NBA Power Rankings: Giannis Antetokounmpo Has Milwaukee Bucks Rising

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 2, 2018

NBA Power Rankings: Giannis Antetokounmpo Has Milwaukee Bucks Rising

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    Crippling injuries and blockbuster trades shook up this week's edition of NBA power rankings, and there's no end to the tumult in sight.

    The trade deadline isn't until next week.

    We've got three new entrants to the top 10, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks. Suffice to say, Jason Kidd will want to gloss over the fact his team turned it on immediately after his firing when he next interviews for a job.

    Elsewhere, the Philadelphia 76ers took a tumble, and the New Orleans Pelicans suffered a predictable slide following the loss of DeMarcus Cousins.

    As always, these rankings are designed to reflect the league's current hierarchy and to lay out who's most dangerous right now. That determination is based on full-season stats, health and recent performance trends.

    With the Feb. 8 deadline looming and All-Star Weekend not far behind, volatility only seems to be increasing. Here's where everyone stands for now.

30-26

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    Last week's rankings in parentheses.

    30. Phoenix Suns (30)

    Several teams have fewer wins than Phoenix since Jan. 1, but opponents have outscored the Suns by the league's largest margin in that span, waxing them by 9.4 points per 100 possessions. Josh Jackson shot 0-of-13 against the Houston Rockets on Sunday, tying Detroit Pistons wing Stanley Johnson for the most attempts without a make this season.

    Phoenix avoided a winless week by taking down the Mavs on Wednesday, but that's not enough to get it out of the basement.

              

    29. Orlando Magic (29)

    Does giving up 60 points to James Harden and losing by just seven count as a positive? Only if you absorb some of Harden's luminous scoring and redirect it toward your next opponent. That's what the Magic did, downing the Los Angeles Lakers 24 hours later, 127-105. That salvaged a 1-2 week.

    Aaron Gordon has been logging heavy minutes and was on a streak of four straight double-doubles until a strained hip flexor kept him out against the Rockets on Tuesday and Lakers on Wednesday, but efficiency has eluded him. He shot 50 percent just once in 11 January contests.

               

    28. Brooklyn Nets (24)

    With no playoff hope and no pick to tank for, the Nets are doing what they can to make otherwise meaningless games count. This past week, they took longer looks at Jahlil Okafor, giving him 24 minutes against the Wolves and 25 against the Knicks. He scored 21 points (his most since March 2017) in that loss to Minnesota on Saturday and wrangled 13 boards during Tuesday's defeat in New York.

    Though he had just eight points in a win over the Sixers, his former team, on Wednesday, he put in a key bucket that capped a decisive run. The victory snapped the Nets' four-game losing streak and gave Okafor a taste of vengeance.

    "If I were to say that that win didn't feel great, I would be lying," he told reporters afterward.

             

    27. Dallas Mavericks (25)

    The Mavs, owners of the league's worst net rating in the clutch, continue to keep their losses close. But the defeats all count the same, and as a result, Dallas is a long way from playoff relevance. That means it's time to shop Wesley Matthews, J.J. Barea, Salah Mejri and anyone else who might draw interest. Dallas also has a potential $13.5 million in cap space, per Basketball Insiders, it could use to eat a bad contract with a draft asset attached.

    The Mavericks, losers of five straight, turned tanker once their postseason chances disappeared late last year. Expect that approach a little earlier this time around...as in now.

               

    26. Atlanta Hawks (28)

    If all they ever did was host Western Conference opponents, the Hawks might be a postseason team. Trade showpiece Kent Bazemore put up 22 points, four rebounds, four assists and two blocks, leading a 105-100 takedown of the Wolves on Monday that extended Atlanta's run to six straight home victories over West foes.

    The other games count, too, though. And the Hawks have lost four of their last five.

25-21

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    25. Sacramento Kings (27)

    Nobody's paying attention to these guys anymore, which means most observers missed that the Kings closed out a tough road trip by winning three out of four. Even Sunday's loss to the San Antonio Spurs came with a bright spot: De'Aaron Fox's career-high 26 points, which included a remarkable six made triples. He'd made two or more treys just twice all year.

    During the Kings' latest six-game trip, Fox and fellow rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic's shared minutes produced a plus-7.3 net rating. The Kings have found their starting backcourt.

           

    24. Los Angeles Lakers (22)

    This is why the Lakers can't have nice things.

