NBA Power Rankings: Cavs, Warriors, Rockets Battle for Top Spot

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 15, 2017

NBA Power Rankings: Cavs, Warriors, Rockets Battle for Top Spot

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    Bleacher Report
    Bleacher ReportDavid Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    This week's NBA power rankings illustrate the cutthroat nature of life at the top of the league.

    We've got a team with one loss in a little over a month losing ground.

    And if that doesn't give you a sense of how competitive things are getting, consider the fact that a squad we've ranked dead last for most of this season has lately made a habit of taking down quality opponents—and stringing together four straight wins.

    These rankings are meant to reflect the current NBA hierarchy through games played Thursday, Dec. 14. Full-season stats matter, as do injuries, and there's an emphasis on recent performance.

30. Phoenix Suns

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    ↓ 3 Spots

    The Phoenix Suns own the worst defensive rating in the league, and they were the No. 24 offense before Devin Booker went down with a groin injury on Dec. 5.

    You see where this is going.

    Phoenix is demonstrably incapable of getting stops, and now it has almost no hope of scoring on the other end without its top offensive weapon. 

    "He scores so much for us, he draws defense and the other team is keying on him, which allows other guys to free up," Tyson Chandler told Craig Grialou of ArizonaSports.com. "So it has to be replaced, not by a guy scoring, but by a team effort of cutting and screening and trying to make all the little plays."

    For what it's worth, the Suns rank second in screen assists per game. So they're at least committed to getting one another open. It's just that without Booker, the guys taking those open shots will be a lot less dangerous. Hence the five straight losses.

29. Atlanta Hawks

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    Credit the Atlanta Hawks, unfortunate owners of the fewest victories in the league, for their unflinchingly realistic outlook.

    "We've seen a lot of growth in [Dennis Schroder's] game this year,” Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk  said on Sirius XM's NBA Radio. "Hopefully, there's more growth in it. ... I think if we're going to be honest with ourselves right now, we don't have that franchise guy. That's the guy we're looking for."

    A lot of bad teams never admit these things publicly. Some of the worst don't even reach this level of honest self-reflection in private. But the Hawks know where they are, and they know what they have. More importantly, they know what they don't have.

    There are roughly five million steps between where the Hawks reside right now and where they want to be, but knowing where they are in that difficult process should induce confidence that they can actually reach respectability in the end.

    Atlanta managed to beat the Magic this week. So there's that.

28. Sacramento Kings

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Buddy Hield is a limited NBA athlete who may always struggle to finish at the rim, defend at an above-average level or take opponents off the dribble.

    But man, can that guy shoot it.

    He drilled 58.3 percent from long range in November and has been nearly that good this month. And while several other theoretical young cornerstones have shuttled in and out of the rotation (in some cases heading down to the G-League), he's been a reliable, role-filling floor-stretcher.

    Also trustworthy: Zach Randolph's delightful, matter-of-fact toughness. He casually informed DeMarcus Cousins about the way his old neighborhood used to handle bullies when the Kings took on the New Orleans Pelicans this past Friday, and he scored 35 points for good measure.

    At 36, Randolph is comfortably topping the 20-10 mark in December. Keep getting yours, Z-Bo.

    Positive individual stories aside, the Kings remain the NBA's worst team by net rating.

27. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Glass half-full: Blowing big leads means, at some point, you actually built a big advantage in the first place.

    That's about all the Memphis Grizzlies have to cling to these days. Having squandered huge scoring edges (17 points against the Toronto Raptors and 20 points against the Oklahoma City thunder), the Grizz are expanding their search for ways to lose games.

    They've dropped 16 of their last 17 contests.

    Since Dec. 1, the Grizzlies have been marginally worse with Marc Gasol on the floor.

    Gasol told ESPN's Zach Lowe that he wouldn't request a trade and wanted to be around Memphis as long as he was viewed as part of the solution rather than the problem. Though the aging curve and the Grizzlies' decision to build a flawed roster around him are the real culprits, it's also reasonable to say Gasol is part of the problem on a macro scale.

    His play isn't up to par (or maybe it is for a 33-year-old center, which is a separate and no less worrisome issue), and he's one of three big-money players alongside Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons clogging the Grizzlies' books.

