2016-17 NBA Power Rankings as Season's 2nd Half Begins

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterJanuary 18, 2017

2016-17 NBA Power Rankings as Season's 2nd Half Begins

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    If there are such things as NBA dog days, you'll likely find them in January. Between the bitter cold gripping most of the map, the halfway point of an 82-game slate and the fast approach of the All-Star Game, there's a palpable sense of slowdown around the Association.

    Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers, who sleepwalked their way through a six-game road trip. Or the Houston Rockets, whose white-hot jets have cooled over the past week or so.

    Or, on the other end of the spectrum, check in with the Los Angeles Lakers, who've looked about as tired and downtrodden as Cinderella would if she had to drag a giant pumpkin back to her stepmother's house with one slipper on.

    It seems like everyone—save for the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Joel Embiid—could use a breather right about now. Trouble is, the midseason showcase in New Orleans is still a month away.

    But we here at Power Rankings Central aren't taking any breaks—not yet, anyway. Instead, we're coming at you with a fresh set, with teams ordered according to recent performance and players available going forward.

    And if you missed last week's edition, never fear. We've got it here.

30. Brooklyn Nets

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    Yes, the Brooklyn Nets have the NBA's worst record by a comfortable margin. Yes, they own the league's lowest net rating by a country mile. Yes, they need to decide what they're doing with Brook Lopez, their longest-tenured player and lone star.

    And no, there isn't a clear or immediate path toward noticeable improvement.

    Still, it's not all bad.

    Sean Kilpatrick has proved to be a legitimately lethal offensive weapon at both guard spots. Rookie Isaiah Whitehead has flashed range on the defensive end. Caris LeVert has the bounce of someone who could one day be the team's best player.

    The offense, while 28th in points scored per 100 possessions, generates more wide-open looks than any other team—a good sign even though Brooklyn posts a sub-40 percent clip on those shots.

    Most of all: The Nets aren't imploding on an emotional level. Head coach Kenny Atkinson has respect and commitment from his players, suggesting Brooklyn is well on its way to laying down a culture worthy of the winning team it hopes to one day be.

29. New York Knicks

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    The New York Knicks are a slopfest. They have lost 11 of their last 13 games and continue to hover around the bottom five in defensive efficiency.

    Kristaps Porzingis' recent Achilles soreness hasn't helped matters, but the Knicks were a disaster long before he was being shuffled in and out of the lineup.

    This recent run of misery has left head coach Jeff Hornacek searching for answers. He benched Derrick Rose for an entire fourth quarter in New York's come-from-behind win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Jan. 6, started Ron Baker in place of Courtney Lee for the Knicks' bout with the Atlanta Hawks on Monday and deploys Brandon Jennings inconsistently, if at all.

    Nothing has stuck, so Hornacek will now look at starting Carmelo Anthony at power forward and Porzingis at center, per Newsday's Al Iannazzone.

    And, as if the Knicks didn't have enough going on, Anthony remains in a weird place with team president Phil Jackson. The two met to discuss a scathing column written by Jackson confidant Charley Rosen, at which time Anthony, who owns a no-trade clause, reiterated his desire to remain in New York, according to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Basically, it's business as usual for the Knicks. And that's the problem.

28. Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Lakers are who we thought they were: a defenseless young squad that struggles to stop anyone inside or close out games when the score is tight toward the end.

    The Purple and Gold had more than a puncher's chance to take down the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday. Despite a stirring comeback late from 19 points down, the Lakers came up just short, 127-121, in large part because they couldn't put the brakes on the Nuggets early.

    The fight L.A. showed over its last two games, in losses to Denver and Detroit, comes as some encouragement, especially after suffering consecutive flattenings against Portland, San Antonio and the Los Angeles Clippers. So is the play of Ivica Zubac, who notched his first NBA double-double (11 points and 13 rebounds in 26 minutes) against the Nuggets.

    Still, these young Lakers have a long way to go before they're ready to compete at a playoff clip again. And according to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne, Magic Johnson may help to show them the way in some capacity going forward.

27. Miami Heat

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    Justise Winslow is probably done for the season after having shoulder surgery. Josh Richardson hasn't played since Jan. 6 while dealing with foot problems. The offense places 29th in points scored per 100 possessions.

