NBA Power Rankings: Kawhi and the Raptors Are Taking Over

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 7, 2018

NBA Power Rankings: Kawhi and the Raptors Are Taking Over

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    In life and NBA power rankings, sometimes change is good.

    For the first time in several weeks, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks do not occupy the top spot, giving way to a Toronto Raptors squad whose resume is just too good to be denied any longer.

    LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers are making noise, too. They crack our top 10 in the wake of James' otherworldly fourth-quarter takeover against the San Antonio Spurs. Notably, L.A. is making hay on defense, which isn't something you can say about a James-led team very often.

    Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors are getting healthier, and the Boston Celtics have figured out how to score points. Those developments should put everyone above them in the rankings on notice.

    As always, rankings are based on team record, advanced metrics, recent play and injuries. The idea is to order all 30 clubs in a way that reflects their current strength.

    Toronto is on top, deservedly, but a few sleeping giants might also be awakening. This is getting good.


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    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

    30. Phoenix Suns (29)

    The Suns haven't won since Jamal Crawford drilled a game-winner in Milwaukee on Nov. 23, and now Devin Booker is out indefinitely with an injury to the same hamstring that cost him three games earlier this year.

    Other than that, everything's going great in Phoenix, where the Suns are 4-21 and own the league's worst net rating.


    29. Chicago Bulls (30)

    The Bulls relieved Fred Hoiberg of his duties on Monday, and Jim Boylen now presides over the NBA's worst offense.

    Chicago has lost 11 of its last 12, but at least Lauri Markkanen is back on the floor. If there's anything worthwhile to watch as Chicago plays meaningless ball for the next four months, it'll be Markkanen's fit alongside Wendell Carter Jr. up front. Those two make a lot of sense together on paper, as Markkanen's offensive spacing and Carter Jr.'s defensive value offset each other nicely.


    28. Atlanta Hawks (27)

    Losers of four straight (all by 14 points or more), the Hawks can at least look to John Collins for some hope. He's been electric since returning to action on Nov. 17, averaging 15.9 points and 7.2 boards per game on 61.2 percent shooting.

    He at least distracts from Trae Young's spiraling production. The rookie is down to 23.9 percent from deep on the season. Along with an average of four turnovers per game, Young also grades out as the league's worst defender in ESPN's (non-definitive, but still) Defensive Real Plus-Minus. By a mile.


    27. Cleveland Cavaliers (28)

    Cleveland's net rating this past week was a ghastly minus-18.2, but Alec Burks beat the Nets on the road with a game-winning dunk, and Tristan Thompson continues to rebound everything within a quarter mile of his wingspan.

    That's enough to get the Cavs ahead of the Hawks for a week.


    26. Brooklyn Nets (24)

    The Nets need a break. That's literal, by the way. They're 0-5 on the second night of back-to-back sets, with the latest such defeat coming on Saturday against Washington.

    Also, they're dreadful in the clutch, despite spending an inordinate amount of time in those situations. Brooklyn is 4-12 in games that are within five points in the last five minutes, and its minus-23.4 net rating in those circumstances ranks 29th in the league.

    So when D'Angelo Russell flung up an ill-advised three-point attempt with several seconds remaining on the shot clock as the Nets held a one-point lead in the waning moments over OKC on Wednesday, which gave the Thunder far more time then they should have had to attempt a game-winner, it felt right when Paul George daggered them with a three on the ensuing possession.

    Brooklyn has lost eight in a row.


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    25. New York Knicks (26)

    Emmanuel Mudiay's climb toward mediocrity continues, and his 28 points in Saturday's OT win over Milwaukee were the latest rung reached. It was the most points he'd scored in a game in over two years.

    Kevin Knox also posted a career-high 26 points against Milwaukee, and Mitchell Robinson has quietly been one of the league's premier highlight-per-minute players.

    New York has lost four of its last five games, but that victory over the Bucks earns a bump up the rankings.


    24. Miami Heat (25)

    Dwyane Wade's clutch drive drew a foul from Rudy Gobert with 3.2 ticks left against the Jazz on Sunday, and Wade's free throws gave Miami its second win of the week. If not for a stumble at home against Orlando on Tuesday, the Heat would have had their first undefeated rankings session of the season.

    Bam Adebayo busted out an end-to-end sequence in that Orlando loss that almost made up for the result. 

    On the year, the Heat are 9-14 and have yet to string together more than two wins in a row.


    23. San Antonio Spurs (21)

    The Spurs have taken heat for their anachronistic shot profile this season, as their unwillingness to shoot from deep marked them as an outlier in the three-point era.

