NBA Power Rankings: Elite Jump-Shooting Teams Continue Making Their Mark
The latest NBA Power Rankings are here, and if you thought stability was on the menu as we near the halfway point of the 2016-17 season, brace yourself.
It's only getting nuttier.
We've got shifts in the top five, bottom five and everywhere in between.
The Atlanta Hawks contributed to the chaos by reaching their highest point in weeks and then subsequently trading Kyle Korver, signaling a rebuild is in the works. That says a lot about the competitive structure of the league right now: Sitting in playoff position at 20-16 doesn't mean much when the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers appear destined for the NBA Finals, and it's not worth completing a solid season if it means losing free agents afterward.
Short summary: Paul Millsap is on deck for the next move.
Elsewhere, the New York Knicks tumbled, and the Indiana Pacers climbed.
As always, rankings are based on record, advanced stats and just a dash of gut feeling—with recent performance weighing more heavily than season-long performance. Health is a factor as well. An injured star or two means we have to re-evaluate a team with strong stats to determine how good it is in its diminished state. Ask the Los Angeles Clippers about how that works.
30. Brooklyn Nets
↓ 1 Spot
It took a few weeks of work, and it happened despite replicating the three-heavy style of the league's best offenses, but the Brooklyn Nets have done it.
They've slipped to the very bottom of the league in winning percentage and net rating.
It's a talent issue, of course. Brooklyn has all the right ideas and all the wrong guys to execute them.
The Nets continue to attempt more three-point shots than anyone but the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers, and they're not flinging off contested heaves just for the hell of it. These are generally quality looks. Only Houston gets more catch-and-shoot triples up per game.
But you still gotta make 'em, and the Nets just don't.
It'll be a surprise if January includes as many wins (three) as Brooklyn's December.
29. Miami Heat
↓ 2 Spots
If it feels unfair to drop the Miami Heat this far, try to look past Wednesday's 107-102 road win over the Sacramento Kings, which snapped a six-game losing streak.
Consider the bigger picture:
Justise Winslow has a torn labrum and will likely miss the rest of the season. Neither he, Hassan Whiteside nor Josh McRoberts even flew with the team to Phoenix on Tuesday to start a six-game road trip. With so many injuries and so little reserve talent, the (wholly justifiable) tank is on.
Sure, Goran Dragic is back, Tyler Johnson plays really hard and Dion Waiters is easing his way into the rotation after missing time. But this is still a Heat team that started Rodney McGruder, Wayne Ellington, Luke Babbitt and Willie Reed alongside Josh Richardson on New Year's Day.
Key players are either going to prolong recovery or get traded as the Heat position themselves for optimal lottery odds.
Maybe guys like Richardson and Johnson will fight too hard for the Heat, diminished as they are, to stay this low. But we might want to get used to Miami occupying a bottom-three spot for the rest of the season.
28. Phoenix Suns
↓ 2 Spots
Though a cursory scan of the Phoenix Suns' recent record shows wins over the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat, five seconds of research reveals a couple of sizable asterisks.
The Raps were coming off a draining defeat against the Golden State Warriors the night before last Thursday's loss to the Suns, and the Heat (as we mentioned) started a first unit that would have struggled against D-League competition.
Dubious recent wins aside, focus on the scary numbers and signs of sustained failure.
No offense has a lower percentage of its baskets come via the assist, a clue that Earl Watson's offense doesn't do the players any favors. Watching Devin Booker work incredibly hard for contested 19-footers off the dribble reinforces that truth every night.
Booker is collapsing in fourth quarters as well, per Michael Dunlap of Fansided, which could be the result of poor conditioning, but might also be a symptom of defenses dialing in against kindergarten-level offensive sets.
You have to hope Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss don't suffer the same developmental setbacks in the Suns' busted system.
27. Los Angeles Lakers
↑ 1 Spot
The Los Angeles Lakers are the most entertaining bad team in the league, and it's not particularly close.
For every face-palmingly fundamental gaffe—like going under ball screens against DeMar DeRozan during a 123-114 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Sunday—there's a joyous display of basketball performance art.
Nick Young is responsible for most of those.
