NBA Power Rankings: Houston Rockets Proving They're Legit Title Contenders

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 8, 2017

NBA Power Rankings: Houston Rockets Proving They're Legit Title Contenders

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    B/R

    If you blinked, you missed the 2017-18 NBA season zipping past the quarter mark.

    While that doesn't mean anything concrete, it at least offers a reminder that some of what's going on in our power rankings has a decent chance of holding up. Last year at this time, 13 of the eventual 16 postseason entrants were already in playoff position.

    So at this point in the season, there's a strong statistical chance that if your favorite squad isn't in its conference's top eight, it probably won't be in April.

    As always, these rankings are designed to reflect the league's current power structure. We'll look at stats, head-to-head meetings and schedule strength, and focus a little extra on recent play.

    Injuries matter, but since just about every team seems to have a star down with some part of his anatomy strained, sprained or fractured, it practically evens out.

30. Chicago Bulls

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    Zach LaVine, looking up. Coincidentally, the Bulls are looking up at 29 teams this week.
    Zach LaVine, looking up. Coincidentally, the Bulls are looking up at 29 teams this week.Associated Press

    ↔ No Movement

    There's been some shuffling at the bottom of the rankings these past few weeks, but in what appears to be bad news for the Chicago Bulls, the days of choosing between a handful of clubs for this last spot may be over.

    Chicago has lost 10 in a row and may be settling into its own unfortunate tier of one.

    Ranked 30th in offensive rating and effective field-goal percentage by comfortable margins, the Bulls can't score enough to compete.

    In spite of it all, the mood remains upbeat—to hear Zach LaVine tell it, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: "This isn't a losing situation. We might not have the best record right now. But we don’t have that outlook on our team. We’re positive. We go at each other. We’re looking to improve. I know I’m not a loser. They’re not losers. We’re in the right state of mind."

    LaVine is due back from his torn ACL in January. We'll see if the vibes are still positive after another few weeks of losing.

29. Sacramento Kings

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

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    You can't say the Sacramento Kings are the worst team in the league. Even with Wednesday's loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, they're still a respectable 3-4 over their last seven contests.

    But if you're ranking organizational coherency, Sacramento remains in the cellar.

    The Kings shipped Skal Labissiere to the G League, which is surprising considering his status as an opening-night starter and theoretical cornerstone of the ongoing rebuild. Except, with the Kings, who had already relegated fellow opening-night starter Justin Jackson to the Reno Bighorns, it's business as usual.

    Whether it's through signing middling vets in the offseason (instead of using cap space to take on bad salary with picks attached) or the bizarre marginalization of key young pieces, the Kings remain a monument to incongruous planning. This team has a fetish for capriciousness, is compulsively impatient and, not surprisingly, has a hard time developing young talent.

    If Zach Randolph, George Hill and Vince Carter are here to mentor the youth (Hill is listless and ticked off, and Carter wants to be more than a teacher, so this is going great), they can't do it if some of that youth is playing 130 miles away in Nevada.

    The Kings change plans on a week-to-week basis, a haphazard approach that has made (and will make) sustained success impossible.

28. Atlanta Hawks

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

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    It's not like the Atlanta Hawks had all that much to start with. Coming into the season, they were a surefire lottery club—one finally embracing a teardown after putting it off for years.

    But several key injuries have resulted in a team that produces some of the most profoundly noncompetitive stretches in the league.

    The Hawks managed to beat the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday but came out of halftime with zero pep in Monday's rematch. After scoring just 36 points over the final two quarters, Atlanta had lost by 20. Lack of effort is always tough to excuse, and the Nets aren't exactly a picture of health themselves.

    Still, playing without Dewayne Dedmon (leg), Mike Muscala (ankle) and John Collins severely limited the Hawks' options up front. It's no surprise Atlanta has the league's lowest defensive rebound rate.

    Collins, fighting a shoulder injury, might not be back until late December. Which means we won't get to see him dunk on anyone for a while. There goes one of the only reasons to get excited about the Hawks.

    Atlanta went 1-2 this week and has lost four of its last five.

