2015-16 NBA Power Rankings: How All 30 Teams Shape Up Heading into Christmas Day

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 25, 2015

2015-16 NBA Power Rankings: How All 30 Teams Shape Up Heading into Christmas Day

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    The holiday season is upon us, and with it comes the Christmas miracle of fresh NBA power rankings.

    The gap between the top two teams has all but disappeared, and as usual, the jostling among the Eastern Conference's unstable upper tier has resulted in some significant shake-ups since last week. Good luck getting a read on the East hierarchy.

    At this rate, we'll be shuffling that mess around looking for answers well into April—all while wondering how in the world the once-inferior conference now faces the problem of having too many good teams to make sense of. 

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

    Merry Christmas, happy holidays, may the force be with you and pleasant reading!

30. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Last Week: 30

    You have to reach for positive angles on the Philadelphia 76ers—especially now that they've abandoned their full-on tanking plan midstream. That bold gambit, ill-fated as it might have been, was at least admirable in its ambition.

    Now where do you turn for positive spin?

    How about this: Trading Michael Carter-Williams for a first-round pick last year has turned out to look good.

    Derek Bodner of PhillyMag.com notes that Carter-Williams, already 24 years old, hit just 34 percent of his shots outside of five feet in the six games he played from Dec. 12-23. Even more damning, that accuracy rate was an improvement over MCW's overall shooting percentage from that distance.

    "And I like MCW as a person," Bodner tweeted. "Truly, good kid. Just don't understand how many people thought he was a building block."

    This is where we are with the historically inept Sixers. The best things we can say about them involve criticizing players they've given up on.

29. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Last Week: 29

    Don't let anyone tell you nothing positive came from the Los Angeles Lakers' 35-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 23.

    First of all, any defeat that keeps L.A.'s record among the three worst in the league increases its chances of holding onto that top-three protected pick in the 2016 NBA draft—which, you know, is kind of important for a team this short on talent.

    Second, and more importantly, it gave Kobe Bryant the opportunity to wax philosophical. The result was the easiest Quote of the Week winner we've had all year.

    "You have to be realistic about what we're facing and where we are right now as a team and as an organization," Bryant said, per Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com. "You can train a cat all you want to bark. The damn cat is not going to bark. There's no sense in yelling at it. Simple as that."

    I mean...slow clap, right?

    Bryant understands his team is not equipped to compete. That's the gist here. But what's most interesting is how his analysis coincides with the softening of his demeanor lately.

    Kobe has been laughing on the court, exchanging shoes with Kevin Durant after games and generally resigning himself to reality. In the past, even when he knew his teammates were cats, he'd keep screaming at them to bark.

    Ask Kwame Brown. Ask Smush Parker. Hell, ask Pau Gasol on a bad day.

    Now, Bryant understands the futility of trying to will something to change when that thing simply is what it is.

    Silly as it sounds, this is one of the most reasonable things Bryant has ever said.

28. Brooklyn Nets

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    Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 28

    In a continuing effort to stay positive about the teams that so reliably fill out the bottom rungs of these rankings, let's appreciate Brooklyn Nets forward Thaddeus Young.

    The lefty with the herky-jerky game is in the midst of what might be his best year ever. Career highs in scoring and rebounding, a 50.9 accuracy rate from the field and some admirably consistent effort for a losing team all warrant praise. And if Young could get his three-point shooting up to the 38 percent figure he posted after joining the Nets last year, he'd be one of the hottest trade commodities in the league.

    Even at an unsustainably low 15.4 percent, he'll draw interest. And to his credit, he hit a contested trey to force overtime in the Nets' 119-118 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 23.

    Good numbers for Young are good news for Brooklyn, which needs to replenish its war chest with whatever draft considerations it can get. Maybe the Nets will trade him by the deadline, and maybe they won't. But at least he's performed well enough to make it an option.

    Brooklyn, by the way, has lost six of its last seven and will face a tough slate of quality East foes over the next two weeks.

    That probably means we'll have to find another productive Net to talk about next time, because there won't be many wins to discuss.

27. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Last Week: 26

    If it seems harsh to move the Milwaukee Bucks down a peg after a 2-1 week (with the lone defeat coming on the road against a retribution-obsessed Warriors team), please consider the fact that their two wins came against the Suns and Sixers.

