2015-16 NBA Power Rankings at the Quarter Mark of the Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 11, 2015

2015-16 NBA Power Rankings at the Quarter Mark of the Season

0 of 30

    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Though "Golden State Warriors Shame 29 Other NBA Teams Into Quitting" was a finalist for the title of this week's power rankings, it's probably best we went with the quarter-pole angle.

    That's right, we're already through 25 percent of the 2015-16 campaign, and a few solid certainties have emerged—some since the last edition.

    For starters, Stephen Curry's Dubs continue to stay solar-flare scorching, and everyone else is sweating and straining to absorb just a tiny bit of their reflected heat. Two competitors from the West come closest, but no eclipse appears imminent.

    In the East, the hierarchy is nowhere near as defined.

    The top seven squads are practically interchangeable, and stratifying them takes number-crunching, head-to-head comparisons and, yeah, I'll say it: some blind gut instincts.

    As always, rankings are based on overall performance with an eye toward recent trends.

30. Philadelphia 76ers

1 of 30

    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Last Week: 30

    The Sixers have been doing a lot of losing since 2013, and though it's been hard to watch, the clarity of purpose behind Sam Hinkie's tear-down-to-rebuild effort (this, statistically, empirically, is how we get better!) made the pain easier to bear.

    That soothing clarity may be gone now, ushered out and replaced by a more conventional, less cavalier approach.

    Philly hired veteran NBA executive Jerry Colangelo, 76, to serve as a special adviser and chairman of basketball operations. But if you wanted to be more direct about his title, he's Hinkie's overseer—the result of too little perceived progress and mounting discomfort among NBA owners about the Sixers' unabashed pursuit of losses.

    Colangelo signals a clear deviation from the original plan, and he arrives two years into a process 76ers ownership originally believed might take as many as seven.

    There's room for debate on just about everything the Sixers were doing, but from here the abrupt shift feels like a panicked, hasty move—one that interrupts a process that had, indisputably, brightened the future (albeit a long way down the road) and been defined by measured, farsighted patience.

    Most rebuilding teams take a lot longer than two years to show results. The Sixers, a club we thought was prepared to tackle franchise-building without taking shortcuts, seem to be looking for one now.

    It's disappointing, I guess, is what I'm saying. Why not give it a little longer? Why not stick to your guns and, yes, here it comes: trust the process?

    Anyway, Philadelphia stinks. But gosh darn it, it used to stink with conviction.

    Not anymore, it seems.

29. Los Angeles Lakers

2 of 30

    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Last Week29

    Praise has been scarce in this space, but the Los Angeles Lakers may finally have stumbled—too late and reluctantly—on something worth celebrating.

    Just a day after head coach Byron Scott yanked D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle from the starting lineup, the Lakers' most valuable future assets showed out in a 123-122 overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. And all it took was Kobe Bryant relinquishing his death grip on crunch-time minutes.

    Bryant didn't play after the 3:56 mark in the third quarter of that Dec. 9 loss to the Wolves, telling Scott to keep the young players, including Russell and Randle, on the court down the stretch. "Let them go," Bryant said, according to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times.

    Russell sent the contest to overtime with a game-tying runner, scoring 23 points in all. Randle put up 20 and 12 in 33 minutes. They were first and second on the team in field-goal attempts, which is pretty much how things should have been all season.

    This is a big deal, and it comes at a time when it seemed Scott had firmly committed to stunting the growth of key players who'll certainly outlast him with the franchise.

    The Lakers will continue to be bad, probably shuffling around the high 20s in the rankings all year. But at least they're getting their priorities in order.

28. New Orleans Pelicans

3 of 30

    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week24

    No team in the bottom five has a more impressive recent win than the New Orleans Pelicans' 114-108 overtime triumph against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Dec. 4. But really, if the Cavs just take a foul when they're up by three and the clock's winding down in the fourth quarter, Jrue Holiday's OT-forcing three never leaves his hand.

    Maybe that's a harsh way to discredit a win, but the bulk of the Pellies' work this year (and even recently) calls for that kind of scrutiny. Note, too, that New Orleans was blown out at home by the Boston Celtics three days after that big Cleveland win.