There are other bright spots, most of which are more meaningful for L.A.'s development than Young's award-worthy gyrating. Julius Randle's triple-double in Monday's win over the Memphis Grizzlies stands out, as does the fact that perennial reclamation project Thomas Robinson kind of looks like an NBA player.
He's had a pair of double-digit scoring nights over the past 10 days and is posting career-highs in rebound rate and Player Efficiency Rating. If he's a viable low-cost ninth man the Lakers can keep around, that's great.
If not, there's still plenty more of Randle's rapid development and Young's dirty dancing to go around.
26. Philadelphia 76ers
↑ 4 Spots
Ready the statistical cherry-picker!
In a nearly month-long stretch since the Philadelphia 76ers' Dec. 8 win over Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans, Philly has been far from the league's worst team.
A 5-6 record and a minus-1.7 net rating during that span slots the Sixers right into the middle of the pack, which, if you're at all interested in things like processes (or Processes), feels like progress.
Joel Embiid was named the East's Rookie of the Month for December after averaging 19.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks, despite still dealing with the restrictions of a minutes limit. He's had strong showings against DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns in the last two weeks, and Philadelphia went a perfect 2-0 against Jokic's Denver Nuggets and Towns' Minnesota Timberwolves since we last ranked.
Barring something unforeseen, he'll win Rookie of the Year unanimously.
Get Ben Simmons on the floor with Embiid, Dario Saric and Nerlens Noel (who has proved beyond any doubt that he can flat-out play since coming back from injury), and you've got a core that could conceivably win 25 or 30 games this season—if that were a priority.
25. Minnesota Timberwolves
←→ No Movement
Tuesday's last-second loss to the Sixers could have gone either way, which prevents another drop for the Wolves, especially with a solid win last Friday against the Milwaukee Bucks (who we like a lot around these parts). But nothing the Timberwolves did this past week warranted a move up the rankings either.
All told, the Wolves went 1-2 and continue to slip further out of the race for the West's No. 8 spot. At 11-24, only the Suns, Lakers, Nets and Heat have more losses than Minnesota.
Getting right will take systemic tweaks, more experience and a long, hard look at whether Andrew Wiggins does more harm than good. Shot selection and defensive effort matters, folks.
But one relatively simple avenue toward improvement would be giving point guard Tyus Jones an extended audition with the first unit. Ricky Rubio continues to never shoot, which hamstrings the offense, and Kris Dunn is even less of a force on that end. Jones, meanwhile, has a plus-6.3 net rating in only 219 minutes. He has played just 18 minutes since Dec. 1. Dunn is at minus-2.5 in 598 minutes, while Rubio owns a minus-4.3 in 939.
It's time to see if Jones' small-sample effectiveness holds up over longer stretches and against starters.
At this point, what do the Timberwolves have to lose?
24. Dallas Mavericks
←→ No Movement
So, here's something you might have missed: The Dallas Mavericks aren't that bad anymore.
That's clear in the 8-11 record they've posted since Dec. 1.
This relative respectability is unstable, though, because it depends heavily on Andrew Bogut, who owns the only positive on-court net rating among Mavs who've played significant minutes. Dallas also defends at an elite level with him on the floor; its defensive rating is more than 10 points worse overall, and about 15 points worse in the minutes he sits, specifically.
The big man is coming off the bench at his own request, which makes sense because he and Dirk Nowitzki lack the mobility to play together against all but the slowest opposing frontcourts.
But he's talking like a guy who expects to be dealt, telling Australia's Sky Sports Radio: "Thankfully, I'm a free agent here, so I only have a couple of months more here and then will most likely move on. I don't see myself hanging around with everything that's gone on. It will be an interesting six months ahead."
If Bogut winds up elsewhere, Dallas' defense will crater.
23. Portland Trail Blazers
←→ No Movement
He didn't need one, but C.J. McCollum got a reminder of how rough life as a solitary scoring option can be.
McCollum started out on fire against the Warriors on Wednesday, dumping in 26 first-half points and leading the Portland Trail Blazers into halftime with a lead. Golden State suffocated him after the break, siccing Klay Thompson on him and shifting every help rotation an extra step his way.
He shot just 3-of-12 in the second half as the Warriors pulled away.
Such is life with Damian Lillard sidelined.
