NBA Power Rankings: Giannis, Bucks Holding Strong at Halfway Mark

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: Giannis, Bucks Holding Strong at Halfway Mark

0 of 14

    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Halfway through the 2018-19 season, the Milwaukee Bucks refuse to relinquish their hold on the top spot in our NBA power rankings. Just about everyone else in the top 10 did some shuffling after a busy week, but not Milwaukee.

    It's enough to make you wonder if anyone—the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, Toronto Raptors or surging Boston Celtics—can mount a second-half challenge.

    With Feb. 7's trade deadline less than a month away, there's a chance roster shake-ups will disrupt these rankings, which is...great! Who doesn't love a little volatility?

    As always, rankings are based on record, advanced stats such as net rating, injuries and recent play. The idea is to organize all 30 teams into an order that reflects current performance and not championship odds.

    Here's to a second half as great as the first.

30-26

1 of 14

    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

           

    30. Cleveland Cavaliers (29)

    The Cavs shot a season-high 53.9 percent from the floor Tuesday but lost 123-115 to Indiana anyway. That's the sort of thing that happens when you have the league's worst defense and are on pace to have the worst ever.

    Cleveland has lost 11 straight, and it's hard to imagine this will be the last time we'll see a double-digit losing streak from this group.

                    

    29. New York Knicks (30)

    Well, at least the road trip's over!

    New York went 1-5 on a six-game swing out West, dusting the LeBron-less Lakers 119-112 on Friday. That victory halted an eight-game skid, but the Knicks, being the Knicks, have since lost two straight to begin another losing streak.

    On a positive note, their new starting 4-5 combo—Noah Vonleh and Luke Kornet—has a plus-3.3 net rating in 139 minutes this year. Nice little oasis in a desert of suck, right?

                     

    28. Orlando Magic (23)

    Orlando got blown out by Minnesota in a game it led by 19 points this past Friday and finished 1-5 on its six-game road trip. The Magic, probably best known for an impotent offense that ranks in the league's bottom five, also sit dead last in deflections per game, which indicates they aren't disruptive enough on D.

    At least we got a Mo Bamba sighting! The rookie center blasted a Danilo Gallinari dunk attempt off the backboard Sunday and has been more tenacious in defending the rim lately, blocking 10 shots in limited minutes over four games from Dec. 31 to Jan. 6.

                        

    27. Chicago Bulls (27)

    Kris Dunn is in the midst of one of his strongest career stretches, which helps overshadow a five-game losing streak that will almost certainly continue as the Bulls' upcoming schedule features four consecutive road games against West opponents.

    Dunn dunked all over Myles Turner in a 119-116 loss last Friday—a game in which the Bulls point guard also shot 6-of-9 from the field and amassed 16 points and a career-high 17 assists. He's been a rare bright spot for Chicago since he returned from a knee injury a month ago.

                   

    26. Phoenix Suns (26)

    Back spasms knocked Devin Booker out of Sunday's 119-113 loss to the Hornets after just 12 minutes, and he missed Tuesday's win against Sacramento and Wednesday's loss to Dallas entirely.

    Tuesday's Booker-less comeback win over the Kings had much more to do with Sacramento's sloppiness (25 turnovers and too many second-half minutes without either De'Aaron Fox or Bogdan Bogdanovic on the floor to run the offense) than anything Phoenix did. Kelly Oubre Jr.'s 26 points off the bench and game-sealing tip dunk were nice, though.

    If you're looking for an explanation why the Suns didn't lose ground in the wake of Booker's injury, it's simple: They've been bad with and without him on the floor this season.

25-21

2 of 14

    David Dow/Getty Images

    25. Atlanta Hawks (28)

    The Bucks outscored the Hawks 43-14 in the first quarter Friday, producing the largest negative differential in any opening quarter, by any team, all year. Perhaps in a testament to the resiliency of youth, Atlanta rebounded to beat Miami 106-82 on Sunday. The 24-point edge was the Hawks' largest of the season and salvaged a 1-3 week.

    Trae Young's three-point stroke continues to trend in the right direction after an awful start, and John Collins, who averaged 21.3 points and 12.9 rebounds per game in December, just keeps getting numbers. He's on pace to be the third player in league history to average at least 18 points and 10 rebounds in under 30 minutes per game.

                    

    24. Memphis Grizzlies (22)

    Chandler Parsons' days with the Memphis Grizzlies, injury-plagued and underwhelming as they were, are done, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. So ends an era almost no one will remember.

    At least Memphis snapped its six-game losing streak with a 98-86 win over the Spurs in which a much more engaged Marc Gasol contributed 26 points and 14 rebounds to shake loose a personal slump.

    "That's the guy we need, and he knows it," teammate Mike Conley told reporters.

    The Grizzlies' three-point shooting has been abysmal, ranking 30th in the league over the last calendar month, and they're just 3-11 in their most recent 14 games. The trade deadline is less than a month away. If this keeps up, it'd be logical for Memphis to explore moving Gasol, who could opt out and join a winner in free agency this summer.

