NBA Power Rankings Halfway Through the 2015-16 Season

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2016

NBA Power Rankings Halfway Through the 2015-16 Season

0 of 30

    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    Life really does come at you fast, and the latest proof is this: We've already reached the midseason edition of NBA power rankings.

    Seriously, how'd we get here? What happened to November and December...and half of January for that matter?

    Remarkably, we hit the halfway point with as much uncertainty as we had when the season began. Nobody knows who the second-best team in the East is, and a new entry occupies that spot this week for what seems like the sixth time in a row.

    The lower reaches of the rankings are also in flux, with some of the usual cellar-dwelling suspects climbing out and a couple of erstwhile playoff hopefuls slipping.

    Up top, it's starting to look like we've got a fifth title contender.

    You know the drill by now: Overall season stats, recent performance and gut feelings are the criteria. Ultimately, we're trying to figure out how good each team is right this second.

    Here's how things shook out last week. As you'll see we've had some significant changes since then.

30. Phoenix Suns

1 of 30

    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last Week: 30

    Last week's No. 30 ranking felt a little punitive, like we were maybe sticking it to the Phoenix Suns not just for losing a bunch of games, but for losing them with such a messy, outwardly dysfunctional style. It was like we put the Suns on timeout, like we wanted them to think about what they'd done.

    You want to squander some legitimate, playoff-worthy talent in a year when something like 41 wins might be good enough for the eighth seed? You want to toss towels at coaches? Fine. Five minutes in the corner!

    To keep the Suns in the final spot for another week, it was going to take some harder evidence.

    Like this: Phoenix's 2-12 record since Dec. 15 is the worst in the league, and no team (no, not even the Sixers) has a worse net rating than the Suns' minus-12.2 in that span, per NBA.com.

    Welp!

    That was easy.

    See you next week, Suns.

29. Philadelphia 76ers

2 of 30

    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Last Week: 29

    Nothing that befell the Philadelphia 76ers over the last week was unexpected. We knew a tough slate of upper-tier East foes would result in a winless stretch.

    But at least amid the predictable losses, we saw Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel play together a bit more (and a bit more successfully) than usual. And it was mildly encouraging to see Philly finish within 10 points of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 10, even after playing the night before against the Toronto Raptors.

    Here's the best thing, though: New chairman of basketball operations Jerry Colangelo is giving credit where it's due.

    "The reality is, and I’ve come to understand this, that (general manager Sam Hinkie) has really done a great job of accumulating assets," Colangelo told CSN Philadelphia. "If you look at the trades, you look at the draft picks that’ve been accumulated, it’s all there in place. Now it’s a matter of when do you pull the trigger on using all those assets, or any of those assets."

    I mean, that was the whole point of The Process, wasn't it? Asset accumulation?

    If Colangelo turns this thing around by parlaying those assets into short-term help, let's all remember that Hinkie was the one who made it possible.

     

28. Minnesota Timberwolves

3 of 30

    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Last Week: 26

    Credit Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Sam Mitchell for putting it out there.

    "Honestly, you are trying to win as much as you can," he told Britt Robson of MinnPost.com. "But I agree with you from the standpoint that regardless of how many games we win, if Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns and our young guys are not better defensively, if they are not better understanding timing, spacing, execution, then we haven’t done our job."

    This seems like a good time to mention the Wolves have allowed 107.6 points per 100 possessions during their eight-game losing streak, 24th in the league during that stretch and below their full-season ranking of 20th.

    The defense is heading in the wrong direction.

    This is the lowest Minnesota has been in the power rankings all season, and it will be hard for it to sink into one of those two final spots. But if Mitchell can't coax the progress he wants from his young roster eventually, who knows how bad this might get?

27. Brooklyn Nets

4 of 30

    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Last Week: 27

    Tony Brown is 1-1 as the Brooklyn Nets' interim head coach, injecting a more positive approach in relief of Lionel Hollins' infamously old-school harshness.

    Rest assured that the Nets are still stuck in the same predicament they were before the massive shakeup that resulted in Hollins and general manager Billy King's ouster. Firing decision-makers doesn't restore draft picks, and Brooklyn will still struggle mightily to rebuild without control over its first-rounder until 2019.

    But at least the short-term outlook is slightly sunnier because, believe it or not, the Nets won a game!

