NBA Power Rankings: Healthy Warriors Emerge from Crowded Top Tier

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 21, 2018

NBA Power Rankings: Healthy Warriors Emerge from Crowded Top Tier

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    Parity, injuries and a dearth of tankers make this week's edition of NBA Power Rankings a tough as they've been in a long time.

    In particular, the middle of these rankings is a complete mess. Teams slotted as low as 20th could all make cases they belong 10 spots higher, and a couple of clubs that cracked the top 10 could easily sit in the late teens. This is what happens when 16 of the NBA's 30 teams have between 14 and 18 wins.

    At least we've got a clear top seven separating from the pack. The Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Toronto Raptors, Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers all have net ratings north of plus-5.0 points per 100 possessions. No one else in the league is above plus-2.2.

    We'll take every shred of clarity we can get.

    As always, rankings are based on full-season stats, health, recent play and a little gut feeling to settle close calls. Ideally, the order reflects the NBA hierarchy as it exists at the moment.

    Have a great week, and please appreciate my restraint in not burdening this batch of rankings with a holiday theme. I respect all of you too much for gimmicks like that.


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    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

    30. Chicago Bulls (29)

    The sample's small, but it doesn't appear head coach Jim Boylen's approach is working. Since taking over for Fred Hoiberg, Boylen has installed an offense that produces 94.9 points per 100 possessions, which would rank last in the league by a mile.

    To be fair, the defense has improved. And it'll likely get even better now that serial off-ball snoozer Zach LaVine is out for 2-4 weeks with a sprained ankle ligament.

    Even after beating the Spurs on Saturday, Chicago is comfortably last in the league with a minus-10.6 net rating.


    29. Atlanta Hawks (27)

    The Hawks are generally getting smashed and have lost seven of their last nine games, but they've got ways to be decent when they want to. Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Taurean Prince, John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon's net rating together is plus-2.0 in 71 minutes.

    Huerter, specifically, warrants singling out (partially because we've praised Collins for, like, a month straight). He's shooting 48.3 percent from deep over his last five games.


    28. New York Knicks (28)

    The Knicks have surrendered at least 30 points in 57 quarters this season, which amounts to 43.2 percent of the quarters they've played. Scoring is up across the league, but not enough to excuse that kind of defensive generosity.

    New York has lost eight of its last nine games and now sits 29th in defensive efficiency—and 30th if you cut out garbage time.

    At least Kevin Knox is pepping things up by trying to dunk. On everyone. From everywhere.


    27. Cleveland Cavaliers (26)

    Larry Nance's last-second tip-in beat the Pacers on Tuesday and gave Cleveland its lone win of the week. With Tristan Thompson due to miss another couple of weeks with a sprained foot, Nance's role should increase. And with prolific alley-oop tosser Matthew Dellavedova back in the fold, his opportunities to finish lobs should spike as well.

    The Cavs are 3-4 over their last seven games but rank 28th in effective field-goal percentage and effective field-goal percentage allowed. That's a rough combo.


    26. Phoenix Suns (30)

    The Suns went 3-0 with Devin Booker back this week and are actually on a four-game winning streak after dropping 10 in a row. You're not alone if this information caused you to wonder if the Earth's magnetic poles had reversed due to Hell freezing over.

    Kelly Oubre Jr. looked frisky in his first action with the team after coming aboard in the Trevor Ariza trade, and Deandre Ayton posted 23 points and 18 boards in a shocking win against the Celtics in Boston on Wednesday.

    Basically, Phoenix has looked good lately. Stay alert out there. These are strange times.


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    25. Washington Wizards (25)

    John Wall put up 28 points and eight assists on 12-of-18 shooting in the first half of Wednesday's 128-110 win over the Lakers, torching L.A. badly enough to prompt an unusual tactic: The Lakers broke out a box-and-one zone to slow him down in the second.

    Relatively speaking, it worked. Wall finished with *only* 40 points and 14 assists in Washington's lone win since Dec. 5.

    Trevor Ariza has only been aboard this sinking ship for a few days, and he's already talking like he's been around all year.

    "We lack effort. A lot," he told Candace Buckner of the Washington Post after the Wizards got blown out in Houston on Wednesday.


    24. Orlando Magic (24)

    The Magic swept their two-game trip to Mexico City, averaging just 96.5 points per game in a pair of high-altitude slogs. Those totals didn't do much for Orlando's scoring numbers, as the Magic now rank 27th in offensive efficiency.