    Anthony Davis remains an unquestionable superstar, but some of the blame for New Orleans' league-worst defense has to fall on him. And perhaps it's an oversimplification, but the Pelicans have the third-fewest wins in the league. So ranking them third from the bottom is only fair.

    Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports report the Pellies have made contact with the Phoenix Suns about a potential Ryan Anderson-for-Markieff Morris exchange. Anderson is expiring, so there's some sense in the move, but bringing in the demoted and disgruntled Morris, who's still got pending felony aggravated assault charges, is a massive risk.

    The Pelicans are bad now, but introducing Morris could make them bad with a toxic locker room. Tread lightly, New Orleans. Tread lightly.

27. Denver Nuggets

4 of 30

    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week27

    Years from now, if it ever happens, Emmanuel Mudiay's rise to stardom will be some serious storybook stuff.

    Because he's having one of the worst seasons we've ever seen from a point guard, and it just keeps getting worse. A benching halfway through the fourth quarter of a ghastly 85-74 home loss to the Orlando Magic on Dec. 8 made it three straight games of pine confinement down the stretch for Mudiay, whose 31.3 percent accuracy rate from the field ranks as the third worst in league history among players taking at least 13 shots per game, per Basketball-Reference.com. (Just for fun, Bryant's is still lower.)

    In five games between Nov. 30 and Dec. 8, Mudiay logged more turnovers than assists three times.

    You get the idea; it's bad.

    But look: He's got no help at all, and he's often tasked with running a pick-and-roll offense that lacks the bigs necessary to draw defenders and the shooters required to create space. Plus, if you're playing anything close to significant minutes as a teenager, you're probably going to turn out fine.

    Seven players in NBA history have logged at least 29.9 minutes per game (Mudiay's current average) during their age-19 seasons: Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, Stephon Marbury, Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

    Nothing's guaranteed, but that's good company.

    Cling to that as the losses mount.

26. Brooklyn Nets

5 of 30

    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Last Week28

    If the Brooklyn Nets only ever had to play the Houston Rockets, they'd be right up there with the Warriors in the ranks of the undefeated. A Dec. 8 win over those up-and-down Rockets made it a 2-0 season sweep.

    After a 2-11 start, the Nets have quietly played better than .500 ball, with Thaddeus Young putting up career-best scoring and rebounding numbers to lead the way. There's even been some fun lineup weirdness, as Joe Johnson logged time at power forward in the aforementioned victory against Houston.

    Hey, whatever it takes to get Johnson going. The 34-year-old has looked pretty close to washed up this season, and maybe the matchup advantage (at least on offense) of attacking bigger bodies on the perimeter will rejuvenate him.

    He had 15 of his 22 points in a closing run against the Rockets, so maybe Lionel Hollins is onto something.

    Johnson wasn't perfect, though. It was his bobblehead night, and he didn't secure one for teammate Jarrett Jack.

    "He stiffed me for the joint, I can’t believe it,” Jack told Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game. "Don’t worry, I’ma get him though. I’ma go to his house, probably swipe one. I might have to apply some of my talents I had back in the day. The five-finger discounts!"

    The Nets are playing respectably lately—even without defensive gem Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (ankle surgery) and even with possession-eater Jack (mid-range jumper fanatic) running the show. That's pretty impressive.

    They climb higher than they have in weeks, and they deserve it.

25. Sacramento Kings

6 of 30

    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week23

    Say what you will about DeMarcus Cousins' past-the-point-of-parody antics and incessant on-court grousing (like, for example, that it can't help but infect his team and makes it impossible to take him seriously as a leader), but don't question his genuine desire to win.

    Cousins hasn't been happy with his play of late, openly blaming himself for the Kings' recent struggles. But he's been out there making an effort, fighting through a bad back and sore feet to offer high-volume production—even if it's coming at an efficiency rate lower than we've seen from him in three years.

    His player efficiency rating and true shooting percentage are both the worst they've been since the 2012-13 season, per Basketball-Reference.com.

    Omri Casspi has looked good since joining the first unit, and Rudy Gay has strung together a handful of productive nights, so there's hope for improvement ahead—especially if Cousins' body cooperates enough to let him run over opponents like he did last season.

    For the time being, a 3-11 mark against the West and some of the shoddiest defense in the league keep the Kings on the fringes of the bottom five.

