NBA Power Rankings: Golden State Warriors Hold Top Spot Entering 2018

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 29, 2017

NBA Power Rankings: Golden State Warriors Hold Top Spot Entering 2018

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    By virtue of their positioning toward the top of our NBA power rankings, the league's best teams are obviously talented and accomplished.

    But they are not opportunistic.

    Almost anyone from last week's top six had a chance to snatch the No. 1 spot from the Golden State Warriors, who are still without Stephen Curry and, perhaps not unrelated, scored just 81 points in their biggest brickfest in years this week.

    But instead of seizing their chance at glory, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics decided it'd be better to drop games while in some cases also suffering key injuries.

    So much for drama at the top.

    As always, these rankings consider advanced stats, win-loss records and health (plus some gut feeling) to organize all 30 teams into an order reflecting the league's current hierarchy. Recent play counts a bit extra, but full-season numbers are still relevant.

30. Orlando Magic

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    To the towering heap of the fallen, we must add Nikola Vucevic, the latest member of the Orlando Magic's rotation to go down with injury. According to The Vertical's Shams Charania, Vooch's fractured left hand will cost him six to eight weeks.

    Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier have all missed significant time this year, and Terrence Ross remains out indefinitely with a knee injury.

    The Magic, who lost nine straight before Thursday's 102-89 win over the Detroit Pistons, must avoid using their brittleness as an excuse. It'd be easy for the front office to talk itself out of sweeping changes, pointing, perhaps, to the team's hot start as a reason to keep this core together for another year. But this thing was headed downhill before the injuries hit. Gordon, for example, was perfectly healthy during the nine-game losing streak from Nov. 11 to Nov. 27.

    The Magic have the league's highest turnover percentage in the clutch (22.3), which means that on the rare occasions they're competitive down the stretch, they tend to beat themselves anyway.

    That's how you wind up as our newest cellar occupant.

29. Brooklyn Nets

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    Losers of three straight and seven of their last eight games, the Brooklyn Nets are suffering from a split between how they want to play and how the players on the roster are capable of playing.

    To put a finer point on it, there aren't any stretch bigs around to give Brooklyn's preferred three-heavy style the teeth it needs to frighten defenses. Though the Nets attempt threes at the second-highest rate in the league, their accuracy on those shots ranks 25th.

    Here's Anthony Puccio of Nets Daily: "Tyler Zeller has improved, but defenses still encourage him to shoot from deep. Jarrett Allen is 19 years old and operates best in the paint, while Timofey Mozgov has been slow and inefficient in the pace-and-space offense. Jahlil Okafor has only played in one game so far, and Trevor Booker is now with Philadelphia."

    Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is at 34.6 percent from long range, but he's a low-volume shooter who doesn't scare defenders. As effective as he's been in other areas, opponents are wise to dare him from distance.

    Until the Nets' frontcourt personnel changes, they'll struggle to score in the ways they want to.   

28. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Speed, it seems, does not always kill.

    The Los Angeles Lakers play faster than any other team, but they still rank 28th in offensive efficiency. All that pace is making some difference, as the Lakers score at a mid-pack rate in transition. Yet despite a decent shot profile (L.A. takes shots at the rim more frequently than any team), the ball doesn't go in the basket often enough.

    Put simply, the Lakers can't shoot. Not from long distance, not from mid-range and not from anywhere outside point-blank territory.

    With Lonzo Ball scheduled to miss a week before getting his sprained shoulder re-evaluated, it may be even tougher for the Lakers to get those transition points they desperately need. Expect the offense to slide a bit—even if there's not much real estate between where the Lakers are and the bottom.

    Los Angeles has dropped four straight and seven of its last eight games.   

27. Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Memphis Grizzlies' issues are varied and complex.

    But when you distill this lost season to its essence, something simple emerges: Mike Conley, not Marc Gasol, is everything to the Grizzlies.

