NBA Power Rankings: Giannis, Bucks Return to Familiar Top Spot

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 28, 2018

NBA Power Rankings: Giannis, Bucks Return to Familiar Top Spot

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    The top seven spots in our NBA power rankings continue to change hands, but the addition of some recent climbers means we're now looking at an expanded upper tier of as many as nine teams. Basically, almost a third of the league has played well enough lately to warrant passing consideration for the top spot.

    And that's without even considering recent surges outside the top tier from the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets. As if sorting out the top 10 wasn't hard enough every week, now we have tough calls to make in the 11-15 and 16-20 ranges, too.

    In a calming development, the squad that ultimately seized No. 1 from a crowded mass of consideration-worthy teams has been there before. A lot. The Milwaukee Bucks, who blew the doors off the league in November, are back on top at the end of December.

    It is now appropriate to fear the deer again.

    As always, rankings are based on record, peripheral catch-all metrics like net rating, health and recent play. 

30-26

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    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

    30. New York Knicks (28)

    Noah Vonleh is suddenly the player many thought he'd be back when he was drafted ninth in 2014, Emmanuel Mudiay has three 30-point games in the last two weeks, and Kevin Knox recently topped the 20-point mark in three straight. That's the good news.

    The bad: New York has lost 11 of its last 12 games and ranks 29th in defensive efficiency.

            

    29. Cleveland Cavaliers (27)

    Matthew Dellavedova is paying dividends, as the Cavs have a plus-6.0 net rating in his minutes since coming back over from the Bucks via trade. Sure, Cleveland has lost four straight and six of its last seven, but at least it looks halfway decent when a point guard who thinks to pass the ball once in a while runs the show.

    The Cavs' 8-27 mark is the worst in the league.

           

    28. Chicago Bulls (30)

    Lauri Markkanen hit his stride this week, combining for 63 points in double-digit wins over the Magic and Cavs, and the Bulls are a respectable 3-3 over their last six games.

    Zach LaVine returned Wednesday after missing five games with an ankle injury. He led the Bulls with 28 points in a 119-94 defeat of the Wolves and should contribute to higher scores...for Chicago and its opponents.

            

    27. Atlanta Hawks (29)

    Kent Bazemore's 32 points on Wednesday weren't enough to prevent the end of Atlanta's season-high three-game winning streak, as the Hawks fell at home to the Pacers by a final of 129-121.

    Though it's probably not cool to harp on troubling stats with Atlanta's best stretch of the year so recently completed, it warrants mentioning that the Hawks have the least efficient half-court offense in the NBA and that Trae Young is technically the second-worst pull-up shooter in the league. Those two stats are likely related, and they suggest this freshly halted three-game winning streak won't happen again.

            

    26. Orlando Magic (24)

    Aaron Gordon's awesome rejection of a Lauri Markkanen dunk attempt last Friday stands out as the lone bright spot in a difficult stretch that dropped the Magic to their lowest ranking in weeks.

    Orlando has lost four in a row and has the second-worst offense in the league since Dec. 1. An approach that generates few attempts at the rim and almost never draws shooting fouls means the Magic's crummy offensive rating is unlikely to change. Everyone knows it, but this offseason's top priority must be the acquisition of a guard who can break down the defense and get into the lane.

    Until Orlando adds someone with that skill set, points will be tough to come by. 

25-21

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    25. Phoenix Suns (26)

    The four-game winning streak that arrived out of nowhere last week gave way to a more familiar 1-2 stretch, but the Suns are still 5-2 over their last seven games.

    Though his defensive instincts are still dull and his impact on winning remains underwhelming, Deandre Ayton showed flashes of stopping power down the stretch against Orlando on Wednesday. And he continues to make a habit of getting numbers. Over his last five games, the top pick is averaging 20.8 points and 15.6 rebounds on 66.7 percent shooting from the field. Next step: making the right help rotation once every five possessions—rather than 10.

