2016-17 NBA Power Rankings: How All 30 Teams Shake Out at Christmas

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 23, 2016

2016-17 NBA Power Rankings: How All 30 Teams Shake Out at Christmas

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    The NBA season officially began at the end of October, but Christmas Day marks its real commencement.

    Christmas is the "wink, wink, nudge" point at which serious followers of the league quietly agree to start scrutinizing the action more closely. It's when the kinks are supposed to be worked out and the true natures of the 30 clubs competing for playoff position start to clarify themselves.

    It's about to get real.

    That's good news for the Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks, who are hitting their strides, and bad news for the Detroit Pistons and Portland Trail Blazers...who aren't.

    It's also good news for the Golden State Warriors, who just keep hitting everyone in the mouth.

    Rankings are informed by records, advanced stats and current overall health—with an eye toward recent performance. If a team is suddenly missing a key star, it's weaker than its numbers indicate, and 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 Christmas.

30. Brooklyn Nets

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    Having spent a good portion of my formative basketball fandom watching the Golden State Warriors miss the playoffs in 17 out of 18 seasons from 1994-95 until 2012-13, I know a "good stats on a bad team" player when I see one.

    Fans of bad teams need these guys, and there's nothing wrong with being on the low end of a 450-person club composed only of the greatest basketball players in the world. But I have to say it.

    Sean Kilpatrick is one of them.

    Yes, he makes the Nets better when he's on the floor, and he has a knack for scoring. Somebody besides Brook Lopez has to get buckets on this team, and Kilpatrick's aggressive driving game may be suited to that. But as Jared Dubin explained for FanSided, Kilpatrick isn't doing much for others:

    Among the 60 players averaging at least five drives per game, only 17 have shot a better percentage from the field on drives. The next step is being able to create for his teammates when he's on his way to the rim and not just when he can see the whole floor from the perimeter. Among the same group of 60 players, only 14 have a lower assist percentage on their drives.

    I hate that this has turned into a negative take on one of the Nets' only positives during an 0-4 week. Kilpatrick should stick in the NBA, and I hope he has a long career. But on separate occasions, I talked myself into Mickael Pietrus, Vonteego Cummings and Kelenna Azubuike as possible cornerstones.

    Don't be like me.

29. Philadelphia 76ers

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    This week, the Philadelphia 76ers offer us a brilliant duality.

    First, they won once, against the Brooklyn Nets. Therefore, they cannot be ranked 30th. It's almost painfully simple.

    But then there's this weird situation with Nerlens Noel—one that raises the decidedly more existential question: When is a benching not a benching?

    According to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sixers coach Brett Brown said Noel was no longer part of the rotation. But then president Bryan Colangelo offered this up: "This is not a benching. This is just a moment of realization that we've got a lot of talent on this team. Not everybody can play. At some point, you will see him on the court."

    To clarify, the Sixers have too much talent to play Noel, so he's not going to play. Instead, he will sit on the bench.

    But he's not being benched.

    Just trade him and be done with it, please. This guy can help every team in the league.

28. Los Angeles Lakers

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    As esteemed troubadour and soliloquist Marshall Mathers once elucidated, "Snap back to reality. Oh, there goes gravity."

    Mr. Mathers was describing the jarring sensation of being wrested from one's thoughts of success and flung unceremoniously back into the depths of despair and self-doubt. I suspect he would agree it applies to the Los Angeles Lakers' current struggles.

    The Lakers have snapped back to reality, as it were. Since Dec. 1, L.A. has beaten one team, the Sixers, losing its other 11 games to fall to 11-21 after a 10-10 start.

    As the current season slips away, the Lakers are wisely taking a longer view. That includes carefully managing D'Angelo Russell's workload. He missed 11 games after undergoing platelet-rich-plasma therapy on his sore left knee, and head coach Luke Walton is exercising caution in Russell's reintegration, telling reporters:

    Instead of coming in and out like that, especially at his age, it's more important to get him healthy. It's good for our guys, too, to have a unit that they know they're going to be playing with instead of switching the starting group up all the time, which changes the second group up as well. We'll keep a close eye on it in the next week or so and see how it's playing out.

