike Woodson is coaching this team? Or has he ceded his post to Homer Simpson?
These numbers may interest Bulls fans: 75, 74, 78, 91, 77, 82, 94 and 95.
No, those aren't my preferred "Power Ball" numbers. Rather, those are the Chicago Bulls' scoring totals over their last eight games. Not surprisingly, the Bulls have lost even of those eight.
Simply put, Chicago's offense stinks. Generating quality looks has become a task better left to Hercules for the Bulls.
Not that this should surprise anyone. The Bulls' attack has long been unimpressive, even on those rare occasions when they've had their full complement of players.
With Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich all out of commission (the latter two more temporarily), Chicago's scoring has slowed to a pace that makes crawling look like a major leap forward in transportation.
The Brooklyn Nets' climb out of the gutter of the Eastern Conference hasn't gone quite as quickly or as smoothly as anticipated.
They've dropped two of three since their first winning streak of the season, including a six-point defeat at home to the Washington Wizards. That game saw Paul Pierce pop off for a season-high 27 points on 10-of-12 shooting off the bench.
To be sure, Brooklyn's two latest losses both come equipped with excuses. Kevin Garnett was in foul trouble all night against the Wizards, and Brook Lopez's absence cost the Nets dearly during their four-point shortfall to the Detroit Pistons.
But Brooklyn doesn't have time for excuses. The Nets are only a game back of the Toronto Raptors for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, though they'll have to leapfrog the Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers before they can stake their claim to a slice of the postseason.
There's been chatter aplenty recently about whether or not the Memphis Grizzlies should "blow it up" and...well, it's not exactly unfounded. They've lost five in a row and seven of eight, with injuries to Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter putting their season in serious peril.
Then again, it's not as though the Grizzlies were exactly gritting and grinding the NBA to a pulp prior to that run of bad luck. Their slow-paced personnel didn't jibe with the uptempo style of play that head coach Dave Joerger and the team's new-age front office clearly preferred.
Perhaps it would be in Memphis' best interest to seek out means of parlaying some of its existing assets into pieces and picks that it can use to refresh the roster around Gasol and Conley while improving its own pick in the 2014 draft.
Those aren't raindrops slowing traffic to a crawl in L.A. Rather, those are the tears of Los Angeles Lakers fans who are mourning Kobe Bryant's return to the training table.
The Black Mamba will miss six weeks after breaking a bone in his left knee during L.A.'s win over the Grizzlies in Memphis. This, after Bryant spent nearly eight months rehabbing from a torn Achilles tendon.
Kobe won't need nearly that much time to heal up this time around, but in some ways this injury is more troubling. After all, Bryant has a long and infamous history of knee problems, which have precipitated a number of trips to Germany for experimental therapy.
And then there's the not-so-small matter of how his 'mates will fare in the meantime. The Lakers will play 13 of their next 20 games on the road, including seven in a row during their annual Grammys trip.
For the time being, they'll turn to Xavier Henry and D-League signee Kendall Marshall to fill the already gaping hole at point guard while hoping that Pau Gasol and the rest of L.A.'s castoffs can rekindle the offensive magic that captivated Lakers fans prior to Bryant's return.
In other words, get well soon, Mamba.
I may be in the minority here, but can we please pump the brakes on all these suggestions that the Cleveland Cavaliers will/absolutely have to trade Dion Waiters?
I'm well aware that Waiters was reportedly at the center of a spat involving Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson that bubbled to the surface during a closed-door meeting earlier this season. And I get that he takes questionable shots at times and loafs on defense more than any coach (Mike Brown included) would find palatable.
But the guy's got a verifiable NBA skill that's tough to come by. He can score off shots that he's created for himself. He's averaged 20.7 points on 50 percent shooting over his last three games, including a 25-point outburst that single-handedly kept the Cavs within striking distance of the Portland Trail Blazers.
More importantly, Waiters just turned 22! It's way too early to give up on a player whose talents and proclivities place him somewhere on the "combo guard" spectrum between Dwyane Wade and J.R. Smith.
Waiters may have some maddening tendencies, but that doesn't mean Cleveland should send him to, say, the Sixers in exchange for Evan Turner, whose uptick in production has everything to do with his expanded opportunity in Philly and his impending foray into restricted free agency.
Remember earlier when I discussed how the Kings haven't been winning more since Rudy Gay came to town?
Well, what if I told you that the Toronto Raptors, the team that dumped Gay in Sacramento, are faring better in his absence? Would that surprise you?