    What else could go wrong for the Miami Heat?

    Oh, they haven't beaten a team that's presently above .500 in more than a month? They stopped that skid with a stunning 109-103 win over the Rockets on Tuesday.

    Wait, they still have fewer wins than the Philadelphia 76ers?

    Well, that settles it: The Heat need to hold a fire sale ahead of the Feb. 23 trade deadline.

    Hassan Whiteside, at 27, may be young enough to play for the next viable version of Miami. But there's no reason an over-30 Goran Dragic should waste away on a bottom-feeder that could use extra first-round goodies as it begins the rebuild it's been trying to avoid since LeBron James left in 2014.

26. Orlando Magic

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    Remember when the Orlando Magic looked like they might sneak their way back into the playoff hunt?

    Neither do they.

    The Magic have dropped eight of their last 10 games, with wins over the Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers to show for their efforts since Dec. 28. Their defense has slipped back into the bottom 10, while their offense remains among the five least productive in the league, per NBA.com.

    On the latter count, there may be no end in sight to their struggles. Evan Fournier, Orlando's leading scorer at 16.5 points per game, will be sidelined for "the foreseeable future" after reaggravating a bruise in his right heel.

    "I was compensating a lot, so now it's more than just the heel," Fournier said, per the Orlando Sentinel's Josh Robbins. "It's just the bottom of the foot, period. It's frustrating, man. I could probably keep playing like this, but it's not getting any better, and I'm playing [at] like 60 percent [of my ability]." 

    Without Fournier, the Magic will look to Jodie Meeks, D.J. Augustin, C.J. Watson and Mario Hezonja to fill in on the perimeter. The biggest opportunity, though, may be for Aaron Gordon, who's yet to put his immense talent on consistent display as a pro.

25. Phoenix Suns

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    It's fitting that the Phoenix Suns are on track for the third-best lottery odds in a draft where each of the top three prospects is a guard.

    It's not as if they have enough of those or anything. 

    In all seriousness, Phoenix is streaking—insofar as playing .500 basketball over the past six games can be considered a hot streak. The Suns' latest victory saw them steal one in Mexico City against the Spurs, who remain the NBA's most dominant road team. A few nights later, on Monday, the Suns put up one helluva fight during a 106-101 loss to the ever-underrated Utah Jazz.

    Games like these are good for morale—particularly when you're without Brandon Knight, don't play Jared Dudley, sporadically use Leandro Barbosa and are giving heavy minutes to one or both of Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss.

    Armed with a confusing mix of veterans and projects, Phoenix lacks discernible motives. But the recent reliance on the kiddies suggests the Suns are more committed than ever to the big picture—a win even when they're losing.

24. Dallas Mavericks

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    Don't look now, but the Dallas Mavericks are on a season-long three-game winning streak after an impressive victory over the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday thanks to a clutch three from healing sharpshooter Wesley Matthews.

    Scrapping and clawing your way to 13 games under .500 isn't anything to celebrate; Midseason streakiness is a good way for Dallas to bilk itself of top lottery odds this May.

    But the bottom half of the Western Conference is hot garbage, so it's possible the Mavericks aren't stealing victories for nothing. They are less than four games off the West's No. 8 seed and have been pleasantly, if strangely, competent following the turn of the calendar.

    Dallas is notching a top-12 defensive rating since Jan. 1, and head coach Rick Carlisle gets enough scoring from his latest starting-five combination to keep the offense afloat.

    None of this is cause for confetti. The Mavericks still own the West's second-worst record and remain longer-than-long shots to swipe a postseason bid. But they're making things interesting, which is all you can ask for if they're truly determined to evade a full-tilt teardown.

23. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    The Minnesota Timberwolves completed their first three-game winning streak of the season last week when they took down Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Go, Timberpups!

    Unfortunately, they followed that mini-milestone up with back-to-back losses in the state of Texas, dropping a Sunday showdown against the Mavericks, 98-87, and a Tuesday contest against the Spurs, 122-114.

    Although this team hasn't lived up to expectations, it's finding reasons for optimism. Along with the recent successful three-game showcase, it's posted the eighth-best defensive rating in the league during January—a category it was just 26th in through Dec. 31.

    A postseason run still feels unlikely entering the second half of the season, but the Timberwolves are building something special in Minnesota.