Another effect of Portland's best offensive player sitting: The defense has improved dramatically. Lillard hasn't played since Dec. 23, and though the Blazers are only 3-3 during that stretch, they've hauled their defensive rating out of the cellar by holding three of their six opponents under 100 points. (They'd only kept foes below the century mark six times in 32 games before Lillard went down.)
There have been some schematic tweaks, so the defensive growth isn't all on Lillard being out. But it's interesting to note that his absence has been more of a mixed bag than a season-killer.
22. Orlando Magic
←→ No Movement
Hey there, Jodie Meeks!
The Orlando Magic didn't blow the doors off their opponents in a 1-2 week, but the 104.9 offensive rating they posted was better than their 101.0 figure for the full season. And Meeks heating up has plenty to do with the modest improvement.
He hit six of the Magic's season-high tying 15 triples in Monday's 115-103 win over the Knicks, and he's hitting 52 percent from long range over his last five contests.
"Each time he swished a trey, his teammates seemed to gain a bit more swagger, a bit more energy," wrote Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel. "It kept the sellout crowd inside Madison Square Garden eerily silent and helped the Magic overwhelm the Knicks."
Evan Fournier returned from a sore heel as the Magic fell to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, and it's possible Meeks' playing time could take a hit going forward. If the Magic want to keep scoring, though, they'd do well to keep their best shooter on the floor as much as possible.
21. Detroit Pistons
↓ 1 Spot
Believe it or not, you've got to go all the way back to November to find the Detroit Pistons' last true quality win, a 121-114 victory at the Boston Celtics.
Since then, the spiraling Pistons are 7-11 with nothing but dubious or unimpressive successes peppered among the failures. Beating the Cavs with LeBron James resting? Taking it to the adolescent Timberwolves? Knocking off the disjointed Bulls in early December?
Nope, not cutting it.
Month-long skids tend to indicate systemic problems, so correcting this slide will be difficult no matter what. But it'll be impossible if Andre Drummond doesn't start caring on a consistent basis.
The body language is a concern: Watch the Pistons, and you'll note Drummond languidly moving around on D, failing to rotate, displaying signs of frustration and malaise. It's part of the reason his block rate is at a career low.
Most of the numbers are still fine, and Drummond leads the league in total rebound percentage. At some point, though, it's fair to start looking at the tone he's setting as a key reason for Detroit's issues.
20. New York Knicks
↓ 5 Spots
It was hard to decide how far to drop the Knicks this week. The Pistons' implosion has been going on longer, so we settled here.
An 0-4 stretch extended the team's slide to six in a row, Kristaps Porzingis' sore Achilles has kept him out since last Friday and an overarching sense of fatalistic doom is settling in.
Blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and watching helplessly as Giannis Antetokounmpo hit a game-winner on Wednesday certainly made it feel like the Knicks were somehow cursed.
Realistically, talk like that absolves the team from too much blame. The defense has been atrocious, prompting head coach Jeff Hornacek to wonder if his team is even capable of competing on that end. An offense driven by Carmelo Anthony's contested jumpers and Derrick Rose's "more shots than points" efficiency (he pulled off that unpalatable trick in four of New York's last five games) isn't cutting it either.
The Knicks' remaining January schedule is laden with East opponents, so they'll at least get the opportunity to make up ground in the standings.
That's the extent of the bright side, in case you're wondering.
19. Denver Nuggets
↓ 2 Spots
Talk about a momentum swing.
The Denver Nuggets were on the rise after a 5-2 stretch briefly had them looking like the favorite to secure the West's eighth spot, but a defensive collapse sends them spiraling. Nobody's been worse on that end than Denver lately, as its allowance of at least 120 points in its first three games this week attests.
Head coach Mike Malone is calling out a lack of veteran leadership, Danilo Gallinari is firing back, and it's getting harder to see this ending well. (h/t Harrison Wind of BSN Denver on both of those)
This is a shame, because the pieces for a terrific offense are in place, and there's really no reason Denver should be this bad on the other end.
Talent consolidation via trade may be the answer, but that's not a new idea. Jokic is too good not to start, but Jusuf Nurkic is too valuable to sit behind him—two things we've known for months.
