Happy New Year, everyone! Allow me to welcome you to 2014 with a brand-spankin'-new edition of the weekly NBA power rankings.
After a light stretch across Christmas, the Association was back in full force in time for the end of 2013, with plenty of noteworthy results therein. Each of last week's top eight suffered at least one loss since the last edition hit the Interwebz, while four teams slipped into losing streaks of five games or more.
As you might imagine then, the rankings have shifted quite a bit just a few days into the new calendar. Who knows what other craziness might be in store for this year?
In the meantime, have a look through the hierarchy as it stands right now, and let me know what you think in the comments below!
I pledged that I wouldn't dwell on just how bad the Milwaukee Bucks are, and I'm sticking to it, in part because this team isn't one without reasons to watch.
Case in point: Giannis Antetokounmpo, also known as the Greek Freak. He's started each of the Bucks' last eight games, during which he's averaged a solid 10 points on 47.2 percent shooting, with 6.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.1 blocks in just under 34 minutes. His move into the starting unit also brought an uptick in three-point accuracy—28.6 percent to 35.7 percent.
It's still far too early to tell whether the 19-year-old import will ever live up to the lofty comparisons to the likes of Kevin Durant. But the Bucks have to enjoy what they've seen from him so far, and with the team well into tanking territory, he should have every opportunity to learn and grow while playing significant minutes.
The Orlando Magic had hoped to have Nikola Vucevic back from a bum ankle in time for their trip to Cleveland—and, boy, could they have used him. The Cavs claimed a 59-49 rebounding edge, thanks in large part to Anderson Varejao's career-high 25 boards.
Vucevic had been averaging 11.1 rebounds per game, the sixth most in the NBA, prior to his injury. Granted, 7.6 of those have been uncontested (per NBA.com), but when your front line consists of undersized power forwards, as the Magic's did with Glen Davis and Jason Maxiell, every bit of height and strength counts on the glass.
The Cleveland Cavaliers' overtime victory against the Orlando Magic comes as a welcome reprieve from the hardwood misery that had engulfed Rock City over the previous two weeks. Prior to Thursday's action, the Cavs had dropped six in a row during a stretch marked by Andrew Bynum's drama and Kyrie Irving's knee injury.
Both were absent from the win over Orlando, in which Cleveland's supporting cast did well to pick up the slack. Anderson Varejao stole the show with 18 points and a career-high 25 rebounds, while Jarrett Jack and Dion Waiters combined for 31 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
Not that the game was pretty by any means. Both teams shot well under 40 percent from the field and finished regulation with 79 points.
That being said, I don't think you'll find Cavs coach Mike Brown quibbling with this win, considering how scarce the good news has been of late.
The big question for the Los Angeles Lakers these days isn't, "Will they make the playoffs?" but rather, "How low can they go?"
L.A.'s dropped six in a row for the first time since last January, including its last three against the dregs of the NBA (Jazz, Sixers, Bucks). To make matters worse, the Lakers will be leaning on Kendall Marshall, a recent acquisition from the D-League, to start at point guard now that Jordan Farmar's out with yet another hamstring injury.
Throw in the continued absences of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, the recent scuttle over a Pau Gasol-for-Andrew Bynum swap and an upcoming stretch of 10 out of 13 on the road, and it becomes abundantly clear that this season is already a lost cause for the Purple and Gold.
Here's a fun fact for all you forlorn New York Knicks fans out there: Thursday night's 105-101 win was the team's second straight such result in San Antonio.
Granted, the milieu of last season's win in the Alamo City was far different. At that point, the Knicks were the toast of the NBA, with a prolific offense bolstered by Carmelo Anthony's career year and the play of Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd on the perimeter.
The cast of characters has changed quite a bit since then, but the outcome was largely the same. Anthony stuffed the stat sheet with 27 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, a steal and a block, while Iman Shumpert, who wasn't fit in time for the previous triumph in San Antonio, turned in a career-high 27 of his own on just 13 attempts from the field.
This victory, though, may be but a temporary reprieve from all that's ailed the Knicks. They'll finish off the Texas triangle in Houston and Dallas before returning home to host Detroit and Miami next week.
Which is to say, savor this one as much as you can, Knicks fans, because the feeling may not last long.
Raise your hand if you thought the Brooklyn Nets would rebound from a 21-point drubbing in San Antonio on New Year's Eve by upending the Thunder in OKC two nights later.
