NBA Power Rankings Halfway Through the 2016-17 Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2017

NBA Power Rankings Halfway Through the 2016-17 Season

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    The league's hierarchy is showing no signs of stabilizing halfway through the 2016-17 NBA season.

    Good. Who'd want a second half of foregone conclusions?

    The Philadelphia 76ers keep climbing with stunning wins and delightful celebrations, and Joel Embiid is talking playoffs. He might even be serious.

    Elsewhere, every team in the top seven lost this week, forcing some tough decisions. The result: A familiar member of the league's elite takes over the No. 1 position, a spot it hadn't touched all season until now.

    Rankings are based on record, advanced metrics and gut feeling—with recent exploits counting for more than season-long performance. Health is a factor as well. Losing a star to injury or reinserting a recovered player makes a team's prior statistics less relevant. Example: The Los Angeles Clippers, shoved down into the teens for as long as Chris Paul was out, enjoy the benefits of regaining their best player this week.

    One half down, one to go.

30. Brooklyn Nets

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    The Brooklyn Nets have the fewest wins and the lowest net rating in the league, so there's not much to explain here. Instead, let's hit a bright spot.

    Rookie Caris LeVert is showing early signs of rotation talent. A rangy 6'7" shooting guard, he's flashing the playmaking skills teams crave in secondary creators. The highlight of his young season was when he put up 19 points, five assists and four rebounds on 7-of-12 shooting against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 6.

    And you can see his fluidity as a ball-handler in this clip from Brooklyn's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday.

    See that? Reasons for optimism!

29. Miami Heat

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    Three double-digit losseslowlighted by a 127-100 fall against the Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 6made it a rough week for the Miami Heat.

    And the team had to be wondering about a potential curse when their charter plane skidded on the ice after landing in Milwaukee late Wednesday. It's been a "what else could go wrong?" stretch for Miami.

    One thing that went right was Hassan Whiteside's domination of the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night, amassing 28 points and 20 rebounds. The Heat kept the game competitive until a quick second-half surge from the Dubs put it away.

    Watching Willie Reed posterize Stephen Curry was another bright spot.

    Miami has to cling to those small beacons of hope when it's getting smashed by a league-worst 16.2 points per 100 possessions, which is what happened in this ranking period. If Brooklyn hadn't lost every game this week, the Heat might have fallen all the way to No. 30.

28. Dallas Mavericks

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    ↓ 4 Spots

    The Dallas Mavericks couldn't win when they were banged up, but there was always hope that a return to full health would change that. They fielded a full lineup, without a single player sidelined because of injury, for the first time all year against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.

    And they lost.

    The Mavericks have won just once since Dec. 29, and Andrew Bogut's hamstring injury put that full-health angle to bed almost immediately after it arose.

    Part of the problem is the ineffectiveness of units pairing Bogut and Dirk Nowitzki. And while it's no surprise their lack of mobility has caused problems on defense, their inability to score was unexpected. In 72 minutes together, the Bogut-Nowitzki combo has allowed 117.1 points per 100 possessions while scoring just 68.1.

    Dallas' playoff hopes seem to depend on the big men working well together, but it's getting harder to imagine that happening.

27. Phoenix Suns

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    In an effort to find something (anything!) interesting about the Phoenix Suns, we tend to devote this space to lesser-known players and/or the team's developing young talent. Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Devin Booker and even T.J. Warren have all gotten some coverage.

    But it's probably time to give Eric Bledsoe a nod, seeing as he's so clearly the Suns' best player.

    In a mostly lost season, he's posting career-best rates in per-minute scoring, rebounding and free-throw attempts. Of course, one could also make the case that his ball-dominant, dribble-heavy style is partly responsible for the team's league-low assist percentage, not to mention the stunted development of Devin Booker.

    Phoenix advances a tad during a light week with a close loss to the Cavs and a win over the Mavericks as their only action.

26. Los Angeles Lakers

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Ready to get excited, Lakers fans?

    No, not about that 2-2 record this week. About Brandon Ingram.

    Here's Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak on the No. 2 overall pick, who's been doing a little of everything lately, per Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report: 

    "I played with Magic Johnson, and I'm not saying Brandon is going to be a Magic Johnson, but Magic was 6'9", and he was a ball-handling guard, and he brought the ball up the court. I'm watching Brandon bring the ball up the court, and I'm thinking this is an interesting look."

    Interesting feels like an understatement, mostly because the invocation of Magic's name might be the biggest overstatement of the year. 

