NBA Power Rankings: Warriors Remain Team to Beat with Steph Curry Back in Action

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2018

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors Remain Team to Beat with Steph Curry Back in Action

0 of 30

    LM Otero/Associated Press

    The Eastern Conference had itself a nice little week, enjoying a power-rankings shuffle that resulted in three of its teams cracking this edition's top four.

    That could go a long way toward reversing the little-brother conference's years-old inferiority complex. Or, at least it would if our incumbent No. 1 (spoiler: it resides in the West) hadn't gotten back a certain two-time MVP and immediately started scoring at net-shredding rates.

    Elsewhere, we've got a new (but familiar) cellar-dweller, a San Antonio Spurs team that remains inscrutable and the continuing tumble of everyone's early-season darling, the Indiana Pacers.

    As always, we're organizing all 30 teams into an order that best reflects the current league hierarchy. Full-season stats matter more as our sample gets larger, with recent play and head-to-head meetings contributing to the calculations. When in doubt, gut feeling gets a say.

    Good job, good effort, East. Just know you've got a long way to go before you scare the West's reigning rankings champ. 

30. Sacramento Kings

1 of 30

    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    ↓ 5 Spots

    The Sacramento Kings lost all three games this week.

    By double digits.

    Against teams with losing records.

    At home.

    And somehow, it was even worse than all that.

    They trailed the woeful Memphis Grizzlies by as much as 33 points, and Memphis was coming off a blowout loss played at breakneck speed against the Golden State Warriors the night before. In Tuesday's 131-111 loss to the Hornets, Sacramento allowed one of the league's worst offenses to post season highs in points and field-goal percentage (.573).

    When the apex of your week was a 10-point loss to the Suns, you know things have been rough.

    "It feels terrible," veteran Garrett Temple told reporters after the Charlotte debacle. "It has me speechless; there's nothing to say. We have to guard. We have to man up and play defense, defend guys. ... I don't care how young we are, we have to defend."

    It should come as no surprise that, yet again, the Kings remain last in offensive and defensive efficiency. They've actually been lucky to win a dozen games, as their league-worst point differential suggests their victory total ought to be closer to eight.     

29. Los Angeles Lakers

2 of 30

    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    ↓ 1 Spot

    We've all done the faux hand wipe after an air ball, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had a lot of gall to do it in the wake of a botched off-the-backboard pass to himself against the Clippers last Friday. The Los Angeles Lakers lost that game, and they deserved to after an acting job like that.

    In contrast to that lowlight, we have Alex Caruso's posterization of PJ Tucker in L.A.'s 148-142 double-overtime loss on New Year's Eve.

    We can only mess around with video clips for so long before facing the ugly truth about the Lakers' season: This team is not better than it was a year ago at this time.

    On Jan. 4, 2017, L.A. was 13-25, stumbling through a sad-sack season in hopes of landing big-name free agents in July. One year later, the Lakers are 11-26, with exactly the same (possibly delusional) hopes. The only difference is they don't have control over their first-round pick in the upcoming draft—which puts even more of an emphasis on a free-agent gambit that hasn't worked out in the past.

    The Lakers have lost eight straight, with the latest failure a disheartening 37-point mauling at home against the Thunder on Wednesday.

28. Orlando Magic

3 of 30

    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    ↑ 2 Spots

    Excise a 6-2 start during which the Orlando Magic shot 44.2 percent from three (and their opponents made just 28.6 percent of their treys), and do you know what you get?

    A 6-25 record and a clinically diagnosable case of severe basketball sadness.

    Incidentally, you also get a two-spot jump because two teams have been even more bummer-inducing of late.     

27. Atlanta Hawks

4 of 30

    Michael Gonzales/Getty Images

    ↓ 1 Spot

    Oh.

    Oh, no.

    OH NO, DENNIS SCHRODER, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!

    Perhaps sensing his tanking rebuilding team was in danger of winning its fourth game in five tries (or, more likely, suffering from a Grade A brain fart), Schroder drove the lane and finished a right-handed layup with about a second remaining against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.

    It was a fine play, except for the fact the Atlanta Hawks were down by three, rendering the two-pointer meaningless. The Hawks didn't even bother fouling to get another possession after Schroder's inexplicable decision.

    Not the best showing from Atlanta's point guard, to say the least.