    Mike Mazzeo of ESPN.com noticed the shift in demeanor that Brown's leadership seems to have inspired, writing this after Brooklyn's 110-104 win over the New York Knicks on Jan. 13: "The Knicks may have been on the second half of a back-to-back without Carmelo Anthony, but at this point, the Nets, who had lost 10 straight at home, will take what they can get. And in a lost season, at least they have found a coach who is steering them in a positive direction."

    Unfortunately, the lone victory last week wasn't enough to move the Nets out of 27th, which is a spot they'd better get used to for a while.

26. Los Angeles Lakers

5 of 30

    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Last Week: 28

    Even though the Lakers (like the Nets beneath them) won just once last week, a broader look at their recent performance earns them a better ranking.

    There's really nothing complicated about it: The Lakers have gone 6-11 since Dec. 15, while the Nets' record is 4-11. There's no credit in power rankings for having strong future prospects, but if we built that element into the equation, the Lakers would be miles ahead of the Nets—mainly because D'Angelo Russell has the intuition and court sense necessary to become a terrific starting point guard.

    Though his sprained ankle has cost him a few games (and a little mobility) of late, he's still been flashing the smart cuts and patient pick-and-roll passing that mark him as a real prospect. In L.A.'s 95-91 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 12, he scored 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting, handing out three assists and grabbing four boards in only 24 minutes.

    Russell's one to watch, and with Kobe Bryant's sore Achilles limiting him more and more lately, it looks like we'll get to watch a lot more of the rookie.

25. Sacramento Kings

6 of 30

    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Last Week: 21

    A near disaster at the end of the last ranking period, almost coughing up a massive lead to the Lakers, didn't weigh against the Sacramento Kings, who moved up to No. 21 on Jan. 7. But we should have known a slide was coming after that one.

    Sacramento dropped home games to the Warriors (fine) and the Pelicans (not fine) this week, and the vibe of this would-be playoff contender isn't great right now, per Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee, who captured this scene after the loss to New Orleans:

    Each Kings player has a picture in his locker of the NBA championship trophy with the words "All In" below it. By the end of the night, they were being taken down one by one. It was fitting considering Sacramento’s latest showing, which had the look of a team ready for the offseason, not the postseason.

    A game-winning jumper from Rudy Gay against the Jazz salvaged a 1-2 week, but it was hardly a confidence-builder.

    The Kings' transition defense has been horrendous this season, and it was a key contributor to the loss against the Warriors. The New Orleans result stemmed from a more complete failure in the effort department, which is alarming for a team that can't afford to give games away against lesser opponents.

    I suppose it's also possible that the Kings' frequent lapses are the reason they, and not the 12-26 Pellies, are actually the inferior team. New Orleans' superior net rating over the past month helps confirm that theory.

24. Milwaukee Bucks

7 of 30

    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Last Week: 24

    It probably doesn't say much for a team's overall quality when calling it inconsistent counts as an upgrade.

    But the Milwaukee Bucks have gone from being consistently bad to sporadically bad with occasional flashes of decency thrown in there. Example: a 2-2 week that included wins over the Dallas Mavericks and Chicago Bulls.

    The Bucks' followed up that win with a 27-turnover debacle against the Washington Wizards, and their defense over the past month has remained confoundingly atrocious. (Seriously, how does the second-best defensive unit from last year slip all the way to No. 29? Is Zaza Pachulia that important?)

    But at least we're seeing glimmers of hope amid the despair, like the intriguing use of Giannis Antetokounmpo as the primary ball-handler during some good offensive stretches in that loss to Washington.

    The Bucks climb a spot because they haven't been terrible all the time.

    Obviously, it doesn't take much to move up in this section of the rankings.

23. Denver Nuggets

8 of 30

    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 25

    The Denver Nuggets' modest rise is easy to explain.

    Beat the reeling Charlotte Hornets and knock off the defending champs, and you move up.

    The two wins, on Jan. 10 and 13, respectively, came by a combined five points, and Draymond Green didn't suit up for that Jan. 13 contest. But, come on, let's not nitpick after a strong week from a team that needed one.

    Denver plays with intensity uncommon in a lottery-bound squad, and the win over Golden State—marked by a clear advantage in effort—bodes well for the second half of this rebuilding season. Rookie Emmanuel Mudiay continues to come off the bench, and it can only be a good thing for his development to watch the more experienced players ahead of him competing so doggedly.

