2015-16 NBA Power Rankings: Top Tier Separating Itself from the Rest of the Pack

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 18, 2015

2015-16 NBA Power Rankings: Top Tier Separating Itself from the Rest of the Pack

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Big things have happened since last week's edition of the NBA Power Rankings.

    The Golden State Warriors finally succumbed to the rigors of the road and the pressure of perfection, dropping their first game of the season to the Milwaukee Bucks. Meanwhile, those silent San Antonio Spurs continued stifling the opposition with suffocating defense and an offense that, terrifyingly, is now also rounding into shape.

    The race for the top spot has never been tighter.

    Beneath the juggernauts, there's still a smaller class of title hopefuls and a roiling sea of playoff contenders, nearly a dozen of which seem to reside in the Eastern Conference. Sorting that mess out is going to be a challenge all year.

    As always, rankings take into account overall season performance with an eye toward recent trends. Stats like net rating and simple rating still matter a little more than basic records, though wins and losses (especially strung together in streaks) carry plenty of weight.

    We're past the quarter pole of the 2015-16 NBA season, and things are still as fluid as ever.

    You. Me. Rank. Now.

30. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Last Week:  30

    Working on the Philadelphia 76ers beat is either the easiest or hardest gig in sports.

    You have to contend with the mind-numbing and incessant losses, all while striving to come up with new ways to describe the deliberate failure in front of you—a real challenge and probably unhealthy for the psyche.

    But you can also just pin a tweet describing any Sixers game to the top of your feed and never worry about it going stale, like this one from Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Man, this game has turned into a comedy of errors for the overmatched Sixers."

    That analysis sprang from Philly's 127-106 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 16, and to his credit, Pompey is much more thorough and varied in his comments. But the point is: He doesn't have to be.

    The Sixers are just that bad—that tragically, predictably, hilariously bad—all the time.

    No wins and an average losing margin of over 20 points per game since last week's rankings mean Philadelphia stays right where it's been all year.

29. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last Week: 29

    It's a minor miracle that D'Angelo Russell has played as well as he has under the circumstances.

    Just think about the obstacles to success he's faced so far: He's a rookie; he plays with trigger-happy, not-so-nurturing Kobe Bryant; his team doesn't run anything that resembles an offense; his coach, Byron Scott, questions his manhood about as often as he draws up plays; and the talent around him could be charitably described as substandard.

    Yet Russell has fought through it all, leaning on innate passing instincts and a clever change-of-pace style to put up some solid numbers lately.

    In five games between Dec. 7 and Dec. 15, Russell averaged 17.4 points, 4.4 assists and 2.8 rebounds while hitting a just-fine 35.1 percent of his triples.

    Those stats aren't stunners on their own, but when you remember Russell, who won't even turn 20 until the end of February, is compiling them with what amounts to both hands tied behind his back, they're darn impressive. Imagine what this guy could do with supportive veterans, a competent coach and a decent cast around him.

    The Los Angeles Lakers have been a mess of a team this year, but on an individual level, Russell has held it together.

28. Brooklyn Nets

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Last Week: 26

    After a couple of wins led to a move out of the bottom three last week, the Brooklyn Nets dropped home games to the Los Angeles Clippers, Orlando Magic and Miami Heat. Those are all quality opponents, so the results are hardly a shock. The real problems are the organizational cracks that showed in the process.

    Take, for example, a curious late-game sequence in the six-point loss to the Heat on Dec. 16, in which conflicting stories pointed to either (a) head coach Lionel Hollins checking out or (b) the players tuning him out.

    Per Andy Vasquez of the (Bergen County) Record: "Lionel Hollins said he wanted to foul with Nets down five in the final 35 seconds. Every player asked said they didn't know that."

    Hmm...

    It was a messy scene, with players looking as though they knew they should have been hacking but were unwilling to do so without permission. Jarrett Jack flung his arms up in confusion, and Bojan Bogdanovic looked repeatedly toward Hollins on the bench (perhaps for instructions) as the final seconds ticked down.

    Compounding a lack of talent with botched late-game execution and bizarre miscommunication is exactly how you make a return to the bottom three spots in the power rankings, if you were curious.

27. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Last Week: 28

    You don't get off to the most disappointing start in the league because of any one player. Everybody shares the blame and (for the purposes of this example) the ugly numbers.

