2017 NBA Power Rankings: New York Knicks' Disastrous Free Fall Continues

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2017

2017 NBA Power Rankings: New York Knicks' Disastrous Free Fall Continues

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Against all odds, the New York Knicks are finding new ways to unravel. The discord, on-court ugliness and general dysfunction have them occupying their lowest power ranking position all season.

    Fortunately, they can't fall much farther.

    Elsewhere, the Miami Heat kept winning, the Milwaukee Bucks suffered a bigger blow than any rankings demotion and the San Antonio Spurs overcame pants problems. That last one will make sense, I promise.

    Rankings weigh record, advanced metrics and gut feeling—with recent performances mattering more than season-long stats. Health is a consideration as well. A team is only as potent as the roster it can put on the floor.

30. Brooklyn Nets

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    You don't lose 11 in a row and 22-of-23 overall unless you're aggressively seeking out new ways to fail.

    Brooklyn is blazing its own sad trail into the history books of ineptitude by collapsing on its home court and coughing up leads. By starting the calendar year with 12 straight losses at home, the Nets set an NBA record, according to ESPN Stats & Info...and then they went out and lost their 13th to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday.

    Worse still, they're 6-9 in games they've led by 10 or more points, per John Schuhmann of NBA.com. No other team's record is below .500.

    Leads aren't safe for the Nets—except for the one they hold over all challengers vying for the No. 30 spot in these rankings. Check back in next week to see them right here again. And the week after that. And...well, you get it.

    In an effort not to be completely negative, Brook Lopez is one of five players with at least 70 threes and 70 blocks this season. The other four are Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Kristaps Porzingis.

29. New York Knicks

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    ↓ 3 Spots

    If it feels like the New York Knicks have packed several seasons worth of drama into a single 0-3 week, it's because they have.

    Team president Phil Jackson is unsubtly sniping at Carmelo Anthony in what feels like a deliberate effort to elicit a waiver of Melo's no-trade clause, head coach Jeff Hornacek is impugning his team's lack of competitive pride, and Kristaps Porzingis told reporters "It's kind of everybody for themselves."

    There was also Charles Oakley being booted from his seat at Madison Square Garden and subsequently arrested following an ugly altercation with security.

    Roll all that together, factor in a 6-19 record since Christmas (second-worst in the NBA during that span), and you've got this tidy assessment from Frank Isola: "Make no mistake about it, the Knicks are officially back to being the biggest joke in the NBA. The team is mess. Jackson picks fights with Carmelo Anthony on Twitter and Oakley gets dragged out of the arena."

    No team is spiraling faster.

28. Phoenix Suns

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    The Phoenix Suns took a break from getting waxed to beat the Sacramento Kings on a Devin Booker game-winner Friday, but it was back to the normal routine after that. Three losses (by a combined 49 points) later, the Suns are bringing up the rear in assist percentage while boasting a win total lower than every non-Brooklyn team in the league.

    For every bright spot, like Booker's 27-point second quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks, there's been a dreary counterpoint. For example, the Suns announced Dragan Bender underwent ankle surgery and won't resume basketball activities for four to six weeks.

    Given his limited role and general ineffectiveness, losing the league's youngest player won't impact the team much. But the Suns are embracing a youth-centered rebuild, and whatever reps Bender might have gotten down the stretch of a lost season might have been valuable.

    At least Phoenix is trusting in its prospects and bottoming out on purpose. That's the right move and one the organization has long been loath to make, as general manager Ryan McDonough told Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer: "The Suns have been in existence 49 years and haven’t won a championship. We figured it was time to try something a little bit different."

    Gaining ground this week is strictly a result of needing someplace to put the crumbling Knicks.

27. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Magic Johnson is officially on board with the Los Angeles Lakers as an adviser, which suggests the organization is headed for changes.

    Given the recent results, it's hard to argue against the need for a few tweaks. Whether Johnson is the right guy to make them remains to be seen, but the status quo isn't working.

