NBA Power Rankings: Kevin Durant Has Curry-Less Warriors Back on Top

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 22, 2017

NBA Power Rankings: Kevin Durant Has Curry-Less Warriors Back on Top

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    It took a while, but we got a new No. 1 in this week's edition of NBA power rankings.

    Or, maybe we ought to call it an old No. 1. Or a new, old No. 1.

    There's a change at the top. That's the point.

    There are changes elsewhere, too, as the Chicago Bulls went streaking, the Orlando Magic and Memphis Grizzlies continued falling apart, and the San Antonio Spurs kept on keeping on.

    As always, these rankings are designed to reflect the league's hierarchy as it exists now. Based on team record, advanced metrics and gut feeling, the idea is to organize these clubs into an order defined by current potency. Injuries matter, and recent play counts for a little extra—though full-season performance is still highly relevant.

30. Atlanta Hawks

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    ↓ 1 Spot

    The Atlanta Hawks give up too many threes, and their opponents tend to make them at high rates.

    At the risk of oversimplifying, that's a bad combo.

    Hawks opponents get just over 35 percent of their looks from long range, which is the second-most in the league. Those shots fall against Atlanta at the fourth-highest rate in the NBA. So if you're wondering how a team that scores respectably can wind up with the fifth-worst net rating in the league, there you go.

    Oh, and when those long bombs don't go down, opponents often get another crack. Atlanta allows the second-most opponent offensive rebounds per game.

    The Hawks got a win this week, knocking off the Miami Heat 110-104 behind 24 points from Taurean Prince on Monday. But they've lost five of their last six, and those defensive metrics don't bode well.

29. Orlando Magic

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    ↓ 3 Spots

    No disrespect intended (which means disrespect is, in fact, imminent), but when Mario Hezonja is leading the way in the points column, it's a bad sign for the Orlando Magic.

    Hezonja, whom the Magic gave up on when they didn't pick up his fourth-year option, was pressed into duty this week amid myriad injuries to Orlando's rotation wings. He scored a career-high 28 points on 8-of-12 shooting from deep during Sunday's 114-110 loss to the Detroit Pistons. That result was loss No. 5 in Orlando's ongoing six-game slide.

    The injury pileup cost Aaron Gordon (calf), Evan Fournier (ankle) and Jonathan Isaac games this week. Against the Bulls on Wednesday, Isaac re-sprained the ankle that kept him out for over a month earlier this year. That's on top of the fact Terrence Ross is shelved indefinitely with a sprained MCL and tibial plateau fracture.

    One positive: Jonathan Simmons is a fun grab-and-go transition weapon. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James corral defensive boards and push the ball coast-to-coast for layups or dunks more often, per Nylon Calculus.

28. Memphis Grizzlies

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    "I don't have a season to throw away," Marc Gasol told Shaun Powell of NBA.com. "I'm not 23, 24, where I can just say, Well, next year it's going to be better. I have that sense of urgency and desire to win that obviously, as your career gets past 10 years, and with the foot injury that I had a couple years ago, you know that at any time this might be it."

    This isn't necessarily it for Gasol, who's not playing up to his past levels but is still an effective two-way player—or at least would be on a team with more talent. But there's no doubt this is it for the Memphis Grizzlies as a competitive NBA squad in 2017-18.

    Mike Conley is still out with an Achilles injury, Tyreke Evans (probably the team's best player this season) is trade bait and Gasol ought to be as well.

    The Grizz have the most losses and the fewest wins since Nov. 1.

    They are very, very bad.

27. Sacramento Kings

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    The Sacramento Kings, who are ranked 30th in offense and 30th in defense, are in the hunt for a dual-cellar finish. Nobody has ranked last in efficiency on both ends since the mightily incompetent Charlotte Bobcats pulled it off in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.

    Suffice it to say, things haven't gone great this year. But there have been bright spots, not least of all this week's 2-1 record.

