NBA Power Rankings: Giannis, Bucks on Top at Quarter Mark

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 30, 2018

NBA Power Rankings: Giannis, Bucks on Top at Quarter Mark

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    Somehow, we've already hit the quarter mark of the 2018-19 NBA season.

    This checkpoint, which feels like it's arrived about four seconds after the season opener, offers an opportunity for perspective. Fans of all 30 teams should react to their squad's current strength or weakness just as they would after the first 12 minutes of any game.

    Maybe your team's down by 20 points already. Or maybe it's up 20. Maybe all hope is lost. Maybe it isn't. Just remember you've got three quarters left. So if something seemed certain before the season started, you can't abandon that belief in the face of a little contradictory information.

    Then again, NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted earlier this week that, on average, 14 of the 16 teams in playoff position at this point of the season stay there through April.

    So, actually, forget everything I just wrote about being patient. Go ahead and panic or exalt as circumstances dictate! Overreacting is more fun anyway.

    Rankings are based on records, season-long stats, recent play and injuries. The idea is to organize all 30 teams into an order that reflects the league's current power structure, which might already be more settled than you think.

30-26

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    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

    30. Chicago Bulls (28)

    The Bulls have put forth some game efforts lately, losing by one to the Spurs on Monday and by three to the Bucks on Wednesday, but a 0-4 week set them apart from the rest of the league's dregs. Virtually everyone else in the bottom five won at least once, which made it easier to punt Chicago down to No. 30.

    Shout out to Justin Holiday, who every contender in need of spacing should chase. He went 16-of-41 from deep this past week and sits at 40.1 percent from three on the season.

    Playoff teams, rescue this man.

                              

    29. Phoenix Suns (30)

    Jamal Crawford hit the game-winner (the 10th such shot of his career) against Milwaukee last Friday, because of course he did, giving Phoenix its first victory since Nov. 14 (San Antonio).

    The Suns still own the league's worst record at 4-17, but a newer starting unit featuring Mikal Bridges, Devin Booker, Trevor Ariza, T.J. Warren and Deandre Ayton is producing encouraging results. That group has a plus-3.7 net rating in 73 minutes—remarkable for a team that sits at a league-worst minus-9.5 overall.

                             

    28. Cleveland Cavaliers (29)

    Behind elite rebounding from Tristan Thompson and a combined 52 points from rookie Collin Sexton, the Cavs notched wins against the 76ers and Rockets on back-to-back nights this past Friday and Saturday. Better still, they earned karma points for setting one of their veterans free, trading Kyle Korver to Utah for Alec Burks and a pair of future second-rounders.

    One enthusiasm dampener: Sexton might have the worst shot profile in the league. He's in the 100th percentile in mid-range attempt rate for his position. At 42.4 percent from three, Sexton could do a lot more damage by taking a couple of steps back.

                         

    27. Atlanta Hawks (27)

    John Collins put up 23 points, 11 boards and four assists in Sunday's one-point win over the Hornets, the first of two (two!) wins for the Hawks this week.

    Collins, whose sophomore season has included just seven games because of an ankle injury, is averaging 14.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game on 58 percent shooting in just 25.7 minutes. He's attempting 1.9 triples per contest, which is a positive sign even if he's only shooting 15.4 percent from deep on a small sample.

                    

    26. New York Knicks (26)

    The Knicks close out the league's clear bottom tier, but even they won twice this past week. As was the case with the Hawks and Cavs, a couple of recent successes don't quite do enough to lift New York out of the bottom five. The chasm is still too wide.

    Emmanuel Mudiay's crunch-time dunk on Garrett Temple helped secure Sunday's win over Memphis, and the fourth-year guard is grading out as a marginally positive contributor (as measured by Basketball Reference's VORP) for the first time in his career.

25-21

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    25. Miami Heat (24)

    Goran Dragic hasn't played in two weeks because of a sore knee, and Miami is 2-6 in games he's missed.

    Though Dragic is in the midst of his worst shooting season since he was a rookie a decade ago, he's still been vital to a team that lacks shot-creators. Even with his cratering accuracy, Dragic's presence on the court bumps the Heat's offensive rating from 101.5 to 108.4.

