NBA Power Rankings: Did Boston Celtics Push to the Top?

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 17, 2017

NBA Power Rankings: Did Boston Celtics Push to the Top?

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    Bleacher Report

    Just when it seemed like the Golden State Warriors were doing all they could to eradicate suspense at the top of our power rankings, the Boston Celtics came along and refused to stop winning.

    Elsewhere, Joel Embiid erupted, Eric Bledsoe took the Milwaukee Bucks on a run, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers quit hitting the snooze bar for an eye-opening quarter, and the Houston Rockets got their big offseason acquisition back.

    We've got action all over the rankings after a week like that.

    As always, the goal here is to organize all 30 teams into an order that reflects their current strength. Injuries matter, as do catch-all metrics and recent trends. Head-to-head meetings are important, but they won't always be determinative. Where the numbers don't quite clarify the picture, gut instinct gets to weigh in. Rankings are based on games through Thursday.

    Commence rankage.

30. Sacramento Kings

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    Labissiere, not sitting.
    Labissiere, not sitting.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    ↓ 5 Spots

    Character has been a point of emphasis for the Sacramento Kings in their post-DeMarcus Cousins reconstruction. The decision to splurge on experienced players like George Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph may have been motivated partially by a fear of out-and-out tanking, but a desire for professional influence was also a factor.

    And while the vets aren't preventing the Kings from losing (actually, they may be exacerbating the problem), at least the Kings' young players seem to be picking up the right attitudes.

    Here's Skal Labissiere, who's been stuck on the bench despite his youth and productivity, explaining his patience to Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee: "I'm going to be happy for my teammates, whoever is playing I'm going to be happy for them, whoever is doing well. That would be selfish on my part to just get caught up in my playing time or whatever. So I just support the guys."

    Maturity like that will be important as the losses mount. Sacramento dropped all three of its games this week, and Wednesday's result is the main reason for substantial rankings slippage. Losing by 46 to the Atlanta Hawks, another bottom-five team, is a sure ticket to the cellar.

    The Kings own the league's worst net rating by a comfortable margin.

29. Chicago Bulls

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    ↑ 1 Spot

    The latest update on the Nikola Mirotic-Bobby Portis saga is, basically, that there's no update.

    "Niko has had interaction with the other players and we’ll continue to work on getting [Portis and Mirotic] together," Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. "Hopefully, that will happen soon."

    Mirotic, who signed a new contract this past offseason, can't be traded until Jan. 15. With Portis producing since his return from suspension, he's not going anywhere either. The awkwardness is likely to persist for at least a few more months. And, really, it almost doesn't even matter because everything about this Bulls team screams "low stakes."

    Chicago lost to the San Antonio Spurs by 39 points Saturday and hasn't notched a victory since Nov. 3.

    On the bright side, Robin Lopez is taking on a bigger offensive role. The former dirty-work specialist is averaging career highs in scoring and assists while dabbling in three-point shooting for the first time. Hopefully, someone will notice and offer the Bulls a second-rounder for the veteran big man. It'd be nice to see Lopez on a competitive team again.

28. Dallas Mavericks

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    The Dallas Mavericks fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Spurs this week, and Nerlens Noel played a grand total of seven minutes in those three contests.

    If a nonexistent role is Dallas' way of punishing Noel for refusing to sign a $70 million contract over the summer, it is a master class in petty-dealing. And a stunning display of bridge-burning.

    But it's probably not that. Not entirely, anyway.

    Per Mac Engel of the Star-Telegram: "Noel clearly is not doing what Carlisle wants defensively, either because he can't learn it or because he's pouting. Both are plausible. There is a reason the 76ers traded a young, athletic center who had been the No. 6 overall pick in the draft."

    Noel's on-court net rating is a team-worst minus-20.3 in the 213 minutes he's played this year, and a look at the film shows a suboptimal combination of inattention and scheme-compromising gambles. Whatever the source of the disconnect between Dallas and Noel, and however the blame should be apportioned, the current arrangement isn't benefitting anybody. And the tension has to be building.

    Expect some fireworks or possibly a transaction that gets Noel away from the team, sooner than later.