    De'Aaron Fox briefly made it back from a quad injury Tuesday but went down again with a setback to the same area after just 11 minutes. Rookie Frank Mason, as has been the case often, picked up the slack. He scored 16 on 7-of-9 shooting to help beat the Philadelphia 76ers 101-95.

    Earlier in the week, Bogdan Bogdanovic scored 18 points in Sunday's loss to the Toronto Raptors. He's shooting 37.7 percent from deep over the last calendar month and continues to flash good feel and playmaking skills.

    If the ultimate role for Buddy Hield is that of off-the-bench gunner (which it probably is), the Kings offense should be in good hands with him, Fox and BB-8 developing together.

    That's a long way off, though. For now, Sacramento remains on pace for a historically inept season.

26. Phoenix Suns

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    ↑ 4 Spots

    No Devin Booker, no problem, right?

    The Phoenix Suns notched a pair of road wins this week, taking down the Minnesota Timberwolves and Dallas Mavericks. As a general rule, one victory is good enough to get you out of the basement in these rankings. Two, away from home, is cause for a parade. They even threw in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday.

    Dragan Bender hit five threes against Minnesota en route to a career-best 17 points, and Troy Daniels is providing reliable perimeter scoring. His minutes uptick since Booker's groin injury should be opening eyes—if not necessarily in Phoenix, in other locales that might want a sniper for a playoff push.

    Alex Len has rebounded everything over the last week, peaking with 19 boards against the Wolves.

    In a situation like this, where the top-line scorer is out and the contests are low-stakes affairs, there's always a caveat of "somebody's got to get the numbers." But Bender, Len and Daniels have played well in victories, which lends credibility to their production.

    The 12-22 Suns, comfortably into double digits in the win column, are separating themselves from the league's true dregs.

25. Dallas Mavericks

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    The schedule's been brutal, which makes the Dallas Mavericks' stretch of six losses in their last eight games mildly excusable.

    Less easily explained: Dallas' unfathomably poor late-game performances, exemplified by Saturday's effort against the San Antonio Spurs, in which the Mavs blew a double-digit lead and missed their final seven shots in a 98-96 defeat.

    On the year, Dallas is 1-16 in games that reached standard close-and-late parameters (score within five points in the final five minutes). That's the worst clutch winning percentage in the league (0.59) by a country mile.

    "This isn't our first heartbreaking loss," Wesley Matthews told reporters after the San Antonio collapse. "It isn't our first loss where we gave away a lead. I don't know if there's any long-term effects. If anything, it should piss us off going into Monday."

    Cut to Monday...when Dallas managed just 16 points in the fourth quarter against the Suns and, you guessed it, blew another late lead in a 97-91 loss.

    They figured out the fix against Detroit on Wednesday, utilizing serious defensive pressure to build an  unblowable lead. When you don't play close games, it's tough to lose them.

24. Brooklyn Nets

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    ↓ 3 Spots

    The Brooklyn Nets' starters aren't the problem, which is something head coach Kenny Atkinson should consider in the wake of comments like these, as relayed by Brian Lewis of New York Post, who reported lineup changes weren't out of the question.

    "Four losses in a row; we have to look at everything," Atkinson said.

    Brooklyn's most used five-man lineup includes Spencer Dinwiddie, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Tyler Zeller. Its net rating is plus-22.6 and has been nearly as effective during this four-game losing streak.

    Atkinson should look at everything, but he might want to make changes elsewhere. And actually, this may just be a depth issue. The Nets don't have the horses to compete with other teams' benches, and one indicator of that is an inability to convert what should be the easiest looks on the floor.

    Brooklyn runs plenty, ranking among the top 10 in percentage of plays defined as transition chances. Those are supposed to be a team's "gimme" buckets. But the Nets are terrible on the move, scoring .96 points per transition play, which slots them in at 29th in the league.

23. Los Angeles Clippers

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    "This has been a terrible season so far for just our health," Austin Rivers told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. "It seems like one guy comes in and two guys go out. One guy comes in and two guys out. Two guys come back and one guy goes out."

    Pretty much.

