2016-17 NBA Power Rankings at the Quarter Mark of the Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 9, 2016

2016-17 NBA Power Rankings at the Quarter Mark of the Season

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    There's good news if your favorite team isn't where you'd like it to be in this week's NBA power rankings.

    We're only a quarter of the way through the season—12 minutes if you're likening the 82-game slate to a single contest. We have another 36 minutes to play, adjustments to make and deficits to make up.

    Of course, sometimes first-quarter holes can be too deep to dig out of. Without naming names (basically all of the bottom 10), it's probably too late for playoff hope. But hey, who knows?

    The Orlando Magic made the biggest leap of the week, vaulting all the way into the middle of the pack. So anything's possible.

    As always, rankings are based on win-loss records, advanced stats, head-to-head meetings and health. Because these are designed to measure how each team is playing right now, injuries have to factor in.

    Recent performance matters most, but we're getting deep enough into the season now that a loss or two in a week might not necessarily outweigh a larger body of work.

30. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    ↓ 2 Spots

    Just after the Philadelphia 76ers inevitably collapsed during a close game again, this time in a 96-91 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, the Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey mused on Twitter, "I don't know the last time the Sixers scored on a play after a timeout in the clutch."

    That's tough to figure out, Keith. But what I can tell you is the Sixers have the NBA's highest turnover rate in close-and-late situations. When you're giving the other team the ball instead of, say, taking a shot, it can be difficult to score.

    Philly coughs up the ball in the clutch on nearly 20 percent of its offensive possessions. If you just dribbled over half court and let Joel Embiid do dream shakes at the top of the three-point arc, you might generate better late-game offense than the Sixers have so far.

    Perhaps on a related note, they've lost nine of their last 10 and tied the franchise record for consecutive road defeats, 23, before somehow beating the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday.

29. Dallas Mavericks

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Despite Andrew Bogut's bothersome willingness to entertain some of the more absurd and dangerous theories the "alt-right" (a political movement known for its extreme views) conjures up, I'm letting the Dallas Mavericks out of the cellar this week.

    It was a tough call.

    But in fairness to the rest of the Mavs, a 25-point win over the Chicago Bulls on Saturday is the kind of thing that warrants a move up from No. 30. The worst team in the league shouldn't beat anyone by that much, so it follows Dallas can't be dead last anymore.

    Basically everyone who matters remains injured—Bogut included—and the Mavs will continue to struggle as long as Dirk Nowitzki, Seth Curry and J.J. Barea aren't playing. Harrison Barnes continues to do his iso-heavy best, and Wesley Matthews is hitting 43.8 percent of his threes during Dallas' last five games, so nobody's quit just yet.

28. Brooklyn Nets

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    The Brooklyn Nets gave it their best shot, but the Houston Rockets matched their offer sheet to Donatas Motiejunas. That whole situation is a mess now, with D-Mo refusing to take his physical with the Rockets, but all the intrigue surrounding that element of the transaction obscures another: Motiejunas probably would have been Brooklyn's second-best player.

    That's not saying much, as Brook Lopez has been toiling alone for most of the season. But Motiejunas would have been a good get for a team that doesn't have many avenues for improvement.

    Meanwhile, the Nets knocked off the Denver Nuggets 116-111 Wednesday. That victory, along with Lopez's delightful analysis of Chew-Brook-A bobblehead (via Anthony Puccio of SB Nation) is enough to merit a bump up the ranks.

    "It's a good look. I've always felt like I'm part Wookie, but the thing I noticed most was that he takes really good care of his hair. There's a lot of product in there. I think he takes pride in it. It's almost like a mullet. It's like they took my curls, straightened it, and then they, I don't know, shaped it, teased it, and slicked it back into this nice little mullet thing. It's very Wookie-like."

27. Phoenix Suns

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    There's a fine line between optimism and delusion, and it's getting harder to tell on which side Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson resides.

