2015-16 NBA Power Rankings: Cavaliers Rising as Team Reaches Full Strength

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2016

2015-16 NBA Power Rankings: Cavaliers Rising as Team Reaches Full Strength

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The first week of 2016 has been an eventful one in the NBA power rankings, with a shake-up in the top four signaling the emergence of a fully healed powerhouse.

    Hi there, LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers!

    Elsewhere, a handful of Eastern Conference teams took tumbles as their schedules caught up to them, a brand new cellar-dweller took over the No. 30 spot, and I'm not sure how to put this, but the New York Knicks might be kind of good.

    Crazy, right?

    As usual, rankings are based on stats like net rating and simple rating, recent wins and losses, and as much gut feeling as is necessary to make sense of the jumbled mass of teams in the league's middle tier.

    You can check out last week's edition here for some perspective on what's changed, but we'll include previous rankings on each squad's updated slide.

    Finally, remember: If your favorite team got slighted, it's definitely meant as a personal attack.

30. Phoenix Suns

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    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 26

    A 111-102 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Jan. 6 ended the Phoenix Suns' nine-game losing streak, but nobody should confuse that result with any sort of broader turnaround.

    The Suns, top to bottom, are in disarray.

    Owner Robert Sarver is calling out millennials, two top assistants from Jeff Hornacek's staff have been fired, and Eric Bledsoe is done for the season after surgery to repair a torn meniscus.

    There's a scene in No Country for Old Men where the sheriff and deputy come upon a drug deal gone wrong in the middle of the desert and, seeing the carnage, the deputy says, "It's a mess, ain't it, sheriff?" and the sheriff replies, "If it ain't, it'll do till the mess gets here."

    That's the Suns right now.

    The Sixers or Lakers or Nets may eventually occupy the No. 30 spot again. Those teams are messes in their own ways.

    But the Suns, playing worse than anyone right now, will do until the mess gets here.

29. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Last Week: 30

    The Philadelphia 76ers' near-term goals are becoming clearer. They seem genuinely interested in playing half-decent, occasionally competitive basketball these days.

    The Ish Smith trade that energized the offense was the first sign, and head coach Brett Brown's recent decision to minimize the time Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel spend on the court together is another.

    We know the Sixers are bad no matter who's on the floor, but they're worse than usual with those two, posting a net rating of minus-23.8 points per 100 possessions that dwarfs their overall figure on the year (minus-12.4), per NBA.com.

    In their first three January games, Noel and Okafor logged an average of only 10 minutes per contest together.

    The Sixers used to be more concerned with getting their two best players reps together in hopes it'd pay off in the future, and they had no problem losing badly in the bargain. Now, they're staggering Noel and Okafor's minutes because the pairing is so presently unproductive.

    I feel like we don't even know who the Sixers are anymore.

28. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 29

    Sometimes, power rankings are simple.

    Wins over the Sixers and Suns last week make the Los Angeles Lakers the easy choice for No. 28. And lest there be any call for a higher ranking based on the three-game winning streak that bridged the new year, remember the Lakers are also the last team to lose to the cratering Hornets, and head coach Byron Scott just keeps destroying team morale by belittling young players.

    With his team up by 16 with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter of L.A.'s Jan. 3 win over the Suns, Scott yanked Julius Randle from the game. And while it's true that the second-year forward wasn't playing a whole lot of defense and was demonstrably annoyed when he didn't get the ball on offense, Scott didn't have to add Randle to the list of young Lakers he's publicly called out in the media.

    "He's got to grow up. Simple as that," Scott said of the 21-year old, per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times.

    This is nothing new for Scott or the Lakers this season, as the head coach has peppered Randle and rookie D'Angelo Russell with weekly criticisms. If only we had a veteran willing to speak candidly about the efficacy of Scott's methods.

    Take it away, Stephen Jackson.