    That's one team in the process of exploding and another that is already in smithereens by design.

    The Bucks may as well have tromped onto a kindergarten playground and logged two wins at recess.

    We're dealing with a microcosm of why you can't just look at a team's record to determine its quality. We have better numbers for that, and Basketball-Reference.com provides basic strength-of-schedule metrics that show Milwaukee's wins have come against a far easier slate than, say, the team that skipped ahead of it this week.

    The opponents ahead are menacing: Toronto, Dallas, OKC and Indiana all in sequence with the last three on the road. If the Bucks emerge from that mess intact, they'll get the bump up the rankings they might feel they deserved this time around.

26. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Last Week: 27

    A loss to the Phoenix Suns, who are pulling apart in spectacular fashion lately, is a bad look. But the New Orleans Pelicans followed that Dec. 18 hiccup with two consecutive victories over the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers—just their second winning streak of the year.

    The Pellies remain an abject disaster on defense, but they've quietly shown signs of scoring at the pace you'd expect from an Alvin Gentry-coached team. Through its first 11 games in December, New Orleans' offensive rating of 106.6 ranks fourth in the league, per NBA.com. Only the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder have been better.

    "There's a lot of good positive things we can look at it, but that being said, moving forward we're going [to] have to start winning games if we're going to get into the playoffs," Gentry told John Reid of the Times-Picayune.

    With Jrue Holiday's minute restriction set to lift soon and Anthony Davis gradually making his way back toward the top five in player efficiency rating, the Pelicans are moving in what looks like the right direction.

    But let's not go crazy. There's a mountain of work ahead.

25. Phoenix Suns

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Last Week: 19

    You'd have a hard time finding a team spiraling faster than the Suns.

    One win since Dec. 14, lineup changes and disgruntled former leaders hurling towels at head coaches...it's bad in Phoenix, folks. It's real bad.

    This is a big drop for any team at this reasonably advanced stage of the season, especially considering so many of the Suns' earlier losses were close. Remember when that used to be the narrative surrounding this team? That they were actually much better than their record but just kept getting unlucky in tight games down the stretch?

    Not anymore.

    Now, the Suns are straining to hold things together. And that's going to be tough with head coach Jeff Hornacek wrangling a disjointed team that knows he's a lame duck. Management didn't extend Hornacek's deal this past summer, so he's stuck trying to captain a crew while walking the plank.

    This is a shame, because between Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Markieff Morris, T.J. Warren, P.J. Tucker, Tyson Chandler, Alex Len, Mirza Teletovic, Jon Leuer and rookie Devin Booker, there's a legitimate playoff-worthy rotation on hand. And the opportunity to cruise into one of the top eight spots got even more welcoming with New Orleans' early stumble.

    That seems impossible now, with the Suns losing three straight and dipping to 12-19 through games played Dec. 25.

    At least the imminent combustion will be loud, bright and interesting.

24. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Last Week: 22

    Just one team, the Sixers, has fewer wins in December than the Minnesota Timberwolves. With a defense hemorrhaging points and young talent searching for its footing, this isn't all that surprising.

    But it doesn't have to be this bad. And maybe it won't be going forward.

    Head coach Sam Mitchell still plays Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Martin too much, but at least the latter did not play in the Wolves' 108-83 loss to the Spurs on Dec. 23. That's progress.

    You also can't get too down on a team that has Karl-Anthony Towns, who seems to have blown through the rookie wall and picked up his play of late. He's averaging 18.3 points and 9.5 rebounds on 55 percent shooting over his last 10. And if there's any criticism to be leveled at Mitchell as it pertains to Towns, it's that the budding superstar should see more than 28.3 minutes per game.

    If the Wolves start shooting more threes and Mitchell starts to trust Nemanja Bjelica and Shabazz Muhammad a little more, we could see this team climb back up the standings. But weird strategic bents and inexplicable lineup decisions from Mitchell continue to hold Minnesota back.

23. Denver Nuggets

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Last Week: 25

    Though we can't get too carried away about a team with one win in its last four tries and a home loss to the Lakers on Dec. 22, the Denver Nuggets need some recognition.

