2016-17 NBA Power Rankings After Season's 1st Month
This week's NBA power rankings are the most volatile yet, which is the opposite of what you'd expect a month into the season.
Trends are supposed to be stabilizing, with anomalies regressing to the mean. Weird stuff should be getting ironed out as normalcy establishes itself heading into December.
Instead, a lot of good teams—ones we should expect to recover and secure top-10 status eventually—hit the skids. And an equal number of sudden risers, like the New Orleans Pelicans, have thrown last week's rankings into upheaval.
We've got a new No. 1 and a new No. 30, so the chaos wasn't limited to the middle of the pack either.
As always, rankings are influenced by records, advanced stats and current overall health—with an eye toward recent performance. The idea is to organize these teams into an order that reflects their potency right now.
A month in, and things are less stable than ever. That makes it tough on your intrepid ranker, but it sure adds to the intrigue of a season increasingly marked by surprises.
30. Dallas Mavericks
↓ 6 Spots
Despite starting four undrafted players, the Dallas Mavericks managed to push the San Antonio Spurs in a 96-91 loss Monday.
And that modest achievement, ladies and gentlemen, stands as the high point of another bleak week for these Mavs. Unless, of course, you consider Wednesday the apex. That was when Dirk Nowitzki finally made his return to the lineup and Andrew Bogut looked spry after missing time with a sore calf.
It was also when Dallas lost by 20 to the Los Angeles Clippers, its seventh-straight defeat. The Mavs haven't had a streak like that since Nowitzki's rookie season.
With Dirk and Bogut back, Dallas isn't the worst team in the league. But considering the Mavericks are stuck in the NBA's longest ongoing slide and have only two wins (nobody else has fewer than four), there's no place else to put them right now.
29. Brooklyn Nets
↓ 6 Spots
Nobody has been worse since our last ranking than the Brooklyn Nets, losers of five straight.
Struggling to score without a healthy Jeremy Lin running the point, the Nets have a far bigger problem than the lack of a floor leader: They're playing historically bad defense. They put up their "best" defensive performance all week by giving up 111 points to the Boston Celtics Wednesday.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Brooklyn became the first team since 2010 to allow at least 120 points during four straight games. That stretch, from Nov. 14-20, is the reason the Nets defense has slipped all the way to 27th in the league.
It's also the reason the Celtics, who have the right to swap first-round picks with Brooklyn during the 2017 draft, are probably feeling a little better about that asset's value.
The Nets have played some fun, opened-up offense this season, and it's exciting that Brook Lopez is developing a three-point shot. But until this team figures out how to stop others from hanging huge numbers on them, it'll be tough to see anything but a bottom-five ranking going forward.
28. Orlando Magic
↓ 2 Spots
Don't be fooled by that 6-9 record; the Orlando Magic have the second-worst net rating in the league.
Their only win this week came against Dallas, so, obviously, no points for that one. And the losses to the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns—marked by continued atrocious offense—are more than enough to drop Orlando to its lowest ranking of the year.
"It seems like the rim is getting smaller and smaller night after night," Evan Fournier told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel, and that was before the Magic scored 89 points at Milwaukee on Monday and 87 against the Suns on Wednesday.
You can't even get excited about Orlando posting the league's second-best defensive rating since the last edition of these rankings: That stinginess came against such dreadful offensive competition.
It still feels like the Magic have the kind of talent to at least rate somewhere near the league's middle tier. But to this point, we've seen little indication that head coach Frank Vogel has a plan to maximize the return on this strange mix of players.
27. Phoenix Suns
←→ No Movement
Wins over the Indiana Pacers and Magic aren't necessarily impressive, but you have to give the Suns a little nod for finishing a six-game road trip by salvaging a 2-2 week.
Playing well enough to hold steady at No. 27 isn't the story here, though.
Alan Williams' ridiculous rebounding is.
Among players who average at least 10 minutes per game, Williams, a 6'8" second-year forward, is the NBA leader in rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds a player grabs while on the court). His rate of 26.6 percent is higher than Dwight Howard's, Andre Drummond's or Hassan Whiteside's.
None of this is out of step with what he did last year, when Williams also led in rebound percentage (though we have to adjust the filter to include players seeing at least five minutes of court time per game).