    Positive note: Dennis Smith Jr. scored a career-high 27 points and did this against the Spurs.

27. Phoenix Suns

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    The Phoenix Suns got 35 points apiece from Devin Booker and TJ Warren to help beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 118-110 Saturday. It was Phoenix's fifth win and probably Booker's best game of the year (he also had nine rebounds and six assists), so he may have been a little charged up when he faced the Lakers on Tuesday.

    That's when he posted a season-high 36 points and got into it with L.A.'s bench, possibly because assistant coach Brian Shaw told him to stop flopping.

    The Suns lost that one and finished the week with a 1-3 mark following another defeat at the hands of the Houston Rockets on Thursday.

    Booker's big scoring nights and general feistiness are clear positives for a team in need of production and direction. Also encouraging: The Suns Gorilla mocked Big Baller Brand during the loss to the Lakers.

    We must support the fight against obnoxious branding wherever it is fought. 

26. Atlanta Hawks

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    ↑ 3 Spots

    The 126-80 blowout over Sacramento halted the Atlanta Hawks' four-game skid—one that probably would have ended two days sooner if Darius Miller hadn't caught fire in the fourth quarter to steal a 106-105 win for the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday.

    Dewayne Dedmon went off for 20 points and 14 boards against the Kings, and this victory, the largest in Hawks' franchise history, will be one that skews their full-season numbers for the next several weeks.

    It's a margin that large screams anomaly and the Kings are hardly quality competition, but it's still fun to pick out wild numbers from what will surely be the Hawks' most successful night of the season: They led 64-35 at the half and shot better from the field (63.3 percent) than they did from the foul line (62.5 percent).

    Enjoy it, Hawks. You don't get the Kings every night.

    In fact, Atlanta will close out November by playing five of its next six games against teams that made the playoffs last year. 

25. Brooklyn Nets

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    D'Angelo Russell scored 11 fourth-quarter points to help the Nets beat the Trail Blazers in Portland on Friday, but Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson liked his team's defense even better.

    "We stayed with it and we kept defending," he told Greg Logan of Newsday. "I thought it was our defense that really kept us in the game."

    The Blazers managed only 45 points after halftime in that game, and Brooklyn held Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to a combined 36 points on 13-of-32 shooting.

    Atkinson's team is allowing 106.7 points per 100 possessions this season, down from last year's 108.0, and that defense will have to carry Brooklyn with Russell now set to miss time because of a knee bruise he suffered against the Jazz on Saturday.

    It'll also help if Spencer Dinwiddie's transformation into a legitimate rotation player is real. He's shown far greater burst and scoring touch as Russell's backup than he did at any previous NBA stop.

    Taking Russell's place with the first unit, the 24-year-old point guard posted 12 points and 11 assists in a close loss to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday. That's a good start.

24. Los Angeles Lakers

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    Lonzo Ball became the youngest player to record a triple-double this week, accumulating 17 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds in Saturday's loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. That's good!

    He then didn't play in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Suns. That's bad!

    He was 1-of-9 against the Sixers on Wednesday and looked like he didn't belong on the same floor as Ben Simmons. That's something that makes me think he'll be lucky to have Ricky Rubio's career!

    Tempting as it is to focus every week on the travails of a rookie with great court sense and a busted shot, the real story of the Los Angeles Lakers is their defense. L.A. finished 30th on D a year ago and so far resides among the top five in point prevention.

    How? Luck, mostly.

    The Lakers have done well in limiting opponents' corner-three attempts, but otherwise, the strong defensive performance has been the result of teams simply missing shots. Los Angeles has the lowest opponent three-point percentage in the league. Coupled with a scheme that permits huge numbers of attempts at the rim, the Lakers defense is going to regress—at least to the middle of the pack.

    Fortunately, it only has to be second-worst in the league to count as an improvement.

    The Lakers have lost four of their last five.

23. Miami Heat

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    ↔ No Movement

    "We're plugging away. Everything is about pushing that rock up the hill and trying to get better each day," Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel.

    Um...nobody tell Spoelstra how the Sisyphus story plays out.