    Finally, Devin Booker continues to produce, showing no rust since returning from his hamstring injury on Dec. 15. On the year, he's one of three players averaging 24 points and seven assists. The other two are LeBron James and James Harden. Not bad.

            

    24. Washington Wizards (25)

    At 4-16, the Wizards now own the most road losses in the league. This might actually be a good thing, if you squint, mostly because it illustrates how Washington has played more road games than anyone but the Jazz. That means less traveling is ahead in the second half of the season, and the Wizards are a solid 9-6 at home.

    Bizarre tidbit from this week that may distract from the fact that Washington is 2-8 in its last 10 games: Thomas Bryant was a perfect 14-of-14 from the field against Phoenix on Saturday. Only Wilt Chamberlain has ever made more field goals without a miss.

              

    23. Minnesota Timberwolves (22)

    Andrew Wiggins turned in his first 30-point game of the year during Sunday's 114-112 win over the Thunder, and Derrick Rose got MVP chants while scoring 24 points against the Bulls in Chicago.

    Minnesota's 2-1 week helped deaden the sting of a 1-5 stretch that seriously compromised its playoff position. The Wolves can still get back into the mix, but they'll have to rectify a shoddy shot profile first. They're in the bottom 10 in attempt frequency from deep and at the rim.

             

    22. Detroit Pistons (21)

    Blake Griffin missed a pair of critical late free throws against Atlanta on Sunday, and the result was probably Detroit's worst loss of the year: a 98-95 defeat at home to the tanking Hawks.

    The Pistons recovered to beat Washington by a final of 106-95 on Wednesday, which moved them back to an even 16-16 on the season. Of course, if you care about recency (which we do), Detroit is just 3-9 since that surprising 13-7 start.

    Only Memphis, Orlando and Chicago have been less efficient on offense since Dec. 1.

            

    21. Memphis Grizzlies (19)

    If his willingness to fire off step-back threes in LeBron James' eye tells us anything, Jaren Jackson Jr.'s confidence is growing. He posted 27 points and nine rebounds during that 107-99 victory in Los Angeles on Sunday and has continued to play remarkable defense for a rookie.

    It helps that he's got a committed mentor in Marc Gasol.

    "I feel a responsibility to him, no doubt," Gasol told the Washington Post's Ben Golliver. "I've invested most of my life into this franchise and they've invested in me. When you have a player with this potential, you must build him the right way. Show him how to prepare for games and let him know there will be no days off."

    If only Gasol could keep the offense from taking days off. Memphis, 2-5 over its last seven games, has scored over 100 points just twice this month.

20-16

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    20. New Orleans Pelicans (18)

    New Orleans went winless on its four-game road trip and has lost five straight overall—all by single digits.

    Anthony Davis, who, at this point we must assume is just playing out the string with the Pelicans before a trade this summer, soldiers on for a Pels team short on talent and hit by injuries to Nikola Mirotic and Elfrid Payton. He's averaging 28.4 points, 15.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.4 blocks over his last five games—numbers that are right around what he's done all year.

    Even as hope slips away, AD is still giving what he can.

            

    19. Miami Heat (23)

    Behind the league's lowest effective field-goal percentage allowed, Miami just completed the most impressive stretch of its season, a 5-1 surge that included wins over Houston and Milwaukee, plus a two-point loss to the Raptors on Wednesday.

    Justise Winslow is the point guard now, officially, and the Heat have been playing more zone lately. Basically, a veteran-led, battle-tested and resourceful organization is doing everything it can think of to stay competitive. It's worked. Miami is 9-4 since slipping to 7-13 a month ago.

            

    18. Charlotte Hornets (16)

    When you lose as many close games as the Hornets, it's reasonable to search for tiny inefficiencies in the roster's makeup. With close margins so often determining outcomes in Charlotte's games, a rebound here or a lost ball there could make all the difference.