Now, put your hand down. You're only lying to yourself.
Don't get me wrong: It's great that the Nets managed to pull out a thrilling victory at the Thunder's expense and that two of Joe Johnson's nine points came at the final buzzer. It's also great that Deron Williams (29 points, four assists, five steals) finally looked like his old self again.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves here, folks. The fact of the matter is, the Nets are still 10 games under .500 and two-and-a-half back of the Chicago Bulls for the final playoff spot in the awful East after losing six of seven prior to Thursday night.
This team's going to have to eke out many more wins from here on out if it's going to so much as sniff the playoffs in the spring.
The Lakers would own the most onerous active losing streak in the NBA if not for the recent futility of the Denver Nuggets. Brian Shaw's squad has dropped eight straight since moving a season-high five games over .500 on Dec. 15.
The Nuggets achieved a new nadir on New Year's Day. Not only did they lose to the visiting Sixers, 114-102, but that loss saw a disgruntled Andre Miller tear into Denver's first-year head coach—on the sideline.
"There's a time and place for everything," Shaw told Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post. "In the middle of the arena in front of everyone ... I just tried to calm it down."
You know what would really help to cool all those hot tempers? A win, maybe two. An upcoming three-game stretch against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Lakers and the Boston Celtics should suffice.
In the scheme of the week that was, a 113-104 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers sticks out as an anomaly for the Sacramento Kings.
Prior to Thursday night's defeat, the Kings had beaten the Miami Heat at home and the Houston Rockets on the road, with an eight-point loss to the Spurs in San Antonio sandwiched in between.
Rudy Gay's been surprisingly efficient since his arrival (19.7 points on 49.1 percent shooting), Isaiah Thomas has thrived in Greivis Vasquez's stead (21.3 points, 7.8 assists as a starter) and DeMarcus Cousins is...well, DeMarcus Cousins, for better or worse.
If only this team could play a lick of defense, folks in Sacramento might finally see more wins like those against Miami and Houston and fewer losses like the one to Philly.
And the makings of a truly respectable squad as a result.
For the first time since their 3-0 start, the Philadelphia 76ers have won three games in a row.
Which is rather shocking when you consider that the Sixers have lost 21 of 26 in between those two streaks. Judging by Michael Carter-Williams' Twitter account, he's only been cognizant of the two aforementioned unbeaten streaks.
On second thought, the word "shocking" might not be the best choice when the teams on the wrong end of Philly's wrath are the Nuggets (losers of eight in a row), the Lakers (losers of six in a row) and the Kings (10-21 on the season).
Still, kudos to the Sixers for playing through, even when all signs pointed to them having succumbed to the temptations of tanking already.
Like their counterparts in the City of Brotherly Love, the Utah Jazz have refused to take this whole "tanking" thing lying down. They won three of their four games this past week, with the lone loss coming on the road against the high-flying Los Angeles Clippers.
Their win over the Bucks on Thursday put the Jazz's record at a respectable 7-5 since Dec. 11. That date also marked the return to the lineup of none other than...Marvin Williams?
OK, so maybe Marvin isn't the one driving the proverbial bus here, but we can give him this one, can't we? I mean, when was the last time the dude got anything but grief for being the No. 2 pick in the 2005 NBA draft, ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams (among others)?
It's official: The Boston Celtics are no longer in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
For the time being, at least, and only by the slimmest of margins.
The Celtics' loss in Chicago dropped Boston a full six games under .500 and continued a stretch of futility that's seen the Green on the wrong side of the result in five of the team's last six outings.
That could turn around in a hurry, though. Rajon Rondo's return seems to be right around the corner, with talk now that he might head down to the D-League for an MLB-style rehab stint.
“That’s an idea definitely,” Rondo recently told Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe, adding:
That’s more game-like speed with our schedule, the Celtics, we don’t a chance to play a lot of pickup, so that might be a possibility. You just never know, I might just pop up and play. You guys won’t get the memo. You just have to catch me on YouTube or something. Each week I’m getting better so I just want to give it a test when I have a chance.
If general manager Danny Ainge intends for his team to tank the season, perhaps he'll suggest that Rondo ride out the rest of the schedule with the Maine Red Claws rather than come back to help the big club.
You've got to feel for the Charlotte Bobcats right about now.
Things were looking up for them. They'd won four of five in mid-December to move within a game of .500 and solidify their standing in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
But that was before a home game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, before a five-game road trip of which the 'Cats have thus far laid four legs. And before Charlotte fell into a five-game skid.
