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NBA Power Rankings 3 Months into 2015-16 Season

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2017

NBA Power Rankings 3 Months into 2015-16 Season

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    It's been a long time since we had much movement among the top 10 spots in the NBA power rankings, which goes to show that little is decided after three months of action.

    Anyone paying attention to the league lately knows the top spot was at stake in a Jan. 25 showdown between the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, but it might surprise some to learn that two more squads in the upper tier slipped as the league's hottest team came up from below to knock them out of the way.

    Remarkably, four of the top five spots have changed hands since last week.

    Such intrigue!

    A refresher: Rankings are based on overall season performance with an emphasis on each team's recent play. Using net rating, record and whatever other catch-all stats we can get our hands on, the goal is to sort all 30 teams into an order that reflects their present quality.

    Three months in, here's what we know.

30. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 29

    There's nothing complicated here: The Los Angeles Lakers have dropped eight in a row and 11 of their last 12 overall. Only the Philadelphia 76ers' record is worse than the Lakers' 9-39, but nobody would dare suggest Philly's current play is anywhere close to as bad as Los Angeles'.

    It's mostly a defense thing, as the Lake Show's NC-17 stopping power is profanely bad—worst in the league by a considerable and ever-widening margin, per NBA.com.

    So, in the face of crushing ineptitude, let's lighten the mood with a cool story about Kobe Bryant, since that's mostly what this Lakers season has been about anyway.

    This one's from Jamal Crawford in the Players' Tribune:

    I heard one time in a workout that he practiced a shot for an hour. The same shot. For one hour. And it wasn’t like a three-pointer, it was a little shot in the mid-range area. Do you know how tedious that is? Do you know how locked in you have to be to do one shot for an hour? To trick your mind that way? That’s unbelievable.

    Everyone loves a good anecdote on pathological work ethics.

29. Phoenix Suns

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    Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 30

    The Suns won.

    The Suns won?

    Good enough for me. Get 'em out of the basement!

    That 98-95 home win against the Atlanta Hawks gave Phoenix just its second win in 2016 and its first since Jan. 6, ending a six-game slide.

    To secure the rare result, the Suns got 24 points from point guard Archie Goodwin (running things with Eric Bledsoe's season finished and Brandon Knight's groin injury thinning the positional depth further) and a franchise-record 27 rebounds from Tyson Chandler, whom you might remember as a theoretically important signing this past summer.

    Road losses to the Sixers (completing a truly sad 2-0 season series sweep by Philly) and Cavaliers followed, though, and the Suns won't return home until Feb. 2.

    This new tactic of starting Alex Len and Chandler up front together is intriguing, if only because it's so unusual in the ever-shrinking modern game.

    If you're going to be bad, you might as well be a little weird.

28. Orlando Magic

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 26

    This feels insanely low for the Orlando Magic, who actually sniffed around the top 10 back when they were 19-13 on Dec. 30. But what else can we do with a team that currently owns the longest losing streak in the league (seven games) and hasn't done anything to dispel the suspicion that its early success was almost entirely schedule driven?

    "If we start pressing now, then we're never going to get back out of this slump," Aaron Gordon told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel. "We need to relax. But when I [say] 'relax,' we need to have a sense of urgency and we need to be diligent."

    Relax, but be urgent. Got it.

    We can forgive the Magic for their tangled thinking. Going from a feel-good playoff hopeful to a spiraling mess can really muddle things, but none of this is complicated. Since this tailspin started on Jan. 1, no team in the league has been less efficient on offense, per NBA.com. The defense, which is seventh-worst in that same span, looks great by comparison.

    Still young, still talented in some obscure, unformed sense of the word, the Magic aren't without long-term hope.

    But this isn't getting prettier anytime soon.

27. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Last Week: 27

    As the following from Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press suggests, things haven't gone so great for the Minnesota Timberwolves lately:

    Nearly half the roster of 15 players privately expressed concerns to The Associated Press about Mitchell that centered on three basic tenets: His outdated offensive system, his tendency to platoon his rotations and a lack of personal accountability for the struggles. The players spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly criticize their head coach.

    The long twos and curious rotations are sizable issues, but Minnesota's sieve of a defense is far bigger. Since Jan. 1, it has allowed 108.8 points per 100 possessions, which is third-worst in the league. Hence the 2-12 record from New Year's Day to Jan. 27.

    Enough of that, though. Everyone knows the young Wolves are disappointing.

    Know who's not? Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota's rookie stud—a future superstar at center piling up double-doubles with high efficiency who also happens to be the team's most reliable perimeter shooter (37.8 percent from long range).

    It's been a while since we pushed aside the bummers in Minnesota and focused on Towns, the league's most promising young star. We should probably do it every week.

26. Brooklyn Nets

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Last Week: 28

    The Brooklyn Nets edge out the T-Wolves because their only win since the last edition of the power rankings, a Jan. 24 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, was more impressive than Minnesota's most recent success, a Jan. 23 win against the Memphis Grizzlies.

    With the team talking more optimistically and Joe Johnson even using words like "progress" to describe a 1-6 stretch, at least there's a willingness to consider a brighter future in Brooklyn—even if that openness to positivity hardly squares with the bleak reality of a team lacking the resources to improve in the near future.

    Keep those chins up, Brooklyn. The first half of February features a home-heavy schedule that could produce two or three wins. Maybe that'll validate the whole power-of-positive-thinking thing the Nets have going on right now.

25. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 24

    Nikola Jokic's passing touches parts of my heart that are only occasionally accessed by Marc Gasol, Andrew Bogut and, long ago, Arvydas Sabonis—the parts reserved specifically for joyfully crafty centers. And the fact that Jokic dropped the above dime inches from Gasol only adds to the appeal.

    The Denver Nuggets' rookie center has delightful court sense, averaging 3.4 assists per 36 minutes, according to NBA.com, which ties him with Bogut and Al Horford and compares favorably with Gasol's 3.9.

    This is important because Denver's more prized rookie, Emmanuel Mudiay, has struggled mightily. Jokic provides the promise Nuggets fans expected to see in the lottery-pick point guard.

    And yes, that pass against Memphis came last week. But Jokic followed it up with a 17-point, five-rebound effort against Detroit on Jan. 23 and a 15-point, 10-rebound outing against Atlanta on Jan. 25. He had three assists in both contests.

    It may take a while to reach completion, but it's getting easier to see the outlines of an exciting Nuggets offense—with Jokic playing a pivotal role.

24. Philadelphia 76ers

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    B. Sevald/Einstein/Getty Images

    Last Week: 25

    The Philadelphia 76ers have played .500 ball for nearly two weeks, which is more than enough to warrant a modest upward move.

    Their most recent wins came against Phoenix and Orlando, so it's hard to get too excited. But it's becoming clear that the post-Colangelo-D'Antoni version of this team isn't the historic laughingstock it was before.

    Ish Smith has galvanized the offense, but you already knew that. And Nerlens Noel has thrived at center alongside the diminutive point guard—particularly with Jahlil Okafor's illness-caused absence unclogging the middle lately.

    Barring the kind of aggressive tanking the Sixers were once known for, this isn't a team that will finish with the worst record in the league this season.

    Celebrate or mourn as necessary.

23. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 22

    Jason Kidd is back on the bench after missing over a month following hip surgery, and he's returned to a Milwaukee Bucks team that looks a lot more like the one he coached last season, which is a good thing.

    Though the Bucks had a tough week, they went 8-9 overall without Kidd and rediscovered the defense and interior scoring that helped them reach the playoffs last year. No one averages more points in the paint than Milwaukee.