    L.A. beat the Knicks this past week to earn just its sixth road win but followed it up with a clunker of a loss to the Detroit Pistons in which D'Angelo Russell played just 23 minutes. Why such little run for the sophomore? As head coach Luke Walton put it to Bill Oram of the Orange County Register, the 20-year-old averaging under 27 minutes per game "looked a little tired."

    A starting lineup change swapping out veteran signees Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng for Tarik Black and Brandon Ingram may lead to better results, but benching the organization's two biggest offseason gets is a bad look.

26. Orlando Magic

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    Aaron Gordon, not dunking.
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    Bless Orlando Magic head coach Frank Vogel for his positivity, but his comments to Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel don't hold any water.

    "He’s been put in a lot of tough spots this year in terms of these guys that he has to come in and guard," Vogel said of Aaron Gordon. "For the most part, he’s been at least solid and a lot of times really good."

    Smash cut to Gordon's No. 87 ranking (out of 95) among small forwards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus.

    Forcing Gordon to check opponents' top wing threats isn't even the Magic's greatest offense. The real crime is robbing us of Gordon's signature offensive highlights.

    "The 21-year-old’s dunk rate—the percentage of his two-point tries that are slams—is down 25 percent from last season," Chris Herring explained in a FiveThirtyEight.com piece," a surprising drop for a player so young. That a whopping 42 percent of his dunks have come in transition, according to SportVU, which tracks almost everything that happens on the court, suggests that he’s at his dunkiest before his teammates get in the way."

    Oh, great. So not only are the Magic (1-3 this week) terrible. They're also way less fun to watch.

25. New Orleans Pelicans

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    In the realm of NBA transactions, it's a good rule of thumb to assume that if the Philadelphia 76ers want to trade you someone, you should immediately become skeptical. And then back away slowly until it's safe to run. Even without Sam Hinkie around, the Sixers remain an asset-rich, shrewdly managed outfit that has the ammo to enter any deal with maximum leverage.

    Marc Stein's report that Philadelphia is engaged in talks to send Jahlil Okafor to the New Orleans Pelicans is a perfect example.

    New Orleans needs a center because Anthony Davis doesn't like playing the position, but Okafor is a throwback, offense-only big who won't take any defensive pressure off AD and might even get in his way on the other end. That's not worth a first-round pick, particularly for a Pelicans team that needs to find its second star via the draft because free agents of consequence do not sign in New Orleans.

    Just say no.

    The Pels beat the Suns this past week but were blown out in their other two contests. And while Davis remains a stud, it's worth appreciating this statistical tidbit on his limits via Utah Jazz broadcaster David Locke: "Of 50 players in the NBA with three elbow touches a game, only Carmelo Anthony (35 percent) passes less than Anthony Davis (39 percent)."

24. Sacramento Kings

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    What do you do with a team that loses to the Suns and Chicago Bulls in the same week it beats the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics?

    "We can run with anybody and lose to anybody," Willie Cauley-Stein told James Ham of CSN California after the win against Boston on Wednesday—one that came with DeMarcus Cousins out on suspension.

    Sometimes, I swear the Kings do this just to mess with us.

    Cousins' technical foul in that loss to Chicago was his 16th, which triggered Wednesday's one-game ban. Now, he'll face subsequent suspensions for every two additional techs he incurs. For a Kings team still gunning for a playoff spot, losing Cousins for another two or three games (if he sustains his current technical foul pace) could wind up making a major impact.

    Then again, the Kings showed uncommon defensive effort and ball movement against the Celtics without Cousins, so maybe his possible suspension-related absences won't be disastrous. With this team, it's generally best to discern the logical outcome and then predict the opposite.

23. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Khris Middleton made his season debut Wednesday, which should have lent this Milwaukee Bucks ranking blurb a positive tone.

    Middleton is among the league's top three-and-D wings, and his presence in the lineup could have helped Milwaukee reverse its recent skid and get back into the playoff conversation.

    But Jabari Parker tore his left ACL again, which means optimism has to wait.