22. Detroit Pistons

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    Details always seem to leak when players-only meetings go down, but rarely do executives-only meetings grab headlines.

    That would've made the recent get-together between Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and team president/head coach Stan Van Gundy a point of concern for fans in the Motor City. According to ESPN.com, the two met for three hours in L.A. on Saturday, with the Pistons riding a three-game skid into town.

    As it turns out, everything is hunky dory between Detroit's big wigs—in public, at least.

    "We've got a bump in the road, and that's what success is about—you have to work through it. It's all about having rough times and your ability to work through," Gores told reporters, per ESPN.com.

    "I never worry about Stan, because he wants to win. He's the hardest worker I've ever seen in my life. I believe in him as a man, and I believe in him as a strong person."

    Perhaps the Pistons helped instill a bit more confidence. They ended their five-game Western Conference swing with a 102-97 win over the Lakers and should make up some ground in the standings now that they'll play all but four of their games at home between now and the end of February.

21. Sacramento Kings

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    The Sacramento Kings are a game back from the eighth spot in the Western Conference. It's difficult to say whether that's a testament to Sacto's play or an indictment against the current state of third-tier teams out West.

    Actually, scratch that. It's the latter.

    The West, a once-known entity for sending 50-win squads to the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, currently features the 17-23 Nuggets in that slot. Sacramento would have a legitimate shot at making its return to the postseason…if it could find some semblance of consistency.

    As B/R's Grant Hughes put it recently, following a report from James Ham of CSN Bay Area that points to DeMarcus Cousins eventually signing a max contract extension to stay in Sacramento: "It's possible this report will add a sense of stability to the Kings—one that might help them in their fight for a playoff spot. It's also possible Sacramento is punting a long-overdue rebuild in exchange for several years on the mediocrity treadmill."

    Whatever the future holds, one thing remains certain: The Kings went 0-2 since our last ranking and have lost five of their last six.

20. Portland Trail Blazers

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    The Trail Blazers' dynamic backcourt continues to impress, but at the moment, it's C.J. McCollum—not Damian Lillard—who deserves the brightest shine in our spotlight.

    Portland's 2-guard had scored at least 25 points in eight straight outings entering Monday's contest against the Washington Wizards. The last Rip City member to accomplish that? A certain Hall of Famer named Clyde Drexler, per Trail Blazers PR.

    The question is: What does it mean for Portland?

    Realistically, not much in terms of overall team consistency.

    Monday's outing saw the Blazers fall in blowout fashion to the Wizards, 120-101, with McCollum's streak coming to an end (12 points, 5-of-12 shooting). The game before that was a 115-109 loss to the Magic, and the game prior saw Portland take down the defending champion Cavaliers, 102-86.

    Thus, these Blazers continue to flip back and forth between looking like a lottery team and a squad that will earn a top-eight spot out West. As exciting as this team is to watch when it's clicking, that's hardly a recipe for immediate big-picture success.

19. Denver Nuggets

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    A midseason trip across the pond has done wonders for the Nuggets.

    They pummeled the Indiana Pacers in London, 140-112, then kept their scoring splurge going with wins over the Magic and Lakers upon returning to American soil. Kenneth Faried rediscovered himself in England, parlaying a 15-point, nine-rebound performance at the O2 Arena into consecutive starts with 20 points apiece. 

    But the bigger story in Denver's frontcourt is the same one that's dominated the Rocky Mountain headlines all season: Nikola Jokic has looked like a bona fide All-Star during the Nuggets' three-game spurt. He piled up 22 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in London, added another 30 points, 11 boards, five assists and three steals against Orlando, then bullied the Lakers' hapless interior defense for 29 points and 15 boards on Tuesday.

    Finding room for Jokic on the Western Conference All-Star squad could be tough. But if the 21-year-old Serbian keeps this up—and Denver keeps winning—there may be no choice but to squeeze his 6'10" frame onto a plane bound for New Orleans.

18. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Philadelphia 76ers fans don't have to "Trust the Process" anymore. Instead, they can see it in motion when they turn on Sixers games.

    Philly has won four of its last five, and six of eight, dating back to Dec. 30. None of those victories have come against teams that currently own winning records, but for the Sixers, that's not the point.

