NBA Power Rankings: James Harden, Chris Paul Have Houston Rockets Rolling

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 1, 2017

NBA Power Rankings: James Harden, Chris Paul Have Houston Rockets Rolling

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    B/R

    A power rankings hiatus over Thanksgiving means we've got double the sample size to analyze in this  edition.

    To understate the situation: A few things have happened since last we convened.

    The Houston Rockets posted one of the greatest offensive months in memory (despite only having Chris Paul around for half of it), the Orlando Magic and Memphis Grizzlies fell into pits of despair and don't really feel like talking about it right now, and the Cleveland Cavaliers started doing something completely unexpected.

    It starts with a "d" and ends with "efense", but I'd really rather not ruin the surprise.

    As always, these rankings are meant to reflect the league's current hierarchy through games played Nov. 30. There's a premium on recent play, and injuries (especially this time around) play major roles.

    I'm pretty sure the Rockets scored 742 more points while you were reading this, so we'd better get a move on.

30. Chicago Bulls

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    High points have been hard to find for the Chicago Bulls, whose best moment in the last two weeks came way back on Nov. 17 when they overcame 47 points from Kemba Walker to beat the Charlotte Hornets by a final score of 123-120.

    That game featured a comeback generated in the best possible way: by the team's key youth.

    Lauri Markkanen hit a couple of late free throws to seal a 40-28 fourth-quarter surge, and Kris Dunn had his best game as a pro, finishing with 22 points, seven assists, five rebounds and three steals. Thirteen of Dunn's career-high scoring total came in the fourth period.

    And if it feels like reaching back two weeks for a positive is a stretch (aren't power rankings supposed to measure how teams are playing right now?), just know that there weren't any alternatives. The Bulls became the fastest team in NBA history to reach four 30-point losses in a season, hitting the milestone in game No. 17, a 143-94 laugher against the Golden State Warriors.

    Chicago hasn't earned a victory since that tilt with Charlotte, but Robin Lopez stays winning the quote game, via a tweet from Vincent Goodwill of NBC Chicago: "Robin Lopez was asked if he dealt with a teammate he didn't like. 'Yeah. Brook Lopez.'"

    So at least there's that.

29. Sacramento Kings

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    The Kings got utterly smashed by the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 15, and that 46-point demolition dropped them to dead last in the previous edition of power rankings.

    In response, head coach Dave Joerger tweaked the starting lineup yet again, trotting out a five-man unit—George Hill, De'Aaron Fox, Garrett Temple, Zach Randolph and Skal Labissiere—that hadn't played a second together all year. The Kings are 3-4 since that switch (and could be 4-3 if not for a Blake Griffin game-winner on Nov. 25), but remarkably, the new starting five has had nothing to do with this relative success.

    In 89 minutes together since the Hawks debacle, Joerger's new first unit has been outscored by 19.5 points per 100 possessions.

    While we should credit Sacramento's bench—particularly Willie Cauley-Stein, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Buddy Hield (whose 27 points should have been enough to beat the Clippers)—for getting things done, it's hard to view Joerger's lineup move as anything but success by accident.

    The Kings dig themselves holes on a nightly basis, and this team is still plagued by ghastly quarters and halves of anemic, mid-range dependent scoring. As a whole, Sacramento still has  the second-worst offense in the league.

28. Atlanta Hawks

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    The Atlanta Hawks went 3-11 and dropped five of their final six games in the month of November. By way of context, that was an improvement over their October efforts.

    So, yeah...the Hawks haven't been great.

    On the positive side, rookie and human pogo stick John Collins became a regular frontcourt starter and scored double-digit points in seven of his last eight games. Collins is the gem of Atlanta's young core (perhaps the only one with any sparkle), but it's encouraging that head coach Mike Budenholzer is letting the kids play as much as he has.

    Per Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal Constitution: "Three rookies have been, at one time or another, part of Budenholzer’s rotation: John Collins, Tyler Cavanaugh and Josh Magette. Those three players and Tyler Dorsey all rank among the top 50 in minutes played by NBA rookies; only Boston and Sacramento have more players on the list, with five each."

    With veteran Dewayne Dedmon out 3-6 weeks because of a stress reaction in his left tibia, the young Hawks will only get more opportunities. 