Steve Clifford's once-vaunted defense has surrendered 112 points or more three times in its last four outings after not doing so at all through the first 30 games of the season.
All of which makes Grantland's Zach Lowe look like a soothsayer right about now.
Could it be? Have the Chicago Bulls finished mourning the season-long loss of Derrick Rose and returned to the business of playing the kind of hard-nosed, winning basketball that Tom Thibodeau demands?
Maybe. They've won four of their last six games, with only one opponent (the Dallas Mavericks) cracking the 100-point mark against them.
As a result, the Bulls are now hanging on to the eighth seed in the East by a thread. Who knows? Maybe they'll sneak into the postseason and by that time have a healthy Rose at their service.
Or not. Either way, don't expect Chicago to take this season lying down.
Two weeks ago, the Detroit Pistons appeared to have gotten their act together to the point where at least one writer was left to wonder whether it was time to take them seriously.
So far, the answer would seem to be a resounding "NO!" Since then, the Pistons have dropped five of six, including back-to-back meetings with the Washington Wizards, in whose category Detroit was expected to be.
That decline may or may not have something to do with the latest flareup between Josh Smith and Maurice Cheeks. The Pistons head coach benched Smith to start the third quarter of Detroit's 106-82 loss to the Wizards in Washington. Apparently, Cheeks wasn't pleased with Smith's effort—or lack thereof—and adjusted his lineup accordingly.
Cheeks has since insisted that he and J-Smoove are just fine, thanks. "We came to our agreement," Cheeks recently told David Mayo of MLive.com. "Y'all (media) are the only ones who got a problem with it because me and Josh are fine."
They may be, but by the looks of things, the Pistons aren't at the moment.
Nobody's proclaiming these Memphis Grizzlies to be playoff-caliber, but at least they're starting to make the best of a bad situation.
Marc Gasol's still out with a bum knee, Quincy Pondexter's been done for the season since early December and Tayshaun Prince looks like he's about ready to be put out to pasture.
And yet, here the Grizz are, winners of four of their last six, to move within three games of .500.
Let's not get too excited, though. Those four W's came against the Knicks, the Jazz, the sliding Nuggets and the Phoenix Suns sans Eric Bledsoe. Let's see how this squad handles the second night of a back-to-back in Denver before we start trumpeting the return of the "Grit-n-Grind" Grizzlies.
Tyreke Evans is looking more and more like the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year with each passing game.
In seven games since returning from an ankle injury, Evans has averaged 18.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists in 31 minutes off the bench. That includes the triple-double that 'Reke registered during his first game back—a 13-point New Orleans Pelicans loss to the Los Angeles Clippers
Compare that to the 11.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists that Evans averaged prior to his recent absence, and it's clear that the same guy who was named the league's Rookie of the Year in 2009-10 is settling into his role as a super-sub for the Pelicans just fine.
The Washington Wizards were able to breathe a sigh of relief after Bradley Beal's apparent leg injury suffered during a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves proved to be nothing more than a temporary impedance.
Good thing too. John Wall and Beal constitute the backbone of Washington's hopes for not only overall improvement but also success in the postseason.
According to NBAwowy.com, the Wizards have been seven points per 100 possessions better than the opposition when Wall and Beal share the floor but have been outscored by about a third of a point per 100 possessions when Wall plays and Beal sits.
A week filled (mostly) with inferior opponents will do wonders for any team's confidence. Just ask the Minnesota Timberwolves, who scored blowouts at the expense of the Wizards, the Bucks and the Pelicans.
They might've gone 4-0 too if not for a bit of poor officiating at the end of their 100-98 loss to the Dallas Mavericks. The NBA went on to acknowledge that Kevin Love was fouled by Shawn Marion with one second left in the game and should've been awarded two free-throw attempts as a result.
"I thought it was pretty obvious, just look at the replay," Love told USA Today. "If you look at the replay it was obvious that he got arm. I didn't know how to react. I couldn't yell at him (referee). That wasn't going to do anything, I just walked off the court with my head up."
Too bad an apology from the league office doesn't equate to turning an L into a W for the T-Wolves. They could've sorely used that extra game in the standings, especially considering that Minny now trails Dallas by three games for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
There's no use sugarcoating the situation for the Atlanta Hawks: For the second time in three seasons, Al Horford, their best and most important player, has been done in by a pectoral injury.