    Wesley Johnson and Lou Williams couldn't go for the Los Angeles Clippers against the San Antonio Spurs on Monday due to foot injuries, joining Blake Griffin, Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari on the list of unavailable rotation bodies. Gallinari's glute injury (his second this season) is serious enough to push his re-evaluation date back to January. There's no timetable for his return to the floor.

    Adding insult to literal injury, the Clips suffered some tough calls down the stretch against Miami on Saturday.

    "We're down one with 40-some seconds to go, we draw up a play and they [the officials] screw it up," Williams said of the 90-85 loss, per Turner. "A guy falls on his own man. We hit a three-pointer and they take it away on an offensive foul."

    Gripes aside, the Clippers were just 1-3 this week, with the lone victory coming against the Suns.

22. Los Angeles Lakers

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    OK, Lonzo Ball. I see you.

    Out there shooting over 40 percent in December, hitting three triples in three consecutive games against the Knicks, Cavs and Warriors.

    Not bad. Not bad at all.

    The recent flirtation with shooting respectability hasn't mattered much, as Ball's Lakers have lost three of their last four. Still, they took the Warriors to overtime and somehow beat the Rockets in Houston behind 38 points from Kyle Kuzma on Wednesday.

    Believe it or not, Brook Lopez's ankle injury, which will cost him at least three weeks, might be a blessing in disguise. Because in addition to air-balling back-to-back free throws and ducking out of the way when opponents try to dunk, Lopez is also posting some of the worst shooting numbers of his career.

    L.A. gave most of the center minutes to Larry Nance Jr. against Houston, and that contributed to the biggest win of the year.

21. Charlotte Hornets

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    The Charlotte Hornets remain unable to succeed whenever Kemba Walker is off the floor, effectively performing (based on net rating) like one of the league's five best teams with him and dropping to a subterranean level roughly 50 percent below the NBA-worst Kings without him.

    On the rare occasions someone else chips in with a big night, Charlotte can compete. See: Frank Kaminsky's 24-point effort in a 109-91 win over the Knicks on Monday.

    A 1-3 week saw increasing amounts of frustration and self-pity creep in, but don't worry, sage advisor Dwight Howard is on the case.

    "We've got to stop holding our heads down and stop looking like we're defeated already," Howard told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. "We've got to come out and play basketball; get out of our own heads and go for a win. Just that simple."

    A less cliched suggestion: Stop throwing the ball to Howard down low. Nineteen players use at least three post-up possessions per game, and Howard ranks fourth-worst in scoring efficiency. Compounding the issue, only Joel Embiid and LaMarcus Aldridge post up more often than Dwight.

20. Chicago Bulls

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    ↑ 5 Spots

    Someday, long after Nikola Mirotic has won nine MVP awards and the 2017-18 Chicago Bulls are canonized as patron saints of the turnaround, people will look back on these halcyon days and wistfully remember that this was when it all started. They'll stroke their full beards, which everyone will have once Mirotic turns them into a cross-cultural fashion phenomenon, and sigh appreciatively.

    The Bulls, 3-20 just a couple of weeks ago, won seven doggone basketball games in a row. Seven!

    Sure, they stumbled against the Cavs on Thursday. But that doesn't erase Mirotic's remarkable 7-0 start to the season, during which he established a statistical pace that will, if he comes anywhere close to sustaining it, obliterate previous career highs in scoring, rebounding and shooting efficiency.

    Chicago is playing watchable, quality NBA basketball. David Nwaba is defending and injecting energy, Kris Dunn is hitting threes at a respectable clip and the Mirotic-Bobby Portis dynamic has gone from fisticuffs to fistfuls of fun.

    Guess what else? Fred Hoiberg is a good coach!

    In closing, here's a quintet to consider: Warriors, Rockets, Celtics, Cavs, Bulls. Those are the only teams with winning streaks of at least six games this year.

    What a time to be alive.