    If injuries persist and Miami continues its slide (it's lost five of its last six), keep an eye out for an asset sell-off that could precede a trip into the tank.

                 

    24. Brooklyn Nets (23)

    D'Angelo Russell scored 38 points to go with eight boards and eight assists on Sunday against the Sixers, and Spencer Dinwiddie hit the Jazz for 14 third-quarter points Wednesday night, but those efforts weren't enough to prevent losses.

    Brooklyn has dropped four straight games and can't seem to stop fouling. Its opponents have the second-highest free-throw rate in the NBA.

                    

    23. Orlando Magic (20)

    Observers focused on points per game have long overrated Nikola Vucevic, which is why he'll never get the Most Improved Player consideration his performance warrants. He's putting up career highs in points per game and effective field-goal percentage while obliterating his previous mark in box plus-minus. More than that, he's grading out as a positively impactful defender, per ESPN's defensive real plus-minus metric.

    His assist rate is up, and he's shooting 41 percent from three and 74 percent at the rim. Growth like this at age 28 is surprising, and we should anticipate regression. But he's been fantastic—not fantastic enough to prevent the Magic from losing four of their last five but, you know, still fantastic.

                      

    22. Washington Wizards (25)

    Don't be alarmed, but the Wizards are looking like a real basketball team again. They've won three of their last five games, downing the Clippers, Rockets and Pelicans in that span.

    Markieff Morris' move to the second unit, which began with that Nov. 20 win against the Clippers, is paying dividends. He was a plus-21 in the victory over the Rockets (in which the Wiz withstood 54 points from James Harden) and seems to function better as a top option against reserves.

    If the Wizards could get some half-decent play from the center spot, it'd be even easier to buy their return from dysfunctional purgatory.

                       

    21. San Antonio Spurs (19)

    Good news, bad news time.

    Good: LaMarcus Aldridge snapped out of a season-long funk, scoring 33 points in a 111-100 win over the Pacers on Nov. 23. It was only Aldridge's second 30-point effort of the season. He had 17 of them a year ago.

    "L.A. looked much more confident with his shot [against Indiana]," head coach Gregg Popovich told Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News. "He posted up and got inside very well, did a good job. For us to be a winning team, he's got to do that pretty consistently."

    Bad: Popovich revealed Pau Gasol, second-unit quarterback, has a stress fracture in his foot and isn't anywhere close to returning.

    San Antonio hasn't won back-to-back contests in nearly a month and sits 12th in the West standings.

20-16

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    20. Sacramento Kings (17)

    De'Aaron Fox's growth remains the most encouraging sign in Sacramento, and a quarter of the way through the season, he's solidifying elements of his game that portend stardom. Case in point: The guy is already an elite foul-drawer.

    Fox ranks second to Harden in free-throw rate among guards who've attempted at least 250 shots this year, which means two things. First, Fox's speed and craft constantly put defenders in compromised positions. Second, and this may be even more important, he's already got the respect of the officials.

    The Kings are still winning more often than their negative point differential says they should, and three straight losses may be the correction many have been waiting for. But as long as Fox keeps showing these tantalizing signs, enthusiasm about the future will be easier to come by.

                  

    19. Utah Jazz (22)

    Donovan Mitchell returned from a rib injury and buried the Nets on Wednesday with a series of trademark floaters and sidestepping finishes. If he's physically right after fighting hamstring, ankle and rib issues this year, the Jazz are closer to being the top-tier team we expected.

    The defense, ranked 13th, still has to come around, and at some point Utah will have to start hitting more than 31.9 percent of its corner threes (28th in the league, by the way). Anybody think an all-time sniper such as Kyle Korver might offer some assistance there?

    A climb may be coming.

                          

    18. New Orleans Pelicans (9)

    The Pelicans halted a four-game skid when they knocked off the Wizards 125-104 Wednesday. Jrue Holiday's team-high 29 points in that contest highlighted both his immense value and the fact that the Pelicans' lack of depth is spreading him too thin.