Something has to give, and you just have to hope the reason for change (if it comes) isn't fueled by panic or discord—both of which could set in if Malone doesn't dial back the vitriol.
18. Sacramento Kings
←→ No Movement
OK, seriously, does anybody want to be the eighth seed in the West?
When DeMarcus Cousins beat up the Nuggets to the tune of 31 points during a 120-113 win on Tuesday, it sure seemed like the Sacramento Kings were interested in the postseason. But when they no-showed during a 107-102 debacle against the Heat the next day, it was hard to envision a playoff game at the Golden 1 Center.
Resident truth-speaker Garrett Temple told reporters afterward, via James Ham of CSN Bay Area:
I'm very disappointed, the most disappointed I've been this season. This is a game we have to win. After a big game in Denver to get that eight seed and then come in here against a decimated Miami Heat team that's coming on a back-to-back as well - so that’s no excuse. This is a game we have to get. We’ve just got to get it. We can’t lose games like this. I just hope it doesn’t come back to bite us.
The Miami loss kicked off a seven-game homestand for a Kings team that has one of the wackiest schedules in the league. Despite the home cooking, this upcoming stretch won't be easy—it features the Warriors, Cavs and Thunder.
And then Sacramento heads out for eight straight on the road.
If Sacto is going to stabilize, it'll have to do it in a hurry. That road trip, which runs through the end of January, could end its playoff hopes.
17. New Orleans Pelicans
↑ 4 Spots
"I try to do whatever I have to do. I don't mind playing the 5 with the small lineup, because I know it's been helping us," Anthony Davis said, via Justin Verrier of ESPN.com. "Just sacrifice for the team. At the 5 you probably won't get the ball as much, won't score as much, but we're winning so I really don't care."
Sacrifice has paid off, as the New Orleans Pelicans follow last week's five-spot rise with another modest gain.
The defense has improved with Davis at center, which feels like an added bonus in a lineup tweak that was meant to improve spacing on offense. Buddy Hield, the West's rookie of the month, has benefited most from Davis' move to the 5, hitting 47.8 percent of his treys in December.
Though New Orleans' four-game winning streak came to a stop on Monday, it hung with the Cavs during that 90-82 contest in Cleveland. The Pels aren't perfect, but unlike some of the other squads seeking the West's No. 8 seed, they're trending up.
If Donatas Motiejunas—signed to a one-year deal this week—gives them anything, the Pelicans could separate themselves in the playoff chase.
16. Chicago Bulls
←→ No Movement
The Chicago Jimmy Butlers hold steady after a 2-2 week, and if you think renaming a team after a single player is overkill, remember that the Chicago Bulls (as they used to be called) would have gone 0-4 if not for the heroics of their best player.
Butler popped off 52 points during Monday's win over the Charlotte Hornets and scored 14 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter of Wednesday's victory against the Cavs.
It's no coincidence he has been detonating with Rajon Rondo unceremoniously punted from the rotation. Dwyane Wade's pep talk got him going against the Cavs, but Flash's absence for much of Butler's 52-point outing against Charlotte also had plenty to do with the spacing and offensive freedom that triggered the outburst.
Butler needs to breathe, and diminishing the roles of Chicago's big offseason signings increases his air supply.
K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reports Rondo wants out if his demotion is permanent (which it must be if the Bulls want the best from Butler), but it's difficult to imagine what team would take a flier on a mercurial, ball-dominant point guard in a league increasingly defined by movement and spacing.
Ditching Rondo and giving more minutes to Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic could propel Chicago back into the league's top half.
15. Indiana Pacers
↑ 4 Spots
The competition has been underwhelming, but a four-game winning streak is a four-game winning streak.
The Indiana Pacers—powered by Paul George and better served by Monta Ellis' demotion to the bench—knocked off the Bulls, Magic, Pistons and Nets during a perfect week.
This, by the way, is the beginning of a lull in Indy's schedule strength. Of its 10 remaining January opponents, Indiana sees just two legitimate playoff teams: the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets. The Kings are on the docket twice, but they're not scaring anyone. And other than that, it's all lottery-bound foes until February.
That doesn't necessarily weigh into the Pacers' current ranking, but it's something to keep in mind as we evaluate them over the next four weeks.
