2016-17 NBA Power Rankings: Mid-November Edition

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 11, 2016

2016-17 NBA Power Rankings: Mid-November Edition

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    Things are looking up for Blake Griffin in this week's NBA power rankings, as his Los Angeles Clippers find themselves shoving past some of last year's established powerhouses.

    It's as though the Clips, usually the embodiment of the not-quite-there sub-contender, are barging into the void this season's underperforming favorites created. Whether L.A. hangs onto its newfound position will depend on its sustained defensive excellence and, perhaps more critically, the expected superpowers remaining dormant.

    Of course, even if the Clippers eventually slip back into their usual spot, the other team from Los Angeles is making its own push upward. It seems L.A. is a good spot for basketball these days.

    As always, these rankings are measures of each team's current strength. Records, head-to-head meetings, advanced metrics and injuries all play roles in the calculus.

    Nearly halfway through November, here's how things stand.

30. Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers haven't won a game yet, though they've come dangerously close a handful of times.

    Gerald Henderson's go-ahead triple nearly put Philly over the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday, for example. However, Indy tied things up and took care of business in overtime.

    So, because we've spent this space gushing about Joel Embiid for weeks on end, and because doing it again would be overkill, here's Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman on his top 2017 NBA draft prospect, Washington's Markelle Fultz:

    At 6'4", 195 pounds with 6'9 ¾" length, Fultz's measurements are nearly identical to John Wall's at the 2010 NBA Draft Combine. He's an exciting athlete as well, capable of bouncing above the rim in traffic. 

    But it's his skill level that still separates him from the pack. A slick ball-handler, Fultz creates shots left and right. He can separate into—as well as convert—off-balance jumpers or runners one-on-one. And despite his ability to score in bunches from all over the floor, he's unselfish, willing and capable of setting up teammates as the offense's facilitator.

    This seems like more relevant information to the Sixers and their fans than any assessment of what's gone on during a winless season.

29. New Orleans Pelicans

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    By losing their first eight games of the season, the New Orleans Pelicans tied a record set by the 2004-05 Hornets for the worst start in franchise history. But New Orleans avoided breaking that mark, winning on the road versus the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday to move to 1-8.

    That 2004-05 team, it seems pertinent to mention, went on to finish 18-64.

    Before anyone starts assuming things will go that badly for this year's Pels, remember Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans will be back at some point. And new additions Buddy Hield and Solomon Hill can't possibly keep clanking threes like they have so far: The former is shooting 23.5 percent from deep, while the latter is marginally better at 30 percent.

    Defensively, the Pelicans have been respectable, ranking 14th in the league and generally putting forth good effort. Anthony Davis is, of course, a superstar—albeit one toiling alone.

    It has long been the position of this ranking authority that New Orleans should tank and find Davis a second star before it's too late. Even if we can find bright spots and see a way for the Pelicans to win 30-something games, mailing in the season remains the smartest play.

28. Washington Wizards

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    Otto Porter has been instrumental in the rare stretches of respectable Washington Wizards basketball we've seen so far. Slotting in more frequently as a stretch 4, he's leveraged an improving shot and great length. His career-high 34 points against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday showcased the full package.

    "He gives you a lot of winning basketball plays," Wizards head coach Scott Brooks told reporters after that win. "You can look at his field-goal percentage, you can look at all the things that he does—his mid-range game, his three-point shot has developed, his offensive rebounds. But what he gives you, he gives you a winning spirit, and he does that throughout the game on both ends."

    Still, Washington (2-5) has been tough to watch for most of the season and flat-out brutal whenever John Wall hasn't been on the court.

    The Wizards' best player earned ejections in back-to-back games this week, and it's hard to blame him for any frustration he might be feeling.

27. Phoenix Suns

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    Moving rookie Marquese Chriss into the starting lineup, which head coach Earl Watson did Tuesday, is one of those moves that, depending on the circumstances, could signal either desperation or a liberated willingness to let the losses come.

    For the Phoenix Suns, it might be both. Their 3-6 record includes a pair of overtime wins (one of which was made possible by an Eric Bledsoe prayer that was somehow answered), and a stone-age offense isn't producing the shots you'd hope for on a guard-dominant team.