    The Bucks have lost 11 of their last 13 games, and their defense has slipped to 21st in the league. So while there's an argument to be made that Middleton, once back in game shape, may actually give Milwaukee more of what it needs (defense and three-point shooting) than Parker did, now's not the time for that.

    Parker overcame an ACL tear in the same knee 25 games into his rookie season to become one of the game's most exciting scorers. Here's hoping he recovers just as well this time around.

22. Charlotte Hornets

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    It feels like a positive that the Charlotte Hornets' decline isn't a major story this week, but maybe that's just because we've grown accustomed to mounting losses and disintegrating defense. When failure becomes the expectation, it's no longer as noteworthy.

    During a seven-game losing streak spanning from Jan. 23 to Feb. 4, the Hornets allowed 114.2 points per 100 possessions, the third-worst mark in the league. Before that stretch, they ranked seventh.

    Combined with a middling offense, this abrupt defensive collapse has the Hornets on the fringes of the playoff picture after starting the season looking like a probable top-four seed in the East. We've extensively chronicled how much they've missed Cody Zeller (2-12 record without him), but it's reaching the point now where the negative momentum may be irreversible.

    Even with Zeller getting back onto the floor Thursday after missing seven straight games, it's difficult to see Charlotte recapturing its early-season form.

21. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Joel Embiid is kind of the Cody Zeller of the Sixers, which is easily the nicest thing anyone's ever said about Zeller.

    Philly got a game-winner from T.J. McConnell against Orlando on Thursday to end a five-game slide and improve its record without Embiid to 6-16. This one of those rare situations where the most compelling aspect of a team is also the simplest: The Sixers just can't compete without their rookie big man.

    We've known that all year, as the 76ers' net rating is 14.5 points per 100 possessions better with Embiid on the floor. But the losing streak underscored exactly how critical he is.

    Philadelphia can't score at all without him, and defending the rim against interior size of any kind is virtually impossible. In light of how frail Embiid's absence has revealed the Sixers' supporting cast to be, it makes perfect sense that they're treating his knee bruise cautiously.

    A little throwback to the tanking days of old will help Philadelphia's odds of adding supporting stars in the 2017 draft.

    Also, the goggles might be making a comeback. Excellent.

20. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Zach LaVine preceded Parker in this week's ACL double-whammy, which put an even bigger damper on the Minnesota Timberwolves' already gloomy 1-3 record.

    But while losing a talent as captivating as LaVine for the rest of the season is a brutal blow, it warrants mentioning that in the short term, the Wolves might not suffer as much as you'd think.

    Per Justin Willard of Nylon Calculus: "Among guards, he’s 109th out of 139 guards with at least 500 minutes this season in steal rate93rd in block rate, and 84th in defensive rebound percentage. He also doesn’t do well on any miscellaneous stats, like loose balls recovered or charges. And once you adjust for how his team performs when he plays, he looks even worse."

    While we're on the subject of "it's not so bad" silver linings, Lance Stephenson!

    Minnesota inked him to a 10-day deal, and if the 20 minutes in his debut Wednesday are any indication, Born Ready will play a significant role going forward. It may not work out, but it'll be entertaining.

19. Detroit Pistons

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    From Jan. 5 to Feb. 5, the Detroit Pistons got outscored in third quarters by an average of 2.5 points, and Stan Van Gundy (brace yourself) wasn't happy about it.

    So he chatted up point guard Reggie Jackson and suggested a change.

    "I just talked to him and I said, 'I just don't think you're starting the second half with great energy," Van Gundy told Aaron McCann of MLive.com. "And so, you need to look at what you're doing and change that. I think he did. To his credit, he didn't just blow it off. I think he did try to take a different approach."

    In their next two games, the Pistons outscored the Sixers by 13 and Lakers by 16 in the third quarter. I guess that goes to show Van Gundy's motivational prowess. Or maybe it had something to do with the competition.

    Either way, Detroit won three of its four games this past week and is suddenly in possession of the East's No. 8 seed.

18. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Let's settle something important.