24. Milwaukee Bucks

7 of 30

    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week26

    It's still too early to tag and bag the Milwaukee Bucks, but continued defensive failures and scrambling lineup changes have begun to change the conversation about last year's feel-good story.

    Instead of blissfully wondering how great the young Bucks might someday become, it's now more common to hear questions about whether this mix of players can work together at all.

    Like these, from Frank Madden of Brew Hoop:

    Can (Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo) really be at their best without venturing beyond the three-point line one in a blue moon? How can their skills be maximized and weaknesses mitigated in the context of the Bucks' schemes? Even if a return trip to the playoffs isn't in the cards, answers to those questions might prove just as valuable.

    There were plenty of people calling for a regression from last season's .500 mark, but I have to admit I wasn't one of them. Youth, talent, the addition of Monroe to juice up the offense, Parker's return from injury, Antetokounmpo's growth (which has continued, by the way; he's been a bright spot): So much pointed to progress.

    We've seen some positives of late. Milwaukee beat the New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers on Dec. 5 and 7, respectively, giving it back-to-back victories for the first time in a month. And the manner of victory was important, as the Bucks held both teams comfortably under 100 points (91 and 88) and got a big game-saving swat from John Henson to close out Portland.

    Perhaps some of the defensive identity is on the way back.

    It'll have to be. The Bucks get the Raptors, Clippers and Warriors twice in the next week.

23. Portland Trail Blazers

8 of 30

    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Last Week22

    We've talked enough about Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum being one of the league's most exciting backcourt duos. Those guys are still the best part about the Portland Trail Blazers, but a couple of other positives have emerged in this exciting rebuild.

    First, the reconstructed roster consists of young talent that, critically, seems to like each other.

    "I think the main thing is that everybody, they really care to be a part of the group," Lillard told Jason Quick of CSNNW.com. “Wins, losses, guys playing bad, guys being missed when they were open, guys not getting minutes they might want to see—everybody has managed to stick together. That lets me know that people really want to be a part of the group."

    That's critical for a team that has given away a handful of games late because of its youth. Finger-pointing would be easy and maybe even excusable. But these Blazers are tied together, and that bodes well for the future.

    Allen Crabbe's emergence as a bench asset is the second nice development this year. He's right on the edge of a 50-40-90 shooting split, and his wing defense has only gotten better in his third year.

    Portland knocked off the Pacers and Timberwolves since last week's edition, but then suffered close, turnover-fueled losses in its next two. That stretch is basically a microcosm of the Blazers season: enough talent to keep things interesting, but enough youth to make things painful.

    On balance, things are looking up in Portland. It's just going to take a while.

22. New York Knicks

9 of 30

    Elsa/Getty Images

    Last Week19

    After a Dec. 9 blowout loss to the Jazz, Knicks head coach Derek Fisher told Andrew Keh of the New York Times that his team needed to "make sure we're approaching this as though we're not that good yet."

    Humility like that should be easy considering how poorly the Knicks have played of late.

    A gratingly slow pace, a whole bunch of mid-range jumpers and not enough foul calls for Carmelo Anthony (to hear him tell it anyway) have conspired to drop the Knicks comfortably below the break-even mark. And if not for last week's wins over the Sixers and Nets, we might be talking about a 10-game losing streak for the Knicks.

    The high point of New York's recent slide was definitely Kristaps Porzingis hanging 28 on Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks on Dec. 7, and the rookie continues to impress with rapid development and flashes of genuinely intriguing skill. Though the pair didn't spend a whole lot of time guarding each other, there was some anxiety involved.

    Porzingis isn't the next Dirk, but plenty of people think he is, and the kid clearly wanted to perform well in his first meeting with one of his biggest idols. That he delivered says something about Porzingis' capacity to perform under pressure.

    Potential, considerable as it may be, only gets you so far, though. To avoid sinking in the power rankings, you've got to win a few games—preferably one or two against half-decent competition. The Knicks haven't done that, but at least the recent skid means Fisher should have no trouble keeping his guys humble.

21. Washington Wizards

10 of 30

    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Last Week21

    Small-ball lineups with Jared Dudley at center have been exciting, and the Washington Wizards' ongoing, complicated flirtation with a credible pace-and-space offense has been a source of troubling inconsistency. And yes, the defense continues to lag behind last year's pace—likely a result of undersized personnel and an emphasis on scoring.