    Mythology aside, the Heat may actually be getting somewhere with their starting lineup. The unit of Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Hassan Whiteside seems entrenched now, as Miami has started that quintet for four straight games.

    Prior to this recent stretch of stability, the Heat had used a dozen different players in their opening unit. Since committing to this one, Miami is 2-2.

    Unfortunately, it went 1-2 this week, and continued struggles to score have the Heat's offense flirting with a bottom-five efficiency figure. Despite holding the Washington Wizards to 10 points in the third quarter Wednesday, Miami still didn't have enough scoring punch to stave off a comeback.

    More alarming, if you look back through the game log, the closest thing Miami has to a win over a quality opponent this year is a tight one against the Clippers back on Nov. 5. 

    The Heat will work hard, and Spoelstra tends to figure these things out. But the optics aren't great right now—even if Miami has at least sorted out who's going to start from now on.

22. Indiana Pacers

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    Nothing illustrates the extent of Domantas Sabonis' sophomore rebirth better than the fact that it's not completely ridiculous to consider starting him over Myles Turner.

    Indiana Pacers head coach Nate McMillan isn't going to do it, but he'd have a defensible case if he did.

    Indy has performed better with Sabonis at center than it has with Turner. And though much of that has to do with Turner's rusty return from a concussion, some of it owes to Sabonis' extreme productivity. He's averaging 13.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists on the year. Assistant coach Dan Burke called Sabonis the more skilled player, according to Jim Ayello of the Indianapolis Star. In the same report, McMillan lauded the second-year big man's toughness.

    For a guy who barely profiled as a rotation player a year ago with OKC, Sabonis has a lot going for him.

    Turner is still the future star, though. A shot-blocker with three-point range, he has a higher ceiling.

    Indy finished its week with a terrific 116-113 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, hanging 67 points on Memphis in the first half and getting a season-high 30 points from Darren Collison. The victory moved the Pacers to 2-1 for the week and 7-8 on the year.

21. Utah Jazz

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    ↓ 4 Spots

    If you really squint at the Utah Jazz's current plight—set to play for at least a month without Rudy Gobert and struggling badly to score while losing six of their last seven games—you can find a few hopeful signs.

    Starved for scoring generally and truly anemic on offense when using lineups involving both Gobert and Derrick Favors this year, perhaps more frequent use of single-big units will free up a little space. Favors isn't in Gobert's league as a defender, but he can produce points with a solid mid-range game when playing the 5.

    Perhaps better spacing will create more room for Donovan Mitchell, who just completed his most consistent stretch and has no problem hunting shots for a team that needs creative aggressors. His scoring totals during Utah's 1-3 week: 12, 26, 24 and 19.

    That said, pessimism remains the easier and more logical approach here. Gobert is the Jazz's best player by a significant margin. Losing him is brutal. Because now, without him, nobody can shrug off the offensive woes with the typical, "Well, at least they've got that defense" refrain.

    Utah is a team lacking an identity now.

20. Charlotte Hornets

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    It's going to get better for the Charlotte Hornets, who saw Nicolas Batum return Wednesday and look surprisingly fresh after several weeks off with that torn ligament in his elbow. The Hornets must hope his return doesn't disrupt Jeremy Lamb's groove.

    In the midst of his best season, Lamb is in for some shooting regression. But he more than capably filled in for Batum, who is reassuming starting duties at the 2.

    Thanks partially to the toughest schedule in the league to date, the Hornets have lost five in a row. But at least they've been dropping games in tidy fashion.

    Seriously, if you'd like to watch some crisp, mistake-free ball, make it a point to catch this team. Charlotte takes better care of the ball than anyone else and ranks last in opponent turnover percentage, meaning it's also the worst at forcing giveaways. The ball stays where it belongs when the Hornets are involved.

    As the schedule softens and Batum works his way back, expect these Hornets to make their way toward a top-15 spot. Their fundamentals, coaching and talent level don't belong down here.

19. Los Angeles Clippers

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    ↓ 3 Spots

    Injuries were always the issue when forecasting the Los Angeles Clippers, and now that they have some, we're seeing the trickle-down effects produce ugly results.

    The Clippers have lost six in a row.

    Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley missed all three of L.A.'s games this week, and the burden of offensive creation is wearing on Blake Griffin. He was a mess down the stretch of Monday's 109-105 loss to the Sixers, isolating stubbornly and pounding the dribble a bit too much. He looked visibly fatigued in the fourth quarter and took several ill-advised shots.

    This team was short on playmaking before Beverley and Gallinari (and to a lesser extent, Milos Teodosic) went down. Now, with Griffin functioning as the team's best passer, the Clippers sit among the league's bottom five in assist percentage.

    The Clips may pull out of this tailspin if they get healthy, but this is exactly the projected downside everyone foresaw.

18. New Orleans Pelicans

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    ↑ 3 Spots

    There are only three players with more three-point attempts than DeMarcus Cousins's 114, which, even in the age of the long ball, is difficult to comprehend.

    Darius Miller hit the threes that mattered in the New Orleans Pelicans' 106-105 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Monday, making four of his five treys in the fourth quarter, including two in the final two minutes, 19 seconds. His 21 points were a career high, and the perimeter shooting was precisely what New Orleans has needed around Cousins and Anthony Davis.

    Now that Rajon Rondo is back and starting, the premium on spacing has only increased.

    Even without much in the way of help from Jrue Holiday, who has yet to find his stride in the first season of a five-year, $126 million contract, Davis and Cousins have the Pelicans above .500 at 8-7.

    Not many teams' schedules have been easier, though. As that balances out, we may see New Orleans, which went 2-1 on its three-game homestand, struggle to keep its head above water.

17. New York Knicks

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    ↑ 3 Spots

    Dennis Smith Jr. looks awesome, but considering LeBron James' infamous endorsement of Shabazz Napier, I'm not sure he's the best guy to judge the New York Knicks' decision to draft Frank Ntilikina.

    Besides, Francis Cigarettes (the nickname variations never end with this guy) is a plus defender right now and has a good thing working with Kristaps Porzingis. That's nothing to sneeze at.

    Teamwise, the Knicks were so close to posting a breakthrough week. Ntilikina and Enes Kanter stood up to James on Monday, seemingly signaling to the league that New York's doormat days were finished. And then the Cavs erased a 23-point third-quarter deficit and stole a win at Madison Square Garden.

    "I don't care who you are. What do you call yourself? King, queen, princess. Whatever you are. We're going to fight. Nobody out there is going to punk us," Kanter said, per Al Iannazzone of Newsday.

    Imagine the impact of that boast if the Knicks had held on to win?

    To be fair, they did beat the Cavs by 19 back on Oct. 29. This one would have been sweeter, though.

    New York went 2-1 this week, sits at 8-6 overall and is very much enjoying life after the tyranny of the triangle.

    Finally, a shoutout to Tim Hardaway Jr., who went for 28 points, 10 rebounds and five assists against the Cavs, followed by 26 points, six rebounds and six assists in Wednesday's 106-101 win over the Utah Jazz. He'll have to keep this up to justify his contract, but Hardaway is in a solid stretch.

16. Orlando Magic

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    I could tell you about Aaron Gordon's growth, but this tweet from Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated paints the picture: "Aaron Gordon, a 29 percent three-point shooter before this season, transformed seemingly overnight into a guy worth drawing up ATO [after timeout] pin-downs for. What a league."

    That's where we are with Gordon, who's shooting a flat 50 percent on 4.6 attempts per game from deep.

    Unfortunately for the Orlando Magic, Gordon's maturation into a complete offensive force hasn't saved them from injuries or a tough stretch in the schedule. They were without D.J. Augustin (hamstring) for the duration of their now-completed four-game sojourn out West. Elfrid Payton played in three of the four but was limited by his own hamstring injury.

    "That's the third time now that we lose by 20, and I don't think it's a coincidence that we have D.J. and E.P. out," Evan Fournier told Joshua Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel after Saturday's 125-107 loss in Denver.

    In addition to the Denver stumble, Orlando also fell at Golden State and Portland.

    The Magic's offense has cooled since their 4-1 start, and even if Gordon's growth is real, he won't make half of his threes this season. That means we need to get ready for more downward movement in the rankings.