19. New York Knicks

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Michael Beasley did a strong Carmelo Anthony impression against Anthony, scoring 30 points to help the Knicks log their first win this week, a 111-96 cruiser against the Thunder on Saturday. He then dropped 32 in a 102-93 win over the Celtics.

    A sore knee kept Kristaps Porzingis out of action against OKC and in New York's Monday loss to the Hornets. His absence and 0-of-11 showing against Boston allow for a good opportunity to focus on non-unicorn Knicks...like rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina.

    B/R's draft and prospect maven Jonathan Wasserman gave Ntilikina a B in his rookie report card, explaining: "He isn't starting, but he is closing. Ntilikina recently averaged 7.3 fourth-quarter points in three consecutive wins over the Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets. His confidence is rising, and though his 36.0 field-goal mark remains ugly, Ntilikina has still been a valued reserve for the Knicks at 19 years old."

    The Knicks have played more home games than anyone this year, so their winning record is likely in for some abrupt correction as they hit the road for 12 of their 16 January contests.    

18. New Orleans Pelicans

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    ↓ 3 Spots

    According to Justin Willard of Nylon Calculus, DeMarcus Cousins leads the league in chase-down blocks with nine.

    So while Boogie still lingers and complains after perceived officiating slights all the time, at least we know he can make an impact when he commits to sprinting back on defense after a change of possession. If only he'd do it more.

    The New Orleans Pelicans were doing their best to post the most mediocre month possible, alternating wins and losses for the entirety of December until falling to the Washington Wizards 116-106 on Tuesday. That broke the win-loss-win-loss streak and highlighted a defense that has effectively collapsed over the last several weeks. Since Dec. 1, New Orleans ranks last in defensive efficiency.

    Anthony Davis had 37 points on 21 shots against Washington, and it wasn't enough.

    Nineteen turnovers contributed to the Pels' 18-point blown lead against the Denver Nuggets last Friday, which served as a reminder that when you can't stop anyone, you can't waste a single chance to score.

17. Utah Jazz

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    ↓ 4 Spots

    The last time Rudy Gobert got hurt, the Utah Jazz surprised everyone by going 7-4 with a juiced-up offense. The early returns on Gobert's second knee-related absence have been less encouraging.

    Utah lost three straight before a win over the Spurs on Thursday.

    Gobert could be out until mid-January with a sprained PCL and tibial bruise, according to The Vertical's Shams Charania, which he suffered during Utah's 107-95 win over the Celtics on Friday. Derrick Favors, who didn't return in that same contest after getting elbowed in the face, stepped in ably as the Jazz's starting center during Gobert's last hiatus.

    He'll have to do that again for Utah to stay afloat.

    Bigger picture, this latest Gobert injury could complicate the Jazz's ability to move Favors ahead of his impending free agency this summer. It's one thing to send off a superfluous big man in hopes of recouping some value before he leaves for nothing, but it's another to consider dealing a guy you suddenly need.

    The good news: Utah still has rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell, who's been holding the fractured Jazz together for weeks. Per B/R's Jonathan Wasserman: "One scout told Bleacher Report he'd expect the Utah Jazz to hang up on anyone calling to make a trade offer for Mitchell, even it included Markelle Fultz, 2017's No. 1 pick."

16. Denver Nuggets

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    Nikola Jokic finally made it back into the starting lineup Wednesday after two games as a reserve—part of what the Denver Nuggets are calling a "responsible return to play progression," per BSN Denver's Harrison Wind.

    It's safe to say that even if his ankle is healthy enough for him to start, his feel isn't all the way back. He had 10 turnovers in Denver's 112-104 loss to the Timberwolves, which dropped the Nugs' record to 1-2 on the week and prompted head coach Mike Malone to get frank about where the blame belonged, per Wind.

    "I'm not turning the ball over," Malone said. "As much as I'd like to sit here and say it's my fault on turnovers, I'm not going to do that. I'll take a hit for a game plan or a lack of execution, which I do all the time. But when you turn the ball over, that's you turning the ball over."

    On the season, the Nuggets rank 26th in turnover percentage.