    The 6'4" Holiday is the team's best defender against wings, even though he gives up size to most matchups. He's New Orleans' most valuable perimeter scorer off the ball and, since there's not a capable point guard on the roster without Elfrid Payton (fractured pinky) around, Holiday is also tasked with initiating more of the offense than he should have to.

    Oh, and he leads all guard in total minutes played and deflections.

    New Orleans crushes opponents to the tune of a plus-11.8 net rating whenever Anthony Davis and Holiday share the floor. It's just that the Pelicans come undone whenever one or the other has to rest. Cleaning the Glass has them at minus-8.0 without AD on the court and minus-5.0 sans Holiday.

    This team needs a wing, but that's been the case forever.

                

    17. Detroit Pistons (21)

    A 3-0 mark at home this week with wins against Houston, Phoenix and New York has the 11-7 Pistons all the way up to plus-1.0 in net rating.

    Quietly, Blake Griffin is having his best scoring season, as measured by true-shooting percentage, since 2013-14, which was the last year of his "I Dunk Absolutely Everything" era. He and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the only guys in the league who are averaging at least 25 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Griffin's 40 made threes (to Giannis' six) make the former's stat line even more impressive.

                     

    16. Los Angeles Lakers (13)

    The Lakers (2-2 this week) shot just 5-of-35 from deep in their blowout loss against Denver on Tuesday, and it's hard to overstate how foreseeable their outside-shooting issues were from the moment they surrounded James with non-spacers in free agency.

    L.A. is 20th in three-point frequency and 21st in accuracy. The Lakers make up for that by getting to the rim more often than anyone, but outside shots will have to fall for this group to reach its potential.

    Rajon Rondo's out with a broken hand, and ankle injuries are hampering both Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, which puts even more playmaking responsibility on LeBron James. He can handle it, but L.A. doesn't belong in the top half of the rankings if it's not at full strength. And if it feels unfair to drop the Lakers after a .500 week, note the wins came against Utah, which lost Donovan Mitchell after 12 minutes of action, and Indiana, which didn't have Victor Oladipo.

15-11

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    15. Minnesota Timberwolves (18)

    Minnesota is enjoying the post-Jimmy Butler era just fine, and Robert Covington has loads to do with it.

    He led the Wolves, who've won four straight, in scoring against the Cavs on Monday and Spurs on Wednesday, and his defensive impact (along with a much more engaged Karl-Anthony Towns) is the reason Minnesota has been the second-best defensive team in the league since the Nov. 12 trade.

    Minnesota was 29th on that end before Covington showed up.

    In the Wolves' 111-96 win over Chicago on Saturday, Covington played 35 minutes, fouled out and shot a ghastly 1-of-18 from the field. He was a plus-11 in that game.

    Minnesota has transformed, thanks to its new defensive difference-maker.

                              

    14. Dallas Mavericks (16)

    Dallas has won seven of its last eight against against a schedule populated by several of the league's contenders; OKC, Golden State, Boston and Houston have all dropped games to the surging Mavs over the last two weeks.

    Luka Doncic added to his season-long highlight reel with deep step-backs, eye-opening dunks and a quarter-closing bomb from the logo against the Rockets on Wednesday, but we shouldn't overlook J.J. Barea's impact on Dallas' success. The Mavs' net rating leaps from minus-5.2 without Barea on the court to plus-12.8 with him.

    By that measure, Barea is a superstar. Please take that sentence out of context and run with it.

                           

    13. Memphis Grizzlies (5)

    Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff told ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon: "We want to bring people to the mud and see how comfortable they are in that type of fight."

    That evocative explanation of the Grizzlies' approach is an early front-runner for quote of the year, but it rings a little hollow after a 0-3 week in which Memphis' stellar defense surrendered 113.9 points per 100 possessions.

    Marc Gasol scored 27 points in all three defeats, and Mike Conley's rare foul-out with 2:51 remaining against the Clippers last Friday triggered a 13-5 L.A. run that forced overtime and led to a loss. Those two remain Memphis' foundation, but Jaren Jackson Jr. still matters most to the franchise's future. Against the Knicks on Sunday, he registered seven blocks and four made threes. That's happened just two other times since 1983-84.