    They were 7-5 in the dozen games Conley played before going down with a sore Achilles. In games he's missed, Memphis is 4-19.

    The Grizzlies knocked off a half-strength Clippers team this week, fell to the Phoenix Suns and beat the Lakers by 10. Meanwhile, the evidence pointing toward Gasol's decline or disinterest (take your pick) continues to mount.

    Statmuse dug up this ominous tidbit after the Grizz fell to the Suns on Tuesday: "Marc Gasol recorded his third game with zero assists this season. It's only December, but he's already matched his total for such games from the previous two seasons combined."

    Not good.

26. Atlanta Hawks

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    This counts as damning with faint praise, but the Atlanta Hawks lost just one game by more than 10 points in December. The losses still piled high, but Atlanta's general refusal to get blown out is part of the reason it owns a relatively respectable net rating (minus-4.1) despite sole possession of the league's worst winning percentage (.265).

    The other reason is that 46-point hammering of the Sacramento Kings back on Nov. 15. Nothing props up a point differential like a colossal blowout.

    In keeping with the theme of surprising competitiveness, the Hawks hung tough during a 120-117 loss to the Thunder on Friday, then they defeated the Mavericks by five on Saturday behind a career-high-tying 33 points from Dennis Schroder. They followed it up with a victory over the Wizards on Wednesday, stringing two wins together for the first time all season.

    John Collins is back from a shoulder injury, the blowouts have been few and far between and the Hawks are on the rise.

25. Sacramento Kings

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    Vince Carter has been around long enough to know how to seize a moment.

    He did exactly that, tripling his previous season high with 24 points in Wednesday's stunning win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. As abysmal as the Sacramento Kings' overall profile looks (29th on offense, 30th on defense), they're still one of only three teams to beat both the Warriors and Cavs this season.

    If you chop the season into two segments—before and after the 46-point loss to the Hawks on Nov. 15—the underlying metrics aren't so different. But the Kings have found ways to win since that devastating blowout, going 9-12 over their last 21 contests, getting contributions from vets, rookies and everyone in between.

    Per Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee: "Zach Randolph has carried the crew and George Hill has played better. Frank Mason III is a part of the rotation and Buddy Hield has found his shooting touch again. The Kings started shooting and playing better for longer stretches."

    With peripherals as bad as Sacramento's, a double-digit losing streak is always in play. But it's encouraging to see more sustained effort and serious bounce-back resiliency. Before shocking the Cavs, Sacramento laid a flat-out egg in a 122-95 loss to the Clippers on Tuesday.

24. Phoenix Suns

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    Devin Booker scored 32 points in his return from an adductor strain, and Tyson Chandler dunked down a last-second lob to stun the Grizzlies on Tuesday, moving the Phoenix Suns to 4-2 over their last six games.

    Nobody will be happier about Booker's comeback than TJ Warren, who suddenly won't find himself matched up against every opponent's top wing stopper.

    According to Scott Bordow of AZCentral.com: "Warren averaged 21 points per game in the nine games Booker missed but shot just 42.8 percent from the field, in part because he was guarded by every team's best perimeter defender. Prior to Booker's injury, Warren shot 49.6 percent from the field."

    If Booker also alleviates Phoenix's first-quarter woes, it'll go a long way toward keeping this team involved in meaningful games—which is vital to the development of so many of its young players. So far this season, nobody has been worse in the opening 12 minutes than Phoenix.        

23. Dallas Mavericks

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    I was all set to spend this space discussing the Dallas Mavericks' deplorable clutch play. You were going to hear about their league-worst 1-18 record in close-and-late situations and nod solemnly to yourself, probably saying something like "well, yeah, that explains a lot."

    But then the Mavs went out and bested the Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers—two of the East's best teams and, at least through last week, two of our top nine clubs in the power rankings—on the strength of stellar late-game play.

    Make it 3-18 in clutch situations...

    The lesson here is to never pre-write anything.