    The Bucks are a good example of why it's not a great idea to get worked up over a slow start, even if it lasts nearly half a campaign. Things have begun to normalize: Khris Middleton's 25-point night against the Magic on Jan. 26 is the norm now, dispelling worries about his rough first half. And at 20-28, Milwaukee is a hot stretch away from getting back to the .500 mark it posted in 2014-15.

    The Bucks aren't an objectively good team, and they certainly haven't taken the leap some suspected. But as they exist right now, they're not so bad either.

22. Washington Wizards

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Last Week: 16

    A pair of blowout losses to the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors got the week off to a bad start for the Washington Wizards, who haven't gotten the results they wanted from their return to big ball. And the loss to the lowly Nuggets didn't help.

    A team searching for a sense of self has yet to find it, per comments Jared Dudley made to Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post: "I just think it’s just the changing of styles where we’re trying to find an identity right now. We’re trying to space. We’re trying two bigs. We just need to work on our consistency when it comes to that, and practice time will do that."

    Practice is great, and Washington needs to decide what kind of team it wants to be.

    But lost in this narrative about a quest for identity is the simpler underlying issue: The Wizards either don't have the personnel to be a playoff team in any style, or head coach Randy Wittman isn't positioning the talent for optimal success.

    At the risk of getting too technical, this is a "blah" team. "Meh" is also acceptable.

    That'll become clearer after tilts at Houston and Oklahoma City next week, plus another at home against Golden State.

21. Charlotte Hornets

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    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 23

    A team hard up for wins got three this past week, as the Charlotte Hornets halted their slide with victories against the Magic, Knicks and Kings—withstanding an NBA season-high 56 points from DeMarcus Cousins in that last one.

    An exhausted Charlotte squad didn't have the bodies to hold up in a Jan. 27 loss to the Utah Jazz, and Nicolas Batum's return was marred by Jeremy Lin exiting with a nasty sprained ankle. One in, one out for the injury-riddled Hornets this season.

    A four-game homestand against an East-only schedule kicks off the month of February, and if the Hornets are going to make up some of the ground they lost in a tough January, that'll be the time to do it.

    There! Some refreshing optimism after that downer of a Wizards slide.

20. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    Last Week: 21

    Losing Eric Gordon to a broken finger didn't cripple the New Orleans Pelicans, and the three-day layoff following Anthony Davis' concussion against the Houston Rockets on Jan. 25 helped limit the negative impact on the standings.

    Even without Davis down the stretch, the Pelicans nearly extended their winning streak to four games against Houston. And thanks to Ryan Anderson's career-high-tying 36 points against the Kings on Jan. 28, they started a new winning streak immediately.

    The Pelicans went 7-6 in their first 13 January games, and they haven't lost by double digits since way back on Dec. 28. Before going down with the concussion, Davis had been beasting: 35 points against the Wolves on Jan. 19 and 32 more against the Pistons two days later.

    Jrue Holiday has also been productive, and his assumption of the ball-handling duties surrendered by Tyreke Evans has helped the offense.

    Davis' health is clearly the biggest concern right now. If he doesn't miss too much time, the Pelicans' upward trend will continue.

19. Sacramento Kings

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    Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 18

    Losing one spot after a 1-4 week feels generous.

    Maybe it is.

    But you try telling DeMarcus Cousins, Destroyer of Souls, that his team doesn't deserve to stay put.

    Cousins has been unstoppable lately, posting point totals of 48 and 56 points on consecutive nights and absolutely punishing anyone foolish enough to obstruct his path to the bucket. An increased emphasis on inside play has unlocked something in Cousins, who got a little too flirty with his three-point shot earlier in the year.

    No more. Boogie is pulverizing everyone now, posting huge scoring and rebounding totals in January and easily securing his first non-injury-replacement All-Star nod.

    The Kings briefly climbed into the No. 8 spot in the West last week, and they'll be in the mix as long as Cousins keeps dominating.

18. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Last Week: 20

    The Blazers did what they had to do this week, hammering the Lakers behind 36 points from Damian Lillard on Jan. 23 and then taking care of business against a Sacramento Kings team playing the second half of a back-to-back set (following a double-OT loss).

    We've mentioned it before, but now it's official: The Blazers are in a playoff race. Right there with the Kings and Utah Jazz in pursuit of that eighth spot in the West, Portland looks like it could hang around and be generally competitive for the long haul.

    And hey! Noah Vonleh is doing things now! He put up consecutive double-digit scoring games against the Lakers and Kings, giving him (does 40 minutes of rigorous calculations) two such contests on the year.

    We joke, but in a competition for No. 8 that feels awfully tight, the emergence of one more quality contributor like Vonleh could make a difference.

17. Utah Jazz

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    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 19

    If Vonleh is quietly emerging for the Blazers, Rodney Hood is going full supernova for the Jazz by comparison.

    Utah's shifty, polished wing is averaging 18.4 points in 13 January games, hitting 47.1 percent of his threes and looking uncommonly comfortable as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Counted on to be a big part of the rotation this season, Hood's scoring and efficiency had been on the decline until this recent resurgent stretch.

    Now, Utah has a second reliable perimeter threat next to Gordon Hayward, who has also been playing some of his best ball this season.

    With Derrick Favors (finally) returning from a protracted bout with back spasms and Rudy Gobert looking like himself, the Jazz still feel like the worthiest No. 8 seed in the three-team battle for the spot. It hasn't been pretty for most of the year, but the Jazz have won two of three and boast plenty of upside.

16. Miami Heat

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Last Week: 17

    The Miami Heat move up after a 2-1 week, but just barely.

    Two close road victories against the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets in a slate of back-to-back games showed real resilience. And Dwyane Wade's late-game heroics in the latter contest were inspiring—especially as Miami struggles to find production with so many key players injured.

    Chris Bosh remains productive. He had 27 points against Brooklyn, matching Wade's total. And Justise Winslow continues to defend well.

    Even though they've moved on from a brutal mid-month stretch that featured seven losses in eight games, the Heat are hardly in the clear. Four of their next five are on the road, including rough back-to-back games against Houston and Dallas on Feb. 2 and 3.

    "It’s gonna happen, it happens to everybody in the league, you’re gonna have injuries, things aren’t gonna go your way, you’re gonna deal with the road," Bosh told Ethan Skolnick of the Miami Herald. "It’s all about how you respond."

    Miami has at least started to respond, but those injuries and the team's mostly broken offense remain concerns.

15. New York Knicks

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Last Week: 14

    Carmelo Anthony's knee is costing him games again, the New York Knicks had their worst win-loss week since mid-December and those postseason hopes, so bright a week ago, are dimmer now.

    But the Knicks only slip a couple of spots because Kristaps Porzingis wore a sweet leather jacket after the shootaround in Toronto on Jan. 28. Don't worry about how that mitigates an 0-4 week. Just know that it does.

    News from Ian Begley of ESPN.com that the Knicks have talked with the Atlanta Hawks about a Jeff Teague trade adds some intrigue to the pre-deadline outlook, though it's difficult to envision New York coming up with the best offer—especially with many other teams reportedly interested.

    If Anthony gets healthy and Porzingis continues to thrive under his tutelage, the Knicks may not need to make a move to return to the playoff picture. They'll certainly have to avoid any more 0-4 weeks, though, which should be easy against a pushover schedule in February.

14. Indiana Pacers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Last Week: 9

    The Indiana Pacers have predictably sunk after a two-week stretch with just two wins—a 97-94 escape on the road against Phoenix that might as well count as another loss and a surprising home win over the Hawks on Jan. 28.

    Paul George's November hot streak feels more and more like something we imagined, and the Pacers are struggling to find the right supporting players to ease the considerable burden on their star.

