NBA Power Rankings: Joel Embiid Has Philadelphia 76ers Rising

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2018

NBA Power Rankings: Joel Embiid Has Philadelphia 76ers Rising

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    If the past week is any guide, the teams not scheduling clear-the-air meetings are the ones with the best shot to climb a few spots in the latest edition of NBA power rankings.

    If, on the other hand, a squad is airing grievances, leaking the contents or results of meetings or generally acting with some level of desperation, you know there's a problem...and a corresponding dip in ranking position.

    Try to guess how things went for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards, who had it out behind closed doors. Then compare that to the Philadelphia 76ers, who've shut up (to the extent that's possible for a chatty Joel Embiid) and played.

    As always, these rankings are designed to reflect the league's current hierarchy. Recent play matters a bit more than overall numbers, but we won't get carried away with a hot or cold streak if it looks suspicious when measured against a club's overall performance on the year. Injuries, numbers and gut feeling are all factors in the analysis.

30-26

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    30. Phoenix Suns (27)

    The Suns were gassed during the final contest of a four-city road trip, falling behind by as many as 38 points in Wednesday's 116-101 loss to the Indiana Pacers. Prior to that, Devin Booker endured one of the roughest shooting nights of his career, making just two of his 14 attempts in a four-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.

    Booker continues to develop as a playmaker, though, and it's getting easier to see him as a No. 1 option on a competitive team down the line—provided he someday commits to playing on both ends of the floor.

    Phoenix has lost five of its last six.

                       

    29. Orlando Magic (29)

    Watch out now! Sunday's win over the Boston Celtics gave the Magic a quality victory in two consecutive weeks. (They got Minnesota on Jan. 16.) Perhaps leery of this unfamiliar success, Orlando subsequently fell to the last-place Kings on Tuesday, thereby putting the basketball universe back in balance.

    We now have enough evidence to say Nikola Vucevic wasn't the reason for Orlando's shoddy defense. The Magic ranked 26th in the league on D before Vooch broke his hand and are only 25th since.

                

    28. Atlanta Hawks (28)

    Rookie John Collins hung 13 points, 16 boards and four blocks on the Toronto Raptors, but Wednesday's loss still resulted in a 1-2 week for the Hawks. Stretch the timeline a little longer, though, and Atlanta is 4-3 in its last seven games.

    One possible reason for that moderate success: The Hawks have shored up their greatest weakness. Though they still allow the NBA's highest opponent offensive rebound rate, they rank a respectable 14th in that stat over their last seven games.

             

    27. Sacramento Kings (30)

    The Kings ended an eight-game losing streak with a road win over the Orlando Magic, thanks largely to Garrett Temple's career-high 34 points. And then De'Aaron Fox threw down a game-winning tip dunk with three seconds left against the Heat to create a winning streak! The two victories ended the Kings' road trip on a high note, but they remain on pace to set the record for the largest negative per-game point differential in franchise history. For an organization with as many wasted seasons as this one, that's a real achievement.

                              

    26. New York Knicks (23)

    Tim Hardaway Jr.'s 31 points marked his highest scoring total in two months, and the Knicks needed every one of them to sneak past the Utah Jazz in last Friday's two-point victory. New York closed out the week with three consecutive losses.

    Mercifully, the Knicks' season-long seven-game road trip ends Friday in Phoenix.

25-21

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    25. Dallas Mavericks (22)

    Dallas has lost four of its last five but took advantage of an unraveling Washington Wizards club on Monday, holding them to 75 points on just 30.2 percent shooting from the field. Plus, J.J. Barea got in a killer zing against John Wall, who made some dismissive comments about the veteran Mavs guard.

    "He was trying to be a tough guy, but he's not," Barea told Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News. "He wasn't like that before, a couple years ago. He probably changed. So now I have somebody in the NBA that I don't like. It's my first. I don't like him at all now. But I don't think his teammates like him, either. So it's nothing new for him."

    One million points to Barea. Flawless victory.

                

    24. Brooklyn Nets (24)

    D'Angelo Russell eased his way back into action this week, averaging just over 14 minutes in his first three games since undergoing knee surgery in mid-November. Spencer Dinwiddie, the guy who stepped into Russell's position, stabilized the Nets and solidified an NBA career for himself. He also remains Brooklyn's key player.