On the bright side, if there's any team in the NBA that's equipped to handle such a loss, it's these Hawks. Their offseason signing of Paul Millsap, another productive power forward whose skills are commensurate with Horford's in many ways, looks downright prescient given the team's current circumstances.
It should come as little surprise then that Millsap has stepped up his game since Horford's injury. In three games without Al, Millsap has averaged a staggering line of 28 points, 11.7 rebounds, two assists and 3.7 combined blocks and steals. What's more, he's shot 51 percent from the floor and gotten to the line 12.7 times per contest.
Not too shabby for a guy whose two-year, $19 million deal from this past summer looks more like a free-agent heist every day.
In case you missed it, the Toronto Raptors are now sitting pretty atop the Atlantic Division with a record of 15-15. It's the first time the Raptors have been .500 or better this deep into a season since 2009-10, when Chris Bosh was last a T-Dot resident.
Surprisingly (or not), the Raps' run has come on the heels of Rudy Gay's departure. Toronto has won nine of 12 since sending Gay packing for Sacramento, including impressive victories at OKC and Dallas and home against Indiana.
The Raps could come crashing back to Earth in short order, though. They'll hit the road to play the Wizards, the Heat and the Pacers before returning to Canada to take on the Pistons in the week ahead.
Wins over the Bulls, the T-Wolves and the Wizards may not seem like cause for excitement at first glance, but for the Dallas Mavericks, they're no less crucial to the cause.
As a result of that perfect week, the Mavs have solidified their standing as the eighth seed out West and inched close to the huddled mass of Phoenix, Houston and Golden State in the middle of the conference's playoff picture.
A home game against the Los Angeles Clippers and a trip to San Antonio should test the Mavs' mettle in the week to come. Luckily, they'll host the Knicks and the Lakers in between, thereby assuring that Big D will have some opportunities to further pad their 19-13 record.
James Harden's return to the lineup after a two-game reprieve hasn't gone quite as smoothly as the Houston Rockets had likely hoped it would.
The Rockets did well to sweep through the Spurs, the Grizzlies and the Pelicans in Harden's first three games back, but doing so required Harden to turn in 42 minutes a night to secure those results. Not surprisingly, he looked gassed in his return to OKC, scoring just eight points on 2-of-9 shooting in 30 minutes as the Rockets suffered through a 31-point blowout to the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder.
Harden looked much better against the Kings, who he torched for 38 points and 10 rebounds, but even his Herculean efforts weren't enough to lift Houston to victory at home.
Perhaps the absence of Patrick Beverley, who's been out since late December with a broken hand, is wearing on the Rockets more than expected. Or perhaps this team is simply a work in progress.
Either way, Houston has work to do if the team is going to keep pace with the best in the West.
The Los Angeles Clippers did well to bounce back from a 19-point blowout loss to the Phoenix Suns with a 27-point stomping of the offensively inept Bobcats.
Of particular interest in that game were the jump shots of Blake Griffin and Jared Dudley. The former shot 9-of-13 outside of the paint, thereby validating the confidence of his teammates and shaking that of Charlotte's "elite" defense. The latter, meanwhile, scored 20 points thanks to a season-high six made threes.
L.A.'s issues inside are still worth exploring, but if the Clips can space the floor with Dudley's three-point range and solidify Griffin as a bona fide threat in the pick-and-pop, there may be no stopping this squad going forward.
On the offensive end, anyway.
A 99-91 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday dropped the Phoenix Suns to 3-4 in seven games without Eric Bledsoe. The fourth-year stud sat out the game after spraining his knee against his old club, the Clippers, on Monday.
To their credit, the Suns came close to pulling it out at home anyway. They battled back from a 12-point halftime deficit to take a four-point lead into the fourth quarter, wherein the Grizz outscored them 30-18 to steal the result.
If not for Goran Dragic's career-high 33 points, things would've been much worse for Phoenix. Then again, you could say the same about the Suns' entire season, wherein they've been arguably the NBA's most pleasant surprise, thanks in no small part to the work Dragic has done as Bledsoe's backcourt buddy.
The Oklahoma City Thunder seemed like they were going to survive Russell Westbrook's absence just fine, thanks. They outlasted the Bobcats on the road during Russ' first game out and followed that up with a 31-point pounding of the Rockets in OKC.