    But do you know who's been the least damaging on-court participant for the New Orleans Pelicans this year?

    It's Jrue Holiday, who's posted an individual net rating of minus-1.7 points per 100 possessions in the 430 minutes he played over his first 19 games of the year, per NBA.com. That's better than Ryan Anderson, better than Eric Gordon, better than anybody on the roster.

    And that's relevant because New Orleans is close to letting the minutes-restricted point guard (thanks a lot, stress reactions) off the leash.

    "We've got two more weeks to go and everything's lifted," head coach Alvin Gentry told the press after Holiday scored 15 points in 24 minutes to help the Pellies mount a fourth-quarter comeback against the Utah Jazz on Dec. 16. "For Jrue, it'll be a little bit easier for him because in certain situations where he gets going, we have to then turn and take him out because we have preserved some of the minutes. When all of that is lifted, the consistency in his game will be better also."

    A bigger role for Holiday should help reorganize the Pelicans' depth chart in a sensible way. Tyreke Evans won't see as many minutes as the primary distributor, which will markedly improve ball movement, and Ish Smith can settle in as the reserve spark plug.

    Nobody is ready to proclaim the Pelicans' struggles finished, but more Holiday sure won't hurt.

26. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Last Week: 24

    It's probably harsh to penalize the first team to beat the Golden State Warriors this year, but we can't in good conscience move the Milwaukee Bucks up the rankings after they dropped a 113-95 contest to the Los Angeles Lakers the next night out.

    Considering the Warriors were playing the last game of the longest road trip in franchise history and working the second night of a back-to-back, we have to take the Bucks' big win with a grain of salt.

    With a road-heavy slate featuring just one pushover win (hi, Sixers!) to close out the calendar year, Milwaukee's comedown from the high of beating Golden State could be a painful one—especially with Greg Monroe's effectiveness in question as he works back from a sprained MCL.

25. Denver Nuggets

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Last Week: 27

    You can't tie all of the Denver Nuggets' season-best stretch to rookie Emmanuel Mudiay's being sidelined with an ankle injury. He logged more than 30 minutes in wins over the Toronto Raptors and Sixers on Dec. 3 and 5 (though he shot a combined 6-of-21 scored a total of 15 points).

    But after the Nugs reeled off three straight victories from Dec. 11-15 in which Mudiay played a grand total of 12 minutes, it gets easier to link at least some of their success to the point guard's absence.

    Mudiay remains the franchise's most promising asset, but the steadier Jameer Nelson has run the offense more effectively. In fact, Denver has even had success going without a conventional point guard for some intriguing stretches, using Gary Harris and Randy Foye in tandem.

    With a soft schedule through Christmas, the Nuggets could actually push toward .500—unless Mudiay heals quickly enough to rejoin the first unit.

    Unrelated note: Will Barton is having his best season, both statistically and in the highlight department. He also threw Trevor Ariza's shoe, incurring a technical. It's his year, man.

24. Sacramento Kings

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    Last Week: 25

    Rajon Rondo issued a terrible first apology and a better second one for using anti-gay slurs against referee Bill Kennedy, DeMarcus Cousins' manager was ejected from a game for mixing it up with Jason Terry, and the Sacramento Kings promised Caron Butler a trade so he could get more playing time.

    And that's to say nothing of the Cousins trade-rumor hubbub that swelled up (and then pretty quickly died) last week.

    So, all in all, a relatively functional week for the Kings, who managed to win three straight over the Utah Jazz, New York Knicks and Houston Rockets amid the tumult.

    Five of Sacramento's final seven games in December are on the road, so we'll see if the success-through-chaos model holds up away from home. If it does, maybe we see the Kings push back toward the teens in these rankings for the first time in weeks.

23. Washington Wizards

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    Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 21

    Imagining the Washington Wizards in the playoffs has gotten hard lately, which is disappointing for a team that reached the second round in each of the past two postseasons.

    Injuries have been an issue, with Bradley Beal's recurring right fibula stress reaction cropping up as the most worrisome malady last week.

    But these Wizards have bigger, more systemic worries than that, according to Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post: "The disconcerting sentiment coming from the Wizards’ locker room after Wednesday’s loss was the unanimous agreement from coach Randy Wittman and his players that, injury issues aside, this team has problems with commitment, energy and effort."