    He hit a tough game-winner over Andre Drummond to beat the Detroit Pistons on Sunday, giving the Nets a 2-1 mark this week.

    Nobody has more game-tying or go-ahead buckets in the final minute than Dinwiddie this season, but the one against Detroit was sweetest for the former Piston.

    "Let's just be real here," Dinwidde rhetorically quipped to reporters. "I start my career off here, for lack of a better word I was essentially cut. So how would y'all feel?"

                         

    23. Memphis Grizzlies (25)

    Interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff likes the grit in second-round rookie Dillon Brooks' game. The Oregon product scored 22 points in last Friday's win over the Kings, and his emergence counts as one of few bright spots in this Grizzlies season.

    "Even in the preseason, whenever there was a matchup to be had, Dillon would find his way to that matchup," Bickerstaff told Lang Whitaker of Grizzlies.com. "He's competitive, he's dogged in his defensive ways, and he's just not going to back down. So everything you get against him, you're just going to have to earn it."

    Not a bad metaphor for Memphis' play of late. The Grizzlies are 4-2 in their last six games and may be peeling off the pushover label they earned earlier this season.

                     

    22. Los Angeles Lakers (26)

    Winners in seven of their last nine games, the Lakers posted a net rating of plus-12.1 during a 3-0 ranking session capped by a 108-107 win over the skidding Boston Celtics on Tuesday. Kyle Kuzma took it to fellow rookie Jayson Tatum in that one, pumping in 28 points, grabbing four rebounds and dishing three assists on 10-of-16 shooting.

    Better still for the cap-space-craving Lakers, Julius Randle averaged 18.3 points and 10.0 rebounds in three starts this week, while Jordan Clarkson posted his two highest-scoring efforts of the season: 33 points against the Indiana Pacers last Friday, followed by 29 more against the Knicks on Sunday.

    Pump up that trade value, fellas!

                                    

    21. Detroit Pistons (18)

    The lower half of the East playoff picture isn't exactly a Murderers' Row, which means the Pistons can recover from their recent six-game slide. But sitting two full games out of the eighth spot is nonetheless jarring for a club that was fourth in the East at 19-14 when Reggie Jackson went down with an ankle injury Dec. 26.

    In conclusion: Reggie Jackson for MVP?    

20-16

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    20. Chicago Bulls (20)

    The Bulls, 1-2 this week, blew a humongous late lead against the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday before falling in double overtime and are generally short on talent (especially with Kris Dunn concussed). But man, Lauri Markkanen makes you forget about all that.

    He competed like he belonged against Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins in that double-OT loss, trying to dunk anything he touched near the basket and firing away from deep with quick-release confidence. For the record, he's besting Kristaps Porzingis' rookie-year effective field-goal percentage and scoring average while, notably, playing well in months other than November.

                          

    19. Utah Jazz (21)

    With trade rumors swirling and reports of locker room unrest, Joe Ingles is keeping the Jazz loose and carrying them to wins. Ingles' game-tying layup forced overtime against Detroit on Wednesday, where he hit a pair of triples to seal the deal.

    Utah was 2-2 this week, but losses to the Knicks and Hawks aren't a good look. The moderate rankings ascent has more to do with Chicago and Detroit's slipping than anything else.

                    

    18. Charlotte Hornets (19)

    Kelly Olynyk put the Hornets in the hard-luck history books when he hit two free throws to beat them 106-105 on Saturday. According to Elias: "The Hornets suffered their 14th consecutive loss in games decided by one, two or three points, matching the longest such streak in the NBA's 72-year history." 

    Dwight Howard has secured at least 15 boards in five straight games, which can only help as the Hornets look to trade everything that isn't bolted to the floor.

                         

    17. Los Angeles Clippers (15)

    Losers of three straight by an average of over 10 points per game, the Clippers predictably came back to earth after a delirious stretch of inspired bench play and Lou Williams' shot-making. Williams snatched a Clipper-record 10 steals against the Jazz on Saturday and was unabashedly ticked about not making the All-Star team...but come on, man.

    Nobody's taking Damian Lillard off the roster (or slotting Williams ahead of Paul George, who also didn't make the cut).