27. Brooklyn Nets

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Last Week: 28

    A wider, season-long lens confirms the Brooklyn Nets have been the third-worst team in the league this season.

    Third-worst record, third-worst net rating, and third-worst simple rating. It's a clean sweep.

    But the Suns' nosedive and a respectable three-point road win over the Boston Celtics on Jan. 2 combine to push the Nets all the way up to No. 27 this week. Brook Lopez put up 30 points and 13 rebounds in that one, an effort that was part of his Eastern Conference Player of the Week award for games played Dec. 28 through Jan. 3.

    Also exciting: Brooklyn reportedly made another hire in its analytics department.

    That'll probably upset head coach Lionel Hollins, whose run-ins with new-school thinking have been well-documented, but maybe it'll eventually lead to better things for the Nets organization.

    Like, say, ranking 26th next week.

26. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Sad Ricky is sad.
    Sad Ricky is sad.David Sherman/Getty Images

    Last Week: 23

    "I think we've touched the bottom now," Ricky Rubio said before the Minnesota Timberwolves scored just 74 points in a Jan. 6 loss to the Denver Nuggets. "So we've got to find it somehow."

    At the time he made them, Rubio's comments made sense. The Wolves had just lost to the Sixers by 10, and a 90-minute team meeting/airing of grievances stood in for regular practice. All the signs of hitting bottom were there.

    Until the bottom fell out against Denver.

    Minnesota's defense has crumbled, its offense doesn't take enough threes to be competitive and the roster's overall effort level is waning. There's not much the inexperienced Wolves can do about those first two problem areas, but it will be absolutely vital in the coming weeks for them to address the third.

    Bad habits infect, and they can be hard to shake. If cornerstones Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns develop in this kind of diseased environment, the long-term effects could be devastating. Head coach Sam Mitchell isn't going to wow anyone with his strategic acumen, but his ability to motivate has never been more important.

25. Denver Nuggets

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Last Week: 25

    I guess keeping the Nuggets at No. 25 is pretty generous given their recent skid. The 78-74 win over the Wolves on Jan. 6 was the team's first since Dec. 23, and as we've established, Minnesota is no world-beater these days.

    Still, the Nuggets got Jusuf Nurkic (and his cool haircut) back last week, Kenneth Faried somehow didn't miss a game after a scary neck injury against the Golden State Warriors, and the team has consistently hung around against superior opponents.

    The rest of January is going to be rough, as every game will feature an opponent with more wins than the Nugs. At least the slate is home-heavy.

24. Milwaukee Bucks

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Last Week: 27

    The Bucks really hit the skids in last week's rankings, dropping to their lowest spot of the season. But a 1-2 week with forgivable losses to the Spurs and Bulls, the hottest teams in their respective conferences, was enough to recover some ground.

    And even if it fell into last week's time frame, that Dec. 31 win over the Indiana Pacers helped.

    Khris Middleton, everyone's advanced stat, emerging three-and-D darling last year, has also started to find his form. By connecting on 18 of his 34 triple attempts in games between Dec. 29 and Jan. 5, he has his three-point conversion rate all the way up to 45.3 percent on the year.

    Unfortunately, nobody on the Bucks—Middleton included—has played any defense at all this season. So the best we can say is Middleton is halfway back to being the promising two-way player who earned that big contract over the summer.

    If any other Bucks follow Middleton's lead, maybe we'll see this squad push its way into the teens before long.

23. Portland Trail Blazers

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    C.J. McCollum: "Inactive" and not jazzed about it.
    C.J. McCollum: "Inactive" and not jazzed about it.Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    Last Week: 19

    The Portland Trail Blazers went 0-1 against the Clerical Errors this past week, as a pregame lineup-card snafu forced C.J. McCollum, Portland's second-best player, to sit out a Jan. 6 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

    The details get a little more intriguing than that, though.