Though you always have to be cautious with individual player net ratings this early in the year, and though Williams tends to see time against backups, his on-court net rating of plus-13.6 indicates he should get a longer look—if the Suns are interested in winning.
So, there you go. I bet you didn't think you'd get an Alan Williams slide in this thing.
26. Washington Wizards
↑ 3 Spots
Losing to another bottom-10 team at home—which the Washington Wizards did against the Miami Heat on Saturday—is a bad look. And needing a career-high 42 points from Bradley Beal to squeak past the Suns two days afterward doesn't improve the optics much.
The Washington Post's Dan Steinberg painted a bleak picture of fan unrest and, worse, disinterest:
They already have lost to two of the East’s bottom-feeders. The injury-prone Beal, after landing his max deal, already has missed three games because of injury. Coach Scott Brooks has opened his Wizards tenure at 4-9, echoing the tenure-starting slogs of Gar Heard (4-9), Leonard Hamilton (3-10), Doug Collins (3-10) and Flip Saunders (4-9). F
or those men, early-season struggles transitioned into midseason struggles, before concluding with late-season struggles. It all means a team that sometimes lacks for local relevance again feels coated with interest-repellent.
Washington is defined by some cringeworthy losses and will see the San Antonio Spurs twice in the next couple of weeks. But other than that, the schedule softens up considerably between now and the middle of December. If the Wizards are going to salvage this season and recapture local support, this upcoming stretch will be their best (and perhaps only) opportunity.
For now, their rise has everything to do with three teams that used to rank above them falling apart.
25. Miami Heat
←→ No Movement
Despite laying an egg in the Miami Heat's 107-84 loss to the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday, Hassan Whiteside's numbers are through the roof.
He's averaging 17.9 points, 15.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game while hitting 54.5 percent of his shots. Somewhat surprisingly, he's become an integral part of Miami's offense, as the Heat score 6.4 more points per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Unfortunately for Miami, Whiteside's presence on the floor amounts to the difference between an abysmal offense and one that's merely embarrassing. Through 14 games, the Heat are scoring at the fourth-lowest rate in the league—and that ineptitude may be affecting things on the other end, too.
"No, the Heat defense hasn't been good. But I think the frustration of a pop-gun offense is spirit-sapping," Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted.
The Heat have the fourth-worst defensive rating over the last week.
Justise Winslow, out since Nov. 14 with a wrist injury, can't come back soon enough.
24. Minnesota Timberwolves
↓ 4 Spots
If games ended at halftime, the Minnesota Timberwolves would be in fine shape.
Unfortunately for them, third and fourth quarters also count, and the T-Wolves get smashed by a league-worst 8.3 points during the third period. Prime example: the 36-18 third-quarter drubbing Minnesota suffered in Wednesday's ugly loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. If the full-blown, gut-wrenching collapse isn't complete then, Minnesota also loses the fourth quarter by an average of 1.4 points.
What gives? Inexperience, probably.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are 21 or younger, and all tend to treat their team's late-game salvation as more of a personal task than a collective one.
But there may be something else, according to Steve McPherson of ESPN 1500 in Minneapolis:
Consider this: Three of the top five players in the league in terms of minutes per half in the first half of games are Wolves. You guessed it: Wiggins, Towns and LaVine. Gorgui Dieng is averaging more minutes per half in the first than Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. The starting lineup is averaging 13.1 minutes per game in the first half, the most of any lineup in the NBA by more than a minute.
Fatigued stars would be nothing new under head coach Tom Thibodeau, and though it feels like an oversimplification, it's still true that in surrendering a 13-point fourth-quarter lead to the Boston Celtics on Monday, all five Wolves starters logged at least 38 minutes.
If the second-half failures continue, this fatigue angle will bear monitoring.
23. Philadelphia 76ers
↑ 5 Spots
We cautioned the Philadelphia 76ers against notching two-win weeks last time around (you have to protect those pingpong balls), and here we are again at the close of another seven-day stretch featuring two victories.
Even more amazingly, Philly had a real shot at a perfect 3-0 record. But it had to scrap without Joel Embiid in the final five minutes of a double-overtime loss to the Memphis Grizzlies—he was shelved because of his dastardly minutes limit.