    This team started with almost nothing this season, then lost Wilson Chandler for the year, then played most of November and December without anything resembling a full roster. That surprising win over the Suns on the second night of a back-to-back, for example, came with Danilo Gallinari, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jameer Nelson and Jusuf Nurkic on the sidelines.

    Will Barton is in the running for Most Improved Player, and Mike Malone, so far, deserves consideration for Coach of the Year.

    If the Nuggets ever rediscover their organizationally ingrained home dominance (they're strangely just 5-9 in the advantageous mile-high atmosphere), we could be looking at one of the most surprising .500 teams in the league.

22. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Last Week: 18

    It's not a surprise that the Portland Trail Blazers have struggled without Damian Lillard, who missed the first two games of his career while battling plantar fasciitis on Dec. 21 and 23. Both games resulted in predictable losses on the road.

    But the unfortunate truth is that the Blazers weren't looking so hot before Lillard succumbed to the soreness.

    Portland has dropped five straight and six of seven as the youth on the roster has gradually transitioned its play from pleasantly surprising to soberingly expected. The mistakes are showing up, the inability to close games out has been there all year, and Lillard's field-goal percentage was dipping before he went down—the logical consequence of defenses understanding that stopping him is stopping the Blazers.

    To avoid a prolonged stay in the bottom 10, Portland must get more from Meyers Leonard. The 23-year-old big man was supposed to stretch the floor and bother defenses with his range and athleticism, both of which he showed off in last year's playoff run.

    Instead, he's shooting 25.6 percent from deep and rebounding like a guard.

    The Blazers were a feel-good story as an early-season overachiever. Sobering reality is setting in now.

21. Utah Jazz

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    Last Week: 16

    I don't want to cram the Jazz all the way down here. I really don't.

    I believed in their defense, trusted in the budding stardom of Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors. I expected head coach Quin Snyder to coax offensive growth out of a young roster. But it turns out none of that stuff matters, and the Jazz are, objectively, a bad team right now.

    Harsh? Maybe.

    But since Rudy Gobert went down with a sprained MCL, Utah's defense has been abysmal. Only five teams in the league have been more generous per possession in December, per NBA.com.

    The Jazz were always going to lean on their defense, and without their most important player (there can't be any doubt about that now), they're floundering.

    Utah can get better, and you can't knock the effort levels from Hayward and Favors. But the Jazz aren't any good right now on either end. And that's not changing until Gobert comes back.

    Is this a good time to mention he still has no timetable? No? OK, let's just move on then.

20. Sacramento Kings

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Last Week: 24

    Don't look now, but the Sacramento Kings are looking decent.

    A 2-2 road trip punctuated by impressive wins at Toronto and Indiana has the Kings at 12-17 on the year and 5-5 in the month of December. If they take two of their final three to close out 2015 (which is doable considering their remaining slate this month includes Portland and Philadelphia sandwiching a definite loss at Golden State on Dec. 28), the Kings will actually have a winning month.

    Don't be mistaken: Everything you hate about this team (assuming you ever hated anything about it) is still there, simmering beneath the salve of mediocre win-loss results. DeMarcus Cousins still complains incessantly, Rajon Rondo still hunts assists, and Rudy Gay still can't pass.

    But it seems the talent on hand, which is considerable, is overshadowing those systemic issues.

    Through Dec. 24, the Kings are a single game out of the playoffs in the West.

    This is getting real.

19. New York Knicks

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    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 20

    Kristaps Porzingis hasn't been so great lately, which will probably register as news to anyone (power rankers included) who became convinced some time in November that he was more deity than man.

    But it's true: KP has come back to earth, and that presents the New York Knicks with the issue they'd mostly avoided to this point in the year: They have to figure out how to develop Porzingis while still prioritizing wins.

    Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal wrote, "Striking a balance is what the Knicks have to learn to do, both with Porzingis and fellow first-rounder Jerian Grant, who recently had a pair of eyebrow-raising DNPs where 31-year-old Sasha Vujacic, who owns the NBA's second-lowest field-goal percentage, played over him."

    The most important element of that undertaking will be staying out of their own way. In a 91-84 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Dec. 23, the Knicks inexplicably failed to get Porzingis a shot in the fourth quarter...after he'd lit up the Cavs for 23 points through three.

    Protecting the franchise cornerstone on nights when he's struggling is fine. Freezing him out when he could have legitimately won his team the game is unforgivable.