    But it's undeniable that Ingram has become more comfortable in recent weeks: Ingram shot 22-of-41 from the field on his first six January gameseasily his most efficient stretch. Better still, he's reaching the line more frequently than at any point this year. He's getting more than double the 2.1 free-throw attempts per game he saw in December.

    Maybe putting the ball in Ingram's hands is helping his development—even if his ceiling remains somewhere below Magic's.

25. New York Knicks

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    ↓ 5 Spots

    "This is embarrassing. The way we keep losing games, there's no excuses. It's us."

    That was Courtney Lee venting to Mike Vorkunov of the New York Times on Wednesday, just after the New York Knicks dropped their third straight game, a dispiriting 98-97 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

    T.J. McConnell's buzzer-beating winner was the capper, completing Philadelphia's 10-point comeback during the final two minutes. In that rock-bottom loss, Carmelo Anthony went scoreless during the fourth quarter and Kristaps Porzingis air-balled a clean look at a corner three that would have secured a win in the final seconds.

    Already in a downward spiral—see Derrick Rose's AWOL act and Anthony's league-leading third ejection this week—the Knicks may be approaching terminal velocity. And no, beating the Bulls without Jimmy Butler on Thursday doesn't change that.

    A loser in nine of its last 11 games and the owner of the 25th-ranked defense, New York is this week's biggest backslider.

24. Orlando Magic

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    The Orlando Magic hit the skids after an 8-7 December, dropping all three games last week to start 2017 with a mere 1-5 record.

    That's not the kind of kickoff anyone hopes for, let alone a team built to win now. The Magic are watching the lower two-thirds of the Eastern Conference muck around—leaving the door open for virtually any half-decent candidate to slide into playoff position—and they're failing to capitalize.

    "Very frustrating," Aaron Gordon told reporters after the Magic kicked off their road trip with a 111-95 loss to the Lakers on Sunday. "You come out in January, a new year. You don't expect [to be] a completely new team, but you try and make a push. You try and establish yourself with [who] you are and who you're going to be throughout the whole season."

    Gordon played well during Wednesday's 105-96 loss to the Clippers, scoring 28 points and looking increasingly comfortable in his difficult wing role. He remains the brightest spot in a rapidly dimming Orlando outlook.

23. Philadelphia 76ers

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    ↑ 3 Spots

    Their opponents have been soft, but you'd better believe the Philadelphia 76ers get a bounce after winning four out of five.

    A game-winning buzzer-beater from T.J. McConnell downed the Knicks on Wednesday, and that was the second walk-off by an undrafted Sixer in just over a week. Robert Covington shocked the Minnesota Timberwolves with a game-winning alley-oop finish back on Jan. 3.

    McConnell's sprightly heroism triggered the best celebration sequence of the season, as Joel Embiid vice-gripped his point guard's head and screamed jubilantly into his stoic mug...then went and busted moves with the Sixers dancers.

    Good luck finding a more genuine show of joy in sports this year.

    Embiid has made his share of mistakes this season, as the Sixers are letting him fill roles he's not yet ready for. But the guy has been athletically overpowering and statistically dominant. During each of his last seven games, he's scored 20 points in less than 30 minutes of playing time.

    Know how many players have had a streak like that in the last five seasons? None.

    Process!!!

22. Denver Nuggets

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    ↓ 3 Spots

    Nikola Jokic posted 22 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in the Denver Nuggets' 140-112 win over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday, helping his team become the NBA's highest-performing club this season...when playing on British soil.

    Denver's London jaunt halted a five-game skid marked by atrocious defense (at least 120 points allowed in all five contests) and sparked hope during a season that's getting progressively bleaker.

    Still, as much fun as the Jokic-led assault has become, the Nuggets can't be a serious playoff threat until they sort out the other end of the floor.

    Over the last month, they've been the league's worst defense by a mile.

21. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    ↑ 4 Spots

    The Minnesota Timberwolves' 2-2 mark this week was a late-game misstep (stop me if you've heard that before about these Wolves) away from 3-1. But Rudy Gobert tipped in a miss with under 30 seconds remaining to give the Utah Jazz a 94-92 win over Minnesota on Saturday.

    Even after that bucket, Minnesota had a chance to tie or take the lead, but Zach LaVine showed an alarming absence of urgency bringing the ball up for his team's final possession. LaVine has never been regarded as the headiest player, and he approached that critical moment as though he was unaware of the score.

    Growing pains, right?

    Aside from the blown leads, the Wolves have been better than you think lately: Over the last month, they're fifth in defensive efficiency. Fifth!