    President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird sees one such player in rookie Myles Turner, per Mark Montieth of Pacers.com: "They say he's going to be one of the top players in the league just by how hard he works. And his skill level. ...and his attitude. This kid down the road will be a real leader. He'll be a real leader."

    Turner has expanded his role lately, and big results have followed: 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting against the Nuggets on Jan. 17, 31 points against the Warriors on Jan. 22 and five blocks against the Kings the next night.

    Indiana may have slipped, but talents like Turner should give it long-term traction.

13. Chicago Bulls

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    Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 12

    Derrick Rose had been playing well before leaving the Jan. 25 loss to the Heat because of back and hamstring soreness. He hit the Warriors for 29 points on Jan. 20, then followed up with 27 more against the Celtics on Jan. 22. And even though he was just 5-of-21 from the field, he did enough to lead the Bulls to a win over the Cavs on Jan. 23.

    Hobbled as he may be, Rose will have to be at least that good going forward. Nikola Mirotic's bout of appendicitis will sideline him until after the All-Star break, Joakim Noah's season is done and Kirk Hinrich is out. That leaves Rose, Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol to pick up the slack.

    It's difficult to imagine Rose's role increasing. He already has a higher usage rate than Butler, per ESPN's Tom Haberstroh. And adding to the minutes of a notoriously fragile point guard with hamstring issues seems unwise. He will have to make his contributions via increased efficiency.

    For a guy struggling to hit a quarter of his three-point attempts on the year, at least there's nowhere to go but up.

12. Dallas Mavericks

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Last Week: 13

    A 1-3 week doesn't always mean a precipitous drop—not when the losses come against the Thunder, Rockets and Warriors, and not when there are encouraging signs within those defeats.

    For example, Chandler Parsons has looked healthier and more aggressive than he has at any prior point, and his increased effectiveness has helped soften the blow of Zaza Pachulia's absence. The Mavericks center, integral to the team's success this year, is still fighting a sore Achilles.

    Dirk Nowitzki missed a 20-point loss to the Warriors to close out the week, but he hit a vintage game-winner the night before in Los Angeles. As long as the Mavs manage his minutes and rest him whenever that troublesome knee flares up, he should be around to reliably anchor the offense.

    Dallas is past the point of being an overachiever, and we should probably now view it as a team with a chance to get even better as Parsons and Wesley Matthews get further into the recovery process of their injuries from last season.

    Hanging with the Thunder and bothering the Warriors for a half (without Dirk) are good signs. Hence the seemingly strange move up.

11. Detroit Pistons

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    B. Sevald/Einstein/Getty Images

    Last Week: 8

    We're overcorrecting on the Pistons here by dinging them a few spots—partly because a handful of much hotter teams deserve to leapfrog them, and partly because they're responsible for awakening the Warriors with that Jan. 16 victory.

    Golden State is now running roughshod over the rest of the league, and we have to blame somebody for that.

    Detroit has played .500 ball over the past month, and it's starting to feel like it'll settle in to the 10-12 range in the rankings. There might be room for improvement if Stan Van Gundy gives longer looks to a couple of promising lineups, though.

    ESPN's Zach Lowe observed one such group on Jan. 27, tweeting: "I'm excited SVG busted out Jackson/KCP/Johnson/Morris/Drummond last night. Plus-18 in 62 minutes this season. Intriguing."

    More of that or, perhaps, a trade to bring in another option at power forward could help elevate the Pistons' ceiling. For now, it's looking like the team's potential tops out at "pretty good."

10. Atlanta Hawks

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    Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 7

    You can't lose to the Suns and stay put. That's a firm rule, and the Hawks broke it on Jan. 23.

    Atlanta tumbles after a week that could have looked a lot better if Paul Millsap had converted one of his two chances at game-tying buckets in an 85-83 loss to the Clippers on Jan. 27. Of course, if the Hawks' typically functional offense had managed to shoot better than 41.8 percent or turned the ball over fewer than 22 times, Millsap wouldn't have needed either of those shots to go.