    Perhaps feeling some fatigue after a tough trip, Orlando got annihilated by the Spurs on Wednesday, falling by a final of 129-90.

    Though the Magic were technically the home team in Mexico City, they haven't won a game in Orlando since Nov. 18. 


    23. Miami Heat (23)

    Goran Dragic will miss two months following right knee surgery, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, which ups the odds Miami will finish the season with a bottom-five offense. That's about how the Heat have scored this year whenever Dragic has been on the bench.

    Josh Richardson is already stretched as a playmaker, and even though Justise Winslow has developed his facilitation, he's best used as a secondary (or even tertiary) option. Normally, you'd say a selloff was imminent in the wake of the Dragic news, but the Heat's bevy of role-players on above-market contracts aren't exactly hot commodities.

    Credit Miami for a winning week under tough circumstances, though.


    22. Minnesota Timberwolves (17)

    Maybe the post-Jimmy Butler exuberance has worn off.

    The Wolves have dropped five of their last six games while allowing 113.9 points per 100 possessions in that span. Only the Knicks, Wizards and Clippers have been worse on D since Dec. 4. On the year, Minnesota's opponents have rebounded 28.6 percent of their own misses, good (bad?) enough to slot the Wolves at No. 28 in that stat. 

    It's tough to get stops when the other team gets a second crack at scoring that often.


    21. Detroit Pistons (21)

    This feels too low for the Pistons, who are 15-14 on the year and just completed a 2-1 week with single-digit wins over Boston and Minnesota. Even their loss was close, a 107-104 defeat against Milwaukee. Reggie Bullock had a career-high 24 points in that one, and Blake Griffin has been reliably productive as the offensive initiator.

    At the same time, Detroit is 21st in net rating, has been outscored this season and lacks secondary creation to an alarming degree. So this feels about right.


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    20. Sacramento Kings (14)

    In one end-to-end sequence against the Mavs on Sunday, De'Aaron Fox showed why he's solidified his status as one of the league's rising stars. Elevating over DeAndre Jordan for a board, landing in that badass tripod crouch you see every Marvel movie superhero use, tying the Dallas defense in knots as he burned rubber up the floor and then finishing a contested layup in traffic...with his off hand. He did all this in under six seconds.

    Unfortunately for the Kings, injuries and a couple of blowout losses matter more to their ranking than Fox's flashes of brilliance.

    Iman Shumpert, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley all missed Wednesday's 132-113 home loss to OKC, and the bone bruise in Bagley's knee will cost him at least another week.

    At 1-3 this week, the Kings feel back out of playoff position after climbing into the seventh spot for a short spell. 


    19. Memphis Grizzlies (12)

    Nobody had a rougher week than Memphis, which stumbled to a 0-4 mark riddled with big losing margins that produced a minus-8.6 net rating.

    The offense cratered and has scored more than 100 points just once in December. The stout defense slackened, and the pace, already slowest in the league overall, got even more sluggish.

    When Memphis is playing well, it's still ugly. When it's struggling, the product is downright unwatchable.


    18. New Orleans Pelicans (19)

    The Pels went 0-2 in a light week, falling by six at home against the Heat (yuck) and eight on the road against the Bucks (no shame there). Still short on quality wings, New Orleans will struggle to be better than a middling outfit until it shores up its depth.

    Too often, supreme efforts by Anthony Davis are going for naught as opposing scorers run wild. Fourth in offense and 25th on the other end, the Pelicans are among the most imbalanced teams in the league.


    17. Brooklyn Nets (22)

    Spencer Dinwiddie got paid, which raises the issue of D'Angelo Russell's future. Further complicating matters: Russell has been awesome of late.

    He pumped in 32 points on 13-of-19 shooting against Atlanta on Sunday, helping the Nets to a season-high 144 points. Then, against his old Lakers team on Tuesday, he handed out a career-high-tying 13 assists and buried a 25-foot dagger with 22.4 seconds left that sealed the win.

    The Nets have won seven straight for the first time since 2012-13, their inaugural season in Brooklyn.


    16. Charlotte Hornets (13)

    Maybe you would have liked to see the Nets climb higher, but that would have required ignoring Charlotte's net rating, which, incredibly, is still in the top 10. I mean, to some extent we're still ignoring it by slotting them this low, but the Hornets went just 1-2 this week to fall to .500 on the season. Wins and losses still have to count for something.