    According to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer, there's one conspicuous issue that doesn't take much searching to find: "It wasn't a mistake to trade [Dwight] Howard. He would not have fit into the quick-decision/ball-movement style coach James Borrego was installing, and Howard would have chafed at an inevitable reduced role as a reserve. But Howard's departure meant the Hornets had to become an ensemble rebounding team to mitigate that loss."

    The Hornets are 22nd in rebound percentage after ranking fifth last year, which seems relevant.

    Charlotte has lost two of its last three games and has outrebounded its opponents in just three of its last 14 contests.

            

    17. Sacramento Kings (20)

    The Kings erased 19-point deficits against Memphis and New Orleans, winning consecutive games with stirring comebacks. Buddy Hield has been scorching of late, and he put up 28 points in both victories.

    Sacramento's relentless pace-pushing means it can conjure staggering scoring blitzes whenever opponents who get a little too comfortable with leads stop to take a breath. Head coach Dave Joerger might prefer a more even-keeled approach, but the Kings' swoon-and-surge method is producing results.

    "The identity that we're never out of a game, we love," Joerger told reporters after Sunday's comeback against the Pels. "The identity of starting slow because we're going to catch you later is not what I'm looking for."

    Naturally, the Kings came from 15 down to beat the Lakers Thursday on Bogdan Bogdanovic's buzzer-beating game-winner.

    Sacramento currently has the lowest net rating of any team sniffing around playoff position. But when you've missed the postseason every year since 2006, you'll punch your ticket however you can.

            

    16. Dallas Mavericks (13)

    Dallas pulled out of its nosedive with a 122-119 win over the Pels on Wednesday, mercifully halting a six-game plunge in which the average margin of defeat was only six points. Those close calls mean we can't be as negative about the Mavs' recent play as the record suggests we should, but from a playoff-position perspective, the skid has done real damage.

    Dallas was 15-12 and firmly in the playoff picture on Dec. 12. Now, two weeks later, it's on the outside with a 16-17 mark.

    Obligatory Luka Doncic note: It was already hard to keep a lid on the exuberance surrounding Dallas' rookie phenom, but it'll be impossible if he continues hitting circus shots to send games to overtime. Or putting up lines like the one he produced against New Orleans: 21 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds and just one turnover in 31 minutes of a badly needed win.

15-11

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    15. Brooklyn Nets (17)

    Brooklyn survived a truly strange meeting with the Hornets on Wednesday. Back-and-forth late-game fouling, some Joe Harris magic from deep and Spencer Dinwiddie's 37 points off the bench ultimately earned the Nets their ninth win in 10 tries, a 134-132 overtime thriller.

    Yes, this is the same Nets team that lost eight straight from Nov. 21 to Dec. 5.

    Luck's been a factor, as Brooklyn is only 13th in net rating since Dec. 1. The wins have come, but many have been close. That's why one of the hottest teams in the league only climbs a few more spots this week. Enjoy the run, but don't get carried away; several of these victories could have gone the other way.

             

    14. Los Angeles Clippers (15)

    L.A. recovered well after last week's tumble and has won three of its last four. If not for Stephen Curry's game-winning layup on Sunday, we might be talking about a Clips team that bounced back from four straight defeats with a matching four-game winning streak. 

    Still, a three-out-of-four stretch looks good. And though we've harped on the Clippers' worrisome defensive numbers in recent weeks, there are also encouraging stats.

    Like the one showing L.A. has the highest free-throw rate in the NBA. If you can get to the line, it helps produce reliable points, but it also benefits a shaky defensive team by allowing it to get its personnel set more often.

            

    13. Portland Trail Blazers (12)

    The schedule's been difficult, and the Blazers' overall defensive metrics are starting to get a little worrisome. They're 20th in defensive efficiency overall but have been even worse than that in December, ranking just outside the bottom five in points allowed per possession. Fortunately, the Blazers are still good at limiting high-value shots. 