    After running off four straight victories, L.A. got punked by the Raptors and embarrassed by the Magic in a 1-2 week that shone a light on its shoddy defense. The Lakers allowed 123 points to Toronto and 127 to the Magic, who were playing without Aaron Gordon.

    Brook Lopez hasn't played in 16 of Los Angeles' last 18 fourth quarters, and a buyout/trade feels inevitable.

                 

    23. Chicago Bulls (20)

    Wednesday's blowout loss to the Blazers made it five in a row for the Bulls. Even if it isn't winning much, at least Chicago's angling in the direction of head coach Fred Hoiberg's preferred uptempo style. After ranking 20th in pace last season, the Bulls are up to 12th this year.

    Moving Nikola Mirotic to New Orleans should help facilitate more losses. Chicago is 14.2 points per 100 possessions worse without him on the floor.

                        

    22. New York Knicks (26)

    Enes Kanter put up 20 points, 20 rebounds and five assists in Tuesday's win over the Nets, highlighting the Knicks' first winning rankings session since mid-December.

    We flagged January's schedule as particularly brutal several times in advance, and it was as cruel to New York as expected. But now it's over. The Knicks must recover and recalibrate after the road-heavy slog that produced a 5-11 record for the month.

                       

    21. Memphis Grizzlies (23)

    Mike Conley won't play again in 2017-18. According to an email general manager Chris Wallace sent to season ticket-holders (via Michael Wallace of Grizzlies.com), the point guard, out since the middle of November with Achilles soreness, will require season-ending surgery.

    The Grizz have nobly recovered from a devastating 1-16 stretch, going 6-7 in January, but there can be no mystery about this team's goals. If Memphis is smart, it'll shut down Marc Gasol before we hit March.

20-16

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    20. Los Angeles Clippers (17)

    Maybe the Clippers will get marginally worse in the short term following the trade that sent Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons. (Or maybe Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley will space the floor and improve L.A.'s scoring scheme? Stranger things have happened.) But getting rid of Griffin's max deal and increasing payroll flexibility are long-term boons.

    There could still be a West playoff spot available for the Clips, especially after the New Orleans Pelicans lost DeMarcus Cousins for the year to a torn Achilles. It's unclear if that's a priority for Los Angeles, though, and we could see the full rebuild begin if DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams also get dealt before the deadline.

               

    19. Detroit Pistons (21)

    The Pistons look a little better and a lot more intriguing with Griffin, but integrating him into a frontcourt that already includes Andre Drummond will be a challenge. Both have been facilitators this year, and neither stretches the floor in ways that scare defenders.

    Detroit is committed to getting a playoff spot, and it has sacrificed every shred of future flexibility for present improvement. Griffin may be worth his hefty salary now, but check back in 2021 when he's making a guaranteed $36.8 million.

    Tuesday's short-handed 125-114 win over the Cavaliers said much more about Cleveland's level of defensive focus than anything else. But it was encouraging to see Griffin debut with 24 points, 10 boards and five assists in Thursday's win over the Grizzlies.

                            

    18. Charlotte Hornets (18)

    You can't make much of a 2-2 week when both wins came against the Hawks, other than to say Kemba Walker (38 points and career-best nine triples in the second win over Atlanta) is the only reason Charlotte's offense is functional.

    Take him off the floor, and its offensive rating dives from 108.8 to 94.9. Quietly, though, the Hornets have climbed into the top 10 in defensive efficiency. Four games out of the eighth spot in the East, the Hornets aren't cooked yet.

                         

    17. New Orlean Pelicans (10)

    In the Pels' first game following Cousins' brutal Achilles rupture, they blew a 21-point second-quarter lead against the Clippers, scoring just 103 points. Then they lost to the Kings at home, scoring another 103 in the process.

    New Orleans was a three-stars-and-scraps outfit that had to outscore opponents to win when Cousins was healthy. Now, it's just Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday carrying the load. Though that duo has been effective together without Boogie on the floor (plus-0.2 differential in 735 such possessions, per Cleaning the Glass), asking AD and Holiday to do so much on their own is unreasonable.

    New Orleans acquired Nikola Mirotic from the Bulls for Omer Asik, a first-rounder and salary filler Thursday, according to Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports, and they're looking at recently bought-out big man Greg Monroe, per NBA.com's David Aldridge. Those two won't replace Cousins, but the win-now Pels are doing what they can to cope.

