2015-16 NBA Power Rankings: How All 30 Teams Rate Heading into 2016
It finally happened.
We’ve got a shake-up at the very top of this week’s NBA power rankings, and if you’ve been following along for most of the year, you probably saw it coming. If you’re new here, I guess our best advice is to try not to panic, and remember that we’ve still got about 60 percent of the season left for order to restore itself.
That’s the fun part: The expectation is that all of these rankings will change. And wouldn’t it be boring if they didn’t?
All we can do is gauge where each team is right now by using overall records, some advanced metrics and recent play as the primary factors.
You can check out last week’s edition here, but we’ll also explain anything significant that contributed to each individual team’s rise or fall since then.
These are the last power rankings of 2015, so enjoy.
Please and thank you.
30. Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 30
As it turns out, all it took to fix the Philadelphia 76ers was a 175-pound water bug acquired via trade.
The trade for Ish Smith was the first move the Sixers made this season that was designed specifically to improve the team's chances of winning in the short term. It took two second-rounders to get him from the New Orleans Pelicans, but Smith's arrival coincided with (gasp!) two wins over the span of three games in the last week of December.
That's more than Philadelphia's typical allotment in a month.
Smith was quietly effective in New Orleans, and he's now the primary ball-handler for an offense with which assistant coach Mike D'Antoni is involved. So there's no reason to expect his production to dip.
The scary thing for the Sixers is that Smith's ability to direct a functional offense could eventually compromise their stranglehold on the top lottery odds. They still rank last here, but with another two-win week, the 76ers would be out of the cellar.
We are in new and strange territory with this Philadelphia team, folks.
29. Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 29
The Los Angeles Lakers still aren't winning much, but at least they're finding ways to keep things interesting.
Well, Kobe Bryant is, anyway.
He helped the Lakers knock off the Boston Celtics in his final visit to the TD Garden, home of Los Angeles' mortal enemy and the heart of the evil empire (if you're a Lakers loyalist). The cheers Bryant drew there were startling, and when the green-clad attendees chanted his name late in the game and long after the buzzer, it was as poignant a moment as we've seen all year.
This is how things will probably go for the Lakers the rest of the way: lots of losing punctuated by some surreal moments tied to Bryant's farewell.
And that's not so bad—especially if D'Angelo Russell keeps cutting and passing with the impressive court sense he showed in college, and especially if Jordan Clarkson keeps turning in the occasional athletic highlight.
Lakers fans can enjoy the pageantry and fluff of Bryant's final lap now and look forward to some substance later.
28. Brooklyn Nets
Last Week: 28
I'm bored. Are you bored?
Do the Brooklyn Nets—bereft of any intriguing young talent as long as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (ankle) is out and devoid of exciting veterans (unless you're into flatfooted half-hooks from Brook Lopez)—trigger spontaneous snoozing in you the same way they do in me?
There's this overwhelming sense of resignation—fatalism even—that pervades most Nets analysis this season.
Andy Vasquez of the Bergen Record noted the following after an all-too-predictable loss to the Orlando Magic on Dec. 30: "Bad teams find a way to lose. The Nets outplayed the Magic for most of the game. But they found a way."
Boring Brooklyn avoids slipping from the No. 28 spot because it sometimes does weird things like beat the Miami Heat (Dec. 28) and Chicago Bulls (Dec. 21). If those sporadic, out-of-character results eventually stop cropping up, a 29th-place ranking is in play.
27. Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 27
The best thing—stifling defense—about last year's Milwaukee Bucks has disappeared this season. And the damaging effects of that absence, apparent all season, were particularly obvious in a Dec. 28 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
The Bucks didn't force a single turnover in the first half and totaled just four in the entire game—only the 10th time since 2010 a team generated that few giveaways, per Nick Whalen of Bucksketball.com.
The lack of defensive activity, organization and focus has buried the Bucks, making all the optimism of last season's playoff push feel foolish.