    But rather than sift through all that stuff, why not just focus on the simplest source of optimism in Washington: John Wall has finally picked up his play.

    After starting the year with a shooting regression and uneven ball security, Wall has been fantastic.

    The turnovers are still an issue (Wall's giveaway rate is at a career-worst level), but he's finishing at an elite clip inside, pushing his three-point percentage back toward respectable territory and posting his best-ever PER.

    As Wall goes, so go the Wizards. With his improved play in December, Washington might finally break loose from its disheartening "win one, lose one" pattern. It hasn't yet, of course, so the bottom 10 is where it stays for now.

20. Houston Rockets

11 of 30

    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week25

    Believe it or not, the presumed dead Rockets have won four of their last five. And though they've fattened up on some cream puffs (New Orleans, the struggling Mavs and Sacramento), every win matters when you're clawing back toward playoff position.

    Some bold rotation changes, like slotting Clint Capela into the first unit alongside Dwight Howard, have produced better results. And with Donatas Motiejunas finally getting back on the floor after missing more than a month with injury, the Rockets' frontcourt depth is only improving.

    James Harden has worked himself into shape after a terrible start, and one of the keys to his recent return to form has been diminishing ball-handling duties. Don't worry—he still gets loads of touches. But interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff is letting others, like Patrick Beverley, do a little dribbling too.

    Talent is obviously not an issue for the Rockets. Never has been.

    Unlike the first few weeks of the season, that talent seems to be a bit better organized and, it can't go unmentioned, interested in actually trying hard.

    The schedule stays soft over the next four games, so expect to see Houston return next week with a record above .500 and a ranking near the middle of the pack. The second quarter of the season may be Houston's time to climb.

19. Phoenix Suns

12 of 30

    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Last Week20

    The Suns began the week with close losses (because they don't know how to lose any other way) to the Wizards and Memphis Grizzlies, with the latter defeat coming on a last-second lob play to Jeff Green.

    Phoenix rebounded the day after that tough Memphis loss, though, beating the Chicago Bulls by two the very next day and then adding a three-point win over the Orlando Magic on Dec. 9. Those are quality wins against legitimate teams from the improved East, and Alex Len's career night against the Magic (20 points and 14 rebounds) bodes well for the future.

    As does rookie Devin Booker's clearly NBA-ready game. He had 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting against Chicago and is hitting threes at an absurd 71.4 percent clip this year (on 21 attempts). Where's the petition to get him more playing time, because I'd like to sign it.

    "When you know how to play and you can shoot the ball, you figure things out," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek told Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic. "When you’re a smart player, you learn quickly. That’s what I think you see from Book."

    The Suns have missed plenty of opportunities in their rash of close losses this year, but they've also been a little unlucky. There's a good chance more upward movement in the rankings lies ahead.

18. Detroit Pistons

13 of 30

    Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week18

    It feels very on-brand that the Detroit Pistons can't score at all but boast one of the league's top 10 defenses.

    That's just how I like my Pistons: conforming to the late-'80s blue-collar archetype while also paying homage to the shutdown championship edition that made the conference finals six (six!) times in a row from 2003-08.

    Obviously these Pistons aren't those Pistons, but the idea of Andre Drummond anchoring a slow-it-down, defense-first outfit feels...comfortable.

    To move out of this middle tier, it'll take more than defense, though. Detroit has to find a way to get perimeter production from its wings, preferably without running Kentavious Caldwell-Pope into the ground. He's currently third in the league in total minutes.

    And Detroit had also better find some bodies on the bench who can do, well...anything.

    The Pistons have a strength in their defense, and they leaned on it to beat the Bucks and Lakers last week. But they couldn't score enough to avoid two straight losses to the Hornets and Grizzlies. If more balance isn't forthcoming, neither is a playoff berth.

17. Minnesota Timberwolves

14 of 30

    Last Week17

    My gut says the Minnesota Timberwolves are probably better than three or four of the teams ranked ahead of them. But a sloppy recent stretch, cratering defense and the consistently maddening lineup decisions of Sam Mitchell aren't providing much tangible support for that feeling.