    And since we're piling on, nobody has had his shot blocked more times this year than Schroder.

    Atlanta was 1-2 this week. As long as Schroder's making late-game decisions, the "rebuild" will continue apace.   

26. Brooklyn Nets

5 of 30

    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    ↑ 3 Spots

    Caris LeVert tallied 11 assists when the Brooklyn Nets smoked the Miami Heat on Dec. 29 and eight more in a win over the Magic on Monday. LeVert also put in the go-ahead bucket with just over a minute left in that one.

    With D'Angelo Russell and Jeremy Lin sidelined with knee injuries, Spencer Dinwiddie has ably handled starting duties. He hit the go-ahead bucket with 10 seconds left Wednesday against the Timberwolves. But LeVert has quietly taken over just as critical a role as a reserve playmaker and steadying presence.

    "I feel like a [leader] is somebody that others can look to and not necessarily have all the right answers, but try to do things the right way," he told Anthony Puccio of NetsDaily. "They don't have to necessarily be vocal or demonstrative, but just somebody who exemplifies good behavior and somebody who does things that you want to do."

    That's the kind of comment you'd expect from a guy who's been exceptionally productive but somehow unperturbed by starting just twice in the last two months.

    Brooklyn rose on the strength of its first multi-win rankings session since December's opening week. The Nets have won three out of four.

25. Memphis Grizzlies

6 of 30

    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    ↑ 2 Spots

    You can attach a pair of the usual caveats to Tyreke Evans' resurgent season if you want, citing the fact he's merely continuing his "good stats, bad team" reputation and noting cynically that he's balling out in a contract year.

    But those aren't fair.

    Evans is scoring efficiently, hitting a career-best 42.2 percent from long range on more attempts per game (5.2) than he's ever taken. Asked to shoulder serious responsibilities for the scoring-starved Memphis Grizzlies, he's posting career highs in usage rate, true shooting percentage and player efficiency rating while registering a career-low 10.2 percent turnover rate.

    He's not pumping in empty points during garbage time for a team that's given up. He's posting borderline All-Star numbers at high efficiency: 19.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists with a 54.6 effective field-goal percentage.

    And as for the contract thing, Evans was playing for a new deal last year, and he wasn't nearly this good.

    Turns out there's a simpler explanation: "I'm playing the best basketball I'm capable of playing," Evans told Ronald Tillery of the Commercial Appeal. "My knees aren't swelling up, so I can move how I want and I'm just playing the game I know how to play before I got hurt."

    The Grizz have beaten two teams with winning records since Nov. 1, and both were close: a one-point squeaker against the Blazers on Nov. 7 and a three-point escape from the Timberwolves on Dec. 4. Memphis has been marginally better over the last couple of weeks, winning three of its six most recent games.

24. Phoenix Suns

7 of 30

    Michael Gonzales/Getty Images

    ↔ No Movement

    The Phoenix Suns know how to do things dramatically.

    Last week, Tyson Chandler finished a last-second alley-oop to steal a win over the Grizzlies. This week, Marquese Chriss showed obscene recovery speed, darting from the top of the circle to the rim and spanking what would have been Taurean Prince's game-tying dunk off the glass.

    It wouldn't be a Chriss highlight if it didn't contain a hint of a gaffe, though. It's impossible to be certain because we don't know what the Suns' pre-play instructions were, but it sure looked like Chriss only had to make that lightning-quick scramble because he botched coverage of an initial high screen earlier in the sequence.

    Olympian athleticism makes up for a lot.

    Chriss had 17 points and 11 boards in that win over the Hawks on Tuesday, and he nudged his scoring and efficiency numbers up in December.

    Devin Booker's first full week back from a groin injury went well, too. He hung 32 points on the Sixers Sunday then added 34 more against Atlanta.

    Phoenix broke even at 2-2 this week but is a respectable 7-10 since Dec. 1.

23. New York Knicks

8 of 30

    ↓ 3 Spots

    OK, it's here: the moment (the month, actually) that will determine what the New York Knicks are made of.

    Those first 10 weeks of the season, in which the Knicks used a home-heavy schedule to stay above .500 and stick within striking distance of a playoff berth? Done. According to Positive Residual, January is going to be rougher on New York than anyone.

