NBA Power Rankings: It's the Toronto Raptors and Everyone Else

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 14, 2018

NBA Power Rankings: It's the Toronto Raptors and Everyone Else

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    The Toronto Raptors nearly made it a short stay at No. 1, but an eye-opening romp over the Golden State Warriors (sans Kawhi Leonard) was enough to get them another week atop our latest edition of NBA power rankings.

    The Warriors are looming, though.

    With Stephen Curry throwing flash-bangs from 30 feet and Draymond Green returning to round out the defense, the Dubs are themselves again. Now, as is always the case when they're healthy, the Warriors' main challengers are fatigue, malaise and NASA hit squads—though I like Curry's odds against those, too.

    Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings were big gainers this week, while the Washington Wizards and Detroit Pistons fell on hard times.

    As always, rankings are based on team record, net rating, health, recent play and head-to-head meetings. The idea is to slot all 30 teams into an order that reflects the league hierarchy as it exists right now. That's different than organizing by title odds.

    Roughly a third of the way into the season, we're seeing more and more of the usual suspects populating the top 10. Except the Houston Rockets, who remain confoundingly disappointing.

30-26

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    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

    30. Phoenix Suns (30)

    You've got to search for bright spots on a Suns team missing Devin Booker, and De'Anthony Melton is our speck of luminous hope this week. He put up 13 points, eight assists and four rebounds against the Clippers on Monday, then followed that up with 17 points, seven boards and six assists on Tuesday against San Antonio.

    The rookie has looked better than just about everyone the Suns have tried at the point this year.

    Owner Robert Sarver's reported threats to move the team unless voters approve public funds for a new arena are...well, weak. And sad. And another good indication that the quality of ownership tends to influence a franchise's success. The Suns are ranked 30th here and have the league's fewest wins and most losses. Draw your own conclusions.

         

    29. Chicago Bulls (29)

    The Bulls lost to Boston by a franchise-record 56 points this week, and head coach Jim Boylen's ridiculously militaristic and overbearing approach to coaching professional basketball players nearly triggered a full-scale mutiny. I would say this won't end well, but it hasn't started well, and the middle is probably going to suck, too. It's all not well. All of it*.

    *Wendell Carter Jr. is OK, though. Just ask Russell Westbrook. So is Lauri Markkanen, who hit a game-winner against OKC on Friday, giving Chicago its only win in its last 11 games.

       

    28. New York Knicks (25)

    Kyle Lowry's monopoly on the "charges taken" crown is at an end, as Tim Hardaway Jr. has pulled into a tie for the lead this year. His 13 bodily sacrifices so far are one more than he tallied all of last season. When you're playing for a team that ranks among the bottom five in defensive efficiency and has almost zero chance of making the playoffs, effort like that counts extra.

    New York has lost five straight.

         

    27. Atlanta Hawks (28)

    We've spent the last two weeks celebrating John Collins, and we'd do it again if not for fear of belaboring the point. He's still awesome (see: 30 points, 12 rebounds and five assists in Saturday's win against Denver), but Trae Young also had himself a game against the Mavs on Wednesday, putting up 24 points on 11-of-20 shooting and handing out 10 assists, his first double-digit-helper game since Nov. 27.

    Atlanta is just 6-21, but that record's easier to stomach when young cornerstones show promise.

               

    26. Cleveland Cavaliers (27)

    Tristan Thompson worked his way to 23 points, 19 rebounds, five assists and two blocks on Monday. He's also second in the league in total screen assists. A paint-bound big whose ability to switch isn't what it used to be has limited value in today's game, but Thompson is getting the most out of his skill set.

    Cleveland went 2-2 this week, defeating Washington and New York at home. The Cavs had better enjoy that level of competition. Next up on the docket, in order: Bucks, Sixers, Pacers, Hornets, and Raptors. Yowza.

25-21

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    25. Washington Wizards (21)

    John Wall's troublesome left heel didn't seem to bother him during Wednesday's 130-125 overtime loss to the Celtics, as he piled up 34 points and 13 assists. The officials are another story.

    He complained after the Blazers beat Washington on Nov. 18. He told reporters he had "no respect" for the refs after the Wizards got blown out by the Sixers on Nov. 30, and he lamented late calls in the Boston game on Wednesday. Maybe he's got a point, but it's a bad look when a player whose own effort is so often in question shifts blame like this.

    The officials aren't the reason Washington has lost three straight to slip to 11-17.

                  

    24. Orlando Magic (22)

    The Magic, losers in three of their last four, can't score. Much of this is traceable to a 14.8 percent free-throw rate that ranks last in the NBA by a country mile (the next lowest team is the Suns at 17.1 percent).