    New York moves up a spot in large part because some of the teams ahead fell back, but also because it has fought its way to a 6-6 record in December so far.

18. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week: 17

    No big swings for the Grizzlies this week, as they went 2-2 with wins over the Pacers and Sixers but lost to the Mavs and Wizards.

    We've mostly covered the concerns about an outdated offense and an aging core, though moving Zach Randolph to the bench has partially addressed both issues (while allowing Z-Bo to beat up on less capable second-unit victims).

    So instead of going back to the well on those topics, we'll consider a newer one from Chris Herrington of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, who tweeted: "Wondering if any playoff team has ever gone wire-to-wire with a negative point differential."

    That's relevant to the Grizz, who've suffered massive blowouts this year but have logged enough close wins to hold the No. 6 seed (as of Dec. 24) despite a minus-3.8 per-game differential.

    Memphis is lucky, resilient or both.

17. Washington Wizards

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Last Week: 23

    At the risk of playing the arbitrary statistical cutoff game, Jared Dudley has really figured some things out lately.

    The Washington Wizards have won three straight with a skeleton crew since we last ranked them, and Dudley's heavy-minute production in the frontcourt has been a big reason why. Playing often as an undersized 4, Dudley has his three-point percentage all the way up to 48.7 percent on the year, and he's been helpful as a ball-mover and smart defender as well.

    He hasn't been alone in stepping up to compensate for injuries throughout the roster. Garrett Temple has scored at least 20 points in three straight games after playing more than 250 contests without getting out of the teens, per ESPN Stats & Info.

    John Wall has been fantastic as well, piling up assists and making the offense work by getting into the lane at will.

    After seeming finished for the year, the Wizards are creeping back toward .500. Hopefully, the eventual return of key pieces like Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Nene won't somehow disrupt Washington's recent less-is-more success.

16. Dallas Mavericks

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Last Week: 15

    We celebrate Rick Carlisle's intellect all the time, but maybe it's worth acknowledging that part of the reason he has a Mavs team that most discarded before the season in the thick of the playoff race is because he's so emotionally invested.

    "I fly off half-cocked about every other day, so you can't pay much attention to what I say," Carlisle told Tim MacMahon of ESPN.com of his not-so-subtle threat to trade underperforming Mavs a day earlier. "The truth is I love this team and I really care about these guys. I want them to want it as much as I want it for them, and sometimes, that manifests in some unusual ways, but I'm never going to stop caring."

    Aww.

    Dallas just keeps chugging along, treading water, playing smart offense and waiting for Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews to consistently play better. That the Mavs are the first team in the rankings you could call objectively good (yes, we've hit that cutoff) says a lot about the job Carlisle has done—using both thinks and feels.

15. Houston Rockets

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    Fernando Medina/Getty Images

    Last Week: 21

    If the regular season didn't include the months of October and November, which (double-checks) it does, the Houston Rockets would easily be a top-10 team in the power rankings.

    Maybe even top-five.

    That's how quietly capable they've been in December, running up an 8-4 record with a net rating of plus-5.2 that ranks fifth in the league, per NBA.com—way ahead of December's No. 6 team in net rating, the Orlando Magic at plus-2.6.

    Around here, we've been slow to recognize Houston's rise. That's partly because it's tough to forget all those embarrassing losses early on, and partly because even the Rockets' recent wins have featured enough lapses in effort and shaky defense to sustain some skepticism.

    Whether Houston is ready to transition its return to respectability into a push back toward the near-elite status it occupied a year ago remains to be seen. But it's no longer fair to ignore that the Rockets are playing some of the best basketball in the league.

14. Chicago Bulls

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    Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 11

    Win four straight, you move up.

    Lose three straight, you move down.

    So goes the saga of the Chicago Bulls, the NBA's most frustrating, possibly-good-but-also-wildly-annoying, up-and-down, confusing, maddening, topsy-turvy team.

    Losing Joakim Noah to a shoulder sprain is going to hurt more than many think, as the Bulls' rebounding craters without him on the floor. And with Derrick Rose still searching for mediocre play (star-level production is officially beyond the realm of possibility for him now), Chicago really can't afford to give away extra possessions.