    Viewed metaphorically, January is Anthony Davis, and the Knicks are Ron Baker in the clip above.

    To increase its chances of survival, New York had better embrace the concept of the corner three. On the year, the Knicks are third-to-last in frequency of corner threes attempted. Compounding the issue: They permit opponents the second-highest corner-three-attempt frequency in the league.

    Winning consistently against decent competition with a disparity like that seems impossible. Similarly impossible-seeming: the number of times Michael Beasley's jumper circumnavigated the rim Tuesday.

    New York went 1-2 this week.

22. Dallas Mavericks

9 of 30

    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    ↑ 1 Spot

    Dennis Smith Jr. followed a triple-double in a road win over the New Orleans Pelicans by scoring 11 points in the final 1:39 against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 31, leading the Dallas Mavericks to a 116-113 win. Highlights in that latter victory included a critical contested layup (made easier by Smith's gravity-defying bounce), which put the Mavs up by three with 30.4 seconds left. Before that, he banked in a three to break a 108-108 tie with 1:18 remaining.

    All this raises an interesting question: Is Smith already Dallas' best player?

    Harrison Barnes was also terrific against OKC, scoring 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting. And if we get to count Dirk Nowitzki and J.J. Barea as one human (which feels reasonable in light of their telepathic pick-and-pop connection), they're another good candidate. Still, it's at least worth discussing—which is remarkable considering Smith's rookie status.

    For what it's worth, Smith is easily the most entertaining Mav—whether soaring through the lane or simply talking.

    "I didn't call glass," Smith told reporters after banking in that three against the Thunder. "I called game."

    Nice.

    The Mavs fell to the Dubs on Wednesday as Stephen Curry buried a game-winner with three seconds left, but they used a 10-0 run to tie the contest with 39.7 seconds remaining, and they've won four of their last five.   

21. Charlotte Hornets

10 of 30

    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    ↑ 1 Spot

    The Charlotte Hornets took two out of three from their California foes this week, meaning the worst they can do on their four-game trip out West is break even. If they beat the Lakers on Friday, it'll be a 3-1 mark, which, all things considered, might count as the most impressive achievement in their season.

    Dwight Howard killed the Golden State Warriors last Friday, piling up a season-best 29 points to go with 13 rebounds and seven assists in Charlotte's 111-100 win over the defending champs. He even hit nine of his 12 foul shots, falling one short of tying his season high for makes from the stripe.

    The Hornets' overall numbers for the week, which include a 113.2 offensive rating (worlds better than their full-season figure of 103.8) are a bit skewed because of the rollover job the Kings performed on Tuesday. You could have found some G League teams capable of scoring 120 points against the version of Sacramento that showed up for that one.

    Still, Charlotte gets credit for venturing out to California for a week and returning with limbs and (admittedly modest) confidence intact.    

20. Chicago Bulls

11 of 30

    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    ↓ 2 Spots

    The Chicago Bulls have slipped a bit after playing some of the best ball in the league over December's final three weeks. From the time Nikola Mirotic returned Dec. 8 to the end of the month, Chicago had a league-high 10 wins and posted the second-highest net rating in the Eastern Conference.

    Losses to the Wizards, Blazers and Raptors this week should dampen spirits a bit. But not entirely.

    Kris Dunn is one of a few players on the roster who projects as a meaningful piece, and he's been consistently effective. He ranks sixth in the league in drives per game since Dec. 8 and has done enough to rekindle hope he'll develop into a quality starting point guard.

    More than that, rookie Lauri Markkanen remains an enticing prospect. The versatility in his jumper, the fluidity of his handle and the inherent advantage of his 7'0" stature make it difficult to peg his ceiling. There just aren't many players with his combination of physical skills, rendering comparisons tricky.

    An oversized Stephen Curry is a fun (if mostly ridiculous) one.

    Markkanen took the Pacers apart with 32 points on just 17 shots during a Dec. 29 win, giving the Bulls their only victory of the week and, more importantly, another reason to be optimistic about the organization's future.        

19. Philadelphia 76ers

12 of 30

    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    ↓ 2 Spots

    The Philadelphia 76ers logged solid road wins against Denver and Phoenix before topping San Antonio on Wednesday for an undefeated week. Joel Embiid played against the Spurs despite a sprained right hand that kept him out of action against the Nuggets, which counts as a major relief for a Sixers team that essentially can't compete without its big man.

