2016-17 NBA Power Rankings: How Every Team Stacks Up in Early December

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 2, 2016

2016-17 NBA Power Rankings: How Every Team Stacks Up in Early December

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    This week's NBA power rankings got their shakeup early, with Tuesday's upsetfest (referred to henceforth as Black Tuesday) seeing three of the last edition's top four teams fall in shocking fashion.

    One squad, the Golden State Warriors, didn't slip on that dreaded day. But they fell Thursday—albeit to a quality opponent. End of their 12-game winning streak aside, the Warriors' ongoing development into the superteam everyone feared when the season started has carved a chasm between them and the rest of the league's elite.

    Injuries have played roles elsewhere in the rankings, sending the Memphis Grizzlies and Atlanta Hawks into spirals.

    As usual, rankings are influenced by records, advanced stats and current overall health—with an eye toward recent performance. If a team is missing a key star, that'll be reflected here. The idea is to organize these squads into an order that reflects their potency right now.

    Here's where we stand heading into December.

30. Dallas Mavericks

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    The Dallas Mavericks lead the league in percentage of shots taken with four or fewer seconds left on the shot clock.

    That's one of those categories you don't want to win.

    While it's far from the only metric indicative of offensive struggles, the stat sure squares with a Dallas team desperately in need of players who can create for others and get the ball moving. Playing deliberately is one thing, but constantly having to scrounge for looks at the end of the shot clock is a great way to post a bottom-three offensive efficiency, which is exactly what Dallas is doing.

    Dirk Nowitzki's Achilles is still keeping him off the floor, Harrison Barnes isn't hitting three-pointers and without J.J. Barea, the Mavs can't bend a defense with drives.

    It's ugly right now in Dallas, which owns the league's worst record. With a franchise-record 17 games packed into December, this could get uglier.

29. Brooklyn Nets

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    The fun of a three-heavy offense led by a revamped Brook Lopez has mostly worn off. In its place is a gloomy realization that no amount of strategic offensive growth is enough to offset a defense that does everything poorly.

    Yes, Brooklyn notched a major upset against the Los Angeles Clippers, getting 38 points from Sean Kilpatrick in that 127-122 stunner. But the Nets' Tuesday win merely ended a seven-game slide—one fueled by high three-point-attempt totals allowed and zero rim defense.

    Donatas Motiejunas might immediately become Brooklyn's second-best player if he winds up signing with the team, which looks likely, according to Marc Stein of ESPN.com.

    The Houston Rockets have the right to match any offer sheet, but doing so, in light of the Nets' struggles, would just be mean.

28. Philadelphia 76ers

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    A shot of this week's Sixers MVP: the floor.
    A shot of this week's Sixers MVP: the floor.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    ↓ 5 Spots

    Little went well for the Philadelphia 76ers this past week, so we'll offer some hopeful notes up front.

    The Sixers generate wide-open threes (no defender within six feet) more than almost any other team, ranking third in the NBA with an average of 13.7 such attempts per game. And, hey, that's good!

    Even better, they hit 43.5 percent of those shots, which ranks tied for third.

    That's surprising information because the Sixers rank second from the bottom in overall scoring efficiency. But as offensive cornerstones go, taking and making open threes are good ones. Philly has to cut its turnovers, and when Ben Simmons returns, maybe the rest of the attack will get a little extra juice.

    He's going to play some point guard when he comes back, according to head coach Brett Brown's comments to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

    Simmons doesn't help these rankings, but why not stay positive and imagine the future instead of dwelling on the crummy present?

    The best break the 76ers got this week may have been the slick floor deemed unsafe for play, which resulted in a meeting with the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday being postponed. That slippery hardwood kept Philadelphia at 0-3 when 0-4 was very much in play.

27. Orlando Magic

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    The Orlando Magic got in on the Tuesday upsetfest, inexplicably beating the San Antonio Spurs on the road and ending a four-game losing streak that included embarrassing defeats against the Phoenix Suns, Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks (twice).

    What the heck do you do with a recent resume like that?

    For now, we're ignoring the outlier: Black Tuesday was just an outlier. The planets were misaligned. The universe hiccuped. Something like that.