Embiid is still a turnover machine, and the next three-minute stretch he has without dribbling himself into trouble will be his first. But there's no denying the tools and historical company. According Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Embiid is the sixth player since the 1983-84 season to average 18.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks through his first 10 games. O'Neal was the last person to accomplish that feat, doing it in the 1992-93 season with the Orlando Magic. Hall of Famers Ralph Sampson (1983-84), Olajuwon (1984-85), Robinson (1989-90) and Dikembe Mutombo (1991-92) are the others to do it.
Philadelphia plays six of its next seven games at home, and Embiid is only going to get better as he completes his first month of NBA basketball. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, but another two-week push like the one we just saw, and the Sixers might find themselves cracking the top 20.
So much for pingpong balls.
22. Indiana Pacers
↓ 5 Spots
This is a long way for the Indiana Pacers to tumble, but we needed to make room for a handful of modest risers (and one big one) in the crowded middle tier.
A 1-3 record, blowout falls to the Suns and Warriors, and some health issues for their best players make it pretty easy to justify the Pacers' slide.
Both Paul George and Myles Turner have missed time recently, and that lineup instability has contributed to some off-kilter chemistry, which Jeff Teague described to Nate Taylor of the Indianapolis Star: "We try to get out of each other's way instead of cutting and moving. When somebody gets the ball and once our first option is not there, we just try to get out of each other's way and let people play. We need to figure out somehow to keep all of us moving and playing together."
Whatever the cause, Indiana's supposed offensive rebranding has failed so far. The Pacers rank tied for 24th in league scoring efficiency, and they're not stopping anyone either.
That's how you fall five spots.
21. New Orleans Pelicans
↑ 9 Spots
Holy Jrue Holiday!
The Portland Trail Blazers, Charlotte Hornets, Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves all cowered and fell before the rejuvenated wrath of a New Orleans Pelicans team outfitted with its (apparently) transformative point guard. Holiday's return coincided with a remarkable 4-0 run for the Pels, whom we ranked dead last a week ago.
The Atlanta win, a 112-94 triumph on the road in which Anthony Davis logged only 19 minutes because of a bruised knee, stood out as the clear high point of New Orleans' season.
Then, of course, Davis butchered Minnesota with a 45-point outing on Wednesday, proving he was fine.
It should go without saying that some of this Holiday-fixes-everything deal is coincidence. All four of the Pelicans' victims this past week were struggling—even if most of them (T-Wolves excluded) profile as playoff teams.
Still, this is one of the best stories of the young season: Holiday, jumping into the fray after enduring the real-world scare of his wife's health problems, has vaulted the Pelicans way, way up the rankings.
20. Sacramento Kings
↑ 1 Spot
Head coach Dave Joerger has been searching for better starts and more reliable offense, which has led to some lineup tweaks of late.
Darren Collison and Ty Lawson started together in an ultra-small backcourt against the Toronto Raptors on Sunday, a personnel move that also slid Rudy Gay up to the 4. After that win, Joerger kept the starting frontcourt small with Gay at power forward but swapped Arron Afflalo in for Lawson.
That unit got Sacramento a second-straight win—this one a 116-101 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday. It also helped that DeMarcus Cousins scored 36 points, pulled 13 rebounds and hit a Nowitzki-esque one-legged step back to close the third quarter in that one.
The Kings are playing with fire by downsizing, as their defense was already among the league's worst despite the added rebounding and rim protection you theoretically get from larger lineups. It's possible Sacramento will be even worse on D if it stays small.
At the same time, if the defense is already terrible, why not double down and try to score more?
The Kings—imperfect, still subject to lapses in energy and ever tinkering—did enough to move up anyway.
19. New York Knicks
↑ 3 Spots
Just about everyone is beating the Hawks and Trail Blazers these days, so we can't get too exuberant with praise for the New York Knicks—especially since they fell to the lowly Wizards just before we published last week's rankings. Still, New York is sitting at .500 despite playing a schedule that ranks among the 10 most difficult in the league so far.
Kristaps Porzingis, indisputably on the best run of his young career, hung 31 points on the Blazers during Tuesday's 107-103 win. Since setting a new personal best with 35 points back on Nov. 16, KP has kept right on rolling. In his last five games, he's averaging 25 points and nine rebounds on 53.3 percent shooting.
Just about, Brandon. Just about.
The Knicks, not coincidentally, have won four of five.