15. Memphis Grizzlies

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    ↓ 3 Spots

    Marc Gasol's 35 points and 13 rebounds weren't enough to save the Memphis Grizzlies from a 116-113 loss against the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday or an ugly 0-3 record this week.

    Mike Conley's rough season has continued, but at least he's got an explanation, per Michael Wallace of Grizzlies.com: "It's all mental. This game is mental. I've been through it, the ups and downs, and I always come out on top. It's no different this time."

    Not to call out Conley, but he's now lacking burst and shooting 38.1 percent from the field because of a mental issue alone. He missed Wednesday's game with a sore Achilles, the same injury that kept him out Nov. 1 against the Magic and hampered him down the stretch last season. 

    The Grizz are getting others back into the rotation. JaMychal Green is ready after a dozen games off with an ankle injury, Ben McLemore is healthy and Wayne Selden has also returned. The three of them combined don't come close to equalling Conley's impact, but if the Grizzlies have to contend with a diminished point guard, extra bodies don't hurt.

14. Denver Nuggets

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    ↓ 4 Spots

    Jamal Murray put four straight single-digit scoring games behind him with a season-high 32 points in the Denver Nuggets' 125-107 win over the Orlando Magic on Saturday, and Will Barton, who started in place of Gary Harris (shoulder), liked what he saw of the second-year guard on both ends.

    Barton told Adam Mares of Denver Stiffs: 

    "So I feel like Jamal [Murray] is exerting a lot of energy on defense, but I feel like that's a good thing. But he's young; he'll be good. He'll figure out how to, you know...'I'm exerting a lot of energy, let me get my legs into this shot a little bit more than I would if I was 100 percent fresh.' I like where his head is at; he's going to be good."

    That's a lot easier to say when Murray is producing like he did this week. He followed up that 32-point effort with 18 more points against the Blazers on Monday, but inconsistency has been an issue—for him and his team.

    Denver went 1-1 this week, pairing a dispiriting 99-82 loss in Portland with that easy win over Orlando.

    Surprisingly, execution on offense has been a struggle. Only the Kings average fewer points per possession in half-court sets.

13. Milwaukee Bucks

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    ↑ 5 Spots

    Make it four wins in a row for the Milwaukee Bucks since Eric Bledsoe took over starting duties.

    The size of the sample makes almost every pre- and post-Bledsoe difference dubious, but the increased defensive tenacity many expected seems anecdotally real. The Bucks blocked 16 shots against the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday and have seen their defensive rating improve by about 15 points per 100 possessions when Bledsoe has been on the floor.

    Per 100 possessions, the Bucks are averaging 17.9 combined blocks and steals since the Bledsoe acquisition. Before he showed up, that figure was 11.7.

    Again, apply several grains of salt. But at least initially, it appears we're seeing a fuller realization of the aggressive scheme head coach Jason Kidd wants.

    Offensively, Bledsoe hasn't made as significant of an impact. He hasn't shot better than 40 percent from the field in any game with Milwaukee. That Giannis Antetokounmpo is shooting 76 percent on shots at the rim is a good way to offset those moderate contributions.

    The Bucks look more like the team they want to be than ever, but they still operate on a defensive tightrope. If the intensity wanes and/or opponents get better at exploiting those traps, we should expect some of the familiar breakdowns.

    For now, though, everything's great in Milwaukee.

12. Portland Trail Blazers

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    What happened to the Portland Trail Blazers we used to know? The ones who could score with the best of them but were doomed to a middling record because they couldn't stop anybody?

    Portland went 2-1 this week without scoring 100 points once. On the year, the Blazers rank 16th in offensive efficiency, but third on the other end. Rim defense has been the catalyst, as opponents are converting a league-worst 54 percent of their field goals at the bucket.

    Are the Blazers fully responsible for producing that low hit rate, or have they mostly been lucky? We'll need more information before we can be sure, but one critical factor points to regression: Only three teams allow a higher percentage of opponents' shots to come at the rim.

    Essentially, the Blazers are permitting tons of looks at close range but somehow haven't been hurt by it yet. Just a guess, but the key word in that analysis is "yet."