    If there's a solution here, it may be to consider shipping out Gasol, Conley and anything else not nailed down. This is a team in need of a fresh start. Because even if you envision its optimal outcome—in which Conley, Gasol and Parsons are healthy—you're still looking at a mid-40s win total and no realistic shot at a conference finals berth.

    And given the core's age, that outlook only gets worse going forward.

26. Orlando Magic

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    Is it just me, or does it always seem that whenever a bad team starts talking about its energy levels, it means the season's basically over?

    A contender can coast and lament its lack of urgency (the Warriors and Cavaliers are pros at this), and it isn't necessarily cause for concern. But when a floundering squad leans on lack of juice as an explanation for losses, it's always ominous. For the Orlando Magic, the real problems are poor luck on the health front, a lack of top-end talent and shaky offensive execution.

    Yet, after falling to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday in a game Aaron Gordon, Arron Afflalo, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross and Jonathan Isaac missed due to injury, the refrain was about effort.

    "We need to play with more energy," Nikola Vucevic told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel. "Especially when you have guys ... are out, we need to have a lot of energy to make up for those losses."

    There's room for understanding here. A bad team can't just come out and say, "We're bad because we don't have enough good (or healthy) players." The Magic are competitive professionals, so they might not even accept that as the truth in the first place.

    But the energy thing just reeks of a team on a three-game losing streak without answers. Which is what the Magic are.

25. Chicago Bulls

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    Friends!
    Friends!Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

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    Either the planet subtly tilted on its axis, throwing all the laws of physics (and logic, too, somehow) out of whack, or Nikola Mirotic is a superstar. Those are the only two explanations for the Chicago Bulls winning four straight games after securing just three victories in their previous 23 tries.

    The combined production of Bobby Portis and Mirotic (and distinct lack of on-court punching) was a major factor against New York and Boston, with the pair generating 47 points between them in the Celtics win. Mirotic added another 29 points in Wednesday's 103-100 win over the Utah Jazz.

    He is undefeated this year, a perfect 4-0 since returning. Get his jersey in the rafters, and get it there yesterday.

    David Nwaba has been an energetic weapon, and Robin Lopez is doing all the little things. But in the midst of this unforeseeable spurt of success, it's important to remember there are players on Chicago's roster that are still out for themselves.

    Like Denzel Valentine, who just can't bring himself to fire off heaves at the buzzer. Gotta protect that three-point percentage!

24. Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Los Angeles Lakers defense remains impressive. Even though they've been slipping on that end of late as opponents begin to convert their three-point shots at a rate higher than 30th in the league, at least the Lakers have some kind of identity to lean on.

    The offense, though, is a problem.

    L.A. shot just 41 percent in Tuesday's overtime loss to the New York Knicks, and the full-season peripherals are almost uniformly discouraging. On the year, the Lakers rank in the bottom 10 in effective field-goal percentage, a figure largely influenced by their aversion to corner threes and failure to generate easy, assisted looks.

    Even with the purported ball-movement-by-osmosis presence of Lonzo Ball, the Lakers are just 23rd in assist percentage.

    The only positive (if you're using the term loosely) is that L.A. gets to the foul line at a league-average rate.

    For a young team, maybe it's encouraging that the effort and execution side of the ball, defense, is developing nicely. But without scoring punch, the losses will continue to mount.

23. Dallas Mavericks

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    The Dallas Mavericks have lost four of their last five, but they've gained a genuine tone-setter.

    J.J. Barea is quietly enjoying the best scoring season of his career, with personal bests in points per game and effective field-goal percentage. Not so quietly, he's been keeping the Mavs in games and controlling things down the stretch. He did the latter during Tuesday's win over the San Antonio Spurs, playing the entire fourth quarter and scoring 14 points in the second half.

    Head coach Rick Carlisle told Eddie Sefko of Dallasnews.com: "He's a worker and so much of this is about keeping an edge. A guy like him has always had to fight for everything and is never going to give in. He's always going to maintain that mental edge."

    Relying on Barea to galvanize (and even lead) your team is a good sign you're not winning much. But it's an inspiring story for the veteran guard, and the Mavs will take whatever they can get at this point.

22. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Lou Williams is living his best life right now.

    A high-volume offensive focal point by default, one of the league's preeminent bench gunners is out there chucking for the Los Angeles Clippers in an outsized role. He's played at least 32 minutes in each of his last 10 games while attempting between 14 and 22 shots in every one of them.