    They've been the laughingstock of the league for the last three-and-a-half years now. Or, rather, they had been, until Joel Embiid emerged to give everyone a laugh on social media and send his and the team's stocks soaring.

    The former No. 3 pick has scored at least 20 points through nine straight appearances, including double-doubles against the Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks, despite never crossing the 30-minute mark.

    Don't expect that to change. When asked if there is a possibility that Embiid might exceed his 28-minute limit at some point this season, Sixers coach Brett Brown said, "I don't believe there is," per the Bucks County Courier TimesTom Moore.

17. Charlotte Hornets

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    The Charlotte Hornets hit the ground running when the 2016-17 season tipped off. They started the year 7-1, with their only loss being to the Boston Celtics, and they looked like a potential second-best team in a traditionally top-heavy Eastern Conference.

    Since that point, Michael Jordan's Hornets have gone 13-20. And as far as current events are concerned, things aren't looking much better.

    Since our last ranking, Charlotte dropped games to the 76ers and those same Celtics without a win to pad the record. Looking at a bigger sample size: This squad has lost five straight during a stretch that has seen it go just 1-7 since a Dec. 29 win over the Heat.

    The caveat here is that, despite their returns this week, Cody Zeller and Nicolas Batum have both missed time as of late. Then again, there's the small detail to consider that playoff seeding doesn't give a lick about who's on the floor and who's not, just where you stand at the end of the season.

    If the Hornets want to prove that their cold streak is the fluke, not their hot start, they'd better turn things around with the second half of the year officially underway.

16. New Orleans Pelicans

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    The Brow? More like...The Ow.

    Anthony Davis left the New Orleans Pelicans' narrow loss to the Pacers on Monday with injuries to his right hip and left thumb from a hard fall following an attempted dunk against Myles Turner during the third quarter. The All-Star big man stayed in for the free throws but left the game for good immediately thereafter.

    The Pelicans are in no position to survive without Davis, who's poured in 29 points and 12 rebounds per game this season. They're thin on talent and will face a brutal (albeit home-heavy) stretch in their schedule after hosting Orlando and Brooklyn this week.

    Folks in New Orleans can take some comfort in knowing that Davis has thus far managed to avoid major injury despite still playing with the same reckless abandon. He's missed three games this season, but none consecutively.

    That could bode well for the Pelicans, who will need Davis at whatever capacity he can offer when the Cavaliers, Thunder, Spurs and surging Wizards come to the Crescent City next week.

15. Chicago Bulls

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    You know the Bulls have issues to address when they get dropped from the national TV schedule in favor of the 76ers, as they will on Jan. 27, per Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel.

    Granted, the Sixers are rolling right now, with perhaps the league's most entertaining player in Joel Embiid. And, well, the Rockets are a ton of fun, too. Both are better watches than the stodgy Bulls or the unwittingly tanking Heat, whom the Bulls will face on that January day, (now with fewer eyeballs watching).

    Not that Jimmy Butler is about to concede the spotlight. He racked up 28 points, eight rebounds and six assists to lead Chicago during a 107-99 win over the Pelicans on Saturday, then did everything but sound the buzzer in crunch time to help his squad scrape out a victory in Memphis the next night.

    If not for Wesley Matthews' wide-open triple during the waning moments on Tuesday, Butler's 21-footer with 22 seconds left would've been the game-winner in what became a one-point loss for Chicago.

    Instead, the last shot of the night went to Dwyane Wade, who celebrated his 35th birthday...with a miss.

14. Indiana Pacers

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    It's a small sample size, but the Pacers have become the NBA's third-highest-scoring team during the month of January. They're posting 115.3 points per contest in six outings, and they're 5-1 during that stretch. 

    The catch, of course, is that the schedule has been Charmin soft. The margin of victory is nearly double digits in wins, but you have to consider the fact they came against the Magic, Pistons, Knicks and Pelicans—all of whom are sub-.500 squads.

    As far as just this past week is concerned, we saw a bizarre showing in London, as the Pacers dropped the game across the pond, 140-112.

    The good news is that this group has a light schedule ahead: The Kings and Lakers are up next on Wednesday and Friday, respectively. Then, a tougher matchup with the Jazz on Saturday, followed once again by a sub-.500 slate (New York, Minnesota and Sacramento).

