NBA Power Rankings: Giannis, Bucks Surging Ahead of the Pack

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 4, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: Giannis, Bucks Surging Ahead of the Pack

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    New year, same Milwaukee Bucks on top in the first 2019 edition of NBA Power Rankings.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo and his East-leading squad are separating themselves from the field as other contenders for the prime spot in our rankings struggle with injury, malaise (hi, Warriors!) or depth issues. Nobody's arguing Milwaukee is a title lock, but there's no question about who's playing the best ball right now.

    As always, rankings are based on record, catch-all metrics like net rating, health and recent play. Full-season stats still count, but they lose importance when they don't reflect a team's roster as it exists today. These are all about establishing the current NBA hierarchy, and the Bucks have made part of that effort very easy. 

30-26

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    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

            

    30. New York Knicks (30)

    Kevin Knox is running more pick-and-roll, expanding his offensive game while also improving his accuracy from deep. Over his last 11 games, the rookie is averaging 18.6 points per game and shooting 39.4 percent from deep.

    Noah Vonleh is another bright spot. He's led the Knicks in rebounding during each of the last six games, is shooting 39.7 percent from three and has shown the ability to stick with mobile opposing bigs on D. It's hard to know if he's part of New York's long-term plans, but it's starting to seem like Vonleh, now playing for his fourth team in five seasons, has figured things out.

    The Knicks haven't. They've lost eight straight and are a league-worst 2-13 since December 1.

               

    29. Cleveland Cavaliers (29)

    Tristan Thompson and Rodney Hood both returned from injury on Wednesday, but they couldn't do nearly enough to avoid a 117-92 loss to the Heat, Cleveland's seventh consecutive defeat. The Cavs' eight wins are the fewest in the league.

    Maybe this is unfair to head coach Larry Drew, who's obviously been dealt a bad hand, but comments like this, delivered to reporters after Wednesday's blowout, just scream "There's no talent here, and I'm out of ideas!":

    "We've got to be grimy as far as our style of play. We can't play cute. We can't play pretty. We've got to get on the floor for loose balls. We've got to get our body on people when they go in (the lane). We've got to do all the little things, which add up to be big things."

    Cleveland could do all the little, medium-sized and big things in the world, and they'd still be lucky to crack the 20-win mark this season.

            

    28. Atlanta Hawks (27)

    Trae Young is adopting a less-is-more approach. He's attempted an average of 11.2 shots in his last five games and is shooting 50.0 percent from the field and 58.8 percent from deep in that span. He's still shooting just 27.7 percent from three-point range on the year, but he's getting pickier about his looks.

    The Hawks continued to unsubtly tank this week, playing Dewayne Dedmon and Alex Len together for stretches during Wednesday's loss to the Wizards. Nothing accomplishes self-sabotage like pairing two conventional bigs in the fourth quarter.

    Atlanta went 2-2 this week but remain the worst offense in the league (non-Bulls division).

            

    27. Chicago Bulls (28)

    The Bulls may not be the worst team in the league, but they're easily the toughest to watch. Head coach Jim Boylen has killed any semblance of a transition game, emphasizing a slowed-down approach in an effort to keep things simple. It's very on-brand for Boylen, who has enforced the discipline and old-school principles of a bygone era.

    Chicago is dead last in offensive efficiency since Boylen's first game in charge on Dec. 4, and the deliberate style isn't curbing mistakes. The Bulls' turnover rate was lower under Fred Hoiberg.

    I guess the upside is an improved defense that ranks in the top 12 since Boylen took over, but Chicago is playing a constricted, stuffy style that doesn't fit its personnel and, not to be overlooked, cannot be remotely fun. Don't discount the negative impact that might have on free agency, and don't be surprised if we get another mutiny sometime soon.

    Lighter note: If you're tired of Robin Lopez abusing mascots, we'll never be friends.

            

    26. Phoenix Suns (25)

    The Suns dumped four straight home games this week, despite Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker looking decidedly cornerstone-ish lately.

    Ayton is averaging 20.1 points and 12.6 rebounds on 62.6 percent shooting since Dec. 13. In that same stretch, Booker produced per-game averages of 29.3 points, 8.0 assists and 4.4 rebounds. While Phoenix seems irrationally concerned with winning games at this stage of its rebuild, seeing those two increase performance and add facets as the season progresses will matter much more.

    Phoenix has lost four straight and six of its last seven.

25-21

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    25. Washington Wizards (24)

    John Wall's season is done, and the Wizards (2-1 this past week against an all-lottery slate of opponents) are going to look different for the balance of the year. The Athletic's Fred Katz predicts they'll likely switch more on defense, and we may see the same increased ball movement and flow that arose when Wall missed time last season.