    Both John Wall and Marcin Gortat reinforced that sentiment after an ugly 114-95 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 16, and it's difficult to hear talk of failed effort and commitment without noticing the similarities to the situation in Houston that got Kevin McHale fired.

    If the Wizards can't close out December with a few games that feature, you know, them actually trying, this situation could devolve quickly.

    As it is, Washington isn't a part of the 11-team jumble that is vying for playoff spots in the East.

22. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last Week: 17

    It hurts to do this because the Minnesota Timberwolves have so many likable elements, but a precipitous drop in the rankings is just unavoidable at this point. If not for a one-point overtime win against the Lakers on Dec. 9, the Wolves would be in the midst of a nine-game losing streak spanning nearly three full weeks.

    So plummet the Wolves must.

    Atrocious defense and a dearth of long-range shooting have made Minnesota too easy to beat lately. And with the personnel on hand, it's difficult to see how this season, which is rapidly falling apart, can hold together.

    Ricky Rubio's effort has been admirable (he flirted with a quadruple-double on Dec. 16), Karl-Anthony Towns has done his best to fight through the rookie wall, and Andrew Wiggins has flashed a nearly unstoppable post game. So there's no shortage of positive signs.

    Unfortunately, it's starting to look like signs are all the Wolves will get this season. The real leap, if it's coming, will have to wait until next year.

21. Houston Rockets

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Last Week: 20

    Though he's since denied reports of his unhappiness in Houston, Dwight Howard's history of thinly veiled discontent and his four-point effort against the Kings on Dec. 15 suggest all is not actually well.

    And if the struggling, lucky-to-be-near-.500 Rockets (they haven't played anybody all month) wind up appeasing the cranky Howard with a trade, they'll almost certainly be better for it.

    At 30, Howard is posting his worst season ever, and 21-year-old Clint Capela has been a bigger positive influence on Houston's success. His on-court net rating through 494 minutes of play this year was plus-1.8, per NBA.com; Howard's, through 648 minutes, was plus-0.1.

    As ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton uncovered, Capela's per-minute production at his age puts him in rare historical company:

    Capela's individual stats also suggest a bright future for the second-year player. He's averaging 14.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes. According to Basketball Reference, just five players have topped 14 points, 12 boards and two blocks per 36 in their age-21 season: Andrew Bynum, Darryl Dawkins, Andre DrummondMoses Malone and Shaquille O'Neal.

    Toss in the fact that Howard could opt out of his contract and leave for nothing this summer, and the Rockets have every reason to explore a move now.

    Houston canned its coach in hopes of changing the tone of a dissonant season, but little has changed. Maybe a roster shake-up is what it'll take to salvage things.

20. New York Knicks

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    Last Week: 22

    It was just one sequence, but it may have offered more hope for the New York Knicks' season than anything we've seen all year.

    A few minutes into the second quarter of its 107-102 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Dec. 16, New York uncorked five passes in five seconds, culminating with a Jose Calderon three from the top of the arc. No fewer than four players passed up decent looks, and one of them was Carmelo Anthony, who kicked off the whole thing with a sharp feed out of the post.

    Obviously, Kristaps Porzingis' continued growth into a two-way star (he swatted seven shots against Minnesota) and Anthony's comfort alongside him at the 4 will determine how effective this version of the Knicks can be going forward. But if the ball starts hopping like it did in that stretch against the Wolves, everything will get easier.

    The Knicks have been a bottom-10 offense for most of the season, but unselfish play helped them recover from an 0-4 stretch and could be the key to making noise the rest of the way.

19. Phoenix Suns

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    Last Week: 19

    There wasn't a whole lot the Phoenix Suns could do when Klay Thompson went nuclear, scoring 27 points in the third quarter of a 128-103 Warriors win on Dec. 16.

    But in order to avoid more rankings slippage in the future, the Suns had better keep everyone else from lighting them up.

    Including that loss to the Warriors, the Suns have allowed the fourth-most three-point makes per game in the league this year. And as you may have heard, the NBA's affinity for the triple is only increasing. So it'd probably be a good idea to shift a little extra defensive focus to that particular facet of opposing offenses.

    Phoenix is a decent rebounding team with the size to protect the interior, so the onus is on players like Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight to force opposing shooters off the line and into the space occupied by either Tyson Chandler or Alex Len.

