2016-17 NBA Power Rankings: How Every Team Stacks Up After 7 Weeks of Action

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 16, 2016

2016-17 NBA Power Rankings: How Every Team Stacks Up After 7 Weeks of Action

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, which means the NBA season is nearing the unofficial point at which we all start taking game-to-game swings and bigger trends a little more seriously.

    This week, we get a new entry into the top five, learn a few things about trusting the Orlando Magic and have to accept the fact that Luke Walton can't work miracles with the Los Angeles Lakers.

    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 matter. Squads missing key guys aren't as potent as their records suggest, while those getting big names back on the floor might be better than their underlying statistics.

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

30. Brooklyn Nets

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    It feels a little cruel to drop the Brooklyn Nets all the way to No. 30, but the fates seem to have it in for this team anyway.

    So we might as well pile on.

    Case in point: Jeremy Lin returned Monday from the hamstring injury that cost him 17 games, played 20 minutes and then couldn't suit up for Brooklyn's next outing against the Lakers on Wednesday because of a sore back.

    The Nets won that contest 107-97, but Larry Nance Jr. dunked on Brook Lopez hard enough to warp the universe and invert our conceptions of victory and defeat. I mean, did Brooklyn really win that game?

    According to the score, sure. But, like, cosmically? No way.

    With the Dallas Mavericks notching a couple of wins and the Philadelphia 76ers getting healthier, it was time for a new power rankings caboose.

29. Philadelphia 76ers

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Hey, Ben Simmons has been doing stuff lately! In practice! With sneakers on! 

    Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Simmons got the walking boot off his broken foot and took some free throws this week, a big step for the top overall pick and a good sign for the Sixers.

    "We are going to be extremely careful," head coach Brett Brown told reporters. "Everybody needs to hear that."

    Sure. Fine. We'll temper expectations. But with Nerlens Noel also seeing some game action for the first time this season (before spraining his ankle because he's clearly cursed) and Philly smashing the Detroit Pistons by 18 points on Sunday, there's room for a little qualified joy.

    The Sixers have won two of their last three games, and even if it takes time, they're improving. We just need to trust the proc...oh, forget it.

28. Dallas Mavericks

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    The Mavs secured a third of their season win total this past week, defeating the Indiana Pacers and Denver Nuggets to bump their 2016-17 victory tally from four to six.

    Until going sub-zero cold during a 95-85 loss to the Pistons on Wednesday, Wesley Matthews had hit at least four three-pointers in six straight games. His resurgent shooting is vital to a Dallas offense that remains too reliant on the isolation work of Harrison Barnes.

    If Matthews keeps climbing the made treys leaderboard—only Eric Gordon has made more than his 31 triples since Dec. 1—the Mavericks could get their offensive efficiency out of the bottom five.

    Dirk Nowitzki still seems nowhere near a return, but Deron Williams has made a difference.

    Dallas is a respectable 4-7 since he came back Nov. 25.

27. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Walton, post-ejection, mid-angry jacket removal.
    Walton, post-ejection, mid-angry jacket removal.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    ↓ 7 Spots

    Losers of eight straight and only just beginning a seven-game road trip that'll keep them in the Eastern time zone until Christmas Day, the Lakers are hurting.

    Now, more than ever, head coach Luke Walton's pied-piper buy-in-securing skills are vital. So it's a good thing he played Monday's ejection (earned rightfully for some grade-A profanity and shouting after DeMarcus Cousins tackled Julius Randle without eliciting a whistle) perfectly.

    "It’s the same thing I said after the game; our guys aren’t getting…treated right, then I’m going to stand up for them," Walton told reporters. "It’s what we do as a team. I was raised that team is a family. You stand up for your family, you stand up for your brothers. As a head coach, that’s what I’m going to do every time for my guys."

    The Lakers seem to be settling into that portion of the season where good vibes and surprise stories give way to the predictable combination of youth and awful defense. We knew this was coming, but Walton probably did, too.

    It'll be up to him to sustain culture and chemistry as the losses mount.

26. Sacramento Kings

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    It's always hard to criticize a team for taking the long view, but resting DeMarcus Cousins against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday—when Rudy Gay was also out with injury—was a tough sell considering the Sacramento Kings' struggles.

    Head coach Dave Joerger told reporters it was "the best thing for us long term."

    The Rockets predictably pounded Sacramento 132-98, knocking the Kings down to 9-16 on the year.