    With Blake Griffin down, Danilo Gallinari in and out of the lineup because of a glute injury and few shot-creators on the roster, Williams gets to treat entire games with the same point-hungry, attacking approach he once had to limit to five- and six-minute bursts off the bench.

    L.A. beat the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors this past week, and Williams was the team's leading scorer in both contests. His dagger three was the decisive shot in the controversial win over Washington, and he's topped the 30-point mark five times since Nov. 10 after doing it six times all last season.

    The Clippers (3-0 this week) got Milos Teodosic back, but they're still missing too many key players to compete against quality teams.

    For now, Williams is at least making them interesting.

21. Brooklyn Nets

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    We've given Spencer Dinwiddie plenty of deserved love in this space, but it's time we shift to another Brooklyn Nets player who's also contributing to a surprisingly respectable stretch of basketball without Jeremy Lin and D'Angelo Russell.

    It's no exaggeration to say we're watching the best run of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's career.

    He put together a string of four consecutive double-figure scoring nights this month (something he's only done once before and never in a situation where the Nets needed his production this badly), and his energy as a defender and rebounder has legitimately won Brooklyn games.

    He hauled in several key boards down the stretch of the Nets' win over Washington on Tuesday and is posting career-highs in points and rebounds per contest, all while battling an ankle injury over the past few games.

    Note to the Cavs: Brooklyn's first-rounder may not be so hot. The Nets are closer to a playoff spot than they are to the East cellar.

20. Charlotte Hornets

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    Hot take: The absence of Cody Zeller, out indefinitely following surgery to repair a torn meniscus, will not be as crippling as it was last year.

    That's partly because the Charlotte Hornets are already hobbled, a tiny misstep away from crippled anyway. But it's also because there's just no way the Hornets go 3-17 without their backup 5, which is exactly what happened a year ago.

    When Dwight Howard is spry enough to produce end-to-end plays like this, it's hard to view Zeller's absence as fatal.

    Charlotte is hurting in a macro sense, though. It downed a floundering Thunder squad on Monday but is just 2-8 in its last 10 games.

    Owner Michael Jordan addressed the team after it lost to the Bulls (for the second time this year), and though the players reported no browbeating, it's difficult to imagine the next corrective step will be another conversation. Change may be afoot if the Hornets don't straighten up.

19. Miami Heat

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    So...is it maybe time to start thinking about a Hassan Whiteside trade?

    The Miami Heat are a .500 team (or thereabouts) again, which is what they were last year, and Whiteside's presence on the court has had virtually no impact on the Heat's moderate success. After a summer spent handing out deals to rotation guys at market or above-market rates, Miami is more locked into mediocrity than ever.

    If you can't easily clear space or improve flexibility by dealing the likes of Kelly Olynyk, James Johnson, Dion Waiters or even Goran Dragic, it might make sense to deal the 28-year-old conventional center in the second year of a $98 million contract. You know, the one who still gets benched for a lack of effort every so often?

    Bam Adebayo has shown intriguing potential of late, scoring 14 points in a win over Memphis on Monday. Both he and Olynyk could eat up center minutes for a .500 team—not that that's a high standard. 

    Everything looks fine when you're bashing the Grizzlies or Nets, which the Heat did this week, but more broadly, Whiteside isn't moving the needle. Unlike so many of the players the Heat have more recently signed, it feels like he could fetch an interesting return.

18. New York Knicks

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    Kristaps Porzingis has one superstar skill down pat already.

    The guy makes tough, theoretically low-percentage shots.

    He was phenomenal (on some phenomenally tough attempts) against the Lakers on Tuesday, scoring 37 points with defenders practically in his jersey. This is normal for KP, per Matt Ellentuck of SB Nation: "This season, Porzingis is shooting 58 percent from the field on three-point attempts per game when he's guarded by what NBA player tracking stats deem as 'very tight' defense (0-2 feet away). That's seven percent better than his numbers from 2-4 feet away (eight attempts)."

    Is it possible that when defenders get close enough, they get lost in his eyes and forget to actually contest shots? Worth considering...

    The next step should be a collective one: The Knicks and Porzingis must work to generate easier looks looks. You can't survive with a strict diet of high-difficulty shots.