                       

    16. Denver Nuggets (15)

    The Nuggets specialized in painful defeats this past week, losing by one to Boston on a go-ahead three-pointer by Jaylen Brown in the final minute Monday and then watching Will Barton's potential game-winner rim out against San Antonio on Tuesday.

    Then, they vindicated themselves with a Gary Harris walk-off dagger vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday.

    In addition, Trey Lyles continues to produce off the pine, stretching the floor with his 42.7 percent stroke from deep and contributing on the boards. He gave Denver 14.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game in January.

15-11

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    15. Utah Jazz (19)

    If you know anything about these rankings, it's that we're always looking for reasons to elevate the Jazz—a team that hasn't caught a break all year. Three straight wins—roadies over the Pistons and Raptors plus a 30-point demolition of the Warriors—made it easy this week. Toss in the loss of star power in New Orleans and L.A., and you've got a Jazz team back in the playoff mix.

    "I think we're at a point now where we've found the chemistry we were looking for throughout the season," Derrick Favors told reporters after Tuesday's 129-99 win over Golden State.

    Snooze on these guys at your own risk.

                      

    14. Washington Wizards (12)

    John Wall is set to miss at least six weeks following knee surgery, according to Candace Buckner of the Washington Post.

    Washington's Wall-less wins over the Hawks, Thunder and, most impressively, Raptors this week were a great start to what will be a difficult stretch. The Wizards have scored at a bottom-10 clip without their starting point guard on the floor this season. For a team with a middle-of-the-pack defense, that won't cut it.

    Bradley Beal's improvement as a playmaker softens the blow of potentially losing Wall for most of the season's final two months, but he'll be pushed to his limits as a scorer and facilitator.

                

    13. Cleveland Cavaliers (14)

    Cleveland was victorious in three of its four games this week, but there's still ample room for concern.

    Kevin Love's broken hand will cost him two months, per Charania, Cleveland's transition defense ranks 26th in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass, and a shell of a Pistons team put up 125 points against the Cavs on Tuesday.

    Also, a narrow 91-89 win over the Heat on Wednesday would have turned out differently if Miami had shot better than 1-of-19 on open jumpers—a stat Fear the Sword's Mike Zavagno noted.

               

    12. Philadelphia 76ers (7)

    We could have agreed to label back-to-back road losses against the Thunder and Bucks a hiccup—and not a momentum-buster—for the Sixers, whose defense looks elite whenever Joel Embiid is on the floor and whose playoff prospects continue to appear promising.

    But Wednesday's loss to the lowly Nets, which dumped Philadelphia back to an even 24-24 on the season, means we can't be so dismissive of this team's inconsistency.

    "That's a .500 team. That's what a team like that does. You go up and down, up and down, up and down," head coach Brett Brown told reporters after the Brooklyn loss. "This team can beat anybody, and it can lose to anybody. That's part of the wild ride we're on with a bunch of 20-year-olds figuring stuff up."

    All the same, Philly owns the second-best net rating in the league since Jan. 1.

                              

    11. Miami Heat (9)

    Hard luck here for the Heat, who would have put together an undefeated week if its jumpers had fallen against Cleveland. Hassan Whiteside hung 25 points and 14 boards on the Mavs during Monday's win, and the big man finished up his best calendar month of the season averaging 14.5 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in January.

    If not for a Blazers hot stretch and a return to health in Indiana, the Heat would have stuck in the top 10.

10. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Last Week: 13

    CJ McCollum put a 50-spot on the Bulls on Wednesday, and he didn't even need a half-hour to do it. He became just the second player in NBA history (Klay Thompson was the first) to eclipse the half-century mark while playing less than 30 minutes (h/t B/R's Dan Favale).

    "During the game I looked up and was like, 'I can get like 40,'" McCollum told reporters. "Ed [Davis] was like, 'Nah, you need to get 50.' Dame [Lillard] was like, 'Get 50.' I was like, 'OK, I'll get 50 then if you guys want me to.'"

    Easy as that.

    His outburst gave the Portland Trail Blazers their fourth straight win and seventh in their last eight contests.

    A season-best seven games over .500 and finally seeing their offensive- and defensive-efficiency numbers augur toward our preseason expectations (which is to say the offense is getting better and the defense is slipping), the Blazers are beginning to resemble their best selves.

    Over its last 15 games, Portland ranks fourth in offense and 21st in defense. In other words, that's more like it.    