Ranking third from the bottom in defensive efficiency, Milwaukee can at least make the excuse that its youth will improve. That's fair; Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker give the Bucks as promising of an early-20s duo as anyone this side of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But the Bucks were younger last year, when the defense ranked fourth in the NBA in efficiency.
There's something systemically wrong in Milwaukee, and the team needs to fix it. There's little chance of anything more than a bottom-five spot here if the status quo persists.
26. Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 25
Is there a term for when a train carrying tankers of sulfuric acid jumps the tracks and then goes screaming into town, angrily rumbling through storefronts and scattering pedestrians? Only if the train was on fire—and so was the town—and the town was actually on the rim of a volcano?
And the volcano was on the scorching surface of Mercury?
There has to be a term for that.
Oh, right. Suns. Phoenix Suns.
Jeff Hornacek is a lame-duck coach with little control, two of his assistants just got the ax, Markieff Morris is conspicuously unhappy, the losses are mounting and Eric Bledsoe just went down for the season following surgery to repair a torn meniscus in what was his good knee.
The Suns are Phoenix Sunsing right now.
It's hard to know when the explosion will happen, but it feels like more of a "when" question than an "if."
Take note, Bucks and Nets: This thing is going to blow. And when it does, you might move up a spot or two.
25. Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 23
The Denver Nuggets aren't that complicated.
They're hurt now, they've been hurt for most of the year and they're going to stay hurt until the season's over. Wilson Chandler's year-ending hip surgery ensures that last part.
"I think our biggest thing right now is needing to get healthy,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone told Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post after Denver dropped its fourth straight game Dec. 30. "We have guys who are starting who are not starters for us, and we have guys who are playing heavy minutes that maybe when we’re healthy may not play that many minutes."
Without Jusuf Nurkic (knee), Emmanuel Mudiay (ankle) and Danilo Gallinari (ankle), Denver has been competing with both arms and a leg tied behind its back. That the Nuggets have managed to win a dozen games is a minor miracle—and a testament to Malone's motivational skills.
Mudiay is nearing a return, and that'll at least have the benefit of getting a lottery pick more experience. It likely won't lead to more victories, as Mudiay has struggled mightily when healthy. But if all the injuries this year signal anything, it's that the 2015-16 season is mostly a lost cause.
Denver might as well let Mudiay take his lumps and learn a little for the rest of the way.
Hopefully you didn't pull a hamstring reading this. The Nuggets' injury vibes are that potent.
24. Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 20
The Sacramento Kings are more exciting than they've ever been these days, and if you've developed any sense of how statements like that end when they pertain to this team, you know the excitement isn't the good kind.
We are on the brink of some beautiful chaos in Sacramento.
Or at least that's the reasonable assumption to make after a Rajon Rondo suspension gave way to a messy DeMarcus Cousins ejection followed by a loss. At home. To the Sixers.
It's the kind of thing that makes me wish I'd saved the "runaway train on a volcano on Mercury" metaphor.
How will win-now-or-else owner Vivek Ranadive react to this downward spiral? Will he fire head coach George Karl? Will he rehire Tyrone Corbin just so he can fire him again immediately? Will he trade half the franchise to bring Nik Stauskas back? Nik does rock, after all.
Everything's in play right now.
Bonus positive note: Omri Casspi went shot for shot with Stephen Curry in what was easily the most exciting sequence of Kings basketball all year Dec. 28. That wasn't enough to avoid a four-spot slide here, but it was fun to watch.
23. Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 24
The Minnesota Timberwolves rise a spot mostly because a handful of teams above them fell. If not for tailspins by the Kings, Suns and Nuggets, the Wolves and their inept defense wouldn't be looking so (relatively) functional.
This low in the rankings, it's hard to turn the focus from the negative. If you're down here in the 20s, chances are you have more going wrong than right.
But in an effort to shift the tone, let's talk about Karl-Anthony Towns and his eminently coachable, ego-less makeup.
Head coach Sam Mitchell spoke to Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press about the rookie: "You can get on Karl. You can coach him. He accepts it. If he's wrong, he admits it. Even if he's not...he doesn't say a word."
