NBA Power Rankings: Jimmy Butler's Timberwolves Soaring, Cavs Falling
With the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors missing All-Stars, this week offered a prime chance for an upstart to vault into the top five in our NBA power rankings.
The Minnesota Timberwolves stalked and devoured the opportunity.
Elsewhere, the Philadelphia 76ers, Portland Trail Blazers and Miami Heat jumped up, while the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder took dives.
As always, these rankings organize all 30 teams into an order that reflects the league's current hierarchy. Recent play, injuries and schedule all matter, as do full-season stats. We're past the halfway point of the 2017-18 campaign, but predictability remains elusive.
30. Sacramento Kings
↔ No Movement
The Sacramento Kings stink up, down and sideways, so lineup tweaks won't be cure-alls. But it's worth highlighting how going small at power forward has coincided with so much (relative) success.
Per Cleaning the Glass, Sacramento gets annihilated whenever Zach Randolph plays the 4. Going smaller, particularly with Vince Carter, yields positive differentials. Small-sample caveats apply to the non-Randolph minutes, but it's not exactly a surprise that playing a defensively immobile big man who doesn't stretch the floor at power forward isn't working.
Sacramento started the week with a win over the Denver Nuggets (who were playing the second night of a back-to-back) but collapsed late against the San Antonio Spurs (sans Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili) on Monday. Tuesday's 99-86 fatigue-ridden loss to the Lakers, in which the Kings shot a season-low 34.5 percent from the field, was one of the most difficult watches of the campaign.
George Hill (personal reasons) and Frank Mason (foot) have each been out, putting added strain on rookie De'Aaron Fox. Though lacking Fox's draft pedigree, Bogdan Bogdanovic, who had 19 points against L.A., may be the Kings' best player.
He needs more minutes.
Sacramento remains last in net rating by a growing margin.
29. Orlando Magic
↓ 1 Spot
The Orlando Magic have been the league's least efficient offense since Dec. 1, which makes their top-10 scoring rate this week a welcome surprise. The points didn't lead to wins, of course, as the Magic went 0-3.
They've lost 15 of their last 16 overall.
Mario Hezonja has quietly found a scoring groove. Though partly out of injury-driven necessity, he's playing and producing more consistently than at any point in his career. Ten of his 11 double-figure-scoring games have come since Dec. 13. He had 16 in Saturday's four-point loss to the Cavs.
As has been the case for a while, Orlando continues to fall apart late in games. Since Dec. 15, the Magic own a league-worst minus-70.1 net rating in the clutch.
28. Atlanta Hawks
↓ 1 Spot
The Atlanta Hawks finished their five-game swing out West with a victory against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, and they came close to a couple of other victories.
We pilloried Dennis Schroder for his late-game blunder against the Suns last week, but it's hard to be as critical of the Hawks for their more recent one-point loss. I mean, sometimes 27-year-old rookies are going to hit game-winning threes against you.
C.J. Williams buried Atlanta with a trey Monday, completing a Lou Williams-led comeback against a Hawks team that, for obvious reasons, didn't seem comfortable playing with a lead.
Atlanta, 1-3 this week, has a league-low 11 wins.
In better news, Dewayne Dedmon is back after missing more than a month with a stress reaction in his left tibia. Just in time to be trade bait.
27. Los Angeles Lakers
↑ 2 Spots
A 132-113 win over the Atlanta Hawks spared the Los Angeles Lakers from a franchise-high-tying 10-game losing streak. When L.A. picked off the weary, woeful Kings, the league's saddest two-game winning streak was born.
They flat-out beat the Spurs on Thursday, though, which gave three-game run some substance.
As the Feb. 8 trade deadline nears, distractions will intensify. Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and anything else not nailed down could be moved in the Lakers' efforts to clear cap space for the summer. Exactly who'll want to take their money with so much nonsense surrounding the organization is suddenly a pressing question.
Here's USA Today's Sam Amick on the fallout from LaVar Ball's comments about head coach Luke Walton's having lost the Lakers:
"Imagine being LeBron James right now, seeing all these headlines about discord in Lakers Land and second-guessing that notion you had about signing there in free agency this summer to be their hoops savior. Or Paul George, the Lakers' other top target in free agency who raved about Lonzo's potential when Oklahoma City came through town this week, but who has every reason to wonder who this Lonzo v. Luke dynamic might affect the organization's process going forward."