    Otto Porter's return should help, and Bradley Beal will get more shots and a chance to run the offense whenever Tomas Satoransky isn't on the floor.

    Washington's season is basically toast, and it's not like the next few months will offer a preview of a post-Wall world. There is no post-Wall world; he's under contract through 2023 on one of the league's most untradable deals. This is basically a holding pattern until Wall's back next season and the status quo resumes.

    This turned out bleaker than I intended.

            

    24. Minnesota Timberwolves (23)

    We may have seen the best game of Karl-Anthony Towns' career on Sunday when he posted 34 points, 18 boards, seven assists, six blocks and three steals during a 113-104 win in Miami. Since the league began tracking blocked shots in 1973-74, nobody has matched those five-category totals in a single game.

    Unfortunately, none of those extra stats carried over into the Wolves' other games this past week. They dropped three of four to fall to 17-21, 13th in the West.

             

    23. Orlando Magic (26)

    Evan Fournier's game-winning floater sank the Pistons on Sunday, a fine follow-up to Friday's 116-87 win over the Raptors in which Nikola Vucevic exploded for 30 points, 19 rebounds and eight assists. The Magic got blown out by 25 on the second night of a back-to-back on Monday but recovered to take down the Bulls on Wednesday and complete a 3-1 week.

    The Magic are two games into a six-game, 10-day road trip in which they'll visit all four time zones. If they come anywhere close to breaking even on this brutal upcoming schedule, they should celebrate.

            

    22. Memphis Grizzlies (21)

    Memphis fell to 18-19 on the year following a 0-3 week that featured losses to Boston, Houston and Detroit. 

    The Grizzlies offense, currently ranked 26th in the league, is never going to come around if it doesn't start capitalizing on high-value shots. Memphis is hitting just 33.2 percent of its corner threes. Only the Celtics have been less accurate on those shots. Justin Holiday, acquired from the Bulls on Thursday, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, should help. He's a career 35.2 percent three-point shooter.

            

    21. Detroit Pistons (22)

    The Pistons scraped by with just one win during this week's four-game road trip, getting past the Grizzlies by a final score of 101-94 on Wednesday behind a team-high 26 points from Blake Griffin.

    I think one positive we can all agree on is that it's cool Luke Kennard can control objects with his mind. That probably comes in handy when the remote is just out of reach, and it definitely helps when he wills a stationary ball to fall into the hoop using telekinesis. I saw it happen, and I won't accept any other explanations.

    It's important that we monitor him from now on. Those powers need to be used for good.

20-16

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    20. New Orleans Pelicans (20)

    Anthony Davis pumped in 48 points and 17 boards, but it was Jrue Holiday's clutch block of a Luka Doncic layup attempt that sealed a 114-112 Pels win over the Mavs last Friday. The victory halted a five-game skid.

    Davis missed Monday's win over the Wolves with an illness, but Julius Randle's 33 points and 10 rebounds were enough to offset AD's absence. Apparently feeling much better, Davis put up 34 points and grabbed a Pelicans franchise-record 26 boards in Wednesday's 126-121 loss to the Nets.

    Elfrid Payton made it back onto the floor Monday after logging just eight minutes since October 27 because of an ankle injury and a fractured left pinkie. He posted 25 points and seven assists against the Nets in defeat.

    The Pels own the NBA's fifth-worst defense and are five games under .500.

            

    19. Charlotte Hornets (18)

    Charlotte beat Brooklyn and Orlando this week, with Kemba Walker lighting up the Wizards for 47 points in a loss sandwiched between those victories. When Walker managed just 11 points against Dallas on Wednesday, the Hornets got predictably stomped.

    The Hornets have had relatively good health to this point, but Cody Zeller broke his hand and Jeremy Lamb strained his hamstring during the Orlando win. Expect Willy Hernangomez and Bismack Biyombo to soak up more minutes at center going forward.

    As if Walker's burden wasn't already great enough.

            

    18. Sacramento Kings (17)

    The relentlessly pace-pushing Kings spend less time in their half-court offense than any other team in the league, which is good because they rank 20th in scoring efficiency in those situations. In a trend that could help juice Sacramento's non-transition scoring, it's been slowly increasing its three-point rate. The Kings are second in accuracy rate from deep this season.

    Split the year in half, and the Kings ranked 25th in three-point frequency through their first 19 games. Through their most recent 19, they rank 18th. Baby steps.