    Damian Lillard owns the invisible watch wrist-tapping move more recently popularized by John Wall and Isaiah Thomas. He did it first, and it's his. Accept no substitutes.

    In non-celebratory gesture appropriation news, Lillard's Portland Trail Blazers haven't made up ground on the Denver Nuggets or Dallas Mavericks lately, going 1-3 and losing Evan Turner for five to six weeks to a broken right hand.

    Turner's on-court impact has been negative this year, but head coach Terry Stotts inserted him into the first unit anyway because the Blazers weren't getting it done with Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless in the starting lineup.

    There's a way to see Portland actually benefitting from Turner's absence, perhaps by getting back to the rotation and style that led it to the playoffs last season. But it's difficult to view the loss of such a massive offseason investment as a positive for the organization.

    Admittedly, it was pretty cool of Turner to register an assist with his remaining good hand before departing.

17. Denver Nuggets

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    Nikola Jokic gave Nuggets head coach Mike Malone a naked hug this week, which seems like a news item worth leading with.

    The embrace came after Malone presented Jokic with the game ball following the center's first career triple-double—a 20-point, 13-rebound, 11-assist effort in a 121-117 win over the Bucks on Friday. And if you're going to break out the birthday suit embrace, why not then?

    It'll be interesting to see how the Nuggets handle losing Kenneth Faried to a sprained ankle, as his fit alongside Jokic in the first unit was a big reason for their offensive explosion since making that change. Chances are Jokic will make it work with whoever slots into Faried's minutes if the forward misses significant time (he's listed as day-to-day for now).

    The Joker is that good. 

16. Dallas Mavericks

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    The Dallas Mavericks split two games with the Blazers and lost to the Denver Nuggets this week, which made it easy to situate them in that trio...until Harrison Barnes' 31 points helped trigger a massive upset against the Utah Jazz on Thursday.

    That result eased the sting of two straight losses, and positive signs are everywhere for the Mavs. Just for fun, let's enumerate a few.

    1. Undrafted free agent Yogi Ferrell has been an out-of-nowhere revelation, playing huge minutes and scoring with volume and efficiency. His 32 points in Friday's win over Portland gave the Mavericks enough information to offer the 10-day signee a two-year deal.

    2. Dirk Nowitzki hit what would have been a vintage dagger in the rematch against the Blazers, only to have C.J. McCollum spoil it with a game-winner of his own. The Diggler's still got it.

    3. Overall, Dallas ranks seventh in the NBA in net rating since Jan. 1.

    Bet against the Mavs making the playoffs at your own risk.

15. Chicago Bulls

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Is it possible for consistent turmoil to count as stability?

    I ask only because the Bulls are fine with keeping executive vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman on board for the foreseeable future, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. And the one uninterrupted constant in the recent tenure of that braintrust has been infighting between players, coaches and management.

    In a backward way, that predictability has been kind of soothing. You always know what you're getting in Chicago.

    Zooming in on the week that was, the Bulls narrowly avoided blowing a 27-point lead against the Kings for their only win—which isn't so bad considering Jimmy Butler's sore heel kept him out for all three games on the slate. Dwyane Wade got flat-out heroic to salvage that lone success, hitting a dagger jumper and then securing the result with a steal and breakaway dunk.

    Still, it's getting harder to expect Chicago to keep staving off a collapse amid ongoing underperformance by role players and locker room tension.

14. Miami Heat

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    It's been fun to attribute the Miami Heat's 12-game winning streak to Dion Waiters, but now that they've notched a victory without him, the timing feels right to acknowledge other drivers of the team's success.

    Waiters sat out a 106-88 win against Milwaukee on Wednesday, and Hassan Whiteside picked up the slack with 23 points and 16 rebounds, which wasn't even his best game of the week. Miami's center amassed 30 points and 20 boards to help down the Sixers on Saturday.

    And then there's Goran Dragic , who has produced more points, rebounds, assists and steals per game than Waiters during the Heat's streak, all while shooting a ridiculous 56.3 percent from the field and three-point range.