Heck, the Thunder seemed to have their house in order against the Blazers and the Nets too. They were up by as many as 14 points over Portland in the first half on New Year's Eve and owned a 16-point advantage over Brooklyn during the waning moments of the third quarter on Thursday.
But OKC appeared to lose steam down the stretch in those latter two instances. For all the great work that the Thunder's youngsters (i.e. Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Steven Adams) have done to improve over the course of the season, there's still no making up for the absence of a superstar like Westbrook.
As a result, OKC has now dropped back-to-back home games for the first time since late October-early November...of 2011. There's no shame in that—certainly not given the team's current circumstances—but when you're battling for the top seed in the West, as the Thunder are, even the most respectable losses sting.
It's taken some time, but the Golden State Warriors are finally closing in on the ranks of NBA contenders once again.
They've now won seven games in a row, the latest an impressive 123-114 victory against the Heat in Miami. Stephen Curry drained eight threes to punctuate a 36-point, 12-assist, four-steal evening, while David Lee turned in a monstrous double-double (32 points, 14 rebounds) at the expense of Miami's front line.
The Dubs' success, though, extends much further back than a Thursday night win at South Beach or even the six that preceded it. Golden State hasn't lost a game by more than four points in nearly a month.
And now that everyone's roles are just about settled, with Andre Iguodala pushing Harrison Barnes back to the bench—and Toney Douglas healthy again—the good times should continue to roll for the Warriors.
Even more so with dates against Atlanta, Washington, Milwaukee and Brooklyn on the docket.
A relatively tough week has the Portland Trail Blazers in a virtual tie with the Spurs and the Thunder heading into the first weekend of 2014. The Blazers fell one point short against the LeBron-less Heat before going to New Orleans to get nipped by the Pelicans.
Portland, to its credit, has bounced back nicely from its first string of consecutive losses this season. The Blazers stormed back from a double-digit deficit to defeat the Thunder (sans Russell Westbrook) in OKC and returned home to tip off the new year with a 30-point thrashing of the Bobcats.
The next couple of weeks should be good to the Blazers as well. They'll play five games against sub-.500 squads, with a brutal swing through four stops in the Southwest immediately thereafter.
San Antonio Spurs guru Gregg Popovich isn't one to make too much of one game. He understands the ebb and flow of the regular season as well as any coach ever has, to the point where he's not afraid to sit his stars on national TV.
So when Pop calls out his team for any reason, as he did after the Spurs' surprising 105-101 loss to the Knicks at home on Thursday, you know he means business.
“Most of the time physical, aggressive teams are going to win in the NBA,” Popovich said after the game, via Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “That's just the way it is. I thought we were very poor in that area. We should be embarrassed about how soft we played tonight.”
Tim Duncan disagreed with that sentiment, though you can bet they'll all be on the same page by the time the Clippers come to town on Saturday.
A road loss to the Raptors doesn't look quite as bad as it used to, now that Toronto has touched .500 on the strength of a 9-3 stretch.
And in the case of Indiana Pacers, it doesn't negate all the good work done during the five-game winning streak that preceded it.
Sure, beating up on Houston, Boston, Brooklyn (twice) and Cleveland may not seem like much to write home about for an elite team like Indy, but securing each win by no fewer than 14 points certainly is.
More importantly, Danny Granger, who's scored in double digits in each of his last two games, appears to be getting his groove back. If Granger can rediscover a semblance of his pre-injury self with any consistency, he'd give the Pacers the sort of scorer and ball-handler that their bench has so sorely needed for most of the season.
I could've easily demoted the Miami Heat from the top spot this week if I'd so chosen and not just because I'm the one putting these rankings together. Losses to the Kings and the Warriors are none too flattering on a weekly resume. Neither is a three-point victory over a tumbling Nuggets team.
But the defeat in Sacramento came with Dwyane Wade taking the night off, winning in the thin air of Denver is never easy and Golden State came into Thursday's game riding a six-game winning streak.
And really, there's no denying just how impressive it was to see the Heat pull out a win in Portland while LeBron James was dressed in street clothes. That might be the most remarkable result of the entire season so far.
More importantly, it served as a reminder that Miami is much more than just a cast of characters following LeBron around like he's the pied piper. Chris Bosh scored a season-high 37 points that night, three of which came on a clutch shot with the clock winding down in the fourth quarter.
I'd dare any other team to traipse into Rip City without its best player and come away with anything but its tail between its legs.
How did I do this week? Let me know on Twitter!