    With Larry Nance Jr. out indefinitely to rest a bone bruise in his left knee, L.A. had better start thinking even bigger. Like, "tanking to keep the top-three-protected pick it owes the Sixers" big.

    In conclusion: mom's spaghetti.

27. Phoenix Suns

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    Sometimes when we excuse a young team's failures, we gloss over exactly how young they are. In the case of the Phoenix Sunswho went 0-3 this past week while allowing an alarming 115.9 points per 100 possessions because of plays like thiswe're missing an important point.

    The Suns aren't bad because they're young. They're just bad.

    Yes, they've got Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss on the roster, both of whom are only 19. And Devin Booker is just 20 in his second season.

    But if we scrutinize the last game they were (sort of, kind of) competitive inMonday's 115-108 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolveswe see starters Tyson Chandler (34 years old), P.J. Tucker (31) and Eric Bledsoe (27) played 32, 36 and 33 minutes, respectively. Jared Dudley (31) came off the bench and logged 22 minutes. Brandon Knight (25) saw 29. Leandro Barbosa (34): 14.

    Bender didn't touch the floor, and Chriss, a ceremonial starter who rarely sees fourth-quarter run, played just 17.

    Meanwhile, the Wolves played their three 21-year-olds (Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine) an average of 37 minutes in the win.

    Showcasing vets as trade bait is fine, but this minute distribution had better flip in favor of the kids soon. Otherwise, what's the point?

26. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Maybe I'm getting (more) jaded, and maybe the New Orleans Pelicans really do suffer from some kind of identity crisis. But coachspeak of the sort Alvin Gentry offered this past week rings hollow.

    "We've got to figure it out. We've got to figure it out in a hurry," Gentry said, via Justin Verrier of ESPN.com. "It's not anything we've got a month to figure out. We've got to figure it out in the next week or so. What are we gonna be? How are we gonna play? We've got to be consistent in what we're doing. That's the disappointing thing."

    It's so vague. So trite. So hackneyed.

    Gentry is under no obligation to reveal his true strategic wants or philosophical designs, but this is in line with the kinds of things you hear coaches of bad teams—teams that simply don't have the talent or structure to compete—say all the time.

    It's disheartening. Teams aren't directionless because they lack a signature style or identity. It's the other way around. Worrying about identity is a sign of a directionless team.

    The Pels went 1-3 this past week, with the lone success coming against Philadelphia.

    We close with a bright side because it feels like we owe it to Gentry and the Pelicans: Buddy Hield is hitting 49 percent of his threes during December.

25. Dallas Mavericks

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    If you didn't know any better, you'd assume the Dallas Mavericks were settling in as a middling team—maybe one struggling to chase a No. 8 seed or crack the .500 mark.

    Just look at what they did this past week, going 2-2 after dropping a tough 103-100 decision to the Utah Jazz, bashing the Sacramento Kings by 20, predictably losing the second night of a back-to-back in Denver and then holding off a desperate Blazers team to win 96-95 on Wednesday.

    Not bad, right?

    Dallas has a long way to go, but it climbs again this week. If Dirk Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut get back to full speed in January, we may see the Mavs post more stretches of respectability like this one. Of course, it'd be easier to get optimistic if J.J. Barea hadn't left the Portland win with Achilles soreness.

    He missed over a month with an injury to the same area and had only played 22 minutes over two games since returning, so this feels a little ominous.

    Still, Dallas has Deron Williams and Devin Harris back, and Seth Curry averaged three triples made per game this past week.

24. Orlando Magic

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    Few teams are outperforming their peripherals like the Orlando Magic, who boast a 13-18 record despite a minus-5.4 net rating, the sixth-lowest in the league.

    It's mostly luck that has the Magic masquerading as a possible playoff threat, and that seems unfair. With the way they've squandered Aaron Gordon's gifts, you'd think the basketball gods would be tossing bad fortune their way.

    Here's B/R's Zach Buckley on their misuse of resources: "The roster requires restructuring to put [Gordon] back at his best position: He's a power forward by trade, and the Magic should treat him as such. Assuming he moves back to his natural post at some point, a lot of what he's struggling to learn now might be discarded later on."

    The Magic knocked off the Nets on Friday and the Heat in a double-overtime affair Tuesday. Nice wins, but not enough to avoid a slide after a 2-2 week that lacks a quality victory.

23. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    If the Minnesota Timberwolves hadn't blown a 12-point lead during the final 2:04 of regulation of their 111-109 overtime loss to the Houston Rockets on Saturday, I'll just say it: They would have blasted up the rankings. We're talking six, maybe eight spots.

    But that squandered lead was emblematic of the key issue crippling the Wolves all season—frighteningly so. So it matters a little extra, even in a week that saw Minnesota win its next two games, producing its first set of back-to-back victories this season.

    Basically, skepticism is allowed.

    But so is hope.

    "I think after the game in Chicago (a 99-94 win on Dec. 13), we have a different swagger to us—a different walk, a different talk," Karl-Anthony Towns told reporters. "And that's a sign that we're growing."

    He might be right.

    The Wolves posted the third-best defensive rating in the league this past week, and they didn't allow a single fast-break point to the Atlanta Hawks during Wednesday's 92-84 win. That's huge for a squad that struggles in transition defense and permits 14 fast-break points per game on average.

22. Miami Heat

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    "You can use that word rebuild," Miami Heat president Pat Riley told WQAM's Joe Rose, via Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald. "But we're going to do it fast."

    Miami has been generally competitive of late, falling to the Orlando Magic in double overtime Tuesday and losing by no more than 10 points during each of its previous three defeats. But Riley is right about the organizational direction.

    Miami is all about its young core, with special attention to Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson.

    It's a bit of a shame, then, that Goran Dragic's quiet resurgence means relatively little. Playing better than he has since his breakout 2013-14 campaign in Phoenix, he's leading the league in drives per game and has been setting up teammates a ton. Dragic ranks second in the league (behind only James Harden) by registering an assist on 14.2 percent of those attacks.

    Though moving Dragic could facilitate a faster rebuild, he's not the worst veteran stabilizer to have around.

21. Portland Trail Blazers

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    If you want to take it easy on the Blazers, you've got an obvious excuse.

    Their recent schedule would make the sickest sadist grin. Eight of their last 10 games have been on the road, and they saw the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors during that stretch.

    All the same, the Blazers defense has simply cratered. The Dubs rang up 135 points Saturday, DeMarcus Cousins hit them for 55 all by himself Tuesday and the 120.8 points per 100 possessions they allowed this past week has their overall defensive rating, already last in the league, nearly a full point worse than the No. 29 Lakers.

    Portland has lost four straight and eight of nine.

    The good news is it's been here before. After an 11-20 start last season, the Blazers conjured magic to finish with 44 wins. At 13-18, anything's possible.

    But it'll take an even bigger miracle with the defense playing like this.

20. Sacramento Kings

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    Pretty typical week for the Sacramento Kings, but let's rehash anyway:

    • Video surfaces of DeMarcus Cousins' physically intimidating the Sacramento Bee's Andy Furillo, who mentioned Cousins' brother's name in a column about nightclub incidents.
    • Cousins fined $50,000 by the Kings, according to the Sacramento Bee, for that incident (but also, perhaps, his pattern of censoring the media by talking or not talking to reporters based on the content of their reports).
    • Cousins apologizes, but not to Furillo.
    • Cousins scores 55 points against the Blazers.
    • Cousins (maybe) spits his mouthpiece at the Portland bench, gets a tech, gets ejected, gets unejected when the tech is rescinded and rants about "ridiculous" treatment from officials.
    • Cousins plays nice with reporters afterward.
    • Meyers Leonard (possible target of mouthguard spitting), goes in on Cousins' antics and is mostly accurate, per AJ Neuharth-Keusch of USA Today.
    • Arron Afflalo reportedly refuses to enter a game, per Carmichael Dave of KHTK Sports 1140.
    • Afflalo refutes that report, according to James Ham of CSNBayArea.com.
    • The Kings win three out of four, including a comeback from a 20-point deficit in Utah.

    This isn't doing much to dispel the idea that the Kings' primary source of fuel is chaos.

19. Denver Nuggets

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    It seems like all we ever talk about with the Denver Nuggets is personnel groupings, so why stop now?

    Head coach Mike Malone has settled on Nikola Jokic, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari as his starting frontcourt—a trio whose plus-6.8 on-court net rating (easily the best of Denver's big-minute combos up front) should have made first-unit duties obvious weeks ago.