27. Phoenix Suns

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

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    You wouldn't know it from this ruthlessly meme-ed defensive stretch, but the Phoenix Suns were unusually competitive this past week.

    They fell by single digits to the Boston Celtics, 116-111, and admirably stuck with the Toronto Raptors on the road for most of a 126-113 loss. They sandwiched a win at the Sixers in between.

    Devin Booker filled it up (38 points against the Celts, 46 to beat Philly), but had to be carried off the floor after he strained his adductor in Toronto. Phoenix cannot replace his 24.3 points per game without a major drop in efficiency. Booker led all high-volume Suns shooters with a 51.9 effective field-goal percentage.

    It also seems safe to assume opposing crowds won't be giving any other Sun an appreciative standing ovation.

    A win would normally earn Phoenix a bigger rankings boost. But Booker's absence, which'll last two to three weeks, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, looms larger.

26. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

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    A promising start has given way to more predictable results for a Los Angeles Lakers team that depends so heavily on young players.

    L.A. is spiraling of late, struggling badly to score and even losing some of its early defensive prowess, surrendering points at a bottom-five rate over its last six contests—five of which were losses.

    Gone, too, is the advanced-stats halo of protection that used to surround Lonzo Ball. For a while, his detractors had to contend with the fact that, despite his abysmal shooting, the Lakers still performed better with him on the floor than off. Now, Ball joins Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma in a dispiriting club.

    The Lakers' net rating is better whenever those guys aren't playing. Though, to be fair to Ingram, who hit a game-winner to beat the Sixers on Thursday, he's been fantastic for about a month.

    Broadly, that's how it's supposed to be with young players. They take lumps and show flashes but don't help the winning cause. This rough stretch for the Lakers is just a return to normalcy.

    The present can be a little grim without ruining a bright future.

25. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

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    If you don't have the talent, you'd better be scheming smarter than the opposition. Otherwise, the avenues toward victory are all dead ends.

    The Los Angeles Clippers will be without Blake Griffin for several more weeks due to an MCL sprain and won't get Patrick Beverley back at all after knee surgery, which is why it's particularly concerning that their offense has devolved into a "my turn, your turn" system that has had a hard time generating quality looks.

    As ESPN's Micah Adams notes, no team is setting fewer off-ball screens per game than the Clippers. They also rank in the bottom five in assist percentage.

    It's one thing to run an offense through a single star, stationing shooters around him or sending cutters through the lane for him to find. Griffin made that work. But without a transcendent talent, the Clips are doing themselves no favors by failing to help each other get open.

    Maybe the returns of Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic will un-gum the works, but the Clippers shouldn't let that change their approach to the transitional moment they're facing. It's time to re-evaluate the franchise's prospects—a process that must involve the consideration of a DeAndre Jordan trade.

    USA Today's Sam Amick writes that's exactly what the Clips are doing.

    Forget setting screens, a franchise reset (to the extent it's possible with Griffin's new deal on the books) is the best way for L.A. to help itself.

    The Clippers are 4-13 since Nov. 1.

24. Brooklyn Nets

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

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    The Brooklyn Nets are big on the concept of stretch, as evidenced by their fourth-place ranking in percentage of shots attempted from long range. In addition to Brooklyn's desire to space the floor and strain opposing defenses, there's another expansion element.

    The Nets like to push their players' skill sets to uncomfortable places*.

    Caris LeVert is playing some point guard lately, and the results have been mixed. But he managed career highs in assists (six) and made field goals (seven) in Monday's 110-90 win over the Hawks. Modest totals, sure, but they're intriguing when produced by a 6'7" wing exploring a new position.

    "We talked about Caris when we drafted him—could he be a point guard?" head coach Kenny Atkinson told Alex Labidou of Nets.com. "That wasn't the main reason why we drafted him, but in the back of our minds, we thought it was something he could do. So it's nice that he's starting to feel comfortable there, because we need it."

    Down D'Angelo Russell (knee) and Jeremy Lin (knee), Brooklyn has enjoyed surprising efforts from both LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie. 