9. Indiana Pacers

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    Last Week: 11

    Myles Turner rejoined the Indiana Pacers rotation in a win over the Magic on Saturday, playing just 11 minutes off the bench after missing nine straight games with an elbow injury. He shook off that slow re-initiation with 22 points and four made triples in Monday's victory over the Hornets.

    And then, upon rejoining the starters against the Grizzlies on Wednesday, he piled up 15 points and 11 boards while coming through with some clutch free throws to help seal it.

    Indy went 3-1 this week against an underwhelming slate at home. But getting Turner back provided an undeniable boost, and if he sticks in the starting lineup, we should expect to see Domantas Sabonis feast on backups as a second-unit leader. Ideally for the Pacers, that setup should alleviate some of the glaring decline in reserve play whenever Victor Oladipo sits.

    More help is on the way. Glenn Robinson III, out since having ankle surgery in late September, was recalled Thursday after seeing game action with the Pacers' G League affiliate.

    Portland's undefeated week was a bit more impressive than Indy's 3-1 stretch on paper, but the Pacers get an extra bump because of improving health.

8. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 16

    A conservative defensive scheme against pick-and-rolls and Giannis Antetokounmpo's sheer physical dominance are driving the Milwaukee Bucks' success since Joe Prunty took over coaching duties from Jason Kidd on Jan. 22.

    As Zach Lowe of ESPN.com noted, more Giannis is a clear priority: "Antetokounmpo used about 14 ball screens per 100 possessions this season under Kidd, according to Second Spectrum analysis of NBA Advanced Stats. That is up to 26.7 in four games under Prunty."

    Antetokounmpo matched a Bucks record by attempting at least 10 free throws in six straight games, per Elias Sports Bureau, and Khris Middleton was reliably excellent enough to win Player of the Week honors in the East.

    This is a big jump for Milwaukee, and it's probably not fair to expect this abrupt turnaround to continue in light of the soft schedule since Kidd's ouster. The Timberwolves issued the Bucks a bit of a wake-up call during Thursday's easy win. But it's hard to resist enthusiasm when it's being generated by a team so many pegged as potentially dominant before the season began.

    This is where we want the Bucks to be.   

7. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Last Week: 5

    Karl-Anthony Towns has been exceptionally efficient of late, ranking in the top 10 in effective field-goal percentage since Jan. 1 (among players attempting at least 10 shots per game). And he's contributing in ways besides scoring, grabbing at least 10 boards in 18 of his last 19 contests.

    But the guy needs more shots.

    He got up just eight attempts in Monday's loss to the lowly Hawks, followed by only seven when the Wolves fell to the Raptors the next night.

    To be fair, Minnesota is 6-5 when Towns takes 10 or fewer shots. His lack of offensive involvement isn't fatal. But a player with his talents shouldn't be seeing his usage rate drop in each consecutive month of the season, which has been the case so far this year.

    Minnesota has hit a lull, dropping four of its last six games after a scorching start to 2018.

6. San Antonio Spurs

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    Last Week: 8

    Right after we sounded alarm bells for them last week, the San Antonio Spurs went out and lost at home to the Sixers by 19 points. As if to prove nothing's ever too amiss for the league's most consistently excellent franchise, San Antonio won its next two, getting another 30-point game from LaMarcus Aldridge (his ninth this year) and a career-high 18 points from Kyle Anderson to narrowly beat the Nuggets on Tuesday, 106-104.

    Manu Ginobili also continued doing cool stuff during his fifth decade of life, as is his wont.

    The Spurs are managing without Kawhi Leonard (quad), getting production from young and old alike. New starting point guard Dejounte Murray, for example, tallied 13 rebounds against the Nuggets.

    Still, the Spurs are just 9-8 since Jan. 1—not quite top-10-caliber production. Their pedigree is a big factor in keeping them this high. And if anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, it's San Antonio.

5. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 6

    The Boston Celtics have a scoring problem.

    Ranked 29th in offensive efficiency during January, they get particularly bucket-deficient whenever Kyrie Irving sits. Take Irving off the floor, and the Celtics score less efficiently than the Kings, who are ranked last in the league.

    One explanation lies in Boston's abysmal foul-drawing. The Celts rank 21st in free-throw rate (and 30th since Jan. 1), which makes sense considering how few pressure-creating rim-attackers they have. Also, the Celtics lean significantly on a couple of young players—Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown—for their wing scoring. Though both have plenty of skill, the craft of call-baiting is often something that requires experience to perfect. You'd have to think Brown, given his ridiculous athleticism, will eventually learn to put himself in position to draw a ton of shooting fouls.