    Phoenix is taking the third-fewest three-pointers in the league and hitting at a 30.3 percent clip. Low three-point attempt rates are synonymous with bad offensive coaching; on a team with Devin Booker, Brandon Knight, Bledsoe, Jared Dudley and a few other capable outside shooters, well...let's just say this isn't a good look for Watson.

    "Right now, our guys are scoring at a high rate in the paint because we’re still No. 2 in free throws made," Watson rationalized to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic. "You don’t want to stop attacking."

    This is a good justification for not shooting threes, especially if you aspire to be the 2013-14 Memphis Grizzlies, minus the defense.

    Which you shouldn't.

26. Orlando Magic

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    The Orlando Magic beat the Wizards (sorry, no points for that) and then got hammered by the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves. Hence another week of rankings slippage.

    Midway through that rough run, head coach Frank Vogel considered lineup changes, per Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel, but he ultimately stuck with his usual rotations. Don't worry; he'll either make that call or have his hand forced by a trade eventually.

    Why? Because this team's lineups and usage patterns are killing its best players. Aaron Gordon's average plus-minus through eight games is minus-8.9, the fourth-lowest number among all qualified players. He's not this bad, but when asked to play small forward and handle the ball in a spacing-starved first unit, he's being set up to fail.

    If this were part of some long game (the Timberwolves are reaping the rewards of putting an unprepared Zach LaVine through the point guard gauntlet last year), maybe Orlando's personnel decisions would be excusable. But this is a franchise clearly trying to win in the short term. You don't trade lottery picks and Victor Oladipo for Serge Ibaka if you're building for the future. 

    Something's got to give here.

25. Brooklyn Nets

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    I enjoy the Brooklyn Nets.

    There, I said it.

    Even without Jeremy Lin, who's missed time with a hamstring injury, Brooklyn's ball movement, pace and affinity for the long bomb under head coach Kenny Atkinson make this team watchable.

    And not just because Brook Lopez keeps shooting 26-footers.

    Through its first eight games, Brooklyn shot the third-most threes in the league and passed the ball more times per game than all but one other team. That numbers like those are possible with the likes of Sean Kilpatrick, Isaiah Whitehead and Randy Foye running the offense is a testament to Atkinson's system, which has elements from Mike D'Antoni and Gregg Popovich baked in.

    Atkinson worked under D'Antoni with the New York Knicks and Mike Budenholzer (a Popovich disciple) with the Atlanta Hawks.

    Brooklyn will continue to lose more than it wins, and dropping an ugly one to the Knicks on Wednesday killed some of the vibe. But the Nets are going to look like a functional basketball team much more frequently than expected.

24. New York Knicks

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    It's so easy to lambaste the Knicks' decision to put Kurt Rambis in charge of defense after a 2-4 start.

    You can point to his 32-132 record as head coach of the Timberwolves, a team that ranked 28th and 27th in the league on defense in his two full seasons, per ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton—which, yikes.

    A fairer assessment would have to include his stewardship of the Los Angeles Lakers defense under Phil Jackson. According to a tweet from Bleacher Report's Howard Beck: "Worth noting: Rambis supervised Lakers' Def from 2008-10, when they won back-to-back titles. LA ranked 5th and 6th in Def Eff those years."

    As is the case with evaluating any coach, the talent he's managing matters. Where the Knicks fall on the continuum between those awful Wolves and the ring-winning Lakers remains to be seen, though re-delegating coaching responsibilities after completing just 10 percent of the season with a bottom-five defensive rating still signals some panic.

    New York has managed a 3-4 record despite that awful D, but it hasn't been pretty. And Carmelo Anthony doesn't seem jazzed about Rambis taking over.

    "Whether we’re comfortable with [Rambis as the defensive coach] or not, it is what it is," he told reporters.

    Best of luck, Kurt.

23. Dallas Mavericks

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    First of all, shoutout to Harrison Barnes for mostly proving me wrong. I was convinced he'd struggle even more as a first option because his weak handle, lack of lateral quickness and reliance on contested pull-up jumpers never marked him as a lead dog.

    But he's averaging 22.6 points per game while shooting a hair over 49 percent from the field, and he posted back-to-back games with at least 30 points for the first time in his career last week.