    Another two-win week like this, though, and we may have to amend the lottery-bound label. Denver is quietly riding its high-effort style to within striking distance of a playoff spot.

22. Charlotte Hornets

9 of 30

    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 19

    A huge win over the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 13 made the hurting stop.

    The Charlotte Hornets built a 30-point advantage and held the offensively formidable Hawks to just 84 points, ending a seven-game losing streak that felt, at times, like it would endure forever. Besting Atlanta behind strong defense had to relieve head coach Steve Clifford, who had to watch his team's once-solid stopping power gradually disappear during the two-week slide down the standings.

    Unfortunately, the win over the Hawks gave Charlotte nothing more than a 1-2 week. And given the team's overall downward trajectory, it feels smarter to view that game as a short respite, not the sign of an impending turnaround.

    We'll need to see some sustained winning before the Hornets move back into the teens.

    And for now, even though they're just a couple of games back of the eighth spot, it seems like the Hornets are on the outside of the jumbled East playoff chase.

21. New Orleans Pelicans

10 of 30

    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Last Week: 22

    The Pelicans remain a mess, and Tyreke Evans leaving in the first quarter of a Jan. 13 win over the Sacramento Kings with swelling in his surgically repaired right knee won't help any cleanup efforts. Nor will the news that Quincy Pondexter's knee will require another surgery, this time of the season-ending variety.

    In fact, it might be tough to understand how New Orleans deserves to move up a spot, especially ahead of the Hornets, who have six more wins on the year.

    Well, if you look at a more recent sample, it's pretty easy to justify.

    The Pelicans are 2-4 since Jan. 1, while the Hornets are 1-6. And the Pelicans' 2016 net rating of minus-0.7 in that span looks an awful lot better than Charlotte's minus-7.4.

    Whether New Orleans' small step forward sticks will depend on how it handles an upcoming January schedule that is as soft as they come. Only three teams over .500 are on the slate for the rest of the month. Now would be a good time for Anthony Davis to quiet the critics with a throwback (to last year) stretch of dominant play.

20. Orlando Magic

11 of 30

    Elfrid Payton taking his hair across the pond.
    Elfrid Payton taking his hair across the pond.Randy Belice/Getty Images

    Last Week: 17

    A 1-6 start to 2016 has the Orlando Magic dropping spots in the power rankings yet again.

    Elfrid Payton's sprained ankle cost him four of those games, and Orlando went just 1-3 without its best facilitator. But the problems run deeper than any one player, as the Magic haven't scored or defended well for weeks.

    Since Christmas, Orlando's D ranks in the bottom five, per NBA.com.

    "You don't want five out of six to turn into six out of seven, seven out of eight and all of a sudden we're undoing everything that we've done already," head coach Scott Skiles told reporters before the Magic fell to the Toronto Raptors in London on Jan. 14, becoming the first team to lose on two continents this season.

    The unraveling Skiles fears seems to be happening, and facing the Hawks on Jan. 18 in their first game back from the London trip won't make things any easier on the Magic.

    You never want to get too far ahead on things like this, but with Orlando and Charlotte falling off, it's starting to seem like the complicated playoff picture in the East is simplifying. A couple more regressions like this, and there won't be much intrigue surrounding those top eight spots.

    After a first half that featured at least a dozen playoff hopefuls, that'll be a significant change.

19. Portland Trail Blazers

12 of 30

    Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 23

    It's been good to get Damian Lillard back after a bout of plantar fasciitis shelved him from Dec. 21 until Jan. 4.

    Resting him in the fourth quarter of a comfortable win is even better.

    The Portland Trail Blazers capped a strong week with a 99-85 home win against the Utah Jazz in which Lillard's late-game services weren't necessary. That win followed an even more impressive Jan. 10 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    An excusable loss to the Warriors on Jan. 8 doesn't detract from an altogether excellent stretch that has seen Lillard and C.J. McCollum working together as the surrounding role players chip in wherever they can. This was essentially the plan when the Blazers stripped themselves of veterans over the summer, but it's hard to imagine even their most optimistic visions included being a game out of a playoff spot at this point in the season.

    Portland heads east for its next three, which sounds scarier than it really is. It'll face Brooklyn, Philly and Washington in a four-day span from Jan. 15-18.