    The Kings have made a habit of digging holes that require extreme effort to climb out of. After coming back with a late-game rally against the Blazers on Tuesday, Sacramento missed a bevy of tip-ins and layups that would have extended the lead just enough to avoid overtime. The Blazers forced the extra period and won, leaving the Kings with a defeat that'll hurt for a while. So will Sunday's loss to the Lakers, in which Sacramento got outscored 18-4 in the last four minutes of a 121-114 loss.

            

    17. Brooklyn Nets (15)

    Brooklyn is 3-3 since its seven-game winning streak ended, which is actually encouraging. It may only take .500 ball the rest of the way to make the playoffs in the East.

    Yet another right adductor strain has Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on the shelf, this time indefinitely, but that may not be as big of a problem as it seems. The Nets have plenty of depth, as evidenced by their bench outscoring New Orleans' by a margin of 55-5 in Wednesday's 126-121 win. Spencer Dinwiddie will always be Brooklyn's best weapon off the pine, but DeMarre Carroll and Shabazz Napier combined for 31 points and helped the Nets torch the Pelicans for 73 first-half points.

    RHJ, Allen Crabbe and Caris LeVert can take their time coming back. Brooklyn's reserves have things under control.

            

    16. Miami Heat (19)

    Nothing sets up a strong week like two dates with the Cavs.

    The Heat took Cleveland down twice, losing to the Wolves 113-104 in between to miss a perfect 3-0 mark since we last ranked.

    Dion Waiters saw the floor for the first time in over a year on Wednesday, and he was very much himself upon returning, firing off nine shots (and making three) in just 11 minutes. Some things never change.

    Winners in seven of their last nine, the Heat are 14th in the league with a plus-1.3 net rating and may be settling in as the East's sixth seed.

15-11

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    15. Dallas Mavericks (16)

    Dennis Smith Jr. had a couple of offensive failings in the clutch this week, but he also got his second critical late stop of the year, sticking with Paul George and forcing a tough miss in the last four seconds of a 105-103 Mavericks win on Sunday. You'll recall his first standout stop was a sky-scraping denial of Tobias Harris on Dec. 2.

    The Mavs finished up their week with a thorough throttling of the Hornets on Wednesday, blitzing Charlotte with a hot first quarter that produced a 42-26 advantage. The final margin, 122-84, was impressive. Of course, it was Dallas' first road win in its last nine tries. So there probably won't be a parade when the Mavs (2-2 this week) return from their four-game road trip on Jan. 7.

            

    14. Los Angeles Lakers (12)

    The Lakers are 1-3 since LeBron James left the lineup with a strained groin. Despite a committee approach to offense—Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and JaVale McGee have all averaged double figures since James went down—the Lakers have struggled.

    It's almost like there's something irreplaceable about the best player of all time.

            

    13. Los Angeles Clippers (14)

    The Clips went 1-2 this week and are just 5-9 in their last 14 games, but that hardly matters. They may be nearing an offseason win that'd render every contest this year irrelevant.

    Kawhi Leonard could be on the way, according to Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

    "The popular opinion among league executives six months before Leonard makes his decision is that he'll choose between the Raptors and the Clippers. If it comes down to those two teams, the chance for Leonard to come home and to stay away from snow could be the Clippers' strongest argument."

    More good news: After a grueling December schedule, January's features 10 opponents currently at or below under .500.

         

    12. Utah Jazz (11)

    Utah destroyed the Knicks at home on Saturday but couldn't keep Kawhi Leonard from torching them for 45 points on Tuesday. That defeat in Toronto was the Jazz's sixth loss in their last seven road games. After an incredible start, Utah is now just 10-12 away from home.

    As always seems to be the case for this team, we've got to justify slotting the 18-20 Jazz this high. That's easy: Their SRS (simple rating system), which factors in margin of victory and opponent strength, says they're the eighth-best team in the league so far. If you've got a problem, take it up with the math.

            

    11. Portland Trail Blazers (13)

    Jusuf Nurkic beasted against the Warriors to help Portland earn a 1-1 split in a home-and-home set, was a tidy 7-of-11 from the field against a Sixers team playing without Joel Embiid and then got full-on historic in the Blazers' thrilling overtime win versus the Kings on Tuesday.

    In that one, he totaled 24 points, 23 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and five blocks. It was the first time in league history a player has posted a 20-20 game while also putting up a 5-by-5 stat line. Just a theory, but as teams continue to play smaller and prioritize skill in their bigs, overpowering throwbacks like Nurkic can get loose for monstrous nights every so often. The post-up isn't necessarily coming back, but we may be seeing the value of raw power return now that lineup shrinking has grown more extreme.