    *Just wait until Jahlil Okafor, acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday, as first reported by ESPN.com's Zach Lowe, is shooting five threes a game.

23. Orlando Magic

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    Kent Smith/Getty Images

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    The last time the Orlando Magic had at least a break-even winning percentage in a single rankings session came in a 3-1 stretch from Oct. 27 to Nov. 1.

    So this week's 2-2 record is a big deal—even if the wins came against the Hawks in overtime and a Knicks team playing without Kristaps Porzingis (ankle) or Tim Hardaway Jr. (leg).

    A turnaround isn't imminent for the Magic, who've cratered since their 8-4 start. The systemic issues preventing wins are too real. Only the Denver Nuggets and Chicago Bulls have been worse on defense since Nov. 15, and Orlando is the second-worst defensive rebounding team in the league.

    If the version of the team that has existed since mid-November is for real, this season's Magic are even worse than last year's 29-win, minus-6.8-net-rating outfit. That's brutally disappointing for a club that looked (at least superficially) like it was going to take a leap early this year.

22. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

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    "We won. F--k it."

    That's Marc Gasol's refusal to overanalyze the Memphis Grizzlies' first win (95-92 at home against the Timberwolves on Monday) in 27 agonizing, coach-ousting, unrest-inducing, existential-question-provoking days.

    And you know, there's something admirable about Gasol's reaction. Something pure. We spend a lot of time picking apart teams in these rankings, but in some cases (and this is absolutely one of them), everything is simple. A win's just a win. And a win feels better than a loss.

    Let's set aside Mike Conley's Achilles, the question of when (not if) Memphis should trade Tyreke Evans and his expiring deal for picks, and sundry other forward-looking concerns for next week. It's been a rough stretch for the Grizzlies. They get a break.

    And yes, they went out and lost to the Knicks on Wednesday, possibly starting another losing streak. But the win trumps that for now.

21. Miami Heat

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    Christopher Trotman/Getty Images

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    Let it never be said Dion Waiters is a bad listener.

    "He has to be more efficient," Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. "He has the ball in his hands quite a bit. There has to be more commitment to get him open and get him into the paint and he has to be more committed to making the right plays and not just settling for low percentage pull ups, particularly when they're contested and particularly when there's more time on the clock to explore more options of our offense."

    Cut to Waiters and his 22 points on just 12 shots in Wednesday's 117-105 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Not bad at all!

    Waiters repopulated his eponymous island last year by posting a personal-best 48.8 effective field-goal percentage (which is still terrible) on more volume than ever. But he's right back down around his career average of 46.2 percent this year and has been particularly reckless in his shot selection.

    He's making less than a third of his pull-up shots overall and barely more than a quarter of his pull-up threes.

    Waiters isn't the only culprit, but it's no wonder Miami's offense is one of the five worst in the NBA.

    At least the other end has been fun. Bam Adebayo put the clamps on Stephen Curry, and Josh Richardson punctuated my favorite defensive sequence of the year with a sweet, sneaky block this week.

    The Heat have lost four of their last five.

20. Dallas Mavericks

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

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    Branding opportunity alert!

    Ready for it?

    The Dirkth Lineup.

    Forget the record (a tidy 2-1 this week); the Dallas Mavericks have an unstoppable fivesome that needs a catchy moniker. That's priority No. 1.

    J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris, Dwight Powell and Dirk Nowitzki have shared the floor for 89 minutes this season, and they own a plus-46.6 net rating. That's the best such figure for a five-man unit with that many minutes. By a mile.

    For reference, the Houston Rockets' best quintet is roughly half that good. The Wizards' healthy starting five is, too. The freakin' Warriors' usual starters are only at plus-20.9.

    Aside from those groups, no other five-man unit with at least 80 minutes of floor time is even above plus-20.

    To the list of timeless mysteries that already includes the contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction and the exact date of the solar system's heat death, we can now add the success of this oddball Mavericks lineup.

    Thanks for coming, and try the hot dogs.