    Nikola Vucevic has added plenty to his game this year, but he still stinks as a foul-drawer. And when your top offensive option attempts less than three free throws per contest, you're going to have a hard time putting up points.

           

    23. Miami Heat (24)

    Don't be alarmed, but it looks like Justise Winslow is finally putting it all together. He's averaging 18.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.2 assists on 50.7 percent shooting over his last five games. More encouraging than that is his spike in three-point volume. He attempted 10 (and made six) against the Lakers on Monday en route to 28 points and is averaging career highs with 3.3 attempts per game and a 39.0 percent conversion rate.

    Winslow is becoming a complete player after three years of fits and starts. He's still just 22 years old.

    The Heat are currently four games into a rough six-game road swing. They've managed a 2-2 split so far, highlighted by a 23-point dismantling of the Clippers in L.A. on Saturday.

           

    22. Brooklyn Nets (26)

    Spencer Dinwiddie's career-high 39 points gave the Nets an impressive 127-124 win against the Sixers on Wednesday, and we should all support his characterization of the effort, which he labeled "a hood 40", as the best new way to round up.

    This was comfortably Brooklyn's most successful week of the year, as it racked up Ws against Toronto, New York and Philadelphia. Though the 11-18 record doesn't look like much, the Nets are at least trending up for the first time in a month. 

           

    21. Detroit Pistons (18)

    There's just not enough playmaking on this team with Ish Smith sidelined, and the Pistons offense has foreseeably fallen off in the four games since Smith went down with a groin injury. Detroit has actually lost each of its last six contests (Smith has only missed four) while posting a 99.5 offensive rating that would rank last in the league.

    After peaking at 13-7 on Dec. 1, Detroit is all the way back down to .500.

20-16

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    20. Portland Trail Blazers (16)

    Fun fact: The Blazers lead the league in points per transition play, but only the Spurs get out on the break less frequently.

    A little more pace could do wonders for Portland's offense, which completely stalled out in Wednesday's 92-83 loss to the Grizzlies. CJ McCollum scored 40 of the Blazers' paltry total in that one, and Jusuf Nurkic was Gasol'd into a 1-of-15 shooting night.

    The Blazers are 3-8 over their last 11 games and haven't won on the road since Nov. 20.

                  

    19. New Orleans Pelicans (20)

    Anthony Davis hit the Thunder for 44 points and 18 rebounds in Wednesday's 118-114 home win, giving him two straight nights of 40-plus and underscoring for the millionth time that his night-to-night greatness is necessary for the Pels to be even remotely competitive.

    New Orleans outscores opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions with Davis on the court and gets smacked to the tune of a minus-8.8 net rating when he sits.

    As ever, the Pels (2-2 this week and 15-15 on the year) need otherworldly efforts from their best player to survive. I wonder if Davis will consider that unfair burden when deciding on an extension offer this summer...

            

    18. San Antonio Spurs (23)

    The Spurs just completed their first rankings session with a winning record since October, thanks mostly to a defense that finally woke up this week. San Antonio resolutely climbed out of a 15-point hole to beat the Lakers on Friday before holding the Jazz and Suns under 100 points later in the week. The Clippers only got to 87 on Thursday, falling by 38 in San Antonio's biggest win of the season.

    "I think it's just the beginning of what we can be," Rudy Gay told reporters after the win over Utah. "People forget we're still learning. We're trusting each other and we're continuing to be a pretty good defensive team."

    Maybe the Spurs, now 14-14, aren't washed?

         

    17. Minnesota Timberwolves (12)

    The road was rough on the Wolves, who went 0-3 against Portland, Golden State and Sacramento this week to fall to 13-15 on the season. It may seem strange to leave them just outside the top half of our rankings after a stretch like that, but keep in mind that the Wolves are still 9-7 with a plus-4.0 net rating since cutting ties with Jimmy Butler.

    That earns Minnesota some slack.

            

    16. Houston Rockets (13)

    A scheme based on switching necessarily puts defenders at a disadvantage. Bigs have to chase smalls, and smalls have to wrestle with their larger counterparts underneath. Rockets' opponents, after floundering last year, are now exploiting those mismatches with confidence.

    Houston routinely gets crushed on the glass, as guards too often wind up having to wrangle rolling bigs. And though Clint Capela is better than most centers on the defensive perimeter, it's unreasonable to ask him to stick with ball-handlers as often as he's had to this season.

    With wing depth a glaring weakness, the Rockets now also lack James Ennis, who'll miss a week or two after aggravating a hamstring he already strained once this year, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

    Decline finally seems to have come for 33-year-old Chris Paul. He's no longer an elite stopper and is posting his lowest effective field-goal percentage and scoring average since 2011.