    This could also just be about Nurkic hitting his prime. He's averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals and true shooting percentage while providing his typically stout paint protection.

    Portland has won three of its last four to get to 22-16.

10. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 8

    The Celtics are just 4-5 in their last nine games, and Kyrie Irving missed Wednesday's contest because of a scratched eye he sustained during a 120-111 loss in San Antonio—a defeat that offset a fantastic comeback win against the Grizzlies two days prior.

    Irving had 26 points and 13 assists in that 19-point comeback, hitting clutch shots and continuing to play the best defense of his career.

    Boston surrendered 46 points in the third quarter during that San Antonio loss, and its interior integrity has suffered as so many frontcourt players have missed time. During December, the Celtics posted the No. 12 defensive rating and ranked 19th in rebound percentage.

    Though the Celtics have mostly been treading water over the last two weeks, Gordon Hayward looked like he could walk on it Wednesday. He hit 14 of his 18 shots from the field and scored 35 points in his best game as a Celtic. That effort came after an 0-of-6 night against the Spurs, so we shouldn't get too fired up. But it's always nice to see a former star starting to shine again.

9. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 9

    Jimmy Butler and Wilson Chandler were too sick to play against Phoenix on Wednesday, so Joel Embiid took care of things himself. He tied a season high with 42 points and grabbed 18 boards in a 76ers win where the margin was as large as 30 points.

    The Sixers have won three of their last four and sit a season-best 11 games over .500.

    If Philadelphia could get decent production from its bench, it'd have a chance to finish with the East's top seed. At minus-23 on the year, the Sixers' reserves rank ahead of only Toronto and Portland among clubs in playoff position.

    Finally, you've got to love how Ben Simmons inbounded the ball off Sindarius Thornwell's hindquarters to ice a heated 119-113 win over the Clippers in L.A. on Tuesday. At some point, the practice of turning one's back on the inbounder will die out. Hopefully not too soon, though. Opportunistic plays like Simmons' are too much fun.

8. San Antonio Spurs

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    Last Week: 10

    The San Antonio Spurs were the West's best team in December, posting a league-leading plus-10.2 net rating that should have yielded a record even better than 11-5. They saved their season and re-entered the playoff race by basically making every shot they took.

    In December, San Antonio was first in shooting accuracy at the rim, floater range, mid-range, corner threes and above-the-break threes. That's, like, all of the areas from which a team can shoot. The Spurs' sniping was stunning, and it will regress—unless you're somehow convinced this team will finish with the greatest offensive season in NBA history.

    Even as they made everything, the Spurs sustained their throwback shot profile, ranking last in attempt frequency at the rim and 29th from three. They still took more mid-rangers than any other squad in December.

    January got off to a similar start, as the Spurs smashed the Raptors on Thursday behind DeMar DeRozan's first career triple-double. In the wake of a sensational calendar month, San Antonio is locked into a top-10 spot for another week.

7. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 3

    Kyle Lowry has missed nine of Toronto's last 10 games with back soreness, which has put more pressure on Kawhi Leonard to perform.

    Leonard seems cool with that.

    He uncorked a career-high 45 points on 16-of-22 shooting (to go with Pascal Siakam's career-high 28 points) in Tuesday's 122-116 home win over the Jazz. Though Toronto still tends to lack offensive continuity whenever Leonard and his more individualistic style runs the show, it's hard to argue with the results.

    The Raptors' assist rate takes a dip when Leonard is on the floor, but their offense performs at a clip that would rank first in efficiency. Without him, Toronto scores at a bottom-10 rate.

    The Spurs dropped Toronto to 2-2 this week with a 125-107 beating that spoiled Leonard's return to San Antonio. Or maybe it was the relentless booing whenever Leonard touched the ball that spoiled it. Either way, it was a rough Thursday for the Raps.

6. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 4

    Klay Thompson found his stroke in Saturday's 115-105 win over the Blazers, scoring 32 points on 12-of-21 shooting and hitting four of his five three-point attempts. Less accurate from the field and from deep than he's been in any season before, Thompson provided major relief with his hot night. And he had fun with it.

    The Warriors finished up a 2-1 week with a 135-134 overtime loss to the Rockets at home. Harden hit the game-winner, which was fitting because Kevin Durant was inexplicably not whistled for being out of bounds when he saved a ball that found Stephen Curry for a go-ahead bucket with 23.1 seconds left in OT.