18. Detroit Pistons
↓ 2 Spots
Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy is in tune with his team's stats, and he's using them to suss out who's responsible for its alarming rebounding problems, as he told reporters after the Pistons hammered the Heat 107-84 on Wednesday:
I would say this: It sort of shows up in the numbers in that Andre is the only guy whose rebounds per minute are up from last year. It's barely up, but his numbers are so high anyway. He is up. And yet, when he's on the floor, we actually rebound worse. I think the numbers do point out how could that be. Well, it's because nobody else is doing anything.
Van Gundy also said that film review showed Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris, his starting forwards, standing around and watching Andre Drummond battle on the glass by himself.
Detroit out-rebounded the Heat by a dozen on Wednesday and halted a four-game losing streak, though Harris and Morris (seven) combined for less than half of Drummond's board total (15).
It seems, despite Van Gundy's identification of the problem, a solution has yet to present itself.
17. Denver Nuggets
↑ 2 Spots
If the Denver Nuggets could score when it counted, who knows how high they'd rank?
But no team that has played as many clutch minutes (defined here as the last five minutes of a five-point game) as the Nugs and has produced points less efficiently. With an offensive rating of 83.3 in close-and-late situations, Denver has cost itself a handful of winnable games.
Correcting that will require maturation from Emmanuel Mudiay, figuring out which of its quality big men to utilize and a quick recovery from Danilo Gallinari, whose thigh injury is "getting worse day by day," according to what Denver's leading scorer told Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post after missing Wednesday's 108-83 loss to the Utah Jazz.
Closing problems aside, the Nugs beat the Jazz on Sunday and knocked off the Chicago Bulls Tuesday. If not for an on-brand overtime stumble against the Toronto Raptors, Denver would be pushing toward the top half of these rankings.
16. Portland Trail Blazers
↓ 1 Spot
There are letdowns, and there are letdowns.
Surrendering 46 first-quarter points and 137 overall during a gruesome loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers qualifies as the latter, because Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers already knew they were in real trouble on D.
In fact, as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe reported this week, Meyers Leonard asked Lillard to address his teammates' defensive issues one-on-one after a poor first-half performance in an eventual win against the Nets on Sunday. "The defensive issues—I'm a part of it," Lillard explained. "I didn't want to go telling people, 'You need to do this or that.' Enough talking has been done."
It seems more talking or, preferably, more action is in order.
Portland has lost five of its last six and owns the worst defensive rating in the NBA.
Al-Farouq Aminu needs to get back from his calf injury in a hurry because redistributing his minutes to Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis has done the Blazers no favors.
15. Oklahoma City Thunder
↓ 1 Spot
You could make the case that any team featuring Russell Westbrook deserves to rank higher than 15th, but you could also make the case that any team losing seven of its last nine games has to pay some kind of price for its failures.
That second case is more persuasive, as the Oklahoma City Thunder drop again after a 1-3 stretch that featured losses to the Pacers (with Paul George sitting out), Lakers and Kings.
It appears Westbrook can only do so much. The 24-straight points he either scored or assisted on during the fourth quarter of that Lakers loss weren't enough to overcome a game-winner from Nick Young.
There's nothing complicated here: With Westbrook on the floor, the Thunder outscore opponents by 5.3 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, they get outscored by 17.8.
The defense remains OKC's best hope, but Domantas Sabonis must continue to develop as a shooter and Victor Oladipo has to sustain his three-point gains for there to be any chance of a viable offense.
14. Milwaukee Bucks
↑ 4 Spots
Remember how we lauded the stability Greg Monroe brought as a second-unit leader last week? How we praised the consistency of his contributions?
Yeah, about that...
Monroe has played 10 minutes across three games since then, and it now seems he's either a rotation afterthought or someone head coach Jason Kidd will turn to only when the matchups are just right. The recent increase in Giannis Antetokounmpo's minutes at center in small lineups may have something to do with it, too.
With Antetokounmpo becoming one of only three players in NBA history to post at least 21 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, five blocks and three steals during a game last week, according to the team, it's hard to fault Kidd for finding ways to get him time ahead of Monroe.
Milwaukee's rotation is an issue, as Kidd has allowed far too many minutes with both Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker off the floor at the same time. Without their two best players, the Bucks score a microscopic 78.9 points per 100 possessions, according to NBAWowy.