    The undersized fivesome of Frank Ntilikina, Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway Jr., Doug McDermott and Porzingis have been offensively frisky in short stints. Maybe more minutes for that group could ease the strain.

17. Portland Trail Blazers

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    It's been tough sledding for the Portland Trail Blazers of late, and though part of the explanation is simple (Jusuf Nurkic and Moe Harkless have been fighting injuries), the broader picture of the team remains perplexing.

    The bizarre statistical inversion continues, as Portland remains a top-10 defense and a bottom-12 offense, effectively flipping last year's rankings. A shaky shot profile accounts for much of the offensive slowdown; nobody takes a lower percentage of their threes from the corners than the Blazers, and nobody converts point-blank looks less efficiently.

    Damian Lillard has done his best to keep his team in games of late, scoring 35 and 39 points in losses to the Rockets and Warriors this past week. But it just hasn't been enough.

    Portland has lost five of its last six.

16. Detroit Pistons

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    A couple of weeks ago, we were talking about the 14-6 Detroit Pistons securing a top-four playoff seed. The conversation has changed since then.

    Detroit's season hit a low point during the first quarter of a 103-84 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday. Eight turnovers in the first nine minutes prompted Stan Van Gundy to pull several starters, but the shakeup didn't alter the momentum. Notably, typical first-unit forward Stanley Johnson didn't start for just the second time all year and wasn't among those initial substitutes. Which...doghouse, right?

    Van Gundy told reporters afterward: "That's one of the worst losses I've ever had as a coach, and I've coached 850-some games between the regular season and the playoffs."

    The Pistons have to find their footing quickly—preferably on offense, where they've been the league's worst since Dec. 1—or that strong start will have been meaningless.

    Losers of seven straight, Detroit might be the coldest team in the league right now.

15. New Orleans Pelicans

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    For a team playing some of the worst defense in the league over the last several weeks, the loss of Tony Allen is a scary thing.

    Allen had only been playing 12.4 minutes per game, but the Pels knew what they were getting from one of the great perimeter defenders of all time. His fractured fibula means they'll be without a reliable wing stopper for 3-4 weeks.

    After missing four of New Orleans' previous six games, Anthony Davis returned from a groin injury on Wednesday and scored 25 points to help defeat the surging Milwaukee Bucks. If he's on the floor, the Pelicans can compete with just about anyone. Yet when DeMarcus Cousins plays, the Pelicans get outscored.

    File that one away the next time you're stunned by Cousins posting a 40-20 game.

    The Pels have alternated wins and losses for the entire month of December. They remain an average NBA team whose lack of depth makes even that modest designation incredibly fragile.

14. Denver Nuggets

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    If the water-treading and gut-punch losses (thanks a heap, Victor Oladipo!) are cutting into the Denver Nuggets' playoff prospects, it'll still all be worth it if Jamal Murray finally takes a leap.

    Which...is maybe happening.

    Murray has been good without Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap, scoring 28 points in Tuesday's win over the Pistons (plus a highlight jam on Reggie Jackson's head) and 28 more in Wednesday's loss to the Celtics. Gary Harris had 36 points in that one. Breakouts for everybody!

    In the month of December, all without Jokic or Millsap available, Murray is averaging 19.4 points while shooting 48.9 percent from the field and 52.6 percent from deep.

    The second-year guard's step forward is a huge positive for the Nuggets, who'll feel a bit better (but definitely never good) about trading the pick that became Donovan Mitchell. If Murray reaches his potential, the sting of losing out on one of the draft's top young stars will diminish.

    Still, it'll take more than Murray playing well to keep Denver from struggling until it's at full strength again. Defensively, the Nuggets have been horrible, allowing more points per possession in December than every team but the Blazers and Pelicans.

    Jokic was available to play Wednesday but didn't see the floor. His return and what Murray has done in his absence earn Denver a bump.

13. Utah Jazz

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    The Utah Jazz are into streaking.

    Having fololwed up six straight wins with four losses in a row, the Jazz have to slip in the rankings. Even if three of the four defeats came on the road, and even if it's clear Rudy Gobert is still working himself back into top form, you simply can't go on a slide like this and hope to stick in the top 10.

    Donovan Mitchell's high-usage run continues, and his 32 points on 26 shots helped the Jazz keep things close before falling to the Bulls on Wednesday. 