    "If we want to continue to stay with dreams of playing beyond April, we have to start winning at home," Watson said, according to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic.

    Coaching a go-nowhere team is tough, and Watson isn't wrong to pick out home performance as an area of concern. But there are glaring signs that the organization has no interest in winning now, later or at any point after April.

    One of those signs is rookie Marquese Chriss, who has been a ceremonial starter for weeks now. Sticking an overmatched rookie like Chriss into the first unit (even if he doesn't play starter's minutes) is a great way to subtly tank. You fall behind early, get to explain it away under the guise of player development and go on your merry way to the lottery.

    Phoenix was 0-3 this week and allowed at least 109 points in all three defeats.

    Hopefully, we'll start seeing at least as much of Dragan Bender as we are of Chriss. Though somebody had better let Watson know June (when Phoenix inevitably makes a top-five pick in the draft) is way more important than April.

26. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    When a team coached by Tom Thibodeau is having a hard time defending the pick-and-roll, as outlined here by The Step Back's Jeff Siegel, it's a sign the issues have more to do with personnel than scheme. Because if we know anything about Thibs, it's that he made his name in the NBA on the strength of his defensive acumen.

    A couple of evidentiary items support the theory that Minnesota's players (both in their effort and execution) are the problem.

    First, the T-Wolves rank dead last in transition defense, allowing a league-high 1.22 points per possession. That's an effort issue, pure and simple.

    Similarly, the Timberwolves have the worst record in games that fall under the clutch heading—they're 2-8 when contests are within five points during the final five minutes. That's a sign of a roster that isn't experienced enough to keep its cool and execute.

    The good news: Minnesota's players are only going to get more experienced and attentive to detail...because they can't get worse in either of those areas. There's still time for this team to move up toward the middle of the pack, but it's getting harder to see the playoff trip some envisioned.

25. Sacramento Kings

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    Beating the Mavs hardly counts for anything these days, and when that victory is the only positive in a week that also included Matt Barnes and DeMarcus Cousins getting sued for alleged assault—the result of a nightclub incident in New York on Monday morning—you get an idea of how things are going for the Sacramento Kings.

    Cousins has been wildly productive of late, averaging 29.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 3.3 blocks per game in December. He's only hitting 40.3 percent of his shots this month, but he's knocking down treys at a 42.1 percent clip, which props up his scoring efficiency.

    On another positive note, the Kings have defended at a top-five clip since we last ranked, allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions. They'll have to produce on that end if they want to avoid more slippage because it's highly unlikely Rudy Gay can keep up his offensive productivity.

    When Gay slows down (or gets traded), Cousins will be the only viable offensive option on the roster—and he's already being asked to do too much.

24. New Orleans Pelicans

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    ↓ 3 Spots

    Sometimes, it seems like it'd be nice if we were a little dumber. But we know heavy workloads and high minute totals are strongly correlated with injury. If we knew less about that stuff, we could just enjoy Anthony Davis piling up numbers and doing everything possible to make the Pelicans relevant.

    But we know the dangers of overuse, and so we have to worry when Davis plays 48 minutes in double-overtime like he did against the Grizzlies on Monday. And we have to grimace when we realize he played that much a night after spraining his foot severely enough against the Oklahoma City Thunder to necessitate an X-ray, according to ESPN.com's Royce Young and Justin Verrier.

    The Pels lost both of those games as part of an 0-4 week.

    Davis is having his best statistical season: His averages in scoring, rebounding and steals are all at career highs. His player efficiency rating is near where it was in his transcendent breakout of 2014-15. And with New Orleans' depleted roster, it's easy to see why head coach Alvin Gentry is leaning on him so hard.

    But Davis has never played more than 68 games in a season, so pushing him for a league-high 38 minutes per game feels like inviting disaster.

    We know too much to fully enjoy what AD is doing.