19. New York Knicks

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

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    The New York Knicks are hurt and hurting, and yes, there's a difference.

    With Kristaps Porzingis already on ice because of a sprained ankle, New York also lost Tim Hardaway Jr. for at least two weeks due to a stress reaction in his lower left leg.

    After the Indiana Pacers bashed the Knicks on Monday, ESPN.com's Ian Begley quantified the struggles of a less-than-whole roster: "Most teams would struggle without their two top scorers, but the Knicks' loss against Indiana shows how dependent they are on having everyone healthy. They trailed by 30-plus for much of the game and failed to generate easy baskets. They have just one win in five games when they're missing a starter."

    Healthy or not, this thing shouldn't snowball in the immediate future. New York gets Chicago, Atlanta, the Lakers and Brooklyn next week. Head coach Jeff Hornacek should be able to play a couple of ball boys and come out of that stretch with a .500 record.

    Plus, Porzingis made it back against Memphis on Wednesday, scoring 18 points in the Knicks' only win this week.

18. Charlotte Hornets

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

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    The Charlotte Hornets implode whenever Kemba Walker isn't playing.

    They dropped their two most recent road contests to the Heat and Raptors as a shoulder injury sidelined the All-Star point guard, then bounced back to beat the Magic when Walker returned. On the year, the Hornets are an excellent plus-8.2 points per 100 possessions when Walker plays and a pathetic minus-16.1 when he sits. No other Hornet's individual off-court net rating is anywhere near that low.

    Dwight Howard's minus-7.8 comes closest.

    The Hornets are just 1-10 on the road. So in addition to never sitting Walker, they might also consider refusing to leave North Carolina for the purpose of playing basketball games.

    On the "real life encroaching on our dumb hobby" tip, Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford will step away from the team for an indeterminate period to address health concerns, the club announced. Here's hoping he's back, fit and ready to lead the Hornets to the playoff spot their talent and peripheral status suggest they deserve.

17. Denver Nuggets

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

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    There's something to be said for zigging when everyone expects you to zag. Going off trend can make a team dangerous, and psychologically, maybe there's some kind of boost from knowing you're entering a contest on your terms, not the opponent's.

    But starting Kenneth Faried at center against DeMarcus Cousins and the Pelicans, which the Denver Nuggets did in Wednesday's 123-114 loss, might have been a bridge too far. Not that Mason Plumlee is some kind of defensive force...but Faried's practically famous for his weak defense and stands 6'8".

    So Cousins laid waste to Denver, hoarding 40 points, 22 rebounds, four assists and four blocks in 40 dominant minutes.

    "They're not as deep as they usually are at the big spot, and they were a bit undersized," Cousins told reporters, probably standing atop the pile of rubble that was the Nuggets.

    He's right, though. Denver was missing Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap (wrist surgery), its anchors on both ends. Jokic could return from his sprained ankle at some point during the Nuggets' ongoing six-game road trip. When he makes it back, he'd better bring some serious scoring punch.

    Because Denver, the league's third-worst defense over the last two weeks, isn't stopping anyone.

16. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

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    Anthony Davis joined Devin Booker, suffering his own ugly adductor strain since we last ranked. This warrants a cautionary note that should be circulating at all times but is especially pertinent now: Keep your groins safe out there, folks.

    AD remains day-to-day after exiting the New Orleans Pelicans' Dec. 1 loss to the Jazz with the injury, which makes this a good time to highlight what he means to the Pels' performance. And what he means is...OH NO DO NOT LOOK AT THOSE DEFENSIVE SPLITS!

    New Orleans can't stop anyone when Davis doesn't play, allowing 114.7 points per 100 possessions versus 101.7 when he's in the lineup. The Pelicans coughed up 114 points to a Denver Nuggets team missing Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap on Wednesday, and even though they went 2-2 for the week, their opponents averaged 117.3 points per game.

    A playoff spot is still a realistic goal, but Davis' injury highlights the tightrope a perilously thin Pelicans team is walking.

15. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

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    We were disappointed in the Milwaukee Bucks last week, but maybe it's time to temper that sentiment with an acknowledgement that no matter how frustrating its adherence to its blitzing scheme and pedestrian offense may be, the team is getting results lately.

    Since adding Eric Bledsoe to the starting lineup Nov. 10, the Bucks are 9-4 with the league's No. 11 defensive rating. Before he showed up, Milwaukee was 26th on D.

    It's still fair to be frustrated by an overly aggressive scheme that bleeds corner threes and shots at the rim, but since Bledsoe ditched his Suns jersey, Milwaukee is at least forcing turnovers at an elite clip (second-most per 100 possessions). All that activity is, at least, causing some chaos.

    It's a high-risk style, and in recent years, we've only really seen the early LeBron-era Heat get the reward. That's a tough comparison to measure up against.

    Oh, and hey! Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing some center these days...and it's working.

    SB Nation's Mike Prada noted Milwaukee used Giannis at the 5 for roughly a full quarter against the Celtics on Monday, and they produced an offensive rating of 130 in that stretch.

    More of this, please.

14. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

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    A 0-2 week in which their defense fell victim to some explosive individual scoring efforts—38 points from DeMarcus Cousins and 51 from Bradley Beal—has the Portland Trail Blazers slipping down the rankings for the first time in a while.

    It feels like no matter what happens with them, we're going to remember the 2017-18 Blazers as a particularly weird team. Either they'll continue to defend at a top-five rate while scoring at a bottom-10 clip (essentially inverting last year's profile), or they'll revert to their old identity, suddenly scoring in bunches and failing to stop anyone.

    If it's the former, we'll spend the summer trying to figure out how a team completely flipped its identity in one offseason. If it's the latter, we'll spend it wondering where the heck those upside-down first 20-ish games came from.

    Either way: weird.

    Jusuf Nurkic, who deserves credit for both the Blazers' defensive surge and offensive backslide, sprained both ankles within a span of about two minutes against Washington on Tuesday. It was a true "this guy can't catch a break" sequence.

    If Nurkic is hobbled, we could see Portland's defense lose some of its effectiveness.

13. Indiana Pacers

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    Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

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    If the first quarter of the season has taught us one thing, it's that having opinions is always a bad idea. One such opinion: The Indiana Pacers got outrageously fleeced in the Paul George deal.

    If it's taught us two, it's that Victor Oladipo is roughly 47 times better than anyone (Pacers front office excluded) thought.

    So far, Indy has straight up won that deal.

    Here's ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton: "Oladipo has thrived in a leading role, posting career highs in both usage rate (30.4 percent of Indiana's plays) and true shooting percentage (.586). As a result, Oladipo has produced 3.5 wins above replacement player (WARP), by my metric, so far this season, surpassing George's 3.2 WARP."

    Don't forget the way Domantas Sabonis now profiles as a rotation player after he looked mostly hopeless as a rookie last season. That's basically a bonus

    Indiana avoided a scare against the inexplicably hot-shooting Bulls on Wednesday to complete a 2-1 week. Oladipo posted 27 points in that one and drilled a ballsy pull-up, go-ahead triple with 30.1 seconds left in the game.

    Because of course he did.

12. Washington Wizards

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    Cameron Browne/Getty Images

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    John Wall's absence was bound to increase the variance in the Washington Wizards' play. Remove a stabilizing star, and you never know how the rest of the roster might react.

    In this case, the Wizards swung wildly between two poles, getting obliterated by 47 points against the Utah Jazz on Monday and then bouncing back to beat the Blazers the next night behind 51 points from an incendiary Bradley Beal.

    Beal's point total, 21 makes and 37 field-goal attempts were all career highs.

    "The absence of John Wall had forced Beal to find shots for teammates, but the role greatly affected his own play as he produced glaring negative plus-minus numbers in four of the five games without his starting point guard," Candace Buckner explained in the Washington Post. "But Beal, who had worn glasses during the previous two games, returned to his shooting guard ways."

    You can say that again.

    Washington will be prone to these swings as long as Wall is out with a knee injury, but you've got to admit the unpredictability is kind of exciting.

11. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    OK, just so we're clear on this, Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau:

    • Can't get anyone other than Taj Gibson or Jimmy Butler to defend
    • May not get along with Karl-Anthony Towns
    • Might be fostering unrest in the locker room
    • Has a team with undeniable offensive talent ranked 23rd and 29th in percentage of shots taken at the rim and from three, respectively.

    Uh, Thibs? Please refer to the video above.

    Minnesota's two wins this week both came against the Clippers, so no points awarded for that. But at least Butler is asserting himself more lately. His two highest-scoring games of the season, 33 and 30, came in a back-to-back set against the Grizz and Clips on Sunday and Monday.

    There's a weird vibe with the Wolves. With their record at 15-11, it's hard to get too worried. But this is a team worth keeping an eye on. Don't be surprised if tension mounts.

10. Detroit Pistons

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    The Detroit Pistons hit the road, and the road hit back. Hard.

    A 0-4 week stands out as Detroit's worst stretch of the season, and it comes as some strange trends are beginning to emerge.

    One example: the inscrutable Avery Bradley situation. CBS Sports' Matt Moore noted Dec. 1 how the Pistons performed eight points per 100 possessions better on D when Bradley, renowned one-on-one stopper, was off the floor.

    By the end of Detroit's four-game skid this week, that number had shrunk to minus-4.2. So, to clarify: The Pistons lost four games in which Bradley's defensive impact improved, but were 14-6 before that...when he was a negatively impactful defender.

    I dare you to find a more confusing stat.

    The losing streak has more to do with the offense's disappearance (98.0 offensive rating) and slumping reserves.

    "Our bench has not played well on this trip," head coach Stan Van Gundy told reporters. "We maybe have to change up our rotations. Our bench has been really, really good for us, but now has not been."

    Only four backups played in Wednesday's 104-100 loss to Milwaukee, and Ish Smith and Eric Moreland were the best of them with minus-13s on the night.

9. Utah Jazz

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

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    Holy smokes, Rudy Gobert. That was quick!

    After initial expectations had him missing four weeks at minimum, Gobert returned from a bruised right tibia in just over three, getting back on the floor for 21 minutes of the Utah Jazz's blowout win against the Wizards on Monday.

    While he was out, the Jazz transmogrified, morphing into a scoring machine driven by a surging rookie and the long-awaited, uh, re-surgence of Alec Burks.

    Donovan Mitchell blew up for 41 points against New Orleans and hung 31 on the Thunder. His raw athleticism and developing feel in the pick-and-roll rendered the Pelicans defense practically powerless—especially when the Jazz dragged DeMarcus Cousins up to defend the play, which they did relentlessly down the stretch of Mitchell's breakout game.

    I don't want to say Mitchell looks like Damian Lillard with more fast-twitch bounce and a desire to defend...but I don't not want to say it.

    "Yeah, one of the best young players. I guess you don't even need to say that; he's one of the best players in the league right now," Wizards head coach Scott Brooks told reporters.

    Burks' string of three straight games with at least 20 points ended against OKC on Tuesday, but it's worth noting he hadn't had such a scoring streak since February 2014.

    Don't look now, but the Jazz are knocking on the door of an exclusive club. They're within sniffing distance of a top-10 offense to match their elite defense.

8. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Cut out the 0-3 start caused by growing pains and, perhaps, the pressure of expectations, and the list of teams to beat the Philadelphia 76ers is genuinely odd.

    The list: Houston, Golden State (twice), Cleveland and Boston, plus the Kings, Lakers and Suns.

    Apparently, only the best and worst have a prayer against Philly. If you're in the middle, the Sixers are taking you down.

    Philadelphia's best players are totally unfamiliar with competitive basketball, which might explain the strange collection of defeats. When you're not used to beating anybody, and you suddenly start winning more often, maybe it's hard not to get ahead of yourself.

    "I think we took them lightly," Joel Embiid told Derek Bodner of The Athletic after the Suns loss. "We paid for it."