    In addition, we're seeing Gary Harris' positive impact on point guard Emmanuel Mudiay.

    Denver's struggling second-year starter laid out the reason to Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post: "Gary going down, I don't think anyone was as hurt as I was when he was down for the preseason.... I just think me and him have a great feel for each other. That's the person I've been playing with since Day 1."

    Harris has been back in the starting lineup since Dec. 15, averaging 15.3 points per game on 59 percent shooting while playing steady defense against both guard positions. Mudiay was awful in Denver's 119-102 loss to the Clippers on Tuesday, but during the three games prior (all wins, all with Harris), he totaled 50 points and 16 assists while shooting 8-of-11 from three-point range.

    Denver is sorting itself out.

18. Detroit Pistons

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    Stan Van Gundy's delightfully frank assessment of the Detroit Pistons' play after a 113-82 loss to the Bulls on Monday dominated the weekly (unofficial) NBA coach meme contest, so it's only right to excerpt it here.

    "Team meeting, my ass," Van Gundy began, referencing a players-only meeting that took place after a Saturday loss to the Indiana Pacers.

    "That stuff means nothing. It's what you do on the court. Talking's easy. I have nothing to say. It was a disgusting performance by all of us, me included. It was unprofessional, embarrassing, humiliating, whatever you want to say. It was terrible."

    Three cheers for honest assessments!

    Van Gundy's team has lost four straight, all by double digits, and the next two foes on the docket are Golden State and Cleveland. He'd better have some new adjectives ready.

    Point guard Reggie Jackson has struggled since coming back from a knee injury, and his ball-dominant approach has ruffled some feathers, per Aaron McMann of MLive. But Jackson looked better in a 98-86 loss to Memphis on Wednesday, and the Pistons gave better effort overall.

    Still, this is a team with serious issues—ones that might require personnel tweaks to fix.

17. Indiana Pacers

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    The Indiana Pacers' 107-105 win against the Wizards on Monday got them over the .500 mark for just the second time since an opening-night win had them 1-0.

    But because these are the Pacerswhose offensive efficiency constantly hovers around the bottom 10 and who can't get any shooting from the shooting guard spot (they should really just rename the position at this rate)they fell back to even with a 118-111 loss to the New York Knicks the very next night.

    And then they dipped back below it with Thursday's 109-102 slip at home against Boston.

    Myles Turner's accuracy from the perimeter helps the offense survive. He's already made more threes this season than he attempted last year, and only Pau Gasol has been more accurate on long twos among big men.

    But it'd be nice if Indy could space the floor with its backcourt once in a while.

16. Atlanta Hawks

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    As if Paul Millsap's reputation as a blue-collar fixer wasn't established enough, he slotted in for Dwight Howard at center Monday, scoring 30 points, grabbing 11 boards and hitting the game-winning jumper during the Atlanta Hawks' 110-108 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Atlanta fell to the Timberwolves on Wednesday, but a 2-2 week that included a victory at Toronto is enough for a move up.

    Howard also missed the Minnesota game, and his back soreness warrants monitoring even if he doesn't believe it's serious. So does Howard's chemistry with point guard Dennis Schroder. The two hit the practice court to put in extra work after Saturday's loss to the Charlotte Hornets, according to Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

    Alternating wins and losses is a lot better than getting smoked by 30 and dropping 10 of 11 games, which is how the Hawks started December.

    Mediocrity counts as progress sometimes.

15. Chicago Bulls

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    Everyone on the Bulls got loose during that 113-82 demolition of the Pistons on Monday, but it was particularly encouraging to see Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic hit a few shots. Both have been struggling this year (McDermott largely because of a concussion), and their matching 13-point outputs were good signs.

    The Bulls badly need more backup for Jimmy Butler.

    That's what Dwyane Wade thinks anyway, according to his comments to the media after Wednesday's 107-97 loss to the Wizards:

    Let's just call it what it is. We put a lot of pressure on Jimmy in the fourth quarter to make a lot of plays because we're running just one action, so we got to get more action, more body movement. And it's got to come from us as players, too.

    Obviously, some of it's playcalling as well. Some of it's we got to get out of the way, we got to move. We got to keep them honest. We're asking the young guy to make every shot he takes with bodies in front of him, step-backs and all these things.