23. Miami Heat

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    The Miami Heat are still better than their record, having played well enough, based on their point differential, to have nine wins instead of seven. But when everybody's hurt, it's tough to put much stock in a stat like that because what the Heat have done to this point doesn't accurately reflect what they're capable of doing right now.

    Luke Babbitt, Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson are all injured and staying home in Miami through a road trip that'll keep the Heat's healthier bodies away through a Saturday contest against the Bulls.

    The impact of those absences has shown up on defense, where Miami ranked among the league's best on defense through the first few weeks of the season, yet just finished a seven-day stretch in which it allowed 114 points per 100 possessions.

    Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic can only do so much—even when supported by new addition Wayne Ellington's outside stroke and the surprising re-emergence of Josh McRoberts: actual NBA player.

    Miami went 0-3 this past week.

22. Washington Wizards

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    John Wall is in the midst of his best offensive season, and it hasn't been enough to get the Washington Wizards anywhere near .500.

    I mean, when he's pumping in 52 points and Washington is still losing handily at home to the Magic, it might be time to re-evaluate the rest of the roster.

    After that Tuesday debacle, Wall told reporters:

    To still be talking about playing hard, that's something that you should be able to do after just waking up. Everybody has a job and they have to go work hard. Our job is to come here and play hard and compete. That's the easiest thing that you should do without any contracts or any money, just come in and play basketball. ... If I had the answer we wouldn't be in this situation.

    To be fair, Wall's defensive engagement has been lacking. But maybe propping up an offense on his own and then watching an atrocious bench give away whatever gains he produced (this happens every night) is sapping his energy.

21. Denver Nuggets

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    I'm coining a new moniker for Jamal Murray, the Denver Nuggets rookie whose fluid ball-handling flair and versatile shot-creating make him look a little like a certain two-time MVP—but only if you squint really hard.

    Blurry Curry.

    I'm sure this will sweep the nation.

    Murray scored 22 points in Denver's Monday win over the Sixers, and starting point guard Emmanuel Mudiay's major struggles at the point (one assist during his last three games combined) highlight a logical lineup change. Murray's no point guard, but he can't be worse than Mudiay.

    More broadly, Denver needs to scrap its two-big groupings, excise Kenneth Faried from the first unit and any minutes at power forward, then trust Nikola Jokic to man the middle alongside more versatile forward combos—preferably Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler.

    Adam Mares of Denver Stiffs has been banging the drum on this lineup stuff for weeks, and it's reaching the point where the Nuggets' faulty personnel groupings are starting to look like self-sabotage.

20. Los Angeles Lakers

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    ↓ 3 Spots

    Injuries, natural regression and a defense that can't stop anyone conspired to send the Los Angeles Lakers downward this week.

    D'Angelo Russell and Nick Young remain sidelined, which produced a truly odd starting lineup during Monday's 107-101 loss to the Utah Jazz: Brandon Ingram, Metta World Peace, Luol Deng, Julius Randle and Timofey Mozgov composed a first unit designed to switch everything on defense.

    That group didn't work out; head coach Luke Walton wisely relented and moved Jordan Clarkson into the starting unit for L.A.'s next game.

    Lou Williams has been the Lakers' hottest scorer by a measure of roughly 6,000 degrees, going off for games of 38 and 40 points last week. His high-volume scoring isn't leading to wins, though—not with a defense allowing 118 points per 100 possessions since we last ranked.

    That's the second-worst mark in the league during that span, and it's difficult to see how the Lakers will ever be adequate on that end.

19. Orlando Magic

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    ↑ 8 Spots

    This might be too big of a jump for the Magic, but we've been especially hard on them (because their offense is still trash) all season. So after a 3-1 week in which all the wins came on the road, they're getting a big, apologetic bump.

    Orlando is gradually making the right moves, scrapping spacing-starved combinations that pair Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon with two conventional bigs and moving D.J. Augustin into the starting lineup ahead of Payton, as ESPN's Zach Lowe pointed out.