    At least Trey Lyles is striping it. He's up over 49 percent from long range and has knocked down 56.4 percent of his December treys.

15. Miami Heat

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    ↑ 4 Spots

    Never underestimate Kelly Olynyk's capacity for vengeance.

    He hung 32 points on his former team as the Miami Heat completed their 3-1 week with a 90-89 win over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday. Miami got over on one of the East's best squads despite injuries to Goran Dragic (elbow), James Johnson (ankle), Hassan Whiteside (knee) and Justise Winslow (knee).

    The Heat struggled to score in that massive win but have the kind of shot profile that suggests better offense is coming (assuming they get better luck on the health front). Only the Rockets, Nets and Cavaliers shoot threes more frequently. And nobody takes a higher percentage of corner triples than the Heat.

    On defense, Miami is still principled and hard-working. Not only that, but head coach Erik Spoelstra is always willing to experiment. A sneaky zone look sparked a 15-2 third-quarter run against Boston.

14. Portland Trail Blazers

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    ↑ 3 Spots

    The Portland Trail Blazers only managed a 2-2 mark since we last ranked, but these guys are flat-out grinding. And that counts for something.

    They scrapped to beat the Magic by seven points Friday, then they got a critical late-game save from Al-Farouq Aminu, who chased down Kemba Walker for a block to secure a two-point win against the Hornets.

    "That was huge," CJ McCollum told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian, "that block saved us the game."

    Portland dropped a one-pointer to the Wolves and a two-point game against the Spurs to close out the week. It could have won either contest, and it's got its defense to thank for making so many games competitive of late.

    Nobody's been better on D lately. Portland held opponents to a league-low 95.6 points per 100 possessions in its last four games.  

13. Philadelphia 76ers

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    ↓ 4 Spots

    No Joel Embiid, no chance.

    The Philadelphia 76ers are 1-7 without their starting center, and his sore back is expected to keep him out until Christmas, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. His absence is always the easiest way to explain the Sixers' struggles, but it's not the only one.

    Turnovers are also killing Philadelphia. The Sixers give the ball away on a higher percentage of their possessions than any other team, and the difference between them and the second-most careless club is roughly equivalent to the gap between that squad (the Miami Heat) and the middle of the pack.

    It's tempting to blame the issue on Ben Simmons. He's a rookie who's still learning the game (even if he's advanced more quickly than anyone could have imagined). He also routinely takes the ball into crowds and is far more apt to throw a dangerous pass than take a bad shot. Those things make him an easy target.

    But the Sixers cough it up almost exactly as often when Simmons isn't in the game. So while his turnover rate is uncomfortably high, he's far from the only culprit.

    Philly is only 2-8 in December, and its final five games of the month will come on the road. Not ideal for ringing in the new year on a roll.

12. Milwaukee Bucks

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    In the wake of a 1-2 week, it seems like an appropriate time to mention the basketball crime being committed in Milwaukee.

    According to Dean Maniatt of Brewhoop: "Giannis Antetokounmpo has a PER of 31.4 [as of Dec. 16]. In the last 50 years, teams with a player who had a PER of at least 31 were a combined 479-177, for an average of 60-22 per season. Those teams reached the conference semifinals once, conference finals three times, the Finals once and won two championships."

    This year's Bucks are 16-13.

    You've got to do a lot of other things wrong to play break-even ball with a superstar as productive as Antetokounmpo.

    Milwaukee's offense is effective on the whole, but that success seems to happen in spite of a pedestrian scheme that bogs down late in games and doesn't create advantages for off-ball players via cuts or screens. On defense, the vacillation between overzealous aggression and a more reserved approach continues.

    The only constant on D has been poor results. The Bucks were one of the league's five worst defenses in the since we last ranked.

    The Bucks have something more than they're showing, and it seeps out occasionally—such as in Tuesday's 119-116 win over the Cavs in which Antetokounmpo posted 27 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists. Milwaukee nearly blew a 20-point fourth-quarter lead but held on against the class of the East.