These rankings are supposed to be a week-to-week exercise, but the Lakers are facing the early phases of an existential problem—one they should have seen coming. As Amick posits, all this LaVar-generated foolishness could soon force the Lakers to ask themselves if Lonzo, the guy they anointed as the next great thing, is worth the trouble.
26. Memphis Grizzlies
↓ 1 Spot
The day-to-day ups and downs don't matter for the Memphis Grizzlies anymore. So at least for this edition, let's hit the bigger picture.
Mike Conley intends to come back this season from his Achilles injury but doesn't have a timetable, according to comments relayed by Michael Wallace of Grizzlies.com. Chandler Parsons, out since Dec. 27 with right knee soreness, is in a similarly murky situation.
"He's not doing any contact stuff," Grizzlies interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff told reporters. "But he's been able to do a ton of shooting (and) conditioning, and every day we wait to see how he's building."
Meanwhile, Marc Gasol is playing, but he's doing so in a way that makes his status as the Defensive Player of the Year in 2012-13 seem like it happened a decade ago. Still, he has his moments—like when he shrewdly swiped a game-sealing steal from DeMarcus Cousins in Memphis' lone win this week.
"It was a risky play," Gasol told reporters of his split-second decision to help on Cousins. "Once I saw him put the head down and not really seeing it, I saw a chance and took a gamble and it paid off."
The Grizzlies may or may not be open to purposeful tanking, but their preferences might not matter. The losses are coming either way.
25. Brooklyn Nets
↑ 1 Spot
The Brooklyn Nets' first two losses of the week were hard-fought affairs. Jayson Tatum put them away late in Saturday's 87-85 loss to the Boston Celtics—a game in which Rondae Hollis-Jefferson may have deserved (but didn't get) a trip to the foul line on Brooklyn's final possession. And then the Nets took the Toronto Raptors to overtime before falling 114-113 Monday.
This low in the rankings, close losses to the conference elites are effectively wins.
D'Angelo Russell is practicing with the team after knee surgery and should return to game action soon. Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson isn't concerned about the dynamic between Russell and incumbent starter Spencer Dinwiddie, whose emergence at point guard means he's earned the high-leverage minutes.
Dinwiddie can guard either backcourt spot, and Russell proved his comfort on or off the ball earlier in the season. They'll play together.
Never obstruct a ceiling-puncher.
24. New York Knicks
↓ 1 Spot
It seems like it happened eons ago, but Kristaps Porzingis cracked the 30-point mark eight times in his first 11 games of 2017-18. In his subsequent 24 contests, KP only got to 30 three times.
If you split KP's seasons into pre- and post-All Star halves, his scoring volume and efficiency are both higher before the break. And if you parse the data more finely, the trends extend from November to March in a straight downward line—with a slight uptick in April.
The Knicks upped their road record to 4-14 with Sunday's win at Dallas, but that mark is still second-worst in the league, and nine of their final 11 games this month will be away from home. Porzingis managed 29 points against the Mavs, but he needed 25 shots to get the job done.
New York was competitive overall this week but has lost four of its last five.
23. Phoenix Suns
↑ 1 Spot
If you'd blacked out for the first three months of the season and all you knew of the Phoenix Suns was what you saw during their 114-100 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, you would have been convinced that this was one of the most promising young franchises in the league.
In what was easily Phoenix's most impressive win of the year, Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson both played career-best games. Bender drilled six threes, three of which came in succession during a decisive fourth-quarter stretch, en route to 20 points, six rebounds, four assists and three blocks. Jackson produced an inefficient 17 points but set personal highs with 10 rebounds and five assists.
His setups led directly to several of Bender's buckets.
"I thought they really played well together," Suns interim coach Jay Triano told Scott Bordow of AZCentral.com. "Josh would drive and kick and find Dragan on the perimeter, and I think there's a comfort level really developing with those two."
Phoenix went 1-1 in a light week and should be encouraged as much by the Bender-Jackson chemistry as a 7-5 record over its last dozen games.
22. Dallas Mavericks
↔ No Movement
Prior to Tuesday's 114-99 win over the Magic, the Dallas Mavericks had played eight straight games that finished with single-digit margins. It must have been nice to relax down the stretch for once...