    Naturally, they made offensive history in Sunday's 131-118 win over the Blazers, according to Spurs PR: "In shooting 60.2 percent from the field, 73.3 percent from three-point range and 90.9 percent from the free-throw line, the Spurs recorded just the ninth 60/70/90 game in NBA history."

    They're also the fifth team in league history to lose three games by 30 or more points in a week, according to ESPN Stats & Info. San Antonio has dropped four of its last five, hence the hefty rankings slippage.


    22. Orlando Magic (23)

    Wins over the Suns and Heat got the Magic off to a strong start this week, and the Nuggets needed overtime to take them down by a final of 124-118 on Wednesday. That knocked Orlando back to 12-13 on the season.

    Orlando could benefit from more looks at close range, but the offense lacks downhill attackers, which is largely why the Magic rank 27th in frequency of attempts at the rim. Keep an eye on these guys if the market for point guards opens up; a slithery ball-handler that gets into the lane could unlock some new offensive dimensions.


    21. Washington Wizards (22)

    Washington won three out of four this week, but it's just hard to be confident in a sustained turnaround when a team's best player and theoretical leader "defends" like this.

    To his credit, John Wall handed out 15 dimes in Monday's win over New York. But the Wizards hardly missed a beat when he was absent from Wednesday's contest against the Hawks. Bradley Beal pumped in 36 points in the Wizards' highest-scoring non-overtime effort of the season, a 131-117 win.

    Because these are the undeniably talented Wizards, they have to tantalize us with glimpses of what they ought to be. The lineup featuring Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris and Jeff Green owns a plus-27.5 net rating, second-best leaguewide among groups that have shared at least 47 minutes together this season.


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    20. New Orleans Pelicans (18)

    Anthony Davis heaped 36 points, 19 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and two blocks on the Hornets in Sunday's win, which was the first time anyone had posted those five-category totals in a game since Hakeem Olajuwon did it 22 years ago.

    So, yes, AD is still doing ridiculous things.

    The Pels are also getting major production from Julius Randle, who scored 64 combined points against the Clippers and Mavs. Nonetheless, because New Orleans' defense disintegrates whenever Davis is off the floor, it has split its last six games at 3-3 and sits at 13-13 on the year.


    19. Sacramento Kings (20)

    In the wake of a 2-0 week, the Kings are over .500 this late in the season for first time since 2004-05. For some perspective, current Sacramento GM Vlade Divac, who's 50 years old, was still an active player that year.

    The Kings have been the league's top clutch performer by an immense margin, posting a plus-41.3 net rating in close-and-late situations that simply isn't sustainable. Let's not dwell on that, though. Sacramento is winning more than it's losing, and that's a huge deal for this franchise. 


    18. Detroit Pistons (17)

    A 13-9 record and that win over Golden State on Saturday give Pistons' backers real ammo against this ranking. But Detroit also got blown out by 27 points against OKC on Saturday and 23 against Milwaukee on Wednesday. Throw in the league's lowest opponent three-point percentage (which is bound to normalize), and you've got some good counters.

    The Pistons' net rating checks in at No. 17, and their schedule to date has been the second-easiest in the league.

    All told, this feels like the right spot.


    17. Charlotte Hornets (10)

    An 0-3 stretch has the Hornets down to 11-13, and Kemba Walker hasn't led the team in scoring in any of their last six contests. After spending most of the first few weeks of the season lamenting his lack of help, we now have to consider the fact that Walker has to up his own game.

    Charlotte's offense is still seventh on the year, but the last two weeks have seen a dip in scoring efficiency. Since Nov. 23, the Hornets rank 18th on that end of the floor.

    As is always the case with Charlotte, the advanced metrics suggest bad luck has been an issue. The Hornets are still ninth in net rating, which makes it easier to justify slotting them here with a sub-.500 record and a three-game skid.


    16. Portland Trail Blazers (9)

    McCollum couldn't hit the potential game-winner against Denver this past Friday, which triggered yet another three-game losing streak for the Blazers—one that mercifully concluded with Thursday's win against Phoenix. Nothing like a date with the Suns to get right after a tough stretch.

    The Blazers have to get off to better beginnings. They've been digging themselves holes lately, forcing themselves into positions where spirited late runs fail to make up the deficit.

    "Get off to a slow start, get down at halftime, make a good comeback and fall short," head coach Terry Stotts told reporters after Tuesday's 111-102 defeat in Dallas. "And I think we're all getting tired of it." 