    Remember that version of Dragic that made an All-NBA team a few years ago with the Suns? He's back.

    That Miami has done this despite losing more games to injury than any other team, per Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes, only makes it more impressive.

13. Los Angeles Clippers

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Playing the Warriors twice definitely has something to do with it, but the Los Angeles Clippers have the worst defensive rating in the league since Chris Paul went down with a thumb injury.

    So while it's been encouraging to see Blake Griffin notch a triple-double against the Raptors and score 32 points against the Knicks, the Clips' struggles to win (1-2 this week) won't cease unless they start getting stops.

    "There's a lot of fundamental things, a lot of dribble penetration hurting us," head coach Doc Rivers told reporters after the Clippers fell to the Raptors on Monday. "Our pick-and-roll D has to improve...the loose balls. I mean, there's a lot of things right now."

    Those issues aren't getting rectified until CP3 returns. The Clippers' job right now, which they're mostly failing at, is making sure they don't dig the hole too deep.

12. Toronto Raptors

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    Granted the Raptors were on the road for three of their four games this week, but the opposition was about as soft as it gets. So after a 2-2 mark blemished by losses to the Magic and Timberwolves, we've got yet another rankings slide for the team that once looked like a lock for the No. 2 seed in the East.

    This was unthinkable just a few weeks ago. Toronto peaked at 22-8 on Dec. 26 and has gone 10-14 since, allowing the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers to creep toward top-four status in the conference.

    According to Josh Lewenberg of TSN Sports in Toronto, DeMar DeRozan has always rejected the idea that the Raptors needed to add talent at the trade deadline...until this season.

    "Help is always welcomed, for sure," DeRozan said this time.

    Given the recent results, it's hard to argue with that.

11. Indiana Pacers

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    The idea of the mutually beneficial NBA trade is mostly that: a concept, a theory.

    But with George Hill thriving in Utah and Jeff Teague playing a major role in the Pacers' recent surge, it looks like we're seeing one of those uncommon double-positive deals in practice.

    During Indy's seven-game winning streak, which ended in a 132-117 loss to the Cavs on Wednesday, Teague averaged 17.3 points, 8.9 assists and 4.1 rebounds while hitting 42.9 percent of his threes.

    "I think when you have changes such as we had this season," Pacers head coach Nate McMillan told David Ramil of The Step back. "A new coach, new system, guys coming from different systems—you get a point guard who has to build chemistry with his team, his players out there. He’s the guy who’s going to establish how you play, both offensively and defensively…that takes some time. And I think he’s starting to get comfortable with what we expect from him. What he’s capable of bringing to the floor."

    Acclimated and playing some of the best basketball of his career, Teague is helping Paul George and Myles Turner lift the Pacers into the East's true upper class.

10. Atlanta Hawks

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    The forward progress has been steady for about six weeks now, but the Atlanta Hawks have a unique ability to sow doubt among critics (like me) by coming out on the wrong end of blowouts.

    The Jazz got them this week, marring an otherwise solid 2-1 record with a 120-95 shellacking Monday. The week before, Miami hung a 116-93 final score on the Hawks. The Washington Wizards registered a 112-86 stomping a few days prior to that.

    So while the Hawks remain a top-10 club, there's just something inherently unstable about them.

    Maybe it's the lack of consistent, locked-in energy and effort, as Paul Millsap suggested to Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal Constitution when asked about those recurring blowouts: "It has been a trend. It’s becoming a habit. It’s something we have to break. By doing those key things I said earlier, that will help break it."

    Five of Atlanta's six remaining February games come on the road. So if the Hawks are going to change their habits, they'll have to do it in hostile environments.

9. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Victor Oladipo's three-point shot abandoned him at the worst possible time.

    Without Enes Kanter, the Oklahoma City Thunder need all hands on deck—particularly hands capable of producing a bucket once in a while. Thanks partly to Oladipo's 27 percent shooting from long range since Jan. 15, the Thunder have hit the offensive skids.