    With All-Star berths announced, now seems like a good time to take stock of just how differently this season has gone for Atlanta. This time a year ago, we learned there'd be four Hawks in the All-Star Game, and Atlanta was a ridiculous 38-8, seven games ahead of the second seed in the East.

    Though the Hawks are still a sure playoff team, Millsap is their lone All-Star, and rumors are swirling that Teague could be on the move via trade.

    Times have changed.

9. Boston Celtics

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 15

    With four straight wins, an All-Star berth for Isaiah Thomas and a home-and-home set against the Magic coming up, things are looking pretty sweet for the Boston Celtics right now.

    Long supported by advanced metrics (Basketball-Reference.com's simple rating has loved them all year), the Celtics are finally putting up the wins their other numbers suggested would come.

    Thomas has led the scoring charge, while the defense put together a stretch in which it forced at least 20 turnovers in four straight games. Put that together, toss in Kelly Olynyk's increasingly impressive marksmanship (he's all the way up over 44 percent from deep this year) and add Jae Crowder's do-everything grit, and you've got a team that finally looks like a top-four seed in the East.

    The schedule has been soft of late, so we can't put Boston up there just yet. But it's starting to feel like the real Celtics are emerging, and it turns out they're really good.

8. Houston Rockets

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 10

    The Houston Rockets are 3-1 in what we should probably call the second Josh Smith era, knocking off the Bucks, Mavs and Pelicans before getting revenge-steamrolled by a San Antonio Spurs team coming off its first loss in roughly 46 years.

    There's no shame in getting plastered by a motivated Spurs squad, so it's been a solid week on balance.

    Smith hasn't played all that well since coming back after a half-season with the Los Angeles Clippers, but maybe he's more of a good-luck charm at this point. The real reason Houston has succeeded of late is James Harden, who is now officially back to being the confoundingly efficient scorer he was last season.

    In his last five games (from Jan. 20-27), he averaged 28.2 points per contest on 48.2 percent shooting from the field. He also hit 45.5 percent of his threes and missed only one of his 45 free-throw attempts.

    Whatever other issues the Rockets have—leadership, defense, secondary scoring—at least they don't have to worry about Harden's production anymore. He's all the way back after a bad start.

7. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 11

    We'll cut the Grizzlies some slack for an odd slip against the Timberwolves on Jan. 23. Aside from that 106-101 defeat, Memphis has been stellar lately, winning eight of its last 10 and 12 of 13 at home.

    On the rise for a few weeks in a row, the Grizzlies have finally made it all the way back into the top 10—a position that seemed totally out of reach as recently as late December.

    Thanks to some early blowouts, the Grizzlies' overall scoring differential is still negative. But this is now pretty clearly a playoff team with a shot at securing home-court advantage in the first round if all keeps this up. Jeff Green sustaining a bit of the form he showed in scoring a season-high 30 points against the Magic on Jan. 25 would help in that effort, as would the return of last year's version of Mike Conley.

    Memphis' point guard has fought injuries all year and is in the midst of the least efficient shooting season he's had since his rookie stint.

6. Los Angeles Clippers

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Last Week: 5

    The Clips are 9-3 since Jan. 1. They have weathered the absence of Blake Griffin beautifully and have seen Chris Paul channel his scoring instincts when they've been most necessary. You could absolutely make the case, based on a superior net rating over the past month, that they deserve to be ahead of the Cavaliers.

    But L.A. has been a little unstable lately, losing big to the Raptors and then beating the Pacers and Hawks by a combined four points to close out their week. Throw in the obvious distraction and bad vibes attached to Griffin's fisticuffs and resulting broken hand, and you've got a confluence of factors that could lead to an unraveling.

    We'll need to see it happen before we send the Clips hurtling down the rankings, and it's entirely possible Paul will just keep playing better as the adversity mounts.