    If you're among those who want the Kings to lock Cousins up as a cornerstone for years to come (which the new collective bargaining agreement should make even easier), this is fine. And, again, we can't ding Sacto for thinking about the big picture when all we've ever done is lambast the franchise for shortsightedness.

    But the Houston game wasn't part of a back-to-back, and the chances to salvage this season are dwindling. Removing Cousins from the lineup assured a loss.

    Sacramento dropped three of its four games this past week, with the lone success coming against the spiraling Lakers.

    December 15 marked the first day players signed in the offseason could be traded. Don't be surprised if the Kings start shuffling the deck as the losses mount on a tough road trip.

25. Phoenix Suns

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    The federal legislation criminalizing any potentially harmful contact with Kristaps Porzingis is stuck in bureaucratic gridlock, so Marquese Chriss was wise to get his shots in now. Soon, even hard screens on KP will incur stiff prison sentences.

    (This is the right thing to do, by the way. We have to protect our rare resources.)

    At any rate, Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson was on board with Chriss' getting a little rough after the New York Knicks' precious and magical giant knocked Eric Bledsoe down, telling Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic:

    Marquese Chriss has to become our Draymond Green. And I think he gave you an example or a flash of what that can be, as far as getting the flagrant, protecting his teammate. I have no problems with that. We need a presence on the court that brings a fight to our team that is kind of contagious. It builds unity, it builds momentum.

    Watson's Suns won two games since we last ranked, which is a big deal this far down in the order. And though I'm not sure it's a great idea to encourage physicality like this from a 19-year-old rookie, at least Chriss wasn't locked up for it—this time.

24. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    There aren't many options to consider when searching for the Minnesota Timberwolves' best win of the season. A 7-18 record slims the pickings.

    But Tuesday's 99-94 victory over the Chicago Bulls stands out—and not just because it was Tom Thibodeau's first return to the Windy City.

    The Wolves got obliterated by the Pistons last Friday, which prompted a pair of illuminating (and downright depressing) quotes from Zach LaVine and Ricky Rubio, both via Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press.

    "We can accept making mistakes and don’t make shots," Rubio said after the 117-90 fall. "Playing with no heart, with no desire, it’s just awful. Right now, it’s just bad."

    "It's not about [Thibodeau]," LaVine added. "It's about us. We're the ones on the court. He puts in the effort. We're not executing."

    Those are some serious distress signals: waning effort, poor execution, lack of heart.

    And then, after that defeat, the Timberwolves went out and lost again to the Golden State Warriors.

    Mustering the wherewithal to rise after those two gut-wrenching, spirit-sapping falls which the Wolves did in Chicago could be the kind of thing that galvanizes a team and changes the course of its season. Or, it could be a blip.

    Despite losing four of five and eight of its last 10, there are signs of life in Minnesota. Faint ones, but signs nonetheless.

23. New Orleans Pelicans

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    The New Orleans Pelicans beat a Suns team playing about as well as it has all year Sunday, then gave the Warriors all they could handle in a 113-109 loss Tuesday.

    That's some solid progress for a team that still isn't fully healthy.

    One thing that could help the Pelicans string together some better results? An improvement in late-game shooting.

    As Mason Ginsberg of Bourbon Street Shots noted, New Orleans has played the third-most clutch minutes this season but has hit a league-worst 16.2 percent from long range in those situations as of Tuesday. It's awfully hard to pull out the close ones when you're broke from long range.

    Some of that is just bad luck, but the stat also provides a window into the Pelicans' deeper issues: New Orleans doesn't have a regular rotation player shooting over 40 percent from distance, and Buddy Hield, who was supposed to help space the floor, is hitting 29.1 percent of his 4.1 attempts per game.

    If you're wondering, yes, that is how a team with Anthony Davis manages to post a bottom-10 offensive rating.

22. Orlando Magic

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    ↓ 3 Spots

    I'll admit it: The Magic got me.

    They won three straight earlier this month, seemed to have sorted out their defensive issues and had even made some shrewd lineup changes. Last week, they were the biggest climber in the rankings.

    Having now lost four of their last five games, it's clear the Magic didn't deserve last week's big bounce.

    Orlando continues to strand Aaron Gordon at small forward, and its inability to defend despite having Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka to guard the rim is baffling. The Magic ranked 29th in defensive rating during their four games since we last ranked.

    Lesson learned: Never trust the Magic.

21. Denver Nuggets

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    ←→ No Movement

    The 112-92 loss to Dallas on Monday felt like a low point for the Nuggets, but at least they're finally getting healthy.