27. Phoenix Suns

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    The Phoenix Suns have been kind of feisty over the last two weeks, but you've got to consider the competition before getting too inspired by their 3-4 record since we last ranked.

    Phoenix beat the Bulls twice and the Los Angeles Lakers once.

    Devin Booker torched L.A. for 33 points on Nov. 17, then repeated that total against Chicago this past Tuesday. In between, he drilled an incredible game-tying triple to force overtime (in an eventual loss) against the Milwaukee Bucks.

    The schedule gets brutal next week, when the Suns hit the road to face the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors before heading home to host the Washington Wizards. Currently sporting the league's second-worst defense, Phoenix had better bring its A-game on the other end if it hopes to avoid blowout losses.

    Passing the ball a little might help. The playmaking-starved Suns are also the proud owners of the second-worst assist percentage.

26. Brooklyn Nets

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    The Brooklyn Nets were already without D'Angelo Russell following knee surgery, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson missed time this past week with a sore ankle. Hardly deep to begin with, the Nets have to lose a bit of ground with key injuries like that limiting the rotation.

    Spencer Dinwiddie has been solid, though, and the Nets have actually outscored their opponents on a per-possession basis when he's been on the floor over the last seven games. Joe Harris and Trevor Booker have produced even bigger positive net ratings in that span.

    The on-off stats are always a little sketchy without context, particularly over a small sample. But it's encouraging that three of Brooklyn's role-fillers (Dinwiddie in particular) can hold their own.

    The Nets have a soft week ahead. They'll face Atlanta twice before hosting OKC. If Brooklyn's No. 27 defense (on the season and since we last ranked) improves at all, we could see this team climb a couple of spots next time around.

25. Orlando Magic

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    This is a colossal drop in the rankings, particularly in light of the Orlando Magic's win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday—in which Aaron Gordon put up 40 points and 15 rebounds.

    But what else can we do with a team that had lost nine straight until that streak-snapper against the reeling Thunder?

    A surprisingly hot start fueled mostly by unsustainable shooting went all carriage-to-pumpkin in milliseconds, and the fallout has been spectacular. The Magic can cite effort, pride and all the usual cliches teams searching for answers always do, but there's really no mystery here.

    When Orlando was 8-4 on Nov. 10, it led the league with a 41 percent conversion rate from three-point range. Since then, the Magic have shot 35.7 percent. Meanwhile, their opponents hit just 30.8 percent of their treys through Nov. 10, which was worst in the league. From Nov. 11 on, teams playing Orlando knocked down 42.8 percent of their long-distance tries, best in the league.

    The long ball giveth and taketh away, basically.

    Orlando probably isn't this bad, but it certainly wasn't as good as it looked through the first dozen games of the year. 

24. Dallas Mavericks

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    Slotting the Dallas Mavericks two spots ahead of the Nets may seem unfair in light of Brooklyn's head-to-head win on Wednesday and its matching 3-4 record since we last ranked on Nov. 16. But the Mavs' net rating in that span is three full points per 100 possessions better—and accumulated against a similarly tough schedule.

    Not only that, but the Nets are losing bodies while the Mavericks are seeing some of theirs round into form.

    Dirk Nowitzki scored a season-high 19 points in Saturday's win over OKC, and Dallas is a plus-60 in the 184 minutes Nowitzki has been on the floor since our last set of rankings.

    "My legs feel stronger. My stamina is better," he told ESPN's Tim MacMahon. "It just took me a while to get going into the season. Eleven games in 18 days didn't help against a lot of great, great opponents, but I feel better now and I'm going to keep working."

    The Mavs aren't world-beaters. They needed a banked-in heave from Harrison Barnes to beat the unraveling Grizzlies on Nov. 22. But they're showing signs of repeating last year's ripening after a rotten start.

23. Memphis Grizzlies

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    ↓ 8 Spots

    In hindsight, there were signs of unrest before Marc Gasol got benched for an entire fourth quarter against the Nets, which came shortly before head coach David Fizdale's surprising dismissal.

    Gasol conveyed his unhappiness afterward in measured but clear terms, and before the speculation machine even had time to crank up, Fizdale was gone.