    There aren't many shooters like Thompson out there, so eruptions like the one we saw Dec. 16 won't be commonplace. But the Suns have to limit the more mortal marksmen they face if they want to field a respectable defense—and avoid losing three out of four games, which they did over the past week.

18. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Last Week: 23

    The Portland Trail Blazers are better than we thought they'd be, which, to them, doesn't mean much.

    "You're looking at five to seven games, where...man..." Meyers Leonard told Joe Freeman of the Oregonian. "Even though we're young and we don't have that much experience, you look at our record and we could be a few games over .500."

    It's true: The Blazers have let an inordinate number of games slip away from them in the late stages. In December alone, they've dropped four games decided by six points or fewer—for reasons ranging from shaky end-of-game execution to a basic lack of talent.

    Those are hallmarks of young teams on the rebuild, so maybe it's not surprising that Portland hasn't figured out the best way to finish close contests.

    Better play from Leonard, who struggled early and lost his starting job after separating his shoulder, would certainly help. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have been reliable scoring threats, but a third contributor needs to emerge if Portland is going to push toward that break-even mark Leonard referenced.

17. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week: 16

    You can say this for the Memphis Grizzlies: They're trying.

    Trying to find the right personnel to spread the floor and update an offense that looks paleolithic. Trying to play with pace when they can. Trying to forge a new identity on the fly while maintaining the best elements of the old one.

    Trying and failing.

    The Grizz rank 27th in three-point attempts and 28th in conversion rate, shortcomings they've sought to address by moving Zach Randolph to the bench in favor of Matt Barnes. This is a sound theory, and it may be the best option Memphis has. But Barnes isn't the kind of shooter who forces defenses to compromise principles, and the Grizzlies offense simply isn't accustomed to looking for or leveraging the corner three.

    Systemic overhauls are possible, but they're difficult with personnel that are ill suited to the change. We saw a study in contrast when the Grizzlies lost to the Chicago Bulls on Dec. 16, as the Bulls, hoping to similarly update their attack, had success using sharpshooter Doug McDermott to stretch the defense.

    Memphis has no such marksman, so its transition is going to be far tougher.

    Get ready for more stretches like last week, when the Grizzlies lost three of four.

16. Utah Jazz

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    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 12

    There are plenty of excuses for the Utah Jazz's disappointing play of late. Rudy Gobert's knee injury robbed the defensively inclined team of its best rim-protector, Dante Exum's lost season elevated bench players to rotation minutes at point guard, and, of course, just about everyone who matters on the roster is young.

    Those excuses double as signs of hope, as Utah should improve later this season and in the years ahead. There's too much talent and youth to expect anything but growth down the line.

    But right now, today, the Jazz are a below-average NBA team that isn't scoring or getting stops frequently enough to rank any higher. In the past, we have to admit, all those excuses/signs of hope helped the Jazz hold onto a better position here than they probably deserved.

    But we've now seen enough ugly offense and disappointing defense to strip Utah of the benefit of the doubt.

    Getting anywhere close to the top 10 again will require some serious work, and a recent four-game losing streak indicates things are actually headed in the opposite direction.

15. Dallas Mavericks

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    Last Week: 13

    Every Dallas Mavericks game doubles as a study on how cleverly Rick Carlisle can hide Dirk Nowitzki on defense so he can harness some of the historically potent shooter's value on the other end. Opponents know this, of course, so many counter Carlisle's cross-matching and hybrid zone looks with incessant screening and off-ball movement designed to involve Nowitzki in as many defensive possessions as possible.

    All the smoke and mirrors have led to certain concessions, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe

    The Dirk gimmickry creates issues as the Mavs transition from offense to defense, since players have to scramble to find their assignments. Dallas cannot win that kind of foot race, and everyone knows it. The Mavericks have a cardinal rule: Only the center is allowed to crash the offensive glass. Everyone else has to run back on defense.

    Dallas has been treading water for the better part of a month, hoping for more than the occasional outburst from important contributors like Wesley Matthews and Chandler Parsons. So far, the Mavericks have schemed and scammed their way to repeated wins over teams that haven't been prepared, but by only winning two of their first 10 games against teams over .500, they've firmly established themselves as a mid-pack outfit.

    So this ranking feels about right.

14. Detroit Pistons

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    Last Week: 18

    "Best offensive game I've seen him have," Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy said after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored a career-high 31 points in a 119-116 win over the Boston Celtics on Dec. 16.

