2015-16 NBA Power Rankings as Season's 2nd Half Begins

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 22, 2016

2015-16 NBA Power Rankings as Season's 2nd Half Begins

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    We finally got to see some of the elites square off last week, as the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs both faced the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    The results brought some clarity to this edition of the NBA power rankings—and a shake-up in the top four.

    Elsewhere, some of the league's early disappointments showed signs of correcting mistakes and meeting expectations—better late than never. The results include some huge jumps in the rankings by teams we'd mostly written off. Unfortunately, those leaps come at the expense of other squads who can't seem to stop their slides.

    The rules haven't changed. The rankings are still based on overall performance with an eye toward recent events. Injuries are factors, as they naturally affect each team's present strength, which is ultimately what we're measuring here.

    A lot has changed since last week's rankings, and plenty more is in flux as we hit the season's second half.

30. Phoenix Suns

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Last Week: 30

    We've buried the Phoenix Suns for mailing it in over the past few weeks, so maybe it's best to change the angle of attack, if only for variety's sake. Don't worry, though: The result, a No. 30 ranking, won't change.

    Because pegging Phoenix as the league's worst team is just as easy from a statistical standpoint.

    No team has allowed opponents to shoot more efficiently this year than the Suns, who've permitted an astounding 53.1 effective field-goal percentage, per NBAMiner.com. And since Jan. 1, Phoenix has scored at the NBA's fourth-worst efficiency rate.

    That combination won't win you many games, and predictably, the Suns are a league-worst 1-15 since Dec. 20.

    Expect trade talks to heat up as Phoenix tries to salvage something from its lost season. Getting rid of Markieff Morris would be a start, and just about everyone outside of rookie sniper Devin Booker should be available.

29. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 26

    An 0-3 week with a 21-point average margin of defeat is a good way to lose ground in the power rankings. A good way to reclaim it might be playing D'Angelo Russell a lot more going forward.

    We've already gushed about Russell's court sense, cutting and passing eye, and now we have numbers to support the idea that his intuitive play makes the Lakers better.

    Per NBA.com, L.A. has outscored opponents by 2.2 points per 100 possessions with Russell on the floor in games since Jan. 1. In that same span, the Lakers have been crushed by 17.5 points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench. On-off ratings are far from perfect, but in watching Russell recently, it's easy to understand why L.A. performs better with him out there: He's a real basketball player who, it seems at this early juncture, can make his teammates better.

    Figuring out how to get him as many minutes as possible without accidentally winning enough games to botch their lottery position might be the Lakers' biggest challenge of the second half.

28. Brooklyn Nets

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 27

    The Brooklyn Nets didn't win last week, and all anyone has been talking about lately is how the hopeless, pick-less, directionless years to come are going to feature similar loss-filled stretches. Brooklyn doesn't control its own first-round pick until 2019, its core consists of Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, and there's absolutely no high-end young talent on the roster.

    It's been all doom and gloom since the Nets canned their head coach and general manager, which is pretty much how it was before that shake-up.

    But let's not wallow in the problems. Let's find solutions.

    Mika Honkasolo of HoopsHype.com has the best suggestion I've heard for a Nets rebuild: overpaying for a specific type of talent:

    Perhaps going after younger restricted free agents just coming off their rookie contracts would fit the Nets’ timetable better. By the time they start drafting again, those players will be right in their prime and presumably have the highest value for the Nets as players or trade chips, in case the opportunity arises to then support the rebuild by having established pieces and drafting around them or moving those players for additional assets to jumpstart the rebuild again.

    It makes sense. The Nets can't go crazy spending on 28-year-olds who won't be any good when reinforcements arrive through the draft years from now. Other teams can match offers from the Nets on restricted free agents, but it's worth a shot.

27. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 28

    A huge win over the Suns doesn't mean much for most teams, but the Minnesota Timberwolves desperately needed the 117-87 victory they notched over the league's cellar dwellers Jan. 17. It ended a nine-game slide and prevented yet another winless week.