                       

    16. Milwaukee Bucks (17)

    Jason Kidd's overdue ouster deserves more attention than Milwaukee's 1-1 mark this past week, though we must be careful not to expect an immediate turnaround for this underachieving team.

    Ideally, the Bucks will take advantage of a soft upcoming schedule (five of their next seven opponents are under .500) to scale back their overly aggressive defensive preferences and get the ball moving on offense. They won't be able to wash off the schematic stench of Kidd's coaching tenure overnight, though.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo didn't play Saturday or Monday because of a sore right knee, and Kidd's departure should mean less demanding minute totals for the 23-year-old superstar. Also, with Kidd gone, it seems less likely the Bucks will intentionally miss free throws for fear of surrendering four-point plays...

15-11

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    15. Denver Nuggets (16)

    We're still seeing way too much of the Mason Plumlee-Nikola Jokic combo, but Jamal Murray's ascent has made it hard to focus on anything else. He scored a career-high 38 points to lead the way in a hard-fought win over the Blazers on Monday and is averaging 16.2 points per game, second only to Joel Embiid (23.7) among *sophomores.

                               

    14. Cleveland Cavaliers (12)

    Maybe they should still be the pick to come out of the East until someone proves otherwise, but the Cavs have never forced us to question that possibility so strongly.

    Cleveland surrendered 148 points in a blowout loss to the Thunder on Saturday, tying for the highest opponent total in franchise history for a regulation game. Isaiah Thomas is running in the mud since returning from hip rehab Jan. 2. He also called out Kevin Love in a heated team meeting that accomplished nothing.

    The Cavs are 3-10 in their last 13 games, and two of those wins came by single digits against the Magic. They are fractions of a point away from owning the league's worst defensive rating overall but have secure claim to the worst net rating and the No. 23 effective field-goal percentage in January. Which...seems like a bad combination.

    This is not just defensive malaise. This is not something fixable with a switch flip. This is a teamwide, top-to-bottom malignancy. It. Is. Time. To. Panic.     

                   

    13. Portland Trail Blazers (14)

    Damian Lillard, Western Conference All-Star, is on fire.

    Over the Blazers' last five games (four of which they won), he averaged 28.8 points and 7.6 assists while shooting 53.3 percent from the field, 52.3 percent from deep and 96.2 percent from the line. Though Portland has been up and down this season, Lillard is right in line with the career-best scoring efficiency he posted last year.

                 

    12. Washington Wizards (10)

    In addition to ineffectual team meetings, 75-point outputs against Dallas and more standing around on offense from John Wall than any rotation player in the league, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe, we must now add another point of concern: Head coach Scott Brooks is having a hard time coaxing effort out of his team.

    "I never had to worry about that, and this year it's definitely cropped up too many times," Brooks told reporters of the Wizards' intensity. Things in Washington feel like they're headed in the wrong direction.

              

    11. Indiana Pacers (9)

    One good way to offset predictable offensive regression: Crank up the defensive intensity.

    With its scoring on the downswing, due in part to Victor Oladipo's 31.5 percent shooting from deep in his last 10 games, Indiana has been elite on D in January, holding opponents to 102 points per 100 possessions, good enough for fourth in the league during that span.

    Oladipo's shooting woes haven't diminished his value to the Pacers. In fact, the opposite is true. In January, Indy is 35.2 points per 100 possessions better with its All-Star guard on the floor.    

10. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Last Week: 13

    Make it three straight wins for the New Orleans Pelicans, who've also won six of their last seven behind a general shoring up of their porous defense. During that seven-game run, the Pels' best two-week stretch of the season, they've limited opponents to 101.8 points per 100 possessions, a significant improvement over their full-season figure of 106.9.

    DeMarcus Cousins put up 44 points, 23 rebounds and 10 assists against Chicago on Monday, and his overall numbers are getting similarly out of control. He's averaging 25.4 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists, figures matched by one man in league history: Wilt Chamberlain.

    Not to be forgotten, Jrue Holiday has quietly taken to the third-option role that seemed like such an uncomfortable fit last year. He's putting up a career-best effective field-goal percentage (.549) while averaging 18.6 points per game and ranking sixth in wins produced among point guards, as measured by ESPN's real plus-minus.   