    James Harden's 50-point triple-double gave Houston a 126-111 win over the Lakers on Thursday, creating hope that an upswing is imminent. But 27 games into the season, the Rockets are still under .500. 

15-11

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    15. Utah Jazz (15)

    Utah's shooting is normalizing, as evidenced by a 16-of-32 performance from distance in a 111-84 thrashing of the Heat on Wednesday. It was bound to happen. Through Thursday, the Jazz had generated the third-highest frequency of corner threes but made them at the league's 20th-ranked clip.

    The Jazz are 5-3 in their last eight games, but consistency continues to elude them. Some of that has to do with those three-point issues, but more owes to a theoretically elite defense that still ranks outside the top 10.

                       

    14. Sacramento Kings (19)

    This is not a mistake; the Kings have cracked the top half of our rankings.

    Sacramento has won five of its last six games—the latest a thoroughly entertaining 141-130 home win over the Wolves that nearly featured a highlight-of-the-year candidate. Had Marvin Bagley III finished an above-the-square lob from De'Aaron Fox in the fourth quarter, bedlam would have ensued.

    NBA.com's John Schuhmann counted the percentage of minutes each team devotes to first- and second-year players, and the Kings lead the league. That makes their surprising start all the more encouraging; the kids are driving the success. 

                 

    13. Charlotte Hornets (17)

    Kemba Walker broke a string of six straight games in which someone else led the Hornets in scoring, topping Charlotte in points in each of its three wins this week.

    The Hornets continue to own the league's biggest negative discrepancy between actual and expected win totals (the latter's based on point differential), but at least Tony Parker and Walker are making sweet music. They've contributed to a plus-5.8 net rating in the 187 minutes they've shared.

    Jeremy Lamb's game-winner downed the Pistons on Wednesday, but because Charlotte isn't allowed to win close games without extra drama, Malik Monk ran onto the floor to celebrate with time still on the clock, earning a technical foul and gifting the Pistons an extra point. The Hornets still won, 108-107, to complete their perfect week, but it was an on-brand nail-biter.

                   

    12. Memphis Grizzlies (9)

    Marc Gasol's not right, and he hasn't been since he sprained his ankle against the Raptors on Nov. 27—after which he labored through 47 minutes against the Nets on Nov. 30. His numbers since that fateful tweak: 10.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 34.6 percent shooting.

    Memphis (2-2 this week) is still disinterested in corralling its own misses and remains too foul-prone, ranking 29th in offensive rebound percentage and 28th opponent free-throw rate. But, man, can these dudes defend. The Grizz beat Portland by nine points in a game that saw them shoot 41.5 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from deep and 66.7 percent from the foul line.

    Who needs to score when you can smother the other team?

                         

    11. Dallas Mavericks (14)

    Clutch performance is largely random from year to year, which means there's no guarantee Luka Doncic will ever be this good in close-and-late situations again...but geez, let's just live in the moment on this one, shall we?

    Dallas' rookie phenom sports a 63.6 field-goal percentage in the clutch, which is tied with Victor Oladipo for the top accuracy rate among players who've taken at least 20 clutch shots. His personal 11-0 run to ground the Rockets on Saturday is already legendary.

    Harrison Barnes—posting his best true shooting percentage and free-throw rate in three years—has never been more efficient as a Maverick.

    And...

    Dirk's back!

    Nowitzki finally made his season debut against the Suns on Thursday, adding veteran savvy and creaky, lean-back jumpers to a Mavs squad that's occupying playoff position.

10. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 7

    There's not enough quality frontcourt heft in the Los Angeles Clippers' rotation. L.A. is merely average in rebound percentage, though December has been worse than that, and it allows opponents point-blank looks at a top-five rate—which, in this case, is bad.

    Head coach Doc Rivers is steering into the skid by going small, as Danilo Gallinari has seen time at the 5 in undersized lineups. Those units have offensive numbers as predictably awesome as their rebounding numbers have been predictably horrible.

    Lou Williams' hamstring will cost him a couple of weeks, though his absence won't hurt the defense.

    If the Clippers intend to right the ship (they're 2-5 over their last seven games and got annihilated by San Antonio on Thursday), they'll have to find ways to control the paint and the boards more consistently.

9. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Last Week: 8

    Jimmy Butler's groin injury doesn't include structural damage, according to ESPN's Zach Lowe, but the Philadelphia 76ers didn't have him on the floor for a disappointing 127-124 loss to the Nets on Wednesday. The Sixers are 10-3 in games Butler's played this year, and the poor defensive effort that contributed to the Brooklyn loss (the second time Philadelphia has come up short against the Nets), helped underscore Butler's value.