    The Hornets lost to the Knicks at home this past Friday. There's no excuse for that.


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    15. Los Angeles Clippers (10)

    The Clippers' hot start feels like it happened years ago, as a brutal stretch sent them tumbling from their early-December perch atop the West. Only the Knicks and Cavs have been worse on defense this month.

    Tobias Harris had 39 in Monday's loss to Portland, but he's been short on help as Lou Williams' absence has created a scoring void.

    The Clips aren't as bad as they've been this month, but it's now safe to say they're nowhere near as good as they looked through the end of November.


    14. Utah Jazz (15)

    The Jazz are up to second in defensive efficiency since Dec. 1, a welcome sign for a team whose early struggles on that end were among the biggest mysteries in the league.

    In Wednesday's home win over the Warriors, the Jazz overcame Donovan Mitchell's worst shooting night of the season, a 5-of-26 clunker in which he had more turnovers than field-goals, Utah leaned on its stopping power to limit the NBA's No. 2 offense to a 45.3 effective field-goal percentage.

    Identity rediscovered, Utah should now start seeing some better results.


    13. Dallas Mavericks (11)

    If superhuman court vision by 19-year-olds factored into the rankings criteria, Dallas would probably be locked into our No. 1 spot for the umpteenth consecutive week. Luka Doncic put on a true passing clinic during 126-118 loss at Denver, piling up 12 assists and finding shooters on the weak side corner like they had homing beacons attached to them.

    The Mavs have hit a rough patch of late, though, and Doncic's passing, while breathtaking, hasn't been enough to overcome cold shooting and shoddy defense.

    Dallas won't see an opponent from the softer East until after New Year's, so the upcoming stretch could get ugly.


    12. Portland Trail Blazers (20)

    Portland took down the Raptors, Clippers and Grizzlies in a 3-0 week that saw Damian Lillard average 29 points per game. The run has the Blazers all the way back up to 18-13 on the year, but since they play in the West, they're still just two games out of the lottery.

    The Blazers don't generate many extra possessions by forcing opponent turnovers, as they rank 29th in that stat on the season. Fortunately, Portland is all the way up to fourth in offensive rebound percentage. There's more than one way to create additional scoring chances.


    11. San Antonio Spurs (18)

    We should all just start keeping some version of the following pasted to a clipboard for use whenever the Spurs inevitably render rumors of their demise premature.

    San Antonio has won six of its last seven behind a dialed-in defense and timely shooting, rising from outside the playoff race to position itself, once again, for a postseason trip. 

    That's exactly what's happened with the Spurs lately, but you'd only have to change a word or two to make it apply when they do this again in 2019. Or 2020. Or 2050, for that matter. It'll be a real time-saver.

    The Spurs are the cockroaches of the NBA, and that is absolutely a compliment. They will outlive us all.

10. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last Week: 8

    The Lakers came up short against the lowly Wizards and surging Nets to close out a 1-3 road trip this week.

    Apparently, desperation set in. How else would you explain LeBron James, who scored a season-low 13 points against the Wizards on Sunday and got stuffed at the rim by Jarrett Allen on Tuesday, warming to the idea of adding Carmelo Anthony to the roster?

    On a more positive note, James and Lonzo Ball became the first Lakers teammates with triple-doubles on the same night since Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1982. They pulled off the feat in L.A.'s 128-100 win over the Hornets on Saturday.

    Defensively, the Lakers are still outperforming expectations. Even after this tough stretch, they're still just barely in the top 10 on that end. If they could do any better than 20th in half-court offense, it'd go a long way toward a move up the rankings.

9. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 9

    The Sixers (2-2 since we last ranked) lost by double-digits to the Pacers and Spurs this week. The former defeat came with Jimmy Butler on the sidelines recuperating from a groin injury, and the latter saw Butler go just 3-of-13 from the field.

    Butler's health is the easy issue to isolate, but Philadelphia's overriding problems are in the depth and perimeter-defense departments. Too often, the Sixers have undersized or inexperienced guards manning the wings; Landry Shamet is especially miscast in that role.

    Also, here's something weird: Butler, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are only producing a plus-6.8 net rating together this year. That's 12th-best among three-man Sixers units that have shared at least 200 minutes. It's possible a lack of familiarity is still contributing to that trio's underwhelming performance, but it'd be nice to see a group with such a high profile do more damage—especially when we know the rest of the roster is struggling to keep its head above water.