    This is good news for a team that hasn't scored efficiently all season. So is getting Jodie Meeks back into the fold: He's hit 50 percent of his threes in his first action since missing an extended period following a foot injury. If he can be even a modest catch-and-shoot threat, Orlando's offense gets a real boost.

    Defensively, the Magic have rounded into the top-10 defense you'd expect from head coach Frank Vogel, and playing Bismack Biyombo ahead of Nikola Vucevic will assure the stopping power holds up.

    You still generally have to avert your eyes when the Magic have the ball, but they're finding ways around their weaknesses.

18. Atlanta Hawks

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    ↓ 4 Spots

    The ugliest ongoing pratfall in the NBA is temporarily paused.

    The Atlanta Hawks, losers in 10 of their 11 games from Nov. 18 to Dec. 5, finally won again.

    Beating the Heat 103-95 Wednesday hardly signals the slippage is over, though. And it's going to take weeks of recovery before we see this teamwhich once occupied a spot inside the top 10 and held a 9-2 recordpoking at the league's upper tier.

    Kyle Korver is coming off the bench these days in a desperate shuffle designed to juice an offense that has tumbled all the way to 27th, but Atlanta's biggest problem in the scoring department might be the center spot. After a strong start, Dwight Howard has posted single-digit scoring efforts three times in Atlanta's last eight games—all losses.

    The rebounding has been excellent, and you can't laud the Hawks' stellar defense without pointing first to Howard's impact. But for a scoring-starved club, Howard has to be a more consistent contributor offensively. Since he's so dependent on setups and lobs, maybe we should be pegging point guard Dennis Schroder as the culprit.

    When a team is collapsing like the Hawks are, there's more than enough blame to go around.

17. Indiana Pacers

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    This is suboptimal defensive positioning.
    This is suboptimal defensive positioning.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    ↑ 1 Spot

    It was a wild week for the Indiana Pacers, who knocked off the Los Angeles Clippers (even if that's starting to look like it counts for less than we originally thought) and then embarrassed themselves by allowing Klay Thompson to incinerate 60 points in three quarters of work.

    Head coach Nate McMillan employed a scheme that involved minimal switching early during the game, a massive mistake against a Golden State Warriors team that thrives on the chaos created by off-ball movement and screening. Switching isn't a perfect strategy, but it short-circuits some of that stuff.

    "It was one of those nights," Monta Ellis told Nate Taylor of the Indianapolis Star. "He couldn’t miss a shot. There’s nothing I can tell you. They did a good job of screening for him. He knocked the shots down. They constantly move. That makes them hard to guard."

    Know what else makes them hard to guard when they're screening and constantly moving?

    Not switching.

    We can't be too hard on Indy, which won two of its three games this week. But man, it sure is making life tougher on itself than it needs to be.

16. New York Knicks

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    ↑ 3 Spots

    The New York Knicks had their four-game winning streak snapped by a vengeful LeBron James on Wednesday, and they got outscored by 4.4 points per 100 possessions this past week.

    But a 3-1 record and a couple of big scoring games from Carmelo Anthony (35 against Miami and 29 versus Minnesota) have the Knicks climbing anyway.

    Melo is scoring differently than he ever has—a symptom of age and declining quickness. His shot profile features a career-low percentage of field-goal attempts from 0-3 feet and a career high from three-point range. As his game has moved away from the basket, his free-throw rate has predictably plummeted to an all-time low as well.

    Essentially, Anthony's a jump-shooting scorer now.

    If the Knicks can improve their No. 29 ranking in second-chance points allowed and get Phil Jackson to stop antagonizing four-time MVPs, they could keep the ascent going.

15. Portland Trail Blazers

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    ←→ No Movement

    Milestone time!

    The Portland Trail Blazers held the Heat under 100 points in a 99-92 win Saturday. This was a big deal for the league's worst defense—something that hadn't happened since way back on Nov. 6.