And after scoring 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting in a Dec. 30 win over the Utah Jazz, Towns cited his defensive mistakes and said his play was "atrocious."
See? It's not all bad for the Wolves.
22. Utah Jazz
Last Week: 21
Mounting injuries and sputtering offense combine to sink the Jazz another spot this week, and it's a testament to the upside-down setup in this year's Western Conference that this team is still smack-dab in the middle of the playoff race.
Alec Burks' broken fibula put him on the shelf alongside key rotation cogs Rudy Gobert (sprained MCL) and Dante Exum (torn ACL), and Utah's suspect offense has, predictably, not handled the subtraction of another important piece well.
Derrick Favors' bad back cost him the entire week, too, which hasn't helped.
On Dec. 30, Utah managed just 80 points against a Timberwolves defense that has permitted torrential scoring of late. Gordon Hayward has done his best to compensate, but as has been the case for much of his career with the Jazz, the team is asking him to do too much.
Utah has been shrewd about trusting organic growth and not giving away long-term value for short-term gains. So don't expect a panic move.
Do expect low point totals for the foreseeable future and a possible lottery bid down the road.
21. New Orleans Pelicans
Last Week: 26
Given Ish Smith's universally positive impact on the Pelicans, the decision to trade him away signaled an important concession: New Orleans is thinking ahead.
David Fisher of the Bird Writes described Smith's impact: "His ability to play at the pace Alvin Gentry seeks was noticeable the moment he took the floor. Every five-man unit with at least 25 minutes played including Smith posted a positive net rating. Only three other such lineups exist for New Orleans. This trade, in the immediate term, makes the Pelicans a worse basketball team."
Two second-rounders is a modest haul, but in getting future assets for Smith, a player who was helping them in the present, the Pelicans made the right move. Because even though the shaky lower half of the West means a playoff spot is in reach, New Orleans won't gain much from a sure first-round shellacking.
Getting worse now, adding to a depleted asset pool and positioning itself to add more talent through the lottery is the best way for the team to ensure sustainable success.
Giving away a season in Anthony Davis' prime stinks, but the Pelicans know the middling ball they've played since getting relatively healthy in December (and they have been markedly better of late) isn't going to cut it.
New Orleans moves up after a solid week with respectable performances against a decent schedule. But its decision to move down via the Smith trade suggests it understands the emptiness of that progress.
20. New York Knicks
Last Week: 19
Following four losses in their last five games (and it would have been five out of five if not for Derrick Williams' fourth-quarter heroism in a 108-96 win over the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 29), nothing gets any easier for the New York Knicks.
A brutal, road-heavy schedule continues through the new year, pitting New York against the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks (twice), Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs to start out 2016. This, after closing out 2015 with road losses against Cleveland, Atlanta and Boston before that salvage job over the Pistons.
The triangle looks obtuse, serious off-court worries can't help but be a distraction and the dozen or so East teams with apparent playoff potential are starting to distance themselves from the Knicks. The upcoming schedule figures to help widen that gap.
Good news, though: Carmelo Anthony has taken a shine to Kristaps Porzingis (how could he not?). Per Bleacher Report's Jared Dubin, Melo has dished the rock to the rookie a ton:
Carmelo has passed the ball to Porzingis more often on a per-game basis than any non-point guard teammate he's had in the three years for which the NBA has SportVU data.
He's thrown Porzingis an average of 7.5 passes per game, a full two passes more than the next closest player in the database: 2013-14 J.R. Smith. Those passes have also put Porzingis in position to shoot more often than any other teammate of Anthony's.
Things aren't going great for the Knicks, but the franchise figurehead is on board with the young cornerstone getting more shots. Let's call that the glass-half-full spin on the Knicks heading into 2016.
19. Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 22
The C.J. McCollum show continues apace, and now fellow most improved candidate Allen Crabbe is doing enough to earn a starring role of his own.
With Damian Lillard missing time because of plantar fasciitis, the Portland Trail Blazers have gotten some serious efforts from their secondary scorers. McCollum hung 35 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists on the Kings in a 98-94 win on Dec. 27, then followed it with 29 on 12-of-19 shooting in another victory over the Nuggets on Dec. 30.
