NBA Power Rankings: LeBron James, Cavaliers' Free Fall Continues

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2018

NBA Power Rankings: LeBron James, Cavaliers' Free Fall Continues

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    If it felt like sacrilege when the Cleveland Cavaliers fell out of the top five in our power rankings a few weeks ago, what do we call this?

    LeBron James' team is struggling, and several other Eastern Conference squads (one of which LBJ used to play for) are on the come-up, possibly jeopardizing the Cavs' home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and sending them tumbling down the rankings.

    Elsewhere, the Oklahoma City Thunder are righting the ship (for now), and the New Orleans Pelicans are riding a red-hot Anthony Davis to their highest position of the season.

    As always, the goal is to organize all 30 teams into an order that reflects the league's current power structure. Recent play gets extra weight, but now that we're more than halfway into the season, we have to consider the last week alongside the larger sample. Is a rough three- or four-game stretch indicative of a team's true worth? Or is it a blip?

    We make those tough calls and several others in this edition of power rankings.

Rankings

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Your freshly updated top 30, with last week's ranking in parentheses.

    30. Sacramento Kings (30)

    29. Orlando Magic (29)

    28. Atlanta Hawks (28)

    27. Phoenix Suns (23)

    26. Los Angeles Lakers (27)

    25. Memphis Grizzlies (26)

    24. Brooklyn Nets (25)

    23. New York Knicks (24)

    22. Dallas Mavericks (22)

    21. Utah Jazz (19)

    20. Chicago Bulls (21)

    19. Charlotte Hornets (20)

    18. Detroit Pistons (13)

    17. Milwaukee Bucks (15)

    16. Denver Nuggets (16)

    15. Los Angeles Clippers (18)

    14. Portland Trail Blazers (10)

    13. New Orleans Pelicans (17)

    12. Cleveland Cavaliers (7)

    11. Philadelphia 76ers (12)

    10. Washington Wizards (9)

    9. Indiana Pacers (14)

    8. Oklahoma City Thunder (11)

    7. San Antonio Spurs (6)

    6. Miami Heat (8)

    5. Minnesota Timberwolves (3)

    4. Boston Celtics (2)

    3. Toronto Raptors (4)

    2. Houston Rockets (5)

    1. Golden State Warriors (1)

Noteworthy Rise: Indiana Pacers

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    The Pacers are 5-2 since Victor Oladipo returned from a four-game absence to alleviate knee soreness, and though they're getting contributions from several sources (Indiana has eight players averaging at least eight points per game), it's difficult to look past the straight-line relationship between Oladipo's availability and his team's success.

    In games he's played, the Pacers are 24-16. Without Oladipo, Indiana is 0-5. Shift the framing to in-game performance, and you'll see the Pacers' net rating resembles that of the Rockets with Oladipo. When he sits, they get outscored at a higher rate than everyone but the Kings.

    The extremity of his impact has only increased lately. During this recent 5-2 stretch, Indiana's net rating is 25.8 points per 100 possessions better with Oladipo playing.

    Indiana started its 3-1 week with a 22-point comeback against the Cavs at home and ended it by winning two out of three on the road. The sustainability of this team's shooting remains a concern. Indy checks in a hair behind the league-leading Warriors in three-point accuracy. But there's no doubting Oladipo's stardom. 

    After Indiana shocked the Cavs last Friday, Dwyane Wade echoed those thoughts to Clifton Brown of the Indianapolis Star

    "[Oladipo] has everything now. He’s shooting 3s going left, right, or catch-and-shoot. He gets to the basket. He’s getting fouled. He keeps you off balance with his speed, his quickness, and explosiveness, and he has a great handle. So for him, it’s easy for him to get his shot off. As a defender, you don’t know what he’s going to do."

    The Thunder re-entered the top 10 this week and have shown some encouraging signs, not the least of which being Andre Roberson's return from knee tendonitis. But beating the Hornets, Kings and Lakers can't move the needle to an extreme degree, and it's still concerning that OKC ranks 24th in half-court scoring efficiency.

    Finally, shout-out to the Sixers, who beat the Raptors and Celtics in a short two-game week.

Noteworthy Fall: Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    You don't get clemency for beating the Orlando Magic, which the Cavs did on Thursday by one point to halt a four-game skid during which they were dominated by 19.1 points per 100 possessions. For context, the league-worst Sacramento Kings get beaten by just over half of that margin on average. 

    Blowout losses to the Wolves and Raptors (sans Kyle Lowry) closed out last week's slate, and Cleveland kicked off this rankings session by blowing a 22-point lead to the Pacers, after which it fell by 10 to a Warriors team that cranked up its late-game defense to levels the Cavs could only dream about.