    The Blazers followed up that modest triumph with another win against the Bulls. They got Al-Farouq Aminu back in that one, and the versatile forward's return from a calf injury should help get their defensive rating out of the cellar.

    Portland's preferred starting unitwhich includes Aminu alongside Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Maurice Harkless and Mason Plumleehas held opponents to 98.1 points per 100 possessions, a figure that tops the team's overall rate by more than 20 points.

    It's not a fair comparison, but just for reference, the Blazers' first-unit defense is better than the Grizzlies' overall defensive rating, which ranks first in that category. That's not to say everything's fixed: Portland gave up 115 points in Wednesday's loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

    But Aminu's return portends progress.

14. Detroit Pistons

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    Reggie Jackson is finally back from a battle with knee tendinitis that cost him nearly two months, and his reintegration into the lineup (though still subject to a minutes limit) should help push the Detroit Pistons closer to the top 10.

    If nothing else, it'll nudge Ish Smith back down to the second unit, where his defensive shortcomings and unreliable shot won't be as easily exploited.

    Figuring out how to translate Andre Drummond's production into team success remains a major challenge. Example: Despite Drummond's 13.2 rebounds per game, the Pistons merely break even on the boards when he's in the game. With Drummond on the bench, Detroit out-rebounds its opponents.

    Go figure.

    An even split in their four games this week keeps the Pistons at a fitting .500 on the season.

13. Charlotte Hornets

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    ↓ 4 Spots

    Several times already, we've lauded their league-low turnover rate, but there is apparently a second level to the Charlotte Hornets' discipline.

    Here's Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer: "The Hornets average 26.6 free throws attempted per game. Only two other teams—the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets—average more free throws. Meanwhile, the Hornets give up 18 free throws per game, which is the league low."

    Getting fouled and not fouling are great ways to bolster performance on both ends.

    No surprise, then, the Hornets rank 14th in offensive efficiency despite slotting in at 23rd in field-goal percentage.

    "They never beat themselves," Detroit head coach Stan Van Gundy told Bonnell after Charlotte knocked off the Pistons 87-77 despite shooting 34 percent from the field.

    There's an unfortunate side effect to Charlotte's rigid structure and do-the-little-things excellence: I'm already bored writing about the team.

    Moving on.

12. Chicago Bulls

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    ↓ 4 Spots

    Chicago beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday, dropped three in a row, and then somehow defeated the San Antonio Spurs to close the week. That's not how stretches of five games in seven days typically play out, and it makes it hard to rank this team.

    Beyond those three losses, the Bulls had to deal with a Rajon Rondo suspension. The official reason was conduct detrimental to the team (for allegedly throwing a towel at assistant Jim Boylen during an argument), and Chicago lost the game he missed.

    That's a bit surprising, as the Bulls have played better with Rondo on the bench this season.

    Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler continues to establish himself as one of the East's best players. He's blowing past previous career highs in scoring volume and efficiency and has registered more points than field-goal attempts during every game this year.

    The Step Back's Ian Levy put it this way: "In many ways, Butler is the perfect standard-bearer for what the Bulls have come to represent in the past two decades. He is grit and effort, quiet defense and floor burns. A team-first role-player who also just happens be good enough to put that team on his back."

    Butler is great, but the Bulls' wild inconsistency necessitates a drop.

11. Milwaukee Bucks

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    The Bucks are rolling.

    Winners in five of their last six games, the Milwaukee's only recent blemish was a one-point loss to the Spurs on Monday—in a contest it led by 13 at halftime.

    Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich had a front-row seat for that one, and he left impressed by Giannis Antetokounmpo, telling reporters:

    It takes people a while to emerge as what you just called an NBA star. He’s not just an athlete anymore, he’s not just a phenomenon with his length and athleticism. He’s learned how to play the game. He’s learned about time and score. He’s learned how to play with his teammates. All those things are what make you an NBA star as time goes on.