Crabbe chipped in 20 on 8-of-14 shooting against Denver and took a huge step forward across the board in December.
Thanks to those two, Portland hasn't just survived Lillard's absence. It has used the time without its clear leader to develop the confidence of its most important supporting pieces.
And we haven't even mentioned that Dec. 26 blowout win over the Cavaliers.
The Blazers have impressed with their competitiveness all year, and now we know their surprising respectability in a rebuilding season isn't all about Lillard.
It does not suck to be a Blazers fan right now.
18. Washington Wizards
Last Week: 17
A lot's been made of the Washington Wizards' struggles to space the floor because of a lack of shooting, and it's true that Bradley Beal's absence takes away an important part of their defense-threatening resources.
But it's wrong to pin the Wizards' scoring issues on an inability to hit deep shots. They rank in the top five in accuracy rate this year and have been even deadlier in the month of December. Getting enough of those looks has been the real problem, as the Wizards sit right in the middle of the NBA pack in triple attempts per game.
SB Nation's Mike Prada has a theory: "Every good defense stays in its shell against the Wizards because they know only Wall (sometimes) can penetrate it."
Nobody else on Washington's roster gets into the lane reliably, so defenders can stay home to prevent open catches by guys like Jared Dudley, who has been lights-out whenever he's been able to get a good look this year.
Beal's eventual return will help, but until the Wizards' personnel or scheme forces defenses to bend a little more, Washington will be stuck in the league's middle tier.
17. Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 18
Wins over the Lakers and Heat help ease the sting (sorry) of a rough loss to the Charlotte Hornets this week, and the 2-1 mark since we last ranked helps the Memphis Grizzlies climb a spot.
The patented defense hasn't been there all year, and those early blowout losses will keep the Grizz on the negative side of the net-rating ledger for a long time. But Memphis is in playoff position and Marc Gasol is shimmying, so things are looking up.
Don't be fooled into thinking these Grizzlies are the same 50-win lock they've been in years past. Those days disappeared when it became the smart move to shift Zach Randolph and Tony Allen to the bench.
They're still competitive, though, and there still probably aren't many teams itching to play them. Utah, Portland and the Oklahoma City Thunder will get that chance (all at home) next week.
16. Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 10
The Pistons followed up the three-game winning streak that got them all the way into the top 10 last week with a disheartening stretch that exposed their punchless offense and, frankly, made me feel stupid for trusting them with such a strong ranking.
This is on me, guys. I should have known a scoring slump was coming.
And with Detroit's typically stout defense also sagging (see total mail-in jobs by Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond in a 108-96 loss to the Knicks on Dec. 29), we're approaching meltdown territory for head coach Stan Van Gundy.
The Pistons are still over .500, but unless something changes on both ends, it's starting to look like they'll be one of the teams to slip out of the competitive hunk of the East fighting for playoff spots.
15. Charlotte Hornets
Last Week: 11
It's been a long time since the Charlotte Hornets ranked this low, but they were merely a .500 team in December (7-7), and news of Al Jefferson's torn meniscus doesn't provide much in the way of optimism about the future.
If there's a bright side, it's probably that the Hornets' overhaul this season, which kicked into higher gear with Jefferson's calf injury and suspension sidelining him, is now a permanent thing. Athleticism, shooting and ball movement are the new staples in Charlotte, and since Jefferson won't be back for a while, the days of dumping it into the post and slowing down the pace aren't likely to reappear.
That's good, as the Hornets' shooting and more athletic look with Cody Zeller in the middle have helped them this year. Whether they'll be enough to stick around in the playoff race is a separate question. A rough, road-heavy schedule awaits in January, with tilts against Toronto, Oklahoma City and Golden State serving as a brutal beginning to 2016.
Kemba Walker continues to shoot the ball better than he has at any point in his career, and he'll have to keep it up for Charlotte to avoid falling out of its mid-pack position in the power rankings.