    With the Nets going 0-4 and the Wolves cutting a sympathetic figure under Sam Mitchell's confounding leadership, it was a little easier to throw Minnesota a bone with a one-spot bump.

    Just for fun, let's go big picture for a second: Andrew Wiggins is now shooting 24.5 percent from three this season, and his career accuracy rate is down to 28 percent. There's no questioning his tools, athleticism or physical potential. But if he's going to be a second option behind Karl-Anthony Towns in the long run (which Towns' superior potential suggests should be the case), Wiggins must become a bigger catch-and-shoot threat.

    This is the part where you say: Calm down, you lunatic. He's 20 years old.

    Fair point.

26. Orlando Magic

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Last Week: 20

    The Orlando Magic have won once in 2016, and an 83-77 defeat of the Nets back on Jan. 8 hardly qualifies as a triumph.

    Boasting the league's worst offense and a bottom-10 defense since Jan. 1, the Magic have been a disaster. And while Victor Oladipo's knee sprain has kept him sidelined, his absence is hardly the chief concern. The real issue is that the Magic's soft early schedule is toughening up now, and it's starting to look like the wins they piled up in November and December were little more than fool's gold.

    According to Basketball-Reference.com, the reeling Magic have played the fourth-easiest slate in the league.

    Five of Orlando's next seven games are on the road, and that stretch includes visits to Memphis, Boston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

    This will get worse before it gets better.

25. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 29

    After what was easily the best week of their season, the Philadelphia 76ers are finally earning praise, even if it's of the kind only a 6-38 team likely to pick first in the draft tends to garner.

    Wins over the Portland Trail Blazers and Orlando Magic sandwiched around a double-overtime loss to the New York Knicks gave Philly a winning week against decent competition. So now, the understandably protective Australian media aren't quite so terrified by the fate of beloved Aussie and probable top pick Ben Simmons.

    Paul Suttor of the Sydney Morning Herald leads off his Jan. 19 column like this: "Ben Simmons' likely selection by Philadelphia won't necessarily translate into years of pain at a franchise which has been an embarrassment to the NBA over the past three seasons."

    Hooray! Simmons won't spend his early years in a noxious pit of despair! He might not be miserable!

    That excerpt ranks No. 1 in the Hilariously Backhanded Compliment Power Rankings.

    The only thing the clearly improved Sixers need to worry about is winning enough games to take themselves out of the Simmons sweepstakes.

24. Denver Nuggets

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    Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 23

    Scoring 45 points in a decisive fourth quarter is a big deal, even if it came against a short-handed Indiana Pacers team, and even if it led to the Denver Nuggets' only win of the week.

    An even bigger deal: Emmanuel Mudiay is scrapping his busted jumper. In a two-game span against the Pacers and Thunder, 14 of his 24 field-goal attempts came at the rim. Mudiay is attacking far more often than he did earlier in the year, and even though he shoots a subpar 49.0 percent inside three feet (the league average is 61.5 percent), that's a heck of a lot better than the alternative.

    In every scoring zone outside of three feet, Mudiay shoots 27 percent or worse.

    That's unfathomably bad.

    So even if getting to the rim represents the best of mostly bad options, at least Mudiay understands the most efficient way for him to play.

    "I felt like I was taking too many jumpers," Mudiay told Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post. "That’s not my game. I’ve got to get to the basket, get a couple of dunks, you feel good about yourself."

    That's a start.

23. Charlotte Hornets

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    Kent Smith/Getty Images

    Last Week: 22

    The Charlotte Hornets slip again after a 1-3 week that included losses to the Pelicans, Bucks and Thunder. A double-overtime win against the Utah Jazz, made possible by Kemba Walker's 52-point eruption, was all that separated Charlotte from four straight defeats.

    In some ways, it's easier to be hopeful about the Hornets than their conference foils, the Magic. Charlotte has played a tough schedule (sixth-hardest in the league) and has dealt with injuries to a number of key players.