    The Pacers' schedule has done them plenty of favors as of late, but that doesn't change the fact they've regained some legitimacy throughout that process.

13. Milwaukee Bucks

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    The Bucks are half feel-good story, half infuriating. On one hand, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and the rest of the youngsters are coming along nicely, providing highlight reels on the regular amid an incredibly bright future.

    On the other hand, they're dropping games by nearly double digits at home to the 76ers.

    Monday's 113-104 loss to Philly won't mean much when the year comes to a close, and to be honest, it made sense watching Joel Embiid do work and Antetokounmpo deal with foul trouble. But the team gave up 14 three-pointers, and while that's not unheard of for the Sixers, who hit the seventh-most shots in the league from deep, it's emblematic of a bigger problem when you consider Milwaukee is fifth in long-range completions allowed.

    While this group is easy to root for and likely one of the Association's most underrated League Pass teams, it also makes you ask yourself, "When is it going to all come together?"

    The Bucks sit in seventh in the Eastern Conference, so the postseason isn't out of the question. But avoiding bad losses like Monday's will be necessary if they're going to reach their full potential.

12. Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Memphis Grizzlies seemed to run out of clutch serum when the Bulls came to town Sunday. Either that, or Jimmy Butler—who hit two huge shots down the stretch and came up with a loose ball to seal a 108-104 win for Chicago—chugged the last of it for himself.

    Whatever the case may be, Memphis had enough on hand to storm back from a 16-point deficit Friday the 13th, when Grit 'n' Grind ground its way to a 110-105 win over the Rockets in Houston.

    This was just a week after shocking the Warriors, erasing a 24-point deficit at Oracle Arena to win in overtime.

    The Grizzlies can ill afford to play the part of Cardiac Kids during their upcoming schedule if they're to make hay in the Western Conference standings. They'll head to Washington, where the Wizards are protecting a 12-game home winning streak, before returning to the River City to face the Kings, Rockets and Raptors.

    Next, they're returning to the road for another six games away from the FedEx Forum.

11. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Thunder have spent the 2016-17 season on the razor's edge.

    When healthy, Russell Westbrook has held the team together well enough to compete against just about anyone in the NBA. But subtract even one key guy, and the house of cards comes tumbling down. Case in point: The Thunder lost Steven Adams to a concussion during a win over the Kings on Sunday, then got crushed without their bruising center by the Clippers on Monday, 120-98.

    "We just were not ready to play," an ornery Westbrook told reporters after the game. "We need to be more physical."

    That lack of physicality could turn an already daunting upcoming schedule into a Sisyphean struggle if Adams has to spend much time in recovery. The Thunder have three dates left on their six-game swing—at Golden State, at Utah and at New Orleans—and will return to the road to close out January with an unenviable double in Cleveland and San Antonio.

    Emerging from that cluster with a winning record could require Westbrook to not only pull a Superman cape out of his luggage, but also strut with it from city to city like he's on the runway at Fashion Week in New York.

10. Los Angeles Clippers

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    That combination of panicked angst and sad resignation you hear? It's the sound of Clippers fans fearing their franchise's curse has not only returned, but might never leave.

    Just when L.A.'s other team seemed to be righting the ship—with seven straight wins following a six-game skid, and Blake Griffin seemingly on the mend—Chris Paul fell victim to yet another injury during the team's 120-98 win over the Thunder on Monday.

    This time, a torn ligament in his left thumb will keep the Clippers commander out six to eight weeks, per Dan Woike of the Orange County Register, and likely cost him what would've been his 10th straight All-Star appearance.

    "Next guy up, I guess," J.J. Redick said, per Bleacher Report. "We've dealt with this quite a bit lately, and we'll continue to plug away."

    The Clippers must do more than that to maintain their spot among the West's top four with both Paul and Griffin out. Once the Timberwolves come and go Thursday, L.A. will play 11 of its subsequent 13 games away from Staples Center.

    Worse still, between now and the end of February, it'll play the Atlanta Hawks twice and the Warriors three times, with dates against the Spurs, Celtics, Raptors, Jazz and surging 76ers sprinkled in between.

9. Washington Wizards

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    The Wizards, once 2-8 to start the year, have crawled back to relevancy.