    The other lesson is to avoid overemphasizing small samples. Because even if Dallas was 1-18 in clutch situations, that sample only constituted 63 minutes of court time. Weird, unsustainable, inexplicable stuff can happen in chunks that small.

    Now, to be clear, the Mavs aren't suddenly a paragon of crunch-time execution. They're going to lose plenty more close games. But they're not as bad as they appeared, and this recent course correction gives the Mavericks a modest 3-2 mark over their last five games.

    Best of all, Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes and Yogi Ferrell were keys to the close win over Indy. If you're going to ruin a lottery-driven tank with victories, it might as well be because young players are performing well.    

22. Charlotte Hornets

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    The Charlotte Hornets split a home-and-home set with the Milwaukee Bucks and fell 102-91 to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday. That 1-2 mark made it five straight rankings sessions with a losing record.

    Scoring has been the culprit in the Hornets' steady decline since a 5-3 start. They rank 22nd in offensive rating, but an uncommonly high free-throw rate (thanks at least in part to Hack-a-Dwight juicing their foul-shot totals) props up that figure. Their effective field-goal percentage is last in the league.

    Worse still, Charlotte's shooting efficiency craters in the clutch, dipping to an unfathomably low 32.3 percent. When the score is close and the game's hanging in the balance, the Hornets shoot the ball less efficiently from the field than Ben Wallace did from the foul line (.414).

    With no home games on the schedule until Jan. 10, the Hornets may see this mess of a season get worse before it gets better.    

21. Los Angeles Clippers

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    The Los Angeles Clippers' climb has less to do with their confounding recent stretch (which included a loss to Memphis and wins over bottom-feeding Phoenix and Sacramento, plus a shocking victory against the sliding Houston Rockets) than it does with the return of a critical piece.

    Blake Griffin is due back before the end of the month and might even suit up for Friday's tilt with the Lakers.

    Lou Williams has scored plenty, and Austin Rivers set and re-set his career high in scoring (36 and 38 points) this past week, but no right-thinking observer would rather depend on those two to get buckets than trust Griffin as the offensive hub.

    Only five of Rivers' 25 made baskets against the Rockets and Grizz this week came via the assist. Do we really think a career 41.8 percent shooter is going to keep creating (and making) so many of his own looks?

    The Clippers, winners of three of their last four contests, are getting their best player back. That doesn't mean the postseason is imminent (far from it), but the team will soon have a top-end talent who gives it a chance against anyone.

20. New York Knicks

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    Enes Kanter did what he could, scoring 31 points and grabbing 22 boards in the New York Knicks' Christmas Day loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, but even with his vacuum work on the glass, New York still got outrebounded 48-45.

    That's been an issue for most of the last month. The Knicks rank among the bottom 10 in defensive rebound rate since Dec. 1, and as a team that hasn't scored efficiently of late (23rd in offensive rating during that same span), it can't afford to allow so many second opportunities on the other end.

    Tim Hardaway Jr.'s return date remains uncertain, and head coach Jeff Hornacek is hoping to have the guard back at some point during the current stretch in which New York plays 14 of 17 games away from home.

    A poor road performer all year, New York has just begun the roughest stretch of schedule it'll see this season.

    The Knicks are primed for a slide as losers in five of their last six games and smarting after a particularly brutal choke job against the Bulls on Wednesday.   

19. Utah Jazz

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    Donovan Mitchell got the Russell Westbrook stamp of approval, plus longer-than-usual postgame dap from Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton (how'd he get in there?) following the Utah Jazz's 103-89 loss to the Thunder on Saturday

    Mitchell relayed Westbrook's message via Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript: "He just said, 'don't stop.' Can't really tell you everything else, but just, 'don't stop and keep going.'"

    Russ would say that.

    Mitchell's universally acclaimed game and generous delivery of highlights somehow offset the bad luck (15-21 record despite a net rating of only minus-0.5) and underperformance otherwise dragging down the Jazz's season. Utah has dropped three straight and, assuming it falls to the Cavs on Saturday, will finish December 4-11.