    Wade's on to something: Only 8.0 percent of the Bulls' three-point shots have been wide open this season. That's the lowest in the league and a good indicator that defenses aren't being forced into scrambles by inventive play-calling or ball movement.

    Chicago has lost four of its last five games.

14. Washington Wizards

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    Here come some numbers!

    After starting 2-8, the Wizards have gone 11-7 and won six of their last eight contests.

    They posted the league's third-highest net rating this past week, a plus-9.9. And if not for a Thaddeus Young game-winner Monday, the Wiz would be in possession of a five-game winning streak.

    John Wall took over the second half of Wednesday's win against the Bulls, and he's averaging 22.8 points and 10.2 assists on 50.6 percent shooting during his last five games.

    Even though Ian Mahinmi is getting platelet-rich plasma treatments on both knees that will cost him another six weeks, it might be time to get hopeful about the Wizards.

    Not "conference finalist" hopeful or "top-four seed" hopeful. But maybe a little "this team might win more games than it loses this year" hope is appropriate.

    Don't make me regret this, Wizards.

13. New York Knicks

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    The Knicks didn't win with Derrick Rose sidelined by back spasms, going 0-3 against the Suns, Warriors and Nuggets. When he returned Tuesday and scored 24 points, they beat the Pacers 118-111.

    That shouldn't be a surprise, as New York's offense completely disintegrates when Rose isn't on the floor, dropping by nearly nine points per 100 possessions.

    This isn't an endorsement of any potential long-term investment in Rose by the Knicks. But considering the beating his game has taken the last few years, it's only fair to highlight how not-so-terrible Rose has been this season.

    It's a bummer to praise a former MVP for being solid, but that's where we are.

    Where the Knicks are: sitting pretty at 16-13 after two straight wins to close the week ahead of a Christmas showdown with the Celtics.

12. Charlotte Hornets

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    Another week brings another encouraging advanced stat for the Charlotte Hornets, a team we've lauded all year for its minuscule turnover rate and elite defensive rebounding.

    This week, we praise Charlotte for never wasting offensive possessions on inefficient isolation sets. Synergy data provided to NBA.com classifies just 4 percent of the Hornets' plays as isos, the lowest percentage in the league.

    Part of this has to do with limited isolation options. Outside of Kemba Walker (who's good at everything now but really gives foes fits in the pick-and-roll), Charlotte doesn't have a "give it to him and get out of the way" weapon anyway.

    The Hornets lost a tough one at Boston on Friday, their fourth defeat in a row, but they recovered to win on the road against Atlanta and at home against the Lakers.

    That four-game skid knocked Charlotte down a few pegs, but it seems to be on the road to recovery.

11. Milwaukee Bucks

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    I'm not sure it's possible to have a more encouraging 1-2 week than the Milwaukee Bucks just did.

    They started with a 95-69 shellacking of the Bulls and then lost in overtime against the Cavs because LeBron James was hitting filthy step-back threes from 28 feet. A second meeting with Cleveland also resulted in a loss, but James punished the Bucks with more threes (he was 4-of-7) and Kyrie Irving set a career high with 13 assists.

    Basically, Cleveland had to do some out-of-character stuff to win those games.

    Meanwhile, Bucks rookie Malcolm Brogdon dunked on James, Giannis Antetokounmpo kept flashing his improved three-point stroke (he's at 37.1 percent from long range during December) and Milwaukee acted like a team that expected to beat the defending champs.

    We've reached the point where we're just waiting for the "Giannis is a two-way superstar" angle to go from being an ahead-of-the-curve take to widely accepted truth. I say it makes the transition sometime in the next six weeks.

    Buy all the Bucks stock you can now.

10. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Housekeeping first: Russell Westbrook averaged 38 points, 10.7 rebounds and 12 assists in the Oklahoma City Thunder's three games since we last ranked. He's still averaging a triple-double on the season, which is a pretty chill thing you almost certainly already knew.

    What you might not know is that OKC's offense, which ranks just 17th in the league, subsists on scattered, breakout scoring. It ranks third in the NBA with 587 points in transition, trailing only the Rockets and Warriors.