    Jimmy Butler is speaking out about the team needing to be coached harder, Fred Hoiberg is tinkering with the lineup in search of the right combination, and the offense is still a mess.

    Yet, the Bulls still have the talent to put together a run toward the No. 2 spot in the East behind the Cavaliers.

    Chronicling their season has been exhausting.

    Tune in next week when we either bury the Bulls or celebrate their ascent. This year, those are equally likely propositions.

13. Boston Celtics

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    Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 10

    The Celtics have been inconsistent for most of December, though their upcoming stretch against the Pistons, Knicks and Lakers could help transform a modest two-game streak into five.

    Detroit will be tough, but with Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk playing better than they have all year, there's a good chance the Celtics will start to distinguish themselves against some of their stiffer conference competition.

    Crowder has logged three double-doubles in a row, hitting at least half of his shots in every game from Dec. 18-23. And Olynyk has topped the 20-point mark four times in December, the first such month in his career.

    Defensive intensity and unselfish play will continue to be hallmarks for Boston under head coach Brad Stevens. If the Celtics want to move back into the top 10 for good, though, they'll have to score more reliably and stop following up short winning surges with down periods.

    A top-four seed in the East is there for the taking.

12. Indiana Pacers

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    Jeff Haynes/Getty Images

    Last Week: 8

    Indy slips because of a 1-3 stretch since the last ranking week, with losses to the Grizzlies and Kings standing out as particularly worrisome. Perhaps even worse, Paul George was utterly dominated in his Dec. 21 matchup against Kawhi Leonard, hitting only one of his 14 attempts from the field as Leonard torched him on the other end.

    There's not necessarily any shame in losing a battle with Leonard, who may well be Stephen Curry's top contender for MVP honors. But because so much of the Pacers' success depends on George playing at MVP levels himself, a vulnerable performance by him matters a lot more.

    C.J. Miles continues to be one of the league's most underrated players, and we've seen occasional signs of life from Monta Ellis. But if George isn't great—and he hasn't been lately—the Pacers are not a top-10 team.

    Full disclosure: Indiana also loses ground for wearing those godawful Hickory throwbacks against the Kings.

11. Charlotte Hornets

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    Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 6

    Yet another team from the competitively indistinguishable East morass heads into Christmas with three straight L's on the ledger, so the Charlotte Hornets join the Pacers in taking a tumble.

    Still, with a net rating higher than everyone but the Heat and Cavaliers in the East this year, Charlotte can't fall too far.

    Al Jefferson's return from a calf strain/suspension will help so long as the ball movement and three-point shooting don't give way to more post touches for the low-block staple. And even amid this recent skid, Jeremy Lin and Frank Kaminsky (career-high 23 points in a loss to the Celtics on Dec. 23) have played better.

    "You're starting to see his versatility; he's getting the ball in the paint more," Hornets head coach Steve Clifford said after Kaminsky's big night, per Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. "As he gets stronger, a lot of these little drives that aren't falling right now will either be (shooting) fouls or will go in."

    The Hornets are a hot week away from climbing comfortably back into the top 10, and what we've seen so far this year suggests they're fully capable of putting together a run. But we can't ignore an 0-3 week, and we can't look past another ridiculous entry in Lin's ongoing catalog of terrible hairstyles.

    Both warrant penalties in the rankings.

10. Detroit Pistons

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    Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 14

    With wins against the Pacers, Celtics, Bulls and Heat over the past two weeks, the Detroit Pistons have done well to establish their position in the competitive East.

    (Have we mentioned yet that the East is defined by mind-numbing parity? Or that you could probably rearrange any of the eight teams trailing the Cavs however you wanted without having much trouble defending the logic of the order? Or that these clubs need to distinguish themselves in a hurry, or I'm just going to lose it and run screaming down the street without...)

    We've said too much.

    Anyway, Detroit is 8-4 through its first 12 games in December, and it's really starting to feel like Stan Van Gundy is going to get borderline All-Star production from Reggie Jackson all year. Plus, the mostly underwhelming Pistons reserves have started just chucking up threes on pick-and-pop sets, which is a great way for a unit without much talent to maximize its chances of nursing a lead.

    It still feels like the Pistons are a trade away from really threatening the top East teams. But with the progress so far (and the parity—have we mentioned the parity?), maybe Detroit is good enough as is to make noise.