    It's hard to know what Al Jefferson can contribute whenever he makes it back from meniscus surgery, but you'd have to expect (and be encouraged by) the news on Michael-Kidd Gilchrist, who was cleared for practice in what could be the final stage of his recovery from a torn labrum.

    Whenever he retakes the court, the Hornets will get an elite defender who posted the highest individual net rating on the team last year, per NBA.com. It's not like the Hornets will have to wait for him to find his shot or sharpen up his ball-handling. MKG's legs will be fresh, and the shoulder injury shouldn't affect his defense.

    So, as the losses mount, at least there's hope for the Hornets' future.

22. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 24

    Don't look now, but the Milwaukee Bucks, 3-0 this past week, seem to have found something they'd been missing since last season ended.


    In those three wins against the Hawks, Hornets and Heat, the Bucks posted a defensive rating of 92.3, third-best in the NBA since last week's rankings.

    Granted, we're dealing with a three-game sample of good D that looks insignificant against a half-season in which the Bucks didn't stop anybody. But we saw Milwaukee post the league's second-best defense for an entire year last season, so we know potential is hidden in there somewhere.

    This season hasn't been the leap forward many hoped for in Milwaukee, but with the apparent return of some defensive intensity, the Bucks are back within striking distance of a playoff spot.

21. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 21

    Eric Gordon's broken finger dims the lights on a relatively bright 3-1 week for the Pelicans, whose already limited supply of quality NBA players could ill afford the loss of another one. Gordon will be out for four to six weeks, joining Quincy Pondexter, who is already done for the season.

    Without those two, the Pelicans have no reliable three-point shooters on the wing, which will only make life harder for Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis in the pick-and-roll game.

    A long homestand continues through the end of the month, and it's possible the Pellies will use that stretch to push closer to the still-somehow-accessible No. 8 spot in the West. For the sake of the team's long-term prospects, let's hope postseason proximity doesn't spur a win-now trade as the deadline nears. This team is getting signs from the cosmos that this isn't its year, and building a support system for Davis through the draft should remain the top priority.

20. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 19

    Losing to the Sixers doesn't mean what it used to, and the Blazers fought hard to the finish in a 104-98 loss to the Hawks on Jan. 20. In all, Portland went 2-2 after cracking the top 20 in last week's rankings, but it still has to lose a spot to make room for another West team that had a better (and far more surprising) run.

    It's a minor miracle the Blazers are within a game of a playoff spot halfway into the season. Losing four of five starters to free agency is supposed to spur a total teardown, but Portland has played better than expected behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and, just as importantly, has taken advantage of a down year in the West to stay relevant.

    The rest of January features a good combination of easy foes and in-conference opponents against whom the Blazers can make up ground in the postseason race.

    So long as the defense (109.5 points allowed per 100 possessions last week) picks up, Portland has a great chance to nose its way into the West's top eight by February.

19. Utah Jazz

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    Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 18

    The Utah Jazz just want to go home...or at least they should.

    Utah's six road wins on the season put them ahead of only the Suns, Lakers and Pelicans in the West. So it wasn't a surprise when the Jazz, despite facing two favorable away matchups against the Knicks and Hornets last week, dropped both in overtime.

    Before they return to Salt Lake City, the Jazz will have to face the Nets and Wizards to conclude their four-game trip. Those are both winnable games for Utah—especially with Gordon Hayward producing (36 points against the Hornets and 27 against the Knicks) and Rudy Gobert returning to form after missing time with an MCL sprain.

    But if we've learned anything about the Jazz, who've slipped another spot this week, it's that nothing is guaranteed for them on the road.

18. Sacramento Kings

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Last Week: 25

    It worked! It really worked!

    The Sacramento Kings pushed themselves into the No. 8 spot in the West with a 112-93 win over the Lakers on Jan. 20, the team's third straight on the road. And they solidified that position with an impressive victory over the Hawks the very next day.