    Still, they've dropped 10 of their last 15 games.

    Markelle Fultz's return can't come soon enough, as the Sixers' playmakers (chiefly Ben Simmons and T.J. McConnell) can't shoot. And their shooters aren't great playmakers.

    You can see the gap Fultz could fill with his dual-threat game. So can head coach Brett Brown.

    "His skill set ties a lot of things together," Brown told Rich Hoffman of The Athletic. "The design of our team was mindful of what he brought to the table. And also, absorbing the minutes in the role that he would play. And so you would anticipate that he's going to play X amount of time and this is his skill set, that can connect the dots."

    Fultz has returned to practice, hasn't had shoulder pain since early December and is getting in work in four-on-four and one-on-one situations. There's no firm date on his comeback, but a Sixers release stated he's in the "final stage of his return-to-play program."

    The sooner the better. Philadelphia can still make the playoffs, but it needs a healthy Embiid and the version of Fultz who was worthy of the top overall pick.

18. Los Angeles Clippers

13 of 30

    Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

    ↑ 3 Spots

    The Los Angeles Clippers, once presumed dead following a rash of injuries to Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic, are suddenly very much alive.

    Let's not overstate this modest reanimation; Beverley is still done for the year thanks to knee surgery, and Gallo's torn glute will take until at least a month to heal, meaning L.A. still has depth problems.

    But with Lou Williams, your reigning Player of the Week in the Western Conference, tossing up 30-point games off the bench at a historic rate, and Griffin, more ground-bound than ever, still finding ways to produce across the board, the Clips are right back in the playoff hunt.

    Teodosic, too, has returned. And with him has come a significant stabilization of the Clippers' point guard situation.

    "I don't know if you ever turn the corner," head coach Doc Rivers told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times after the Clips downed the Hornets on Sunday. "I think as a coach you're thinking you're always turning the corner, but you don't ever think that you turned it. What I do say is this group is fearless."

    The Clippers won five of their final six December games and kicked off the new year with a victory against the Grizzlies. If the Pelicans, Blazers or Nuggets slip, Los Angeles will be in prime position to butt into the West's top eight.

17. Utah Jazz

14 of 30

    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    ↑ 2 Spots

    If the vote were held Friday, Donovan Mitchell probably wouldn't be Rookie of the Year. But the fact the qualifier has shifted from "definitely" to "probably" says a lot about what he's done for a Utah Jazz team still fighting despite Rudy Gobert's absence with a knee injury.

    Mitchell averaged 23.1 points per game in December while shooting 50.7 percent from the field. Seven other players matched that feat: Stephen Curry, Victor Oladipo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler and Anthony Davis. Several of those guys will get MVP consideration. All of them will be All-Stars.

    And none are rookies.

    Ben Simmons' start was spectacular, and he's shouldering a heavy load as the Sixers' primary facilitator. He's still the front-runner for first-year hardware. But Mitchell has been electric, carrying the Jazz down the stretch in a 104-101 win against Cleveland on Saturday and turning in at least one Dunk of the Year entry per week. He had two against the Cavs.

    The Jazz went 1-1 this week and have a mercifully soft schedule ahead. They're better than their record and will soon get a chance to show it

16. Indiana Pacers

15 of 30

    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    ↓ 6 Spots

    So, do we give Victor Oladipo his MVP award now, or should we wait until the customary June ceremony?

    You have to admit, the Indiana Pacers' recent implosion has, in a brutal sense, proved his value.

    They've lost five straight, and the last four have come with Oladipo sidelined with a sore right knee. And these haven't just been losses; they've been losses. Opponents are waxing the Pacers by 18.1 points per 100 possessions, the heftiest negative margin in the league over the last five games.

    "We definitely lost a step in transition and a little bit of our spirit's down," Myles Turner told Jim Ayello of the Indianapolis Star. "I think those are things Vic brings, and we miss him there. But we still have to be able to step up and play well in his absence."

    Realistically, some of this was coming regardless of Oladipo's health. Indiana had been performing over its head offensively, shooting the lights out from deep at rates that were unsustainable. Through their last win Dec. 23, they shot a league-best 38.9 percent from distance.

    During this five-game slide: 33.3 percent, a bottom-six conversion rate.

    Regression can be cruel that way.