    Meanwhile, CJ McCollum kept up his otherworldly shooting for yet another week, hitting 10 of his 18 attempts from deep and pumping up his conversion rate to 53.1 percent on 6.2 three-point shots per game.

11. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    "Offense will never be the problem all year long. All you're always going to hear about from us, from everybody else, is we're not playing any defense. That is our biggest letdown right now. And until we fix it, a lot of outcomes are going to be like this one."

    That was Jimmy Butler, via Nick Friedell of ESPN.com, after the Minnesota Timberwolves lost 118-100 to the lowly Suns on Saturday.

    After those comments, the Wolves held the Jazz to 98 points on 44 percent shooting and the Spurs to 86 points on 41.8 percent shooting. Neither of those opponents is renowned for its scoring punch, but...

    Message received?

    Minnesota has a negative net rating on the year but sits at 9-5. Slotting the Wolves this high is a bet that this week's defense is the start of something.

10. Philadelphia 76ers

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    ↑ 4 Spots

    It's one thing to marvel at last year's per-36 numbers. It's another to see the tools: skill and footwork and strength and touch. It's still another to enjoy the effective but imperfect early-season performance.

    But it is a separate thing entirely when Joel Embiid puts up 46 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and seven blocks in a single game—which he did in the Philadelphia 76ers' 115-109 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday.

    In one night, Embiid took the extrapolated numbers, the hints of greatness and the tantalizing prospects of his future and replaced them with a real, indisputable example of his prowess in full. We don't have to imagine what he might do when healthy because now he's done it. And, notably, no one else has ever had a game like that.

    We have seen what kind of destruction Embiid can visit on opponents. It's real. It's in the historical record.

    Perhaps just as importantly, before he statistically smashed the Lakers, Embiid clowned the Clippers in a way that underscored the immense value of his confidence. Massive production matters, but for a team that spent several years losing on purpose, the invigorating effect of a guy who believes he can dominate anyone (and will tell everyone about it at high volume) is a big deal, too.

    It's almost like a culture cleanser.

    Embiid and Ben Simmons are basically Kareem and Magic 2.0, and the Sixers went 2-1 behind monstrous performances from both.

    This was a pretty good week for processes.

9. Detroit Pistons

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    We've hit on Andre Drummond's free-throw gains several times already (he's still at 63.1 percent!), but another key component to his success has been an overhaul in offensive usage. Last year, 27.5 percent of Drummond's offensive plays were classified as post-ups. He averaged 0.73 points per play, which ranked in the 19th percentile in terms of efficiency.

    This year, he's using just 9.6 percent of his possessions on such plays (and is still awful at it, averaging 0.60 points per play).

    It sounds simple, but cutting back on what you're bad at can reform a player's entire profile.

    Credit him for accepting what someone like Dwight Howard never could: He stinks on the block.

    The Detroit Pistons have redeemed themselves this season, playing much harder and smarter than they did in their lost campaign of 2016-17. Drummond's transformation is part of it, but Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris have been excellent as well.

    Harris can see now, which seems important.

    The Pistons had won eight of nine before the Bucks got them Wednesday, which is why they still rank ahead of Milwaukee overall.

8. Washington Wizards

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    A couple of items here:

    First, John Wall loves playing the Sacramento Kings. After hitting all four of his three-point attempts in Monday's 110-92 win, he's now 9-of-10 from deep against them this season. Against everyone else, Wall is 7-of-35.

    Second, nutmeg!

    Last week's pledge to celebrate passes between defenders' legs was not a joke. If it happens, you'll see it here.

    Washington had the cushiest schedule imaginable this past week, as it knocked over the Hawks, Kings and Heat—all teams that reside in the bottom third of our rankings. That's part of what makes it harder to trust their defensive improvements (the Wiz allowed an average of 93 points in their three wins) and easier to drop them down a spot, despite an undefeated record.

    We had to make room for a familiar East power's upward move.

7. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    What the Cleveland Cavaliers did to the Knicks on Monday doesn't assuage concerns that the coasting, lack of defense and dearth of backcourt shooting will sink it against the league's elite.