    Nonetheless, Russell Westbrook managed two triple-doubles in four games this week, and OKC earned wins over the Grizzlies, Blazers and Cavs. The dependence on Westbrook for sustainable offense has reached obscene levels.

    Since Kanter went down, the Thunder score 84.2 points per 100 possessions when Westbrook sits, a figure roughly 15 points lower than the Sixers' league-worst output this season. This effectively means Oklahoma City must score at better-than-Warriors rates with Russ on the court just to offset the 13 minutes he sits per game.

    This is unsustainable, and if Oladipo (or someone else) can't pick up some slack, you'll see the Thunder lose touch with the top six in the West.

    For now, though, OKC is riding high ahead of a Kevin Durant's return Saturday.

8. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale wants his team's claws to be a little sharper.

    "You need to come out with a sense of urgency," Fizdale told reporters before Memphis eventually dismissed the Suns 110-91 on Wednesday. "Because every game matters right now when you talk about seeding, going for home court (in the playoffs) and all of that stuff. You just can’t have any slip-ups when it comes to effort and focus."

    It's true the Grizzlies could have put the Suns away earlier than they did, but Fizdale's team has handled its business for the most part against all comers. And done it with the feisty edge you'd expect.

    Memphis has won six of its last seven, and four of those wins came by double digits. Leave it to the Grizzlies to want more savagery amid consistent maulings.

7. Houston Rockets

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    James Harden has made at least half of his shots just once in his last eight games. That's not as big of an efficiency concern as it'd be for most other high-volume scorers because nobody earns more trips to the foul line than he does.

    But it's a possible indicator of fatigue, and it might have something to do with the Rockets' .500 record since Jan. 11.

    Harden's field-goal and three-point percentages have declined in every full month of the season so far, but he's offset that dip by improving his free-throw volume and conversion rate in November, December and January.

    Of course, another way to look at that is to realize as Harden's shot has eluded him he's adapted by taking even more physical punishment.

    We harp on the Cavs for taxing LeBron James with heavy minute totals based on the idea that pushing hard now isn't worth a collapse in the spring. Maybe it's time to apply some of that same logic to Harden, who isn't playing as many minutes as James but seems to be wearing down with a lot of season left to play.

    Just something to ponder as Houston holds steady with a 3-1 mark this week.

6. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The Cavs have made it their business to eliminate a specific sort of tension this season.

    Whenever it feels like an East challenger is rising up to threaten the set-in-stone hierarchy of the conference, Cleveland smites it with a thunderbolt...or banked-in three, as circumstances warrant.

    The Wizards saw their two-month home winning streak snapped and the Pacers watched their seven-game run disappear this week, and the Cavs again appear secure in their primacy.

    Sure, the Wizards had every right to win that game Monday, and they would have if James hadn't forced overtime with an impossible shot. But that's just another amplifier for the sense of fatalism attached to the Cavaliers this season. If a team that clearly deserves to beat them can't do it, what's the point?

    It all feels as predetermined as ever.

    Also, Kyle Korver is fitting in great now, as evidenced by his 29-point outburst against Indy.

    We can't give it all back at once—not after ending the week with a 118-109 loss to OKC. But Cleveland isn't going to reside outside the top five for much longer.

5. Boston Celtics

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    ↓ 1 Spots

    Try this Isaiah Thomas stat on for size.

    According to Basketball-Reference's database, he's on pace to be the only player in history with an assist percentage above 34 percent and a turnover percentage under 10.1 percent.

    So while the curmudgeon in me wants to focus on that infamous minus-4.48 defensive RPM, dead last in the NBA by a country mile, seeing Thomas' offensive season put in historical context like that makes it harder.

    Rankings-wise, Boston's 108-92 loss to a Kings team playing without DeMarcus Cousins on Wednesday detracts from the preceding seven-game win streak, the last five of which came via single-digit margins. Put another way, it's starting to look like the Celtics have benefitted from something as simple as better luck this year.