    Meanwhile, several high-profile Cavs players, speaking on the condition of anonymity, went to the media with the same concerns everyone outside the organization has been feeling for the last few weeks.

    Via ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin, those players "expressed doubt that the problems—an aging roster, defensively challenged personnel and a glut of redundant role players—could simply be worked out through patience and a chance to coalesce when fully healthy."

    Cleveland faces a stretch like this every year, and we've become experts at explaining why the present adverse circumstances are more dire than the ones from the season before. The defense has never been this bad, we argue. The supporting cast never so seemingly overmatched.

    Maybe the Cavaliers will snap out of this funk and make the Finals. Or maybe they won't. All we know for sure is that they're not playing like a top-10 team right now. Not even close.

    The Bucks and Pistons, 1-3 and 0-3 this past week, both took dives. And the Mavs, Kings, Suns and Jazz all struggled—though they were already far enough down in the rankings as to make meaningful slippage impossible.

Biggest Potential Riser: Detroit Pistons

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Pistons are next week's top potential riser for several reasons.

    First, they're in what looks a lot like free fall, having dropped games to the Bulls, Hornets and Raptors this past week. That makes them an excellent buy-low candidate. Because (taps temple with index finger knowingly) rising is a lot easier when you've just fallen down.

    What's more, Detroit heads home for all three contests next week, where its .684 winning percentage ranks fourth in the East. So far, they've beaten Houston (without Andre Drummond or Reggie Jackson), San Antonio (without Jackson or Avery Bradley), Indiana (twice), Miami, Milwaukee and Minnesota at home.

    During the Pistons' 0-3 stretch, opponents shot 42.7 percent from deep, a substantial uptick from the 36.9 percent conversion rate opponents produced prior to the losing streak. If that figure normalizes, Detroit's defense could improve. With Avery Bradley working through a stubborn groin injury and Luke Kennard available again, the Pistons are also getting a bit healthier.

    None of that will matter if the Pistons can't find a way to score. They're all the way down to 24th in offensive efficiency.

    Ultimately, this is a bet that Detroit's season isn't spiraling completely out of control. Another 0-3 week could be a blow to the Pistons' playoff hopes, so there should be some desperation at work, too. 

Biggest Potential Faller

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Among several options facing a fall (the Knicks, Suns and Pelicans were all strong contenders), it's the Clippers who earn this unwanted distinction.

    The Clips hit the road to face a Utah team that—despite an 18-26 record—still plays well at home, before they come back to L.A. to host the Wolves and Celtics. That's a brutal schedule featuring two of the NBA's best teams. More than that, there's just something about this six-game winning streak that feels flimsy.

    Maybe it's the fact that half the victories came against the Kings and Hawks. Maybe it's an unwillingness to believe the 31.3 points per game Lou Williams averaged during the six-game run will continue, or that his shooting splits (47.0 percent from the field, 43.5 percent from deep and 92.1 percent from the foul line over his last six games) are sustainable.

    DeAndre Jordan has never missed time because of injury before, so even if he makes it back from the longest absence of his career, he might be a bit hesitant. He'll be in uncharted territory.

    Some of the stats from this 6-0 spurt are difficult to trust. The Clippers posted a plus-37.0 net rating in the clutch, and opponents shot just 29.1 percent from three-point range while Los Angeles drilled 40.9 percent of its deep attempts. Just to frame those shooting figures, the Lakers are the worst three-point shooting team in the league this season, and they're at 33 percent. Golden State, at 38.9 percent from distance, is the most accurate with the long ball.

    During this run, the Clips have shot it from beyond the arc better than the Warriors, and their opponents have been worse than the Lakers.

    It's admirable that the Clippers have saved their season, remaining relevant despite so many foreseeable injuries plucking key figures from the rotation. But the narrative surrounding this club continues to focus on unquantifiable qualities such as grit, chemistry and resilience. Maybe it's the robot in me (or the cynic, or the skeptic, or the curmudgeon), but I'd feel a lot more comfortable buying L.A.'s recent run if it were grounded in something more statistically verifiable.

         

    Important Spurs Bulletin!

    Let the record reflect that at no point were the San Antonio Spurs a consideration here.

    Kawhi Leonard's indefinite absence impacts San Antonio's playoff ceiling and poses an existential threat to the organization's ongoing, uninterrupted excellence. Those are long-term issues.

    Fo now, we've seen enough to know the Spurs won't fold without Leonard. We've already watched them survive a hefty chunk of the season without their best player. We know LaMarcus Aldridge, culture, defense and rigid adherence to team-ball concepts keep San Antonio among the league's elite.

         

    Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Thursday, Jan. 18.

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