    I mean, Pop has eyes, right? So of course he liked what he saw.

    Antetokounmpo remains a reliable jumper away from true superstardom. But he only just turned 22, and it's not as though defenses have figured out how to consistently exploit his lack of outside shooting.

    Unless you consider holding a guy to 22 points and 6.1 assists on 51.9 percent shooting an exploitation.

    We're getting dangerously close to a world where the Bucks occupy a spot in the top 10.

10. Memphis Grizzlies

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    Well, if Marc Gasol is going to keep hitting clutch step-back threes, maybe Mike Conley's absence won't matter.

    And if the Grizzlies keep eking out incredibly tight wins (they got another one on two Toney Douglas free throws with 0.2 seconds remaining to beat the Blazers on Thursday), maybe we can just forget about referencing net rating as a measure of quality from now on.

    Memphis, 16-8, has been outscored on the season.

    The evolution of the Grizzlies big man continues, as Gasol's 44 percent accuracy rate from long range ranks fifth in the league (among players who've attempted as many treys, 84, as he has). Though he may not be the top-tier defensive anchor he was a few seasons ago, Gasol might nonetheless be making the largest positive impact of his career.

    He'll have to keep it up, because the upcoming trio of games on Memphis' schedule is as tough as it gets: Warriors on Saturday, followed by a home-and-home double dip with the Cavs.

9. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    It feels unfair to advance the Thunder by so little after a 2-0 week extended the team's winning streak to six, but we can't get caught up overvaluing victories against the Pelicans and Hawks.

    Besides, whenever somebody climbs, someone else has to fall. And we've royally jobbed the Hornets by moving them down after their own perfectly fine week.

    The Thunder will have to be satisfied with this modest climb—one made with the full knowledge that their per-game differential is only 13th in the league.

    You already know about Russell Westbrook's ongoing triple-double streak. He has six in a row and shows no signs of slowing down. That earns the requisite acclaim, but we've covered him enough.

    Instead, here's a tidbit you may not have been aware of: Domantas Sabonis has drawn one shooting foul in 477 minutes.

    And now we've all learned something.

8. Boston Celtics

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    Unless all of the execution and effort issues Jae Crowder harps on every other game are gone, and unless the Boston Celtics are fully recovered after an early season marred by injuries, you might not want to get used to them ranking this high.

    That's not to say Boston is playing above its head.

    Moving Jonas Jerebko into the first unit has unlocked spacing and better defensive versatility, and we've seen the occasional glimpse of the lockdown perimeter suffocation this group—led by Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley—showed all last season.

    Unfortunately for Boston, Isaiah Thomas is dealing with a groin injury. He's been the late-game closer, and the Celtics will desperately need him as the schedule toughens up. According to CSN's A. Sherrod Blakely, the green's remaining opponents in December have a combined winning percentage of .591.

    Tough times are on the horizon. Good thing Boston banked some wins during a 3-1 week.

7. Utah Jazz

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    Best hair in the biz.
    Best hair in the biz.Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    ←→ No Movement

    You know it's a bad sign when even the head coach can't stay healthy enough to participate.

    Quin Snyder was too ill to be on the sidelines during Monday's win over the Lakers, which is perfectly appropriate for a Jazz club that can't get itself right.

    Gordon Hayward hurt his finger (again) and couldn't play in Thursday's loss to the Warriors, and he joined George Hill, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks among the wounded.

    Through it all, the Jazz have defended well, and Rudy Gobert's presence inside should have him in the early conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. He's helped them amass the fourth-best net rating in the league, and that defensive efficiency is only going to keep climbing toward the top when Hill and Favors return.

    The Jazz have another couple of leaps in them...if they can get healthy.

6. Toronto Raptors

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    ←→ No Movement

    Kyle Lowry pumped in 10 of his 25 points during the first six minutes of the fourth quarter Thursday, propelling the Toronto Raptors to a 124-110 win over the Timberwolves. The victory was Toronto’s seventh in its last eight games, and Lowry's keying the critical scoring run was hardly unusual.