    Though it's felt at times like the wheels were falling off, Golden State is still an elite offensive team that should get significantly better as Thompson improves and DeMarcus Cousins joins the rotation. If Draymond Green ever rediscovers his confidence on offense, nobody will have a chance to match the Dubs' offensive efficiency.

    When a 10-5 record over the last calendar month somehow coexists with a "what's wrong with the Warriors?" narrative, you know you're dealing with some ridiculous standards.

5. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 7

    "For real, you can't stop him," new teammate Austin Rivers said of James Harden and his exceptional run, per Tim MacMahon of ESPN.com. "Back-to-back [MVP]. He's going to end up winning this s--t back to back. Nobody in the league can do what he's doing right now. He's winning back-to-back MVPs. It's incredible."

    Hard to argue.

    Harden's 408 points from Dec. 13 to 31 were the most ever scored in a 10-game stretch, and he averaged 36.4 points and 7.9 assists per game for December. All he did to kick off January was hand the Warriors 44 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds and the game-winning three with one second left in overtime.

    Decent start to the year for him.

    Houston hasn't lost at home since Nov. 28 and has won 11 of its last 12 overall. It's hard to imagine Harden can keep this up forever, but it's been remarkable to watch the reigning MVP play better than he did a year ago.

4. Indiana Pacers

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    Last Week: 6

    Indiana's five-game winning streak featured nothing but sub-.500 opponents, but the victories still count. As such, the Pacers are a sterling 25-12 with the league's No. 2 net rating.

    There are a few reasons Indiana doesn't earn a ranking spot commensurate with its net rating, though. First, the Pacers have played the league's easiest schedule so far. Second, some of their strong defensive numbers could have come simply from luck; opponents are converting at below-average rates from everywhere but the corner three.

    In terms of shot mix allowed, Indiana isn't so elite. It allows the league's third-highest three-point-attempt rate, for example.

    None of this is to say the Pacers are fugazi, or that they're not a clear top-10 team. It's just an explanation for why a squad that's performing this well isn't all the way up at No. 2. Of course, the longer this goes on, the harder it'll be to justify keeping Indiana from claiming a position that high.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 5

    Boos didn't stop Paul George from blessing the Lakers with 37 points on Wednesday as he led the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 107-100 win in Los Angeles. George, in the midst of a campaign that warrants fringe MVP consideration and more serious talk of a Defensive Player of the Year award, has been OKC's leading scorer in 11 of its last 13 games.

    That's not easy to do with Russell Westbrook around. To be fair, it's less difficult when Russ fires up shooting nights like he did Sunday against Dallas and Wednesday against the Lakers. He was just 4-of-22 from the field in the former and 3-of-20 in the latter. Oddly, he also mixed in 17-of-29 and 13-of-24 efforts this week.

    If you have a sense of which version of Westbrook intends to show up on a given night, you should contact Thunder head coach Billy Donovan so he can adjust his plans accordingly. You could also use your clairvoyance to clean up in DFS. Up to you, really.

    The Thunder own the best net rating among West teams and the top defensive rating throughout the league.

2. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 2

    Paul Millsap (toe) and Gary Harris (hip) both returned from injury this week, invigorating a Denver Nuggets team that managed a 5-3 record in the eight games both starters missed. In their absence, Monte Morris solidified his place as one of the league's premier backup point guards, and Juancho Hernangomez made a strong case to remain a starter even after Will Barton's imminent return from a hip setback.

    In that sense, injuries may have improved the Nuggets' long-term outlook. They now know Hernangomez and Morris are good enough to help in critical playoff stretches.

    Nikola Jokic handed out 15 assists as part of a triple-double in Tuesday's 115-108 win over the Knicks, Jamal Murray hit the Suns with 46 points on Saturday, and Denver is one of four teams to rank among the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency.

    After a 4-0 week in which two critical starters came back, the Nuggets, on the top of the heap in the West standings and off to a franchise-record 25-11 start, look stronger than ever.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    The Milwaukee Bucks have won four straight and lead the league in net rating, SRS and effective field-goal percentage. They allow the league's lowest opponent free-throw and offensive rebound rates.

    They have Giannis Antetokounmpo, who does things like this to tall humans on opposing teams. A lot.

    If you're making the case there's a better team in the league right now, you're starting from a tough position. You have to refute virtually every catch-all metric that says Milwaukee's a cut above everyone else, and you have to work around Antetokounmpo's front-running status for MVP.

    The alternative course—recognizing how clearly the Bucks have separated themselves from the rest of the regular-season pack—is easier. We've chosen that path.

                  

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, Jan. 3.