My guess is, probably not. Still, the Raptors can take heart in the three wins they earned out of the four games immediately following Rudy's departure. Throw in the Kemba Walker buzzer-beater that felled Toronto in overtime against the Charlotte Bobcats, and you might even be able to say that the Raptors are now trending toward success, albeit relative to the Eastern Conference.
With Rudy out of the picture, DeMar DeRozan has begun to more closely resemble the potential All-Star that the Raptors had hoped he would be when they plucked him out of the 2009 draft with the ninth pick. Since the Gay trade, DeRozan has averaged a sturdy 23.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists and a combined 2.4 blocks and steals.
Coincidence? I think not.
If Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey had agreed to trade Omer Asik to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee and a first-round pick, as had been reported, Danny Ainge may well have wound up in line for his second Executive of the Year Award.
As it stands, he and Morey could come to such an agreement down the line. Asik would instantly become the best and most impactful center on a C's roster bereft of bigs were he to wind up in Boston before the trade deadline. Bass and Lee, who were on the Orlando Magic team that cracked the NBA Finals in 2009, would be of comfort to Dwight Howard but probably wouldn't do much to improve the Rockets on the whole.
Even without Asik, Ainge has earned serious consideration as one of the league's top front-office figures. This past summer alone, he fleeced the Brooklyn Nets for three first-round picks and the option to swap in 2017 in exchange for three aging veterans (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry) who, while enticing in name, haven't brought anything close to equal value to Brooklyn's operation.
The decision to pry Brad Stevens from the college ranks doesn't look too shabby either, what with the C's in the driver's seat in the Atlantic Division and all.
Who'd have thought that a late-December meeting between the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Bobcats could carry such intrigue?
Both teams will be looking to solidify three-game winning streaks when they meet at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Friday.
The 'Cats owe their recent success to the two things that seem to be their staples nowadays: defense and Kemba Walker's heroics.
First, Charlotte limited Sacramento to just 87 points on 37.5 percent shooting while Walker (24 points, five assists) provided much of the offensive firepower. Then, the Bobcats held the Raptors to 95 points in regulation before the UConn product punctuated his 29-point night with a game-winner.
Now, Charlotte will attempt to parlay its strengths into a W against a Pistons team whose own profile (i.e. solid offense, porous defense, tons of size and skill up front) reads like the inverse of its own.
Certainly, some more theatrics from Walker will come in handy.
Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans were impressive in their tandem return. Davis tallied 24 points and 12 rebounds, and Evans turned in a triple-double, both off the bench. But even they couldn't keep the New Orleans Pelicans from succumbing to the Los Angeles Clippers on the road.
Still, the Pellies should be pleased with where they stand now and, more importantly, where they'll likely be in the weeks and months (and years) to come.
According to NBA.com, the featured fivesome of Davis, Evans, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson has seen just 71 minutes of playing time together this season. That period, however short, has seen the Pelicans score an astonishing 125.2 points per 100 possessions with an out-of-this-world effective field-goal percentage of .577.
To be sure, the fact that this group has given up 118.6 points per possession on the other end is disconcerting, especially when considering how mightily the Davis-Anderson pairing struggled defensively last season. But solid defense is largely the product of chemistry and cohesion, which this group simply hasn't had the time to develop but should going forward.
It should come as little surprise that the Washington Wizards have won both of their games since Bradley Beal returned to the lineup. The second-year shooting guard out of Florida is already the team's best scorer and has a solid track record of success when playing alongside John Wall.
According to NBA.com, the Wizards have scored 106.4 points per 100 possessions during the 478 minutes that Beal and Wall have been paired this season. That would qualify as the sixth-best mark in the league—and nearly six points better than Washington's overall offense, which currently ranks 21st in efficiency.
And now that Nene is also healthy, perhaps the Wizards can finally string together the sort of success that has eluded this forlorn franchise ever since Gilbert Arenas' high jinks doomed it to a long, slow and painful rebuild.
Underestimate the Detroit Pistons at your own peril, because this team (finally) seems to be hitting its stride.
In their last five games, the Pistons have taken down two division leaders (Pacers, Celtics), beaten another (Nets) that figures to be by season's end and fallen to two quality Western Conference clubs (Pelicans, Trail Blazers) in overtime.
As a result, Detroit has climbed within one game of the .500 mark and, more importantly, into fifth place in the admittedly awful Eastern Conference.
That may seem like small potatoes to most, but for the Pistons, who've been patently awful since 2009, any signs of progress are worth celebrating in the Motor City.
Three out of four ain't bad for the Atlanta Hawks. Even though their lone loss during the last week came against the clumsy Knicks...and the three teams they beat are currently a combined 13 games under .500.