    Orlando's true nature is better embodied by that four-game skid and its minus-5.8 net rating, which is fourth-worst in the league.

    If Frank Vogel ever gets the rotations sorted out, or the Magic pull off a trade to unclutter the frontcourtor the equipment managers purposely lose all of Jeff Green's shoes, thereby preventing him from playing another minuteOrlando will improve.

    But you can't elevate this team out of the bottom five with losses to so many low-end clubs.

26. Phoenix Suns

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Eric Bledsoe passed the ball right off Ricky Rubio's hindquarters Friday, getting himself an easy bucket in a game his team ultimately lost anyway. It was the kind of play that happens a few times every season, and it's always entertaining.

    For the Suns, though, it was oddly poignant.

    Nothing could have better illustrated the problems of an offense with the lowest assist ratio in the league than a dude going out of his way to pass the ball to himself.

    To be crystal clear, the Suns' assist numbers aren't low for reasons beyond their control. Sometimes, teams just have bad finishers who blow what would otherwise be perfectly good setups. This isn't one of those cases; Phoenix ranks 29th in potential assists per game.

    That means the Suns stink at creating easy scores for each other.

    Do we file this away as another not-so-glowing endorsement of head coach Earl Watson's schemes? Yes, yes we do.

    Beating the Hawks, which the Suns did Wednesday, doesn't count for nearly as much as it did a few weeks ago. Seeing as Phoenix's only win since we last ranked came against those spiraling birds, not a lot is changing here.

25. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Rather predictably, Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau is taxing the bejesus out of his best players: Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins all logged more than 40 minutes in Wednesday's 106-104 home loss to the New York Knicks.

    It's hard to blame him, particularly when the bench has underperformed and Towns is reorienting the basketball world's axis with 47-point, 18-rebound efforts like the one he turned in against the Knicks. I mean, you'd leave Towns in the game as much as possible, too, if you were trying to salvage this disappointing start.

    At the same time, would it kill Thibs to give Tyus Jones a longer look?

    The second-year point guard swung the win over Phoenix last Friday, entering at the 5:33 mark of the third quarter and presiding over a 42-18 closing run as he played all the way until the final buzzer. On the season, Jones' plus-7.4 net rating is better than that of any starting guard.

    And with Ricky Rubio's shot hamstringing the offense in crunch time, it might help to have Jones' 40.7 stroke from deep on the floor.

    Wolves fans should take heart in Towns talking like a load-carrying leader and then backing it up, but this is still a team that blows leads, can't close and doesn't do nearly enough to support its superstar big man.

    Get it together, Timberwolves. Another 1-3 week like this, and you'll be in the bottom five.

24. Washington Wizards

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    The good news is Andrew Nicholson might have figured out how to guard DeMarcus Cousins, which is a problem the rest of the league has yet to crack. All you have to do is tackle him and try to hold the pin for a three count.

    More good news: Bradley Beal is getting hot, having made at least two triples in 11 of the 13 full games he's played this season. Easily averaging a career high in scoring, maybe Beal's emergence as a consistent producer will ease the burden on the rest of Washington's role players.

    Defensive innovations and Beal developments aside, the Wizards are mostly floating around down here because overtime home wins against the Kings and narrow, three-point triumphs on the road over the Magic don't move the needle.

    As long as the Wizards bench ranks 28th in net rating, it'll be difficult to envision this team climbing out of the mid-20s—even if a pair of wins this week gets it marginally closer.

23. Sacramento Kings

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    It's hard to believe when casual viewing shows the Kings stopping the ball and suffering from stagnant offense for long stretches of almost every game, but it turns out this team's attack isn't quite as sticky as it seems.

    No club takes fewer shots on grind-it-down, hold-the-ball possessions than the Kings, who fire away after one guy has possession for at least six seconds on 6.8 percent of their attempts. Head coach Dave Joerger spends virtually every pre- and postgame media session espousing a desire to keep the ball moving, and it seems he's getting through.

    The issue with Sacramento, though, is defense.

    Effort and attention to detail are consistent problems, and the Rockets capitalized on both when setting the all-time record with 50 three-point attempts last Friday. The Kings were painfully slow closing out on shooters.