    Portland is just 14-11 after peaking at 10-3 last month.


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    15. Utah Jazz (19)

    Utah couldn't hold a 19-point lead against Miami on Sunday, which spoiled what could have been an undefeated three-game road trip. Donovan Mitchell missed a good look at a game-winning three in that one, but the Jazz didn't let the loss get them down. They recovered to smoke the Spurs by 34 points on Tuesday.

    The addition of Kyle Korver hasn't paid immediate dividends, though he's shot the ball well. But there's just something that feels right about seeing him back in a Jazz uniform. He got a standing ovation in his home (re)debut this week.

    The Jazz are still out of the playoff picture at present, but if they could just remember how to win at home once in a while, they'd be in fine shape. No West team has more than Utah's nine road wins.


    14. Dallas Mavericks (14)

    Dennis Smith Jr., who had a tooth knocked out by Patrick Beverley earlier in Dallas' 114-110 win over the Clips on Sunday, rose up for a critical denial against Tobias Harris, rejecting a post-up attempt that could have tied the game with around 10 seconds remaining.

    Speaking of impressive blocks, Luka Doncic got LeBron James twice last Friday in a magical first-quarter display that preceded a week of highlights for the league's best rookie. Just against Portland on Tuesday, he hit ridiculous step-back three, fired an on-target three-quarter-court outlet pass for a layup and nailed Dirk Nowitzki's one-legged fallaway.

    The Mavs were just 2-2 this week, but the undeniable stardom of Doncic made it feel like 4-0. 


    13. Houston Rockets (12)

    The Rockets are getting healthier, with Chris Paul, Gerald Green and Nene returning to the rotation. Eric Gordon, inconsistent all year, is also leveling out.

    Nonetheless, some of Houston's shooting-dependent high variance arose against the Wolves in a brutal 29-point second half in which the Rockets hit just three of their 22 deep attempts. it was eerily reminiscent of their long-range collapse against the Warriors in Game 7 of last year's conference finals.

    Houston will keep shooting, and it should. Despite a rotten start to the year, plenty of injuries and a lack of wing depth, the Rockets are still in the top 10 in offensive efficiency. Eventually, these guys will be back in the top 10 of our rankings as well.


    12. Minnesota Timberwolves (15)

    Derrick Rose won't continue shooting threes like this, but his hot streak from deep is now progressing into the season's third month. So maybe he's added something to his game in season No. 10?

    Right now, he's at 47.5 percent from three, good for fourth in accuracy among players who've attempted at least 80 shots from deep. His worthiness for Sixth Man of the Year consideration can't go ignored any longer.

    Neither can a rejuvenated Karl-Anthony Towns or a defense wholly transformed in the wake of Jimmy Butler's departure. The Wolves held Houston to nine fourth-quarter points on Monday, and Robert Covington is just taking the ball away from anyone who tries to dunk in his vicinity.

    Minnesota has won six of its last seven games and is playing top-five defense over the last two weeks.


    11. Indiana Pacers (11)

    The Pacers announced Victor Oladipo is out indefinitely with right knee soreness, but a deep bench and a defense that ranks third in the league is holding things together.

    Bojan Bogdanovic is your league-leading three-point shooter, Myles Turner is playing himself into the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year (as much because of his improved anticipation and mobility as shot-blocking, which is amazing in itself), and Domantas Sabonis won't stop dominating off the bench.

    He's tossing up 14.3 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. No one in league history has ever posted those averages in as few minutes per game (24.9) as Sabonis is averaging.

    Indy is 14-10 and sits ninth in net rating. Oladipo can take his time getting back, it seems.

10. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last Week: 16

    "I think we are just getting better every game. I've been harping on [that] every game is another learning experience for us," LeBron James told reporters before Wednesday's 121-113 victory over the struggling Spurs. "It's fun to win. We learn from our mistakes when we lose, and we learn from our mistakes when we win."

    That's awfully cliche-ridden, but it's not wrong. Split the Lakers' 24 games into thirds, and you can see the results of all that learning. L.A. was 3-5 with a minus-0.1 net rating in its first eight games, 6-2 with a plus-3.1 net rating in games 9-16 and 6-2 with a plus-3.5 net rating in its most recent eight contests.

    It's almost like James knows a thing or two about how to build a winner. This probably shouldn't register as a surprise. Nor should his divine effort against San Antonio on Wednesday, in which he scored 20 of his 42 points in a breathtaking fourth-quarter onslaught.

    What is surprising: The Lakers defense has been better than their offense so far. The last time one of James' teams was defined by its stopping power (as measured by league-wide rank in efficiency) was 2011-12 with Miami.