    Thursday marked the first time all season head coach Mike Malone had his entire roster available. But it also meant he had to make some tough rotation decisions, as Adam Mares of Denver Stiffs tweeted: "I think it's more of a blessing than a curse but Malone will have to decide which 9-10 guys are playing and which 2-3 guys are not."

    Jusuf Nurkic was the odd man out, seeing just five minutes during an impressive 132-120 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

    Generally, we've been critical of Malone's personnel decisions in this space. It has seemed obvious all year that Nikola Jokic should see the bulk of the minutes at center in a one-big lineup, but even with limited resources, the Nuggets coach hasn't been quick to embrace that option.

    Now, with more bodies to juggle, it'll be interesting to see how he apportions playing time going forward.

    Denver's run, if there's going to be one, had better start now. It plays six of its final eight December games at home.

20. Miami Heat

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    ↑ 3 Spots

    If you view this past week as an indication of where the Miami Heat belong in the East hierarchy, it wasn't all that discouraging.

    Losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Bulls are acceptable, while wins over the Pacers and Washington Wizards go a long way toward proving the Heat (maybe) aren't a total bottom-feeder. (You'll note the Pacers and Wizards both finish ahead of Miami this week, but it's possible all three of those teams belong in a similar tier.)

    Head coach Erik Spoelstra is getting fantastic performances from Goran Dragic, and he's pushing the right buttons with Hassan Whiteside.

    "This league is for competitors only," he told reporters of the decision to yank his center early in the third quarter of Friday's loss to the Cavs. "It’s great competitive matchups every single night. We have a lot of guys out, so that’s a big responsibility for him. He’s starting to understand what that actually means."

    Cut to Whiteside crushing the Pacers on Wednesday with 26 points and 22 rebounds.

    Miami is 9-17 but has split its last four games and just got Justise Winslow back after missing nearly a month with a wrist injury.

    Things are looking up.

19. Washington Wizards

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    ↑ 3 Spots

    The Wizards figured out a few things this past week.

    The five-man unit of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Kelly Oubre Jr. and Marcin Gortat has played 61 minutes together this season, and 36 of those minutes came in Washington's last three games—two of which were wins.

    On the year, that group has a net rating of plus-35.8, so this was overdue.

    Oubre is still prone to defensive spaciness, but he's rangy, versatile and a much better option for a switch-heavy scheme than Markieff Morris. Washington has closed a few games with that quintet this season, and head coach Scott Brooks finally started it during a 109-106 win against the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday.

    Oubre had 15 points in that victory, a nice follow-up to the 19 he scored during a win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday.

    With Porter breaking out, Wall and Beal developing chemistry and Oubre hopefully settling into a bigger role, the Wizards might just save their season.

18. Atlanta Hawks

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    ←→ No Movement

    The Atlanta Hawks allowed the Magic to produce season highs in points, assists and made threes during a 131-120 loss Tuesday—disheartening and hard to fathom considering the Magic went into that game with the second-worst offensive rating in the league.

    Despite that defeat, the Hawks remain among the NBA's top 10 defensive teams.

    At 1-1 in a light week, Atlanta managed to post its first non-losing ranking session in a month—and it took overcoming a 20-point halftime deficit against the Bucks to secure that lone win.

    The Hawks had better enjoy their modest achievement while they can, because the upcoming schedule only gets harder: The Toronto Raptors, Hornets and Oklahoma City Thunder are next on the slate.

    Kent Bazemore returned from a knee injury against Orlando, and Paul Millsap is rounding into form after missing time earlier this month. The latter has topped the 20-point mark in three of his last four games after doing it just five times during the first month of the season.

17. Indiana Pacers

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    ←→ No Movement

    For a minute there, it seemed like we were going to be able to pin the Pacers' struggles on Monta Ellis, who sat out of an impressive 110-94 win over the Hornets. It was going to be so easy to correlate his absence with better offensive flow and defensive integrity.

    But then the Pacers couldn't throw the ball in the ocean two nights later during a loss to the Heat.

    In light of that and the fact the Pacers score 4.9 more points per 100 possessions with Ellis on the floor, it would have been hasty to blame him for Indiana's offensive issues. He's not at fault for everything that goes wrong in Indy.

    Myles Turner, on the other hand, is responsible for a lot of what goes right. He was a plus-10 during Saturday's win over Portland and a plus-18 against Charlotte.

    Paul George remains Indy's unquestioned superstar, but Turner is reaching a point where his statistical contributions are impossible to ignore. 