    "It was a big step for our team," Antetokounmpo said afterward. "It shows maturity...we just played together. We took a step forward."

    That's all fine. They still took a step back in the rankings.

11. Detroit Pistons

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    Reggie Bullock: wet from the perimeter, wet in the postgame interview.
    Reggie Bullock: wet from the perimeter, wet in the postgame interview.Brian Sevald/Getty Images

    ↑ 5 Spots

    It's a little dramatic to call what the Detroit Pistons did this week a full-on redemption, particularly since it ended with a disheartening loss to the Mavs on Wednesday. But course-correcting after a seven-game skid by winning three out of four is at least worth an "atta boy."

    Detroit blew double-digit leads in two of its wins this week but hung on in both games, which is perfect for coach Stan Van Gundy, who almost seems more content when he can lament the inadequacy of success.

    "I'm not happy. We didn't try in the second half," Van Gundy told reporters after the Pistons knocked off the Magic 114-110 Sunday. "They had 67 points. I didn't think we gave any effort in the second half."

    Reggie Bullock's insertion into the starting lineup has worked. The fifth-year sniper put 15 points on the Pacers and added 20 against Orlando, striping seven of his 10 three-point attempts across both victories.

    Stanley Johnson, yet again, lost his first-unit gig, which is bad news for his future in Detroit. But getting more shooting into the starting five has helped.

10. Washington Wizards

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    The rust is still flaking off John Wall, who's averaging 15.3 points and 6.3 assists on 35.4 percent shooting in four contests since a nine-game absence to address knee soreness. Washington is 3-1 with Wall back, but Otto Porter Jr., who struggled in his cameo as a No. 2 option behind Bradley Beal, is nursing a hip injury.

    He played a total of three minutes over Washington's final three games this week.

    To be fair, it'd reflect better on Porter if a health issue caused this rough stretch without Wall–rather than an inability to create his own looks reliably.

    Big picture: Washington is settling into an oddly comfortable spot in the East. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics appear beyond striking distance, and the Bucks' net rating (more than a full point per 100 possessions lower than Washington's) suggests the Wizards occupy their own tier in the conference hierarchy.

    And yes, this presupposes some regression for the Indiana Pacers.

    It's way too early to start thinking about playoff positioning, but it sure looks like the Wizards can coast into either the fourth or fifth spot in the conference without working too hard. That could be good news for a club that has shown physical wear during the playoffs.

    If Wall, Porter or anyone else needs a midseason break, the Wizards should be able to accommodate.

9. Indiana Pacers

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    A rough stretch for everyone's pluckiest early-season surprise results in a two-spot rankings drop.

    The Indiana Pacers lost a heartbreaker to the Celtics on Monday, giving up 10 points in the final 27 seconds. That spoiled yet another transcendent performance from Victor Oladipo, who scored 38 points and was, without reservation, the best player on the floor down the stretch.

    A 104-98 slip against the Pistons earlier in the week meant Indy's only successes came against the underwhelming Nets and Hawks.

    Though, in the interest of completeness, we have to note Oladipo's ridiculous lob finish against Brooklyn. The pull-up threes have revamped his game, but let's not forget he's also an otherworldly athlete in the best shape of his life.

    Keep an eye on Indiana's late-game rotations. Myles Turner sat in favor of Domantas Sabonis in the closing minutes of that barn-burner against Boston. The full-season numbers show Indiana is significantly better with Turner on the floor, while the opposite is true of Sabonis.

8. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    ↔ No Movement

    The defensive woes and heavy minute totals remain problems for the Minnesota Timberwolves, but nothing impacts their results like Jimmy Butler's fitness.

    When Butler's back is aching and he shoots just 5-of-18, the Wolves can lose to the lowly Suns, which they did, 108-106 Saturday. And when Butler either feels better or is single-minded enough to ignore the pain, he can score 37 points and carry his team to a 108-107 win against the Blazers, which he did Monday.

    Or he can pump in 11 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Nuggets on the road, which he did Wednesday.