Something else: Indy has figured out Ellis shouldn't start. He's come off the pine since returning from a groin injury, and the numbers suggest that's been the proper course all along. The Pacers' most used starting lineup—Jeff Teague, Ellis, Paul George, Thaddeus Young and Myles Turner—owns a minus-2.6 net rating.
Slot Glenn Robinson III into Ellis' spot, and the number jumps to plus-9.1. Make it C.J. Miles, and it's plus-10.6.
Pretty simple math, right?
14. Los Angeles Clippers
↓ 1 Spot
It doesn't even feel like we're ranking the Los Angeles Clippers at this point.
With their entire identity wrapped up in four players (Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick), two of whom are hurt, we're talking about another team entirely. Paul's hamstring has cost him seven of L.A.'s last eight games, and Griffin is still weeks away from returning.
So all we're learning is that the a team without half of its key players will sometimes do things to make you cringe, like score 12 points induringa first quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder, or lose six games in a row.
At least L.A. won against the Grizzlies and Suns to halt that losing skid and start a modest two-game winning streak. As has been the case since the injuries started, though, the Clips are basically just clinging to mediocrity until they get healthy.
13. Washington Wizards
↓ 1 Spot
A double-dip in Texas really killed the Washington Wizards' momentum, as losses to the Houston Rockets and Mavericks on Monday and Tuesday ended a stretch of seven wins in nine games. Still, even after that stumble, the list of teams with higher winning percentages than Washington since Dec. 1 is encouraging.
That's because it's only seven clubs long and populated by established powers and playoff locks: Houston, Golden State, Cleveland, San Antonio, Boston, Toronto and Utah.
That's not to say the Wizards are suddenly a top-10 team. What happened before this recent run of respectable play still counts, and the lack of support behind a fantastic starting five makes everything feel extra tenuous.
He averaged 24.5 points, 10.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds on 49.1 percent shooting for the month.
12. Memphis Grizzlies
↓ 1 Spot
The Memphis Grizzlies give you lots to like in the offensive progress department: They set a season high with 20 first-half assists against the Clippers on Wednesday and knocked down a franchise record 17 three-pointers on Saturday.
They're also, of course, an elite defense.
But they also do a few things that make their viability as a top-tier team hazier—like losing to the Lakers and Clippers on back-to-back nights, which they did on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.
At least Mike Conley's 17 points and 12 assists against the Clips signals a return to form. Memphis must hope his health and improvement don't coincide with another bizarre stretch of it playing worse with him and better when he's out.
At 1-2 this week, the Grizz have no time to lick their wounds: Golden State, Utah, OKC and the Rockets are on deck, in that order.
11. Charlotte Hornets
↓ 1 Spot
At full health, I'm of the mind that the Charlotte Hornets are better than the Atlanta Hawks (who, spoiler, come next). I'd even feel safer picking them to finish fourth in the East ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks, for that matter.
Dropping them a few spots is partially a reflection of a shaky week but mostly an acknowledgment of Cody Zeller landing in the NBA's concussion protocol. He wound up there after getting clocked by a Kevin Love elbow on Saturday.
Zeller might be the most unsung necessity in the league, a quiet key to everything Charlotte does well on both ends. Without his screening, Kemba Walker has a harder time getting loose, and his absence on defense compromises the integrity of a typically dialed-in, connected unit.
You don't even need to check the tap to see his value; Just consult his on-off splits. Charlotte gets outscored by three-and-a-half points per 100 possessions without him, but trounces opponents with a plus-9.0 net rating when he's on the floor.
Getting Zeller back is vital to the Hornet's shot at re-entering the top 10. For now, a 1-3 stretch costs them a spot.
10. Atlanta Hawks
↑ 4 Spots
Here's a riddle: If the Atlanta Hawks aren't the team that started 9-2, and they're also not the team that subsequently went 1-10, then who are they? Something in between? Something else entirely?
Sitting at 20-16 and riding a five-game winning streak, the Hawks' up-and-down season makes stretches like this one complicated. How do we know we can trust it? And that's not even considering the possible upheaval that could arise as trade season nears.