    Tom Thibodeau's ability to coax a No. 5 defensive rating for a full month from this roster is the basketball equivalent to getting blood from a stone.

20. Detroit Pistons

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    It may not be totally safe for Detroit Pistons fans to poke their heads out of the panic rooms they constructed when this season went nuclear in the second half of December. We're still a long way from buying Detroit as a playoff noise-maker.

    But at least we've seen some fight lately.

    Andre Drummond gutted out a 52-minute stint, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit heroic shots (including the game-winner) down the stretch of a 125-124 double-overtime win against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday. A road loss to the Kings on Tuesday may have been the product of fatigueDetroit held a hefty first-half lead in that one and looked to be in total control until it ran out of gas.

    Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press reports rookie Henry Ellenson may see time in place of Jon Leuer, who could be out with a knee injury until the end of Detroit's road trip (concluding on Sunday). Maybe the first-rounder will inject some energy.

    The Pistons are 2-3 in 2017, which isn't great. But they've at least avoided the embarrassing blowouts that defined the end of the previous calendar year. 

19. Sacramento Kings

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    The Sacramento Kings are ready for more of this*.

    The big story in a 1-2 week came from James Ham of CSN California, who reported the Kings intend to offer Cousins a five-year, $207 million extension when he's first eligible this summer.

    It's hard to fault the Kings for wanting to secure their only star, particularly in light of their struggles to attract big-name free agents. For Sacramento, drafting and keeping guys like Cousins is the only real avenue toward improvement.

    But, man, that's a lot of money for a centerpiece who hasn't sniffed a winning season during his career.

    It's possible this report will add a sense of stability to the Kings—one that might help them in their fight for a playoff spot. It's also possible Sacramento is punting a long-overdue rebuild in exchange for several years on the mediocrity treadmill.

    *Fighting for the No. 8 seed, weathering up-and-down seasons, failing to develop young talent, misusing draft assets and hoping to build a winner around DeMarcus Cousins.

18. Chicago Bulls

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    Jimmy Butler lit the Toronto Raptors up for 42 points during a 123-118 win on Saturday, giving him three 40-point games since Dec. 28.

    Not bad for a guy who only had four such games in his entire career before that point.

    But as the flu bug spread around the league, Jimmy went 0-of-6 in 29 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder two days later, and that was the end of him. He sat out losses to the Wizards and Knicks entirely.

    Rajon Rondo, booted from the rotation, was pressed into duty against Washington and New York. He played reasonably well, recording 16 points, 14 assists and six rebounds in 50 total minutes during those two contests. If those efforts do anything to kindle a trade value that was all but extinguished, Butler's absence might turn out to be a major positive.

17. Portland Trail Blazers

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    ↑ 6 Spots

    The Blazers are 3-2 in the new year, and their only loss this week came during that double-OT affair with the Pistons. So things are definitely looking up—especially after a 102-86 win over the Cavs on Wednesday.

    At the risk of oversimplifying, Al-Farouq Aminu is basically the difference between Portland's defense being pretty darn good and so bad it might prevent a playoff berth.

    Check the numbers: Aminu made his full-time return from injury on Dec. 21, and Portland's defensive rating is fifth in the NBA since then. It's not a coincidence, either. With Aminu on the floor, the Blazers hold opponents to 103 points per 100 possessions. When he's off: 111.7.

    It's increasingly apparent that the key to Portland's defensive foundation is playing Aminu and Moe Harkless side by side. When they share the court, opponents manage just 100.4 points per 100 possessions.

    Head coach Terry Stotts can't play those two the full 48 minutes, but maximizing the time that duo spends on the floor will help the Blazers' journey back to respectability.

16. New Orleans Pelicans

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Tyreke Evans saved the day with Anthony Davis sidelined because of a hip injury (thanks, Kyle O'Quinn). Coming off the bench to score a game-high 29 points, Evans played his best game since returning from knee surgery in mid-December.

    If Evans can be consistent, he'll juice a badly underperforming New Orleans Pelicans offense that ranks in the bottom third of the league and hasn't improved since Davis took over starting center duties.

    But Buddy Hield could be the real beneficiary of Evans' driving and playmaking. The rookie has solidified his role as a deadly standstill specialist by hitting 48.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes since Dec. 1.

    Defensively, New Orleans is fine; It ranks comfortably in the top 10 on that end.

    If the offense comes around at all, this team could keep climbing.