    That stat underscores how much trouble the Thunder would be in if Westbrook weren't a one-man fast-break offense. He leads the league with 180 transition points, and though he's wildly inefficient on those forays, his relentless pace-pushing clearly has an impact on defenses.

    You just can't relax. Ever.

    Oklahoma City went 2-1 this week, thanks largely to Russ' hiding a poor half-court attack behind his downhill pace-pushing.

9. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Marc Gasol tied a career high with 38 points to beat a desperate Pistons team Wednesday, further solidifying a remarkable truth: He's in the midst of his best season.

    Drilling threes at an absurd 43.4 percent clip, anchoring the league's top defense and showing more offensive aggression than ever before, Gasol is making it impossible to believe he's a 31-year-old 7-footer coming off a broken foot.

    But Mike Conley is still searching for the form he had before his back fracture, and that's got plenty to do with Memphis' dropping three of its last four games. It's also a strikingly on-brand development for a Grizzlies team that hasn't made sense all year.

    Barely miss Chandler Parsons? OK.

    Watch Gasol become a dynamic offensive force after a decade of defense-first play? All right.

    Get your max-salaried star point guard back and immediately lose three games in a row? Sure, why not?

    The Grizzlies slip this week, but if you expect a prolonged slide, you're playing right into their hands. They live to defy logic.

8. Utah Jazz

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    Blitzed by the Warriors during a 30-point loss that hardly felt that close, only to be stunned by a 20-point comeback from the Kings, the Utah Jazz would like to forget the back-to-back set that ended a four-game winning streak and tanked their week.

    Recent stumbling aside, this is a team with a ton of good metrics.

    Utah is still the third-best defensive team in the league, Rudy Gobert has defended more shots inside six feet than anyone (and prevented countless more attempts) and the Jazz have allowed the fifth-fewest fast-break points per game.

    That last one is impressive considering Utah's limited athleticism and consistent use of at least one conventional rim-protecting big man.

    This is a roundabout way of saying the Jazz continue to be better than their overall record and anecdotal evidence suggest.

7. Los Angeles Clippers

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    The big news: Blake Griffin will miss four to six weeks following knee surgery.

    The big question: Will we see yet another installment of the Los Angeles Clippers inexplicably surviving without one of their stars, or will this injury to Griffin finally be the one that derails a season?

    The Clips managed to go 30-15 in the games Griffin missed with quad and hand injuries last year, and they somehow went 12-6 when Chris Paul sat 18 straight games during 2013-14. Maybe they just know how to survive in circumstances like these.

    Then again, L.A. was only 6-6 in the dozen games before Griffin went down.

    Maybe the issues that were already lurking will only be harder to mask.

    The Clippers had a strong week on the court, concluding with an improbable win over San Antonio on Thursday. But since Paul left that one with a left hamstring issue, health is too big of a concern right now to do anything but move L.A. down.

6. Boston Celtics

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    I've long contended "rock, paper, scissors" is a skill game.

    It's like poker that way; you're reading the opponent, not submitting to some silly one-in-three toss-up. It's about peeling back layers of deceit, peering into your foe's eyes, seeing him thinking about scissors and knowing it's a trick. It's about sensing deeply—innately—that he is, in the deepest recesses of his duplicitous heart, a paper man.

    I take this very seriously.

    That's why I have no issue with Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder's using this test of mental acuity to decide who would take a technical free throw in the Boston Celtics' 105-95 win over the Heat on Sunday.

    Really, Avery? Rock? You fool. Crowder had you beaten before you even thought to ball your fist.

    The Celtics got 44 points from Isaiah Thomas to beat the Grizzlies in overtime Tuesday, and they're on a four-game winning streak, which is pretty simple to explain.

    Boston is finally healthy, defending and leaning on Thomas to close. When the Celtics' ideal first unit (Thomas, Bradley, Crowder, Amir Johnson and Al Horford) has been fit enough to start, they're 11-3. On D, they're fifth in efficiency since Dec. 1.

5. Toronto Raptors

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    The Raptors have the two best five-man lineups in the NBA, as measured by net rating.

    Kyle Lowry and Patrick Patterson are the only Raps in both of them, so you can do the math on who really matters for the East's clear second-best team.