Staggering those minutes will be a must going forward.
You have to focus on recent performance to justify the Bucks being all the way up here, but playing the Warriors tight in a 124-121 loss on Saturday and taking care of the Magic on Monday is enough to move ahead of a whole pack of struggling squads.
13. Los Angeles Lakers
↓ 2 Spots
A day before the Warriors chewed them up and spit them out Wednesday, the Lakers announced D'Angelo Russell received a platelet-rich plasma injection in his left knee that would cost him a minimum of two weeks.
That rough double-whammy probably didn't hurt as much as it otherwise would have, because the Lakers were still riding high on Nick Young's ridiculous game-winner from Tuesday.
"They should have given me a steal," Young told the Lakers' Twitter feed of the pass he intercepted—the one that was intended for teammate Lou Williams—just before he hit the dagger three that put the Thunder to bed.
The 149 points L.A. surrendered against the Warriors dropped its defensive rating to No. 29, and it's starting to feel like the Lakers' impressive start is giving way to the kind of growing-pains season most expected.
It'll help matters if Young continues his transformation from shot-hungry team-killer who plays no defense to shot-hungry team-helper who plays a little defense, but the Lakers aren't equipped to get consistent stops.
The offense will have to pick it up if L.A. intends to avoid another dip.
12. Utah Jazz
↓ 3 Spots
George Hill finally got over his thumb injury, and what do you know: The Utah Jazz got back on the right side of the win-loss ledger, halting a four-game slide by beating the Nuggets during a 108-83 home triumph. That result moved the Jazz's record to 5-3 in games Hill has played.
They're 3-5 in contests he's missed.
So while we could dig into the nuances of Utah's developing offense and the concern about a lack of frontcourt defense on the second unit (Trey Lyles has yet to string together two good defensive sequences this year—I'm sure of it), the simpler analytical tack is the familiar one.
When Utah is healthy, it's awesome. When it isn't, it's not.
So with Hill and Gordon Hayward's missed time this month, and Derrick Favors (left knee) now joining Alec Burks (left ankle) on the shelf, it's not hard to explain what's happening with this team.
Someday, we'll reach a point where injury, a net rating (3.8) that should produce a better record and sporadic offense aren't the stories in Utah. But someday hasn't arrived yet, and it's hard to know when it will.
11. Charlotte Hornets
↓ 4 Spots
The Charlotte Hornets lost three straight games and didn't have Cody Zeller for any of them.
But Kemba Walker's continued development into a top-tier point guard has been remarkable, and Zach Lowe described the details [sic]:
Walker has honed every point guard skill during his rise to stardom. He's shooting better from almost everywhere, getting to the line more, keeping those turnovers low and scuttling around screens on defense. He might be the league's most creative jitterbug dribbler, and he subtly brilliant searching out the best bang-for-the-buck passing lanes.
Neither that growth nor repeated fourth-quarter outbursts have been enough to overcome Roy Hibbert's taking Zeller's first-unit minutes lately.
No surprise. The starting four of Walker, Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams produce a net rating of plus-15.1 with Zeller at the 5. With Hibbert joining that quartet, the number is minus-0.4.
Charlotte falls in a big way.
10. Boston Celtics
↑ 3 Spots
Since getting smacked by the Warriors on Nov. 18, the Celtics have won three in a row (all on the road) and, more importantly, gotten healthier.
Al Horford and Jae Crowder are both back after missing nine and eight games, respectively. In fact, the modest three-win stretch from Nov. 19 to 23 coincided exactly with Horford's return from his concussion and Crowder's reappearance after a sprained ankle.
Horford has looked better between the two, averaging 18.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.7 blocks since rejoining the team, but Crowder's contributions have always been subtler—and it's difficult to ignore opponents averaging just 92.3 points per game since he found his way back to the floor.
Allowing offensive rebounds will continue to be a problem with Horford manning the middle, but as B/R's Michael Pina pointed out, this is the squad we thought we would see: "Boston looked like the team most expected for the first time [Nov. 23]. The defense flew around and turned turnovers into points so easily."
Onward and upward from here, fellas.
9. Atlanta Hawks
↓ 4 Spots
It wouldn't have taken much more for the Hawks to fall further, perhaps even below the No. 11 Hornets, who beat Atlanta to start it on a three-game losing streak.