According to Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein of ESPN.com, the Hawks are listening to offers on Paul Millsap. Per Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, Kyle Korver is already on the move, traded to the Cavaliers.
Millsap's exit, though a possible necessity in order to avoid losing him for nothing in free agency, would be crippling. He scored 32 points in Sunday's huge win over the Spurs, playing every minute of the second half and overtime.
So enjoy this positioning now, as a eulogy of sorts for the Hawks as we knew them and all the inconsistency they've earned so far.
A teardown seems imminent, as does a swift fall in these rankings during the coming weeks.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder
↓ 2 Spots
Getting Victor Oladipo back will help over the course of the season, but his return didn't pay huge dividends this week, as the Thunder stumbled to a 1-3 mark with losses to the Hornets, Bucks and Rockets.
This is a nasty stretch, one that will test OKC's middling net rating and (possibly) expose its solid 21-16 record as being a little flimsy.
The Thunder's defense remains its strongest attribute, but watching the Hornets post 123 points on Wednesday was a bit worrisome. Houston going for 118 was less of an issue; the Rockets do that to everybody.
Russell Westbrook had an eventful week, logging a tripled-double on Saturday, shooting under 33 percent during his next two games, hitting referee Tre Maddox in the head with a ball, and then losing a duel with former teammate James Harden on Thursday despite scoring 49 points
Through the tumult, Steven Adams was the steady one, hitting at least 80 percent of his shots in three of OKC's last four outings.
8. Milwaukee Bucks
↑ 1 Spot
Until Giannis Antetokounmpo went and added a signature moment to his blossoming superstar reel—hitting a game-winner to beat the Knicks on Wednesday at MSG—this section was going to be all about Malcolm Brogdon ably stepping into the role as Milwaukee's starting point guard.
In four starts since Matthew Dellavedova went down, the rookie second-rounder has been steady. Averages of 12.5 points, 7.3 assists and 5.5 rebounds make him look like a regular starter in the future.
But that can't be the story anymore. Neither can our fallback option, the Bucks' defense, for which we had a laudatory quote from Thunder head coach Billy Donovan, via Eric Nehm of ESPN Milwaukee.
That's out, too.
It's all about Antetkounmpo, who drilled that buzzer-beater, powered the Bucks to a 3-1 week and, as of now, is on pace for the highest Player Efficiency Rating for an age-22 season in the three-point era, per Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated.
Sorry if this gets repetitive, but there's just nothing about the Bucks that matters more or warrants greater attention than the Greek Freak's freakiness.
7. Utah Jazz
↑ 1 Spot
The Bucks were every bit as good as the Jazz this past week, and George Hill's cursed season took another hit—this time to the face. A blow from Alex Len seven minutes into Saturday's meeting with the Suns resulted in a busted lip (22 stitches) and a concussion.
You might think a flip-flop between the seventh and eighth spots would be in order. But Utah's net rating and record are both significantly better than Milwaukee's, and there's also the matter of Rudy Gobert to discuss.
The Jazz center has been phenomenal this season. A defensive menace from the moment he got regular playing time two years ago, Gobert is now producing on offense.
Statmuse's Justin Kubatko noted that Gobert's 77.8 field goal percentage in December was the highest of any player in a month since 1983-84. And according to Basketball-Reference, Gobert currently leads the league in offensive and defensive rating.
"He's taking our offense"—which is 10th in the NBA in points per 100 possessions, to go along with the team's No. 2 defense—"to another level this year," Jazz guard Rodney Hood told Bleacher Report's Yaron Weitzman.
Summation: Gobert is a monster on both ends now.
6. Boston Celtics
←→ No Movement
Isaiah Thomas just refuses to quit.
He totaled 81 points (52 of which came in a 117-114 win over the Miami Heat on Dec. 30) during the Boston Celtics' 2-0 week, and is now closing in on Russell Westbrook for the lead in fourth-quarter scoring average. Another couple of late outbursts and Thomas will bump that 9.3 average even closer to Westbrook's 9.9.
There's only one guard in the East having a better season, but it's difficult to find anyone generating offense with fewer creators around him. Boston has many quality players with valuable attributes, but it doesn't have anyone known for breaking down the defense or creating clean looks for others.
For most of the Celtics' games, and especially in the fourth quarter, those burdens fall squarely on Thomas.