    Prior to Memphis' surprising decision to fire its coach, Gasol had been performing poorly. Tim MacMahon's take for ESPN was a common one: Fizdale wasn't the problem.

    He tweeted: "Grizzlies are minus-13.7 points per 100 possessions with Marc Gasol on the floor during their 8-game losing streak. Plus-3.1 when Gasol sits during skid. #TakeThatForData."

    It's true. Gasol had been dogging it a bit, and the Grizzlies couldn't compete with a star center half-stepping and a star point guard, Mike Conley, out with the same sore Achilles that cost him a chunk of last season. 

    The losing streak is now at nine, and Memphis has effectively pulled its only ripcord. If Gasol is still ticked, moving him will be difficult. And nobody's interested in Conley's $153 million deal—especially with that Achilles looming.

    If MacMahon and the legion of players who came out in support around the league are right, if Fizdale wasn't the problem, Memphis is in major, franchise-crossroads levels of trouble.

22. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Blake Griffin going down changes everything for a Clippers team that has actually won plenty of games over the past week.

    Those successes don't matter now, and this is one of those instances where evaluating the Clips as they used to be doesn't make any sense. We have to take them as they are: banged up beyond belief and missing three starters.

    Griffin's set to miss up to two months with a sprained MCL, which he suffered down the stretch against the Lakers on Monday. That means the Clippers go forward without Griffin for the foreseeable future, without Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic for another 5-10 games according to Arash Markazi of ESPN, and without Patrick Beverley for the year.

    Everyone knew the injury histories of Los Angeles' key players were issues, but I'm not sure anyone thought all of them would be down before December.

    If the Clippers are smart, they'll look hard at trading DeAndre Jordan and riding out a sneaky tank to a high lottery pick. To the extent it's possible for a team that committed max money over five years for Griffin just a few months ago, it's time to rebuild.

21. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Brandon Ingram had a career-high 32 points as the Los Angeles Lakers pushed the Warriors to overtime Wednesday, but the 127-123 defeat capped a 2-4 stretch that featured brutal, inexcusable losses to the Suns, Kings and Clippers.

    You'll note all three of those clubs sit below the Lakers in these rankings. This is one of those cases where a team's rising a few spots after a spotty run of play has more to do with other squads' falling off than anything else. With Orlando, Memphis and the Clips coming apart at the seams, somebody had to benefit.

    As an aside, that's two full paragraphs about the Lakers without mentioning Lonzo Ball, which has to be a record.

    L.A. is still defending at a top-10 clip, and Ball continues to be a positive influence on the Lakers' performance. Since we last ranked, L.A. is playing to a net rating of plus-2.0 points per 100 possessions with the much-scrutinized rookie on the floor. Without him, that figure is minus-8.8.

    Imagine the difference he'd make if he weren't the worst high-volume shooter in the league.

20. Miami Heat

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    An uninspired effort led to a 115-86 loss against the Knicks on Wednesday, but the Miami Heat are still winners of four of their last seven games—a stretch that included notable successes against the Wizards, Celtics and Timberwolves.

    "We just got to be more consistent, both ends of the floor everywhere," Kelly Olynyk told Andre Fernandez of the Miami Herald. "We’re really, really up and down. It’s like we’re two different teams. We’ve got to figure out a way to bring the right team to the game every single time we step out there."

    Maybe Miami's dual nature has something to do with its roster makeup.

    This is a team with 10 playable options when everyone's healthy, and it can be difficult to establish rotational rhythms when there's A) no true superstar on the roster, and B) seven or eight players who could be Miami's best performer on any given night. Ten different players have started for the Heat this year, and nine average at least 19.1 minutes per game. 

    Depth is nice, but there's a lot to be said for clear hierarchy.

    If you're looking for a less theoretical explanation, Miami's inconsistency could also be a symptom of a bottom-five offense. When you can't reliably score, it's tough to string together wins.

19. Charlotte Hornets

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    Believing in the Charlotte Hornets, which we do around here, can be a chore sometimes.

    Because even when you lean on the stats that suggest Charlotte is a principled, well-coached outfit that generally plays the right way, you then have to watch it lose to the Bulls, squandering 47 points from Kemba Walker.