    We got carried away with the Grizzlies last week. Consider this a course correction.

                              

    12. Houston Rockets (4)

    After four straight defeats defined by matador defense and minimal effort on the glass, the Rockets are 28th in defensive rating.

    With that little stopping power, it hardly matters if you've got two of the top DIY offensive players around...which the Rockets do in Harden and Chris Paul. Those two lead their positions (as defined by Cleaning the Glass) in percentage of field goals made without the benefit of an assist.

    If Harden or Paul scores, chances are they did it on their own. And if someone else on Houston scores, chances are Harden or Paul set it up.

    Harden's 54-point, 13-assist performance in a loss against Washington on Monday produced 86 total points. There have been just three higher totals in league history, two of which belong to Harden, per Micah Adams of NBA.com.

    This past week's showing reintroduced anxiety into the minds of Rockets fans (and a certain producer of power rankings) who felt Houston was out of the woods. Yes, three of the four losses came by single digits on the road. And yes, Paul's hamstring has sidelined him since Nov. 23. But there's no place in the top 10 for a team that defends like this.

                      

    11. Indiana Pacers (7)

    A sore knee has held Victor Oladipo out of action for the Pacers' last six games, and even though the team has held surprisingly steady in his absence (2-2 this week), it feels like a disservice to 2017-18's MIP to say the Pacers are worthy of a top-10 spot without their best player.

    In a 109-104 win over the Suns on Tuesday, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis had double-doubles in the same game for the first time. Bojan Bogdanovic is your league leader in three-point percentage, and Doug McDermott has shown up after a season of standing around and doing little in Nate McMillan's ho-hum offense.

    Everyone's chipping in as best they can, but it's hard to make a case for Indy as a top-10 team without Oladipo.   

10. Charlotte Hornets

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    Last Week: 15

    Usually, a team that hovers around .500 needs a substantial track record of past success and/or a glut of talent to crack the top 10 (think: Boston Celtics), but the Charlotte Hornets have done enough to overcome a resume that lacks both.

    The Hornets moved to 11-10 after Wednesday's win against the Hawks, but their offensive and defensive ratings are both in the top 10. According to Cleaning the Glass, Charlotte's point differential befits a club with a 14-7 record. This team has notoriously underperformed relative to its point differential for the last handful of seasons, which may mean there's something unaccounted for that puts a ceiling on Charlotte's success.

    Or, the Hornets have been better than their record suggests for years and are flat unlucky.

    The truth is somewhere in the middle, but Kemba Walker is playing at an All-NBA level, and Jeremy Lamb seems to have found his scoring touch with 21 points in a marquee win over the Bucks on Monday. Toss in the fact that Marvin Williams and Frank Kaminsky (remember him?) are hit 43.5 and 40.0 percent of their threes this past week, respectively, and it felt unfair to keep denying Charlotte a top-10 spot.

    Congrats, fellas. You made it.   

9. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Last Week: 6

    Things got ugly for a while there, didn't they?

    A 43-point loss to Milwaukee on Nov. 21 gave way to a 28-point defeat against Golden State two days later. Then, on Sunday, the Portland Trail Blazers blew a 15-point advantage, losing to the Clippers in alarming fashion. 

    Shoddy defense was the main culprit, which prompted a lengthy film session overseen by a sterner than usual head coach Terry Stotts.

    Zach Collins relayed the vibe to Jason Quick of The Athletic: "It was definitely a long session, but it was needed. There wasn't anybody sitting in there like, 'S--t, this is taking forever; why are we doing this?' I think everybody understood it was necessary to be in there a while."

    The results were better Wednesday, as Portland downed a road-weary Orlando 115-112. But the Magic still shot 51.9 percent from the field. Fortunately for the Blazers, Damian Lillard posted a game-high 41 points and set a franchise record with 10 made threes in that one, and Nik Stauskas contributed five threes off the bench.

    The game wouldn't have been nearly that close if Portland hadn't gone 2-of-10 from the foul line in the final 2:04 of the fourth quarter.

    Maybe another film session's in order?

8. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 11

    Jimmy Butler just keeps paying conspicuous dividends. He hit the second game-winner of his brief Philadelphia 76ers tenure Sunday, downing the Nets from roughly the same spot on the floor he buried the Hornets at the buzzer the week prior.

    In the eight games he's played with the team, Philly is 6-2 with a plus-3.0 net rating and, obviously, strong showings in the clutch.

    Meanwhile, Joel Embiid continues his quest for an MVP award. He hung 26 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists (against just one turnover) on the Knicks in Wednesday's 117-91 blowout, continuing a season that can only be described as dominant.

    Embiid's overwhelming physicality is the reason he leads the league in total rebounds and free throws (both made and attempted). And in a shocking development for a player once treated as fragile, the Sixers center is right near the top of the leaderboard in total minutes played.

    Ben Simmons remains an effective ball-handler, passer, defender and interior scorer, but any hopes he'd take a step forward as a shooter have been dashed. He has yet to shoot a three, and he's taken about a quarter as many shots outside 10 feet as he had this same time last year.

7. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 12

    In the wake of a 2-1 week in which the offense produced 112.9 points per 100 possessions (a massive improvement on Boston's 105.5 figure for the year), the Celtics are also seeing success with some rotational tweaks.

    Jaylen Brown's bruised tailbone allowed Marcus Smart to join the first unit in Monday's 124-107 win over the Pelicans, and the results were encouraging.

    Kyrie Irving told Jay King of The Athletic:

    "There's a reason why we signed him back (to a four-year contract this summer). There's a reason why he's very instrumental for our team being successful. Because he's a veteran now—not in terms of years but he's played high-level basketball for the Celtics for a few years now. So we expect him to be in the right spots and doing the right things."

    If Brown's not going to hit shots (he's not: check the 44.4 effective field-goal percentage), it's hard to justify playing him over Smart, a flat-out elite defender and superior distributor. Long term, Brown's size (6'7", 220 lbs), athleticism and age (he's two years younger than the 24-year-old Smart) make him the more intriguing prospect. But Boston is trying to contend.

    In addition to the Smart-Brown swap, which head coach Brad Stevens says could continue, Gordon Hayward's move to the bench has helped the second unit. In a backup role, Hayward can focus on facilitating against weaker matchups as he continues to search for his pre-injury form.

    Boston's back over .500 at 11-10, and things are trending up.

6. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 8

    Kevin Durant totaled 125 points during three straight wins against the Blazers, Kings and Magic, but the Golden State Warriors wouldn't have been nearly as successful in that run without Klay Thompson, who hit the game-winner against Sacramento and drilled six threes in the comeback victory against Orlando.

    All KD did in a 131-128 overtime loss in Toronto on Thursday was drop 51 points on 18-of-31 shooting.

    Stephen Curry (groin) is due back Saturday, and Draymond Green (toe) might be available in a week.

    Golden State is surviving on its (other) star power for now, having won three of its last four. While the results have been fine, we all know this version of the Dubs isn't the real one. That iteration will return soon enough, at which point we'll get back to the weekly brain-twisting conundrum of knowing the Warriors are the best team in the league but understanding they're not playing with peak focus from night to night.

    For at least one more week, we can dump this diminished version of Golden State somewhere in the top 10 before moving on to teams that better resemble their true selves.

5. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 10

    Anyone who's watched the Los Angeles Clippers this year already knows, but it's probably time a national audience got a sense of what Tobias Harris has been up to.

    Harris scored a career-high 34 points against Portland and, according to ESPN's Kirk Goldsberry, the 26-year-old forward has the highest effective field-goal percentage of anyone with at least 300 field-goal attempts.

    The Clippers still get things done by committee, though, as they proved in Wednesday's 115-99 victory against the Suns. Danilo Gallinari led the way with 28 points, but five other Clippers chipped in with at least a dozen points.

    L.A. has won nine of its last 10 games and can claim victories over the Warriors, Bucks, Grizzlies, Thunder, Rockets (twice) and Blazers on the year. The longer this improbable success story goes on, the harder it'll be to question its legitimacy.