    They allow the most mid-rangers and rank among the league's best at preventing corner threes. Of course, they also rank 29th in offensive corner three frequency. So, basically, nobody gets looks from the corners when Portland's involved.

    The Blazers went 2-2 this week with a pair of losses to the Jazz. Jusuf Nurkic looked unstoppable against the Warriors' undersized 5s, but the bigger reason for the overtime win against Golden State on Thursday was the defending champs shooting like they'd never held a basketball before.

           

    12. Los Angeles Lakers (10)

    LeBron James' groin injury wasn't as serious as initially feared, but the Lakers didn't have him Thursday in Sacramento and will manage his day-to-day status going forward. In James' absence, however long it is, expect Kyle Kuzma's role to increase.

    He's been the Lakers' leading scorer more often than anyone but James, and Kuzma's usage rate rises whenever he plays without No. 23. Unfortunately, his 34 points weren't enough to keep the Lakers from blowing a late lead in Thursday's 117-116 loss to the Kings.

    L.A. is 3-5 in its last eight games, and even if that blowout against Golden State on Christmas was impressive, there's no argument to be made that the Lakers, sans LeBron, are a top-10 team.

             

    11. Utah Jazz (14)

    The Jazz now have the largest difference between expected and actual win total. Their differential suggests they deserve another 3.6 victories.

    To say Utah belongs this high is to buy the peripheral stats over the win-loss record, and we're comfortable making that purchase. Maybe you see a ho-hum, .500-ish team in Utah, but there are some numbers that suggest the Jazz are more than that.

    Example: Basketball Reference's SRS, which combines margin of victory and strength of schedule, says Utah has been the eighth-best team in the league so far. In light of that, ranking the Jazz 11th feels comparatively conservative.

10. San Antonio Spurs

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    Last Week: 11

    The Spurs have the top net rating and offensive rating (!) in the month of December and have been even better than that lately. Those figures include numbers from a 1-2 stretch to start the month. 

    San Antonio is also the league's most efficient transition offense (by far). Of course, since these are the deliberate Spurs, that efficiency doesn't count for much; no team runs less frequently. Similarly, the Spurs are the NBA's most accurate three-point shooting team. But their attempt rate ranks 30th.

    It's hard to be critical of a San Antonio team that has established itself as a serious playoff threat after looking scuttled not so long ago, but it couldn't possibly hurt the Spurs to run and shoot from deep a little more. They can obviously do it efficiently, so why not add some volume?

    On an individual note, LaMarcus Aldridge has done enough to dispense with rumors that he's washed. His true shooting percentage jumped from 48.1 percent in November to 64.3 percent through the first 13 games of December.

    The losses are still peppered in there, but when San Antonio wins, it wins big. The Spurs recently concluded a 7-1 stretch from Dec. 7-21 in which five of the victories came by 25 points or more.

9. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 9

    It's funny to think of the Sixers—a team that spent years unformed, amorphous, somewhere in a process but never reaching the results phase—now being so settled that we spend every week talking about its well-established flaws.

    Rather suddenly, we know exactly who the Sixers are.

    When their supporting cast (which can't get any perimeter stops) hits enough outside shots, everything kind of works. Sure, Ben Simmons is always somewhere mucking up spacing and not shooting from the perimeter (except for the 22-footer he hit against the Celtics on Tuesday, the longest make of his career), but when there's enough shooting around Joel Embiid, the 76ers are tough to beat.

    Interestingly, Embiid seemed to abandon and then rediscover his three-point shot this week. He didn't attempt any against the Knicks and Raptors, but he went 2-of-4 in Tuesday's overtime loss to Boston. He had 34 points and 16 rebounds on 10-of-17 shooting in that one, but an ineffectual bench (and Kyrie Irving's 40 points) rendered Embiid's big numbers meaningless.

    The Sixers are very good, but they just aren't quite in the East's top tier. 

8. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 6

    Boston's 121-114 overtime win against the Sixers on Tuesday was its first against an opponent currently over .500 since it felled Toronto way back on Nov. 16. That helps put some of the Celtics' impressive offensive numbers, achieved largely during an injury-hit stretch, in better perspective.

    For the most part, Boston has been running up its totals against weak competition.

    Still, Kyrie Irving was electric against the Sixers, scoring 40 points and seemingly creating new below-the-rim finishes out of sheer boredom. Other positive signs included Al Horford returning to the floor against Charlotte on Sunday, suiting up for the first time since Dec. 6, and Jaylen Brown's lefty smash against the Bucks (which was very, very close to being on Giannis' head).

    Boston's defense remains excellent, and it keeps opponents out of transition better than anyone. Most likely, getting back on defense wasn't a hot topic in a postgame players meeting last Friday.

    The Celtics could stand to be healthier, and that three-game slide was concerning. But these guys are still 10-4 over their last 14 games and have effectively caught Toronto in terms of net rating.

7. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 8

    The Rockets are a missed Eric Gordon game-winner (last Thursday against Miami) from a nine-game winning streak, which makes Chris Paul's left hamstring strain easier to stomach.

    The injury, suffered against the Heat, will cost Paul some time. He won't be re-evaluated for another week, putting a return date of mid-January in play. Paul's decline in productivity—he's having his worst season since he was a rookie, as measured by true shooting percentage and assist and scoring rate—makes his absence less impactful than you might think.

    Of course, a diminished Paul was still vital to a Rockets team that lacks depth and facilitation whenever James Harden isn't running things. The reigning MVP's response has been to try to run things all the time. He scored 80 points on 69 field-goal attempts between Saturday's win over the Spurs and Tuesday's Christmas victory against OKC. All he did against Boston on Thursday was drop 45 more.

    Harden hasn't scored fewer than 32 points since Dec. 11. Houston, relatedly, is now a season-best four games over .500. 

6. Indiana Pacers

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    Last Week: 7

    The Pacers shrugged off single-digit losses to Cleveland and Toronto to close out the last rankings session and rattled off three straight wins this week, defeating Brooklyn, Washington and Atlanta to climb to 23-12. Now second in the league in defensive efficiency, the interesting angle with the Pacers is how other teams are defending them.

    Opponents are increasingly busting out zone looks against Indy, and they've been mostly effective. Since Dec. 1, the Pacers rank 20th in scoring efficiency.

    Though Myles Turner shooting more threes seems to be the solution for everything in Indiana, it's harder to stop suggesting it when a team with a defense this good continues to struggle on the other end. The cost of suboptimal offense is higher when you have a title-caliber defense.

    Turner's season high in attempts from deep is just six, and he's made one or fewer treys in 10 of 13 games this month.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 5

    Paul George's tear continues. He ran his streak as the Thunder's high scorer to nine games, posted at least 28 points in each of his last four contests and even averaged 13 rebounds per game this past week.

    The Thunder fell at home against Minnesota by two and on the road in Houston by four on Christmas, continuing a season-long trend of rough results in close games. OKC is 6-11 with a minus-3.5 net rating when proceedings reach close-and-late status.

    The scoring is going to keep drying up on occasion, as the Thunder just don't have reliable spacers. Jerami Grant, Steven Adams and Russell Westbrook should all be on the floor to close games, but those three don't scare defenders into staying attached. Fortunately for OKC's bogged down attack, it leads the league in offensive rebound rate and opponent turnover percentage. Those are the best ways to add volume to your possession counts when your efficiency is wanting.

    The schedule softens over the next two weeks. If the Thunder are opportunistic, they'll use this upcoming stretch to pad their win total and climb into first place out West.

4. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 1

    Draymond Green won't shoot, Klay Thompson can't, and the Warriors, now healthier than they've been in weeks, still look decidedly unremarkable. To be fair, the Dubs remain the top offense in the league and have more wins than anyone but Toronto and Milwaukee...but you can't avoid seeing the obvious flaws when you've watched roughly the same personnel look absolutely perfect for months at a time.