Since Jan. 1, the Mavs are 2-3, and a lineup tweak helped them secure both victories. Head coach Rick Carlisle swapped Yogi Ferrell in for Maxi Kleber after Dallas went into halftime trailing the Magic by five. Though units with Nowitzki at center that also include Ferrell have been outscored on the season, the shuffle worked.
And it worked again as the starting unit in Wednesday's 115-111 win over the Hornets.
Despite the victory, Carlisle's pregame comments to reporters in Orlando, in which he rejected the lineup change he ultimately utilized, remain true: "I've looked at it and looked at the possibility of changing of it. Changing it would open up other challenges that would probably be greater."
This is a window into a deeper issue for the Mavs, a team that can't populate a lineup with enough two-way players or versatile size to succeed consistently on both ends. Going small with Nowitzki at center produces points, but it bleeds them on the other end. Go big and the defense improves but the scoring stops.
Dallas will wrestle with this give-and-take all year.
21. Chicago Bulls
↓ 1 Spot
Kris Dunn's got the highs down. If he could just get rid of those lows, he'd probably be an above-average starting point guard.
Even with his scoring totals fluctuating so wildly (two points against the Raptors on Jan. 3, a career-high 32 against the Mavs just two days later, followed by only eight in a blowout loss to Indiana the next night), Dunn's defense and facilitation are reliable.
Chicago went 2-2 this week, lowlighted by that 39-point defeat against the Pacers on Saturday. The high point was Wednesday's double-overtime win against the Knicks, in which Lauri Markkanen scored 33 points, hit eight triples and straight-up outplayed Kristaps Porzingis.
The Bulls are not the team that surged during a 10-2 stretch, but they're also not the group that started 3-20. As they try to figure out which end of the spectrum they're closer to, Dunn and Markkanen provide long-term hope.
Just as encouragingly, they can look forward to Zach LaVine's return from a torn ACL. According to Dunn's workout observations, which include LaVine doing "windmills, between the legs" dunks, the shooting guard's return, pegged for Saturday, should be exciting.
20. Charlotte Hornets
↑ 1 Spot
Coming off their first multi-win rankings session since November, the Charlotte Hornets earned a reprieve from what has been a season-long slide.
Even if the two wins came against the Kings and Lakers, at least they were on the road. And at least they were decisive.
The Hornets continue to never turn the ball over, and Nicolas Batum had his best offensive game of the season against Sacramento, notching 21 points (just the second time all season he eclipsed the 20-point mark) and needing only 12 shots to get there. Kemba Walker's 41 points in losing effort against Dallas underscored how badly the Hornets need Batum and the rest of the supporting cast to show up.
Remarkably, the Hornets own the No. 9 net rating in the East. That means, despite a horrendous offense and precious little depth, these guys should still be considered fringe playoff threats.
Imagine if, instead of dead last, they were, say, 25th in effective field-goal percentage! Oh, the possibilities!
19. Utah Jazz
↓ 2 Spots
Losers in 13 of their last 17 games, the Utah Jazz were overdue for a dip.
Even as the defeats mounted (particularly on the road, where the Jazz are a Western Conference-worst 4-17), you could still talk yourself into believing Utah was better than its record. The net rating was respectable, and there was always the certainty of strong defense—even with Rudy Gobert sidelined with a knee injury.
A full month's worth of bottom-five-level performance has Utah at No. 10 in defensive efficiency. It's been a while since the Jazz were anything but top-flight stoppers. Gobert's absence has destroyed them on that end.
Donovan Mitchell has been either the best or second-best rookie so far, and the Jazz snatched their lone win of the week from the Wizards on Wednesday. So there are positives. But at some point, the glass-half-full approach and excuses have to stop. We have to acknowledge that Utah is an objectively bad team.
18. Los Angeles Clippers
↔ No Movement
Blake Griffin progressed quickly through the league's concussion protocol after catching an inadvertent elbow from Golden State's JaVale McGee on Saturday. The incident produced one of the season's scarier scenes, but Griffin was remarkably back in action on Thursday against the Kings.
In his absence, a couple of extraordinary feats kept the Clippers steady.
C.J. Williams drilled a game-winner against the Hawks, and Lou Williams hung a 50-spot on the Warriors Wednesday, earning L.A. win No. 2 for the week.