    If the Blazers aren't careful, the pressure-free vibes of a team clearly overachieving could soon turn into playoff expectations.

18. Utah Jazz

13 of 30

    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    Last Week: 20

    Rudy Gobert gets a pass for his first game back, a 103-94 loss to the Houston Rockets on Jan. 7 in which he played just 15 minutes. That was purely a knock-the-rust-off affair, one he probably needed after missing over a month with an MCL sprain.

    Since then, his impact has been conspicuous—even if he's still working himself back into shape.

    With wins over the Heat and Lakers preceding the Portland loss mentioned in the previous slide, Utah's defensive prowess has returned. The Jazz looked much more like themselves this past week, holding three opponents under 100 points and getting 12 blocks from Gobert in four games.

    Derrick Favors is still out with a bad back, but Trey Lyles' perimeter stroke has looked good in spurts while he's filled in for Utah's banged-up big man. The rookie hit both of his three-point attempts against the Blazers and scored 19 points against the Kings.

    Utah has had more than its share of health problems this season but still manages to find itself in playoff position. With Gobert back and the bad injury luck bound to turn around eventually, we should expect continued climbs from the Jazz going forward. 

17. Boston Celtics

14 of 30

    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Last Week: 12

    The Boston Celtics are going to turn this thing around. They just have to. Right?

    Brad Stevens is too good of a coach, the defense is too stout and the advanced metrics are too universally supportive of Boston's quality for it to keep slipping like this. And hey, maybe that incredible steal-filled closing run in a Jan. 13 win over the Indiana Pacers will be the catalyst.

    These rankings aren't about the future, though. And right now, Boston is struggling.

    With just two wins since the calendar hit 2016, the Celtics fall to their lowest ranking in weeks. The half-court offense ceases to function too often, and a defense that has consistently been among the best in the league hasn't been enough to offset the scoring droughts.

    The rest of January will be jam-packed, as the Celtics play 10 games from Jan. 15-31. Maybe the strain of the schedule will help Boston refocus, or perhaps the lack of practice time will lead to more offensive malfunctions.

    Either way, the Celtics are in a tough spot, and these next two weeks will be a real test of whether they can stabilize their season. Maybe it's unreasonably optimistic to say so, but I'm guessing they'll get things sorted out.

16. Washington Wizards

15 of 30

    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Last Week: 18

    Three straight wins (with two of them coming on the road against East foes ahead of them in the standings) is good enough for me.

    The Washington Wizards rise to No. 16 this week.

    Bradley Beal is back on the floor after missing extended time because of yet another stress reaction in his right fibula. How much the team chooses to rest him going forward will have a lot of bearing on the Wizards' offensive dynamism. Without Beal, John Wall is the only viable shoot-and-pass dual threat on the floor at any given time.

    Even with Beal returning, injuries dot the rest of the roster. Marcin Gortat, Otto Porter and Kris Humphries are all dinged up. Fortunately, Beal's return should make things easier for everyone healthy enough to play, as the spacing he creates forces defenders to make tougher calls.

    "You take your pick," Wizards coach Randy Wittman told J. Michael of CSNMidAtlantic.com. "Obviously (Jared Dudley) is shooting it at an extremely high level. I hope they continue to leave him."

    Washington has a hefty homestand starting next week. With Beal back, it's poised to capitalize.

15. Miami Heat

16 of 30

    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 8

    There are two things to consider before you freak out about the Heat dropping so many spots after a 1-3 week (with the only win coming against the 30th-ranked Suns).

    First, when we get to the middle of the rankings, the differences between the teams slotted ninth, 12th, 14th or anywhere in between are subtle. We're splitting hairs here, and even if the Heat are five games over .500, you've got to consider the more immediate circumstances when you're making decisions.

    Which brings us to the second thing to consider: The Heat are giving off a very dysfunctional vibe lately.

    Goran Dragic is going to miss time with a strained calf, Hassan Whiteside is practically oozing discontent and total second-half shutdowns like the one in a 104-90 loss to the Clippers on Jan. 13 are raising red flags all over the place.

    "We are unrealistic right now," Chris Bosh said after the Clippers loss, per a tweet from Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated. "We think this is the effort and focus we are going to bring day to day, and we are mistaken."

    The Heat play 10 of their next 12 on the road.