               

    23. Detroit Pistons (21)

    Blake Griffin is tied for the league lead in charges drawn, which is a good statistic to start with because it's positive and distracts from the fact that Detroit hasn't won back-to-back games in nearly six weeks.

    The Pistons lack ball-handlers, Andre Drummond post-ups are where possessions go to die and only the Bulls, Knicks and Cavs have worse net ratings since Dec. 1. It's a good thing Detroit isn't committed to the core of this roster for the next hundred years or so.

    Oh, wait.

                

    22. Washington Wizards (25)

    Washington is 4-3 with a plus-3.2 net rating since John Wall left the lineup for good on Dec. 28 because of a heel injury, and Bradley Beal has again shown he's capable of more ball-handling and offensive initiation than he got to attempt with Wall on the floor. He's led the Wizards in scoring for five straight games and hit the 76ers with 34 points in Wednesday's 123-106 win.

    When Wall missed a big chunk of games last year, the narrative that the Wizards were better without him grew legs. That was probably an overreaction, but we can all agree that when there's at least some question about the dispensability of your "best" player, you probably shouldn't have given that guy an extension worth over $200 million.

    Hindsight, right?

                  

    21. Sacramento Kings (18)

    Turnovers haven't been much of an issue for the Kings (they take care of the ball at a top-five clip), but an inability to score in the half court sure has (20th in points per half-court possession). Both issues combined to produce what was probably Sacramento's worst loss of the season Tuesday: a 115-111 stumble against the Suns in which the Kings led by as many as 21 points.

    The Kings have had a hard time getting out of their own way lately and are seeing their record regress toward their point differential, which ranks 21st in the league.

    Also, don't jump.

20-16

3 of 14

    David Sherman/Getty Images

    20. Charlotte Hornets (19)

    Charlotte has lost three of its last four to fall to two games under .500 for the first time in over a month. Even the lone win in this recent swoon, a 119-113 road success in Phoenix, was a little dicey. If Kemba Walker hadn't scored 18 of his 29 points in the final five minutes (including a heave at the buzzer that went in and artificially inflated the winning margin, we'd be talking about Charlotte's ugly four-game slide.

    The Hornets have three games left (a Friday-Saturday back-to-back against Portland and Sacramento followed by a Monday tilt with San Antonio) on their six-game trip through the West. If they win one of them, it'll be impressive.

                   

    19. Dallas Mavericks (15)

    Dallas, 4-11 in its last 15 games, has rotation decisions to make.

    The starting five—Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Luka Doncic, Harrison Barnes and DeAndre Jordan—has a minus-7.3 net rating, and the numbers show Smith meshes poorly with Doncic. The Mavs outscore opponents by 4.2 points per 100 possessions when Smith sits and Doncic plays. Stick both of them out there together, and Dallas' net rating dips to minus-5.0.

    With Smith sitting because of back stiffness Wednesday against Phoenix, Doncic played point guard in a starting five that included criminally underutilized Maxi Kleber in Smith's place. All Doncic did was put up 30 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals in a victory. If Dallas wants to win games in the second half of the season, Smith should head to the bench.

                 

    18. Minnesota Timberwolves (24)

    Tom Thibodeau is done in Minnesota, as the team fired him following Sunday's 108-86 win over the Lakers, and likely (hopefully) that's the last guy foolishly tasked with coaching and running basketball operations. We've got more than enough evidence to say those responsibilities ought to be split.

    Karl-Anthony Towns remains special, which is a plus for any franchise facing a transition and potentially rough roads ahead. He's averaging a cartoonish 27.3 points, 16.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.5 blocks per game while shooting 53.9 percent from the field and 38.2 percent from deep since Christmas.

    More surprising than that: Andrew Wiggins put up 40 points and 10 rebounds while getting to the line 18 times (he's only averaging 4.5 free throws per game this year) in Tuesday's 119-117 win over the Thunder. That victory completed a 3-0 week and got new head coach Ryan Saunders his first win.

                       

    17. Miami Heat (16)

    The Heat break out their zone defense nearly twice as often as the Knicks, who rank second in the league. When you're committed to paying and playing a center as immobile on the perimeter as Hassan Whiteside, you've got to get flexible with your schemes. Head coach Erik Spoelstra is as adaptable as anyone.

    Miami's (occasionally gimmicky) defense ranks in the top 10, but the team has struggled to score all year. Dion Waiters improved on his 3-of-9 season debut by hitting six of his 10 attempts and scoring 15 points in Tuesday's 103-99 loss to the Nuggets, so maybe he'll help out on that front.

    Miami is 3-2 in its last five games.

               

    16. Brooklyn Nets (17)

    D'Angelo Russell's increasingly reliable scoring helped the Nets go 4-1 in their last five games. During that stretch, he averaged 20.2 points and 7.4 assists on a 47.6/36.1/100.0 shooting split.