15. Indiana Pacers

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    Surrendering 140 points in a blowout loss to the Nuggets is a bad look, but maybe the Indiana Pacers just don't like playing in England.

    Could be the long flight. Or the time change. Or the metric system. Who knows, really?

    At any rate, Indy's ugly London matinee loss on Thursday snapped a five-game winning streak, and though Paul George managed just 10 points on 2-of-12 shooting, we can't let that outweigh his otherwise strong stretch. He's averaging 24 points per 36 minutes in January, and his full-season shooting efficiency is at a career-high level.

    It'd be nice if George's rebound and assist averages weren't slipping this year, and he hasn't had the same defensive impact as in the past. But he's still a star, and the Pacers remain an average team (20-19) mostly because of him.

14. Charlotte Hornets

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    Cody Zeller acolytes are enjoying the greatest "I told you so" stretch in recorded history.

    Charlotte is now 1-6 in games Zeller has missed this season, and Nic Batum's absence in both of the Hornets' losses this week didn't help matters.

    The 0-2 mark can't be a surprise: Zeller is the team's best screener and interior defender. Without him, it's hard for the Hornets to spring their guards on offense or defend a pick-and-roll on the other end.

    Taking Batum out of the equation further hamstrings the offense, as his secondary creation saves Kemba Walker from being the only playmaker on the floor.

    At full strength, the Hornets profile as a top-10 team. But they're not at full strength, and they've gone 6-8 over the last month.

13. Washington Wizards

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    John Wall is in rough shape.

    "My right pinkie is messed up and my left wrist is swollen," Wall told reporters after shooting 4-of-21 during a 117-108 loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday. "I knew it was hurting. I knew it was painful before the game. It was a big game for us so I just came out and tried to play through it."

    No word on how his nose is doing after Jae Crowder's postgame schnoz-poke nearly started a brawl.

    Injuries didn't prevent Wall from hitting a game-winner against the Bulls on Tuesday. And even if you include that rough outing against the Celtics, he's still averaging 19.2 points and 11.4 assists in his last five games. Most point guards would kill to be as productive as a banged-up Wall.

    Washington has won three of its last four and six of nine overall.

12. Atlanta Hawks

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    Dropping the Atlanta Hawks after their second undefeated week in a row is going to seem wildly unfair.

    This is a team, after all, that has won seven straight and hardly missed a beat since trading Kyle Korver in what looked like the first move of a teardown.

    But look at the competition in this run: Yes, there's a 114-112 win against the San Antonio Spurs on New Year's Day. But otherwise, Atlanta has fattened up on a diet of creampuffs. New York, Detroit, Orlando, New Orleans, Dallas and Brooklyn are the other six wins in this streak—all teams that are under .500 and out of playoff position.

    Begging your pardon if we seem unimpressed.

    More than anything, knocking the Hawks back a couple of pegs facilitates upward moves for teams that have done work against superior opponents and/or got a transformative player back from injury.

    Speaking of which...

11. Los Angeles Clippers

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    ↑ 3 Spots

    Chris Paul is back. And would you look at that? The Clips went 3-0 this past week.

    Funny what a guy who tyrannically controls both ends of the floor can do to boost his team's potency.

    Though lacking burst since returning from his hamstring injury, Paul has still averaged 17 points, 12 assists and 6.3 rebounds on 55.2 percent shooting. His ability to make ridiculous dribble moves on the spot has helped, as has soft competition. And we have to consider the latter after dinging the Hawks for a similarly easy slate.

    The difference?

    We know the Clips are a borderline contender as long as Paul is healthy, and we know they're something far less when he's not. Los Angeles is 2-5 without CP3, and the on-off splits are even more telling: With Paul on the floor, the Clips own a plus-15.1 net rating. When he's off, L.A. posts a minus-5.8.

    Blake Griffin hasn't been the biggest factor in the Clippers' success (L.A. is 49-30 in games he's missed since 2013-14, per StatMuse), but it's still encouraging that he's on pace to return by the end of January, as was expected after his knee surgery on Dec. 20.

    The Clips are looking more like themselves, which probably means a return to the top 10 is imminent.

10. Memphis Grizzlies

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    The Memphis Grizzlies continue to troll us with their nonsensical season, but get a boost this week with a pair of excellent wins.

    Lose to the Lakers and Chris Paul-less Clippers in back-to-back games last week? Sure!

    Engineer a 24-point comeback to beat the Warriors, then knock off the Jazz in Utah? Why not?