The front-runner for Sixth Man of the Year also posted 34 points against Atlanta and hasn't been held under 20 points in his last 10 games.
17. New Orleans Pelicans
↓ 2 Spots
We got the full Boogie experience in the New Orleans Pelicans' 112-109 win over the Detroit Pistons on Monday as the big man tossed a water bottle to express disagreement with foul calls in the first quarter, earned a technical foul for arguing in the second...and then took over the game and led the Pels to victory in the third.
DeMarcus Cousins taketh away and giveth, or something like that.
Boogie's assumption of control against Detroit was necessary, as Anthony Davis (who had 30 points and 10 boards) had to leave in the third period with a sprained ankle. The injury kept him out of the Pels' disappointing 105-102 loss to the Grizzlies on Wednesday—a game in which Cousins' fifth turnover assured the result and a 1-2 week.
Defensively, New Orleans must continue to improve. It sits at 24th in defensive efficiency and allowed opponents an offensive rebound rate of 29.3 percent this past week, second-highest in the league. That shouldn't be possible for one of the few teams that has a dominant rebounder on the floor at all times.
16. Denver Nuggets
↓ 6 Spots
The hope was to make this week's Denver Nuggets blurb about Jamal Murray's continued development into a top-end scoring guard, which was going to be especially exciting because we spent this space last week lauding Gary Harris' growth into an all-around stud.
The positivity was going to be overwhelming.
Smash-cut to three losses in four games, two of which came against the lowly Hawks and Kings, and the upbeat angle wasn't viable anymore.
Following Wednesday's 110-97 home loss to Atlanta, a game the Nuggets played in a half-interested stupor, head coach Mike Malone recounted for reporters (warning: link contains NSFW language) the straight talk he delivered in the locker room: "Overall, the message was, 'you guys are full of s--t if you want to talk about playoffs.'"
Denver isn't doing the little things, as evidenced by its No. 29 ranking in loose balls recovered and bottom-five finish in screen assists this past week. As a result, the losses piled up.
15. Milwaukee Bucks
↓ 3 Spots
If the Milwaukee Bucks ever figure out the whole defense thing, they'll be in great shape. But another .500 week typified this team's ongoing efforts to sabotage an excellent offense with poor play on the other end.
Milwaukee gave up at least 103 points in all four games this week, with the Raptors topping the field at 129 on Jan. 5. Overall, the Bucks allowed a defensive rating of 112.7, about three points below the Kings' league-worst full-season figure. Thanks to an offense that has climbed all the way up to seventh overall, the Bucks broke even.
Though a dominant, decisive third-quarter spurt against the Magic on Wednesday was defensively driven, Milwaukee's jumpy scheme and penchant for over-helping have consistently failed against quality opponents. Aggressive positioning designed to trap and force lob passes pulls Milwaukee's bigs away from the rim, often turning defensive possessions into frantic scrambles.
On the season, the Bucks allow the highest frequency of opponent shots at the rim.
We'll keep beating this drum. Because the Bucks are a basic, conservative defensive scheme away from barging into the top 10 and staying there.
14. Indiana Pacers
↑ 2 Spots
The Indiana Pacers are just different with Victor Oladipo.
The breakout guard's return prompted a 2-1 record that felt like a course correction following Indy's 0-4 record during the games he missed with knee soreness.
Nobody is beating the Heat these days, so we can't fault Oladipo or the Pacers for falling short Wednesday, and quality victories over Chicago and Milwaukee brought stability to a season that might have been slipping away. On the year, Indiana's net rating is plus-5.7 when Oladipo is on the floor and minus-6.6 when he's off.
Help is on the way as well. Glenn Robinson III is "ahead of schedule" in his rehab from an ankle injury, according to Scott Agness of Vigilant Sports. Robinson hasn't played all year after taking a significant step forward in 2016-17, during which he logged time in many of that Pacers team's best lineups.
You can never have too many three-and-D wings—particularly ones who've won a dunk contest.
13. Detroit Pistons
↓ 2 Spots
The Detroit Pistons have had a hard time scoring since Reggie Jackson went down with an ankle injury Dec. 26, averaging 102.1 points per 100 possessions in their last six games, a rate that ranks 27th in the league during that span.