    After realizing they'd submitted a lineup card with McCollum mistakenly placed on the inactive list, the Blazers scrambled to correct the error in time. Joe Freeman of the Oregonian reports Portland had taken the necessary steps to fix it...until it came to Clips coach Doc Rivers' approval of the amended lineup.

    "In the end, according to a league source, the NBA gave Clippers coach Doc Rivers the option to let McCollum play," Freeman explained. "He declined."


    Maybe it's naive to expect the opposition to do the Blazers a solid by honoring the spirit of the law over the letter. But this feels a little petty, doesn't it?

    The loss to the Clippers, coupled with an ugly slip against the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 4, conspire to drop the Blazers a few notches. And they'll have to wait until March 24 to get a crack at revenge against Doc and the Clips.

    Until then, expect the Blazers to fill out their lineup cards in pencil.

22. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Last Week: 21

    It's hard to synthesize the New Orleans Pelicans' problems this year, but losing a game to a Dallas Mavericks team resting four starters just a few days after beating that same Mavs club at full strength comes pretty close.

    The Pelicans just can't get out of their own way.

    Crummy defense, zero interest in ratcheting up the pace by crashing the offensive glass and sporadic effort have contributed to one of the most disappointing seasons in the league. And that last part, the effort, really has head coach Alvin Gentry ticked, per Brett Dawson of the New Orleans Advocate:

    Now here we are once again back to the same old thing of saying, 'Oh, we're only this many games out of the playoffs.' But we're not going to get there. Just realistically, guys, unless we change our approach and what we're doing and the effort that we're playing with, we've got no chance of being a playoff team.

    Truth bomb deployed.

    Gentry bears some responsibility, but he's not wrong about the overall problem.

    New Orleans has a stretch next week against the Lakers, Kings and Hornets. If it can't run through that trio easily, it'll be an ominous sign.

21. Sacramento Kings

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Last Week: 24

    It turns out the Sixers are kinda, sorta, maybe more semi-respectable than we thought, so that Dec. 30 loss to Philly at home may not be the death knell it sounded like at the time.

    And the Sacramento Kings have since gone on to record a couple of asterisk-y wins over the Suns* and Thunder** since then.

    DeMarcus Cousins' has been cramming box scores of late, highlighted by his 35 points, 17 rebounds, six steals and 10 turnovers in a double-overtime loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 5. And it looks like maybe, juuuuuuuust maybe, the Kings are playing a little harder for George Karl these days.

    If that keeps up, and the West continues to fall apart behind the four elite teams at the top, Sacramento could wind up securing the playoff spot it's been sniffing around for the past couple of weeks.

    Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. These are still the Kings. We've seen them King for too long to rule out the possibility of them eventually Kinging this whole thing up.

    *Hardly an NBA team.

    **Sans Kevin Durant.

20. Utah Jazz

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    Derrick Favors, pre-back spasms.
    Derrick Favors, pre-back spasms.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Last Week: 22

    The Utah Jazz have been outscored on the year, haven't had Rudy Gobert in the lineup since November or Derrick Favors since before Christmas, and despite the lack of those conventional bigs, play at the slowest pace in the league.

    Bad, banged up and boring.

    The good news: They're still somehow in playoff position.

    That's the state of affairs in this year's stunningly mediocre Western Conference. And as long as Utah hangs around in its diminished form, the better its chances of really death-gripping that postseason ticket become when the big boys get back on the floor.

    Either way, this isn't the season the Jazz envisioned after a big step forward last year. But the schedule has been punishing (Utah has seen OKC three times and both San Antonio and Golden State twice already), and the injuries haven't helped.

    All things considered, Utah's in decent shape with a comically soft slate ahead in January.

    Don't lose faith in these guys just yet.

19. Charlotte Hornets

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Last Week: 15

    The Hornets have dropped a whole mess of games in a row, somehow fallen to the dysfunctional Suns and are playing some of the worst defense in the league lately.

    Having dispensed with the justification for their big slide in the rankings, we can address the more important issue of Jeremy Lin's hair.