    There is no such thing as an ordinary week for this team. After Memphis' win against the Warriors, ESPN's Tom Haberstroh illustrated the incredibly odd means of their success: "Grizzlies finish game on 42-17 run in Golden State to move to *10-2* on the season when tied or trailing by 1-3 points in the final minute."

    So, just to be clear: If you've got a narrow lead on Memphis in the final minute, you're screwed. They've got you right where they want you.

9. Milwaukee Bucks

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Beating the Spurs is a big deal, and doing it in San Antonio is even bigger.

    So you'd think the Milwaukee Bucks would be in for a move up after their 109-107 victory against Gregg Popovich's club on Tuesday. Alas, Milwaukee also lost to the Knicks(!) and Wizards this week, which not only canceled out that impressive win, but actually precipitated a rankings decline.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo was too ill to play against the Wizards and saw only nine minutes against San Antonio, but the latest All-Star voting results should speed his recovery: He's now behind only LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in total fan votes among Eastern Conference players.

    If the coaches and players do what they should to honor Antetokounmpo's incredible breakout season—he ranks fifth in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus, second in Player Efficiency Rating and first in Eurostep dunks (unofficially)—he'll deservedly start the All-Star Game at age 22.

    That makes a one-spot drop in the power rankings sting a little less, doesn't it?

8. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    The big figure with the Thunder, 3-0 this week, is the same as usual: Russell Westbrook.

    One more rebound against the Bulls and Russ would have had triple-doubles in all three contests OKC played since we last ranked.

    In an encouraging sign for Oklahoma City's quest for offensive diversity, Westbrook is also getting more help than ever from Steven Adams and Enes Kanter: The former is scoring in the post much more effectively of late, highlighted by a 22-point outing against Chicago. And the latter, who has been even more prolific than Adams in the points department, is also expanding his game.

    He's averaging a career-best 1.6 assists per 36 minutes. That's still a paltry figure, but it reflects an important new dimension in Kanter's game. Now, you can't double him with impunity. He may not always register picture-perfect feeds to cutters (like this), but he's much more comfortable getting the ball out of trouble—whether to create open looks or just to re-post on the block.

    Neither Kanter nor Adams addresses the spacing crunch that principally hinders OKC's offense, but getting offensive production from anyone besides Westbrook is a positive sign.

7. Utah Jazz

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    The Grizzlies got them on Sunday, stifling the Utah Jazz in an 88-79 slog that seemed to signal trouble. That defeat was Utah's third in a four-game span, dropping its record on a five-game road trip to 2-3.

    But then the Jazz beat the Cavs on Tuesday, riding Rudy Gobert's interior dominance to a 100-92 success that salvaged a 2-1 week.

    Gobert is on a franchise-record streak of 25 games with at least 10 rebounds, he's scoring with greater volume and efficiency than ever, and he remains the best rim-protector in the game. When he and George Hill are on the floor together, they absolutely neuter the opponents' pick-and-roll game.

    No wonder Utah is in a four-team mix separated by fractions of a point for the top spot in defensive efficiency this season.

    If the Jazz can find ways to avoid offensive shutdowns like the one they endured against Memphis, they're one of the five best teams in the league. Getting shots up more quickly could help, as no team takes a higher percentage of its field goals in the final desperate seconds of the shot clock than Utah.

    For now, they're just a bit outside that elite upper tier.

6. Boston Celtics

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    Isaiah Thomas is averaging over 28 points and six assists, which not only qualifies him to be one of the East's All-Star starters (more on the other deserving party in a moment), but also makes him the first Boston Celtics player to pair those averages since Larry Bird, per StatMuse.

    And Larry Bird was pretty good.

    The Celtics' diminutive guard had 38 points in each of their last two wins this week, and his production is a huge reason Boston has won five of its last six games.

    Now that we've pumped Thomas up, let's deflate him a bit: The Celtics' biggest issue is defense, where they rank 20th in efficiency. We have to be careful with the noise of stats like these, but it's important to note that Boston allows 110.2 points per 100 possessions with Thomas on the floor and just 98.1 when he sits.

    The team's net rating is also more than three points higher without Thomas.

    Just a little something to keep in mind when trying to unravel the mystery of Boston's disappointing defensive performance.

5. Toronto Raptors

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    The Raptors really made it tough to rank them this week: Toronto lost to the Bulls and Rockets, but it closed out the rankings period with an impressive 114-106 victory over the Boston Celtics. Further complicating matters, the Raps finished last week by beating the Jazz.