    This might get worse before it gets better.

14. Memphis Grizzlies

17 of 30

    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week: 16

    The Memphis Grizzlies are a middle-of-the-pack team, playing .500 ball all season, never more than three games better or worse than a break-even record.

    And we know what their problems are: They're old at key spots, their defense has slipped and they don't shoot enough threes to sustain a modern offense. These are basic, systemic issues, and they'll keep Memphis where it is for the rest of the year.

    There's serious frustration on this point in Memphis, and it's being channeled at specific targets—perhaps because that's easier than accepting the broader truth.

    "Remember the jubilation when the Grizzlies traded Tayshaun Prince and a first-round pick to the Celtics for (Jeff Green)?" Geoff Calkins wrote in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "He was going to bring explosiveness and athleticism! He was going to put the Grizzlies over the top! Instead, he did what he has done for every team he has ever played for. He made the team worse."

    That's some heat right there, and it's not inaccurate. The Grizzlies are 2.7 points per 100 possessions better when Green sits, per NBA.com.

    At least Mario Chalmers' game-winners are fun.

13. New York Knicks

18 of 30

    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Last Week: 14

    Since getting smashed on New Year's Day by the Bulls, the Knicks are 5-2, and their only losses come with legitimate excuses.

    The San Antonio Spurs are really good, so there's no cause to criticize a one-point defeat to them (on the road, by the way) on Jan. 8. And the Knicks didn't have Carmelo Anthony when they lost to the Nets on Jan. 13.

    That Nets loss highlighted Anthony's value to the team. No longer simply a chucker, Melo's increasing willingness to draw defenders and set up teammates is a real weapon. Without him, Kristaps Porzingis struggled to find quality looks.

    New York has quietly been one of the top teams in the East in January, but it has clearly struggled without Anthony all season, posting a net rating of minus-5.9 when he sits, per NBA.com.

    Assuming his bothersome ankle heals as expected, the Knicks should continue to score effectively and push on past the break-even mark they've been flirting with for the past couple of months.

12. Dallas Mavericks

19 of 30

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 9

    It's been a weird week for the Dallas Mavericks.

    A 1-3 mark means moving them up is out of the question, but the only bad loss was a 96-95 stumble against the Bucks on Jan. 8. After beating the Wolves on the road, Dallas lost in overtime to the scorching Cavaliers, then sat out all five starters the next night in a throwaway effort against OKC.

    It seems like Dallas has to fall out of the top 10. But it's hard to justify the same kind of slippage the Heat endured.

    How does three spots sound? Fair? It seems to be what Dirk's suggesting in the photo, and listen, I'm not going to argue with him.

    Apologies if that feels like overkill, but keep in mind that part of Dallas' decline has to do with another Texas team deserving a positive bump ahead of it.

    That's a segue, folks.

11. Detroit Pistons

20 of 30

    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Last Week: 13

    There's plenty to like about the Detroit Pistons, who followed up an easy win over the Nets on Jan. 9 with losses to the Spurs and Grizzlies. They're good on the road, they've defended at a top-10 rate for most of the year and their starting unit is as reliable as any in the sub-title-contender tier.

    But Andre Drummond's free-throw shooting is a problem, and it's hard to know how the Pistons can fix it.

    When Stan Van Gundy addressed reporters about Drummond's free-throw shooting, which is on pace to be the worst single-season figure in league history, he sounded like a guy thinking about benching his best player in key situations: "We're in big trouble. I've got to do what gives us the best chance to win. I owe it to the organization and the other guys on this team."

    Drummond has to get better, or there's going to be a pretty low ceiling on the Pistons' season.

    That's a lot of negative talk for a team that moved up two spots. Full disclosure: Detroit's rise is mostly about teams ahead of it last week taking a dive.

10. Chicago Bulls

21 of 30

    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Last Week: 6

    If you can help it, it's best to avoid overreaction on a week-to-week thing like power rankings, but when a team burns you like the Bulls, falling apart immediately upon earning their highest spot of the year, well...it's hard not to get emotional.

    Where's my camera?

    OK, ready?

    You don't want to make an enemy out of me, Bulls. I'ma say it again: You do not want to make an enemy out of me. I'm not having it. I've done nothing wrong, and I'm not going to tolerate it.

    The crazy thing is that this keeps happening with the East.