9. Orlando Magic

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Last Week: 13

    How about this Orlando Magic team, huh?

    Young across the board, getting big resurgences from Channing Frye and Andrew Nicholson and pushing the right rotation buttons (see: Victor Oladipo thriving off the bench)—the Magic are figuring things out ahead of schedule.

    Of course, this is kind of how it always goes when Scott Skiles takes over. His first year in charge tends to coincide with increased focus and a marked step forward. So you could make the argument that we won't really know how real this progress is until the Magic sustain it into Skiles' second season, which is when his intense style usually starts to wear on the roster.

    Whatever. We'll worry about that later.

    For now, let's just enjoy the Magic winning five out of six from Dec. 14-23.

8. Miami Heat

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Last Week: 7

    The Heat have pushed over the pushovers this year, which is what you're supposed to do if you're looking to contend for a top-four seed in the East. Unfortunately, the rest of the conference has pushed back pretty hard.

    Per a tweet from Ethan Skolnick of the Miami Herald: "The Heat is now 6-10 against other teams seeded in the top 12 in the East. That includes two wins against the Knicks."

    That's a discouraging stat, as the Heat can't realistically expect to climb into the contender club if they can't take care of the congested class of good-but-not-great competition in their conference. 

    Ultimately, it may not matter if the Heat can beat the Knicks. But they'll need to prove they're equipped to knock off some of the steadier presences at the top—like Toronto, Charlotte, Indiana and Detroit, all of whom defeated Miami in December.

7. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Last Week: 5

    Not all three-game slides are the same.

    Tempting as it is to bury the team everybody hates, we just can't send the Clippers hurtling too far from their No. 5 ranking last week. Falling on the road to the Spurs and Rockets and then dropping a one-point game at home to OKC is excusable.

    Two spots of slippage seems fair.

    That's not to say the Clips are without their problems. Josh Smith has dropped out of the rotation, and Lance Stephenson still plays like a Christmas claymation character viewed exclusively in fast forward: all jittery fits and starts.

    The five-man bench mobs Doc Rivers wants so desperately to create just keep giving back leads after the excellent starting units build them, and there's still no clear starting (or finishing) small forward. But Blake Griffin and Chris Paul remain effective enough to mask most of those issues.

    The Clips are a good team, even if they gave away three games in a row and made me look stupid for trusting them with a top-five ranking. They'll be on the road throughout the holidays, so maybe they'll pull together and make a run before the new year hits.

6. Atlanta Hawks

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    Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 12

    It's getting harder and harder to ignore the truth the standings seem to be shouting: The Atlanta Hawks, 19-12 through Christmas and second only to the Cavs in the East, should slot higher in the power rankings.

    I mean, this team is on a five-game winning streak. What does Atlanta have to do to move up?

    Fair points all, but the Hawks haven't beaten anyone ahead of them in the rankings since knocking off the Thunder way back on Nov. 30. So while they deserve credit for taking care of the teams below them, the Hawks can't lay claim to a higher spot until they start knocking aside the likes of the Heat, Spurs and Raptors—all of whom have notched wins over Atlanta in the last couple of weeks.

    The Hawks should be encouraged by Jeff Teague taking it to Jackson and the Pistons in a Dec. 23 win, and it sounds like the two-way play that led to 60 wins last year is returning.

    That's what Kent Bazemore thinks anyway, and he said as much to Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal Constitution after that win over Detroit:

    We kind of shifted gears and remembered who we were and what we were capable of. … A couple shots start falling. The defense has always been there but we were putting so much pressure on the defense by not scoring. Going on those lulls of six minutes where we only score five points. I think it's starting to come together for us.

    Remarkably, the Hawks won't play a team with a higher power ranking than theirs at any point in the next month. Though January is littered with road games, Atlanta has a real opportunity to pad its win total to the point that it'll be impossible to keep the Hawks from busting into the top five.

5. Toronto Raptors

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Last Week: 9

    It's scary to think about where the Raptors would be right now if they hadn't hit so many personnel home runs over the summer.

    Three of those moves—acquiring Luis Scola, Bismack Biyombo and Cory Joseph—are taking the sting out of injuries to DeMarre Carroll (also signed in July) and Jonas Valanciunas. Case in point: In a 103-99 win over Dallas on Dec. 22, Scola and Biyombo started, while Joseph led the bench in points and minutes.