    It was hard to argue that point, as KCP showed off ball-handling and shot-creating chops he simply didn't have a year ago. And though his three-point shot continues to be errant (30.2 percent through his first 27 games this year), a stellar 34.5 percent accuracy rate a season ago likely means improvement is on the way.

    If Caldwell-Pope, who has also fashioned himself into one of the league's better on-ball defenders (seriously, go find clips from his efforts on Stephen Curry earlier this year; nobody has checked the MVP better), continues to grow offensively, Detroit will have the wing play it needs to complement Reggie Jackson at the point and Andre Drummond in the middle.

    The Pistons were an overtime loss away from a perfect 4-0 week since the last edition of power rankings, so they've earned an upward shift.

13. Orlando Magic

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Last Week: 14

    You really can't send a proverbial NBA message in mid-December, so we'll call the Orlando Magic's impressive Dec. 16 dismantling of the Charlotte Hornets a memo.

    The 113-98 win was an important piece of communication—one that showed the Magic belonged in the competitive heap of teams that are vying for playoff spots in the East. The Hornets have quietly been among the league's best teams this year, and it was eye-opening to watch Orlando take it to them with tons of threes, balanced scoring and ball movement.

    There's reason to be skeptical about the Magic belonging in this crowded section of the rankings, as Nikola Vucevic continues to destroy their defensive integrity, and only Evan Fournier stands out as a threatening shooter in the backcourt.

    But the mixture of capable vets—Channing Frye being chief among them—and promising youth has helped Orlando consistently move up the rankings. It does so again this week.

12. Atlanta Hawks

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    Last Week: 11

    The Atlanta Hawks' 8-2 start feels like it happened years ago—mainly because a particularly unstable first half of December has revealed weakness but also partly because the rest of the conference has exhibited such strength.

    Among East teams, Atlanta ranks 11th in net rating during the month of December, per NBA.com (through games played Dec. 16), behind the rest of the playoff threats and even the Knicks.

    The good news is the Hawks are still just a hot two weeks or so out of the top seed, but the bad news is nearly a dozen other teams sit within that same striking distance, and most of them have outplayed Atlanta lately. Paul Millsap has continued his wildly productive season, and Kyle Korver's recent shooting slump has to end soon.

    "When I’ve had conversations with Kyle, he feels good, and he feels like he’s in a good place," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer told Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "It’s going to take time."

    A strong run against an upcoming slate that includes Boston, Orlando, Detroit and Indiana could go a long way toward Atlanta once again distinguishing itself as a member of the East's upper class.

    Or, you know, things could go the other way.

    A pivotal stretch looms on the horizon is the point here, I guess.

11. Chicago Bulls

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    Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

    Last Week: 15

    The Bulls took a dive after going 1-3 last week, and we've been generally rough on them in this space all year. So it's only fair to give them back the position they lost (and then some) after a nice stretch featuring wins over the Pelicans, Sixers and Grizzlies.

    Though still searching for the sustained offensive flow and pace Fred Hoiberg's arrival was supposed to bring, Chicago is showing more frequent flashes of functional spacing and ball movement. It helps that the Bulls are getting frustrated enough to speak honestly about where they are as a team.

    Down at halftime to the Sixers on Dec. 14, the veterans delivered a message.

    "It was very vocal, to be honest," second-year forward Doug McDermott told reporters. "[Joakim Noah] was very heated, and [Pau Gasol] actually talked up, saying we've got to step on teams' throats like this, you know, that aren't winning this year. Other teams see this film of us lollygagging the first half and they're not scared of us."

    McDermott will continue to be a central figure in Chicago's efforts to build a more dangerous offense. A shooter good enough to pull help defenders out of the play is a true weapon, and the Bulls have one in the 6'8" sniper. At 44.6 percent from deep through his first 23 games of the year, McDermott can't be ignored anymore.

10. Boston Celtics

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Last Week: 6

    It's tempting to say we overreached in moving the Boston Celtics all the way up to No. 6 last week, especially after a recent skid started with a double-overtime loss to Golden State on Dec. 11. Following a laudable road win over the Hornets the very next night, Boston dropped two more games in succession.

    The resulting dip in net rating and conference standing makes a demotion in the rankings a necessity. But let's not get carried away and push Boston too far from the top five—even if it feels comfortable to keep a starless, defense-first collective out of that elite territory.