But they've managed to hold relatively steady behind stellar defense (sixth in the league since Jackson's injury) and a penchant for knocking off high-end opponents. Detroit's 108-101 win against an admittedly banged-up Rockets team Saturday gave it another pelt from among the West's elite.
The Pistons have beaten the Rockets, Spurs, Thunder, Wolves (twice) and Warriors this year. So I guess that means all they have to do is make the Finals, and a championship's assured.
Detroit finished 2-2 this week, closing things out with a 114-80 smash job over the Nets. Andre Drummond amassed 22 points, 20 rebounds and five assists in only 31 minutes of a game that was over by halftime.
12. Philadelphia 76ers
↑ 7 Spots
It was a light, two-game week for the Philadelphia 76ers because of their trip to London for a meeting with Boston on Thursday, so we're leaning a little extra on some broader trends to justify this jump.
Before stumbling in the second half and falling to the Celtics, Philadelphia demolished the Pistons last Friday, 114-78. Head-to-head matchups aren't the bottom-line determinant for rankings order, but when one team beats another by that much, it's too hard to rank the loser ahead of the winner. Hence Philly slots one spot above Detroit.
Ben Simmons has been more aggressive of late, perhaps adjusting to the tweaks opponents made to slow him down after a torrid start to his career. Still unwilling to fire off jumpers, Simmons is doubling down on his strength and attacking the rim with purpose. He attempted 15 foul shots against the Spurs on Jan. 3, his highest total in a game not involving the Hack-a-Simmons tactic.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder
↓ 3 Spots
Andre Roberson is the indisputable key to OKC's defensive potency. When he's in the game, the Thunder's defensive rating is 96.5, which would be better than the league's current leader in defensive efficiency. When he's not, Oklahoma City's 108.8 defensive rating sits 29th.
Narrow the scope, and you can see the Thunder are 2-4 in the six games Roberson has missed since Dec. 29, and they have a defensive rating of 111.6.
But when the offense stalls like it did against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday, yielding stagnant sets and ill-advised shots (not to mention just 88 points in a blowout loss), it's hard to blame the Thunder's slide on Roberson's absence.
Oklahoma City went 0-3 this week, dropping every game by double digits.
Roberson's knee injury means the Thunder cannot count on winning games defensively, which is what they did to stay afloat as the offense sputtered earlier in the year. Unfortunately for Oklahoma City, it also appears the scoring attack is not yet past those same stand-around-and-watch issues.
Halfway through the season, OKC still has plenty to figure out.
10. Portland Trail Blazers
↑ 4 Spots
The offense has been a problem all season, but the Portland Trail Blazers somehow scored enough to achieve an incredible feat against the Spurs on Sunday.
Per Elias: "San Antonio had won 143 of the last 144 games regulation-time games in which it scored at least 110 points, dating back to March 2011, including 64 straight victories heading into Sunday's game at Portland."
Credit CJ McCollum for that one, as his deft, slithery, in-between, magical mid-range flip with five ticks left gave Portland a 111-110 lead that held up. It was a quintessential McCollum bucket, and a necessary one with Damian Lillard out (as he was for Tuesday's win over the Thunder) because of a calf strain.
Dame returned for Wednesday's excusable loss to the Rockets. Even without James Harden, Houston is a nightmare foe on the second leg of a back-to-back set.
Portland jumps up thanks to a 3-1 week that featured those solid wins over OKC and San Antonio—both of which were played at less than full strength.
9. Washington Wizards
↔ No Movement
The Washington Wizards can't say they failed to see the Jazz coming.
Utah smoked Washington by 47 points the last time these teams met, but somehow, the Wizards fell again to the struggling Jazz on Wednesday, this time by a more humane final of 107-104. John Wall and the Wiz should have been on notice, even if Utah is far from formidable on paper these days.
That's just it, though: Washington loses games like Wednesday's—against inferior talent, sometimes even at home—all the time. Only the Hawks have lost more games to sub-.500 competition this year than Washington, per StatMuse.
It's possible the Wizards are hard-wired to loaf when they don't feel threatened. This would explain their stretches of lazy defense that only give way to remarkable scrambling recoveries when a breakdown raises the urgency level.
Or, it could just be Washington's good fortune running out at the wrong times.