The Hawks managed to top the Pacers 96-85 Wednesday, which at least put a cap on the slide.
Dwight Howard had 23 points and 20 rebounds to help beat Indy, and his volume and efficiency have improved in every meaningful category. This is not Orlando Dwight, but it's closer to that than we ever saw from Houston or L.A. Dwight.
It would be nice if Taurean Prince or DeAndre Bembry looked a little more ready than they have, because Thabo Sefolosha seems unlikely to rank in the top 15 of ESPN's Real Plus-Minus all year. And Dennis Schroder must do something to widen the gap between his performance and that of uncelebrated import Malcolm Delaney.
Still, the Hawks at least stopped their skid and saw Gucci Mane—a person people younger and cooler than me have deemed relevant—get a proposal acceptance on the Kiss Cam on Tuesday.
I guess that's enough to keep Atlanta's fall capped at four spots.
8. Chicago Bulls
←→ No Movement
The Chicago Bulls earned their big leap last week (five spots), so a 1-2 stretch toward the end of what will be an almost two-week road trip isn't going to hurt them. Away losses to the Clippers and Nuggets, both by single digits, are excusable. Tossing in a 118-110 victory over the better-than-you-think Los Angeles Lakers the night after that slip against the Clips showed resilience.
It also showed that—despite concerns about the team's strange roster construction's putting an end to the Jimmy Butler Alpha Dog era before it ever got started—the Bulls' best player is in full control of his team.
And Dwyane Wade, by rights the guy everyone should be listening to, is being judicious with his influence.
"He's just been a very vocal leader," Robin Lopez said of Wade, via Josh Martin of Bleacher Report. "He picks and chooses when to say something, and when he does, it's usually of significant importance."
Mostly harmonious and rebounding well, Chicago continues to outperform expectations. If the Bulls want their strong play to continue, they might consider minimizing Rajon Rondo's role. Chicago has been nearly nine points per 100 possessions better when he is on the bench.
They may not finish the season (or the calendar year) ranked ahead of the Hawks and Hornets, but the Bulls deserve to keep their spot for now.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
↑ 5 Spots
The Memphis Grizzlies are rampaging—knocking off contenders, lottery-bound sad sacks and everyone in between. Their six-game winning streak has been the product of stellar defense.
Memphis has mauled its way to third place in points allowed per possession (99.3) after a shaky start.
But what's more remarkable is the offensive growth, outlined here by Peter Edmiston in the Commercial Appeal: "As a portion of their offense, the Grizzlies are taking threes 38 percent more frequently than they did a year ago. They seem to have more or less accepted the importance of three-point shooting in today's NBA. Gasol's already made more threes in the last month than in his entire career prior to this year."
That's right: The Grizzlies are chucking, and the benefits are further reaching than you might think.
Mike Conley has thrived in the improved spacing, scoring at least 30 points three times during November. Prior to this year, he'd never had a season with more than two 30-point games.
It'll take another couple of months for that thrown-away 36-point loss to the Timberwolves on Nov. 1 to stop killing Memphis' net rating, but excellent recent play is chipping away at it already.
Right now, only the elites are outperforming the Grizzlies.
6. Houston Rockets
↑ 4 Spots
It seems much less likely that Donatas Motiejunas will arrive, as Houston failed to sign its restricted free agent before the critical Nov. 23 date that would have allowed D-Mo to be traded at the Feb. 23 deadline, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.
Houston doesn't always sign players with the express intention of dealing them, but general manager Daryl Morey loves flexibility. Houston can match any offer Motiejunas receives, but if he returns, he can't be traded this season. And the "if" is only bigger now that there could justifiably be some ill will between both parties.
That's housekeeping stuff, though.
The Rockets have survived an early schedule in which nine of their 15 games came away from home while watching Sam Dekker and Clint Capela develop into viable rotation options (and more, in Capela's case).
Plus, James Harden has double-digit assists during 11 of his last 12 games.
A winner in three of its last four, Houston is in fine shape just as its second five-game road trip of the season begins Friday.
5. Toronto Raptors
↑ 1 Spot
DeMar DeRozan wants to be the greatest player in Toronto Raptors history, according to an interview he gave to Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated.
Good news, DeMar! You don't have far to go.