    This was what the Kings wanted. This was what they were chasing when they surrendered draft picks and cleared cap space in a seemingly crazed effort to sign middling free agents.

    The future effects of the Kings' summer moves will probably be unpleasant, but they've fashioned the kind of present they were hoping for.

    DeMarcus Cousins has been beastly, and he secured his league-leading 10th game of at least 30 points and 10 rebounds when he hung 36 and 16 on the Lakers.

    Defense remains an issue, as the Kings are still firmly in the bottom 10 in efficiency on that end, per NBA.com. But with Cousins (steam)rolling and Rajon Rondo finishing at the rim better than he ever has, Sacramento's scoring punch is potent.

17. Miami Heat

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Last Week: 15

    If the Heat can't field a full NBA roster because of injury, at least they'll be able to fall back on volunteering as test patients for medical students. Between Dwyane Wade's shoulder, Hassan Whiteside's oblique, Goran Dragic's calf, Beno Udrih's neck, Luol Deng's right eye and Josh McRoberts' knee, they have just about every possible extremity covered.

    Line them up, send them into a classroom and let the students practice diagnosing the symptoms.

    Miami is in trouble. Losers of three straight and six of seven, the Heat have simply been unable to put enough quality NBA bodies on the floor. Chris Bosh is often out there alone, asked to create shots and anchor the defense (especially with Whiteside hurting) in a way that feels deeply ironic after he spent years settling into a third-wheel role behind LeBron James and Wade.

    Fully healthy, the Heat are probably a top-four team in the East. But it's starting to seem like this injury trend is irreversible.

    The result? Another week in decline.

16. Washington Wizards

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Last Week: 16

    We just mentioned the Heat's broken-down condition, so the Wizards don't get much credit for creaming them by 19 points on Jan. 20. And with losses to the Celtics and Blazers also on last week's ledger, the only bright spot was a win over the Pacers way back on Jan. 15.

    And so, as has been the case for most of the past three years, the Wizards continue their unending dance with mediocrity in the regular season.

    One potential source of concern: Head coach Randy Wittman has recently gone back to the twin-tower lineup featuring Marcin Gortat and Nene together—a surprising move considering Washington's success with spacing and undersized power forwards in last year's playoffs and, more importantly, whenever Jared Dudley has been on the floor this season.

    The two bigs started together for the first time this year against Miami and had some success.

    The sample has been small so far, though, which is probably how it should stay.

    We know Washington needs more room for John Wall to get into the lane and work his magic.

15. Boston Celtics

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    Claus Andersen/Getty Images

    Last Week: 17

    The Celtics get a slight bump after a week in which they flashed some surprising offensive punch, scoring at least 109 points in all four games they played. But their 2-2 mark is still mildly discouraging because it could have been 4-0 if they would have played any defense at all.

    Every Boston opponent broke the century mark last week, which is a strange development for a Celtics team that ranks fourth in the league in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com.

    Jae Crowder knows how dangerous it is for the Celtics to go away from their strengths.

    "It’s been good to see the ball going in the hole for a lot of guys this trip," he told Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe after giving up 115 point in a loss to the Raptors. "But we’ve got to get back to our defense."

    Crowder and Isaiah Thomas have been terrific, and guys like Kelly Olynyk have carried Boston on offense for entire quarters at a time. If there's any way for the C's to marry their newfound offensive prowess with the defense they've played all year, they could quickly vault back into the upper ends of the East playoff race.

14. New York Knicks

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Last Week: 13

    It really does hurt to move the Knicks down after a 2-1 week, but we've reached the point in the rankings where the difference in positioning is based on tiny margins. And in this particular case, a couple of teams that ranked below New York last week have simply been better.

    Needing overtime to beat the Sixers and Jazz, which the Knicks did last week, isn't a sign of massive growth. However, it was nice to see New York hang tough and win after Kristaps Porzingis committed an ill-advised foul that allowed the Jazz to tie the game late in regulation on Jan. 20.