9. Miami Heat

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    Last Week: 6

    Barring an injury replacement, the Miami Heat won't have a representative in the 2018 All-Star Game in Los Angeles. And while that seems wrong for a club that's occupying fourth place in the Eastern Conference, it's actually so right for this particular team*.

    Miami is a collective—a high-energy bunch of sub-star scrappers who, in addition to being exceptionally well coached and conditioned, play with a competitive spirit that at times feels defiant. They're not supposed to have All-Stars. If they did, they'd lose something important to their makeup: the idea that they shouldn't be good enough to win as much as they are, an image bolstered by a negative net rating that doesn't square with their 27-21 record.

    The Heat finished the week at 1-3, though. And their third loss, which came at home against the Kings, was particularly painful. It ruined the debut of their super sweet Vice-themed jerseys. This is an unforgivable sin. Dropping them three spots is lenient.

    *I mean, if Miami had to have an All-Star, it'd be Goran Dragic for sure, right?

8. San Antonio Spurs

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    Last Week: 7

    Two decades' worth of unparalleled stability and roster-wide buy-in meant we always had to qualify our concerns about the San Antonio Spurs' few turbulent on-court stretches. Cold shooting, aging, a lack of dynamic playmaking...you name it. Whenever something seemed to threaten the Spurs' monolithic success, we could always point to the fact they were, well...a monolith. A unique paragon of organizational unity. A hive mind.

    For the first time, that unity may be splintering.

    ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright reported Monday that "Months of discord centering on elements of treatment, rehabilitation and timetables for return from a right quadriceps injury have had a chilling impact on San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard's relationship with the franchise and coaching staff."

    This recontextualizes a cratering offensive rating and a pedestrian 7-6 record since Jan. 1. If it doesn't remove the safety net that has always hung beneath the Spurs, it at least loosens some of the tie-downs.

    There are still signs of San Antonio's trademark cultural constancy, such as Tony Parker's seamless and unbothered torch-passing to Dejounte Murray, the new starter at point guard. But this Leonard stuff is new. And worrisome.

7. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 11

    Quick! Who's been the best team since the calendar flipped to 2018 aside from the Warriors?

    Unless you've got a 215 or 267 area code, you probably wouldn't guess the correct answer. And even then, you might be too fixated on the Philadelphia Eagles to think straight.

    It's the 76ers, who've won three of four since losing JJ Redick to a leg injury and own the NBA's best per-possession point differential since Jan. 1 (10.6).

    Joel Embiid could start playing both ends of back-to-back games "at some point not that far away," according to Sixers head coach Brett Brown's comments to The Athletic's Rich Hoffman. For a Philly organization not known for transparency or plain speaking, that's as definitive of an endorsement of Embiid's fitness as you'll ever hear. The big man has been dynamite, averaging 23.1 points and 10.6 rebounds on 50.7 percent shooting in January.

    Ben Simmons, meanwhile, notched his fifth triple-double of the year against the Bulls on Wednesday, giving him the most in a rookie season since Magic Johnson in 1979-80.

6. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 4

    Kyrie Irving told Chris Forsberg of ESPN.com: "We need to hit something like this in order for us to grow. It's part of the game. It's part of being on a team, part of being a professional on any team, in any environment. You gotta have stuff like this where you gotta figure it out."

    That was before a loss to the Lakers extended the Celtics' losing streak to four.

    Boston's offense sits dead last in the league over the last calendar month. A defense that ranks first by a significant margin over that same span is keeping the Celtics on the winning side of the ledger, but it's difficult to ascribe elite status to a team that ranks last in anything for such a protracted stretch.

    A loser in four of its last five (the Celtics knocked off the Clippers to halt their slide Wednesday), including baffling defeats at the hands of the Lakers and Magic to start the week, Boston is in its ugliest stretch of the season. If adversity fosters growth, as Irving says, the Celtics are about to quintuple in size.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    31 wins!? Already!?
    31 wins!? Already!?Harry How/Getty Images

    Last Week: 5

    Relative measurements probably aren't what interest the Minnesota Timberwolves, but it's still impressive that they've already matched last year's 31 wins.

    Minnesota has piled up the victories with a more balanced approach than you might think. Since Christmas, the Wolves rank second on offense, which is no surprise. But they've also been right in the middle of the league, ranked 15th, on D.