    Through their first 52 games this season, the Celts went 33-19 with a plus-2.9 net rating. Through their first 52 last season, they went 30-22 with a plus-3.9 net rating.

    Maybe Boston's close-game magic is real, or maybe Thomas is going to cool off, which could turn those narrow wins into losses.

4. Utah Jazz

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Dallas halted Utah's four-game winning streak, but the Jazz are suddenly scoring in bunches and seem to be enjoying relative health and a soft schedule. Only one of its last six opponents were in playoff position.

    Still, it's hard to overlook how dominant the Jazz have been when mostly healthy. They're 19-5 when George Hill and Gordon Hayward have played together, and after scoring more than 120 points one time in their first 51 games, they topped that mark twice in the past week.

    Whether that output is a sign of a new normal or an anomaly will have a lot to do with Utah's backups. Alec Burks and Dante Exum are this team's burners, and when they're running out on misses and generating transition chances, the Jazz's scoring profile expands significantly.

    Hayward eclipsed the 30-point plateau against Charlotte, Atlanta and Dallas this week, and he remains the team's steadiest scoring threat. But if the Jazz continue to diversify their offense and (for crying out loud!) get themselves a few buckets outside of their stagnant halfcourt sets, we've got a monster on our hands.

3. Washington Wizards

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    The Jazz have the superior record and net rating, but the Wizards hold their No. 3 spot because they did everything necessary to knock off the Cavaliers.

    Think of it this way: Washington is 12-2 since Jan. 11, and those two losses happened because Marcus Morris tipped in a buzzer beater and James, of course, banked in a fallaway three at the end of regulation.

    The Wizards have earned another week in this spot, and everything we've seen over the past several weeks supports the idea that Washington is Cleveland's top threat in the East. Better still, the Wizards welcome a possible postseason meeting.

    Per Candace Buckner of the Washington Post, following that loss to the Cavs, "every Wizards player who spoke to media expected to see the Cavs again. Of course they will—on March 25. But no one meant that."

    You've got to like that confidence.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    Yeah, the Spurs lost to the Grizzlies without Kawhi Leonard. But the sore quad that sidelined the MVP candidate for that one sure didn't seem serious when he hung 32 points on the Sixers two nights later.

    In fact, it kind of says everything about the reliable, distraction-free excellence of this San Antonio team when David Lee's missing pants became the most intriguing story of the week.

    After the Memphis loss, Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express News tweeted: "One of the locker room attendants mistakenly took David Lee's pants. He threatened to walk to the bus in his boxers."

    Gasp!

    McDonald followed up moments later: "Lee's pants were later retrieved."

    Meanwhile, San Antonio's bench net rating leads the league by a comfortable margin, and don't look now, but the Spurs have moved into a tie for the top position in defensive rating.

    We're going to need more pants stories to preserve any drama with this group. The Spurs are locked in at No. 2 and don't seem interested in going anywhere.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    ←→ No Movement

    The Warriors had a little hiccup, losing in overtime to the Kings on Saturday.

    But if Stephen Curry makes an open layup at the end of regulation or Kevin Durant has something other than his worst game in years, we're talking about a Dubs team on a seven-game, blowout-laden winning streak.

    KD was lethargic and unwilling to attack mismatches against Sacramento, and Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News relayed the fact that it was just the second time Durant had scored 10 points or fewer since 2009.

    As he's wont to do, Draymond Green laid into KD during the game. According to Chris B. Haynes of ESPN.com, it was all part of a plan: "Sources told ESPN that Green, trying to use reverse psychology, intentionally and aggressively approached Durant with a bevy of choice words during a break in Saturday's loss to the Sacramento Kings."

    The ploy wasn't enough to snap KD out of his funk against the Kings, but his 22 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and three steals in a 123-92 drubbing of the Bulls on Wednesday suggested there were no lingering effects.

    So while I'm not saying Green's willingness to strategically cuss out MVPs is the reason Golden State resides atop the league with a 44-8 record and plus-12.7 net rating...you know, maybe it helps.

    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 Thursday, Feb. 9.

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