    So far, he's been much better than expected, and he's done it without much help. Dirk Nowitzki's sore Achilles isn't going away, Deron Williams is missing time with muscle injuries (it's a calf this time) and the Dallas Mavericks are off to a 2-6 start.

    I still see serious regression for Barnes. Opponents have never worried about him as a primary scorer; once they key in on his deficiencies, he'll find it even harder to get points efficiently. When that happens, Dallas will need the rest of its best players healthy.

    Some of that familiar wizardry from head coach Rick Carlisle would help, too.

    At least one opposing player broadcast his faith in that, per a tweet from Earl K. Sneed of Mavs.com: "Metta World Peace interrupts Rick Carlisle's pregame presser: 'That's a genius right there. Respect the genius,' he tells the media."

    Everyone respects the genius, but getting these Mavs to the playoffs may be beyond even Carlisle's capabilities.

22. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    "There's a Tom Thibodeau defensive team in front of me right now allowing 64 percent shooting and 64 points just before halftime," Brian Mahoney of the Associated Press tweeted midway through a 119-110 loss to the Nets on Tuesday.

    Sorry, who's coaching this team again? Are there two Tom Thibodeaus?

    Blown leads and those surprising defensive lapses belie the Timberwolves' youth, but it's still too early to foreclose the possibility of a .500 record—even after a 2-5 start that revealed real flaws.

    That's mostly because there are still so many blinding rays of promise shining through the fog. LaVine is a scoring dynamo. He dropped a career-high 37 points during Wednesday's win over the Magic, and he'll quickly become one of the best shooting guards in the league if his defense reaches mere average territory.

    Andrew Wiggins makes threes now; after hitting right around 30 percent of his triples through his first two years, he's at 63.6 percent on over three attempts per game. Totally unsustainable, of course, but a suggestion that he could someday settle in as a viable 40 percent shooter from deep.

    Karl-Anthony Towns needs the ball more, Ricky Rubio has to get healthy and the Wolves have to absorb Thibodeau's defensive principles.

    It's a mess right now, and the Wolves don't have a single quality win yet. But Thibs and the talent could click at any moment, and that earns them some rankings leeway.

21. Miami Heat

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    Nobody allowed fewer point-blank buckets through Wednesday than the Miami Heat.

    According to NBA.com's John Schuhmann: "That's a product of both low percentage and low volume. The Heat are the only team that has held its opponents under 50 percent shooting in the restricted area. And only 29.0 percent of their opponents' shots have come in the restricted area, the fifth-lowest rate in the league."

    With just 12 makes allowed per game in that space, the Heat lead a pack of teams covering a broad spectrum of success. Dallas, the Atlanta Hawks, the Detroit Pistons and the Houston Rockets round out the top five in the category.

    A cursory look at those rosters makes something obvious: The conventional interior big man still has real value. Andrew Bogut, Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond and Clint Capela have clearly made defensive impacts, and Hassan Whiteside is the reason Miami leads the group.

    Also clear: You need more than good rim defense to make noise. Miami and Dallas have struggled overall, while Houston and Detroit have hovered around .500.

    Stout interior D looks like it'll be a constant, but getting back to the top half of the power rankings will depend on whether the Heat can get better offensive performance from the bench (a tall task given the dearth of shooters and shot creation on the roster).

20. Indiana Pacers

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    Struggling to beat the Sixers (without Embiid) is a bad look.

    If the Pacers were "out of whack," as Paul George explained after a 122-100 loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Monday—George was also ejected for kicking a ball into the stands Saturday—imagine what they would have been if they hadn't pulled out that OT win against Philly on Wednesday.

    The Pacers have major issues.

    They don't defend the perimeter or the paint, and they may need to consider swapping C.J. Miles into the starting unit over Monta Ellis. Miles is the better shooter, and his size makes more sense alongside Jeff Teague. As it stands now, Indy is always at a size disadvantage against starting backcourts.

    The tempo and scoring are up, but Indiana has given back too much on the other end for that to matter.

19. Sacramento Kings

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    The Sacramento Kings are trying to do the right things: defend with maximum effort for the entire game, maintain composure, move the ball on offense and generally do stuff respected, successful teams do.

    The results of those efforts have been mixed to this point, but it's the intent that matters.