    We have answers!

    In December, Lin told Hornets color commentator Dell Curry that teammate Spencer Hawes is the one responsible for choosing which outrageous look Lin sports every night. Whether it's Dragonball Z extra, skatepark reject from 1995 or the My Little Ponytail, it's Hawes—he of the Christmas tree suit, intentional mullet and "America: Love It or Leave It" headband—making the calls.

    And Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle explained on a Warriors Huddle podcast that a lost bet is the reason Lin is at Hawes' follicular mercy.

    In some ways, this should make people feel better about what Lin's doing. These hairstyles aren't his choice.

    In others, these revelations make Lin look even worse. Because only a lunatic would ever put his aesthetic fate in the hands of Spencer Hawes.

18. Washington Wizards

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 18

    Though recent events (losses to the Heat and Cavs) suggest the Washington Wizards are nowhere near ready to compete with the East's top teams, there's also good evidence the clubs more immediately ahead of Washington in the standings won't stay there for long.

    Both the Hornets and Orlando Magic are slipping, and the Wizards actually knocked off the Magic by a dozen on New Year's Day.

    Nene's return from injury should help, and the Wizards' schedule (third toughest in the league so far, per Basketball-Reference.com) can only get easier.

    If this team can hang around .500 until it gets Bradley Beal and a good chunk of the supporting rotation back, the playoffs are a possibility—even in a significantly improved Eastern Conference.

17. Orlando Magic

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 7

    The Magic's ongoing skid makes them a nice contrast for the schedule-hit Wizards, as Orlando's strong start looks like it may have been attributable to one of the league's easiest opposing slates.

    Basketball-Reference.com has the Magic's schedule ranked as the fifth easiest so far, but there's something even more concerning about that than the raw number. The four teams ahead of Orlando are the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder and Cavaliers—the league's clear top quartet who cannot play themselves and have barely played one another.

    Knowing that, you could make the case the Magic have actually had an easier schedule than anyone.

    No wonder, then, the Magic dropped their first four games of 2016 (all against East opponents of good-to-great quality) by an average of 18 points.

    Reality seems to be hitting Orlando hard, and the harsh plunge down the rankings reflects that.

    And yes, it's our fault for getting a little too geeked on the Magic without realizing the schedule-inflated record.

16. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 17

    Full disclosure: I'm not really sure what to do with the Grizzlies anymore.

    Their net rating still stinks because of those early blowouts, but their record remains above .500. They still can't score (No. 27 in offensive rating this year), but their defense has gradually worked its way back to average territory.

    And then there's the whole issue of valuing the chemistry, continuity and grit we've always admired about this team. What's that worth?

    Memphis soldiers on, in playoff position despite fighting age and physical decline.

    Mike Conley's painful oblique is the latest hindrance, and Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal reports it'll have an impact for a while: "Limiting his playing time will be the game plan for the foreseeable future."

    It feels like the Grizz are hanging on by a thread. Of course, it's felt that way for a while, and the thread has yet to snap.

15. Houston Rockets

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    Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 14

    Nobody's awarding the Houston Rockets points for beating up on the beleaguered Utah Jazz a couple of times, especially after a four-game slide closed out December and extended into the new year.

    As was the case with the Magic, we got a little caught up in believing Houston was ready to push its way into the realm of reliable winners. Maybe it can still happen, but there won't be another rankings climb like last week's until we have a long string of success to support it.

    A new three-game suspension for a July 2015 DUI conviction will shelve Ty Lawson, who'd been playing reasonably well in limited minutes. Lawson already served a two-gamer earlier this year for a separate offense.

    Houston has lots to worry about, not the least of which is an offense increasingly dependent on James Harden because of injuries to Dwight Howard and Donatas Motiejunas, per Shaun Powell of NBA.com:

    Surely, the Rockets have bigger concerns: How to keep Howard healthy, try to salvage the Lawson trade (or send him packing again) and how to defend better. They're in repair mode right now and the task on the front burner is climbing above .500 and staying there.