    He's not there yet, though, and Tatum isn't either. Neither player ranks in the top 50 in free-throw attempts per game.

    A close loss to the Warriors (in which Irving was unstoppable) and a pair of subsequent wins over Denver and New York have Boston back on the upswing, but keep an eye on this team's lack of scoring punch. It could be an issue come playoff time.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 4

    The Oklahoma City Thunder are effectively treating their tendency toward offensive stagnation, checking in at No. 2 in scoring efficiency over the last month. But 37.5 percent shooting and some familiar gummed-up possessions during Tuesday's 102-96 loss to the Wizards suggest the condition might not be cured.

    Defense will be the greater concern, though, as Andre Roberson's ruptured patellar tendon will cost him the season.

    OKC's fundamentals on D are solid overall, and it forces turnovers on a higher percentage of plays than anyone in the league. But Roberson's on-off impact was profound. With him on the floor, the Thunder defended over three points per 100 possessions better than the league-leading Celtics. Without him, they've been about even with the Hawks' 26th-ranked defense.

    In other words, Oklahoma City's improved offense had better be for real. Without Roberson, the Thunder will need those extra points.   

3. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 3

    Less is more for Kyle Lowry.

    According to Neil Johnson of ESPN Analytics: "Lowry's playing time has dropped by almost 4.6 minutes per game, and the amount of times he's the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll has decreased by 3.2 possessions per game."

    So in addition to transitioning away from a predictable, iso-heavy offense, the Toronto Raptors are also addressing one of the other key vulnerabilities that short-circuited past playoff runs: Lowry's durability.

    Under the radar all year, Toronto is the only team that ranks among the league's top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Those are the qualifications of a title contender.

    Toronto was just 2-2 this week, but the overall profile allows it to retain top-three status.

2. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 2

    Trevor Ariza's hamstring and Chris Paul's groin are minor concerns for the Houston Rockets, who can rely on James Harden's historic productivity whenever they're short a body or two.

    The MVP front-runner notched the league's first-ever 60-point triple-double, amassing 60 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists during Houston's 114-107 win over the Magic on Tuesday. The three-category double-figure production gets all the attention, but if you can believe it, Harden's 86 total points created on Tuesday weren't even the highest of his career.

    He's cracked 90 twice, per Micah Adams of ESPN.

    The Rockets have won seven of their last eight games and continue to be the Warriors' steadiest challenger in the West.

    And if steadiness isn't a trait you'd readily associate with the run-and-gun Rockets, Nylon Calculus' Bo Schwartz Madsen did the research to prove Houston's three-heavy approach (three-heaviest in history, as a matter of fact) doesn't necessarily make it more vulnerable to offensive variance.

    So much for the unpredictability of jump-shooting teams...

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 1

    In the wake of a quick, two-game week, this decision comes down to which of the Golden State Warriors' efforts you regard as real and which gets tossed out as an anomaly.

    On Saturday, Stephen Curry chucked in 49 points and looked the part of a former unanimous MVP, leading the Dubs to a stirring 109-105 win over the Boston Celtics, despite the best efforts of a laser-focused, ultra-efficient Kyrie Irving. Boston, perhaps looking at a Finals appearance, was dialed in, executing its game plan as well as anyone has all year against the Warriors.

    And Golden State was still too much for the Celtics.

    It's not hard to spot the outlier when you compare that effort—which mirrored so many we've seen from the reigning champs over the last three-plus seasons—to the roll-over job the Warriors pulled in Utah on Tuesday.

    "I think our guys will tell you that was a pathetic effort out there," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr told ESPN's Chris Haynes following the 129-99 debacle. "That was disgusting basketball."

    "We just didn't start out the game with any force defensively," he continued, noting a trend that has plagued Golden State all year. "We weren't staying into bodies, they were just stopping behind screens, we were lazy on our switches. We played with no sense of urgency, no sense of purpose, and they're obviously fighting for the playoffs."

    The Utah game is the throwaway result—one that deserves to be scrapped because it's not indicative of Golden State's actual talent. If anything, it points to the team's well-earned self-assuredness. After two rings and more than a half-season of dominance this year, it's hard to get up for the Jazz on the road.

    That said, more duds like the one in Utah and it won't matter how many Rockets are hurt. The Warriors will slip.

                     

    Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Thursday, Feb. 1.

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