    But Mitchell also sonned an entire team this week.

    Because of course he did.        

18. Chicago Bulls

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    Jerian Grant gave us the shot of the week, scooping in an underhand flip from his knees that somehow arced over Al Horford's outstretched arm.

    The Chicago Bulls lost that game to the Celtics by 25 points but then recovered to win a pair against the Bucks and Knicks, closing out the week at 2-1. It seems Chicago's 10-game losing streak didn't break this team's spirit.

    And so, with the Bulls continuing to blow away expectations, it's only right to hit the self-sabotage angle.

    Here's ESPN.com's Nick Friedell: "If you were on board with the tanking plan, that's not good news at all. Especially since the Bulls are gaining more confidence each night and [Zach] LaVine should be returning soon."

    Friedell dropped that note after Chicago went 8-2 over its last 10 games. Make it 9-2 after the Bulls dispatched the Knicks on Wednesday behind 17 points, five assists and five boards from Kris Dunn. And in the interest of bookending this blurb with highlights, Dunn's strong lefty take against Giannis Antetokounmpo on Tuesday stands out as one of the most impressive plays of the second-year point guard's career.

17. Philadelphia 76ers

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    With just three wins this month, everyone on the Philadelphia Sixers will be glad to ditch December. And they should be ecstatic to welcome Markelle Fultz back to the rotation. He's nearing a return, though the Sixers are playing things with their typical caution. 

    Philly is in desperate need of a secondary playmaker, preferably one who can also generate his own offense. Jerryd Bayless is strictly a shooter whose poor man's Patty Mills impression has been, well, poor. T.J. McConnell runs around dribbling a lot without accomplishing much.

    Philadelphia's net rating is in the red when either backup guard plays and in the black when they sit.

    The last thing Fultz needs after a strange start to his career is more pressure, but if healthy, he provides precisely what this team lacks.

    If he can prop up second units as a primary scorer, excellent. If he works his way back into the starting lineup and eases some of the playmaking burden Ben Simmons has shouldered all year, even better.

    The guy was a No. 1 pick for a reason, and the Sixers need Fultz to remind everyone why.    

16. Portland Trail Blazers

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    The Portland Trail Blazers couldn't handle the Nuggets and barely sneaked past the Lakers while Damian Lillard sat out to rest a sore hamstring. The offense, already underperforming to a shocking degree, seriously suffered without him.

    It averaged just 90 points and a 46.1 effective field-goal percentage in the pair of games without Lillard.

    On the season, Portland owns the lowest assist percentage in the league by a significant margin. When Lillard, an ace shot-creator, isn't available, it takes a heroic effort just to get by. As an example, see Maurice Harkless' 13-point fourth quarter against the Lakers, which was just barely enough to get Portland over the top.

    As the only team in playoff position with more losses than wins at home, the Blazers might be glad to see that seven of their next nine games come on the road.

    Lillard returned Thursday, so the Blazers' slippage has more to do with the fact a couple of teams deserved a larger bump than anything else.

15. Miami Heat

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    You have to tinker with the cutoffs a bit, but there's now a significant sample of data that suggests rookie Bam Adebayo ought to be playing more.

    In 323 minutes of court time since Dec. 1, the energetic big man's presence on the floor has coincided with a plus-3.8 net rating. Without him during December, the Miami Heat have been outscored.

    Adebayo posted 14 points, eight rebounds and five assists in 38 minutes against Dallas last Friday, and he managed at least seven boards and four assists in each of his other two games this week. He was a significant reason for Miami's 2-1 mark since our last rankings, and his athleticism makes him an easily projectable defensive difference-maker.

    "You see him in person and it's kind of scary because he can blitz and at the same time get back to his own man," Goran Dragic marveled, per Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald. "So basically you don't even need to rotate. That's something unique."