    "Not fully coming in like you have that appropriate fear is bothersome," head coach Brett Brown added. "It happens, especially with young guys."

    The Sixers are in a bit of a lull, and they overlooked the Lakers just after issuing mea culpas for doing the same against the Suns. Adding Trevor Booker in the trade that sent Jahlil Okafor to the Nets should help, but if they keep this up-and-down performance going much longer, they won't stick in the top 10. 

7. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

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    Shout out to the Oklahoma City Thunder for finally winning some close games.

    Plagued by clutch failures all year, OKC strung together wins that included classic close-and-late situations. That's a big deal, per Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript: "They've now won three consecutive games that have come within five points with five-or-fewer minutes to go. They began the season losing nine of 10 in games that entered that situation."

    While Carmelo Anthony's shot profile (just 14 percent of his attempts come at the rim, while 50 percent come from the mid-range area) is cause for serious concern, Steven Adams is picking up the offensive slack. Three of his four highest-scoring games of the year came this week, highlighted by a 27-point outing against the Timberwolves on Friday.

    OKC course-corrected after a rough 0-3 week, notching quality wins against the Wolves, Jazz and Spurs. If the Thunder ever get their offense unstuck, we'll have another contender to add to the mix.

6. San Antonio Spurs

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    Leonard talking, which is basically like photographing Bigfoot.
    Leonard talking, which is basically like photographing Bigfoot.Eric Gay/Associated Press

    ↓ 1 Spot

    "I feel good," Kawhi Leonard told reporters in his first public comments since media day in late September. "Soon [the time is] to come to be able to play on the floor. I'm feeling pretty healthy right now. I think they told you guys that I've been playing five-on-five. So that's where I'm at right now. It's been good."

    Take your time, Kawhi. The rest of the Spurs have things under control.

    Winners in six of their last seven games (the lone loss came by just three points at Oklahoma City with LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker resting), the Spurs are up to third in defensive efficiency without their two-time Defensive Player of the Year having played a second this season.

    On the other end, Aldridge has led the way. But all-hands-on-deck efforts like the one San Antonio got Wednesday in a win over the Heat that have propped up the scoring. Eight Spurs reached double-digit point totals in that one, with nobody taking more than 16 shots on the night.

    The machine whirs on uninterrupted. 

5. Toronto Raptors

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    While you weren't paying attention, the Toronto Raptors became the deepest team in the East. A wellspring of youth, skill and athleticism is bubbling up from a firm foundation of veteran starters. And while Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka remain this team's key players, most of the stretches producing wins have come with a bunch of 23-and-under newbies on the floor.

    Here's The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks on one of them:

    "Anunoby is not playing like a rookie. He gets the toughest defensive assignment on the wings every night. In his first two weeks as a starter, he has guarded James Harden, Jrue Holiday, Bradley Beal, and Victor Oladipo. At 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds with a 7-foot-2.5 wingspan, he is a physical marvel who can match up with players at all five positions."

    Dig this: Since Anunoby became a starter on Nov. 14, his on-court net rating is plus-11.0 points per 100 possessions. But Toronto's first unit (which also includes Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas) is only producing a plus-1.1 net rating in that span. That means Anunoby isn't just being propped up by the other starters; he's tearing it up with other reserves.

    In addition to Anunoby, Toronto is getting quality production from Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Fred Van Vleet.

    The Raptors are having their cake and eating it, too. While stabilizing their present with big expenditures on established stars, they've also fashioned a youth corps that is already excelling in major minutes. They've got a bridge to the future in place.

    It's almost impossible to overstate how hard it is to stay competitive while setting up the next wave of talent, but the Raps have done it.

    They went 2-0 this week and have won eight of their last 10. 

4. Golden State Warriors

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    Turns out Kevin Durant is a solid Plan B.

    With Stephen Curry out because of an ankle injury (and Draymond Green resting a sore shoulder), the Golden State Warriors' other MVP hung 35 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists on the Hornets during a 101-87 win on Wednesday. The victory extended Golden State's winning streak to five games, all of which have come on the road.