    "Kyle saved us with his offence," head coach Dwane Casey told reporters.

    First of all, you can be sure that's from an authentic on-site source in Canada because of "c" in offence. And second, Lowry really did save the Raps.

    He's been doing that a lot lately, hitting 18 of his 30 attempts since we last ranked.

    We spent a lot of time talking about DeMar DeRozan's hot start, but this should serve as a reminder about who runs things for the Raptors.

5. Los Angeles Clippers

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    Having seen what real contention looks like up close with the Warriors, Marreese Speights is in a position to talk. But his comments after the Clips got demolished by Golden State on Wednesday might not sit well with his new teammates.

    Via Bill Oram of the Orange County Register, Speights said: "First, we need to start really just [leaving] the refs alone. Guys just got to sacrifice, do some other things than scoring, do some other things than your personal goals. Just try something new. They've been doing it here for four or five years and it hasn't been working, so it's time to try something new."

    The Clippers have lost two in a row and five out of their last seven overall.

    With the bench predictably regressing, old (i.e. whiny) habits dying hard and Chris Paul's shooting coming back to Earth after a torrid start, L.A. has effectively returned itself to its natural state: that of a good team that isn't emotionally cut out to truly threaten the league's top tier.

4. Houston Rockets

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    There was no letdown for the Rockets this week, as they went a perfect 3-0 after finishing the last ranking with a big win over the Warriors.

    In a development that should concern the rest of the league, the Rockets’ role-fillers seem to be getting more comfortable with their supporting duties. Clint Capela just catches lobs and dunks them; Patrick Beverley had a 12-assist game this week and also brought his typical defensive tenacity; and Eric Gordon is filling it up.

    After watching Gordon come off the bench to hit a career-best eight three-pointers and score 26 points during a blowout win over the Lakers, head coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters: "Good as you can make it. I mean, talk about a good sixth man. Oh my gosh, he’s really good."

    The defense is still a major question mark, and the Motiejunas debacle could become a distraction. But Houston's resume is that of a top-five team so far. That's why it's here.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Cleveland's moving up has more to do with finding a way for the Clippers to slide than anything else, which is weird because L.A. beat the Cavs back on Dec. 1.

    But the Cavaliers knocked off the Raptors this week. Coupled with the Clips' much more serious slide, it's still justifiable to slot Cleveland higher after its 2-1 week.

    The Toronto contingent that generally cries conspiracy whenever the Raps aren't afforded their perceived due won't like this. But if the Raptors want to be ranked ahead of the Cavs or Clippers, maybe they should try beating them for a change.

    Kevin Love is playing better than he ever has as a Cav, hitting 42.2 percent of his threes and averaging a double-double for the first time since his final year in Minnesota. If he stays this productive all year, James may get to take a couple of weeks off without hurting Cleveland's shot at the top seed in the conference.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    ←→ No Movement

    Despite falling to the Bulls on Thursday for their first road loss of the season, the Spurs still own the highest clutch net rating in the league.

    During the last five minutes of the fourth quarter when the score is within five points, San Antonio demolishes opponents by 34.7 points per 100 possessions.

    So that's something.

    Coupled with that lucky 97-96 win against the Bucks on Monday, the Spurs are starting to show enough frailty to consider moving them down. But with the Cavs and Clips showing even more vulnerability (and, critically, worse overall records), it'll take another shoddy week to pry San Antonio out of the second spot.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    That guy up there? The guy scoring 60 points in 29 minutes on 57 touches?

    That's the Warriors' third-best scorer and fourth-best player.

    So, knowing that, do you need to hear about the league-best net rating, or the 20-3 record, or the continually developing chemistry on a roster that underwent fundamental changes just a few months ago?

    No. No you don't.

    Follow Grant on Twitter @gt_hughes and Facebook.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Dec. 8.

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