    Only two of its December opponents so far have been below .500, and losses to the Warriors, Spurs, Cavaliers and Pistons are hardly sound-the-alarm events.

    The Celtics defense is for real, sitting comfortably in the league's top five with a 97.8 rating through its first 26 games. And we saw in the Golden State loss that pressurized situations do nothing to dull the Celtics' competitive edge.

    Boston belongs in the top 10. Exactly where remains a fair question, but a difficult stretch of the schedule doesn't warrant an outright dismissal.

9. Toronto Raptors

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 7

    Toronto's wobbly bench scoring hasn't resulted in any real damage yet, but it's clear the second unit has suffered since important reserves were called up to the first unit in relief of injured starters Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll.

    The solution, according to TSN's Josh Lewenberg, could be sending Luis Scola to the pine as a second-unit anchor and replacing him with Patrick Patterson at the start of games.

    We all know starting groups and bench units intermingle plenty during every contest, and it's always been more important to settle on a last five to close games than a first five to start them. But it's true that the Raps have had a hard time holding onto leads whenever Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been on the bench, so using Scola (who can score and set up others) as a focal point in relief makes some sense.

    Either way, the Raps have to continue piecing things together until Valanciunas and Carroll return.

    They've done a fine job so far, holding steady in the top 10 for yet another week.

8. Indiana Pacers

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 9

    Paul George deserves every bit of (digital) ink he's gotten in this space, but it's probably time to give C.J. Miles his due.

    After all, the 6'6" wing has been the Indiana Pacers' second-best player this year—both statistically and in terms of the options his versatility presents head coach Frank Vogel. Whether Indy needs a three-point shooter at the 3 to punish defenses or an always-game scrapper to relieve Paul George against power forwards in undersized units, Miles has been there.

    At 42.8 percent from deep, Miles has been integral in the Pacers' pace-and-space overhaul, and his accuracy hasn't suffered because of increased volume as his role has grown. Only 14 players in the league have attempted more triples than he has this season.

    Indiana has notched solid wins over the Raptors, Heat and Mavericks since losing to the Warriors back on Dec. 8, and both Monta Ellis and George Hill have shown signs of joining Miles in the reliably productive department.

    The Pacers climb after a three-game slide cost them one spot last time around.

7. Miami Heat

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    Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 8

    An encouraging stretch marked by stellar defense and a toothless Goran Dragic has the Heat back on course after a three-game losing streak shook them last time around. Dragic lost the chiclet courtesy of an inadvertent elbow from Al Horford, but at least it came as a result of the point guard's buckling down on defense, and at least we learned something new about Slovenian dental customs.

    "Yeah, yeah, tooth mouse, yes," Dragic told Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "It's the same as the tooth fairy. I mean, it's a mouse who comes. It's the same thing, the same story, just a different form."

    Tooth mouse, huh? That seems a lot more comforting than a fully grown, magical being breaking into your house to exchange cash for your teeth. Slovenia has this one right.

    Oh, and also: Heat president Pat Riley isn't looking to trade Hassan Whiteside, which, you know, seems pretty important.

    "I can guarantee you there have been no discussions about the BS that you have read in the newspapers the last couple of days," Riley told Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald about rumors Whiteside could be traded. "I like our team and I want to see where we’re headed."

    Miami is inching back toward top-five territory. A strong finish against a middling late-December slate could get it there.

6. Charlotte Hornets

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    Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 5

    Thanks to a more perimeter-oriented offense, nobody really expected Al Jefferson's injury absence to do much damage to the Charlotte Hornets' prospects.

    That turned out to be a good assessment, but Nicolas Batum's recent bout with the flu is going to have a much different impact. The Magic crushed Charlotte after Batum left at halftime of a Dec. 16 contest, and it took a season-best effort from Jeremy Lin (not to mention some excellent Hornets defense) to hold off the Raptors 24 hours later.

    Batum's unselfishness and rediscovered shooting form have been integral to Charlotte's successful stylistic overhaul. The Hornets lose an awful lot of what's made them such a pleasant surprise this year when the versatile wing is out, so it's critical for Batum to get back up to speed quickly.

    Charlotte loses a spot because of a 2-2 week, but we're in hair-splitting territory of the rankings now. These Hornets are as good as any non-elite contender in the league.