    Tayshaun Prince continues to log surprisingly large stretches of playing time, and we've seen far too much of Gorgui Dieng (decent as he is) ahead of wunderkind Karl-Anthony Towns. Toss in the failed experiment of "Zach LaVine: point guard," and you've got some real sources of angst among Wolves fans.

    Still, Minnesota has played most opponents close in recent games; every contest since Nov. 27 has been a single-digit affair. So at least this young roster is getting reps in pressurized situations.

    Oh, and one of the old guys provided the highlight of the year. That's depicted above.

    The Timberwolves' 1-3 start to December marks them as more of a work in progress than a sneaky postseason threat, but that's what they were supposed to be this year anyway.

16. Memphis Grizzlies

15 of 30

    Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week14

    For a pretty good team, the Memphis Grizzlies sure do get blown out a lot.

    Case in point: a 125-88 dismantling at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder—one that came only five days after a 103-83 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Both were at home, and both may serve as good explanations for where Memphis is right now.

    Chris Herrington of the Commercial Appeal summed it up in a tweet: "This is a transition year for Griz from 'grit/grind' to whatever's next. And the path is not clear."

    The Grizzlies are older, bigger, slower and less committed to the three-point shot than any other team you'd reasonably call a contender. Because of those shortcomings, Memphis sometimes can't even compete. Other times, though, precisely because of their age, size and pace, the Grizzlies dictate terms and notch wins.

    Note: It also helps when Matt Barnes hits half-court buzzer-beaters.

    A 13-10 record through their first 23 games probably overstates the Grizzlies' quality, but years of accrued success and gut-it-out wins might just mean they know how to bounce back from big defeats. Until the transition from this phase to whatever's next is complete, expect Memphis to keep up its "fall down, get back up" trend.

15. Chicago Bulls

16 of 30

    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Last Week13

    The Bulls are 1-3 since we ranked them 13th in the last edition of power rankings, though all three losses have been close.

    This rough stretch illustrates why win-loss records (the Bulls were 11-5 a week ago) don't always provide the predictive value you can get from things like net rating and simple rating, both of which have long marked this year's Bulls as mediocre.

    Chicago's rotation is in flux, with Taj Gibson recently joining the first unit in place of Nikola Mirotic. And Derrick Rose continues to score at a bafflingly inefficient rate.

    Outside of Jimmy Butler and maybe Doug McDermott in short flashes, it's difficult to say anyone on the Bulls has been impressive so far this season. And if you view Chicago's first-quarter performance this season like the first 12 minutes of a single game, it's as though it knocked down a couple of lucky/timely shots to build a lead in the first six minutes but then gradually gave it back because of clear talent and strategic deficiencies.

    Maybe the Bulls will find a functional offensive scheme, and maybe Fred Hoiberg will land on an eight-man rotation that produces consistently. But it feels equally likely those things won't happen.

    This is a decent team, not necessarily a good one. Most of the numbers have shown that this year, even if the record still doesn't.

14. Orlando Magic

17 of 30

    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week15

    A big leap last week gives way to relative stasis this time around, as the Orlando Magic have leveled off following a five-game winning streak.

    Nail-biting losses to the Clippers and Suns show Orlando has plenty of room to grow, but the most encouraging thing is that there's been so much progress already. Tobias Harris has made small gains as a rebounder and passer, and if not for a recent cold streak, he'd be right in line with the long-range shooting improvement he achieved last season.

    We talked last time about Andrew Nicholson's resurgence and Victor Oladipo's nice fit as a second-unit leader, and it's worth noting that Elfrid Payton has quietly upped his three-point shooting to levels that are almost respectable.

    The Magic are already halfway to their full-season win total of a year ago, and you could make the case that every single significant piece on the roster is going to get better. That's why they stick around the middle of the pack despite a ho-hum week.

13. Dallas Mavericks

18 of 30

    Elsa/Getty Images

    Last Week16

    Just 4-6 after a 9-4 start, the Dallas Mavericks haven't exactly blown the doors off the league lately. But they tallied road wins over Washington and New York last week, so that's something. And those two losses that caused a break-even week (to Houston and Atlanta) came by a combined seven points.