    Here's the Ringer's Kevin O'Connor on the remarkable burden the rookie has been shouldering by necessity in a Jazz offense starved for playmaking:

    "To put the Utah rookie’s abnormally heavy workload into perspective: Mitchell has already attempted 20 or more shots six times, which is more than Wade, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Stephon Marbury, Russell Westbrook and Ray Allen did as rookies. Even Kevin Durant and DeMar DeRozan don’t average as many shots per 100 possessions as Mitchell does, per Basketball-Reference. Mitchell is getting force-fed opportunities like he’s a multi-time All-Star with a top-selling sneaker."

    Utah won't keep losing at this clip once Gobert gets right.

12. Washington Wizards

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    Washington catches a rankings break this week for a couple of reasons.

    First of all, John Wall's back from a knee injury. Without him, the Wizards went 4-5 over a nine-game stretch against a soft slate. His return coincided with a win over the Grizz on Wednesday, even if Wall looked awfully rusty in 28 minutes.

    The other reason for the upward bump is the hose job Washington suffered against the Clippers on Saturday.

    Bradley Beal hit the real game-winner in that one, but had it waived off because the clock operator started too soon. Washington got another crack at the possession, but asking a team to hit two clutch buzzer-beaters in one sequence is a bit much. The Wizards missed and took the undeserved L.

    Finally, Wall's absence wasn't just a nine-game survival course. Per B/R's Dan Favale, the Wizards tinkered around and found a five-man reserve lineup—Tomas Satoransky, Jodie Meeks, Kelly Oubre, Mike Scott and Ian Mahinmi—that torched opposing benches by 29.3 points per 100 possessions in 49 minutes together.

    For a Washington team defined in recent years by a woeful bench, that's no small thing.

11. Milwaukee Bucks

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    For several weeks, the angle on the Bucks has been defense-focused.

    Are they still trapping too much? Are they producing strong results despite the negative effects of that aggressive scheme? Or because of it?

    It's fascinating to consider Milwaukee's stubborn adherence to an approach that could, if mastered, make it a devastating defense—particularly when the Bucks clearly haven't mastered it and might never do so.

    But enough of that. We'll get back to the defense next week.

    This time, we're going to keep it simple and appreciate another one of Giannis Antetokounmpo's forays into the realm of the physically impossible. He banged one down on Rudy Gobert real, real good.

    The Bucks had won six of their last seven until slipping against the Pels, which isn't a great look but OH MY GOD THAT WAS LEFT-HANDED WHAT EVEN IS HE?!?

10. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Thunder are solidifying their status as the league's great Rohrschach test.

    Does the comeback from a 20-point hole against Memphis indicate resiliency? Or do we maybe get a little concerned about a team stinking it up enough to ever fall behind the Grizzlies by 20 points in the first place?

    Do we get excited about Russell Westbrook's triple-doubles this week? Or do we note he shot 7-of-29 in one and 3-of-17 in the other—driving down the worst efficiency rates of his career?

    I mean, this is a team that had just two (two!) players register assists in the entire game against Memphis on Monday. Westbrook had 14 helpers and Raymond Felton added four. Nobody else set up a teammate for a score. That screams "broken offense."

    The defense is good. Steven Adams is doing everything he can. Paul George leads the league in deflections by a freakin' mile.

    That's good!

    Westbrook stands around when he doesn't have the ball. Carmelo Anthony can't make a shot.

    That's bad!

    The Thunder are 13-14 with the No. 10 net rating in the league, and you can see whatever you want in them. For now, a 2-2 record (that would have been 1-3 if Memphis could make free throws when it mattered) with losses to the Hornets and Nets forces me to lean toward the negative.

9. Philadelphia 76ers

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    During a week that saw the Sixers halt a season-high four-game skid with an overtime win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, it was easy to feel some panic creeping in.

    Which is why it's important to reassure any concerned parties about the rock-solid stability of this organization. It's simple: Whenever Joel Embiid plays, the Sixers are awesome. When he is not playing, they are substantially less awesome.

    Some might even say they're terrible.

    Per Cleaning the Glass' Ben Falk: "Update: 500 minutes later and we're still seeing the same thing. Sixers playing like a 62-win team with Embiid on the court, a 19-win team with him off."

    Embiid, who had 28 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in the win over Minnesota, remains the singular determining factor in Philly's success. If he's healthy and logging significant minutes, the Sixers can beat anyone.