16. Portland Trail Blazers

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    It's always about defense with the Trail Blazers, and while their overall performance on that end still leaves plenty to be desired, they showed some strong scouting and execution in a 114-95 win over the Thunder on Tuesday.

    Packing the lane, collapsing at least three bodies onto every Russell Westbrook drive and daring the Thunder's impotent perimeter shooting to beat it, Portland pulled off the ideal (and, admittedly, obvious) scheme against OKC.

    The victory halted a four-game skid and helped get the Blazers out of the No. 30 spot in defensive efficiency...for two days. Then they gave up 132 to the Nuggets on Thursday.

    It'll take many more efforts like the one against OKC, and fewer like the one against Denver, before Portland becomes a serious playoff threat.

    Because while the Blazers might score enough to stick in the West's top eight by season's end, there's no way a bottom-five defense will hold up during the postseason grind.

15. New York Knicks

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    If stranding the 14-12 Knicks at the halfway point of these rankings feels unfair, just remember they've been outscored on the year and haven't piled up quality victories lately.

    Their last six victims: Sacramento twice, Minnesota twice, the Lakers and the Heat.

    To be fair, four of those wins came on the road. But soft opponents are soft opponents.

    The bigger news is Kristaps Porzingis weighing in on his nickname preferences.

    "Whatever people want to call me, I’m cool with, except 'Zinger,'" Porzingis told reporters after hanging 34 points on the Suns in a loss Tuesday. "A coach I had in Spain, Scott Roth, he used to call me Zinger. He would yell at me all the time, 'Zinger!' It’s just stuck in my head that I don’t like that name."

    This is a shame, as Zinger is clearly the best of the available options. The initials thing is overdone, so KP should be out. And you can't casually call him a unicorn, even if he also mentioned being fine with that one.

    Oh well, you heard the man. No more Zinger.

14. Charlotte Hornets

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Charlotte dropped three of its four games last week but remains committed to dominating under-the-radar stats.

    Its turnover ratio is still tops in the NBA, and further study reveals this year's Hornets are on pace to allow the lowest opponent offensive rebounding percentage in NBA history. Naturally, then, they lead the league in defensive rebounding percentage, and that's a good way to keep foes from scoring in bunches.

    If you allow one shot per trip, your defense can only be so bad.

    This is part of a larger league-wide trend that has seen several teams completely abandon the pursuit of offensive boards. The Memphis Grizzlies, for example, are in line to post the second-highest defensive rebounding rate of all time—right behind Charlotte.

    And guess what? Denver is third. Detroit is fifth.

    This is a sea change in NBA strategy.

    That doesn't help the Hornets avoid a slide after a bad week, but it's interesting.

13. Milwaukee Bucks

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    The Bucks' luck ran out a little bit this past week.

    Opponents' three-point field-goal percentage is one of those fickle stats that, if low, doesn't necessarily indicate good defense. If you prevent foes from taking lots of threes, that's good. But if you're getting by simply because they're missing them, that's the kind of thing that tends to even out.

    So, while the Bucks still rank second in the league, allowing a paltry 33 percent conversion rate from deep, regression showed up during an 0-3 stretch.

    The Hawks, Wizards and Raptors combined to hit 34 of their 70 attempts, good for a 48.6 percent clip.

    The good news: Giannis Antetokounmpo's development just won't stop.

    Raw strength is the latest eye-opening sign of progress. Just look at the way he puts Patrick Patterson theoretically a power forwardin the basket on this bully-ball take.

    Luck hurt the Bucks, but there's still plenty of skill to get excited about.

12. Chicago Bulls

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    ←→ No Movement

    Jimmy Butler is good.

    Like, maybe moving past Paul George, Kyle Lowry and whoever else you'd like to mention for the unofficial spot of "second-best player in the East" good.

    Name the stat, and there's a good chance Butler's setting a new career high: player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage, usage rate, free-throw rate, box plus-minus...they're all at levels he's never achieved before. No wonder he's second in the league in ESPN.com's real plus-minus, trailing only Chris Paul.

    Butler has had to be that good to keep the Bulls where they are, though.

    Chicago has been outscored during nine straight fourth quarters from Nov. 25 to Dec. 13, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, and that Tuesday loss to the reeling Timberwolves was a blemish.

    The Bulls are posting the second-lowest effective field-goal percentage in the league with Butler tearing it up. They had better get in line behind their star.

11. Detroit Pistons

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    ↑ 3 Spots

    There are reasons to believe in the Pistons.