He's shouldered them spectacularly—finishing with impossible acrobatics inside and devastating defenders with slick hesitation dribbles.
It'd be nice to move this team up a spot or two, but the top five remains a separate class—something that becomes obvious when you compare Boston's plus-2.6 net rating to anyone from the group above, all of whose figures are plus-6.0 or better.
5. Toronto Raptors
←→ No Movement
He noted that Stephen Curry's 2015-16 season is the only one by a guard since 2000 with a higher true shooting percentage than the one Lowry's currently putting together (among guards shooting at least 15 times per game).
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Lowry leads all guards in the category this season.
Korver moving to the Cavs could make it more likely Toronto gets aggressive in trying to swing a deal for Millsap, both because Millsap might be more available and because the Raps could be scared into joining the arms race.
If that happens, the top five only gets more tightly bunched.
4. San Antonio Spurs
↓ 1 Spot
You know how we always excuse teams for losing on the second night of a back-to-back?
We should probably extend that leniency to opponents with the misfortune of playing the San Antonio Spurs when Tony Parker hits the vintage switch.
He did that against the Raps on Tuesday, scoring 15 points and handing out a season-high eight assists in just 22 minutes of a hefty 110-82 blowout. When Parker's getting into the middle and finding shooters, San Antonio hits a different level. Because while top-notch defense and stellar second-unit play are constants, throwback games from Parker are like pleasant little surprises.
We forget about the Spurs all the time, but they've quietly won six of their last seven, and Danny Green, by the way, is good again. After hitting just 33.2 percent of his threes last year, he's on pace to shatter his previous career high of 43.6 percent.
3. Houston Rockets
↑ 1 Spot
Make it six straight wins for the Houston Rockets, who knocked off the Thunder on Thursday despite a 49-point eruption from Westbrook.
James Harden more than held his own, finishing with 26 points and 12 assists—plus a perfect setup on Houston's final possession that earned Nene a pair of game-winning free throws.
Harden also got historic in a 129-122 win against the Knicks on Saturday (53 points himself, 17 assists producing the rest), and that's a big deal, per ESPN's Tom Haberstroh, who tweeted: "James Harden accounted for 95 points last night (points + assist pts). The only time a player tallied more? Wilt's 100-pt game, per Elias."
Houston's offense continues to cook, producing an average of 122 points per game over the past week. Jumping the Spurs is a tough task, but the Rockets have achieved it behind remarkable offense and MVP-level play from Harden.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
↓ 1 Spot
The Korver acquisition makes the move tougher, but Cleveland slides back to No. 2 after just a week in the top spot.
Two losses since beating the Dubs on Christmas, Kevin Love's flu/food poisoning, Kyrie Irving's sore hamstring and the continued absence of J.R. Smith makes it too tough to view the Cavs as the league's best team right now.
Even James got hit with the flu bug this past week—not that you would have noticed as he logged 39 minutes and scored 26 points to beat the Pelicans on Monday.
With the Cavs still owning a four-game winning streak against the Warriors (NBA Finals included), this demotion still feels, in some ways, completely unfair.
But Golden State's record and net rating are better, and health is a factor.
Sorry, Cavs. Feel free to make me regret this when you see the Dubs again on Jan. 16.
1. Golden State Warriors
↑ 1 Spot
Maybe the Warriors took the whole "jump-shooting teams can't win titles" thing seriously.
It's hard to understand why they would have, considering they collected their championship via the jumper in 2015 and lost it to another three-happy outfit the following season. But there's a difference in this team's offensive approach this year.
Remarkably, Golden State leads the league in field-goal percentage within the restricted area and from mid-range, according to NBA.com. Perhaps even more surprising, considering the personnel, they're only sixth in three-point shooting frequency, with a mere 35.4 percent of their shots coming from long range. (Houston, for reference, is on a historic pace with 45.7 percent of its shots coming beyond the arc.)
The Warriors could take more threes, and it's true they often get into trouble by overpassing. But it's tough to be too critical when they're better than anyone else inside the arc.
Golden State has won four straight since Christmas, ranks first in net rating, first in offense and tied for second in defense.
Sounds like the league's best team to me.
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