    That's not to say Toronto lacks supporting talent. We all know what DeMar DeRozan can do, Terrence Ross is suddenly a high-end rotation option, Bebe Nogueira is one of the best backup centers in the league and Cory Joseph's on-or-off-ball versatility makes him immensely valuable alongside Lowry.

    The Raptors have run up the league's second-best differential despite a defense that ranks 16th. There's a lot to be said for an offensive rating still on pace to be the highest in NBA history.

    A 125-121 home loss to the Hawks on Friday is the only thing preventing Toronto from moving into the top four.

4. Houston Rockets

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    Since Patrick Beverley returned Nov. 17, the Houston Rockets have outscored opponents by 14.6 points per 100 possessions with James Harden on the bench.

    Before Nov. 17, Houston's net rating without Harden on the floor was minus-21.7.

    This is not a coincidence; Beverley is vital to the Rockets' secondary playmaking, and his defensive energy gives the team another way to succeed without Harden dominating on O.

    Losing Clint Capela to a fractured fibula for at least four weeks will pose a new challenge, but the Rockets can outscore just about everyone, and the combination of Nene and Montrezl Harrell should hold down the fort adequately.

    If not for a 6-of-38 effort from deep during a 102-100 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday, we'd be talking about a Rockets team on a 12-game winning streak.

3. San Antonio Spurs

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Lost among lamentations about Tony Parker's waning quickness, Pau Gasol's pick-and-roll defense and a starting unit that hasn't performed all that well, the Spurs bench has been going gangbusters.

    The five-man unit of Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Jonathon Simmons, David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon owns a plus-37.1 net rating, which is tops in the league among groupings with at least 50 minutes of court time.

    Members of that bunch were largely responsible for San Antonio's 102-100 win against the Rockets, as both Ginobili and Mills hit huge shots in the waning seconds. Mills' triple with 12.9 seconds left was the deciding bucket.

    Only one Spurs starter posted a positive plus-minus figure in that gameThere were four reserves in the black, and they keyed a 31-22 fourth quarter margin.

    "If you've got guys that never stop, you've got a shot all the time," Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters. "And I was really proud of them for that."

    Pop was probably less proud of the Spurs' losing to the Griffin-less Clippers on Thursday.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    ↑ 1 Spot

    The Bucks gave them a run, but LeBron James was too great a force to overcome this week. Whether he can withstand the toll of big minutes and retain that potency will have everything to do with the Cavs' outlook from here on.

    James is averaging 39 minutes per game in December, second in the league to Zach LaVine, who is 10 years younger and has only a fraction of James' career miles on his legs. This is a strange development for a Cavs team we all thought would approach the regular season like a warm-up.

    Head coach Tyronn Lue doesn't seem to trust Mike Dunleavy or Kay Felder, so the Cavs have leaned harder on James for his ball-handling and wing play. But you'd have to think the Cavs, driven by stars, could afford to road-test guys on the end of the bench for a few minutes a game—if only to spell the big names.

    The Warriors let Anderson Varejao see the floor once in a while, for crying out loud.

    With Kevin Love's knee costing him games and J.R. Smith's broken thumb set to sideline him for a few months, the temptation to push James will now be even stronger. Assuming it's Lue (and not James) calling the shots, that's an impulse that must be resisted.

    In terms of positioning, San Antonio's loss is Cleveland's gain. They swap spots this week.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    ←→ No Movement

    Don't look now, but the Warriors own the second-best defense in the league.

    So much for falling off with a revamped roster that theoretically had to make sacrifices while on-boarding Kevin Durant.

    With an offense that also checks in at No. 2, the Dubs are the NBA's unquestioned (and suddenly balanced) top dog. Finding frailties, then, is only getting tougher.

    One nitpicky option: After Stephen Curry shot 44.3 percent overall and 42.8 percent from long range on pull-up jumpers last year, his hit rates in those categories are down to 32.8 and 29.9 in 2016-17.

    Maybe it's the lower volume of shots, or maybe it's the knowledge that it's harder to justify those kinds of looks in transition or as late-clock bailouts with KD around. Either way, we should expect them to normalize a bit—even if we may never see the volume and accuracy of that unanimous MVP season again.

    Anyway, best net rating, best record...you get it.

    Follow Grant on Twitter @gt_hughes and Facebook.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Thursday, Dec. 22.


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