    This is not news.

8. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Tom Thibodeau is running his players into the ground.

    Karl-Anthony Towns played 48 minutes against Philly on Tuesday, and every Wolves starter played at least 38.

    Last year, Andrew Wiggins and Towns were the only players in the league to log at least 3,000 minutes. This year, Wiggins and Jimmy Butler are both in the top five in minutes per game, while Towns is on pace for just over 2,900 minutes.

    Is it any wonder Minnesota's fourth-quarter defense is the worst in the NBA by a mile? Or that the Wolves' missed shots turn into transition chances for the opponent more often than they do for any other team? These guys are gassed. Jimmy Butler has Stockholm Syndrome, and it's clear the Timberwolves aren't being deployed in a way that maximizes their individual impact—or, possibly, physical wellness.

    There's always room for contrarianism, but let's not make this more nuanced than it has to be. When the entire league is investing zillions of dollars to study and optimize rest patterns and workloads, the only guy ignoring the trend isn't a maverick. He's irresponsible.

    Minnesota is getting results so far. It's got a positive net rating and a top-five offense while currently occupying the No. 4 spot in the West. But how long will all this last if the key players producing those results break down?

7. Indiana Pacers

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    Wednesday's loss to the Thunder stalled the Indiana Pacers' four-game winning streak and saw Paul George snuff out Victor Oladipo, but Indiana's larger body of work warrants attention. And a rankings boost.

    Oladipo, drilling pull-up threes at a rate that has completely transformed his offensive profile, was unstoppable until he ran into George. He cooked the Cavs for 33 points, 20 of which came in the third quarter of a game he effectively iced with a (you guessed it) nasty pull-up three.

    Then he hit the Nuggets for a career-high 47 points in an overtime win on Sunday.

    On the season, Oladipo is making 41.7 percent of his 3.1 pull-up triple attempts per game. Last year, he was at 34.0 percent on 0.8 attempts per game.

    That may seem like a small thing, but the threat (and with Oladipo's conversion rate, it's much more than a threat) of burying long shots off the bounce opens everything up. It's a less extreme version of the effect Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard have on a defense.

    When you're concerned about guarding space 25 feet from the basket, you can't help but compromise the rest of your scheme.

    Indiana's offense currently checks in at No. 7 in the league, thanks in no small part to Oladipo's remodeled game.

6. San Antonio Spurs

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    That settles it: Kawhi Leonard is terrible.

    The guy comes back after an unexpectedly lengthy rehab and the San Antonio Spurs—rolling along at 19-8 and feeling good following a four-game winning streak—lose to the lowly Mavs.

    This raises several questions.

    Did Leonard only train in karate while he was out, forgoing basketball entirely? How much of Leonard's contract is guaranteed? Could the Spurs waive and stretch him?

    Maybe the G-League is an option, because this dude isn't helping the cause.

    Seriously, get him out of here. Let Manu Ginobili take (and hit) all the big shots. We know he can do it.*

    *This has been a message provided by the 29 other teams in the league who are shaking in their Hyperdunks over the prospect of the remarkably solid Spurs getting an MVP candidate back.

5. Boston Celtics

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    Injuries played a role in the Boston Celtics' 2-2 week, as Kyrie Irving's sore quad kept him out of a blowout loss to the recently mighty Bulls on Monday. Just a few days after a ghastly 1-of-6 effort in a loss to the Spurs, Al Horford got some scheduled rest as well.

    Meanwhile, Jayson Tatum continues to be the only high-volume shooter to make more than half of his three-point attempts, and Jaylen Brown is on a run of four straight games in double figures.

    Quietly, though, another East team has outperformed the Celtics of late. Power rankings are focused on recency, but that isn't always confined to the last week or so. Since Dec. 1, this mystery team (which won't be a mystery after the next slide) has a better winning percentage and a higher net rating than Boston. 

    Also quietly, perhaps silently, the Celts have slipped on D. They're still No. 1 overall but rank 16th on that end in the month of December.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    Monday's stumble against the Clippers was a classic schedule loss. Playing the second leg of a road back-to-back set, the Toronto Raptors predictably didn't have enough juice to extend their winning streak to seven. Still, after 37 points from DeMar DeRozan on Wednesday, the Raps are in position to start another surge.