14. Houston Rockets
Last Week: 15
Interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff is almost never happy, but that's understandable. Cleansing the Houston Rockets of their awful start is a job that takes time, and if he steps back to appreciate all the progress his team made in December, maybe there'd be a danger of old habits returning.
So when he harps on his team disrespecting the game after losses, just know it's part of a larger plan to keep the Rockets' edge from dulling. Because, objectively, the Rockets have been one of the five or six best teams in the league throughout the final month of 2015, notching good wins over tough opponents (many of whom rank ahead of them in these rankings) and getting resurgent performances like Dwight Howard's 30-point effort against the Atlanta Hawks.
It took a while for the Rockets to work through their issues, and they're certainly not where they want to be yet. But Houston is going to play out the rest of the season like the top-10 team it is.
13. Miami Heat
Last Week: 8
It comes and goes with the Miami Heat—a two-game winning streak gives way to a two-game slide. Then victories and defeats alternate for a week or so, perhaps followed by another solid stretch.
And though the Heat's inconsistency hasn't been fatal, it has made it hard to envision a scenario in which they distinguish themselves from the handful of Eastern Conference squads vying for that No. 2 spot behind the Cavaliers.
"Wade spoke late Monday about how Miami, 30 games into the season, was still figuring itself out," Ethan Skolnick of the Miami Herald wrote after Miami dropped a 111-105 contest to the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 28. "But that’s not just game to game. That’s within a game. That’s within a quarter. That’s within a possession."
Miami hasn't yet found a way to get consistent spacing, a consequence of poor three-point shooting. And on the other end, its stellar defense actually gets markedly worse whenever Hassan Whiteside, the league's leading shot-blocker, is on the floor.
Gerald Green has been erratic, Goran Dragic is still searching for the pace he prefers and Dwyane Wade's usage rate remains alarmingly high.
Paired with those broader uncertainties, a 2-2 week means the Heat drop a few spots from last week's ranking. Of course, assuming things hold to their up-and-down form, Miami will probably rise a position or two next time around.
12. Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 12
Some might view Indiana's continued occupancy of a spot outside the top 10 as an insult, and you wouldn't have to look far for evidence the Pacers deserve a much higher ranking. Basketball-Reference.com's simple rating system, for example, fancies Indiana as a top-five team.
The Pacers' schedule has been tough to this point, and it continues to be impressive that they've succeeded in changing their entire team identity so quickly. But Paul George continues to take far too many bad shots, the offensive flow isn't consistently there and, critically, Indy was a break-even team in December.
Those November wins still count, but if we're looking for current measures of value, an entire December of ho-hum play, punctuated by a tough loss to the Bulls (who, spoiler time, finally move ahead of their division rival) weighs more heavily.
The Pacers hold steady at No. 12, despite some season-long numbers that say they're a whole lot better than that.
11. Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 14
They don't do it pretty, but the Bulls have found ways to win in the week since Christmas.
Victories over the Thunder, Raptors and Pacers necessitate a move up the rankings—even if the shakiness of those results and Chicago's underwhelming advanced metrics make the climb a scary one. At some point, maybe we just have to acknowledge there are teams that know how to win ugly games.
Sure, that's an objectively specious idea, but if Jimmy Butler keeps taking over down the stretch like he did in beating the Pacers on Dec. 30, don't we eventually have to trust in that trend repeating itself?
Truthfully, the Bulls are still a confusing outfit, and wins coming via unforeseeable breakout games by the likes of Tony Snell may never feel sustainable. It could just be that Chicago is weathering the storm however it can until the rest of its bigger names play consistently enough to stabilize things.
However they're doing it, the point is the Bulls are doing it. They're winning games.
We have to reward them for that.
10. Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 16
Is this too high for the Dallas Mavericks? Am I getting caught up in their win over the shorthanded (crippled, actually, without Stephen Curry) Golden State Warriors on Dec. 30?
Did Dirk Nowitzki's blow-by baseline dim my wits?
I don't know, maybe.
But it's tough to take in the Mavs' broader body of work, which includes a 19-13 record overall and the league's fifth-best net rating in the month of December, without feeling convinced the team everyone expected to miss the playoffs intends to defy that prediction.