    Hassan Whiteside returned from a knee injury Tuesday, which obstructs Adebayo's path to playing time going forward; the guy with the $98 million deal tends to have an advantage against a rookie.

14. New Orleans Pelicans

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    We've bagged on the New Orleans Pelicans defense plenty around here, which is why we owe the Pels some offensive praise.

    New Orleans won all three of its games this week, boosting its record to 18-16 and climbing all the way to sixth in offensive efficiency.

    Rajon Rondo handed out a career-high 25 assists in only 30 minutes of the Pelicans' 128-113 romp over the Nets. The dime-fest put him in a tie for the fifth-best single-game total of all time and the highest assist output since Jason Kidd had 25 helpers in 1996.

    Rondo is an unabashed assist hunter. He stalls plays by waiting for the pass he wants. But it's hard to argue with New Orleans' recent results. With him on the floor, the Pels offense is 4.6 points per 100 possessions more potent.

    Also, anything that keeps the playmaking duties out of DeMarcus Cousins' hands is a good thing. He's on pace to become just the fourth player in league history to average at least five turnovers per game.   

13. Milwaukee Bucks

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    The Milwaukee Bucks are getting healthy. Tony Snell and Matthew Dellavedova are both back, and Jabari Parker's knee is getting closer.

    But Jason Kidd has to be stopped.

    Either the head coach is giving unconscionably bizarre late-game instructions, or he's making all the wrong excuses for his team's underachievement.

    In the former case, it was directing Khris Middleton to miss a free throw that would have put the Bucks up by four with 1.4 seconds left against the Cavs on Dec. 19...because he was worried about giving up a four-point play.

    In the latter, it was blaming youth and overblown expectations for late-game missteps.

    On that point: Inaccurate. As Dean Maniatt of Brewhoop notes, when you measure age in a way that reflects which players on the roster absorb the most minutes, Milwaukee is actually the 11th-oldest team in the league. Also, Kidd's team has Giannis Antetokounmpo, a legitimate MVP candidate having a historically productive season.

    If you can't get a squad with elite talent and plenty of experience to blow well past .500, it's not the team's fault.

    Milwaukee has been a break-even bunch for the past six weeks.

12. Washington Wizards

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    The charitable way to frame the Washington Wizards' approach would be to say they give every opponent a sporting chance. The more common way to phrase Washington's problems, though, would be to say it plays to the level of its competition.

    That helps explain why the Wizards fell behind the Nets by 40 in a blowout loss last Friday, beat the Celtics on Christmas and rolled over in the fourth quarter against the Hawks on Wednesday.

    It was a wild week, and John Wall pretty much nailed the reason, telling reporters after the Atlanta loss: "I think as a team we think that certain teams we play are going to lay down against us, but they come out and compete every night."

    According to Statmuse, the Wizards have lost a league-high 10 games to sub-.500 teams. They only dropped nine such contests all of last year.

    One way to stabilize: Playing Wall, Bradley Beal, Kelly Oubre, Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. together more often. That quartet has the highest net rating of any high-usage Wizards grouping. In 233 minutes together, they've beaten opponents by 19.9 points per 100 possessions. Yet they're only Washington's eighth-most-used four-man unit.

11. Detroit Pistons

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    Fun stat time: Eric Moreland is a pretty good passer, so he's not entirely without offensive value. But he's still an All-NBA Do-Nothing First-Teamer. His usage percentage is the lowest of any player qualified for the minutes-per-game leaderboard, which means he ends a possession with a shot, trip to the foul line or turnover the fewest times among qualified players.

    Reggie Jackson's ankle injury against the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday was particularly nasty, just from an aesthetic perspective. It was one of those where, if you're Jackson, you look down, and before you're blinded with searing pain, you think: that seems wrong...