    When the Hornets dropped that one back on Nov. 17, they fell to 5-9. They've played .500 ball since, and Walker is nursing a sore shoulder. Both the recent stretch and Walker's injury status make it harder to put stock in the Hornets entering December despite stats like their league-low turnover rate.

    And their elite defensive rebounding.

    And the fact that no team allows a lower percentage of opponents' shot attempts at the rim.

    These guys do so many things right*, and Dwight Howard seems to be convinced that it's 2009 again. He hasn't looked this spry for years.

    Yet here they are, arguably overrated at No. 19 with an 8-12 record.

         

    *Except on the road, where they do everything wrong and are 1-9.

18. New York Knicks

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Kristaps Porzingis recently debuted some custom kicks with a unicorn on the sole of his right shoe.

    It's too bad he wasn't wearing them Wednesday, because he and the rest of the viewing public would have gotten a real good look at the artwork when his ankle folded up gruesomely, basically turning his entire foot upside down.

    No state of emergency was officially declared in New York when KP had to be helped to the locker room, but it felt like that would have been reasonable in the moment. Fortunately for the New York Knicks and magical equine enthusiasts, X-rays were negative, and a subsequent MRI came back clean.

    "Right now I'm walking around with no crutches, no boot, no nothing," Porzingis told ESPN.com's Ian Begley afterward. "I don't think it's that serious, but we'll see how I feel."

    The Knicks seem to have dodged a bullet, but they don't need close scrapes like this. KP already missed a loss to the Rockets on Nov. 25 because of back soreness, and his history of leg injuries is already way too long for a player his age.

    New York had better hope Porzingis returns from his ankle like Enes Kanter did from his own back injury. The big man piled up 22 points and 14 boards in just 25 minutes against Miami after sitting out New York's previous three games, propelling the Knicks to a win after Porzingis went down.

    New York is 3-4 since we last ranked.

17. Milwaukee Bucks

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    There is a nuclear option in a parent's psychological warfare arsenal. We're all familiar with it. I look forward to using it one day against my children, but since they're too young for it to make an impact, I'm going to level it at the Milwaukee Bucks, who deserve to hear it.

    Bucks, I'm not mad. I'm just disappointed.

    Maybe that won't get Milwaukee to shake off this stink of unsatisfying mediocrity (the Bucks went 3-3 over their last six, and two of their wins came against Sacramento and Phoenix), but something has to actualize all this talent and length.

    It was encouraging to see the Bucks ease off their feverish trapping scheme against the Kings, but the fact remains that Jason Kidd's overly aggressive schemes don't generate the chaos he wants them to. What they do produce, maddeningly, is a devastating combination of opponents' shots at the rim and from the corners.

    Nobody allows more close-range looks than Milwaukee.

    That needs to change if the Bucks are going to deliver on their considerable upside.

16. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Remember 2014-15, when Anthony Davis led the league in player efficiency rating, had one of the all-time great age-21 seasons and had everyone (OK, maybe just me) thinking Jerry West's likeness on the NBA logo would be replaced by a unibrow in 50 years?

    He's basically that good again.

    In fact, AD is posting career bests in true shooting percentage (thanks to personal highs in three-point attempt and conversion rate), assist rate, rebound rate and free-throw rate. He's more efficient than ever at just about everything.

    The New Orleans Pelicans are 3-3 over their last six games and would have climbed much higher if they hadn't let the Wolves and Warriors punch them out in their two most recent contests. Zaza Pachulia got into DeMarcus Cousins' head on Saturday, as he's made a habit of doing in recent meetings, goading the big man into emotional reactions and, predictably, foul trouble.

    If you're looking for reasons to slot Davis well ahead of Cousins in the Pels' hierarchy, that immaturity will always be a big one—even as Cousins enjoys his own statistically monstrous season.

    Sitting at just 11-10, the Pels are arguably squandering Davis' excellence, but when you realize this team didn't win its 12th game until Dec. 26 last year, you can appreciate the progress.

15. Utah Jazz

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    ↑ 6 Spots

    If it's better to be willing than able, Donovan Mitchell is a doggone hero. He's being asked to play well outside himself, stretching a rookie skill set that was only supposed to involve defense, athleticism and catch-and-shoot respectability to include playmaking and off-the-bounce scoring for a Utah Jazz team short on pass-and-shoot threats.