    They've won five out of their last six, losing only to the Celtics and dismantling their most recent opponents by double digits in the process.

    This past week, the Wizards took down the lowly 76ers and ever-inconsistent Trail Blazers by a combined 35 points. Those wins extended Washington's home streak to an even dozen.

    Nobody is ready to deem the Wizards postseason locks—not with the way teams out East have risen and fallen throughout the year (Washington included). But the Wiz sit in fifth place and just 2.5 games behind the fourth-place Hawks. Even more important, this group is 15-12 against Eastern Conference opponents.

    The Wizards are hard to trust, but they're also hard to discount at this point in the process.

8. Atlanta Hawks

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    The Hawks have flipped the script on their season. Again.

    After starting the year 9-2, the NBA's Dirty Birds eventually slipped to an unimposing 10-12. Things started to balance out as the Hawks went .500 between Dec. 13 and Dec. 28, but they've won every game sincewith the only exception being a two-point loss at the buzzer to the Celtics on Friday.

    Although we don't know what the future of this team looks likewith Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporting Paul Millsap has been added and removed from the trading block already this seasonwe do know one thing: Mike Dunleavy has shown flashes of comfortability in his role after coming over from the Cavaliers.

    That may not be a ringing endorsement in the eyes of some, but it's important for both a squad looking to remain balanced and a player recently traded from the defending champions.

    Dunleavy isn't going to be labeled a savior anytime soon—maybe an X-factor at best. But he's a solid glue guy on a team that has won nine of its last 10, and he recorded 20 points through 23 minutes Sunday against the Bucks.

    Things could be worse in Atlanta, even if we don't know exactly how the script reads the rest of the season.

7. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The Cavaliers just haven't looked much like the defending champs of late.

    They began their longest road trip of the season with troublingly narrow wins over the Nets and Suns, then proceeded to drop three of four, including a 126-91 walloping at the hands of the Warriors that laid bare all of Cleveland's recent concerns.

    The Cavs haven't held an opponent under 100 points since Jan. 2, when the punchless Pelicans put up 82 on them. Cleveland's defense showed up for a spell in Oakland, but only long enough to hold the Dubs to 17 points in the third quarter...while giving up 30 or more during each of the other three periods.

    Fortunately for the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference, that nightmare of a sojourn is over.

    Whether there really is no place like home for the Cavaliers remains to be seen: They'll play five of their next six at Quicken Loans Arena, with the Spurs and Thunder chief among the opponents set to stop by.

6. Utah Jazz

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    Bad news for the Jazz: They're down 40 percent of their starting lineup.

    Rodney Hood is out two to three weeks after suffering a bone bruise in his right knee during the team's 114-107 win over the Magic on Saturday. He may be joined on the pine by George Hill, who hurt his ankle during the waning moments of a 106-101 victory against the Suns on Monday.

    The good news: Utah has won four in a row and five out of six, and it now has the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, Gordon Hayward, in its employ. The Jazz's sweet-shooting swingman torched nets around the league by knocking down 57.4 percent of his shots (54.2 percent from three) during the second week of 2017.

    With Hood down for a spell and Hill potentially on the fritz for the umpteenth time already this season, Utah figures to lean even more heavily on Hayward for the scoring and playmaking it needs to keep rolling.

    If his recent play is any indication, the Butler product should be up for the task.

5. Houston Rockets

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    The triple-doubles are still flowing for James Harden, but the spigot of wins seems to have shut off for the Rockets. The Beard blew up for another on Tuesday (40 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists), but it wasn't enough to stave off the Heat in Miami, 109-103.

    That loss wasn't all on Harden despite his 18 misses and six turnovers. Clint Capela went scoreless in nine minutes during his first game back from a leg injury. Eric Gordon, the early favorite for Sixth Man of the Year honors, managed just seven points on 3-of-17 shooting (1-of-10 from three).

    According to ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins, Gordon's struggles were the result of a tweaked ankle. That setback, should it persist, could be more troubling than any of the three losses Houston has suffered in its last four games. His stellar play off the pine has been one of the key catalysts behind the Rockets' 32-12 record.

    With the Bucks and Warriors on their way to Space City this week, Harden may have no choice but to keep the triple-double train going if his squad is going to compete without Gordon at full strength.