    "When you are playing that hard, it takes a while to learn to play that hard on a nightly basis," head coach Dave Joerger said after the Kings outlasted the Pelicans on Tuesday. "We are learning that, and I was impressed."

    DeMarcus Cousins still does two or three things every game that no other big man can do, Darren Collison's return from suspension will juice the offense, and the Kings showed resilience in ending their road trip through the East with a tough win at Toronto.

    If not for a home loss to the Lakers on Thursday, the Kings would have really climbed.

18. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo deserves the love he gets from every stathead and highlight show, but Jabari Parker is growing into a potential star in his own right.

    Through eight games, the third-year forward is averaging 19.5 points per game on 48.8 percent shooting from the field and, more importantly for his future as a stretch 4, 42.1 percent from long range. He's looked eminently comfortable with the ball in his hands, and his varietal moves in the mid-post make him a handful for any wing unlucky enough to meet him there.

    Milwaukee dropped to 4-4 after falling to the ho-hum Mavericks and allowing the Pelicans to break the seal on their winless season.

    Maybe leaving them in this spot feels generous, but neither the Kings nor the Pacers did enough to deserve jumps.

17. Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Grizzlies, sitting at 4-4 but boasting a minus-5.8 net rating through their first eight games, are doing everything they can to confuse the casual observer.

    You can't trust the record, because closer inspection reveals a high-wire act that feels unsustainable. Of their four wins, two required overtime, another came by four points on opening night, and the most recent came on a Marc Gasol buzzer-beater after a controversial call. 

    And that 36-point defeat to the Timberwolves on Nov. 1, a result of Memphis sitting starters and fielding a D-League rotation, means the Grizz also aren't as bad as that net rating suggests.

    Banking these early wins is important, no matter how dubious the process. If the Grizzlies are going to factor in the playoff race, they'll need every victory they can get. But in terms of big-picture forecasting, relying on the sustainability of close wins is dangerous.

    At the same time, Memphis has made a habit of outperforming its low net ratings. Its consistent success in close contests suggests there's a skill to handling those situations.

    Maybe the Grizzlies have it.

16. Denver Nuggets

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    A sore hamstring has kept Wilson Chandler off the floor since last Sunday, and his absence has hamstrung (one thousand apologies) the Denver Nuggets in a handful of ways.

    Wings too big for Gary Harris haven't had Chandler to contend with, and Denver is out one of its better small-ball weapons with the versatile 29-year-old sidelined. However, Danilo Gallinari still works as an undersized 4, and Kenneth Faried remains an option there, too.

    But removing one of the ways for Denver to split centers Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic has negative trickle-down effects all over the place. Emmanuel Mudiay's awful finishing, for example, doesn't get much help from the Nuggets' two-big lineups. With Chandler's spacing the floor alongside one of Denver's two young centers, driving lanes open up much more easily.

    Denver fell to the Golden State Warriors on Thursday, but nobody's docking it too badly for that. Nonetheless, the Nugs still look like a safe bet to challenge for a playoff spot if they sort out their rotations.

15. Detroit Pistons

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    Stan Van Gundy righteously commandeered the Pistons' news cycle by being the first of many NBA head coaches to voice disappointment about Donald Trump's successful run for president.

    "I don't think anybody can deny this guy is openly and brazenly racist and misogynistic," Van Gundy told Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press. "We have just thrown a good part of our population under the bus, and I have problems with thinking this is where we are as a country."

    This is righteous for a handful of reasons, not the least of which being its status as a signal the NBA, known for its progressivism, won't stay silent.

    On a much less important level, Van Gundy's comments distract from his team's mostly uninspiring start. The Pistons have played two participants from last year's playoffsthe Clippers and the Toronto Raptorsand lost by a combined 50 points.

    A 4-4 record obscures the cracks, and we should expect stabilization when Reggie Jackson returns. But the Pistons have underperformed to this point, and they won't be able to fatten up on middling opponents forever.

14. Boston Celtics

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    In fairness to Evan Turner, whom we'll bash a few slides down the line, Isaiah Thomas cited his absence as one of the sources for the Celtics' struggles, telling Jay King of MassLive.com: "We're not just missing Jae [Crowder]. We're missing Evan."