    Curry is due to miss a couple of weeks, according to the team, and his absence could be the kind of challenge Golden State needs during a season that has had a perfunctory feel.

    According to ESPN.com's Zach Lowe: "Golden State scored 115.4 points per 100 possessions when Curry played without Durant last season, and 108.7 with Durant as the lone alpha. The splits this season: 116 points per 100 possessions with just Curry, 107 with just Durant."

    In light of that, the benefits of Curry's absence are a tough sell. Good thing head coach Steve Kerr is a hell of a salesman.

    "Big-picture-wise over the next couple of weeks, it's an opportunity for our team to get better," Kerr told reporters Wednesday. "We have to and have no choice to be more proficient and more precise with the way we play. We have to look at it as that opportunity."

    The Warriors have rarely found their edge this season. Perhaps they'll locate it with Curry missing. Failing that, at least we'll get to see KD fill it up for a few games.

    As far as dropping a team with five wins in a row...Curry's out. There have to be repercussions.

3. Boston Celtics

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    The Washington Post's Tim Bontemps is doing a straw poll of media members again, tallying unofficial votes for MVP, and Kyrie Irving is getting a lot of love. The third-most love, to be exact.

    This is ridiculous.

    Even if the Boston Celtics lead the NBA with 22 wins following a 3-0 week, and even if everyone's enamored with a version of Irving that is merely bad (and not scheme-sabotagingly awful) on defense, we need to look at what Boston's point guard is actually doing on the floor—where he's producing a near-exact duplicate of his 2016-17 numbers with the Cavs, plus a few extra steals.

    That's not a knock on Irving. It's a knock on us, the basketball-observing community. We're seeing something that isn't there. We're buying into a narrative we've created from nothing.

    Irving is awesome, but he's not any more awesome than he was last season when absolutely no one gave him fringe MVP consideration.

    If anyone on the Celtics deserves a nod, it's Al Horford, team leader in ESPN's real plus-minus (4.72), defensive linchpin and offensive fulcrum. He's been the best player on the winningest team this season, and it's not particularly close.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    LeBron James is murdering fourth quarters, which is almost comically on brand for his and the Cleveland Cavaliers' energy-conserving approach over the last four seasons. Why keep your foot on the gas from start to finish when you know you can hit the turbo boosters when it matters?

    He's averaging 36.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 8.2 assists per 36 minutes in fourth quarters. The first two are his highest of any period and his assists are close to the highest.

    The Cavs have climbed to third in offensive efficiency, and during their 13-game winning streak, they've posted the seventh-best defensive rating in the league. That's over a span of nearly a month.

    After some hiccups and hand-wringing, Cleveland looks like the best team in the East. Which is what everyone thought it'd be.

    Less foreseeable was James' putting up the greatest shooting season of his career. He has never been more accurate from the field or from long range. This is his 15th season, by the way.

1. Houston Rockets

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    PJ Tucker might have been the only one, but at least somebody saw this Houston Rockets defense coming.

    "As a free agent, I'm thinking, I'm what they need. I'm what they need, Tucker told Sam Amick of USA Today. "And then they signed Luc [Mbah a Moute] after me, and I'm like, Oh my God, this is special."

    You know about the hailstorm of threes and the James Harden-Chris Paul tandem that assures the Rockets have a Hall of Fame offensive orchestrator running the show at all times. But the development that truly matters for Houston is on the defensive end.

    Only the Spurs have been stingier over the last calendar month, and the Rockets have steadily trimmed fractions off their points-allowed rate—to the point that they now own a top-five defense on the year.

    That two-way excellence has Houston setting records (by winning six straight road games by at least 15 points) and, more importantly, sending out a signal to the rest of the league: The Rockets are not a scoring-dependent, "gotta outshoot you to win" fringe contender. They're not an explosive-but-flawed team you reluctantly grant "can beat anyone if they dictate the tempo and get hot, but..." status.

    The Rockets are a full-on, no-qualifiers, two-way championship-caliber unit—one capable of defeating anyone in several different ways.

                  

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Thursday, Dec. 7.

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