    A quarter of the way through the season, the Clips look like a 50-win team.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 3

    I'm not sure many observers view the Oklahoma City Thunder as a member of the NBA's true upper echelon, but a quick scan of the last calendar month suggests that conventional wisdom might need some realignment.

    The Thunder are 12-3 since Oct. 30 and have firmly established their defense as the best around.

    Russell Westbrook, often destructive and yet almost admirable in his career-long refusal to compromise his style of play, is displaying real changes this season. He's posting a career high in shot frequency inside three feet, essentially cutting out long twos and those tricky little floaters from 3 to 10 feet in the bargain.

    Granted, Russ' long-range stroke has never been less accurate; he's dead last in three-point percentage among the nearly 200 players who've attempted at least 50 triples. But the upside is a career-best hit rate on two-pointers, and at least he's putting in after-hours work on that unreliable jumper.

3. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 14

    The Denver Nuggets' four-game winning streak helps the memory of the preceding 1-6 stretch fade, especially since each of the last three wins—over Orlando, OKC and the Lakers—saw the Nuggets build leads of at least 25 points. That's the kind of overwhelming play that juices a net rating. Not coincidentally, Denver sits third overall in that statistic.

    Even though the Nuggets enjoy a huge bump up the rankings this week, there's still reason for caution. Opponents are shooting a league-worst 31.8 percent from deep against Denver, and that's despite the fact that the Nuggets allow the league's highest proportion of corner threes. Those stats don't square, and regression is coming.

    What's more, only the Lakers and Nuggets allow opponents a higher frequency of shots at the rim.

    There's no way Denver hangs around the top five in defensive efficiency much longer, but forecasting a slip toward the middle of the pack isn't necessarily doomsaying—not when last year's Nuggets nearly made the playoffs with a defense that ranked 23rd

    Denver, as a team, is for real. That's true even if the defense has been a bit of an illusion.

2. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 2

    The Toronto Raptors bested the Warriors-who-aren't-really-the-real-Warriors in overtime Thursday behind 37 points from Kawhi Leonard, but they didn't need that win to lock down the No. 2 spot in the rankings for another week.

    Toronto's resume, which included the league's best record and second-best net rating going into the tilt with Golden State, was already good enough to hold off the rest of the field. As you'd expect after Thursday's victory ran Toronto's record to 19-4, nothing's changed.

    Pascal Siakam, however, has changed. He's doing something of a Giannis Antetokounmpo impression this year, flashing open-court speed, length, a tighter handle and lots of spin moves to get near the rim. Once there, Siakam tends to do good things, like finish at a rate that puts him in the 97th percentile of scoring efficiency for his position. And if Siakam can't get all the way to the cup, he's moving the ball to shooters. Hence a career-high average in assists.

    Toronto has been steadily excellent all season. There's one club, though, whose historic start means the Raptors will have to keep settling for second.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    Brook Lopez doesn't have to make a half-dozen triples (which he's done three times this year already) to unlock so much of what makes the Milwaukee Bucks great. This is important to remember in the wake of his 0-of-12 performance from deep during last Friday's 116-114 loss to the Suns.

    Lopez helps by merely attempting those threes, as the stretch he provides creates driving lanes for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who cannot be guarded in space. 

    This is partly why Antetokounmpo has become a layup and dunk machine. Nobody comes close to his league-leading attempt and make totals in the restricted area. Note, though, how Lopez's absence from the court causes Antetokounmpo's field-goal percentage inside five feet to crater. Drag a center out of the lane as Lopez does and, well, just assume Giannis will get and make a point-blank look.

    More broadly, there has never been an individual season like the one Antetokounmpo is producing. Just three others have averaged at least 26 points, 13 rebounds and five assists: Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elgin Baylor. None even sniffed the true shooting percentage Giannis has managed.

    And yes, Milwaukee, the league leader in net rating once again, is close to posting the highest figure ever recorded in Basketball Reference's simple rating system metric, which considers margin of victory and strength of schedule.

    The Bucks haven't been quite as dominant lately, as their 2-2 record this past week illustrates. But their overall resume remains unimpeachable. This team is gunning for history.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, Nov. 29.