    He'll be out six to eight weeks with a Grade 3 sprain, according to The Vertical's Shams Charania, which means more minutes for Ish Smith and, if the data from the 40 percent of the season we've completed so far is any guide, significantly worse offense. Detroit scores 3.5 more points per 100 possessions with Jackson on the floor than it does with Smith running the point.

    If Thursday's loss to the Magic is a sign of how things will go with Jackson sidelined, letting the Pistons hold steady at No. 11 will look foolish.

10. Indiana Pacers

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    If Victor Oladipo hadn't fired off 38 points to beat the Nets in overtime, the Indiana Pacers would be coming off a disastrous 0-3 week. Because he did save the day against a woeful Brooklyn squad, we're left evaluating a merely uninspiring 1-2 stretch.

    But there are still bigger problems.

    Oladipo's knee is sore.

    He didn't play in Wednesday's 98-94 loss to the Mavs, and he won't suit up for Friday's visit to Chicago. For reference, Indy plays to a plus-five net rating when Oladipo is on the floor, roughly in line with the Boston Celtics' full-season net rating. When he's off the court, Indiana is a minus-5.1, which would slot it right between the Suns and Magic's overall net ratings.

    It's difficult to overstate the significance of his availability.

    Darren Collison's name hasn't come up much during this season of "all Oladipo, all the time," but it probably should have by now. He's in the midst of his third straight year shooting at least 47 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. If Oladipo misses more time, Collison and Lance Stephenson will have to pick up the backcourt slack.

9. Denver Nuggets

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    The Denver Nuggets are defending, and one man knows why a team so long defined by its inability to get stops is finally making it tougher for opponents to score.

    "I think it's me," Nikola Jokic coyly told reporters after Denver held Utah to 83 points in a blowout win Tuesday.

    After head coach Mike Malone ripped his team following a Dec. 6 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, Denver's defensive focus sharpened and its effort level stabilized. Since then, the Nuggets have ranked inside the top 10 in defensive efficiency, dragging their full-season ranking up toward the middle of the pack. For all intents and purposes, the Nugs are an average defense.

    Which is something that seemed impossible just a few weeks ago.

    It's more than just Jokic. And in fact, Denver's defensive uptick has been about limiting shot attempts from deep and getting a little lucky on the opponents' field-goal percentage front. Even during this recent stretch of improved D, the Nuggets have remained one of the worst interior defenses in the league.

    Still, a great offense, better play on the other end and three wins in their last four tries give the Nuggets a boost.   

8. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Important bulletin: You can't um...*mess* with Jimmy Butler.

    That is what he says, and after yet another "everybody hop on, I'm driving us home" effort during an overtime win against the Nuggets on Wednesday, what Butler says goes.

    The Minnesota Timberwolves' best player (yeah, I said it) scored 39 points to beat the Nugs while Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson sat on the bench with six fouls down the stretch. Andrew Wiggins scored an efficient 21 points as a second fiddle in that game, but as usual, he didn't contribute anything beyond the buckets.

    Butler has been everything for the Wolves. First a facilitator. Then a vocal critic. And now an unrestrained guiding force, scoring all the big baskets, gutting out huge minutes and quietly nosing into the MVP conversation as Minnesota rolls to its best start in more than a decade.

    To the eye of The Athletic's Britt Robson, Butler has played this thing masterfully: "Better yet, the wins have occurred while first Towns and then Wiggins received the most profound wake-up calls of their respective careers, giving Butler greater latitude to exercise his authority without pushback."

    Butler is in full control of the Timberwolves, and that's a very good thing.

7. Boston Celtics

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    It's not hard to figure out why the Boston Celtics have looked a little tired since peaking at 22-4.

    "For all the talk about how the league has eased the schedule this season," ESPN.com's Chris Forsberg explained, "the Celtics haven't quite seen the benefits because of a front-loaded slate that will see them play half of their 82 games by Jan. 3. That's 41 games in 79 days. The Celtics will play their final 41 games over a much more agreeable 97-day span."