Earlier this week, ESPN.com's Zach Lowe argued the Wizards "may be getting a tad lucky. ... Opponents have hit just 32.6 percent on corner triples, the lowest such mark in the league by four full percentage points—equivalent to the gap between the 2nd- and 23rd-ranked defenses by this measure."
Washington holds steady, largely because we had to dump the Thunder down. Also, we've reached the point in the season where huge swings based on a single week feel like overreactions.
Having said that...
8. Miami Heat
↑ 5 Spots
Josh Richardson scored the game-winning layup against the Jazz on Sunday, and Wayne Ellington did it to the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday...as a second option on the same play.
The Heat have vaulted into the fourth spot in the East standings despite a suspect point differential that ranks 10th in the conference. We tend to look askance at teams with profiles like that, but when you see the late-game guile and execution from head coach Erik Spoelstra and the Heat, it's easier to accept that they're more than just lucky.
Miami's recent success has made it easy for Spoelstra to impose some discipline on Hassan Whiteside, whose role has diminished since returning from a 13-game absence. The Heat's highest-paid player hasn't brought A-level effort often enough for his coach, and his minute totals have become less consistent.
"He's still getting there," Spoelstra told Andre C. Fernandez of the Miami Herald. "It has nothing to do with the knee. It's just a habit for him of doing more, of getting more, of being more consistent with all of it. And I won't stop with my expectations for him and what this team needs from him."
The Heat are on a six-game winning streak. With Bam Adebayo looking more and more like a draft steal, Whiteside may have no choice but to get after it.
And wouldn't you know it, he took it to the Pacers on Wednesday to the tune of 16 points, 15 boards and four blocks in 28 minutes. Spoelstra is clearly a strategic and motivational genius.
7. Cleveland Cavaliers
↓ 3 Spots
Isaiah Thomas is back and at least some of his shimmy came with him. But it's worth asking whether his offensive zip really means much to a Cavs team that has never had a problem scoring.
Over the last calendar month, the Cavaliers have been the worst defense in the league. Worse than the Lakers. Worse than the Magic. Worse than the Kings.
Worse than everyone. (EVERYONE!)
Also, LeBron James scored a season-low 10 points and posted the worst single-game plus-minus figure of his career (minus-39) during Monday's blowout loss to the Timberwolves. He wasn't alone in his ineffectiveness, but it was jarring nonetheless.
Since reeling off that 18-1 stretch from Nov. 11 to Dec. 17, Cleveland is just 2-6. Each of its last three losses have been blowouts.
6. San Antonio Spurs
↓ 1 Spot
I'm not sure how many weeks in a row we've turned this space into a celebratory one for Manu Ginobili's game-winners and three-point passes (not a typo), but as long as this guy keeps doing super cool and/or historically significant things, it's going to stay that way.
Ginobili became the first 40-year-old to score at least 20 points in under 20 minutes, and then he joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Robert Parish as the only 40-year-olds to post back-to-back 20-point games.
We absolutely have to stop supporting the Spurs' use of the term "Grandpa Juice" to describe Ginobili's heroics (it's gross), but perhaps we should first determine whether said juice can be used to heal others.
Kawhi Leonard is out with a "partial tear" in his shoulder, according to Gregg Popovich, as relayed to Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com. After missing the first 27 games of the season rehabbing his quad, Leonard finds himself right back on the bench with another injury.
San Antonio managed this week anyway, because it always does. But Davis Bertans isn't going to keep posting career-high 28-point nights like he did in Monday's win against the Kings. And Ginobili, much as it pains the soul to say it, probably can't keep this up forever.
The Spurs lose a spot following a 2-2 record against a soft schedule.
5. Houston Rockets
↑ 1 Spot
I keep waiting for the decisive win against a quality opponent to make the Rockets' continued presence outside the top five look silly, but maybe I'm overrating Chris Paul's ability to run an elite team. Or maybe I'm too anchored by that 14-game winning streak.
Or maybe I'm not giving enough credence to the obvious: The Rockets are banged up and have defended horribly for a month. Which means they're occupying space a notch below the league's elite because...they're a notch below the league's elite.
As presently constituted, of course.
Once James Harden and, to a lesser extent, Luc Mbah a Moute get back, Houston should be a top-three team. Just like it was before injuries knocked it down a peg.