    Credit Thomas for backing his former teammate, but let's be real: The Celtics have struggled because Al Horford and Crowder have missed time. Oh, and also because they're the worst rebounding team in half a decade, as The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor pointed out.

    Boston's rebound rate so far is a league-worst 45.3 percent, and that's doubly scary because a Horford return doesn't necessarily mean improvement in that area. The Celtics' big offseason signing is many things, but an impactful rebounder isn't one of them.

    An inability to corral opponents' misses has contributed to the NBA's worst defensive rating by a wide margin—a development almost impossible to believe after Boston ranked fourth in that category last year.

    There's a ton of talent on the roster, Brad Stevens is still a great coach, and returns from injury should get the Celtics back into the top 10 (or even higher) eventually.

    But in terms of present potency, Boston, winless since we last ranked, is in a free fall.

13. Chicago Bulls

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    The Bulls were busy this past week, playing five games and putting together a 2-3 mark that failed to impress.

    The wins were part of an underwhelming Florida sweep, as the Bulls beat the Magic at home Monday and then Dwyane Wade's old team, the Heat, in Miami.

    Chicago has seen the tension mount after a hot shooting start had everyone feeling good about the offseason overhaul. Take out uncharacteristic accuracy they flashed in that 3-0 starting surge, and the Bulls look a lot more like the team most expected: 31.7 percent from deep, 28th in the league since Nov. 2.

    Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott both hit a pair of threes in that win over the Heat, breaking tandem cold streaks. Those two had better heat up as Wade and the rest of Chicago's overachieving shooters regress.

12. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Nothing from the young season stands out as a bigger surprise than the Lakers knocking off the Hawks and Warriors in a three-day span.

    But that stunner, pulled off by L.A. Nov. 2 and 4, more than compensates for some recent uneven play—highlighted by a loss to the Mavs on Tuesday. And then moving above .500 by beating the Kings on Thursday.

    That's all cause for celebration.

    Luke Walton has his team playing at a fast pace, and Julius Randle stands out as the biggest surprise on the roster. He's attacking off the dribble with abandon, but that's not new. What is: He's finishing his drives. After connecting on 56.8 percent of his shots from inside two feet last season (not great for a big man), he's hitting an incomprehensible 82.9 percent through Wednesday.

    That's unsustainable, but Randle's game has looked a bit more polished. So it's fair to expect him to at least stay up above 60 percent from close range, and it doesn't hurt that he's also passing the ball a bit more willingly when doubled.

    The Lakers are exciting again, and even though playing this well will probably cost them their first-round pick, there's something to be said for building a winning culture for young talent.

11. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Aside from Damian Lillard killing it at the rim and C.J. McCollum not regressing at all after last year's breakout, it's also been nice to see Maurice Harkless ball out in a full-time starting role.

    If he's going to keep shooting 38.7 percent from three and using his athleticism to defend four positions, the Portland Trail Blazers are in business. And somehow, he's still only 23 years old.

    In fact, his steady rise is one of the reasons Evan Turner's signing just keeps looking worse; Harkless may be expensive to keep down the line, and Portland's cash outlay for Turner could make that harder to pull off.

    But hey, maybe Turner's not so bad. Let's just click over and check his on-off numbers to make su...OH NO DON'T LOOK AT THEM!!!

    Through nine games, the Blazers have been outscored by 104 points in Turner's 213 minutes on the court. That is the lowest total plus-minus figure in the NBA, and Brandon Knight's minus-75 seems light-years away in second-to-last place.

    The Blazers are 5-4 after getting absolutely torched by the Clips on the second night of a back-to-back Wednesday, and the route to improvement is profoundly uncomplicated: Keep Turner off the floor.

10. Houston Rockets

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    It would be nice if we didn't have to harp on this every week, but the Rockets have to find a way to survive without James Harden. Failing that, they'd better figure out how to shrink the impact of the time he isn't on the floor. 

    Houston gets outscored by 31.4 points per 100 possessions without Harden. With him (conducting the most statistically potent one-man attack we've seen in decades), it beats opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions.

    Nobody in the league matches that on-off swing.

    During a 101-99 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday, Harden's trip to the bench at the start of the fourth quarter coincided directly with the Spurs getting back into the game. Predictably, his return triggered Houston's final decisive run—at the end of which Harden was utterly gassed.