Riding a season-opening scoring wave marked by 10 games with at least 30 points, DeRozan will be Toronto's all-time leader in games played by mid-December. Conservatively, he'll occupy the top line of the Raptors' record book in minutes, field goals and total points by February.
He became the winningest player in team history last year, and he helped Kyle Lowry lead the Raptors to the franchise's most successful season in 2015-16.
That's quite a resume.
Toronto's recent CV, however, has been less impressive. A controversial loss to the Kings on Sunday gave way to a hard-fought fall against the Clippers the next night. Beating the Rockets 115-102 Wednesday was key, though.
The Raps still climbed a spot because the rest of the East's second tier stumbled so badly and because their two recent losses have been excusable.
4. San Antonio Spurs
←→ No Movement
The San Antonio Spurs are doing what they've always done: adapt to personnel.
With Pau Gasol finding his niche as an elbow facilitator and Tony Parker showing sporadic spark in his recent play, San Antonio is leaning on both to forge an offense-first identity. This may seem strange for a team that still has Kawhi Leonard and posted the league's best defensive rating a year ago, but there's nothing unusual about the Spurs pivoting on the fly to suit their talent.
On the year, San Antonio ranks fifth in offensive efficiency and 11th on the other end. That's a significant shift from last season.
Winners of seven in a row and undefeated on the road, the Spurs remain dominant in ends if different in means. And if the pursuit of success ever runs into rough spots, we got a reminder that head coach Gregg Popovich won't stand for it.
"I thought we showed a lack of humility, a lack of respect for the opponent," Popovich told reporters Monday. "A very pathetic performance on both ends of the court, in execution and in grunt, in fiber, in desire."
That was after a win by a team that is now 12-3.
Tough love works.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
←→ No Movement
As third options go, a guy who can hit eight threes and score an NBA-record 34 first-quarter points is solid.
Kevin Love lit the Blazers on fire with his first-period outburst Wednesday, and if the Cavs hadn't played better defense on him than Portland (Love got one shot and went scoreless during the second quarter of that game), who knows how much damage he could have done?
Cleveland set an NBA record with 16 threes made in the first half against the Blazers and scored 137 points overall. As a result, its offensive rating jumped from fifth to third.
The Cavs always make rankings tricky. That first quarter against Portland was overwhelming. Watching it, you could scarcely imagine there being two better teams. But they also cruised a bit, hunted their own shots at Love's expense (especially Kyrie Irving) and didn't do enough overall to justify a move up.
If one of the top-two squads had faltered this week, maybe we'd have a different story.
For now, the Cavs are miles ahead of everyone else in the East. Their upcoming meeting with the Clippers should provide an education on where they stand in the league-wide picture.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
↓ 1 Spot
This is unfair.
The Clippers didn't lose this week, and all of the signs coming out of Los Angeles are positive—particularly the general maturation of a roster that needed it, according to Blake Griffin, via Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Daily News: "It’s about getting it right—not being right—with this team. Maybe, in years past, it was more about being right."
What could possibly keep a team this balanced, steady and reliable from retaining its top spot?
Nothing less than historic offensive potency.
1. Golden State Warriors
↑ 1 Spot
The Warriors set a franchise record with 47 assists during a 149-106 deconstruction of the Lakers on Wednesday, the latest offensive benchmark in a season that will surely feature more.
Remember Stephen Curry hitting an NBA-record 13 threes? Old news.
Now we're talking about the most assists in a game since 1991, according to Warriors PR; the most points in a regulation game since 2010, according to ESPN Stats & Info; and an offense that is on pace to break the record for efficiency by almost three full points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com's archives.
After destroying a thin Lakers team (and that's where you have to start if you hope to pick apart the Warriors—with a soft schedule), Golden State's offense tops the league. And its defense is up to the middle of the pack.
Normally, you'd want a top-10 rating on both ends to justify a No. 1 spot in these rankings, but we're in uncharted territory here.
Golden State simply cannot be stopped, and it's only a month into the process of integrating a second MVP. What might this team look like after, say, 40 games of chemistry-building?
Ultimately—and this is absolutely not the only criteria, but it's persuasive here—think about it this way: If you had to bet your life on a head-to-head matchup between the Warriors and anyone right now, Clippers included, you'd pick the team scoring at unprecedented rates, wouldn't you?
Yeah, me too.