4. Boston Celtics

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    The "Celtics need a superstar" talk is likely never going to go away. Or at least it will persist until the team finally acquires someone bigger than Isaiah Thomas, both in name and stature.

    But is this fair? Simple answer: No.

    This past week saw Thomas, in an admittedly light load (two games), continue to build a name for himself. His 28 points against the Hawks weren't always efficient (9-of-21 from the floor, 5-of-13 from three, five turnovers), but his 13 fourth-quarter points and game-winning jumper set the tone for his next night out.

    He followed up Friday's performance with 35 points on 56 percent shooting (46.7 3PT%) Monday night against the Hornets.

    Thomas has his flaws, primarily on the defensive end, but he's proving to be both a go-to scorer and the leader of a team fighting not just for second-tier status out East, but a shot to take down the defending champion Cavaliers.

    Whether you call Thomas a superstar or not, there should be virtually no debate that he's an All-Star this season. And as long as he keeps performing at an elite level, he and the Celtics deserve recognition.

3. Toronto Raptors

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    The Toronto Raptors may have had the lightest week of any team in the Association since we last ranked.

    Friday the 13th saw them take down the lowly Nets, 132-113. On Sunday, it was the Knicks' turn to take an "L," falling 116-101. And wouldn't you know it, those same Nets came back Tuesday night, losing 119-109 to give Toronto its fourth win in a row.

    A 3-0 week is always worth celebrating, but this one is a snoozer. Brooklyn is legitimately trying to win games considering the Celtics own its pick—it's just not finding much success. And the Knicks are legitimately trying to...well, if you can finish the end of that sentence, please enlighten us all.

    The good news is that the Raptors continue to be an offensive juggernaut regardless of their schedule; They're scoring 111.3 points per game, good enough for third in the league. Raw numbers like that typically don't mean much considering how many advanced statistics are out there these days, but consider that Toronto runs the No. 20 pace in the league, according to ESPN.com.

    How does a team that plays the 10th-slowest pace score the third-most points per game? ESPN.com also has Toronto as the league's No. 1 team in terms of offensive efficiency.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    What does Kawhi Leonard have to do to get some MVP love?

    With all the talk about James Harden, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James (among others), the Spurs' top dog keeps rolling. On Tuesday, Leonard logged 34 points on a sharp 12-of-17 shooting, with seven rebounds and five assists to boot. That extended the longest 30-point scoring streak of his career to four games.

    More importantly, it helped the Spurs bounce back from a shocking loss to the Suns in Mexico City with a 122-114 win over the Timberwolves. 

    With the Warriors rolling again, San Antonio will need all it can squeeze out of Leonard if it's going to close the three-game gap that stands between the Alamo City and the West's No. 1 seed.

    After hosting the Nuggets on Thursday, the Spurs will hit the road for a four-game swing, beginning with a Saturday night showdown against the Cavaliers.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Another week of NBA basketball down, another stretch of perfection from the Warriors.

    Golden State was able to exorcise some of its demons this past week with a 4-0 record since the last time we ranked. Ever since the team blew a 24-point second-half lead to the Grizzlies on Jan. 6, it won each game by an average margin of 19.5 points.

    Even more noteworthy is that the Warriors took down the defending champion Cavaliers—the same team that stormed back in the fourth quarter to beat them Christmas Day—by a whopping 35 points.

    "Every time you play a team like Cleveland, you know it's going to take an A-plus game to get a win and a lot of energy, physicality and focus," Stephen Curry said, according to B/R's Erik Malinowski. "We sensed that early in the game and grabbed the momentum and never really let it go."

    But as strong a win as it was, don't think the Warriors are content.

    "We're a really mentally tough team, and we've realized we still have a long way to go," Klay Thompson said, per Malinowski.

    It’s true that Golden State has a long way to go, what with 41 games left on the schedule. And yes, there are the short-term hurdles to look for this upcoming week with the Thunder on Wednesday and the Rockets on Friday.

    But at a league-best 35-6, this group remains the clear-cut favorite out West. We all know that a blowout win in January means little to the big picture, but we also know that the Warriors are dangerous when clicking and should terrify anyone hoping to contend for a title come June.

     

    All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats via NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

    Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and listen to his Hollywood Hoops podcast with B/R Lakers lead writer Eric Pincus.