    That Boston has been so relentlessly busy to start the year only further highlights how remarkable rookie Jayson Tatum's production has been.

    He remains wildly efficient, hitting nearly half of his threes on the year and residing among the elite in scoring efficiency, per Synergy: "With his performance tonight, Jayson Tatum now ranks 4th in the NBA in scoring efficiency among the 167 players using over 10 possessions per game sandwiched between Anthony Davis & Stephen Curry."

    So much for rookies hitting the wall.

    Boston has been one of the league's worst rebounding teams in December, hasn't practiced since Nov. 29 (according to Forsberg) and will have consecutive days off between games for the first time this month on Dec. 29 and 30.

    The Celtics' general mediocrity of late requires a downward move, but these guys are going to be fine once they catch their breath.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sometimes, it just takes half a season or so until everything falls into place.

    The Oklahoma City Thunder have won six in a row and eight of their last nine in exactly the manner many expected when the team came together over the summer.

    Take Wednesday's 124-107 win over the Raptors as an example: Russell Westbrook posted 30 points and 13 assists, Paul George defended like a lunatic and scored 33 points on only 17 shots, and Carmelo Anthony third-wheeled his way to 18 points on 8-of-15 shooting.

    Sheer talent, finally playing together with fluidity, overwhelmed one of the best teams in the league.

    It helps that Westbrook has holstered the three ball lately, and shots that just weren't falling earlier in the year for George and Anthony are going in now. But OKC has also wisely implemented basic schemes to get bodies moving, particularly late in games. You'll see the Thunder's beloved "hawk" set run repeatedly in fourth quarters, and Westbrook is involved in more pick-and-rolls lately as well.

    The Thunder were never as bad as they seemed earlier this season, and it's only fair to emphasize that though they've performed well of late, they might not be as good as they appear now.

    Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass:

    "If we look at the difference between each team’s record and their expected record based on point differential, OKC had by far the biggest difference in the league (during its first 20 games) — and in fact, the biggest difference of any team at the 20 game mark in the last 15 years. ... Since then the Thunder have gone 11-4, and they’ve done it by winning a disproportionate share of close games. In fact, no team has overperformed their point differential even close to as much as the Thunder have in these last 15 games."

    Split the difference, and you've got an OKC squad right about where it should be—comfortably in the top 10 and capable of beating anyone.

5. Houston Rockets

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    Subtract Chris Paul, Luc Mbah a Moute and Clint Capela from the Rockets rotation, and it's no wonder the defense has slipped. There's an element of regression to the mean at work as well, but losing three key defensive cogs at three positions can't help but change the way Houston attacks opposing offenses.

    Though the Rockets remain a top-10 defense on the year, they've been bottom-five performers on that end over the last three weeks. When James Harden goes for 51 points in back-to-back games (which he did against the Lakers and Clippers last week) and you lose both, it's a good sign scoring isn't the problem.

    "We'll be all right. That's it. That's all it is," Harden told reporters after Houston lost its third straight game, a Christmas affair against the Thunder. "Guys are playing a little bit too many minutes. Our defense isn't really there consistently, and our offense, we aren't making shots like we need to be. We'll be all right. It's a part of it. We've just got to fight through it. It's a long season."

    This version of the Rockets—the one with a suddenly thin rotation struggling to get stops against some pretty pedestrian opponents while James Harden performs a one-man show—is not the one that won 14 games in a row. More importantly, it's not the one that'll be around for the postseason, when things actually matter.

    But it is the one we have to rank.

    As such, Houston, in the midst of its worst four-game stretch of the season, slides to its lowest point in months.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    ↔ No Movement

    It was all right there for the Raptors.

    Just beat the Mavs and Thunder to reach 25-8, and the door was wide open for a climb up to No. 2 in our rankings.

    It would have been so easy, what with everyone else in spots 2-5 slipping up one way or another since our last edition.

    But no, the Raps had to go and drop their last two games of the week, punting on a golden opportunity.