And, again, Dirk Nowitzki blew by Brandon Rush and dunked.
Dallas surges six spots for a lot of reasons, but I'd be lying if I said that play wasn't hugely important in that decision.
9. Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 7
The Clippers stayed alive without Blake Griffin last year and then went on a 14-2 run to close the season, so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise the same thing looks like it’s happening again.
Griffin’s torn quadriceps admittedly came at a good time, as L.A.’s schedule is soft through the first half of January before a tough road trip East. But it’s still true that the Clips are banding together behind Chris Paul, doing a better job of committing to the defensive end and generally dispensing with many of the distractions (officials and overconfidence chief among them) that contributed to a fitful start of the season.
The Clippers will need Griffin to come back fully healthy if they have any designs on breaking into the exclusive three-team club atop the Western Conference. But if last year is any guide, this period without him will refocus the team and, maybe, lead to a big push upon his return.
For now, with Griffin out, they're clearly worse. That's why they dip a couple of spots.
8. Boston Celtics
Last Week: 13
Surreal, Twilight Zone loss to the Lakers notwithstanding (remember, Celtics fans cheered Kobe Bryant), Boston has looked strong in finishing off 2015. Wins over the Pistons and Knicks were perhaps closer than the Celtics would have liked last week, but it’s hard to be too critical as the former win came on the road and the latter completed the second end of a back-to-back set.
Balance will be the key for the Celtics going forward.
Their results to this point have been oddly dependent on building massive leads and coasting to wins. Through their first 32 games, the Celtics haven’t won a single contest in which they didn’t build a lead of at least 10 points.
Some of that stat seems obvious; getting way ahead helps you hold on late. But there’s also the concern that the C’s lack either the personnel or the experience to win the tight ones.
Maybe it won’t matter, and since we’ve generally valued net rating and margin of victory as better indicators of quality than record, maybe it also seems a little unfair that we’re scrutinizing a team with the East’s second-highest average margin of victory.
Just something to keep in mind as the Celtics press on.
7. Orlando Magic
Last Week: 9
It’s time to get in on the Orlando Magic—maybe not as a team with the chops to win a couple of playoff rounds, but certainly as a squad that has played well for enough of the season to earn some genuine respect.
The Magic have just one ugly loss in the last month, to the Phoenix Suns on Dec. 9, which, to be fair, was well before the wheels started coming off in the desert. Outside of that, Orlando’s recent defeats have come against the Heat, Hawks and Cavs.
Orlando’s offensive and defensive ratings are both hovering right around the top 10, which is basically the informal cutoff for teams we’d consider contenders. Again, the young Magic aren’t there yet.
But with a strong push to close the calendar year and great play from Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Tobias Harris, 2016 could be even better.
6. Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 6
The Hawks are hot, people. And though there are plenty of reasons for this team’s year-ending streak (seven wins in their last eight tries), it feels like it’s time to talk about Kent Bazemore.
Atlanta’s starting small forward was excellent in December, averaging 13.6 points per game and hitting 41.7 percent of his threes. Though he's sometimes prone to gambling defensively, Bazemore’s length and aggression also resulted in a high steal rate and some fun help-side blocks.
And without his ultra-confident step-back triple (part of an impressive 26-point night) in the late stages against the Rockets on Dec. 29, the Hawks might have closed out 2015 on a losing note.
Al Horford and Paul Millsap still make the Hawks go, but Bazemore is settling in to exactly the kind of "DeMarre Carroll Lite" role this team needs. Already posting career-best numbers in volume and efficiency, Bazemore will be a key to Atlanta’s second-half success.
5. Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 5
If it seems unfair to slot the Raps ahead of the Hawks, don’t forget to consider a couple of important distinctions.
First, remember we’ve been splitting hairs to figure out the order of these nearly indistinguishable would-be contenders in the East all year long. So lay off!