    The Mavs have gotten a career year (so far) from 31-year-old Zaza Pachulia, whose rebound rate of 18.9 percent ranks 10th in the league, per Basketball-Reference.com. Always a dirty-work guy who contributed to wins on the margins, Pachulia has become a critical piece of Dallas' success.

    I guess we credit Rick Carlisle for that, right? Isn't that the default (and justifiable) response whenever the Mavs extract maximum production from players nobody else wants?

    Scribble Deron Williams, Dwight Powell and even Raymond Felton onto that list, too. All have chipped in this season in ways that have dramatically exceeded expectations.

    And though we can't as easily give Carlisle the nod for Wesley Matthews' trend-bucking post-Achlles-tear production (he hit 10 threes in the win over Washington), it'd be hard to find another coach with the guts to shove Matthews out there for 37 minutes per game over his last five like Carlisle did.

    The Mavs aren't contenders, but they're a heck of a lot better than anybody expected. We'll see if that assessment survives into the season's second quarter.

12. Utah Jazz

19 of 30

    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    Last Week12

    Utah's having a hard time moving up, which is a shame because Gordon Hayward recently shook off a poor start to equal (and in some cases) exceed the productivity of his breakout 2014-15 season.

    "Hayward was the driving force behind a blowout win over the Knicks (Dec. 9), outscoring New York by himself in the first quarter," explained Ben Dowsett of Salt City Hoops. "It took the Knicks until 8:49 in the second period to put more points on the board than Gordon, despite the fact that he wasn’t even in the game for that entire time."

    Through his first four December contests, Hayward connected on 53.8 percent of his triples while posting averages of 22.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists, per Basketball-Reference.com. That statistical spike is all the more important because the Jazz are still without defensive anchor Rudy Gobert, whose sprained MCL continues to keep him sidelined.

    An overtime win against the struggling Pacers might have been the most exciting game of the past few weeks, and the Jazz have been generally competitive. They'll be a serious threat once Gobert's back, but they're not really moving the needle right now—Hayward notwithstanding.

11. Atlanta Hawks

20 of 30

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week10

    So begins the ridiculous, complicated, hopelessly entangled section of the power rankings that seeks to sift through the top-tier mess in the Eastern Conference.

    Go ahead and reorder the next seven teams however you like. No matter what you do, you'll find yourself questioning the result.

    That's how tight things are in the East standings, with just a couple of games separating the top seed and the No. 7 squad.

    The Atlanta Hawks perch here at No. 11, and the six East teams ahead of them have higher per-possession differentials through games played Dec. 10. But the margin is so slim that one or two solid wins could vault the Hawks all the way up to No. 4 in the power rankings.

    Paul Millsap continues to get better, and Kent Bazemore has provided excellent two-way minutes at shooting guard—minutes good enough to offset the disappointing lack of progress by Dennis Schroder, who simply can't finish inside and doesn't scare teams from deep.

    Ranking 11th might feel like a slight toward Atlanta, but the clubs ahead of them are at least as deserving of single-digit status.

10. Los Angeles Clippers

21 of 30

    Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week11

    As trade rumors about Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson swirl, as conspicuous on-court infighting persists, as the rebuilt supporting cast continues to underwhelm, the Los Angeles Clippers have hit something that looks like a stride.

    Three straight wins marked by the returns of Chris Paul and J.J. Redick and Blake Griffin's sudden focus on rebounding have L.A. looking sturdier than it has in weeks.

    That is, until the Clips fell flat in an embarrassing 83-80 loss to the Bulls on Dec. 10.

    The Clippers will be tested as they continue their road trip through the East, and they'll have to hope the weird unity they found doesn't get derailed by that ugly defeat.

    "I’ve been on some bad teams, but this is a team that’s a veteran group," Smith told Dan Woike of the Orange County Register. "We know what we’re capable and we have one common goal, and that’s to win a championship. If you have that vision and focus on that task, anything that happens during the game doesn’t faze you."

    If the Clips push past all the nonsense and stick together like Smith thinks they can, there might be a top-five spot waiting for them here.

9. Indiana Pacers

22 of 30

    Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

    Last Week6

    Though the overall results have been undeniably good, the Indiana Pacers' offseason identity shift was never going to be perfect.

    By turning toward smaller lineups and a faster pace, it was only natural that the Pacers would sacrifices size and defensive integrity. But for most of the season's first quarter, Indy managed to play fast and score while sustaining a darn good defense.