    By the buzzer, he'd logged 15 assists for the fourth time in his last five games. Clint Capela, lob-recipient extraordinaire, should be treating Harden to steak dinners every night.

    Head coach Mike D'Antoni can't play Harden 48 minutes, but he might experiment with more frequent, shorter bursts of rest. And he definitely has to avoid leaving him out there for entire quarters at a time.

    If he can ease the burden just a little, the Rockets could push toward the top five.

9. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    It's getting a little harder to remain skeptical about the Oklahoma City Thunder. At 6-2, they've outperformed most expectations, and they're the only team to beat the Clippers, which has to count for something.

    Still, Basketball Reference's Simple Rating, which takes into account strength of schedule, only has OKC at No. 8 in the league. So I don't feel like I'm underselling them too much at this spot.

    Skepticism about sustainable offense with so few reliable shooters and creators remains reasonable, though it's worth noting OKC has room to improve on the offensive glass. Last year, the Thunder were the best team in the league at getting their own misses back, snatching 31.1 percent of their errant tries. This year, that figure is 26.9 percent.

    While it may be unreasonable to expect a repeat of 2015-16's historically good work on the offensive boards, the Thunder ought to be motivated (and equipped, with Enes Kanter and Steven Adams) to try. And if they give back a little bit on defense, where they're already excellent, it might be worth it.

    OKC cracks the top 10 for the first time, and a home-heavy schedule over the next week means it may stay there.

8. Utah Jazz

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    The Utah Jazz managed a 2-2 record this past week, with losses coming against the Spurs and Hornets. There's no shame in falling to those two clubs.

    It's also important to know the Jazz have scraped together a 5-4 record despite playing just three of their first nine games at home and getting their projected starting lineup onto the floor just once.

    George Hill, reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, missed time with a thumb injury—a real bummer with Gordon Hayward finally making it back from a broken finger.

    At some point, these guys have to all be healthy at once, right?

    As the schedule eventually features more home dates and Utah (hopefully) gets healthy, a return to one of the top four or five spots will get more realistic. For now, the record and the obvious blow of Hill's absence costs the Jazz a couple of spots.

7. Toronto Raptors

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    A home loss to a Kings team struggling to survive at the end of a road trip hurts the Raptors this week, and wins over Miami and Washington don't really help. More than that, though, the sustained play of two other East teams warranted a bump up the rankings.

    So Toronto moves slightly south. Of course, if it beats one of those two teams Friday, this will warrant much closer inspection next week.

    DeMar DeRozan needs some shine, though, because this guy keeps torching opponents with his mid-range game. Shots that teams love to concede are his bread and butter, and he's converting them at absurd rates, as Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine noted in a tweet: "Nearly 57 percent against tight/very tight coverage through 7 games, per SportVU. Degree of difficulty's off the charts."

    Stephen Curry redefined shot norms last season. What DeRozan, the league's leading scorer, has done so far this year might be even more remarkable in its own way.

6. Charlotte Hornets

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    What's not to like about the Hornets?

    Kemba Walker keeps keying the offense by getting wherever he wants on the floor. No team in the league turns the ball over less frequently. Charlotte's two-way excellence has produced a 6-1 record and the third-best net rating in the league.

    Cody Zeller has had some takeover spurts, and his value at center already seems far greater than the four-year, $56 million contract he signed on Halloween. Also intriguing at the 5? The impending return of Roy Hibbert and the defensive potential it brings.

    Nobody's saying Hibbert will reshape the team or finish games, but it's interesting to think about what he could give the Hornets on defense with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Nicolas Batum. Even if only used for short stretches, that group could stifle opponents and buy head coach Steve Clifford time to rest whichever offensive components he wants.

    It's always good to have options, and the Hornets haven't even tapped into all of theirs yet.

5. Atlanta Hawks

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    Choosing between the Hawks and the Hornets for the No. 5 spot was tricky.

    The Hornets' record is better, but the Hawks have won their games by more points on average. In the end, Atlanta's tougher schedule weighed heavily, as did one of the best victories on any team's resume: a 110-106 victory at Cleveland on Tuesday.

    Chances are, we'll be comparing the Hawks and Hornets all year; both seem capable of sticking around as contenders for the second spot in the East.