    The overall picture in New York is rosy. The Knicks are the most valuable franchise in the NBA, Carmelo Anthony passed Larry Bird on the scoring list and head coach Derek Fisher remains impressed by Melo's unselfish play.

    "The interesting thing for Melo is that there’s this land of opportunity out there that he has not quite accessed yet," Fisher told Ian Begley of ESPN.com. "And that’s what we’re here to do alongside of him."

    Anthony's career-best assist rate is a huge key to New York's success, and it sounds like the Knicks plan to get even more out of the defensive attention he draws.

13. Dallas Mavericks

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    Last Week: 12

    The Dallas Mavericks' last three losses came against the Spurs, Cavs and Thunder, so we can't well send them spiraling down the standings for that. They needed overtime to beat the Celtics and Timberwolves this past week, though, so a small decline felt warranted.

    Plus, Dirk Nowitzki's knee is acting up. He missed the game against Minnesota with swelling, which is a concern because the knee in question is the one he had surgically repaired in 2012.

    And also because Dirk is 37, and the NBA reaper gets everyone eventually.

    Zaza Pachulia's previously torn Achilles is also bothering him, which means Dallas' two best frontcourt players are banged up at the same time.

    Chandler Parsons hung 30 on the Timberwolves, which is a great sign as he continues to work back after offseason microfracture surgery. But the Mavs will need more than he can provide if they're going to stay anywhere near the top 10 here.

12. Chicago Bulls

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Last Week: 10

    There's not a whole lot of shame in becoming the latest victim in the Warriors' rampage of resurgence, so the Chicago Bulls don't slip much after losing by 31 to the Dubs on Jan. 20. That disastrous 83-77 loss to the Mavs on Jan. 15 is more to blame.

    The Bulls will be without Joakim Noah for a while after the big man separated his left shoulder, but he was having a rough year, and (glass half-full) maybe his absence will goose the offense a little.

    Derrick Rose played what might have been his most aesthetically encouraging game in years against Golden State, hitting bank shots, darting into the lane and flashing an explosive left-to-right crossover that made you think, just for a second, that it was 2011 again.

    Rose's mini-renaissance aside, the vibes aren't great on this Bulls team. After scoring 29 against Golden State, Rose said Chicago "let go of the rope," per Nick Friedell of ESPN.com.

    The Bulls play nine of their next 10 games on the road, where they've gone just 8-9 so far this season. So they'd better grab ahold of that rope again if they want to stay anywhere near the top 10 spots here.

11. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 14

    The Grizzlies continue their climb with a familiar force driving them upward: defense.

    Boasting the sixth-best defensive rating in the league since Jan. 1, Memphis is stifling opponents again. And if Marc Gasol is going to make a habit of tossing off 37-point games like he did in a Jan. 16 win over the Knicks, this might be a Grizzlies team capable of scaring a first-round playoff opponent.

    That's seemed impossible just a few weeks ago.

    Memphis' upcoming schedule is a straight-up joke. Minnesota, Orlando, Milwaukee and Sacramento make up the rest of the January slate. With four straight wins in the bag, the Grizz could extend that run to eight ahead of a Feb. 1 meeting with the New Orleans Pelicans.

    Those early blowouts continue to drag down the Grizzlies' overall numbers, and the offense is still a problem. But as the season wears on, Memphis is looking more and more like its old self.

10. Houston Rockets

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    Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 9

    It might be time to talk about the Houston Rockets defense.

    First point: It's bad.

    After giving up 140 points on (rough estimate) six zillion made threes to the Clippers in overtime, Houston surrendered 123 points to the Pistons in the hack-fest against Andre Drummond. Detroit, you should know, is not an offensive powerhouse. In fact, before that bucket bonanza against the Rockets, the Pistons ranked 20th in offensive efficiency.

    No matter how bad Drummond is from the stripe, when you have to resort to intentionally fouling because you can't stop the Pistons, you have a problem.