15. New Orleans Pelicans

16 of 30

    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    ↓ 1 Spot

    The New Orleans Pelicans let one get away at home against the Knicks on Saturday, which is understating the degree of late-game gaggery involved.

    Per Kurt Helin of Pro Basketball Talk: "Pelicans had a win probability of 98.7 percent up eight with 2:57 to go. That's a tough loss for them."

    They'd fallen to the Mavs the night before and would go on to avoid a winless week by beating a beleaguered Jazz team Wednesday. As has so often been the case this season, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins produced big numbers and got little help.

    It's hard to go just 1-2 when AD averages 31.0 points and 9.7 rebounds and Cousins tosses up 26.7 points and 16.7 boards. But a thin bench means those two have to pile up the stats just to keep the Pels competitive. In all three games this week, New Orleans played nine bodies.

    Now nearly halfway through the season, it feels safe to label the Pelicans as mediocre. They've never been more than three games above or below .500.

14. Portland Trail Blazers

17 of 30

    Brett Davis/Associated Press

    ↑ 2 Spots

    Shabazz Napier was an admirable stand-in for Damian Lillard, averaging 18.0 points, 5.0 assists and 4.6 rebounds in the five games Lillard took to rehab a sore hamstring. He even produced one of the sweetest dimes of the Blazers' season during his stint as a starter.

    But Dame's absence clearly hurt the Blazers' attack. Portland managed just 100.7 points per 100 possessions with Lillard out—more than two points below its full-season figure.

    The scoring struggle was a good reminder that even when a bench player produces in place of a star, it doesn't mean team success is a given. There's still a trickle-down effect with the rest of the rotation, and third-stringers often aren't up to the challenge of moving into bigger roles.

    Portland went 1-2 this week, capped by a blowout loss on the road to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday, a result that spoiled Lillard's return. The Blazers were 3-2 without Lillard and sit at 19-18 overall.

    Portland has been .500 or better all season (peaking at 13-8 but never falling below the break-even mark). Five of its next six opponents have winning records, so that could change.

13. Miami Heat

18 of 30

    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    ↑ 2 Spots

    The Miami Heat have won three of their last four games, with the most impressive result being Wednesday's Kelly Olynyk-led 111-104 win against the Detroit Pistons. Olynyk provided a team-high 25 points and 13 boards and continues to make it clear he's best utilized in the starting lineup—even if his individual numbers have been worse in the first unit.

    Miami is 9-5 since Olynyk became a full-time starter Dec. 6, but he shot better as a backup and produced a positive plus-minus figure in that role.

    Maybe it's only a coincidence the Heat are improved with Olynyk as a starter. Maybe they're excelling despite his presence.

    Or maybe this is a good example of how rotations are complicated and how sometimes sliding a player into a role here is really about getting someone else optimal time there. James Johnson, for example, has been markedly better as a reserve, where he can run second units from the forward spot in ways Olynyk can't.

    Lineup construction is delicate work.

    Finally, a shout out to Goran Dragic, who's suffering from a sore elbow but produced 49 points combined against Orlando and Detroit this week—his highest back-to-back total of the season.

12. Milwaukee Bucks

19 of 30

    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    ↑ 1 Spot

    What do you do with a Milwaukee Bucks team that:

    • Should have lost a contest it won when Giannis Antetokounmpo's step out of bounds (and apparent travel) before a game-winning dunk against the Thunder went uncalled?
    • Probably would have won a hard-fought overtime game against the Toronto Raptors if DeMar DeRozan had scored, say 47 points in stead of a career-high 52?
    • Beat the rapidly imploding shell of the Pacers?

    The answer is: You move them up one spot and hope next week brings clearer indicators of their quality.

    In the interest of conveying actual information, it's worth noting Matthew Dellavedova's three-game stretch of strong decision-making. He handed out 28 assists while turning the ball over just two times in Milwaukee's trio of games. And intriguingly, the Bucks spent a few minutes against Indiana with three point guards—Dellavedova, Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon—on the floor together.

    That's a matchup-specific move, but anything that puts more playmakers out there is a good thing for a Bucks offense that tends to stagnate.    

11. Detroit Pistons

20 of 30

    Chris Schwegler/Getty Images

    ↔ No Movement

    I predict the Detroit Pistons will be the only team this year to end one rankings session with a loss to the Magic and begin another with a win over the Spurs. And yes, it's scary out here on this limb. Thanks for asking.