    Keep an eye on the turnover split, though. Charlotte, as we know, gives the ball away less frequently than anyone. Atlanta, meanwhile, coughs it up on 17.6 percent of its possessions, which ties the Rockets for the highest rate in the league.

    Perhaps that figure will come down as Dennis Schroder gets more comfortable as the lead guard. But it's an important distinction that could wind up mattering if it doesn't correct itself.

4. San Antonio Spurs

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    After losing just once at home last year, the Spurs dropped three straight at the AT&T Center. Two of those losses came since we last ranked, and the defeat against Houston, which followed three full days of rest for the Spurs, stood out.

    San Antonio may wind up being something like the juggernaut it was a year ago, but it's certainly lesser than that right now. Getting back to that status will take tinkering.

    It may have something to do with the second-unit opponents often on the floor when he's out there, but Dewayne Dedmon has dramatically outproduced Pau Gasol at center. If San Antonio keeps getting outscored with Gasol out there, a change in the first unit would make sense.

    Similarly, Tony Parker shouldn't expect to see more minutes than Patty Mills when the former returns from a right knee injury.

    Kawhi Leonard has been so incomprehensibly good that the Spurs are still clearly a top-five club, but some personnel shuffling seems wise—and maybe necessary if Gregg Popovich wants his team to resemble the 67-win behemoth it was a year ago.

3. Golden State Warriors

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    The Warriors' shots are falling now, and Stephen Curry is back to winning games by himself.

    On the one hand, that's a little like the dangerous recipe they relied on last year. But on the other, seeing someone hit an NBA-record 13 threes is pretty fun.

    Defensively, the Warriors may never lock in like they did two years ago. The urgency may never return on that end. Fortunately, Golden State boasts the kind of shooting that could make 10th-ranked stopping power (or thereabouts) stand up.

    Example: The Dubs became the first team to ever have four players hit at least four threes in a game when they did it against the Mavs on Wednesday.

    Shooting cures all ills, and the Warriors have more of that sweet long-distance salve than anyone. That loss to the Lakers hurts, but chances are they'll be back atop the rankings before the end of the month.

2. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

    ↑ 3 Spots

    If you didn't know about the half-decade of data suggesting the Clippers tend to get hurt, wear down and generally struggle to deliver in the playoffs, you could talk yourself into them being the best team in the league right now.

    To this point, nobody has posted a higher net rating, and the Clips have a resume filled with serious blowout wins. They've been winning and winning big.

    Unlike years past, they've done it on defense, leading the league in points allowed per possession by a significant margin.

    According to Jared Dubin's explanation on FanSided, this shouldn't be a surprise:

    There’s a lot of institutional memory with these Clippers. [Chris] Paul, [J.J.] Redick, Griffin, and [DeAndre] Jordan are now in their fourth season together, and Doc Rivers has been coaching them that entire time. This is [Jamal] Crawford’s fifth season with the Lob City trio, a threesome now in its sixth year together. When a group plays together long enough, it develops a communication shorthand, and when that group features true plus defenders at the point of attack (Paul) and in the paint (Jordan), it becomes remarkably tough to score on.

    It's hard to imagine the Clippers (and particularly their second unit) sustaining this defensive performance, but credit this team for shoving its way into the top tier in an unexpected manner.

1 Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

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    The Cavaliers...lost?

    The slip against Atlanta removed the Cavs from the ranks of the unbeaten, but they get credit for being the last holdout of that group. And while it's important not to minimize the Hawks' accomplishment, Cleveland probably won't lose any sleep over the defeat.

    Atlanta shot the ball exceptionally well, and it didn't have much of an answer for the Cavs' five-out lineup with Channing Frye at center.

    Cleveland remains an offensive juggernaut, boasting a top-three attack despite some off shooting nights.

    "We’re not going to be drop-dead killers from the three-point line every night," Frye told Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com. "That’s just not who we are, and I think we need to continue to be able to finish at the basket and make extra passes and find a nice flow offensively and defensively. We just got to pick it up."

    At 6-1, still sitting atop the rankings, talk of picking it up is a good sign.

    It seems the complacency so many expected after a title run isn't setting in just yet.


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    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Thursday.

    Unattributed quotes obtained firsthand.


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