    Their defense has climbed all the way to second in the league. They've been unlucky in clutch situations, posting a 4-8 mark during games that come down to the final five minutes when the score is within five points.

    And Reggie Jackson can't help but improve on the 11.7 PER he's posted since returning from a knee injury. (That figure is the lowest we've seen from him since his rookie season.)

    At the same time, there are reasons to doubt Detroit, which has the lowest free-throw rate in the league and somehow lost to the Sixers by 18 points on Sunday.

    There may not be a more glass-half-full/glass-half-empty team in the league. Moving Detroit up after a 2-1 week seems to suggest we believe in the defense and upside.

10. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Perhaps you've heard: The Thunder lean hard on Russell Westbrook.

    And when the going gets tough, they lean even harder.

    According to NBA.com, Westbrook's usage percentage during close-and-late situations is a mind-numbing 61 percent. That figure leads the league and is nearly 10 percentage points higher than the runner-up, James Harden.

    We hit this point in the Portland slide, but it bears repeating: Westbrook is only going to find it harder to produce as teams zero in on him and pack the lane.

    OKC's offense is cratering; since we last ranked, the Thunder are 1-3 with a league-worst 97.8 offensive rating. Overall, Oklahoma City's 102.3 points per 100 possessions is only good enough for 21st in the NBA. 

    Throughout the game and especially in the clutch, the Thunder ask Westbrook to carry them over or around most obstacles. But he may not be able to run through the walls teams are forming in the paint to stop him.

9. Boston Celtics

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Single-digit losses to the Raptors, Thunder and San Antonio Spurs require a decline for the Boston Celtics, even if they played all those games without Isaiah Thomas, who has missed four contests with a groin injury.

    The point guard's likely return Friday helps limit the slide, as does the quality of opponents and narrow margins in Boston's losing streak.

    His return and the sudden glut of backcourt players deserving minutes present a good problem, according to team president Danny Ainge's comments to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald:

    Marcus [Smart] has proven he can play well with the ball and without the ball already this year. We knew that. And Terry [Rozier] is playing with the ball and without the ball and playing well. Avery [Bradley's] doing better with the ball. Isaiah proved last year for us that he can play without the ball as well as with the ball.

    Have faith in the Celtics. They still have the No. 11 net rating in the league and are finally getting healthier after spending the vast majority of the season without some combination of Jae Crowder, Al Horford and/or Thomas.

8. Memphis Grizzlies

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    The Grizzlies, 7-1 in their last eight games, continue to confound...and win.

    The effects of a massive November blowout loss against the Timberwolves (when Memphis rested everyone) still linger in the team's net rating, yet now the Grizzlies are the only squad to beat the Cavs and Warriors this year. (Though they completed the two-step against a Cleveland team resting its three best players).

    Memphis is unstoppable in the clutch, which can be luck or skill. It depends on Marc Gasol for spacing, and he's hitting an unfathomable 45.6 percent of his threes.

    Is any of this real? Are these wins sustainable with so many key players out?

    Turns out we may never have to answer those questions, as The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski reported both Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons could be back as soon as this weekend. With those two slotting into an athletic, young rotation, the Grizzlies suddenly look far more legitimate.

    It's tough to imagine moving Memphis into the next tier that starts with the Utah Jazz, but what if the return of two starters nullifies all the regression we'd normally expect?

    Stay tuned to this team. The Grizzlies are fascinatingly awesome.

7. Utah Jazz

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    Can you feel that?

    Don't worry if the odd, prickly sensation is unfamiliar; it's the Jazz getting healthy.

    Derrick Favors returned this week, Gordon Hayward is over his second finger injury of the season and Rodney Hood's hamstring improved enough for him to rejoin the fray as well.

    The Jazz still need a healthy George Hill to hit their ceiling, but it's time to start getting excited about this team again. Consider that Utah has won nine of its last 11 games, has the fourth-best net rating in the league and outscored opponents by an NBA-best 23 points per 100 possessions since we last ranked.

    And all of that happened while the injury bug was still gnawing away.

    Rudy Gobert has Utah's defense up to third in the league, and Hayward is scoring at flat-out elite rates, per B/R's Andy Bailey.


6. Los Angeles Clippers

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    The Los Angeles Clippers won all three of their games this week and scored at least 113 points during each of them. But at this level of the rankings, it sometimes takes more than simply winning to move up.

    Or avoid a move down.

    We'll get into the Raptors' shuffling up a spot momentarily, but first: DeAndre Jordan free-throw news!