    Despite Reggie Jackson and Avery Bradley's absences due to ankle and groin injuries, respectively, Detroit never trailed San Antonio in a defensively dominant 93-79 win Saturday. Reggie Bullock and Luke Kennard combined for 42 points on 8-of-12 shooting from deep, and Andre Drummond got up to his usual stat-stuffing ways with 14 points, 21 boards and six assists.

    His development into a capable elbow facilitator remains at least as surprising as his respectable free-throw shooting.

    Bradley returned Wednesday, but Drummond joined Jackson on the sidelines with a rib injury. The ensuing loss to the Heat resulted in a 1-1 week for Detroit.

    Going forward, if the Pistons continue to lean on defense and develop their backups with key starters hurt, it'll serve them well. Bullock is a clear rotation player already, and Kennard continues to tantalize with flashes of poise and shot-making that bely his rookie status.    

10. Denver Nuggets

21 of 30

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    ↓ 1 Spot

    It's a weird time to mention Gary Harris' growth as a playmaker just after he scored a career-high 36 points against the Suns in his most recent game, but as the old saying goes: "You can never say too many nice things about Gary Harris."

    It's an oddly specific adage, if you ask me...

    Anyway, here's Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone on Harris' development, via Chris Dempsey of Nuggets.com:

    "If you look at his season numbers, his playmaking, his assist rate, Gary’s playmaking is what is helping him elevate from being a good, young two-way player to becoming a very good two-guard—young (or) old, he's a very good player. Because, his shooting, his defense, his finishing; I mean, his drives per game lately have been off the charts. And I think now he's getting to the point that when he drives he's drawing such a crowd, he's learning to make the right play."

    Harris is averaging a career-high 3.3 assists per game but has been even better lately, posting 4.4 dimes per contest in December.

    A brutal loss to the Sixers (who were playing without Joel Embiid) stung, but the Nuggets are starting to look scarier than ever. Harris' progress, Jamal Murray's scoring uptick, Nikola Jokic's excellence and Trey Lyles' emergence give them so many weapons.

    That they're in the West's No. 6 playoff spot with Paul Millsap sidelined due to left wrist surgery is impressive. Don't be surprised if this team puts on a run in January.

9. Washington Wizards

22 of 30

    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    ↑ 3 Spots

    Backup guard Tomas Satoransky had the biggest highlight, but the usual suspects fueled the Washington Wizards' three-game winning streak.

    Bradley Beal posted 39 points, nine rebounds and nine assists on the Bulls on Sunday. Seventeen of his points came during an unconscious fourth-quarter surge. He then dropped 27 points, six assists and four boards on the Knicks to close out Washington's week. Otto Porter Jr. led the way with 26 points in last Friday's win over the Rockets, and John Wall had nine assists in each of those victories over the Bulls and Knicks.

    With reliable stars like that, it's no wonder Washington's seeming habit of playing up or down to the competition stabilized.

    Per ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton:

    "Typically, fans tend to think of the better performance against good teams as the "true" ability of the team, where the bad performance against weaker opponents is a fluke. I think the truth lies somewhere in between. The Wizards are much better than their play against sub-.500 teams but not likely as good as they've looked against above-.500 teams thus far."

    In other words, we should probably expect Washington to start beating the teams it's supposed to and struggling against better competition, which would be a reversal of what's perplexingly happened for most of this season.

8. Oklahoma City Thunder

23 of 30

    Zach Beeker/Getty Images

    ↓ 2 Spots

    Great news for the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder's season!

    After the team stomped the ever-living daylights out of the Lakers in L.A. on Wednesday, 133-96, Paul George returned to OKC's locker room and did not (repeat, did not) just decide to join the Lakers right then and there.

    Admit it: You wouldn't have been surprised if he announced to the postgame media scrum, "Yeah, I'll stay here. Save some time, you know?"

    Bullet dodged.

    Meanwhile, the Thunder are coming off a rough week marred by a controversial loss to the Bucks (Giannis stepped out) and some banked-in heroics from Dallas' Dennis Smith Jr. Both games could have gone in OKC's favor rather easily. So no major demerits for either defeat.