    Every week, we crown a new second-best squad in the conference, hoping it'll stick with that status for at least a few days. The Pacers, Celtics, Raptors, Hawks and Bulls have all held the distinction.

    But it seems like every time we settle on a new No. 2, they go out and flop, just as the Bulls did this week, dropping four of five and needing a Herculean 53 points from Jimmy Butler to beat the Sixers for that lone win.

    Everyone's on the trade block, Derrick Rose's knee hurts, Joakim Noah's unhappy and the Bulls have made a fool of me.

    I'm sick of this. Who's next?

9. Houston Rockets

22 of 30

    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    Last Week: 15

    After swearing last week that talk of Houston's resurrection was premature and that it'd take a serious, sustained stretch of good basketball to justify another move up the rankings, here we are.

    The Rockets, winners of five straight, are back in the top 10.

    It's possible Ty Lawson's absence from the team (suspension) helped restore James Harden's security as the do-it-all ball-handler, but it's not like Lawson was playing much before his hiatus anyway. The better explanation is that Houston's considerable talent is finally playing to its potential.

    Terrence Jones, in particular, has performed well of late, shooting 55.3 percent off the bench during Houston's streak.

    The Rockets have played better than all but the West's entrenched top four for most of the past month, so it's fitting they check in fifth among West squads this week.

    If Lawson finds a way to fit in (or nets an asset as a trade chip) as the rest of the roster gets healthier, the Rockets should solidify their position in the conference.

8. Indiana Pacers

23 of 30

    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Last Week: 10

    The Indiana Pacers move up despite a 2-2 week, mainly because the Bulls fell out of the top 10, but also because a couple of breaks could have resulted in an undefeated run since last we ranked.

    Indy lost an overtime road contest to Houston on Jan. 10, and gave away (literally) a Jan. 13 game to the Celtics by turning the ball over four times in the final two minutes. This isn't horseshoes, and nobody beside Monta Ellis is lobbing hand grenades at the basket, so close has to count for something.

    Closing out games continues to be a real issue for Indy, and it'll have to get that straightened out to stay in the top 10 much longer. But at least the Pacers know they've got a problem, even if the solution is gone.

    "David West would slow things down," Paul George told Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star. "He'd get us in the right spots. We were never too shaky when D West was out there. He was kind of our backbone. That's definitely missed this year."

    Know what, PG? Maybe the resident superstar should be the one settling things down late in games.

    Just sayin'.

7. Atlanta Hawks

24 of 30

    Kent Smith/Getty Images

    Last Week: 7

    We'll leave the Hawks alone this week, sticking with the No. 7 spot they earned last time around. Wins over the Sixers and Bulls don't look all that great considering the way those two teams have fared recently, and that blowout loss to the Hornets wasn't pretty.

    But Atlanta is still seven games over .500 at almost the halfway point of the season, and it's been far steadier than most of its conference competition. 

    Al Horford and Paul Millsap should both be All-Stars, and Kent Bazemore's play in the first unit is going to make him a whole mess of money as a free agent this summer.

    One thing to watch for going forward: Atlanta had a heap of trouble against Charlotte because the Hornets routinely switched on defense, daring the Hawks to attack in one-on-one situations and stifling the ball movement they depend on for good perimeter looks. It was a lot like the tactic that gutted the Hawks' offense in last year's playoffs.

    The book is out on this team, and some adjustments may be necessary.

    For now, the Hawks are steady enough to stay put at No. 7.

6. Toronto Raptors

25 of 30

    Kyle Lowry with a traditional UK post-win gesture...I think.
    Kyle Lowry with a traditional UK post-win gesture...I think.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Last Week: 11

    The Toronto Raptors have to be the first team with wins in three countries this year, don't they?

    A 106-103 overtime triumph against the Magic on Jan. 14 gave the Raps a win in London to go with the victories they'd already notched in the U.S. and Canada. So...that's something.

    We're burying the lede here, as Toronto has moved back into the East's No. 2 spot in the rankings—a position it occupied a few weeks ago, and one it'll probably surrender in a few days if power rankings tradition stays true to form.

    It's probably a mistake to jinx Toronto by placing it here, but ESPN.com's Zach Lowe explained why some of the Raptors' recent steadiness on offense might be sustainable: "They've shaved away five pull-up jumpers per game and replaced them with better stuff—catch-and-shoot looks, free throws and about nine more drives to the basket, according to SportVU tracking data research."