    Still, there's a frailty lurking here. An instability. Let's keep an eye on this one. It could get interesting.

5. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Last Week: 4

    Sorry, Cavs, but you can't fire your coach, score 83 points against the Bulls in a loss, shuffle disinterestedly through a close win against the T-Wolves and then beat Phoenix without a rankings penalty.

    Is Cleveland the best team in the East? Sure.

    Will the talent eventually get it back into the No. 3 or 4 spot here? Almost definitely.

    But can anyone who watched the Cavs this past week make the case that right now, at this very moment, they're playing better than any of the teams ahead of them? If you asked the fans at Quicken Loans Arena on Jan. 23 (you know, the ones who booed loudly during Tyronn Lue's coaching debut), you sure wouldn't get any answers in the affirmative.

    Cleveland will run more under Lue, and it definitely should. And if you want to risk reading into that Phoenix win, you could even deduce they're starting to have a little more fun. But we'll need to see something more impressive, preferably against better competition, before the Cavs return to the top four.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Last Week: 6

    Boom!

    In the midst of a 10-game winning streak, the Toronto Raptors have not only ascended to their highest ranking of the year, but they've also displaced both the Clippers and Cavs in doing so.

    It's not just the Raptors' All-Star tandem of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, either. It's their defense that ranks in the top 10 and their consistent intensity that distinguishes them from the team that absolutely crumbled in the second half last year.

    "Pretty much I feel like the only thing you can really learn from last year is how not to play," Patrick Patterson told James Herbert of CBS Sports.

    The Raptors are for real. They're now firmly entrenched as the No. 2 seed in the East, and they're a whole lot closer to overtaking the Cavs than they are to falling behind the Hawks. All the same, that yawning chasm you see is the one separating Toronto and the top three teams on our list.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Last Week: 3

    The Thunder are in an odd spot: They're markedly more dangerous than the Raptors below them, yet still a separate species from the two squads above them.

    Must be lonely.

    If you're looking for a weakness in an uncommonly healthy, offensively potent outfit with two of the best players in the league playing at peak levels—first of all, good luck. And second, maybe consider the strange lapses that have resulted in OKC's last three defeats.

    Somehow, the Kings, Blazers and Nets are the only teams to beat the Thunder since Christmas.

    Those are hardly the squads you'd expect, but maybe that tells us Oklahoma City is mostly just susceptible to boredom.

    The Thunder, firmly entrenched at No. 3, will have reason to pay attention when they see the Warriors for the first time on Feb. 6. A win in that one could go a long way toward getting OKC out of isolation and into the league's true upper tier.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 1

    Guideline No. 1 for power rankings (and getting along with me personally): Do not question anything Manu Ginobili says, does or thinks.

    This is relevant because the Spurs' Eurostepping demigod provides the only justification we need for removing San Antonio from the top spot.

    After getting spanked by 30 at the disciplinary hands of the Dubs on Jan. 25, he told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News: "At this point, they are better than us. I'm not embarrassed to face it."

    Manu has spoken. End of analysis. Next item.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 2

    The Spurs remain awesome; let's be upfront about that.

    They proved it when they destroyed the Rockets by 31 after that blowout loss against the Dubs.

    If "a cut above, yet still a notch below" isn't in the running for San Antonio's team motto this year, it ought to be. Because there's no shame in falling back into second behind the Warriors, who built up to their annihilation of the Spurs with huge wins over the Cavaliers and Bulls.

    Stephen Curry remains the front-runner for MVP and the less-publicized "Most Likely to be Exposed as an Angel Sent From Heaven to Shoot Basketballs" award.

    Klay Thompson scored 45 points on 20 shots against the Mavericks on Jan. 27, and he's Golden State's third-best player! Draymond Green is an All-Star! Steve Kerr's back!

    The Warriors restored order by beating the Spurs and reclaiming the top spot here. And frankly, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which they give it up any time soon.

     

    Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Accurate through games played Jan. 28.

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