    He's exceeded every expectation.

    ESPN.com's Zach Lowe outlined Mitchell's approach to Utah's heavy demands: "Show him something he missed on film—a pass to the corner, an opening for a floater—and Mitchell goes out of his way to execute it the next game, almost to a comical degree, coaches say. He dished seven dimes against Chicago last week, two days after a 6-of-19 clanker against Philly."

    Mitchell is a pleaser.

    A development that should be pleasing to Utah loyalists: The Jazz's offense has looked terrific in one-big sets since Rudy Gobert went down. Derrick Favors is probably a bit better overall on that end, and he's been effective when surrounded by four floor-spacers. Since Gobert's knee injury, Utah has scored at a top-five clip.

    They've probably learned enough from this stretch to scrap ineffective two-big lineups going forward. If Gobert comes back in good form, Utah could go on a big run.

14. Indiana Pacers

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    The Indiana Pacers, 5-2 since we last ranked and 12-10 overall, deserve this jump. They have beaten just about everyone they should have, and since Nov. 10, they've only lost to the Rockets (twice) and the Celtics.

    Victor Oladipo continues to break out; Myles Turner's block rate, rebound rate and three-point percentage are all up from last season; and Lance Stephenson recently did an air guitar celebration. That last one is worth two, no, three spots of upward mobility in the rankings on its own.

    But, in the interest of pumping the brakes where necessary, Indiana is punching above its weight.

    Orlando is the cautionary tale for teams winning games on the strength of hot shooting. And even though the Pacers get credit for sustaining their long-range accuracy for far longer than the Magic did, Indiana isn't going to be the second-best three-point shooting team in the league all year.

    We can enjoy the unexpected success in Indy for now and worry about the regression if or when (but really, it's when) it comes.

    And hey, if any of this shade motivates Oladipo, maybe it'll extend Indiana's run a while longer.

13. Denver Nuggets

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    So...I guess Will Barton is in charge of picking up the Paul Millsap slack?

    That's what it looked like when he scored 37 points to save the Denver Nuggets from a brutal loss against Chicago on Thursday. But realistically, it'll take more than a dynamic bench scorer to cover for the absence of an All-Star.

    The Millsap injury hurts—or at least it should. Denver never quite reached last year's offensive levels with Millsap using possessions in the post and generally slowing down the whirring machine that developed in 2016-17. His absence, expected to be three months following wrist surgery, will matter most defensively, especially if Kenneth Faried absorbs most of his minutes.

    Denver is 3-2 since Millsap went down, but the losses were blowouts. The Nugs lost by 30 to the Rockets and by 29 to the Jazz, which prompted this from Mason Plumlee, via Altitude 950's Vic Lombardi: "We have no leadership right now. It’s on the players." 

    That's discouraging. But maybe as they start to play a bit more of last year's style, the Nuggets can recapture some of their offensive magic. They're 4-3 since last edition.

12. Washington Wizards

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    Through a Nov. 22 loss to the Hornets, the last game John Wall played before undergoing PRP and viscosupplementation injections to address the pain and swelling in his left knee, the Washington Wizards had been 10.8 points per 100 possessions worse on offense without their point guard on the floor.

    No surprise, then, that the Wiz, who've been a top-10 scoring outfit for most of the year, have played more like a mid-pack group since Wall went down. Bradley Beal's improved playmaking helps, and you have to like Washington's ballsy attempt at hack-a-Ben Simmons in Wednesday's loss to the Sixers. (Desperate times, right?)

    But without Wall, the Wizards just don't pose the same threat in transition. And that erodes their attack.

    Otto Porter Jr. just keeps getting better, and Kelly Oubre Jr. was darn good in that loss to the Sixers, so Wall won't be returning to a pile of ash in a week or so. These guys can still compete. But for a team plagued by inconsistency for roughly the last four seasons, losing a steady and generally reliable leader like Wall is especially difficult. 

11. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    I wish I hadn't used the "not mad, just disappointed" bit on the Bucks because it sure applies to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who'd be roughly 6,000 percent better if they ever figured out how to defend.

    Minny is 4-4 since Nov. 17, and the opponents it beat in that stretch fail to impress: Dallas, Orlando, Phoenix and New Orleans. Stop me if you've heard this one before, but the Wolves are having a hard time getting stops.