    The Raptors have won four straight and look as good as anyone in the East outside of Cleveland.

    Do your worst, power rankings curse!

5. Los Angeles Clippers

26 of 30

    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 5

    You've got to give it up for the Clippers.

    Winners of 10 straight, owners of a plus-17.1 net rating since Jan. 1 and trailing the Oklahoma City Thunder by just one game in the loss column—all without Blake Griffin since the day after Christmas.

    That's some legitimately impressive stuff.

    Unfortunately, the Clips' terrific run has only been good enough to close the gap between them and the Thunder for the No. 4 spot. OKC's net rating on the year is still 3.6 points better than the Clippers', and it's only fair to mention that L.A.'s big run has come mostly against poor defensive teams.

    All the same, the Clippers are getting close to overtaking the Thunder. Once everyone's healthy, we might have five elite title contenders in the league instead of the four we've been watching all year.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

27 of 30

    Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 4

    With one bad loss in each of the last two weeks (the latest being a 115-110 defeat at the hands of the Blazers on Jan. 10), it feels like the Thunder might be losing touch with the top three teams. And with the Clippers closing in from behind, their position at No. 4 might not even be safe much longer.

    This is where we need to take a deep breath, though.

    As much as these power rankings prize recency, there's a bigger picture to consider. And that picture includes Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant playing for the same team, a healthy team, and one that boasts the second-best offense in the league.

    Russ and KD have the second- and third-best player efficiency ratings in the NBA, per Basketball-Reference.com.

    If going 8-2 over its last 10 games qualifies as a lull for OKC, sign me up for one of those.

    The Thunder aren't playing their best lately, but there's no reason to worry. This is still a team with a No. 1 ceiling and a No. 5 basement.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

28 of 30

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 3

    A win over the Spurs on Jan. 14 would have made the Cavs a serious threat to move into the No. 2 spot this week, but Cleveland's eight-game winning streak came to a close in cold, unfeeling fashion.

    Which is to say the Spurs shut the Cavs down. Hard.

    More on that later.

    For now, we should celebrate Cleveland's more broadly elevated level of play lately. With Kyrie Irving back and playing well, the Cavs' offense is as unstoppable as ever (except against the Spurs, who stop everything).

    Not that there was ever much question about it before, but with Cleveland healthy and clicking, there's simply no other team in the East even close to challenging for conference supremacy. In fact, the Cavaliers could pretty comfortably coast for most of the second half without fear of losing much ground.

    And after seeing the opportunities a banged-up roster cost them last year, you could make a case that the Cavs would be irresponsible not to rest their key players often down the stretch.

2. Golden State Warriors

29 of 30

    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Last Week: 2

    We got a nice little window into Draymond Green's value this week, as the Golden State Warriors flubbed a road contest against the Nuggets, falling by two points despite a 20-point outburst from Stephen Curry in the fourth quarter.

    Disorganized, sloppy and bereft of a pick-and-roll playmaker, the Dubs just weren't themselves sans Green, who sat out to rest.

    The Warriors have still been crushing teams by double digits—both on the season and since Jan. 1—so there's little reason to worry about a second-half step backward. With Harrison Barnes finding his legs after a few weeks on the sideline because of an ankle injury, Golden State is close to getting completely healthy.

    And we know from the first month of the season that a fully equipped version of the Dubs is about as good as it gets.

    At the moment, though, that No. 1 spot looks miles away. 

1. San Antonio Spurs

30 of 30

    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Last Week: 1

    In the six January games they played before meeting the Spurs, the Cavaliers had the top offense in the league.

    And then San Antonio held Cleveland to 95 points.

    And Kawhi Leonard is obscenely good.

    And they're 23-0 at home.

    And they've won 10 straight.

    And Tony Parker is far from done.

    And Tim Duncan might still be an All-Defense First Team member.

    And the bench is probably the best in the league.

    It's just...it's just not possible that a team could be this much better than everyone else—especially when two or three other squads in the league would be good enough to win titles in any other year.

    There's a lot of ground to cover before everything's decided, but it's getting hard to see how anyone could compete with these Spurs.

    They're on a level all their own right now.

     

    Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Accurate through games played Jan. 14.