    DJ hit a career-high-tying 12 foul shots during Wednesday's 113-108 win over the Magic, and he's now shooting 54.1 percent from the stripe. That's a career-best pace, and though it probably won't prevent opponents from grabbing at him late in games, we could see him become even more offensively aggressive with newfound confidence in his stroke.

    Jordan is an underrated post scorer, and the Clippers have a lot of great options on offense that tend to limit his looks down there. But what if L.A. needs to punish small-ball foes with a few dump-ins?

    Blake Griffin's block work is suffering as his athleticism wanes, so Jordan's being a better option down there could be a big deal.

5. Toronto Raptors

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    The Raptors not only lead the Warriors in offensive rating (both this year and in terms of their potentially record-setting, all-time pace), but they're actually widening the gap.

    It's hard to overstate how remarkable that is, because, as you've probably noticed, Toronto doesn't have two MVPs or three of the best pure shooters in history on its roster.

    We know DeMar DeRozan has been killing it, but maybe it's also time to shout out the Raptors' deadliest lineup: Kyle Lowry and the bench.

    Lowry, Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson and Lucas Nogueira have played 125 minutes at a plus-32.2 net rating this season—the third-highest rate for any five-man unit in the league with at least 50 minutes. It's easily the top rating among those that have played at least 100.

    The Raps have won 10 of 11 games and should have little trouble securing each of their three games in the next ranking period.

    We'll see if that's enough to challenge the top four next time around.

4. Houston Rockets

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    The Rockets jump on you, and they jump on you fast. Their first-quarter net rating of plus-15.5 is second-best in the league.

    And when the Rockets get ahead, they tend to pour it on. According to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, they've held double-digit leads during 21 of the 26 games they've played this season.

    That includes the first eight contests in December, all of which Houston won.

    Eric Gordon is scorching, Sam Dekker looks every bit like their small forward of the future and Houston's recent run has been a both-ends affair.

    Because while logging 40 assists against the Kings (more than Sacramento's 39 made field goals) in a 132-98 win Wednesday would seem to be emblematic of an offense-only approach, the Rockets have also bumped their defensive rating all the way up to 18th in the league.

    The Clips and Raptors both have superior net ratings, but Houston is as hot as anyone.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    It's so hard to find ways to shake up the top three these days.

    The loss to Memphis doesn't matter for the Cavs, who rested LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. So we can't knock them down a peg for that. All three of those guys are relatively healthy, and when they're in the lineup, the Cavs are unbeatable.

    No matter how hot Houston or Toronto or the Clips get, there's still something undeniably different about the elite section of the rankings that start with the Cavaliers.

    It probably has something to do with championship pedigree, but it could also just be that Cleveland, despite coasting, is 18-6 and has beaten Toronto three times this year. Houston lost to the Cavs in November and won't get another shot until March.

    Head-to-head meetings are less important than things like record, net rating and other more probative metrics. But in this instance, the Cavs' dominance in those specific contests helps illustrate the difference between them and everyone below.

    If it's possible to be dominant while yawning, this is what it looks like.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    CBSSports.com's Matt Moore did a fascinating deep dive into the Spurs somehow playing worse on defense with Kawhi Leonard on the floor. Essentially, it's easy to play four-on-four offense against the Spurs' shakier defensive starters.

    Despite that strange trend, San Antonio remains a team without problems.

    They've lost just twice since Nov. 9, they have the best clutch net rating in the league by an almost laughable margin, and they're good at never being content with any of it.

    "You won't find anyone in this locker room who's satisfied with the way we are playing," Manu Ginobili told reporters. "We all know we can do so much better. We won't look at our record or the success we've had."

    The Spurs keep Spurs-ing.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    ←→ No Movement

    That 110-89 loss to the Grizzlies on Saturday was a reminder that the Warriorsgreat as they generally arecan still lay the occasional egg.

    Marked by bafflingly lazy passes, slow rotations on D and a broad malaise that only fueled Memphis' typical intensity, the Warriors flat-out gagged during that game.

    Still, they retain the league's best winning percentage and net rating, and they also continue to sew up the holes in their defense. Golden State now ranks in the league's top 10 on that end.

    A home meeting with the (hopefully healthy) Jazz on Tuesday is the only test between now and the Warriors' hotly anticipated meeting with the Cavs on Christmas.

    The Dubs have a firm hold on the top spot, but we're getting to the point in the schedule where they'll face foes capable of capitalizing against anything less than A-game material.


    Follow Grant on Twitter @gt_hughes and Facebook.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated and are accurate through games played Dec. 15.