    Bigger picture: The Thunder have to figure out the shooting guard spot. Alex Abrines saps their defensive potency, Andre Roberson gets ignored by smart postseason opponents and Terrance Ferguson has to do more than clown the Lakers with a career-high 24 points before anyone buys him as the answer.

7. Minnesota Timberwolves

24 of 30

    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    ↑ 1 Spot

    Employing an uncommon combination of offensive poise and defensive disruptiveness, Tyus Jones has quietly become one of the Minnesota Timberwolves' key players. Good timing, as Jeff Teague could be out until as late as the end of January with a sprained MCL.

    The 6'2", 184-pound Jones is an undersized third-year point guard whom The Athletic's Britt Robson fairly describes as "a savant as a floor general." Robson noted in the same profile that "only Paul George of OKC has more deflections per minute played" and "nobody has more steals per minute played."

    Not coincidentally, Jones owns the highest individual on-court net rating on Minnesota's roster. When he sits, the Wolves—2-1 this week and 11-6 since Dec. 1—get outscored on a per-possession basis. Even in a tough one-point loss to the Nets on Wednesday, Jones was a plus-nine.

    The Wolves have the league's busiest schedule in January. If head coach Tom Thibodeau's punishing playing-time standards are ever going to come to a head, don't be surprised if it happens this month.

6. Houston Rockets

25 of 30

    Chris Covatta/Getty Images

    ↓ 1 Spot

    James Harden is set to miss between two and six weeks with a Grade 2 hamstring strain suffered in his 40th minute of action against the Lakers on Sunday, and the Houston Rockets will look different without him.

    But they might not be that much worse.

    The real concern is another hit to an already depth-deficient Houston rotation, but with Chris Paul in the singular creator role he's played forever and Eric Gordon now in the first unit, it's not like the Rockets' starters will be overmatched.

    With Harden on the floor this season, Houston owns a plus-9.0 net rating, fueled by an elite 115.1 offensive rating. When he's been on the bench, the overall figure is still plus-6.9, though it's driven more by a fantastic 99.9 defensive rating.

    Harden's impact is in line with his reputation: great offense with, great defense without.

    The Rockets cannot reach their championship ceiling if Harden's hammy bothers him later in the year, so we should expect a cautious, prolonged recovery. And though we've established his temporary absence isn't fatal, we have to acknowledge that removing an MVP front-runner from a roster diminishes its quality.

    Houston stopped its five-game skid and had an otherwise acceptable performance this week (in light of Harden's injury). But the Rockets have to lose ground when they lose their best player.    

5. San Antonio Spurs

26 of 30

    Elsa/Getty Images

    ↓ 2 Spots

    Nights like Wednesday are part of why it's always so tough to rank the San Antonio Spurs.

    How do you evaluate a team that loses to the Sixers by only six points while resting what works out to be a dangerous small-ball closing lineup. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Rudy Gay all missed the game against Philadelphia.

    You can never be sure of a team's quality if that team blatantly doesn't care about winning every game it plays during the regular season.

    The best we can do is drop the Spurs after a 1-2 week and celebrate yet another Ginobili highlight—this one involving a lob pass that somehow went in from three-point range—and the ensuing hilarity of both the Knicks and the officials not realizing what had happened for several seconds.

    That's one theory anyway.

    The other is that everyone assembled initially thought, "Well, there's no way someone is skilled, crafty and handsome enough to pull off a tricky pass-shot hybrid like that. Nobody's that good."

    Know who's that good? Manu is that good. Never forget it.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

27 of 30

    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    ↓ 2 Spots

    Isaiah Thomas made it back after seven months spent rehabbing the torn labrum in his hip, debuting for Cleveland against the Blazers on Tuesday with a stellar 17 points in 19 minutes. The two-time All-Star looked good, if not quite up to last year's elite standards.

    Unfortunately for the Cavs, we have to weigh Thomas' encouraging return against a broader, more unsettling trend. Cleveland has lost four of its last five games in unusual fashion.

    Typically, when the Cavaliers hit the skids, it's because they quit playing defense. And while they rank 28th on that end of the floor, a failure to score has caused Cleveland's recent struggles.