    Biyombo, in particular, was a force, grabbing 20 rebounds and blocking a pair of shots in 38 minutes. Scola, steady as always, scored 15 points and grabbed nine boards in the win.

    Since last week's rankings, Toronto has beaten the Heat on the road, slipped against the Kings at home and dispatched the Mavs. DeMar DeRozan led the team in scoring in all three, and Kyle Lowry continued to play like a fringe MVP candidate.

    Really, the only thing scarier than thinking about where the Raptors would be if not for smart moves over the offseason is thinking about where they'll be when everybody is healthy.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Last Week: 4

    Winners of six straight heading into Christmas, the Cavaliers have a strong case to move up to the No. 3 spot—one that gets stronger when you take into account their 104-100 win over the third-place (sorry, spoiler there) Thunder on Dec. 17.

    But we can't make decisions based solely on individual matchups, and a broader view of the Cavs' and Thunder's performances this year shows there's still some distance between the two.

    OKC, for example, has been crushing teams in December. Its net rating in compiling a 9-2 mark through its first 11 contests in the month was plus-15.0, markedly better than Cleveland's plus-6.0. That's much larger than the overall difference this season, which gives the Thunder a mere plus-2.8 point advantage.

    Summation: OKC has been better than the Cavs all season and way better lately.

    The Cavaliers can take solace in the fact that they have much more room for improvement than the Thunder do. Kyrie Irving is back, and Cleveland now has its full roster in place. That means a major surge could be coming, which is saying something for a team that has already distinguished itself as the clear class of its conference.

    We know who our top four teams are this year, but the order is certainly subject to change.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Last Week: 3

    Psst! Hey, are the Cavs fans gone? Did they stop reading after seeing Cleveland was ranked behind the Thunder?

    OK, great. We can talk openly now.

    The Thunder are really good—a clear No. 3 only because the two teams ahead of them are basically competing against history and aren't even really part of the rest of the league in 2015-16.

    And as much chance as the Cavs have for improvement, the Thunder might have more...if head coach Billy Donovan settles on sensible rotations that keep either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook on the floor at all times and figures out how to find better production from the shooting guard spot.

    There's no question the East is deeper this year, but Oklahoma City is part of a trio that proves the real strength in the league is still consolidated out West.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    Last Week: 2

    Maybe we could have led with a clip of Kawhi Leonard, whose no-questions-asked MVP candidacy is a huge reason the Spurs have been the best team in the league for more than a month.

    Maybe we should have mentioned LaMarcus Aldridge first, as he's settled into San Antonio's culture nicely while playing the best defense of his life.

    Maybe we owed it to Tim Duncan or Gregg Popovich or Tony Parker to talk about one of them first.

    Instead, we went with a clip of four San Antonio reserves (and Boris Diaw, off-screen for most of the play) whipping the ball around in a sequence that typifies the unselfish, beautiful style that has contributed to a patently absurd plus-22.2 net rating (best in the league by a mile) from Dec. 1-24.

    Oh, and it's probably fair to add that the Spurs are on pace to post one of the 10 lowest defensive ratings of all time (in a good way), per Basketball-Reference.com.

    The Spurs are better than everyone but the Warriors, and it's not even clear how much longer that qualifier is going to apply.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Last Week: 1

    The divide between the Warriors and Spurs is now all but indistinguishable.

    You can explain away San Antonio's encroachment on Golden State's top spot however you want, but nothing really works.

    • The Warriors miss Harrison Barnes.
    • The pressure of the season-opening winning streak wore them out.
    • Steve Kerr has yet to coach a game.

    That's all true, and maybe the Warriors will put together a surge later in the year that creates some statistical distance between them and the Spurs. Maybe the dwindling advantage in net rating and simple rating will widen again.

    But the Spurs have been so good this year and so great lately, that we've come to this point: If the Warriors lose a game next week and the Spurs don't, we're swapping the top two spots.

    San Antonio has been markedly better than Golden State for nearly a month. One slip from the Warriors, and we'll have a new No. 1 for the first time all season.

    Welcome to the NBA in 2015-16, where one of the best teams we've ever seen is in danger of losing its spot atop the power rankings.

    Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Current through games played Dec. 24.

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