    This is a strange development for a Houston team that ranked sixth in defensive efficiency just last year. This season, the Rockets are allowing about five more points per 100 possessions with, essentially, the same personnel.

    So, we've reached a point where we can only conclude the Rockets aren't trying all that hard.

    Seems familiar, doesn't it?

9. Indiana Pacers

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    Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 8

    Who's up for some more hot defense talk?

    Indiana, notable this season for its purported move from size and defense to pace and space, has still actually been better at stopping than scoring.

    Until recently.

    "When we start deciding to defend, we'll start winning again," head coach Frank Vogel said to reporters after Indiana gave up 129 points in a loss to the Nuggets. That defeat was the Pacers' third in a row, and the low-scoring win over the Suns that closed the week hardly eased concerns because, remember, the Suns are not currently an NBA basketball team.

    The Pacers face four high-scoring opponents in a row next in Golden State, Sacramento, the Clippers and Atlanta. We'll soon know if Indy's sudden generosity is a blip or a trend that could ruin an otherwise surprisingly good season.

8. Detroit Pistons

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    Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 11

    It would be easy to spend this space lamenting Andre Drummond's cataclysmically poor free-throw shooting and wondering how the Detroit Pistons can find ways to prevent teams from sending him to the line for an NBA record 23 freebies—like the Houston Rockets did Jan. 20.

    But the foul-shooting issue has been done to death. The NBA needs to change the rule because the current one makes the game terrible to watch. End of story.

    Besides, the Pistons beat the full-strength Warriors by 18 on Jan. 16, making them the first team this year to topple the defending champs without a built-in excuse.

    Unfortunately, that result only counts for so much after losses to the Bulls and Pelicans.

    Detroit moves up because it did something nobody else has done. But the potential for an even bigger jump would have been there if not for a couple of other missteps.

7. Atlanta Hawks

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    Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 7

    There's not a whole lot to worry about with the Hawks, who concluded a busy week with a tough loss (on a back-to-back at the end of a road trip) to the Kings, ending their winning streak at three. Nonetheless, they hold strong at No. 7 in these rankings.

    But if you wanted to get a little picky, you could highlight the point guard spot and, specifically, ask whether Jeff Teague should still be playing more than Dennis Schroder. On-off data from NBA.com shows the Hawks are wildly more effective with Schroder on the floor and that they actually get outscored during Teague's minutes.

    You have to account for the fact that Schroder sees a lot of time against inferior second units, plus Teague's superior three-point shooting makes him the kind of perimeter threat the Hawks like to feature at as many positions as possible.

    But Atlanta just hasn't performed as well with Teague running the show.

    If it was unclear at all, we've officially reached another tier in these rankings: This is the one where we run out of real criticisms and have to dig around for concerns.

6. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 6

    Thanks to six consecutive wins capped by a perfect 2-0 week, the Raptors complete the impossible task of being named the East's second-best team in one edition of the power rankings and maintaining that designation long enough to reach the next one.

    Up to now, we'd seen the Hawks, Pacers, Raptors (yes, they were here before) and seemingly every other intriguing East squad occupy this spot—only to cough it up with two or three losses in a row.

    It was uncanny.

    Toronto looks steady behind All-Star starter Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, both of whom have held up nicely in the absence of DeMarre Carroll. And when Carroll returns later this season, we should expect to see the Raps' defensive rating join their offensive efficiency in the top 10. Though probably not a legitimate title contender, Toronto is getting close to bearing some of the statistical markers we associate with teams in that class.

    And also, the Raptors produced my favorite video clip of the year. Extra points for that.

5. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Last Week: 5

    J.J. Redick is up to 49.5 percent on his three-point conversion rate this season. And he's been even better than that since Blake Griffin went down with a strained quadriceps.

    He went off for a career-high 40 points against the Rockets last week, and he seems to have benefited more than anyone from the freed-up offensive flow Griffin's absence has allowed. Instead of Griffin hanging around the elbows while DeAndre Jordan lurks underneath, the Clips offense has recently featured just one conventional big and more spacing around the perimeter.