    They clock in at No. 23 in defensive rating, and the constant discussion of their failures on that end is getting pretty meta.

    Here's Britt Robson of The Athletic: "After past two games, Butler has now said can't just talk about playing good defense, have to do it. So, how many times can you talk about not just talking about it?"

    So...no more talking about playing good defense. But also, no more talking about not just talking about it. This raises an important question: Are the Timberwolves allowed to not talk about not talking about talking about it?

    Or am I thinking of Fight Club?

    In closing: Tyus Jones nutmeg

10. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Want to feel worse about the Thunder's rocky first quarter of the season?

    Here's The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor:

    "OKC ranks 27th in the NBA in ball reversals per 100 possessions, according to data a league source provided to The Ringer, and makes fewer passes per game than any other team, just like last season. Bodies don’t move, either. The Thunder finish possessions using an isolation more frequently than any other team, per Synergy. No one moves."

    Want to feel way, way better about that same start?

    Here's Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass: "Roughly, this history tells us that to predict a team’s winning percentage over the remaining 62 games, we should weight their point differential three times as much as their actual won-loss record."

    This is relevant because the Thunder have the league's eighth-best net rating, one that suggests they should be far better than their 8-12 record.

    So while it's reasonable to worry about OKC's issues in the clutch, crummy shot selection, aesthetic ugliness, shocking capacity for blowing leads and Russell Westbrook's career-long ruination of conventional motion offense...maybe keep that point differential in mind.

    Oklahoma City is better than its record, and you can look to more isolated examples than net rating for proof. Try the 108-91 beatdown of the Warriors on Nov. 22 as an example. Big picture, this team should be fine.

    All that said, we have to ding the Thunder a little for a 1-5 stretch since we last ranked. And the longer these struggles persist, the more likely we are to see a shake-up (Paul George trade, anyone?).

9. Portland Trail Blazers

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    "What's funny is," Pat Connaughton told Mike Richman of the Oregonian on Wednesday, "if you had told us at the end of last year that defense is what [would be] helping us win games as opposed to offense, then we probably all would've laughed."

    Same, Pat. Same.

    Portland is second in the league in defensive rating. Much of that stems from opponents' converting a lower percentage of their shots at the rim against Portland than anyone else (and the third-lowest percentage from long distance). But the longer those trends persist, the less likely they're complete anomalies.

    The Blazers are doing something.

    One potential key: Portland allows the fewest corner-three attempts in the league.

    The Blazers got crushed by the Bucks to close out the month, but that hefty defeat doesn't undo a terrific 9-5 November.

8. Philadelphia 76ers

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    There's too much to discuss here. We have no choice but to go bullets.

    • The Philadelphia 76ers' starting lineup of Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid ranks third among five-man units that have played at least 100 minutes with a plus-20.4 net rating.
    • The Sixers rank first in passes per game.
    • On average, they run faster than any other team.
    • They hung 130 points, a total they hadn't reached since 2009, on the Magic without Ben Simmons.
    • Simmons survived a sneaky hack-a ploy by the Wizards, shooting an NBA-record 24 free throws (and making 12) in the fourth quarter of a win on Wednesday. He finished the game with 31 points and 18 rebounds, totals simultaneously amassed by no rookie since Shaquille O'Neal in 1993.
    • The Sixers have played, by far, the hardest schedule in the league.

    These guys are exhausting in the best possible way. They're setting individual records, trolling opponents on social media and occupying a central spot in the league's rumor mill—all while figuring out how to do this whole "winning" thing.

    Simmons and Embiid are the league's best young duo in a long time, and however incalculable their potential, we have to pay attention to what they've helped Philly do in the present: compete with anyone.

7. Detroit Pistons

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    Ahem...

    Deeeeeetroit basketbaaaaaaall!

    Now ends the hesitation to proclaim the Detroit Pistons a good NBA team. We're a quarter of the way through the season, and Detroit has piled up quality wins—at Boston, at Minnesota and at OKC since we last ranked—en route to a 14-6 record and the No. 7 net rating in the league.

    Andre Drummond's shocking growth continues apace, best evidenced by his skyrocketing assist rate (thanks to the Pistons' letting him operate at the elbows as a passer instead of on the block) and newly sustained respectability at the foul line. 