    But if ever we needed a reminder that LeBron James and the Cavs can hit a level above that of all but two or three other teams when properly motivated, we got it. New York poked the bear and got mauled.

    Here's Yahoo's Dan Devine:

    James scored or assisted on 30 of Cleveland's 43 fourth-quarter points on Monday, bruising his way to buckets and dropping on-time dimes to help the Cavs rise all the way out of the 23-point hole they'd dug themselves in Gotham. He took the primary defensive assignment on [Kristaps] Porzingis, locking in to a degree he's rarely done this season to dominate and snuff out the much taller man, keeping the Knicks' fabled unicorn from getting the ball in advantageous situations for much of the quarter as the Cavs made their marauding comeback.

    And then James hit the step-back go-ahead shot over KP, completing a 23-point comeback win, the largest in the league this season.

    James—and by extension, the Cavs—will play hard on both ends when it suits them. Switch-flipping was a failure last year, but only if you consider failure losing in the NBA Finals. 

    The team that snoozed itself into a 23-point hole? That was the Cavs.

    The one that rallied behind the best player alive to erase that deficit? That was also the Cavs.

    As long as that second identity's in there, it's hard to keep Cleveland, 3-0 this week, too far down the rankings.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    ↔ No Movement

    Friday's win over the Los Angeles Clippers was the Oklahoma City Thunder's first against a West foe. Having seen the Clips fall apart this week, even that victory loses some luster. And the Thunder's other two "triumphs" over Dallas and Chicago hardly generate confidence in the team's progress.

    Still, it was encouraging to see Paul George match Russell Westbrook's 16 points in the third quarter of Sunday's game against the Mavs. Marginalized more than either of his two star teammates, George needed a bit of a breakout. He got one over the weekend, totaling 79 points combined against L.A. and Dallas.

    Steven Adams' calf kept him out of action all week, and Carmelo Anthony couldn't get his back healthy in time to face the Mavs. But Melo returned to log 18 points and 11 boards against the Bulls on Wednesday.

    OKC's offense remains a stagnant, mid-pack disappointment. But its defense, generating a higher percentage of opponent turnovers than any other, has buoyed the team's performance.

    We'll need to see more wins against better competition before entertaining returning them to the top five.

5. San Antonio Spurs

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    "Oh, sure. He's gonna be back sooner rather than later," San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said of Kawhi Leonard, per Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News. "Whatever nebulous (stuff that was). As soon as I said it, I thought, 'What the hell does that mean?'"

    Clear as day! Leonard will return...at some point.

    Until then, the Spurs will sustain themselves by embracing an old-man game committed to an economy of motion. When you've got less athleticism than almost anyone, you've got to make sure you're not wasting energy sprinting around for no reason. Perhaps this is why San Antonio ranks last in fouls and third-to-last in percentage of offense generated in transition.

    The Spurs are basically "Team Community-Pool Rules." As in, no running.

    Even with Leonard, the Spurs will struggle against exceptionally athletic opponents. Just this week, they fell to the rangier, bouncier Bucks and Wolves. San Antonio is still 9-6 and capable of out-executing just about anyone, so a 2-2 week doesn't cost it much ground.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

    ↑ 1 Spot

    Excellent news, everyone! We're going to get more OG Anunoby.

    "The young fella has no fear, and that's what we love about him, that he has no fear," head coach Dwane Casey told Doug Smith of the Toronto Star. "But again, does he make mistakes? Yes. And our job now is grow him, cut down on some of his 'oh crap' moments that give up a three-point shot or backdoor, whatever it is. We have the patience to do that with him."

    In his first career start, Anunoby helped harass James Harden into nine turnovers and 8-of-25 shooting while scoring 16 points of his own on 6-of-8 shooting. His physicality, athleticism and smarts make him a fearsome defender already. Hitting 41.7 percent from three is a bonus.

    Norman Powell has struggled, and his hip-pointer injury opened the door for Anunoby against Houston. If the rookie keeps it up, the Toronto Raptors will find themselves marginalizing the guy they just signed to a new deal—and it'll probably be the right decision.