    It's no great secret the Rockets want to bomb away from deep. So while ball movement is nice, we'll keep seeing 1-2 weeks like this one as long as the Kings fail to summon reliable effort (and good sense) on D.

22. Miami Heat

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    "Guys feel the optimism of guys getting healthy," Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters, describing the mood with Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic working back to full strength. "And when we get everybody back, it's an exciting group."

    Sure, great.

    Now all Miami needs is its three best wing players to get back on the floor, and it'll have a real team: Justise Winslow, Dion Waiters and Josh Richardson are all currently out.

    Miami still won a pair of games this week, which is a testament to a deep bench handling bigger roles well. Tyler Johnson hung 22 points on the Grizzlies last Friday, for example.

    The real beacon of production has been Whiteside all along—the league's leading rebounder also ranks second in blocks per game. Whiteside already has 14 assists, putting him on pace to shatter his career high of 29 last season.

    Never thought I'd see the day.

21. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Naturally, the Anthony Davis-Jrue Holiday pairing is tearing it up.

    In the 140 minutes they've played together, the New Orleans Pelicans are smashing opponents by 17.1 points per 100 possessions. That's the kind of production you'd expect to see from a tandem that talented, but Davis' positive impact goes deeper than that.

    He props up everyone.

    Take Tim Frazier, whose minutes Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry has carefully managed to coincide with Davis'. Of Frazier's 589 minutes, 521 have come with the Pels' uber-star on the floor. And as you'd expect, Frazier's shot (46.7 percent with him vs. 29.2 percent without) and assist-to-turnover numbers are dramatically better when on the court with AD.

    The danger here is obvious: Gentry must avoid the temptation to just leave Davis, his best but possibly most fragile player, out there for huge minute totals. Allowing the franchise cornerstone to log 41 minutes during a blowout win against the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, for example, is inexcusable.

    New Orleans went 1-2 after a four-game winning streak last week.

20. Denver Nuggets

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    A terrible 106-98 home loss to a Heat team missing Justise Winslow, Dion Waiters and Josh Richardson hurts here, as the Denver Nuggets can't get themselves on any kind of roll.

    In every ranking session this season, they've been .500 or worse. So this week's 1-2 entry is par for the mediocre course.

    Mike Malone is still tinkering with a tricky frontcourt rotation; Emmanuel Mudiay has remedied his turnover issues lately but is shooting 30.6 percent in his last five games; and Danilo Gallinari is only just now getting back from a thigh injury that cost him three games.

    The constant amid all the uncertainty has been Wilson Chandler. Off to a sterling start as a bench weapon, the finally healthy swingman is averaging personal bests with 18.3 points and 7.7 rebounds after missing all of the 2015-16 season. He's been prolific (career-high usage rate) and efficient (career-high player efficiency rating).

    "It's too early to start talking about Sixth Man of the Year and all of that stuff," Malone told Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post. "But he's been our MVP."

    The rest of the Nuggets need to follow Chandler's lead.

19. New York Knicks

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    Carmelo Anthony sure has picked his spots nicely of late. He led the charge during last Friday's 113-111 overtime victory against a Charlotte Hornets team that badly needed to win, posting season highs with 35 points, 14 rebounds and five assists.

    He also hit a game-winner, a feat he repeated Wednesday to down the Timberwolves.

    In addition to Anthony's timely contributions, Kristaps Porzingis continues to develop. The second-year unicorn led New York with 29 points in that win over Minnesota, and he punctuated the performance with several highlight blocks and dunks.

    Oh, and he's averaging 2.3 made triples per game. Dirk Nowitzki, to whom KP is often compared, never made more than 1.9 per game in any season (h/t HoopsHype's Mika Honkasalo).

    That's not to say Porzingis is somehow better than Dirk or ahead of his developmental curve. But it sure highlights how the changing NBA game and KP's skill set could allow him to be an even more dynamic and prolific scorer than the best European player ever.

    Now, if the Knicks could parlay their considerable offensive talents into something more than a .500 record and a minus-3.6 net rating, maybe we'd finally be able to push them up toward the mid-teens.