    L.A. has won its last four games.

9. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Last Week: 13

    Mike Conley posted 37 points and 10 assists, and Jaren Jackson Jr. scored 36 in a double-overtime win in Brooklyn this past Friday, effectively showcasing the Grizzlies' early-season norm of getting major production from representatives of their present and future.

    Memphis' defense continues to stymie opponents, ranking fourth overall in efficiency while forcing the league's second-highest turnover rate.

    The Clippers stumbled to a season-low 86 points Wednesday night, as the Grizzlies harassed them into 18 giveaways. If not for an alarming propensity to foul (Memphis allows the league's highest opponent free-throw rate), this group could be giving the Thunder's dominant defense a run for its money.

    Bonus: JaMychal Green, largely forgotten this year due to injury and Jackson's emergence, has scored in double figures in each of his last four games. Just as importantly, he's done so while making at least half of his shots in every contest during this mini-run. Now clearly behind Jackson and Kyle Anderson in the forward pecking order, Green's efficiency is key. He'll have to do more with less, and lately, he's been up to it.

8. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 8

    Joel Embiid had one of his worst outings of the year Wednesday against the Raptors, shooting 5-of-17 from the field and getting to the foul line just twice while posting a minus-23. It was just the second time in 120 career games Embiid failed to make a free throw.

    Jimmy Butler's 38 points weren't nearly enough to compensate for that, so Philadelphia fell by a final of 113-102 in a matchup with another top East contender.

    The loss was the Sixers' first since Nov. 23, and at 8-3 since Butler played his first game with the team, they're still very much worthy of a top-10 spot.

    Embiid's recent struggles extend beyond the Toronto game. He went 1-of-9 from deep in three games this past week and connected on just 33.3 percent of his shots overall.

    "The past few games, I've been so trash," Embiid told reporters after Wednesday's defeat.

    Could he be wearing down a tad after displaying such encouraging durability to this point? If that's the case, the Sixers have an upcoming schedule that may not afford opportunities for rest; their next two games are against the Pistons and Andre Drummond.

7. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Last Week: 5

    Tobias Harris earned Western Conference Player of the Month* for November, and for a starless Clippers team that has succeeded by committee all year, he's become a focal points of sorts. 

    The offense remains excellent, Wednesday's strangulation by the Grizzlies notwithstanding, but L.A. will need to shore up some of its defensive issues to keep its early-season magic going. The Clippers force the fewest turnovers in the league, which costs them chances to get more easy buckets in transition, where they rank in the league's bottom 10 in percentage of points generated on the run.

    Fortunately, they also take care of the ball on offense...unless Patrick Beverly is purposely throwing it into the stands.

    L.A. went 1-2 to close out its four-game road trip this week, and it needed a clutch jumper from Lou Williams to best the Pelicans on Monday for its lone win.

    *Just go with it and pretend LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokic, James Harden and several others don't exist.

6. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 7

    Gordon Hayward broke out in a 118-109 win at Minnesota on Saturday, scoring 30 points to go along with nine rebounds and eight assists while exuding more confidence than he'd shown at any point in the season. His teammates were into it.

    His emergence coincides with Boston's broader offensive awakening. After struggling to produce all year, the Celtics posted the highest points-per-possession figure in the league during this latest rankings session—a 124.3 rating that would rank first overall for the season by a mile.

    The chemistry is improving, shots are falling, and those marginalized by injury—like Jaylen Brown, who's accepting a bench role for the good of the team—are on board with what's working. And with highlight plays like this, it's hard to curb the enthusiasm.

    Boston has won its last four games and may finally be assuming the contending form so many expected before the season. 

5. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 6

    Stephen Curry scored 18 of his 30 points in the first quarter during Monday's 128-11 snoozer of a win over the hapless Hawks, hitting four of his five three-point attempts in the frame and heralding his real return from injury after what seemed a warm-up effort in Saturday's loss to Detroit. He outscored Atlanta by himself in that first period.

    He followed up with 42 more in a 129-105 victory against Cleveland on Wednesday.

    Damian Jones' torn pectoral, which will require surgery and cost Golden State's starting center "months," according to comments head coach Steve Kerr made to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, is a bummer for the young big man. But at least he has the security of next year's option having already been picked up. From the Warriors' perspective, excising him from the rotation will be an indisputable positive. Despite playing the vast majority of his minutes with the Dubs' top-end starters, Jones' on-court net rating this season was only plus-3.5.