Second, Toronto’s defense feels just a touch sturdier than the Hawks’—a feeling supported by the Raptors’ slight advantage in defensive rating on the year and the fact they’ve held strong despite missing wing stopper DeMarre Carroll for a good chunk of that time.
Jonas Valanciunas is only just now returning from a broken hand, and he should charge up the offense. Plus, if Carroll’s healthy, he could deter penetration enough to prevent Valanciunas from having to protect the rim as often.
And that’s a good thing for Toronto.
This is a close race, but with Kyle Lowry looking worthy of an All-Star start and DeMar DeRozan on a scoring tear, there are just too many positives to ignore in Toronto.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 4
The Christmas loss to the Warriors was concerning, and alarm bells rang after a blowout defeat against the Blazers the next day. Yet there's still no real concern about the Cavs slipping back into the East's messy middle tier.
With Kyrie Irving back and looking better and the rest of the roster getting healthier, we should expect the Cavs to stabilize and put more distance between themselves and the Toronto/Atlanta/Orlando/Boston cluster currently trailing them.
Now, health is a factor here, and we haven't seen much to indicate Cleveland is rock solid in that department since LeBron James' return last year. Note, too, that LBJ himself is now 31.
Nothing to panic about, and most of the vibes in Cleveland should be positive. But there's just no way to justify a higher spot for the Cavaliers right now—not with those two losses last week, and not with the top three looking so much more dominant.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 3
You’d never think of the Thunder as a team slipping quietly under the radar—not with Russell Westbrook dunking and howling and breaking the sound barrier with two or three full-court sprints per game, and not with Kevin Durant tearing up defenders just like he always has.
But the teams checking in ahead of OKC have been on such historic paces that they’ve vacuumed up all the attention, leaving the Thunder, who’ve been the league’s third-best team for most of the year, somewhat underappreciated.
And really, if you were looking for which of the top three contenders might have the best chance at improving, isn’t the answer clearly OKC?
The Warriors have slipped a bit but should recover their early form once everyone’s healthy. And the Spurs could hardly play any better than they are now (largely because very few teams in league history have ever been as dominant as they’ve been).
Meanwhile, the Thunder have yet to show the offensive diversity and flow Billy Donovan was supposed to impart. And there’s still a chance some of the supporting cast take a step forward with more experience. Cameron Payne may be doing that right now, in fact.
It’s probably irresponsible to say Oklahoma City is going to reach the height of the league’s two best teams until it actually does it. But there’s a decent case to be made that the Thunder have another level.
2. Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 1
Nobody freak out.
The Warriors slip for the first time this season because they deserve to. Another team has been distinctly better than them for a month (guess who?), and with Stephen Curry missing a couple of games (not to mention three other rotation staples still banged up), there's just no way to say the Dubs are the league's best team right now.
What happened earlier still counts, but any measure of a team's objective quality puts an inherent premium on the present. If Curry is out, and other guys are hurt, that matters. So does the fact that Golden State simply hasn't played as well as as it did in November.
This isn't a statement on the Warriors' quality when whole, and it certainly doesn't reflect where I think they'll be at the end of the season. Betting against them to win another ring is a mistake.
But right now, today, they're not the best team in the league.
1. San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 2
The Spurs have earned this.
Over the last month, it hasn’t even been close. San Antonio's ridiculous net rating of plus-20.4 in December is more than double the Warriors’, who don’t even rank second in that category. Oklahoma City has also been better over the last 30 days.
Kawhi Leonard continues his ascent into the league’s absolute upper echelon, and it’s now difficult to find a way to keep him out of the NBA’s top five individual talents. When the NBA’s best defensive player is also scoring with terrifying efficiency and still growing in confidence, well...let’s just say it won’t be a shock if he finishes second in MVP voting.
He’s been that good.
Again, there's a great chance the Spurs lose this spot next week, and the Warriors may very well go on another tear once they get healthy. It's certainly true that the heights Golden State hit when its full roster was intact were at least as impressive as anything the Spurs have done more recently.
The bottom line is this: You cannot make an objective case that the version of the Warriors that exists today is better than the Spurs.
Congrats, Spurs. You belong here.
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