    Under normal circumstances, a two-loss week would necessitate a drop—especially up here where the standards are higher and teams generally lose ground for just one defeat. Yet, even though head-to-head meetings aren't necessarily the biggest influencers, bumping the Raps down behind either the Celtics or Jazz just didn't feel right.

    Because the Raptors beat both of them so recently.

    Having covered that thorny issue, here's a simple one: Kyle Lowry has been the best guard in the East this season, and it's a travesty that he's only got the sixth-most All-Star votes among backcourt players in his conference.

    He's third in the league in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus, and Toronto's two elite five-man units work because he's a lockdown defender who hits 45 percent of his threes and runs the offense.

    Come on, people.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    According to a tweet from Jazz broadcaster David Locke: "LeBron James says he watched 25 minutes of Kyle Korver to see where he likes the ball, how he likes the ball, high, low, seams, no seams."

    Add another entry to LeBron James' next-level basketball mind mythology.

    Despite the best efforts of their resident hoops savant, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been quietly ordinary of late. They've gone 11-5 with a shockingly mediocre plus-0.6 net rating over the last month (since Dec. 13).

    Even if the losses to the Jazz and Blazers this week were oddly foreseeable—James hasn't won in Utah during his last six tries and has fallen in his last four at Portland—the Cavs have still dropped three of their last five games.

    Maybe the win over the Warriors on Christmas is still the only thing we need to know about the Cavs. Maybe they're still the best team in the NBA when they're fully engaged.

    But they're not playing like it right now. Not even close.

3. Houston Rockets

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    The Houston Rockets would have made a real push for the top overall spot this week, but a 119-105 loss to the Timberwolves ended a nine-game winning streak.

    And injuries are an increasing concern.

    Clint Capela's absence was conspicuous in that Minnesota loss, as the Rockets got outrebounded 49-32 and surrendered 56 points in the paint. Nene and Montrezl Harrell have done a fine job filling in at center, but they're just not as effective as Capela. F

    ortunately for the Rockets, the big man is already doing on-court work. Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle reports Capela's original four-to-six-week timeline, which started ticking on Dec. 17, is still looking good.

    Eric Gordon missed games Tuesday and Wednesday because of a sprained left big toe, and though the Rockets offense starts and ends with James Harden (who had two 40-point triple-doubles this week), losing the league's most prolific three-point shooter doesn't help matters.

    But look at what we're doing here, citing injuries and a messy loss on the second night of a back-to-back as excuses for not putting Houston at No. 1. That says this is a team that belongs in this elite tier, and it may even suggest the Rockets will eventually rise above the third spot, which they occupy for a second straight week.

2. Golden State Warriors

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Rule No. 913(b)(7)(iii) of the power rankings clearly states: "No team blowing a 24-point lead at home shall be allowed to remain at No. 1—even if the team in question still has the league's best record and top net rating, two MVP winners in their primes and an entire half-season left to figure out its crunch-time offense...and Zaza Pachulia."

    It's admittedly a wordy rule, but it's binding.

    The big story this week was Draymond Green's laying into Kevin Durant for blowing off a couple of late pick-and-roll sets during that Grizzlies loss. And though Green's method of communication was predictably demonstrative, he was in the right.

    Durant short-circuited Golden State's offense in favor of iso-ball. And though it's hard to fault the league's scariest one-on-one weapon for that approach, there's little question that the Warriors' late-game offensive issues are tied to abandoning basic pick-and-roll actions involving Green and Stephen Curry.

    For what it's worth, Green contends Durant understood the message and wasn't bothered by the method, telling Sam Amick of USA Today: "That's what makes him special. That's what makes him an incredible star. He's a megastar. You know, most people would look at how you're saying something and not what you're saying. He looks at what you're saying, and not how you're saying it."

    The Warriors seem to understand their issues, and it shouldn't be long before they retake the top position here. But rules are rules.

1. San Antonio Spurs

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    Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

    ↑ 3 Spots

    Every team in the top five stumbled this week, and the search for a new leader involved a handful of basic questions: Which team has been steadiest lately? Which team is healthy, reliable and seems most like the product of an advanced alien species biomechanically engineering an organization for optimal consistency and excellence?

    Turns out that answer was pretty obvious.

    The Spurs have the league's best offense and net rating along with the No. 2 defense over the last month. So it's not like we're handing the top spot to San Antonio charitably.

    The Spurs have earned it.

    How long they remain here will depend on the Warriors and Cavs' respective senses of urgency as much as anything else, so don't rule out an extended stay.

    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, Jan. 12.

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