    No lineup that has played at least 100 minutes this year owns a higher net rating than Minnesota's quintet of Tyus Jones, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns.

    Butler was named to his fourth straight All-Star team but didn't suit up in any of Minnesota's four games this week because of a sore knee. Somewhat surprisingly, Towns didn't use Butler's absence as an opportunity to increase his usage (which sits at a career-low 22 percent). He attempted only seven shots against Toronto on Saturday, then he got up just seven more against the Clippers on Monday.

    Butler's injury isn't believed to be serious, so we can't drop the Wolves any further than this after a 2-2 week.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 8

    Nothing juices an offensive rating like a 148-point eruption, and thanks to that ridiculous output against the Cavs, the highest in Oklahoma City history, this Thunder team is on the cusp of joining an exclusive club. Already a top-five defensive squad, OKC is knocking on the door of top-10 offensive efficiency—something made possible in large part by Russell Westbrook's decision to holster three-point shots.

    Since bricking 11-of-12 from distance Dec. 9, he's firing off just 2.5 deep attempts per game, down from six per game before that particularly off-target night.

    There are still issues. OKC had to fight back from a 15-point deficit to escape the Nets on Tuesday, and a two-way shooting guard has yet to emerge. But Steven Adams is the NBA's best offensive rebounder, bone-jarring-est screen-setter (anecdotally, at least) and most delightful media scrum interviewee.

    That last part has less to do with the Thunder's climb than their six-game winning streak, but it still counts for something.

3. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 3

    It's hard to imagine a kinder travel schedule than the one ahead of the Toronto Raptors, who won't play a road game against a Western Conference opponent for the rest of the season. Playoff positioning is paramount, but the Raps would be wise to use that soft slate for practice purposes.

    Specifically, they need to drill even harder on their revamped, three-heavy, ball-moving offense in the moments that matter.

    For the season, Toronto ranks fourth in offense and 23rd in assist percentage. In clutch situations, though, the Raptors revert to their stagnant ways of years past, falling all the way to No. 29 in offensive efficiency with the second-lowest assist percentage in the league.

    Toronto has won three of its last four despite troubling dips in three-point accuracy from OG Anunoby and Norman Powell. None of this upgraded offensive scheming matters if supporting players can't hit their threes. Thankfully, the slump has spared Kyle Lowry. He's hitting 43.2 percent of his January treys.

2. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 2

    "We are better than them," Houston Rockets center Clint Capela told ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon.

    If head-to-head meetings are the only metric, then that's true. Houston's 116-108 win against Golden State on Saturday secured a 2-1 season-series win. Head-to-head meetings, however, are not the only stat worth consulting.

    Others include net rating, offensive rating, defensive rating, assist percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio, effective field-goal percentage, true shooting percentage and effective field-goal percentage allowed, just to name a handful.

    In every one of those statistics, the Rockets trail our No. 1 team. That doesn't mean the race isn't close, but it's a good reminder that there's more to consider than Capela's comment lets on.

    Finally, Houston is 19-0 in games where Capela, James Harden and Chris Paul see the floor together, which...

    Carries the seven...

    Peers skyward through sextant...

    Tests wind...

    ...is good for a winning percentage of 1.000.

    That's pretty good.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 1

    Saturday's road loss to Houston ended the Golden State Warriors' four-game winning streak but didn't erase their primacy in every catch-all stat that matters. Over the breadth of the season, Golden State continues to occupy space a cut above the field.

    That's not to say it'll be that way forever. The Warriors defense has slipped precipitously in recent weeks, and opponents are capitalizing in the early parts of games at an alarming rate, jumping on a Dubs squad that tends to start flat and get around to trying sometime in the second half.

    On average, Golden State outscores its opponents by less than half a point in the first quarter. Contrast that with a league-best plus-5.3 mark in the third period, and you can see the Warriors' performance is dependent on when they decide to summon some urgency.

    That's a nit-picky foible for a team that still has the most wins and fewest losses in the league, and an expected one in light of Golden State's reign atop the NBA, which is at three-plus years and counting.

    The only team with four All-Stars (and the only one to ever have that many in consecutive years) remains atop the rankings.

                   

    Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Thursday, Jan. 25.

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