    The Cavs have averaged only 103.4 points per 100 possessions since Christmas, good for 24th in the league in that span. A lack of interior scoring is partly to blame; Cleveland ranks last in the league in percentage of points scored in the paint over its last five games. Before this swoon, the Cavs weren't wildly prolific inside, but they still got 39 percent of their points in the lane prior to Christmas.

    Mostly, though, it's the same malaise manifesting in a different way. Instead of the Cavs' loafing leading to big opponent scoring totals, this time it's showing up in their half-hearted execution and lack of offensive verve.

    As usual, no cause for panic. This is what the Cavs do during the regular season. But that doesn't save Cleveland from a rankings hit.

3. Toronto Raptors

28 of 30

    Jeff Haynes/Getty Images

    ↑ 1 Spot

    DeMar DeRozan is now the player everyone thought he was last year: a surefire, qualifier-free star at shooting guard.

    And as much as the improved ball movement, depth and contributions from young rotation pieces (Hi there, Delon Wright and those 25 points and 13 boards against the Bulls on Wednesday!) help, DeRozan's development into a multi-level scoring threat with solid efficiency makes the Toronto Raptors more dangerous than they've ever been.

    DeRozan pumped in a career-best 52 points to beat the Bucks in OT on Monday, hitting five threes in the process. This week, he shot 12-of-21 from deep and is at a career-best 36.8 percent from long range on 3.2 attempts per game.

    To put those dozen made treys in context, before this season, DeRozan had just two other months in his entire career in which he made more than 12 triples. Framed another way, DeRozan has 25 made threes since Dec. 20. He hit 33 in all of 2016-17—when he was an All-Star with a 27.3 points-per-game scoring average.

    And instead of settling for long twos, he's kicking the ball out as part of Toronto's zippier scheme. This year, DeRozan is taking a career-low 18.5 percent of his shots from 16-23 feet while posting a career-best assist rate of 24 percent.

    He's never been anywhere close to this good before. On a related note, neither have the Raptors.

2. Boston Celtics

29 of 30

    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    ↑ 5 Spots

    This is a big jump, but the Celtics are on a four-game winning streak with a plus-8.9 net rating in that span and two impressive wins over other top-10 occupants: Cleveland and Houston.

    With the Cavs, Spurs and Rockets all dropping at least two games in that same four-game stretch, the only other candidate for No. 2 was the Raptors. Their schedule hasn't been quite as tough (or jam-packed of late), so the nod goes to Boston.

    Terry Rozier has been key in this recent run. He's averaging 15.5 points in just 22.4 minutes over his last four games, hitting 59.2 percent of his shots and jolting the Celtics' second unit with explosive energy.

    "He plays so hard and he plays with a chip on his shoulder," Kyrie Irving told Brian Robb of Boston Sports Journal after Rozier scored 20 points in 20 minutes during the Celts' 102-88 win against the Cavs on Wednesday. "We need that from him."

    And while stats like this don't always mean much, they're still interesting. Per Elias: "Each of the last three times that the Celtics were the outright first team to win 30 games, they reached the Finals: 1983–84 (won NBA finals), 1984–85 (lost Finals), 2007–08 (won Finals)."

    Boston became this season's first 30-game winner when it beat the Nets on Dec. 31.

1. Golden State Warriors

30 of 30

    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    ↔ No Movement

    The league's best defense kept the Warriors cruising with Curry out, but scoring was an issue throughout the two-time MVP's 11-game absence. During that span, Golden State ranked 17th in offensive rating and 27th in three-point percentage. This is a team that still had Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson during that time.

    Despite that stretch, the Warriors are still on pace to break the single-season record for effective field-goal percentage. Which they did last year. And the year before.

    I'm not sure there's a better illustration of Curry's offensive impact than that.

    Oh, wait, yes there is: He scored 38 points in 26 minutes in his first game back, becoming the only Warriors player in the shot clock era to do that, per Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle.

    The Warriors scored 141 points in Curry's return against Memphis, producing their best single-game offensive rating of the year as cutting lanes reopened and every defender's attention shifted, invariably, to Curry. It's legitimately a two-step process for Golden State: Put Curry on the floor, and the offense is instantly better than any that has ever existed.

    Oh, and then he hit the game-winning triple with three ticks left against Dallas on Wednesday. He only had 32 points in that one. Must have been tired or something.

    The Warriors were very good without Curry. They're transcendent with him.

                    

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Thursday, Jan. 4.

    Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.