    On the year, the Wolves have been getting smashed by more than 10.4 points per 100 possessions whenever Butler hasn't been on the floor. Fortunately for Minnesota, he's rarely absent (only LeBron James and Antetokounmpo log more minutes per game than his 37.2). The Wolves' net rating when Butler plays is bettered only by the full-season figures for the Warriors, Rockets and Raptors.

    As Jimmy goes, so go the Timberwolves.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    ↑ 3 Spots

    This will feel a little high for a team defined all season by disappointment relative to expectations, but Basketball Reference's simple rating system (which factors in strength of schedule and margin of victory) has the Oklahoma City Thunder ranked seventh overall, immediately ahead of Washington and Indy. And it's a lot easier to envision another gear from OKC than it is for those other two squads.

    Maybe playing with Russell Westbrook is really a spectator sport that his teammates might not enjoy watching, and maybe we should be more concerned about Russ and Carmelo Anthony's status as the least efficient high-volume shooters in the league.

    But the defense remains stellar, and the talent is still overwhelming.

    So even if it seems like doom and gloom ought to be the prevailing tonal elements, OKC has won eight of its last 11 games. If this is some kind of nadir, it's not so bad.

6. Boston Celtics

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    The Boston Celtics have been busy, playing an NBA-high five times this week to run their league-leading total to 35 games. So you can excuse the fatigue that may be fueling some of the effort issues of late.

    "You have to do what you do best, and we have a lot of guys that really didn't play well," head coach Brad Stevens told reporters after Boston's 107-95 loss to the Jazz last Friday. "We got outcoached, we got outplayed. And we haven't been in that situation very often as far as, like, from an effort standpoint. But I think twice this week we have, so that's concerning."

    The response to that criticism has been encouraging. The Celtics closed out a week that included two back-to-back sets with a 2-3 record. The highlight was a thrilling comeback against the Pacers that saw them erase a five-point deficit in the final 31 seconds, capping the surge with a steal and game-winning dunk by Terry Rozier.

    Boston's schedule won't ease up (in terms of game frequency) until January, when an odd quirk will see them play just once from Jan. 7 to Jan. 15. Hopefully, that rest will recharge a defense that has fallen off significantly. The Celtics are getting stops at the 14th-best rate since Dec. 1 after starting the year as the league's top defense.

5. San Antonio Spurs

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Manu Ginobili's game-winner against the Mavs on Saturday (seriously, Wes Matthews, how do you let him go left?) makes it two weeks in a row we've gotten to celebrate the walking embodiment of basketball guile and general human excellence.

    It's not so much a question of whether bards will write songs about Ginobili someday. It's a question of how many countries will just adopt those songs as their new national anthems out of pure reverence. I feel comfortable guessing...all of them.

    Ginobili's layup kicked off a three-game winning streak for the Spurs, who are still using Kawhi Leonard sparingly. He hasn't cracked 20 minutes in any game since returning from a quad injury, and he's still not playing back-to-back sets.

    No matter, as San Antonio continues to get terrific production from LaMarcus Aldridge (22 points and 14 rebounds against Dallas; 22 points and eight rebounds against Portland). Pau Gasol has chipped in as well, going off for 20 points, 17 rebounds and five assists against the Blazers in Wednesday's win.

    That feat made Gasol the third-oldest player in history to produce at least 20 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a game.

    The Spurs stay Spurs-ing, despite a 100-89 loss to the Utah Jazz on Thursday with Ginobili resting.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    ↔ No Movement

    The schedule got soft in December, pitting the Raptors against just one team with a winning record so far, but you can't knock a club for running over inferior competition like this—not when the methods of success have been so impressively varied.

    Kyle Lowry logged a triple-double during a Dec. 15 win. Then Serge Ibaka scored 24 points on the Hornets on Wednesday while OG Anunoby hit six triples, giving the Raps an easy victory without needing much from their star backcourt. DeMar DeRozan lit up the Sixers for a career-high 45 points on Thursday.