    Drummond has always been a two-category stat-stuffer. But he's playing sound team defense instead of hunting blocks, and his rebound percentage has never been higher. After he piled up 26 points, 22 rebounds, six assists and four steals in Monday's 10-point win over the Celtics, Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy wasn't stingy with the praise.

    "That might be the best game he’s played overall, both ends of the floor, since I’ve been here," he said, via Keith Langlois of Pistons.com.

    "Probably agree with that," Drummond later added.

    Something else consensus-worthy: Detroit's no joke.

6. Toronto Raptors

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    Having said so many pleasant things about the Pistons, the Toronto Raptors still grade out better.

    Don't be fooled by the win total (one fewer than the Pistons). Focus instead on Toronto's net rating, which is more than twice Detroit's and third-best in the league overall. Note, too, that the Raptors have played a significantly more difficult schedule.

    Taken together, those facts suggest that if you have a gripe about Toronto's ranking relative to Detroit's, it should be that the gap ought to be larger than one spot.

    Offensively, the Raptors have sustained their culture reset. The ball is moving, and the flow is markedly better than it has ever been with this core. Toronto already has eight games with at least 25 assists, as NBA.com's John Schuhmann first explored. They had nine such games all of last year.

    Kyle Lowry is playing nearly five fewer minutes per game than last year (a welcome adjustment for a player who's had a habit of breaking down), but he's making the most of his time by posting career highs in rebound rate, three-point attempt rate and true shooting percentage.

    Toronto has the league's No. 3 offense and No. 10 defense. As long as we can trust the Raps to stick with this new style of play, that is the profile of a sneaky contender.

    Why the drop? Because even if the overall schedule has been tough, it's been easy of late, and I don't like those road losses to the Knicks and Pacers that produced a ho-hum 4-2 mark since Nov. 17.

5. San Antonio Spurs

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    ↔ No Movement

    If you can remember the state of the San Antonio Spurs as it existed just a few months ago, when everyone was tearing LaMarcus Aldridge apart for coming up short as a top option in the playoffs, the current predicament (if it's even fair to use that term) would have been unimaginable.

    How will San Antonio successfully integrate Aldridge, who is clearly a worthy No. 1 option right now, when Kawhi Leonard, who undeniably deserves that same role, returns?

    San Antonio isn't quite at the point of having to answer that question yet, but Leonard is getting closer to debuting.

    Straight up: Aldridge, 32, has never been better. He's only had two years with a higher usage rate, yet he's posting career highs in effective field-goal percentage, three-point rate and turnover rate. He's a fraction of a point off his career-best points-per-game average, despite attempting fewer shots per game than he did in either of his two higher-scoring seasons.

    His 41 points during Wednesday's 104-95 win over Memphis were his most in a regular-season game since joining the Spurs in 2015-16.

    The schedule has been soft, but the San Antonio Spurs are 5-1 since the last edition of power rankings, and these banked wins still count. 

    Aldridge is tearing it up, Tony Parker is back, and Leonard shouldn't be far behind.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    ↑ 3 Spots

    /Squints hard. Then even harder, then to the point of migraine induction.

    /Does the Sam Neill glasses removal thing from Jurassic Park.

    /Rubs eyes cartoonishly.

    The Cleveland Cavaliers are...defending?!

    It's true. Over their last 10 games, the Cavs are holding opponents to 101.9 points per 100 possessions—a figure 11.2 points better than their 113.1 rating beforehand and one that'd be good enough to rank eighth in the league for the full season. And this has all largely happened without Tristan Thompson, a guy most would consider one of Cleveland's top stoppers.

    LeBron James hasn't been dialed in full-time, but his effort has improved. He's putting together strings of thefts with anticipation and speed more often lately, like he did in a five-steal game against the Heat on Tuesday.

    Just as importantly, the reserves are digging in.

    The unlikely quartet of Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green and Channing Frye has produced an on-court defensive rating of 93.7 during the Cavs' 10-game winning streak.

    That's not exactly a reputable defensive group, and some of Cleveland's success owes to poor opponent three-point shooting. But seeing as we've buried the Cavs for terrible defense most of this year, it's only right we celebrate them when they do produce on that end of the floor.