18. Indiana Pacers

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    Paul George's ankle, which kept him out for all three of the Indiana Pacers' games this week, was going to be the big story here, but a bizarre and surprisingly successful stretch takes precedence.

    First, Indiana held the Clippers' high-powered offense to an incomprehensible 70 points during a 91-70 win Sunday. It was the first time L.A. had scored fewer than 80 points under head coach Doc Rivers, and that the Pacers did it without George makes it all the more incredible.

    Then, to bookend the week, Indy gave up 131 points in a blowout loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

    That's a heck of a swing, and it makes judging Indiana's true defensive talent level tough, but the Portland loss counts the same as the win over the Clips in the standings.

    The offense is easier to gauge: It's bad.

    The scoring renaissance the Pacers wanted hasn't materialized, and it's probably because they take the third-most mid-range shots in the league. Myles Turner hits them at an elite 51.9 percent, but making two-point jumpers a staple is a good way to have the 22nd-ranked offense.

17. Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Lakers got bashed this week—both by injuries and final scores.

    D'Angelo Russell's knee had already sidelined him, and then Nick Young's calf strain put him on ice as well. And yes, this is where we are with this shockingly competitive Lakers team:

    "We put Nick on the other team’s best player a lot this year," Lakers coach Luke Walton told reporters. "And he’s done a great job making them work. So it’s not just the shooting we’re gonna miss. We’re definitely gonna miss his defense."

    I know, I know. Nick Young and the word "defense" not separated by some variation of "does not play."

    Nothing makes sense.

    Blowout losses to the Warriors and Pelicans mangled the Lakers' numbers, and they now own a minus-3.1 net rating after getting beaten by six points per 100 possessions in their recently completed 2-2 week.

    Regressing statistically and now playing without two key components, the Lakers are in for a tough stretch.

16. Detroit Pistons

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    Despite a litany of troubling big-picture signs, the Detroit Pistons strung together one of the more impressive short-term performances in the league this week, beating the Clippers and responding to an ugly loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder with wins on back-to-back nights against the Hornets and Boston Celtics.

    All that happened with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope getting torched by J.J. Redick, Stanley Johnson losing his first-wing-off-the-bench spot to Darrun Hilliard and Andre Drummond's negative on-court impact inexplicably getting bigger and bigger.

    Through 20 games, Detroit's net rating has been 8.1 points per 100 possessions better without Drummond on the court.

    Maybe KCP and Johnson aren't the long-term building blocks the Pistons hope they'll become, and maybe Drummond's contributions need to be viewed more critically. But hey, Detroit is 10-10 after a great week.

    There's hope for a 47-win season yet.

15. Portland Trail Blazers

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    The Trail Blazers have loads of work to do on their league-worst defense, and you know that's the case when holding a Pacers team (playing without Paul George) to 109 points counts as progress.

    The Blazers got creamed by the Rockets on Sunday, surrendering 130 points, and then used two straight days of practice to refocus.

    "It got heated," Damian Lillard said of a particularly intense drill at one of those practices.

    The result of all that attention to defense and reignition of competitive fire was, again, 109 points allowed to the Pacers on Wednesday.

    But hey, it came in a win, and Portland went 2-1 with a plus-5.0 net rating in those games. So we can't get too critical.

14. Atlanta Hawks

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    It's tempting to go to the well on this one every week, but I'm glad we saved it up for this particular Hawks team in this particular edition of the power rankings.

    After a 9-2 start, the Hawks have tumbled from the sky like a quail full of birdshot.

    Seven losses during their last eight games, to all kinds of opponents in all kinds of ways, have the Hawks in free fall. Paul Millsap's hip injury has cost him time, and that's a mitigating circumstance in one sense. But in another, if we're ranking these teams based on current potency, his hobbled status is just another reason to downgrade Atlanta.

    Dwight Howard is flinging passes off the backboard, and the offense is producing a league-low 90.8 points per 100 possessions since Nov. 25.

    This is bad.

    But! We overreacted to the Hawks' scorching start, and it'd be a mistake to do the same thing in light of this remarkable tailspin. Dropping Atlanta to the middle of the pack might seem like light punishment, but it's important to keep a level head here.

    The Hawks aren't as good as their start suggested. We know that for sure now. But there's a good chance they're also not as bad as this last stretch indicates.

13. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Welcome to this week's Bucks slide, which may as well be referred to as the "What's up with Greg Monroe" section of these rankings.

    After being in the rotation to start the year and then basically out of it a week ago, Moose is playing again. And as he was amassing 14 points and six rebounds against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday, it was enough to make Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel curious about the inconsistency of his role.

    "Watching Greg Monroe so far tonight begs the question — how in the world has this guy gotten any DNP-CD's this season? Strong at both ends," Velazquez tweeted.

    During the Bucks' successful three-game stretch that included a 118-101 win over the Cavs, Monroe averaged 11 points and just over seven rebounds per game in limited playing time. He's been an ideal second-unit anchor whenever he's gotten the chance, and it's getting to the point now where head coach Jason Kidd doesn't have a good excuse for not starting him.

    John Henson and Miles Plumlee aren't setting the world on fire.

    Yes, Milwaukee's fate begins and ends with Giannis Antetokounmpo. But watching Kidd try to figure out how to use Monroe is rapidly becoming the most intriguing and frustrating aspect of this Bucks team.

12. Memphis Grizzlies

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    There's no way for "transverse fractures in the vertebrae" to sound good, but at least Mike Conley is only expected to miss about six weeks.

    That could still be a season-defining stretch for the Grizzlies, though. Because while Marc Gasol's development as a three-point weapon (chronicled here by B/R's Zach Buckley) is a major development, it's folly to gloss over Conley's value.

    Memphis' point guard was in the midst of a career season, and you don't have to look far to see his impact was bigger than his own individual numbers.

    Gasol, for example, isn't nearly as productive without Conley on the court. The Grizzlies' net rating is minus-4.4 with Gasol and no Conley. With both, that figure is plus-7.9.

    It's exciting to see Memphis field athletic lineups more often, which it'll have to do sans Conley; Andrew Harrison has shown potential as a fill-in point guard.

    But this week's 2-3 record, combined with Conley's absence, paints a stark picture of the Grizzlies' short-term future.

11. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    As has always been the case, Russell Westbrook's statistical binge coincided with team success for the Thunder.

    Westbrook, currently averaging a triple-double after putting together four straight this past week, helped OKC to a perfect 4-0 record in those contests. That run improved the Thunder's record to 40-6 when Westbrook posts a trip-dub.

    "There's certain times when [a player] goes off and gets crazy numbers, and his team loses," OKC head coach Billy Donovan said, via Royce Young of ESPN.com. "Winning is the most important thing to Russell. And he knows that his assists, his rebounds and his scoring, being efficient, helps our team win."

    "Helps" is an understatement.

    "Singularly produces" is more like it.

    The Thunder continue to field the NBA's worst wing rotation, struggle to score because of laughably bad spacing and poor outside shooting, and they're still amassing victories in bunches—entirely because of Westbrook.

10. Boston Celtics

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    It's usually a good sign when a team shifts its narrative to something other than injuries hampering progress, but not when the new storyline is a lack of toughness.

    "I think we have to get a little more nastier on the defensive end," Jae Crowder told reporters after the Celtics dropped a 121-114 decision to the Pistons on Wednesday. "Not let a team come in and get comfortable. It's not been an ongoing thing; it happened today and it happened a couple games but, for the most part, we've been trying to impose our will first."

    The Celtics lost two of their three games since we last ranked, and much of the toughness deficit is showing up on the boards.

    Boston has been among the league's worst rebounding teams all season, and getting hammered on the glass by a margin of 52-33 against Detroit was just the latest example. Nobody permits a higher percentage of opponents' offensive rebounds than Boston.

    Crowder's right: More nastiness is needed.

9. Charlotte Hornets

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    Losing Marvin Williams to a knee injury last Friday was tough, and a difficult schedule didn't help matters as the Hornets scrapped to salvage a 3-2 week.

    "ESPN said today that we have the lowest chance to win tomorrow out of any game that'll be played this year," Hornets head coach Steve Clifford said, via ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh, of Charlotte's Tuesday visit to the Pistons, his team's fourth game in five nights. "But it'll start with us having an attitude of not worrying about who we play and finding a way to play well enough to win the game."