    Lately, though, that stopping power has diminished, as evidenced by huge point totals surrendered to the Blazers, Jazz and Warriors (more on that one in a bit). There were basic breakdowns against Portland and Golden State, and surrendering 122 points to the Jazz's sputtering attack, even in overtime, is a red flag.

    We should have seen some of this coming, and maybe the Pacers should have, too.

    Now, after a strong start, the real work begins.

    Behind Paul George (November's player of the month in the East) and C.J. Miles, Indy has enough star power and shooting to sustain its offensive gains. Whether it can find a way to capably defend at the same time will determine if a top-10 spot is fair for much longer.

8. Miami Heat

23 of 30

    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week5

    The Miami Heat boast a terrific defense that limits both the number and quality of three-point looks better than almost any in the league, not to mention a terrifyingly effective pick-and-roll attack involving Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside.

    And it's a good thing they've got those reliable staples because the Heat are running up against increasingly smart game plans that exploit their lack of three-point shooting. Rookie Justise Winslow has been targeted with special cruelty of late, per Ethan Skolnick of the Miami Herald, who tweeted: "No one is guarding Winslow on perimeter. Teams adjust. They've scouted Miami. This is clogging lane with an extra defender."

    Some of the team's recent offensive stagnation stems from that issue, though Wade has been vocal about too much freelancing and too little ball movement as well.

    There are enough veterans and sufficient talent to keep the Heat among the league's elite. But back-to-back double-digit losses against Washington and Charlotte necessitate some slippage.

7. Toronto Raptors

24 of 30

    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week7

    Breaking the deadlock between the Raptors and the team ahead of them was tough, especially with Toronto knocking off the Spurs on Dec. 9 and pushing the Warriors to the brink (again) on Dec. 5.

    Kyle Lowry has been the best guard in the conference, and he's been carrying his Raptors without Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll, who've both been out with injuries.

    Toronto's style isn't an aesthete's ideal, as it mucks things up on defense while Lowry runs into people and DeMar DeRozan pump fakes five times per touch on the other end. But the results have been good, and they should get better as soon as the Raps have their full rotation healthy again.

6. Boston Celtics

25 of 30

    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week8

    Boston inches ahead of the Raptors for a couple of reasons: a marginally superior net rating (plus-4.8 to plus-3.5 through Dec. 10, per NBA.com) and the hit-you-from-all-angles attack that makes it uniquely dangerous.

    The Celtics had eight players score in double figures during a 105-100 win over the Bulls on Dec. 9, and that's exactly the kind of balance that frustrates opponents hoping to fixate on a primary threat.

    "That's the strength of our team," Isaiah Thomas told Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe after knocking off the Bulls. "You can't just focus on one guy."

    And actually, we've done the C's a disservice here. Not even mentioning their terrific, top-five defense until paragraph No. 4 is unfair. More than any other single factor, Boston's success stems from great schemes on that end implemented by Brad Stevens and carried out by a deep cast of rotation players who know their minutes depend on defensive intensity.

    Whether the Celtics have the star power to make playoff noise is up for debate. Their status as a darn good regular-season team is beyond doubt.

5. Charlotte Hornets

26 of 30

    Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week9

    Yep, the Hornets are fifth.

    Deal with it.

    Three straight wins over Chicago, Detroit and Miami made it possible, but eight out of 10 between Nov. 18 and Dec. 9 made it easy—especially with the only two losses in that span coming against the Cavaliers and Warriors.

    Charlotte is a top-10 team on both ends, and its transformation into three-point-shooting, ball-moving offensive fluidity is probably the most striking change in the league. This seems like a good time to mention that Nicolas Batum has had a lot to do with the metamorphosis. If Comeback Player of the Year was still an award that existed, he'd be a front-runner.

    Remember, this was a scoring-challenged outfit that relied on Al Jefferson's old-school post game just last year. With him out, and without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist gumming up the spacing, the Hornets have found a new identity. And somehow, they're still playing terrific defense.

    This is the surprise team of the year, and they'll hang around among the elites as long as they keep playing both ends like they have for the last few weeks.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

27 of 30

    David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week3

    Clearly, reputation is still a factor in these power rankings.