    The Sixers rank in the bottom third of the league in turnovers forced and committed, and it's also a bit alarming that they currently have the second-largest discrepancy between expected and actual wins, according to Cleaning the Glass. If not for some luck in close games, the Sixers' record wouldn't look nearly as good.

8. Houston Rockets

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    Last Week: 16

    We've yo-yo'd the Rockets all over the place this season, at times convinced last year's level of excellence (or something close to it) was still hiding in there somewhere while, at others, forced to acknowledge this season's ugly numbers.

    If Houston makes this rankings jump look shortsighted in a few days, it won't be the first time. 

    After setting an NBA record with 26 made threes in a blowout win over the Wizards on Wednesday, the Rockets had themselves a season-high-tying five-game winning streak. They fell on the second night of a back-to-back when Eric Gordon's potential game-winner missed against Miami on Thursday night, but that was a schedule loss if ever there was one.

    James Harden, predictably, is driving Houston's success. He closed out the last rankings session with a 50-point triple-double against the Lakers, hit the Jazz for 47 points on Monday and looked unstoppable with an easy 35 on Wednesday.

    Nearly as important, Houston's continued efforts to switch less are working. The Rockets held Memphis and Utah (hardly offensive dynamos, sure) to 97 points apiece this week, and their defensive efficiency during the winning streak has been respectably mid-pack, far better than their bottom-five figure for the year.

    "Now it's on a have-to basis and not a want-to basis," head coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters of his decision to scrap wholesale switching. "We're trying to keep our big at home, try to keep him where he rebounds more. That's been a problem for us."

    So far, so good.

7. Indiana Pacers

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Last Week: 7

    Victor Oladipo missed a pair of free throws with 9.5 seconds left against Cleveland on Tuesday that would have given Indy a three-point lead, rendered Larry Nance's game-winning tip-in meaningless and extended the Pacers' season-long winning streak to eight games.

    The irony of Oladipo costing the Pacers a win after his team went 0-7 in games he missed last year is hard to overstate, but the inversion underscores just how stellar the rest of the Pacers (who went 7-4 during Oladipo's recent 11-game absence) have been.

    We focused on Myles Turner, Bojan Bogdanovic and Domantas Sabonis when the Pacers hung tough without Oladipo, and though all three deserved praise, we neglected Thaddeus Young. This was an oversight.

    Young's defense at the 4 has been integral to Indiana's excellence on that end, and his reliable scoring (double digits in 15 of his last 17 games) shores up a 20th-ranked offense that needs all the help it can get.

    This past week, the Pacer went just 2-2, but they also made Kelly Krauskopf the first female assistant GM in league history. Good on you, Indy.

6. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 3

    Detroit ended Boston's eight-game winning streak on Saturday, and the hangover seemed to extend to a dispiriting home defeat against the Suns on Wednesday.

    Boston's offense had been the real revelation in this recent run until it managed just 103 points against Phoenix's porous defense. Still, the Celtics' league-leading net rating in December owes to the month's No. 2 points-per-possession figure. For a team that finished November ranked 22nd in scoring efficiency, that's a big deal.

    Kyrie Irving is filling it up nightly and Marcus Morris is posting career highs in scoring and true shooting percentage, but the plague of injuries infected Morris this week as well. He missed Wednesday's loss with a sore knee, and Aron Baynes, who'd been starting for Al Horford, broke his hand in the first quarter. He'll miss a month, according to the Athletic's Shams Charania.

    Horford has been out for the last six games (but is now being re-evaluated daily, which is encouraging), Boston had leaned on a committee approach up front. Now, that collective is stretched even thinner. Robert Williams swatted five shots in 16 minutes on Dec. 14 against Atlanta, and Daniel Thiess can spread the floor, but we should expect to see a few more nights like Wednesday, when Boston got hammered on the glass by a margin of 56-37.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 5

    Paul George ranks second in the league in deflections and leads all players in loose balls recovered by a mile, and he's been OKC's leading scorer more often than Russell Westbrook this season. He hit the Kings for 43 on Wednesday. At age 28, he's firmly in his prime, leading a Thunder team that has the best record and net rating in the league if you start tabulating after that bizarre, Russ-less 0-4 start.