    But assuming that happens, if they don't soon seek a way to diversify and stop relying so much on Harden isolations, they might find themselves, well, isolated from the pack of contenders.

14. New York Knicks

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Last Week: 20

    How about those New York Knicks, y'all?

    They stuck it to the Atlanta Hawks twice, then beat the Heat on the road, getting some encouraging passing from Carmelo Anthony and a nice little edge from Kristaps Porzingis, who didn't back down from Kent Bazemore when things got chippy.

    "I feel a lot more comfortable now with ... letting somebody else have a breakout game and letting other guys get involved [to] get their confidence up," Anthony said, per Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com. "I feel more comfortable with that now."

    Melo's assist percentage is well above his career average. In fact, he's only ever had one season with a better one, the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign.

    Oh, and hey: New York has already surpassed its win total of last year, and watching the Knicks isn't the chore it used to be.

    Hence the big jump from the No. 20 spot.

13. Detroit Pistons

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Last Week: 16

    Rookie Stanley Johnson was instrumental in a 99-94 road win over the Boston Celtics on Jan. 6, and if the Detroit Pistons could get efforts like that one (11 points, 10 rebounds and a key three-pointer with under a minute left in regulation), their bench condition might get an upgrade from critical to stable.

    As it is, Detroit's starting unit—Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, Ersan Ilyasova and Andre Drummond—has logged 718 minutes together this year, almost 300 more than the next-closest fivesome (New York's starting lineup), per NBA.com.

    That's a heavy burden to bear, and it's likely wear and tear will catch up with the Pistons' overtaxed starters eventually. If Johnson's ready to take on a bigger role by then, it'll be huge. If he's not, Detroit will either have to find help from the outside via trade or, potentially, watch its postseason hopes drift away.

    For now, though, all's well. The Pistons move up a few spots after a 2-1 week.

12. Boston Celtics

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Last Week: 8

    The Celtics are right to be concerned. Inconsistency has plagued this team all year, cropping up from game to game and quarter to quarter.

    Following another bizarre offensive collapse that submarined a strong start and cost the team a win against the Pistons on Jan. 6, Jae Crowder was furious.

    Per Jay King of MassLive.com:

    Upon finishing his postgame press conference, Jae Crowder stomped away from the media, bellowing a single F-bomb into the night. The frustration was not directed at anybody in particular, but at the recollection of another letdown.

    'I look at the standings and it scares me how tight everything is,' Crowder said.

    That's the real issue for Boston, which drops a few spots after a sloppy week. The East is unforgiving, and the Celtics don't have the top-end talent necessary to compensate for lapses in focus and execution. This is going to cost them if they don't get it corrected.

    It's safe to say Crowder understands that.

11. Toronto Raptors

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Last Week: 5

    The loss of DeMarre Carroll is a major blow, but it's hard to know just how major with the Toronto Raptors declining to specify the reason behind arthroscopic surgery on his troublesome right knee. Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star reported a six-to-eight-week timetable, and Kyle Lowry assured Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun that Carroll wouldn't be out for the season.

    There's a lot of uncertainty here, but what's clear is this: Toronto needs its most versatile wing defender healthy in order to scare the East's best teams in the playoffs.

    Without him, we should expect more of what we saw last week: losses to the big dogs like Cleveland and Chicago mixed in with wins over pups like Washington and Brooklyn.

    Toronto slips significantly this week partly because of a 2-2 performance and partly because its future prospects are much dimmer without Carroll.

10. Indiana Pacers

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    Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

    Last Week: 12

    The Pacers still sit among the top 10 in net rating and simple rating, but that wasn't persuasive last week. They ranked 12th then because they were coming off a two-game losing streak that included an embarrassing fall to the Bucks.