    Overall, Toronto is in its best form of the season. If not for a one-point loss to Boston on Sunday, we'd be talking about a five-game winning streak punctuated by back-to-back nights of 129 and 125 points scored on Tuesday and Wednesday.

    The Raps have quietly crept up to No. 2 in offensive efficiency while mostly sustaining the assist-rate gains created by a more pass-heavy system. With a schedule that's softening significantly (Toronto won't face a West team with a record above .500 until Jan. 13), we could see the Raps climb even higher.

3. Houston Rockets

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    ↔ No Movement

    The Raptors handed Houston its first November loss on Tuesday, but the Rockets got Chris Paul back in their next game, an easy win over the Suns. Paul's reintegration essentially starts anew, as James Harden and his sleeker, trey-hungrier teammates had been humming along fine without CP3.

    If all Paul does is prop up the team during Harden's minutes on the bench, the effects could be far-reaching. One of the lingering bugaboos for the Rockets has been bogged-down late-game offense, generally centered around a fatigued Harden's shooting step-backs with a defender draped all over him. Maybe if he can rest for a few more minutes, secure in the knowledge Paul will hold down the fort, that issue will diminish.

    How does Houston rank ahead of Toronto, despite that Tuesday defeat?

    Head-to-head meetings aren't everything. The Rockets have a better net rating and record than Toronto and they just got a first-ballot Hall of Fame point guard back from injury.

    Oh, and Clint Capela is an emerging force.

    "To me, it's just a matter of time," Houston coach Mike D'Antoni told ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. "I'll be very surprised if he doesn't become, if not the best center in the league, one of the best. I'll be shocked."

    The Rockets have won seven of their last eight.

2. Golden State Warriors

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    The Golden State Warriors couldn't extend their winning streak to eight games, falling 92-88 to the surging Celtics in Boston on Thursday. A win would have added a few more miles to the chasm that's widening between themselves and everyone else, but the loss results in a one-spot drop that already feels hasty.

    During their seven-game run, the Warriors offed opponents of all stripes, practically taking a checklist approach.

    Old nemeses, the Clips and Spurs, fell by a combined 48 points.

    Upstarts in Denver, Minnesota, Orlando and Philly went down by an average of 18.5. They even beat the Magic soundly without Stephen Curry, who sat nursing a quad bruise.

    Burning hotter than anyone, the Celtics halted the surge.

    Golden State's net rating is still significantly higher than that of the Celtics, who sit in second place.

    Nobody squeezes more points from their possessions in half-court sets or in transition than the Warriors. Nobody spaces the floor with deadlier shooters. Nobody has this kind of depth. And, as a result, it's still fair to say nobody stands a chance in a seven-game series.

    Remember, too, that these Warriors, well on their way to setting a record for offensive efficiency, finished a few tenths of a point behind the Spurs for the league's best defense last season. As Kevin Durant solidifies his status as an elite shot-blocker and All-NBA defender, this year's Warriors have an even higher defensive ceiling than last year's.

    Nonetheless, Boston earned its win. The Warriors lost ground for the first time in weeks, which is actually a positive from a rankings perspective. A little change now and then keeps these things fresh.

1. Boston Celtics

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    If you're betting on a title-winner, you're still taking the Warriors. But if a team with a 14-game winning streak that culminates in a victory over the defending champs can't earn the No. 1 spot, what's the point of even doing these rankings every week?

    The run that continued Thursday with a massive home win over the Dubs started amid disaster (Gordon Hayward's injury), depended on the production of inexperienced players for key stretches (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been phenomenal) and even survived injuries to vital vets.

    Per a tweet from Brian Robb of Boston Sports Journal after Friday's 90-87 victory over the Hornets: "Celtics win without [Kyrie] Irving, [Al] Horford and Hayward while also shooting 35 percent from field? Brad Stevens just strengthening his Coach of the Year resume."

    The Celtics are legit, a true challenger to the Cavs' years of conference supremacy and positioned to get even better as the chemistry improves between so many unfamiliar pieces.

    Boston has bashed all comers with the league's best defense and unselfish play on the other end. And now, having seen them slay a giant, we know the Celtics can do their thing against anyone.

                     

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Thursday, Nov. 16.

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