    Right mindset. Predictable result, as Charlotte ran out of gas in the second half and lost 112-89.

    Frank Kaminsky, thrust into a starting role with Williams hobbled, has had games where he couldn't find his shot—like his 1-of-11 outing against the Pistons. But he's an obviously skilled offensive player who can hurt smaller matchups in the post, and you get the sense that if the Hornets are going to hang around the top 10 this year, he'll have to be the guy consistently helping out Nicolas Batum and Kemba Walker with the scoring load.

    Charlotte is surviving right now. Kaminsky must be more reliable for the Hornets to thrive.

8. Chicago Bulls

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    The Chicago Bulls had a light week, beating the 76ers on Friday and falling to the Lakers Wednesday as Rajon Rondo's inability to threaten a defense continues to hamstring an offense that looked surprisingly promising earlier in the year.

    Los Angeles effectively guarded four Chicago players with five bodies whenever Rondo didn't have the ball, and Jose Calderon's blatant disregard for Rondo as a shooter led to some bizarre snapshots, a couple of which SB Nation's Mike Prada captured and tweeted.

    Basically, Calderon followed the ball or doubled somebody else whenever Rondo didn't have it, and the Bulls shot 35.2 percent during that 96-90 loss. Rondo was 6-of-12 from the field, but it's clear defenses are happy to let him chuck away at his 37.8 percent clip from the field.

    Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade may be a better pairing than anyone expected, but asking them to lead the offense in four-on-five efforts is a bit much.

    Chicago still has the league's seventh-best net rating, but it's hard to see that continuing with opponents taking a smarter approach to defending (or not defending) Rondo.

7. Utah Jazz

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    The Utah Jazz know a thing or two about dealing with injuries—unfortunately because they have tons of experience with it.

    So maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that Derrick Favors' latest absence hasn't been crippling, as Trey Lyles and Boris Diaw have offered new dimensions to the Jazz's offense in his place. Jazz head coach Quin Snyder told Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune:

    There are things Derrick does that nobody else can do, as far as his rim protection and his defense. But those two have helped ease Derrick's absence. All three are different, and that's unique. Boris can give us his passing, and Trey can give us the 3-point shooting. They are both playmakers. They don't need to be Derrick; they just need to be who they are.

    Utah was riding a five-game winning streak until stumbling Thursday against the Heat. And though Favors remains valuable, we may be seeing Utah recalculating the urgency of signing him to an extension.

    The Jazz, always defensively terrifying, are now scoring points at top-10 efficiency.

    There aren't too many teams still relying on conventional two-big lineups, and while Utah sacrifices bulk without Favors, his health concerns and the obvious benefits of better spacing might be an enticing glimpse of the future.

6. Toronto Raptors

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    "No matter how you feel…you have to put a professional approach out there, and I thought we did in the last quarter," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey told reporters after a turnover-riddled win against the Grizzlies on Wednesday. "The first three quarters, you can throw them out and do whatever you want with them."

    The Raptors may have made things tough on themselves, but an unblemished record is still good.

    Not good enough to get them into the top five because of some other rankings wildness, but still good.

    DeMar DeRozan has mostly sustained his seemingly unsustainable pace, and Toronto is only looking tougher as Kyle Lowry's game kicks into gear. Over his last five games, he's averaging 23.2 points and 7.6 assists while converting 57.6 percent of his threes.

    It's difficult to see a way for Toronto to move any higher for now. Maybe if the Raps stay patient and steady, the Spurs or Cavs will hit a rough patch that makes this section of the rankings a little more interesting.

5. Houston Rockets

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Thursday's win over the Warriors was so massive, it makes those record-setting 50 three-point attempts in last Friday's win over the Kings seem like a minor detail from a great recent run.

    The Rockets create a tricky problem because they toppled the best team (sorry, spoiler) but also missed a chance to establish themselves as a legitimate top-tier club when they fell to the Jazz this week.

    Sometimes, these things are complicated. And seeing the Rockets ranked ahead of the Jazz after losing that head-to-head meeting is a good illustration.