    So, instead of celebrating the new runners-up, we've got a 1-2 week and no choice but to leave the Raptors right where they are. If not for Houston's injuries and surprising losing streak, the Raps would have lost ground—which is a tough fate for the team that has the second-best net rating in the league since Dec. 1.

    Anyway, here's a wildly obscure stat from Elias (via ESPN.com) to distract you from the disappointment: DeMar DeRozan became the first player since Michael Jordan "to score at least 70 points against the 76ers within a three-day span in the regular season." DeRozan hit Philly for a career-high 45 points last Thursday and then added 29 more in the rematch.

    Which...cool story, right?

3. San Antonio Spurs

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    ↑ 2 Spots

    How about Pau Gasol?

    After becoming the third-oldest player to ever amass at least 20 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a game last week, he produced a worthy encore. Gasol's triple-double in Saturday's win over the Kings made him one of just five players to ever go for at least 10, 10 and 10 after turning 37.

    It doesn't matter if Gasol's level of play is unsustainable because Kawhi Leonard is finally showing signs of becoming a rotation player again.

    San Antonio's extreme caution is diminishing, and after Leonard played less than half of every other game for his first two weeks back on the floor, he finally suited up in consecutive contests for the first time this year—wins over the Nets and Knicks on Tuesday and Thursday.

    The Spurs are banking these wins with a half-constructed team, crushing everyone in clutch defense by a mile and quietly climbing into consideration for the No. 2 spot. Not yet, of course. But if we get another week in which the Raps, Cavs and Rockets all stumble, don't be surprised if everyone's favorite robotic monument to consistent excellence makes its deliberate, inexorable move toward the top.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    ↑ 1 Spot

    Maybe Kevin Durant was still fouling LeBron James during the Cavs' inexcusable loss to the Kings on Wednesday.

    How else to explain James' 6-of-17 shooting or, more broadly, a three-time reigning Eastern Conference champ dropping a game to the lowly Kings two days after falling to the Dubs on Christmas? For what it's worth, if KD was reaching up Interstate 80 to hack James, he didn't stop him; LeBron posted a triple-double with five steals.

    Cleveland has lost two straight and three of four overall, but everyone else trying to chase down our top team stumbled this week. With Isaiah Thomas nearing his return, there's just no logical way to drop the Cavs.

    Side note: Kevin Love has been great all year. He hung 31 points and 18 boards on the Warriors, has been exceptionally productive at center and is quietly enjoying his best overall season since leaving the Timberwolves.

    If the Cavs are going to give Golden State a run (and yes, that's still the only lens through which we evaluate Cleveland), it'll be because Love gives them enough firepower to keep pace. Tristan Thompson floundered in last year's Finals, and it appears the best version of the Cavaliers is the one that spaces Love and three other shooters around James, ignores defense and tries to make 30 threes in a game.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    ↔ No Movement

    The Warriors are still here, but they were far from perfect in this latest rankings session.

    An 81-point output during Saturday's loss to Denver featured a 3-of-27 clankfest from deep and marked the worst offensive production of the Steve Kerr era. Even Golden State's Christmas win over the Cavs was marred by several late no-calls.

    Still, with the other top teams also stumbling, it's easy to justify leaving the Dubs at No. 1—particularly when you consider their overall resume (much of which they've compiled with Stephen Curry sidelined these last 10 games).

    The defense remains the story, as the Warriors are crushing the league in blocks. They swat almost three more shots per game than anyone else. With Zaza Pachulia giving way to the bouncier Jordan Bell when matchups dictate, according to Kerr, we should see the Dubs' already NBA-best defensive rating get even better.

    When Bell plays with Draymond Green and Durant, Golden State suffocates its opponents to the tune of an 83.4 defensive rating.

    Curry's absence has forced the Warriors to do it on D. That'll serve them well as they gear up for the second half of the season.

          

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Thursday, Dec. 28.

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