    The contrast is overwhelming.

    "Everyone expects us to be way above everybody, but right now, we're not," Green told reporters Thursday. "It doesn't mean that we won't be, but right now we're not."

    The Lakers ran over a Warriors team that couldn't buy a bucket on Christmas, and Green took the blame. His inability/unwillingness to fire from deep means opponents are ignoring him on the perimeter, a tactic that further hampers Golden State's offense because Green's defender is often shutting off passing lanes instead of sticking close to his assignment. This is at least partly why Green is turning the ball over at a higher rate than ever.

    DeMarcus Cousins is scrimmaging with the team now, and head coach Steve Kerr may tweak the offense to involve Green as a screener more often. But this group, which needed clutch late buckets just to survive against Dallas and the Clippers before that loss to the Lakers, just isn't putting off invincible vibes like it used to. That could change in an instant, but until it does, the Warriors, 2-2 this week, can't occupy the top spot anymore.

3. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 4

    Kyle Lowry returned to the lineup for Toronto's 126-101 loss to the Sixers on Saturday, but he couldn't do much to stop Joel Embiid down low. The Raptors also played that game without Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka, limiting their options underneath.

    Oh, and Kawhi Leonard also sat that one out after scoring a season-high 37 points against the Cavs last Friday.

    That's basically how it's been for the Raptors lately. They're 7-6 in December and haven't had a healthy rotation for weeks. Leonard may be allowed to play both ends of back-to-backs starting in January, but that won't heal the rest of the roster. Lowry's back tightness put him right back on the bench against Miami on Wednesday. And with Milwaukee, Boston, Philly and Indiana grappling for the East's top seed, Toronto should be feeling some urgency.

    In other words, the Raptors may need more heroic late-game sequences like the ones Pascal Siakam turned in during Wednesday's narrow escape in Miami.

    That No. 1 seed is going to matter, and the Raptors don't look like they'll be in position to lock it up and cruise down the stretch. 

2. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 2

    The Nuggets' new first unit—Jamal Murray, Torrey Craig, Juancho Hernangomez, Mason Plumlee and Nikola Jokic—has a minus-27.6 net rating in 61 minutes together. That's not ideal for a contender, but at least it'll be temporary.

    Once Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Will Barton come back, Craig, Hernangomez and Plumlee will return to their backup roles. There, they'll find the going easier against second units. Harris and Millsap both participated in shootaround ahead of Wednesday's loss to the Spurs.

    Hernangomez managed 27 points and 13 boards in that defeat, and he should continue to see major minutes after the Nuggets get their full roster back. He's been excellent after losing almost all of last year to a rough bout with mono.

    Denver surrendered 80 paint points, saw Nikola Jokic get ejected and ultimately lost by 21 to the Clippers on Saturday as well. It was the Nuggets' biggest loss of the season as measured by margin of defeat, and it snapped a four-game winning streak.

    Enough bad news, though. The Nuggets are in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and they're an imposing 13-3 at home. 

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 3

    The Bucks staked a claim to the top spot that lasted several weeks earlier this year, and after bouncing around in search of another team worthy of the honor, we circle back to Milwaukee once again. Maybe we never should have left.

    These guys lead the league in net rating, haven't lost back-to-back games all year and have quietly put together a strong run while the rest of the top contenders lose bodies, games or both.

    The Bucks' only slip in their last seven games came in Miami on Saturday, a 94-87 slog in which they scored a leaguewide season-low eight points in the first quarter. Hardly surprising since Milwaukee played late in Boston the night before and didn't arrive in Miami until after 3:30 a.m.

    Among Milwaukee's many strengths: It never fouls. No team allows a lower opponent free-throw rate, which is partly the result of good discipline but is also a symptom of a defensive scheme that happily drops its center to the rim and concedes mid-range shots.

    The Bucks are back where they spent most of November, and it feels right.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, Dec. 27.