    The sheer variety of weapons, bench depth and two-way excellence (Toronto is one of only two teams to rank in the top six in offensive and defensive efficiency) give the Raptors a chance to win in any circumstance. The playoffs, an arena in which Toronto has historically underwhelmed, will always be the measuring stick for this team. And maybe it's true the Raps lack the top-end potential of Cleveland or Boston.

    But this year's team is on pace for the most successful regular season in franchise history and has been the East's steadiest performer.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    ↔ No Movement

    LeBron James' three straight triple-doubles against the Lakers, Jazz and Wizards (which he followed up with 39 points and a delightfully sneaky play in a tough loss to the Bucks) only rank second on the Cavs' list of recent accomplishments.

    Because they also beat the Bulls.

    Giant-slayers through and through, the Cavaliers vanquished Chicago on Thursday, ending a seven-game winning streak and setting the NBA world back on its axis after the Bulls' remarkable stretch caused it to list drunkenly toward chaos.

    Isaiah Thomas is nearing a return, the Cavs have played defense at a respectable clip during their recent 19-2 stretch and James continues to post the most efficient shooting season of his career.

    We're not quite to the point where Cleveland's regular-season performance has it knocking on the door for one of the top two spots, but we've seen enough to confirm that when the playoffs roll around, the Cavs will be ready to dominate their conference and go blow-for-blow with anyone from the West.

2. Houston Rockets

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    ↓ 1 Spot

    James Harden dumped in 51 points, but Chris Paul went down with a strained adductor muscle, and the Houston Rockets' 14-game winning streak went down with him.

    No biggie.

    Up until that loss to the Lakers on Wednesday, Houston's season had gone as well as could possibly be expected. Actually, imagine the Rockets' absolute best-case preseason expectations. Then double them. Then pour glitter on them and hit them with a fog machine for added dramatic effect. Then double them again.

    This is a team sprinting into the statistical unknown, stretching shot-profile bounds to a ludicrous degree and doubling—no, tripling—down on the concept that three is more than two.

    Consider this absurd tidbit posted by The Ringer's Zachary Kram after Houston's 120-99 win over the Jazz on Monday: "The Rockets could shoot a two-pointer on their next 774 shots and still have the highest three-point rate in the league."

    The Rockets are still a title contender.

    But the loss to the Lakers opened the door to a team that has coped with major injury issues, never stumbled and, notably, still has a higher net rating than Houston does.

    Life at the top is tough. One slip, and you lose your spot.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Game-winner in, tummy out.
    Game-winner in, tummy out.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    ↑ 1 Spot

    It hasn't always been pretty or easy, but the Warriors have won 10 in a row, including a stretch of six straight without Stephen Curry. Draymond Green hasn't played in four of the Dubs' past five games, either.

    How's this happening?

    Two reasons: Kevin Durant and defense.

    Since Steph went down, KD is averaging 32.2 points, 10.0 rebounds and 6.5 assists on 58.0 percent true shooting and 37.5 percent usage. His clutch jumper iced the Lakers in overtime Monday, and his ability to take on an alpha role at a moment's notice, while not necessarily surprising in light of four scoring titles and an MVP award, is no less impressive, as head coach Steve Kerr echoed to reporters.

    "I told him today at shootaround, it's so amazing to have a player like him, a superstar, and without even saying anything, me saying anything to him, with Steph out, he just automatically takes over. Averaging, I don't know, 34 a game without Steph. When Steph comes back, Kevin's usage rate will go down, his points per game will go down and he won't mind. So he has this amazing combination of skill and confidence and sort of humility and deference to his teammates. It's a powerful force."

    Oh, and Golden State has been the league's most dominant defense since Nov. 1. That's a massive portion of the season. So while the Celtics got out to such a stingy start on that end, the larger sample shows it's the Warriors who boast the NBA's top defense.

    And now, after a couple of weeks behind the streaking Rockets, Golden State is back at No. 1, validated by that defense and the league's best effective field-goal percentage and net rating.

         

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Thursday, Dec. 21.

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