    A better effort since then has them moving up a couple of spots and justifying their terrific advanced metrics. Indiana went 2-1 with wins over Detroit and Orlando despite C.J. Miles' shot going astray—perhaps because of the right shoulder injury he suffered against the Heat on Jan. 4.

    If the Pacers power through their upcoming three-game trip out West, it won't be hard to bump them ahead of the next couple of entries.

9. Dallas Mavericks

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 10

    This week hasn't been a banner one for the Mavs, who went 2-2 with an extremely shorthanded win over the Pelicans standing as the highlight.

    But, man, you've really got to give it to Rick Carlisle. The guy has a team everyone expected to visit the lottery gunning for one of the top four spots in the West.

    It feels like all of this could fall apart. Dirk Nowitzki is playing unreasonably well for a guy his age, and Wesley Matthews, Chandler Parsons and Deron Williams have all dealt (and will continue to deal) with injuries. And it's just not possible that Raymond Felton keeps hitting key threes late in games.


    Betting against Carlisle and the Mavs has been a losing proposition for a long time, though. So wager on a decline at your own risk.

8. Miami Heat

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Last Week: 13

    It feels like the Heat have settled into a groove of mostly consistent success interrupted occasionally by troublesome scoring droughts. A 3-1 week with a 98-90 loss to the Knicks the only blemish was about par for the course.

    Dwyane Wade's resurgence is real, and he and Chris Bosh have been a reliable pairing in the large number of close fourth quarters the Heat have played this year. But Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald suggests Miami needs someone else to share the load late:

    (Goran Dragic), making $85 million, would seem the most logical option. He is shooting 45 percent from the field in the fourth quarter including 42.9 percent from three (6 of 14). But he's only attempted the sixth-most shots on the team (40) in the final period and he's only shot the ball four times total in the clutch.

    Dragic hasn't fit perfectly with the Heat yet, and it's true he'll need to find his niche if this team is going to threaten the Cavs down the line.

    Big picture: Worrying about a third clutch scorer so you can compete with the conference's best is a pretty good problem to have.

7. Atlanta Hawks

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    Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 6

    I'm not really sure what to do with those back-to-back losses to the Knicks on Jan. 3 and 5.

    In theory, the Hawks should slip—especially since we make it such a point to value recent performance in compiling these rankings. But...really? Doesn't this feel like an anomaly, or at the very least an acknowledgment that the Knicks are actually kind of good?

    Consider this the rare instance where we fudge the recency point a little and focus on a broader body of work.

    Since Dec. 15, Atlanta has the third-most wins and the sixth-highest net rating in the league. And Paul Millsap has been one of the 10 or so best players in the NBA all year (seventh in ESPN's RPM), even if his All-Star votes fall criminally short of reflecting that.

    So they get a pardon for those two weird defeats. Don't you burn me for this, Hawks.

6. Chicago Bulls

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Last Week: 11

    Well, this escalated quickly.

    After being denied the high ranking their record and overwhelming fan sentiment screamed they deserved, Chicago makes a jump for the second week in a row, moving all the way to the edge of the top five this time.

    Let it never be said these rankings are stubborn. When the evidence presents itself, even the most seemingly screwed-over teams get justice.

    Jimmy Butler has been an absolute monster, scoring 40 points in single halves, carrying the backcourt load without Derrick Rose (maybe it's time to accept D-Rose is more detriment than benefit) and generally playing like the best shooting guard in the league.

    Thanks to a Butler-led streak, Chicago now owns the second-best win percentage in the East. Everybody liked this team to be Cleveland's biggest challenger. Recently, the Bulls have looked the part.

5. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Last Week: 9

    So...the Clips can just cut Blake Griffin? Is that the takeaway here?

    L.A. has won every game since Griffin went down with a quadriceps injury, and Chris Paul has predictably picked up the slack with the superstar power forward out. He posted 21 points and 19 assists in a Jan. 6 win over the Blazers, saying afterward, "I think what [Griffin's absence] does right now is it gives other guys confidence, so that when Blake does come back, guys sort of have a rhythm."