    The upshot has been more looks for Redick (somebody has to shoot without Griffin around) and more makes. It's enough to make you wonder if maybe the Clippers should have been featuring him more all along.

    As Michael Pina wrote for RealGM.com: "Redick is an integral part of the Clippers offense, and ramping up his opportunities should be a priority for their coaching staff—even after his shooting splits drift down from the sky."

    Which they will.

    But this has been incredible to watch.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Last Week: 3

    The Cavaliers topple from the No. 3 spot for the first time in two weeks because, as you may have heard, they've hit a rough patch.

    That's a relative term, of course, as the only thing those losses to the Spurs and Warriors taught us was that Cleveland isn't part of the true, two-team upper echelon that features the Spurs and Dubs. It's an exclusive club—one that basically requires historically significant dominance for admission—and it's hardly a knock to say the Cavs aren't in it.

    Nobody freak out. They'll still cruise to the Finals.

    Slipping below the Thunder has more to do with the general vulnerabilities those losses showed: Kevin Love's minimal role, Kyrie Irving's ineffective defense and the book officially being out on Matthew Dellavedova (just let him try to make layupshe can't).

    OKC, meanwhile, has kept its net rating above Cleveland's all along.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 4

    This isn't complicated.

    The Thunder have won six in a row, four of them by at least 14 points, and their two best players will (deservedly) start the All-Star Game.

    Kyle Singler is hitting carbon copies of Magic Johnson's skyhook in the 1987 Finals, for crying out loud. So, yes, things are going pretty well for OKC.

    Hence, all the dancing.

    As is the case for Cleveland, we're only measuring the Thunder against the Spurs and Warriors now. They're clearly better than everyone else.

    The difference for OKC is, as the likely No. 3 seed, it'll have to beat both West powerhouses to win a championship. Cleveland will only need to topple one. That's a tall order, and we'll get our next shot to see how prepared the Thunder are to handle it when they meet the Dubs on Feb. 6.

2. Golden State Warriors

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Last Week: 2

    That loss to the Pistons means we still can't give the Warriors back their No. 1 spot.

    Sorry, just can't.

    And that's a hard position to take after the latter part of the week clearly showed there's a level the Dubs can reach that nobody—not even the indomitable Spurs—can reach. Golden State pulverized the Cavaliers, a good team, on their home floor. Granted, it took that wake-up-call loss to the Pistons to draw that performance out of the Warriors, but the point is that performance was in there.

    As great as San Antonio is, it can't reach Golden State's furious offensive pace. It can't ignite nets from 30 feet. It can't eviscerate opponents with the simplest pick-and-roll action again and again and again. And, statistically, it hasn't beaten back-to-back opponents by at least 30 points, which the Warriors did when they followed up the Cleveland demolition with an equally concussive shelling of the Bulls.

    If the Warriors keep this up through next week, proving they're awake again for an extended period, they'll get the top spot back.

    For now, it still belongs to San Antonio.

1. San Antonio Spurs

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    Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 1

    The Spurs have been the best team in the league for almost two months, but it took them a while to overtake the Warriors because those pesky Dubs just wouldn't lose. So now, even though recent events suggest Golden State is back at its peak, San Antonio gets to hold onto its perch for the same reason.

    We can't take away the top spot until the Spurs slip, and that doesn't necessarily mean a loss. A couple of unconvincing wins could give the Warriors the edge they need, especially if they keep throttling opponents like they have lately.

    The problem is that the Spurs show no signs of stumbling.

    Remember, they beat the Cavs, too. And they've generally handled their other business by double digits.

    If you step back a second and try to justify demoting a team on a 12-game winning streak, it strikes you as ridiculous. Because it is.

    San Antonio stays put, and that Jan. 25 date with the Warriors only gets more exciting.

    Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Current through games played Jan. 21.


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