That being said, winning teams remain few and far between in the Eastern Conference.
Applauding the Hawks for having a respectable record may seem like a low bar, but it's not their fault that the rest of their side of the bracket is so bereft of quality competition.
I wouldn't call the Golden State Warriors' 104-102 home loss to the Big Three-less San Antonio Spurs embarrassing. After all, Gregg Popovich has long had a way of plugging role players into his lineup with aplomb, thanks in no small part to the effort, execution and discipline he demands from everyone on his roster.
That being said, the result should come as a disappointment, considering that Andre Iguodala had returned to action two nights prior.
In fact, Golden State's flaws extend beyond anything Iggy can fix all on his own. The Warriors sport the fourth-highest turnover ratio (i.e. turnovers per 100 possessions) in the NBA and saw that same problem come back to bite them on Thursday night, with the Spurs converting an unsightly 24 miscues into 31 points of their own.
Having a creative dynamo like Iggy around should help to alleviate that problem in due course. But if the Dubs are going to improve upon last season's results, as many (including yours truly) expected, they'll have to take much better care of the ball.
If you storm out to a 32-point lead, you'd better come away with a win, regardless of the caliber of competition.
That was the case for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who pounded the Portland Trail Blazers during the first half of their meeting on Wednesday before holding on for a 120-109 win. The Blazers blew through much of the T-Wolves' advantage by knocking down 12 of 27 three-point attempts in the second half, seven of which were put through by Damian Lillard.
But even Lillard's best efforts couldn't negate the T-Wolves' dominance on the interior. Kevin Love (29 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists) and Nikola Pekovic (30 points, nine rebounds) accounted for much of Minny's 72-34 advantage on points in the paint.
Granted, the Blazers were clearly worn down, what with this being their fourth game in five nights away from home. But it's not as though the T-Wolves are about to give this win back, not when they're fighting just to hang around .500 in a conference that's filled with winning records.
Good on Kevin Durant for doing his part to get the word out on Ty Lawson's rise to borderline All-Star status. Lawson, whose ties to Durant date back to their time together as teammates on the AAU circuit and for one year at the famed Oak Hill Academy, had performed brilliantly prior to suffering a recent hamstring strain and did well to drop 17 points and 13 assists at the expense of KD's team.
It's too bad Lawson's Denver Nuggets play in the Western Conference, where the cast of All-Star-caliber point guards—both incumbent (Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker) and potential first-timers (Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Eric Bledsoe, Monta Ellis)—is already exceedingly deep.
Throw Lawson in the East, and he'd be all but guaranteed to compete for a spot alongside the likes of Kyrie Irving and John Wall.
For the time being, it appears as though Lawson will simply have to settle for his squad hanging around the playoff picture out West.
The Dallas Mavericks' back-to-back double-digit wins against the Bucks and the Grizzlies, with their combined record of 15-35, may not seem like much. But in a Western Conference crammed with quality clubs, every victory counts, regardless of who's on the losing end—even more so with the stretch that'll soon be staring the Mavs squarely in the face.
After tangling with the Toronto Raptors on Friday, Dallas will play five of its following six games on the road, with four against teams currently in the playoffs.
Not that the other two tilts over that same stretch will be walks in the park. The Mavs will have to grind it out against the Bulls' tough defense in Chicago before going toe-to-toe with the T-Wolves' terrifying offense in Minneapolis.
You can find all the fault you want in the Phoenix Suns' 108-101 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday. Tony Parker's absence, Manu Ginobili's big game (24 points, six rebounds, seven assists, two steals) and Phoenix's own flurry of turnovers (19, to be exact) didn't reflect well on where the Suns stood within the NBA heading into that game.
But one loss can't (and shouldn't) distract anyone from the fact that the Suns are still overachieving to a degree that teams rarely do. They'd won five in a row prior to that aforementioned defeat, in spite of a roster that most predicted would land Phoenix among a handful of teams fighting for the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
And the Suns might only get better from here on out. According to NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper, GM Ryan McDonough is open to dealing one of the four 2014 first-rounders at his disposal if doing so brings back a piece or two that could bolster Phoenix's prospects of qualifying for the playoffs in the ultra-competitive West without compromising the team's long-term outlook.
The news hasn't all been so good for the Houston Rockets over the last week. They gave up well over a 100 points apiece to the Warriors and Kings, the latter being a humbling 15-point defeat.
Then came the news that GM Daryl Morey had failed to move disgruntled backup center Omer Asik before his self-imposed Dec. 19 deadline. According to CBS Sports' Ken Berger, Morey wasn't particularly enthused with the package of Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee and a first-round pick that was allegedly on the table from the Celtics.