    The second half of December offers an inviting schedule that should see Toronto favored in at least six of the month's eight remaining games.

    Quick update on Toronto's ongoing offensive reformation: The Raptors are currently 20th in assist percentage, which doesn't make their much ballyhooed focus on passing and movement seem like a big deal...until you realize they were 30th in that stat last season.

    Depending on your starting point, merely reaching mediocrity can be an achievement.

    "On-time, on-target passes. It's something I know guys ad nauseam get tired of us talking about it and emphasizing," head coach Dwane Casey told SB Nation's Seerat Sohi. "But I'm a firm believer that you are what you emphasize."

    On the whole, Toronto is far from mediocre. Owners of the league's No. 3 net rating and one of only three teams to rank in the top 10 in both offense and defense, the Raptors have been terrific.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    It's really no wonder the Cleveland Cavaliers lost for the first time since Nov. 9 this week.

    LeBron James is shooting the ball better than ever from the field and from long range, which is prompting some serious looks into the aging curve. As in, did he break it?

    ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton notes: 

    "Even an aging curve with gentle decline like James has experienced so far during the regular season will typically get steeper (downward) as a player heads toward his mid-30s. That makes it all the more surprising that instead of declining sharply, James has instead trended the other direction so far in 2017-18. His current .796 player win percentage, highest in the NBA, would be James' best mark since 2012-13 -- his last MVP season at age 28."

    It's even possible James' play is contagious, that his own hot shooting has somehow been absorbed by the guys around him.

    According to NBA.com, Cleveland set a franchise record against the Hawks on Tuesday by making at least 10 treys in 17 consecutive games (James tied a career high with 17 assists in that one) and would end up pushing that streak 18 games on Thursday against the Lakers.

    Still, a loss is a loss, and the Cavs suffered one against Indy this week. Great as James and Cleveland have been, you really can't suffer a defeat and hold your ground this high up in the rankings—not when the top two teams just keep winning.

2. Golden State Warriors

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    ↑ 2 Spots

    The Warriors finished up a 6-0 road trip this past Friday, taking down the Hornets and Pistons without Stephen Curry. Draymond Green sat out the win against Charlotte, returned to completely control the fourth quarter against the Pistons and then rested his sore shoulder again during Monday's win over the Blazers at home.

    The Dubs are getting things done without their full arsenal (Patrick McCaw, Nick Young and Zaza Pachulia have also missed time), which shouldn't be all that surprising because Kevin Durant remains healthy.

    KD has comfortably assumed the undisputed alpha role since Curry went down, notably expanding his shot selection to include some bolder looks he wouldn't take with Golden State at full strength.

    Old and young are stepping forward to support Durant, as rookie Jordan Bell keeps inflating his highlight-per-minute rate, and David West continues the best shooting season of his career (by a country mile).

    One area that needs cleaning up is Golden State's transition defense. One in every three Warriors misses results in an opponent getting a transition chance the other way, which is good for second worst in the league. When the shots aren't going in, the Dubs aren't getting back.

    The Warriors haven't lost since Nov. 27, and they still own the top net rating in the league.

1. Houston Rockets

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    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    ↔  No Movement

    Ready for some incisive Houston Rockets analysis?

    Here goes!

    Um...I mean...just wow, I guess. You know? Like, sheesh! These guys. These guys! How about 'em? Am I right?

    Houston has won 11 straight, got a season-high 31 points from Chris Paul (who hasn't lost as a Rocket when healthy) in Wednesday's win over the Hornets and continues to put on the most terrifying blitzes this side of a healthy Warriors squad. Charlotte blinked, and the game was over, decided firmly with a 32-4 Rockets run that bridged the first and second quarters.

    Clint Capela scored 28 against the Pels on Monday and only needs one more double-double to match last year's total. And if the Rockets don't want to use their blossoming conventional center, they've got P.J. Tucker to toss out there as a super-undersized 5 in one of the nastiest trick-up-the-sleeve ploys in the game.

    Per Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass, "Tucker has now spent 6 percent of his minutes, or 76 total possessions, at center this season, and in that time the Rockets are an astounding plus-62 per 100 possessions."

    Houston isn't relinquishing this spot until it loses—something it's done exactly one time since Nov. 1.

                   

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Thursday, Dec. 14.

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