Through these recent struggles, the Rockets are sticking to their guns. They made more threes than twos against Chicago on Monday, the third time that's happened this year.
Identity intact, effectiveness less so.
Houston went 2-1 this week.
4. Toronto Raptors
↓ 1 Spots
It's a shame it had to happen this way, but Kyle Lowry's bruised tailbone ends any controversy lingering from last week's decision to slot the Boston Celtics ahead of the Toronto Raptors.
Even before that brutal fall, Lowry had lost a step relative to his previous two seasons with the Raps. His scoring was down in both volume and efficiency, and his free-throw rate had never been lower. But Lowry remained a vital piece in Toronto's system, and without him, the Raptors lose a significant part of who they are.
As long as he's out, it'll be difficult to imagine slotting Toronto above the Celtics. But a much stronger recent stretch means it's still reasonable to say the Raps deserve a spot ahead of Cleveland—even without Lowry. Thursday's head-to-head destruction of the Cavs helped prove that.
Toronto is 16-4 since Dec. 1, while the Cavaliers are 11-8 in that same span.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves
↑ 4 Spots
This is ridiculous, right?
I mean...the Minnesota Timberwolves? Third?
This week, Minnesota fell in a close, low-scoring meeting with the Boston Celtics—a game in which Karl-Anthony Towns had 25 points and 23 boards. But after that, the Wolves whipped the Pelicans, pulverized the Cavaliers and crushed the Thunder. Those three wins came by an average of 21 points.
Jeff Teague's back after a seven-game absence, which bolsters the guard rotation, and Jimmy Butler has to be part of the MVP conversation.
"What he's doing every night, it's amazing" head coach Tom Thibodeau said of Butler, who averaged 22.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists on 51.2 percent shooting this week. "But it's also bringing the best out of everyone on the team, and to me that's the true mark of greatness."
As long as the health of Minnesota's key players holds up, this team is a threat to reach the conference finals.
2. Boston Celtics
↔ No Movement
Boston took down the Wolves last week, and Jayson Tatum was a late-game killer against the Nets, scoring the Celtics' final five points in a tight 87-85 victory.
Then, the Celts kept rolling internationally, extending their winning streak to seven against Philly in London. Down big in the early going, it would have been easy to chalk up an eventual loss to jet lag and general fatigue. This team has played more games than anyone else.
Despite good reason to feel tired, Boston came back to soundly thump the Sixers, riding a defense that is trending up. The Celtics are back atop the league in defensive rating after ranking just seventh in the month of December. During its seven-game run, only two Boston opponents cracked 100 points, the Nets on Dec. 31 and the Sixers on Thursday.
Boston has carved out a clear spot at No. 2 on the strength of its defensive resurgence.
1. Golden State Warriors
↔ No Movement
Stephen Curry scored 45 points in three quarters against the Clippers on Saturday, hitting eight of his 16 three-point attempts and continuing his best offensive stretch of the season. He followed that up with 32 points on 17 shots against Denver.
Then he rolled the same ankle that cost him 11 games during shootaround Wednesday and didn't play against the Clippers. Not a biggie, according to the Warriors, who aren't nearly as worried about this sprain as they were the one several weeks ago.
However, as The Athletic's Anthony Slater points out:
But there also isn't ZERO long-term concern. This is the same right ankle he just sprained, the same right ankle that had just healed, the same right ankle that went through two surgeries a couple years back, the same right ankle that needed those surgeries because of how often it tweaked and turned and sprained, sometimes on somewhat routine moves.
The Clippers loss on Wednesday, in which Klay Thompson also rested, shone a light on a Warriors weakness you wouldn't expect. They're a suspect outside-shooting team whenever Curry, Durant or Thompson can't play.
Nick Young's a chucker who has flirted with 40 percent from deep all year, but he takes a lot off the table defensively. Beyond him, there's nobody opponents worry about beyond the arc.
L.A. snapped the Warriors' five-game winning streak, and now a five-game road trip looms. If Curry's ankle injury is more serious than expected, or if the Dubs simply don't want to risk it, we could see another defeat or two next week.
For now, Golden State's massive edge in net rating and proven ability to thrive without Curry earn it another week at the top. But Boston could pull ahead if the Dubs drop another game.