    Speaking of which...

5. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 10

    The Clippers have stabilized their season on the defensive end, marching to an 8-2 record since Nov. 27 behind stellar stopping power. For a team that led the league in offensive efficiency in each of the last two years, that's a little surprising, no?

    At 99.3 points allowed per 100 possessions in their first eight December games, the Clips rank seventh in the league, per NBA.com.

    There have, however, been some (delightfully foreseeable) hiccups, like the one from their 103-90 win over the Bucks, as described Dan Woike of the Orange County Register: "That stretch might be peak Lance Stephenson. Steal and dunk and then guards the wrong guy on the other end."

    The complaints, ref-baiting and technical fouls remain problems, but the Clips are looking formidable in an area where they've typically been average. When that offense comes around (and it will), we might finally see a West threat capable of scaring the top three squads in the conference.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 4

    Here we hit our first members of the league's top tier.

    It's a small subsection, defined mainly by the fact that any team from here on out wouldn't elicit a stunned response if it were to wind up hoisting a championship trophy at season's end. The Cavaliers check in fourth again this week because Iman Shumpert's latest injury reminded us that returns to full health simply aren't certain.

    After missing the entire season thus far with a wrist injury, Shumpert logged 25 minutes in his debut on Dec. 11 and then suffered a groin injury 14 minutes into his next game against the Celtics.

    We all know the Cavaliers are a serious threat once everyone, particularly Kyrie Irving, gets back onto the floor alongside LeBron James. But nothing is guaranteed, and until we see Cleveland at full strength, it's best to proceed cautiously—insofar as proclaiming this team a title contender and ranking it fourth in the league qualifies as caution.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 3

    Though the Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the Cavs in a head-to-head meeting on Dec. 17, a No. 3 ranking still feels fair.

    The defeat snapped what was then the league's longest ongoing winning streak, and OKC's net rating remains significantly higher than Cleveland's. So while the Thunder aren't necessarily an easy pick for the power rankings bronze medal, they're still the pick.

    And the scary thing for the teams above them is that Russell Westbrook has basically run out of flaws.

    Those herky-jerky jumpers off the dribble that always felt like they were bailing the defense out? Yeah, those are going in at scary rates these days. Per Synergy Sports, Russ is hitting 53 percent of his elbow pull-ups this season.

    It's official: There's no way to stop Westbrook.

    If the Thunder can find the right bench mixture to produce some two-way play (virtually all of their reserves seem to dominate on one end and disappear on the other), they'll threaten one of the top two spots before this year is over.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 2

    Though we've reached the time of year when analysis praising the Spurs' under-the-radar brilliance is legally required, this season's San Antonio squad is justifying the predictable praise in an unprecedented way.

    Put simply, San Antonio has been the best team in the NBA for most of the last two weeks, running up a net rating more than twice as high as either the Thunder or Warriors mustered in December and playing the best defense the league has seen in years.

    The Spurs aren't beating teams; they're dismantling them.

    Since the last set of rankings alone, they've piled up four wins by an average of over 20 points per game, and we're still not so far removed from that Dec. 7 51-pointer over the Sixers that we should forget it.

    In any other year, there would be no question about the identity of the best team in the league. Thanks to the Warriors, San Antonio has to settle for second best—even if it's looking more and more like a No. 1 and No. 1A situation.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Last Week: 1

    The loss, eluded by the Warriors for 24 games, finally came.

    And though Golden State's first defeat of the season coincided with the Spurs' gears whirring into historically efficient overdrive, the No. 1 spot in the power rankings remains with the same team that's held it all year.

    That's because the Warriors' post-loss performance against the Suns featured none of the fatigue, tightness or grind-it-out difficulty of the late-streak stretch that clearly wore Golden State down. Instead, the recharged Dubs resembled their early-season selves: loose, efficient and frighteningly combustible.

    They hung an NBA season-high 46 points on the Suns in the third quarter of that Dec. 16 win, getting 27 from Thompson alone. Stephen Curry's 10-of-14 performance hardly registered, and Draymond Green had a triple-double in the bag (his fourth of the year) before the fourth period even started.

    On balance, Golden State's numbers—including record, net rating and simple rating—are all better than the Spurs' this year. The margin has absolutely narrowed, but the Dubs remain on top.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Current through games played Dec. 17.

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