    If that's true, it'll make things interesting in the West, where we've had a clear three-team top tier for most of the season. If the Clips build on what they've done without him and then hit another gear with Griffin back in the rotation, the 5-8 seeds in the conference may as well just not show up to the playoffs.

    Los Angeles' schedule stays easy for the next two weeks: five games, all at home. So this run could build up some serious steam.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 3

    I don't feel great about this, as the Thunder have clearly been the third-best team in the league all year. But recent events including a Cavaliers surge and a Thunder loss to the Kings (no, I don't care if Durant was out. You can't lose to the Kings and stay in the top three) mean it's time to drop OKC a spot.

    It's also true that Oklahoma City lost to Cleveland when they last met. Though that doesn't mean everything, it means something.

    On a related note, do you realize how easy it is to find new pictures of Russell Westbrook making that face? It's like every third photo in the Getty Images database, and there are new ones added every day.

    I mention this because it's hard to fathom a player with that kind of endlessly renewable intensity letting his team sit outside the top three for long.

    I'm a little scared I've made a mistake. And just scared in general. Let's move on.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 4

    This new guy, Kyrie Irving, I think his name is, can play a little bit. And the Cavs defense is getting serious lately, ranking fifth in the league since Dec. 15, per NBA.com.

    "He's, if not the best, one or two best point guards in our league along with Steph," LeBron James said of Irving after the point guard scored 32 points in a Jan. 6 win over the Wizards, per a tweet from Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com.

    With Irving looking every bit the stud he was before busting his kneecap and Tristan Thompson playing extremely well as the new starting center, the Cavaliers have earned a return to the No. 3 spot the Thunder withheld from them for most of the past few weeks.

    Healthy, streaking to five straight wins and salivating over an upcoming menu that features the Wolves and Sixers, Cleveland is in a strong position.

2. Golden State Warriors

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Last Week:  2

    Stephen Curry's back after some time off, but he keeps getting cracked on that sore left shin, which isn't great for the Warriors' long-term plans. But the return of Harrison Barnes from a prolonged ankle sprain recovery sure is.

    The Dubs' lack of capable reserve power forwards showed up in a big way with Barnes out, and his reinsertion into the rotation also enables Golden State to lean on that unstoppable Death Lineup that buried the league for the first month of the season.

    The overall story with the Warriors is the same as it was last week: They're great with Curry and capable of playing at a higher level than anyone else for decisive chunks of games. But the bench surrenders advantages built by the starters, and another team has simply been much more dominant than they have for the past six weeks.

    Even though the Warriors did nothing but win since last week's rankings, they don't get to move up.

1. San Antonio Spurs

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    This is as animated as Kawhi Leonard gets.
    This is as animated as Kawhi Leonard gets.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Last Week: 1

    Here's the scary thing if you're the Warriors, who still, by the way, have a sizable lead on the Spurs for the top seed in the West: San Antonio has doubled Golden State's net rating since Dec. 1.

    And the Spurs have done it while flat-out cruising.

    LaMarcus Aldridge gets nights off to rest, Tim Duncan never sees a 30-minute game, guys like Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and Boban Marjanovic enter games and build on leads. Kawhi Leonard is probably the second-best player in the league.

    It's just...it's crazy.

    This is easy for the Spurs. They're crushing everyone without the slightest sense of urgency. And all those historical metrics that used to say this Warriors team was one of the best ever now show the Spurs are a heck of a lot better.

    Draymond Green is a beast. Stephen Curry may still be the MVP. And maybe the Warriors will hit another level when Steve Kerr gets back on the sideline.

    But if things keep going like they're going, the Spurs will usurp that No. 1 seed in the West.

    And their grip on the top spot here has only gotten stronger.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Accurate through games played Jan. 7.

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