    Kevon Looney, though athletically limited, has been a superior option all year. Jordan Bell, who's been inconsistent but offers the Dubs their best switching center (other than Draymond Green, who could return next week), should also see an uptick in playing time.

    Golden State went 2-1 this week, and a date with the suddenly mortal Bucks on Friday is all that remains on a demanding five-game road trip

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 4

    The Thunder are extending the gap between their own league-leading defensive rating and that of the No. 2 Celtics, and if we see a few more efforts like the one OKC put up against Detroit in a 110-83 road win on Monday, the divide will approach Grand Canyon width.

    Steven Adams owned Andre Drummond, Paul George's arms were everywhere, and Oklahoma City stifled a hot Pistons team in that one, surrendering an effective field-goal percentage of 36.2 percent.

    Big-picture thought: Oklahoma City has become the team it probably should have been ever since the post-Durant era began. An offense led by Russell Westbrook may always be inconsistent and dependent on transition chances for scoring. That's not a makeup that screams playoff threat. But when you pair it with an athletic, intelligent, physically overwhelming defense, you've got something intriguing.

    It also helps when Paul George can chip in with 47 points and a game-winning three, which he did against Brooklyn on Wednesday.

    The Thunder have won six of their last seven games and have a clear identity now—one that truly suits their personnel. There might not be a team in the league that's less fun to play against.

3. Denver Nuggets

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Last Week: 3

    The Nuggets keep rolling, winners of seven straight (including their last three on the road) behind a defense that has climbed into the top five after finishing 23rd a year ago.

    Denver's improvement on defense owes to several factors. Nikola Jokic is making multiple efforts more often than he used to, and he's functioning better against pick-and-rolls now that he's coming up to the level of the screen rather than hanging back near the bucket. Don't overlook Paul Millsap, either. It's no coincidence that the Nuggets are suddenly stellar on D now that Millsap, an exceedingly smart and opportunistic defender, is healthy after last year's wrist injury cost him so much time.

    Jokic's offensive impact remains undeniable. He triple-doubled all over the Raptors, scoring 23 points, grabbing 11 boards and slinging 15 dimes—one of which will make assist-of-the-year reels at the end of the season. When he was on the court against Toronto, Denver's offensive rating was 112.8. When he wasn't, the Nuggets scored just 60 (60!) points per 100 possessions, per's Micah Adams.

    Gary Harris' hip injury was scary, and it kept him out of Wednesday's win over Orlando. But he'll be day-to-day going forward, head coach Mike Malone told reporters

2. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    The Bucks are just 3-3 in their last six games, a stretch of water-treading long enough to warrant stripping their No. 1 ranking for the first time in over a month. Though Milwaukee still leads the league in net rating and owns the top offense, its recent performance doesn't measure up to the standard it set to open the season.

    Over the last calendar month, the Bucks are just 8-6.

    Defensively, Milwaukee remains committed to walling off the rim and conceding mid-range shots. The Bucks also, however, concede more three-point attempts per game than any other defense. That's a strategy that produces high variance and makes the Bucks susceptible to defeat if an opponent heats up on a high volume of long-range looks.

    Example: The Knicks were 20-of-34 from deep in Saturday's surprising 136-134 overtime win.

    Milwaukee may have to make some tweaks to its approach come playoff time. For now, an elite offense and Giannis Antetokounmpo, your MVP front-runner, are more than capable of keeping the Bucks on course for at least 55 wins.

1. Toronto Raptors

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Last Week: 2

    The Nuggets put an end to Toronto's eight-game winning streak on Monday, but the Raps got right back to work Wednesday night with an impressive 113-102 win against the Sixers. Nine victories in a 10-game span is still pretty decent by most standards.

    With Milwaukee throttling back a bit lately and the Warriors still short a few key bodies, there was really no debate about the identity of this week's top team. Even if we tend to downplay the importance of win-loss records (particularly compared to point differential), it's tough to keep overlooking the facts that the Raptors are two games ahead of everyone else in the loss column and lead the league with 21 wins.

    Good luck finding a weakness with these Raptors. They have star power at the top in Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. Their bench is as deep as anyone's, and they have the personnel to downsize into switch-heavy groups or bang against conventional opposing bigs.

    Jonas Valanciunas might be the team's sixth- or seventh-most important player, but he put 26 points on Joel Embiid on Wednesday, and his physical play clearly frustrated the Sixers' MVP candidate. When you get critical, game-altering contributions like that from what amount to role-players (against a potential late-stage playoff foe, no less), you know you're built for something special.


    Stats courtesy of, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, Dec. 6.