    Houston can score with anyone, but its defense will always make it vulnerable. This isn't a situation like the one in Golden State, where the Warriors (who are better than the Rockets on D anyway) can rely on a historically potent attack to bail them out. The Rockets can put up points, but if you scan back over the past few weeks, quality teams with balance tend to do well against them.

    OKC, San Antonio, Toronto, Utah—all have capitalized on the Rockets' bottom-10 defense.

    That doesn't mean Houston can't win 50 games. But it's a sign the Rockets will struggle to rank among the true elites.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    LeBron James earned Player of the Month honors in the East, and though there are infinite ways to express why he deserves that award every time it's handed out, this tweet from Haberstroh is an especially illustrative one: "One tidbit that didn't make it in there: Channing Frye as a Cav is shooting 46-of-76 (61%) on 3s fed from LeBron."

    That's from a larger study of James' passing impact, one that shows Frye and Kevin Love shoot 59 percent from deep on passes from James but just 35 percent on passes from anyone else. As Haberstroh contextualizes, shooting a three with a 59 percent success rate is equivalent to the expected value of a dunk attempt.

    Threes are dunks now—but only when James is setting them up with perfect timing and defense-drawing skill.

    Thanks, LeBron.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    "With us," Chris Paul told Zach Lowe of ESPN.com, "it will all be about how we respond to adversity."

    Well, here's some: The Clippers dropped three straight games this week, including a ridiculous 70-point outing against the Pacers and a double-overtime affair to the (not-) mighty Nets.

    What you see Paul doing in that video is playfully resuscitating Paul Pierce after a failed dunk attempt, but it might as well be a metaphor for coming to life after flatlining.

    Beating the Cavaliers on Thursday, and beating them soundly, was a huge deal. It was a matchup we'd been pointing to for weeks as a litmus test for the Clips' terrific start.

    That win salvaged an otherwise disastrous week.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    The Spurs lost four times at home in November, which equals the four home November losses they suffered during the previous four seasons combined.

    That's a lot of fours, but the point is: Head coach Gregg Popovich needs to trick his team into thinking it's always on the road, where it's undefeated and drawing nearer to the Warriors' 14-0 road start last year, which was an NBA record.

    I'm not sure how he's supposed to accomplish this—maybe loading the team onto a plane that never takes off, disguising familiar landmarks in San Antonio or forcing fans to pretend they're cheering for the opposition?

    He'll probably find a way.

    San Antonio moving up after what might have been the most surprising loss of the year so fara 95-83 defeat against the lowly Magic on Tuesdayis just another side effect of the Clippers' slide. If Patty Mills and his second-ranked true shooting percentage (among guys taking at least seven shots per game) hadn't saved San Antonio from another ghastly defeat against the Mavs, we'd have a different story here.

    But Mills, in the midst of a career season, scored 15 fourth-quarter points to salvage that Wednesday meeting in Dallas.

1. Golden State Warriors

30 of 30

    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    ←→ No Movement

    Seventeen wins during their first 19 games would have given the Warriors a winning percentage that, if multiplied by 82 games, would equate to a pace of...73.4 victories.

    Losing to Houston on Thursday assured that wouldn't happen, and Golden State is now 16-3.

    After the way things played out last season, don't expect Golden State to push for that 73-win figure. But at the same time, don't rule out a historically unprecedented offense and improving defense turning last year's desperate charge toward 73 wins into a leisurely stroll with a 74-8 conclusion.

    Among the million reasons the Warriors are unprecedentedly dangerous is Kevin Durant, an MVP who will only get better, according to Andre Iguodala's comments to Sam Amick of USA Today:

    He’s one of the best scorers of all time as far as finding a way to score. It’s (like) peeling layers – it’s kind of like an onion. It’s crazy. It’s amazing. You guys will see it, and you’ll enjoy it … I think sometimes he’s trying to make sure he doesn’t shoot too many shots, but we’re trying to let him know that it’s impossible for him to shoot too many shots.

    The schedule has been easy, as Golden State hasn't faced Cleveland, Utah or the Clippers yet. Depending on how those eventual meetings go, we may have to reassess the Warriors' all-time standing and clear primacy in the league today.

    At this point in the season, though, the gap between No. 1 and the rest of the challengers is wide.


    Statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.


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