    Ben Simmons is getting better on the block and summoning offensive aggression more consistently, and Joel Embiid looked refreshed in Monday's win over the Pistons (in which he got to the foul line 14 times) after a night off the previous Friday. Against Brooklyn, he amassed 33 points and 17 boards.

    Philadelphia is still 6-2 over its last eight contests, and the only other loss besides Wednesday's came at Toronto and featured 21 Sixers turnovers, an area the team must improve if it intends to get the most out of its offensive talent.

    Another area of potential growth exists on defense, where the Sixers continue to slip in and out of the top 10. Last season, they finished third in points allowed per 100 possessions.    

8. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Last Week: 10

    It seems worth mentioning that LeBron James, the best basketball player to ever live (it's true; fight me!) is scoring at the highest per-minute rate of his career. It helps that he's converting threes and shots from 0 to 3 feet at rates above his career averages, and the Lakers' league-leading transition frequency affords him opportunities to attack scattered defenses—which tends to yield high-percentage scoring chances.

    Brandon Ingram's sprained ankle has cost him four straight games, and he may or may not rejoin the Lakers on their four-game road trip that concludes Dec. 18 in Brooklyn. Rajon Rondo remains out with a fractured hand, but Ingram is the larger short- and long-term concern.

    Since James is playing near peak levels (on offense at least) and the Lakers are still hanging in there as a top-10 defense, the chances they'll grab a top-four seed in the West look increasingly realistic. Especially as so many of the conference's top squads fight injuries (Denver) and massive, soul-jarring disappointment (Houston).

    The Lakers have won six of their last eight games, but just imagine how good this team's outlook would be if Josh Hart could complete high-fives at a league-average rate.

7. Indiana Pacers

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    Last Week: 11

    The Indiana Pacers got Victor Oladipo back—just in time to bludgeon the Bucks 113-97 Wednesday. The victory ran Indy's winning streak to five and closed the chapter of its season sans Oladipo with a laudable 7-4 record.

    The supporting cast got by with a committee approach in Oladipo's absence.

    Darren Collison handed out 17 assists Monday, Myles Turner's live-wire rotations and shot-blocking are a key reason Indy sits at No. 2 in defensive efficiency and Domantas Sabonis hasn't missed a shot all season (don't fact check that; just know he's at 63 percent on the year, which ranks fourth among players who've attempted at least 200 shots).

    Even if Indiana remains cautious with Oladipo's return, which seems a safe assumption given the minutes limit observed Wednesday (29), it'll be tough to deny this squad its spot in the top 10. Many hands have made light work of late. When Oladipo's all the way back, the Pacers will get a little scary.

6. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 3

    Down three starters now that Paul Millsap (broken toe) and Gary Harris (hip strain) are out alongside Will Barton (hip, core), the Denver Nuggets can't lay claim to a top-three spot any longer. As great as Nikola Jokic is, this team isn't deep enough to overcome such heavy losses.

    Fortunately, point guard Monte Morris remains one of the league's most pleasant surprises. His steady, turnover-free stewardship of the offense should keep second units humming.

    Denver went 1-2 with losses at Charlotte and Atlanta to close out its five-game road trip before it returned home to beat the Grizzlies behind 27 points, 12 boards and six assists from Jokic. Morris contributed 20 points, six rebounds and five assists in that one, which led to a team-high plus-14.

    Keep an eye on Malik Beasley over the next handful of games. He's up to 40.2 percent from deep and is in line for significant playing time with Harris and Barton out. The 2016 first-rounder is developing into a useful rotation weapon by simplifying his game and curtailing mistakes.

    With OKC and Toronto on deck, the Nuggets' remaining healthy bodies have work ahead.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 4

    It's hard to know what to make of that 114-112 loss to Chicago last Friday. When the best defense in the league surrenders 70 first-half points to an opponent that'll be lucky to win 20 games, it feels sensible to write it off as a fluke.

    As Denver loses starters left and right, the Oklahoma City Thunder were the easy pick to assume No. 2 status among West teams. If anything, that sells OKC short, as it owns the conference's top net rating and leads the league in defensive efficiency.

    Paul George has subtly surpassed Russell Westbrook as OKC's best player, even though Russ is averaging a triple-double (again). George is posting career highs across the board—points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and three-point attempts per game—while ranking second in the league in deflections and second among small forwards in ESPN's DRPM

    The Thunder (1-2 this week after getting bombed by Anthony Davis' 44 points Wednesday) are far from perfect. They still can't shoot, as they sit in the league's bottom three in three-point percentage. But with a defense this stout and two-way play this eye-opening from a better-than-ever George, they still belong this high in the rankings.

4. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 2

    The Warriors caught them on a cold-shooting Friday that also featured some tough whistles, but the Milwaukee Bucks recovered to best Toronto the following Sunday. A breezy 108-92 takedown of the Cavs and a surprising slip against Indiana amounted to a 2-2 week.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo missed that Cleveland win with neck soreness, but he was back Wednesday—albeit in diminished form. He managed 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting en route to a minus-31 night. Hopefully, Antetokounmpo isn't limited for long. That'd spoil a season in which he's dunked more frequently than anyone other than prime Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard, which seems like an efficient way to score.

    Malcolm Brogdon probably needs some pub, too, considering he and Stephen Curry are the only guys who sport 50/40/90 shooting splits (among players who've seen action in at least five games this year).

    Milwaukee continues to lead the league in net rating, though its advantage has gradually dwindled over the last several rankings sessions. Still, when you're knocking off opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions over a third of the season, you're doing a lot right.

3. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 6

    Just as they were hitting their offensive stride, the Boston Celtics turned into the walking wounded.

    Aron Baynes, Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford all missed Boston's meeting with the Pelicans on Monday. It didn't matter in that 113-100 win, as Marcus Morris put up a team-high 31 points and Jaylen Brown added 19 off the bench.

    The Celtics might seem to have a case for a top-two spot, but all those injuries and the fact that they fattened up on the Bulls, Pelicans and Wizards this week means we can't look at a seven-game win streak and conclude everything's perfect.

    Hayward's illness kept him home for Wednesday's 130-125 overtime win against Washington, and Horford is set to miss a few games as he works through "patellofemoral pain syndrome," head coach Brad Stevens told reporters.

    Irving's shoulder only cost him one game, and he looked darn good while pouring in 38 points (several of which were clutch) against the Wizards, but considering the caution with which Boston is approaching Horford's knee soreness, it shouldn't be a surprise if Irving (or anyone else who's working through an ailment) gets a preventative day off here or there.

2. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 5

    Is there an award higher than MVP? If there is, what does it look like?

    Maybe like a glowing orb locked in a vibranium safe that only Adam Silver, David Stern and Dikembe Mutombo can access by turning three keys simultaneously, deep in a bunker at an undisclosed location that is definitely not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's basement?

    I ask only because we'll have to figure out what to do with Stephen Curry, who's matching or beating his career-best figures in field-goal percentage, three-point percentage and free-throw percentage. If a guy is effectively outperforming the standard he set when winning back-to-back MVP awards, we've got to find an honor commensurate with that achievement.

    Anyway, the Warriors look like the Warriors again, and that includes Wednesday's snoozy, checked-out loss to the Raptors. Over the years, that kind of letdown at full strength (against a seemingly vulnerable opponent) has become predictable. But Curry is healthy and wreaking havoc with a smile all over the league, and Draymond Green is on the floor again after a career-long 11-game absence to rest his ailing toe.

    Since so many other top-tier teams suffered injuries or dropped games, moving the Warriors up, even after that Toronto loss, makes sense.

    Golden State went 2-1 this week, became the season's first team to hold the Bucks offense under a point per possession Friday (without Green), per NBA.com's John Schuhmann, and has won four of its last five.   

1. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 1

    The Toronto Raptors initially responded to last week's elevation to No. 1 with a 1-2 stretch that the rankings committee viewed as a personal affront. And then the Raps disassembled the Warriors by 20 in Oakland on Wednesday.

    Without Kawhi Leonard.

    On the second night of a back-to-back set.

    Leonard's hip is a concern. He looked uncomfortable after he landed awkwardly in the fourth quarter on Sunday against Milwaukee and has missed two straight. No word on whether the Elf-abet includes DNP-hip.

    Kyle Lowry scored 21 points against the Clips and 23 against Golden State, ending a funk to end all funks. He failed to score in double figures over a four-game stretch from Dec. 3 to Dec. 9 and put up a goose egg in 34 minutes against Milwaukee. It's safe to say a bucket or two from Lowry would have mattered in that 104-99 loss.

    The Raps are exceptionally deep, and they're still comfortable members of the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, the minimum bar for contender consideration. It also doesn't hurt that they're earning the approval of their biggest threats.

    After Toronto held the Dubs to 93 points and outclassed the champs in every facet, Kevin Durant told reporters"They're not an up-and-coming team. They're here."

    That endorsement, along with a league-best 23-7 record and a plus-7.9 net rating that only narrowly trails Milwaukee's plus-8.4, is more than enough to retain the top spot.

                      

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, Dec. 13.