Not that Houston is exactly hurting for help right now. The Rockets are currently fifth in the West on the strength of the Dwight Howard-James Harden-Chandler Parsons trio, with Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones stepping into the starting lineup as defensive-minded role players.
But if this team is going to leap into legitimate title contention, it'll probably need one more piece—ideally, a power forward with three-point range on his shot.
Which isn't likely to come unless/until Morey can swing an Asik-centric trade prior to the actual deadline in February.
Don't look now, but the Los Angeles Clippers are starting to resemble an NBA title contender.
Just as they did last December, when they finished the month a perfect 17-0. That won't be the case this time around, since they've already dropped four games this month.
But their play of late has been rather promising—on both ends of the floor, no less. The Clips have averaged an astonishing 112 points per game since Jamal Crawford slid into the starting lineup, thereby relieving Chris Paul of some of his on-ball duties.
More importantly, L.A. has held seven of its last eight opponents under 100 points and moved firmly into the NBA's top 10 in defensive efficiency as a result.
With Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan both playing exceedingly well and J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes on the mend, it's only a matter of time until this team really hits its stride under Doc Rivers.
At which point, the rest of the NBA would do well to look out!
You could say the Portland Trail Blazers were due for the comeuppance that came to them during their visit to Minneapolis. They'd been bailed out in back-to-back games against middling Eastern Conference competition (Pistons, Cavs) by Damian Lillard's heroics.
It was only a matter of time before the Blazers were burned after playing with fire as frequently as they had. Realistically, there was no way Portland was going to climb out of the 32-point first-half hole it dug itself against the T-Wolves.
That being said, give the Blazers credit for fighting back in the second half. They managed to trim the deficit to five points with less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter before the T-Wolves put them away for good.
Every good team needs a wake-up call once in a while, especially if said team is still figuring out what it takes to be elite. This loss should serve Rip City well moving forward.
Who needs Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili when you've got Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli?
Apparently, the San Antonio Spurs don't. The Big Three's absence from the final leg of the Spurs' four-game road trip didn't stop San Antonio from pulling out a 104-102 win over the Warriors, who saw Andre Iguodala return to the lineup earlier this week.
This, just one night after rolling into Phoenix and upending the surprising Suns while Parker nursed a sore shin.
I know the thought of Gregg Popovich being named the NBA's Coach of the Year can get old, especially since he's already earned that honor twice in his Hall of Fame career. But if we're being honest, Pop is the LeBron James of the coaching ranks: He probably deserves his profession's top honor every year.
The Spurs made that much clear once again with their victory in Oakland.
I'll admit that I was tempted to be a contrarian and keep the Indiana Pacers at No. 1, even after their loss to the Heat in Miami. After all, they beat the Heat in their own building last week and led for most of the time during the return leg in south Florida.
But could I still consider the Pacers to be the best team in the NBA, even after being on the wrong end of a 12-2 spurt over the final three minutes, 43 seconds of the fourth quarter? And what about the loss to the Detroit Pistons two nights earlier, when the Pacers got pounded on the boards (55-40) in suffering their first home defeat of the young season?
This isn't to suggest that Indy isn't fit to contend for the title. Its defense is still the best the NBA has to offer, and its offense is starting to take better care of the ball...finally.
In the meantime, though, the Pacers will have to settle for a spot among the league's top three.
Which is to say, there's no need to pity the Pacers.
The good times are still rolling for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who stretched their current winning streak to eight games with a 107-95 win over the bumbling Bulls on Thursday night. Kevin Durant scored a game-high 32 points on an efficient 13-of-20 from the field, including 4-of-5 from three.
That marked KD's fifth performance of 30 points or more during OKC's unbeaten run. All told, Durant's gone for 30 or more 13 times this season—in just 25 games, no less. It should come as no surprise that Durant is on track for his fourth scoring title in five years at nearly 29 points per game.
In a word, buckets.
It took a while, but the Miami Heat are finally back on top of the power rankings.
And not just because they stormed back to beat the Pacers on Wednesday, though that certainly helps.
By and large, Miami seems to have this whole "regular season" thing down pat. The Heat rank among the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency, they appear to have figured out how to manage Dwyane Wade's knee pain (27.7 points on 61.1 percent shooting over his last three games), and LeBron James is...well, LeBron James.
They should have ample opportunity to pad their record in the coming week, with a home game against the Hawks and a trip to L.A. to play the Kobe-less Lakers on Christmas Day sandwiched between dates against the Kings.
For now, the Heat are once again...kings.
How did I do this week? Let me know on Twitter!