    October still counts, but if you only consider games played in November, Cleveland's net rating has been higher than Boston's.

3. Golden State Warriors

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    ↓ 1 Spot

    In past rare instances of strife, it's always been tempting to leave the Warriors at the top of the rankings anyway. Deep down, most agree they're the best team when fully engaged, and that's probably still true in this particular rough patch.

    But the temptation to slot the Dubs at No. 1 by rote was easier to resist than usual this time. Because in addition to getting blown out by the Thunder and dropping an embarrassing home contest to the Kings on Monday (played without Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, but still), a couple of other clubs have done enough to take the position away from Golden State.

    That's true even as the Dubs still lead the league in net rating.

    The Warriors, it seems, aren't concerned with regular-season performance. You can sense it in their long stretches of lackadaisical play, and the volume of semi-healthy and fully healthy scratches of late drives the point home. There are going to be mailed-in losses, and Monday's defeat probably won't be the last one to a team as inept as the Kings.

    "I don't think we competed well tonight," head coach Steve Kerr told reporters after Golden State survived an overtime win against the Lakers on Wednesday. "I don't think we've competed that well all year."

    We can still harbor confidence that, when fully committed to winning a game or series that matters, nobody is on the Warriors' level. But in much the same way we've penalized the Cavs in recent years for coasting, we have to ding Golden State for its checked-out efforts and inconsistent focus.

    This is a big week in power rankings history. For the first time in a while, we're not affording Golden State special treatment.

2. Boston Celtics

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    Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

    ↓ 1 Spot

    The 16-game winning streak ended against Miami on Nov. 22, and the Pistons knocked them off on Monday. So if we learned one thing over the past couple of weeks, it's that the Boston Celtics aren't quite the unbeatable juggernaut they appeared to be.

    And if we learned two things, it's that Boston's starters are shockingly terrible on D.

    Brian Robb of Boston Sports Journal elaborates:

    Out of the Celtics’ 17 most commonly used lineups (more than 15 minutes of court time), Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Al Horford rank dead last in defensive rating. The starting lineup has played the most out of any of Boston’s top lineups this year (85 minutes) and is allowing 117.8 points per 100 possessions, nearly 20 points worse than the team’s season average of 98.3. That 117.8 mark would put them eight points below the NBA's current worst defense (Sacramento Kings at 109 points allowed per 100 possessions).

    And that's how Aron Baynes wound up cracking the starting five in place of Morris against the Sixers on Thursday.

    The Celtics got plenty of stops in that 108-97 win, though Joel Embiid was resting, so it's hard to know how impactful the change really was.

    There's nothing wrong with Boston's 5-2 mark in this rankings session, but it's not good enough to keep it at the top. Not with the No. 1 team blowing the doors off everyone it plays.

1. Houston Rockets

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    Harden, photographed not shooting a three.
    Harden, photographed not shooting a three.Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    ↑ 2 Spots

    That's a wrap on November for the Houston Rockets, who finish the month with a 12-1 mark and (are you ready for this?) a plus-17.3 net rating. Both were tops in the league during that one-month span.

    The offensive explosion has been spectacularly captained by James Harden, who leads the NBA in scoring and assists* while shooting a career-high 40.3 percent from long range on an unfathomable 11.1 attempts per game.

    He is, without question, the front-runner for MVP.

    Houston will shoot more threes than any team in league history this year. There's no doubt about that. And the truly remarkable thing about this team's play is that it could get better with a healthy Paul back on the court.

    Since his return on Nov. 16, CP3 is averaging 15.2 points and 10.8 assists on 61.9 percent shooting. He had a 14-assist, zero-turnover game against the Nets on Monday, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is 62-to-eight since his return from a bruised knee.

    Head coach Mike D'Antoni is effectively staggering Paul and Harden's minutes, and CP3 is relishing his chance to destroy opposing second units. In 10 minutes per game without Harden on the floor, Paul's on-court net rating is plus-35.1.

    None of this should be a surprise, but it turns out unleashing one of the greatest point guards of all time against backups is a little unfair.

    Houston is rolling.

    *But only until Paul plays enough games to qualify for the assists leaderboard.

         

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Thursday, Nov. 30.

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