    And maybe that's not fair, because Cleveland, loser of three of its last four, simply hasn't played as well as some of the teams ranked below it. LeBron James keeps logging obscene minutes, players who shouldn't be in NBA rotations—Jared Cunningham and Richard Jefferson, that means you—are seeing significant stretch-run minutes, and Timofey Mozgov has been a major disappointment coming off knee surgery.

    Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert, getting close, can't get back soon enough.

    For all the problems and ugly lineups and recent losses, though, ask yourself this: If your life depended on a game played tomorrow between Cleveland and any of the teams below it, are you comfortable picking against LeBron?

    The Cavs are treading water, still leading the East in the standings and hoping to get healthy bodies back on the floor for when it matters. But they're still profoundly dangerous.

    That said, another week like the one they just turned in, and the Cavaliers will take a tumble.

    Reputation only goes so far.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

28 of 30

    Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week4

    The Thunder straight up hung one on the Grizzlies on Dec. 8, which isn't all that strange given the established fact that Memphis tends to get boat raced every once in a while.

    But the manner of OKC's 37-point demolition was key.

    The Thunder went small, spaced the floor with Kevin Durant at power forward and absolutely incinerated Memphis' vaunted defense, per Royce Young of DailyThunder.com:

    It was simple pace and space offense, with Westbrook running high screen-and-roll with Ibaka, and shooters lining the floor across the perimeter. Collapse on Ibaka’s roll, Westbrook dished to an open Durant. Stay wide, and Westbrook dropped to Ibaka for a dunk. Memphis had no answer and it led to eight consecutive made baskets at one point, and the Thunder finished the half making nine of their last 11.

    It was only a few minutes in the first half of a game in December, but, man, it made you appreciate the Thunder's ceiling. It was Warriors-esque—an unstoppable barrage of basic plays turned deadly by the right personnel, which is kind of how OKC's offense has always been described.

    Only this was different. It felt like the Thunder, just for a second, let the ace slip out of their sleeve.

    Let's agree to monitor this, as more small-ball from OKC will make the two-team race at the top a three-team affair in a hurry.

2. San Antonio Spurs

29 of 30

    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week2

    Crazy as it sounds, you can make the case that the Spurs are having a better season than the Warriors.

    Wait, sorry, last year's Warriors—which, you've got to admit, is still pretty amazing.

    The 2014-15 Dubs won 67 games and posted an average margin of victory, plus-10.1 points per game, that ranked eighth highest in NBA history, per Basketball-Reference.com. This season, the Spurs are on pace to win 64 games with an average margin of 11.22.

    The Spurs know they're not competing against last year's Warriors and that this year's version is better anyway—way better, in fact. The 2015-16 Dubs are currently winning games by a larger average margin than any team in history.

    Quietly, and thanks mainly to a flat-out elite defense, the Spurs have been closing the gap on this year's Warriors. From Dec. 1-10, San Antonio's net rating of plus-21.2 has been markedly better than Golden State's plus-14.1, per NBA.com.

    We're watching two of the best seasons ever (to this point), one from the Spurs and one from the Warriors. For good reason, we're talking more about the latter than the former.

    But let's just keep in mind how the Spurs have gradually separated themselves from the rest of the non-GSW contenders. They're in a second tier all by themselves, and the amazing thing may be that they're as close to the Warriors above them than they are to anyone below.

1. Golden State Warriors

30 of 30

    Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

    Last Week1

    A 23-game winning streak to start the season makes it tough to come up with fresh angles on this team.

    Everyone's hit Stephen Curry's historic production and efficiency, Draymond Green's total uniqueness and the Warriors' legitimate status as an all-time great team. There's just not a lot else to say from afar, so for fresh insight we turn to C.J. Miles, whose boots were on the ground against Golden State on Dec. 8, who peered boldly into the mouth of the monster and was swallowed whole.

    "You have to play a damn near perfect game," Miles told Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star after a 131-123 defeat that was nowhere near that close. "Did I feel like we made mistakes? Yes. Are they good? Yes. You can't put both of those in the same pie and hope it taste good. It's not going to taste good. It's going to be nasty."

    The Warriors are a nasty pie. I bet nobody ever described the '96 Bulls that way.

    Of course they're No. 1 again.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Current through games played Dec. 10.

    Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.