    The Thunder started the week with a loss at Denver but recovered to win three straight and join the 20-victory club.

    Still too shaky on offense to profile as s true title threat, Oklahoma City's league-best defense is more than good enough to rack up regular-season wins and make a top-three seed in the absurdly cramped West a possibility.

    Finally, the Steven Adams Euro-step is real, and it is spectacular. If you're more of a traditionalist, his 20-point, 23-rebound game against the Kings on Wednesday was pretty cool, too.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 1

    The Raptors are 3-4 in their last seven games, which means we can't just look at their head-to-head win at Golden State on Dec. 12 and conclude the top spot is theirs until the Warriors get revenge...which they won't, by the way. At least not in the regular season. The Dubs and Raptors won't play again, if at all, until a potential meeting in the Finals.

    And then there's the health factor. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka are all banged up, and Jonas Valanciunas is set to miss at least four weeks following surgery to repair his dislocated left thumb. Weakened and predictably struggling in the win-loss department, Toronto had to slip this week.

    There's no question these guys are on the short list of title contenders, but that's not what these rankings are about. Current strength is what matters, and there's no rational argument that these injury-hit Raptors are in peak form.

3. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 4

    Increasingly, Giannis Antetokounmpo's numbers look like clerical errors. They're too gaudy, too consistently ridiculous to be real.

    If his numbers hold, he'll be the only player in league history to average 26.9 points, 12.9 boards and 6.1 assists which, in the confirmation-bias-seeking scheme of Basketball Reference database cherry-picking, isn't remotely out of line. It's not like I searched for players who average more than 19 points per game on Tuesdays while wearing one sock; these are basic, old-school numbers, and Antetokounmpo stands alone.

    He blitzed the Cavs for 44 points, 14 boards and eight assists on 14-of-19 shooting this past Friday and is likely to break the single-season dunk record as long as he stays healthy.

    Milwaukee has won five of its last six games, continues to lead the league in net rating and has actually defended better in the month of December than it has overall

2. Denver Nuggets

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Last Week: 6

    The Nuggets are up to fourth in net rating, and their nine losses are tied for fewest in the league. Initially, we dinged Denver in the wake of injuries to 60 percent of its starting five, but with the wins piling up, there's no way to justify dismissing this team. That Denver is holding so strong in the wake of major casualties says everything about its depth...and also about Nikola Jokic, who absolutely deserves MVP consideration.

    Jokic pasted the Mavericks with 32 points, 16 rebounds, four assists and three steals in Tuesday's 126-118 win, and he is currently on a streak of five consecutive games in which he's made at least half his shots from the field.

    With Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Will Barton still absent from the first unit, Jamal Murray has also stepped up. Noticeably better on defense this season, Murray is also rounding out his game on the other end. He led Denver with 15 assists in that win over Dallas.

    Finally, shout out to Monte Morris, who leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio and who could probably start for a dozen teams.

    The Nuggets are a sterling 11-2 since falling in Milwaukee way back on Nov. 19.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 2

    Last year, the Warriors' bench ranked 28th in three-point percentage. Cut to this season, and you'll see the Warriors' reserves leading the league in that stat. Alfonzo McKinnie and Quinn Cook are both over 40 percent, and Jonas Jerebko is close behind. Andre Iguodala is hitting at the second-highest clip of his career and best since his lone All-Star season in 2011-12. Even little-used Damion Lee is at 43.3 percent. 

    We've buried the lede, of course, as everyone knows Golden State's true strength is in its starters. And now that Damian Jones is out for an extended period with a torn pectoral, Kevon Looney slots into his rightful spot with the first unit.

    Looney, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green have utterly destroyed opponents when they share the floor, and they figure to spend more time together (now that Green is healthy again) than they did earlier this year. When a heavy-minute group buries teams by 22.0 points per 100 possessions, fourth-best of any regular starting five with at least 70 minutes together, the league has a real problem to contend with.

    The Warriors are healthier, deeper and more dangerous at the top than they've been all year. Also, DeMarcus Cousins is due back in less than a month, sources told B/R's Ken Berger.

    Winners in six of their last eight and finally equipped with a full rotation, the Warriors are going to coast their way to the odd loss here or there (see: Utah on Wednesday). But with injuries and inconsistency hitting just about everyone else in the top seven, it's safe to give Golden State a return to No. 1 for now.


    Stats courtesy of, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, Dec. 20.