    Brooklyn is getting healthier on the wing as DeMarre Carroll and Joe Harris returned Wednesday against Atlanta (Treveon Graham is also back), but rookie Rodions Kurucs still got the start and 29 minutes of playing time. That's a relief, as Kurucs has shown flashes since he's earned more minutes. His development has to be a priority, even as the Nets make their playoff push.

15-11

4 of 14

    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    15. Los Angeles Lakers (14)

    Lonzo Ball's free-throw shooting is a full-blown crisis. After making 67.3 percent of his foul shots in college, he hit 45.1 percent as a rookie. That number is down to 41.3 percent this year (on only 1.1 attempts per game), and he's somehow made 18.2 percent this month.

    The Lakers won their last two games this week to get to 3-5 since LeBron James went out with a groin injury, and their net rating in that span is minus-1.9, which ranks 20th in the league.

    Get fired up about Kyle Kuzma chucking his way to 41 points and Michael Beasley looking like a helpful piece now that he's back in the rotation if you want, but know that the Lakers are below-average without James.

                    

    14. New Orleans Pelicans (20)

    Don't look now, but the Pelicans have the league's second-best offense.

    Nikola Mirotic is back from an ankle injury, Anthony Davis is on pace to be the first player since Shaquille O'Neal to average at least 27 points and 13 boards in a season, and the Pelicans scored at least 140 points in a game this year for the third time when they waxed the Cavs on Wednesday.

    The bench, which is getting outscored by 1.2 points per 100 possessions, has performed better of late. Jahlil Okafor and Frank Jackson led a reserve charge in Monday's 114-95 win over the Grizzlies that allowed Davis and Jrue Holiday to get some much-needed rest late in the fourth quarter.

    The slate was soft in a 3-0 week, but the Pels are getting healthier. The latter explains the climb more than the former.

                

    13. Utah Jazz (12)

    Utah has won three of its last four, but the one defeat, a 114-102 loss to the Bucks on Monday, is most worthy of examination.

    The Jazz employed a smart scheme against Giannis Antetokounmpo, but their 21st-ranked offense let them down with a 16-point fourth quarter that decided the game. Jae Crowder was just 2-of-9 from deep on a bevy of clean looks, and Donovan Mitchell made only two of his dozen two-point attempts.

    It's no secret we've been in the bag for Utah and that No. 10 net rating for a while, but either the shots will have to start falling, or the guys shooting them will need to change. Otherwise, it's hard to think that the Jazz will score consistently enough to do real damage.

    With Ricky Rubio's hamstring likely to cost him a week or two, generating offense will only get tougher.

                     

    12. Los Angeles Clippers (13)

    The Clips don't have a conventional star, don't play a whole lot of defense and, probably owing to those two factors, seem suspect among current West playoff teams. Yet here they are halfway through the season, still firmly in the playoff picture and on pace to sniff 50 wins.

    Maybe there's something to be said for an offensive setup that makes it hard for defenses to key on a particular weapon. Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris took turns leading Los Angeles in scoring this week, as the Clippers ran up a 3-1 record.

              

    11. Portland Trail Blazers (11)

    Winners in five of their last six contests, the Blazers are a season-best eight games north of .500.

    Three-guard looks have something to do with Portland's run. When Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Seth Curry share the floor, the Blazers outscore opponents by 21.2 points per 100 possessions. In fact, Curry is a member of Portland's top seven three-man units.

    On/off and lineup data can be noisy, and causal factors are tricky to suss out. But there's a strong enough correlation between Curry's presence on the court and team success to consider giving him significantly more than the 17.4 minutes he's averaged.

10. Philadelphia 76ers

5 of 14

    Chris Elise/Getty Images

    Last Week: 9

    Landry Shamet scored a career-high 29 points on 8-of-14 shooting from distance in Philly's 132-115 demolition of the Wizards on Tuesday, but the Sixers couldn't double back to beat Washington again Wednesday, ending a four-game winning streak.

    It's true Philly has fattened up on a weak schedule of late; victims in this run include the Mavs and Suns in addition to the Wizards. But the success comes at an important time, as reports of Jimmy Butler being Jimmy Butler again (in the bad way) and the ongoing questions about how Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons fit together persist.

    Wins have a way of pushing those concerns to the background, and when issues like these stay obscured by team success long enough, they sometimes solve themselves.

    The Sixers are 16-7 in games Butler has played and have significant room to improve. They're just outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency after ranking third a year ago. With this personnel, you'd expect Philadelphia to get back to last season's level on D eventually.

9. Oklahoma City Thunder

6 of 14

    Zach Beeker/Getty Images

    Last Week: 3

    Things have been better in Oklahoma City.

    Sunday's 116-98 loss (at home!) to the Wizards is on the short list of OKC's worst defeats this season. Though they typically crush opponents on the glass, the Thunder allowed a Washington team on pace to finish last in total rebound percentage to beat them 55-41 on the boards.

    What's more, Russell Westbrook's high-volume inefficiency is approaching legendary levels. He's in line to post just the fifth season in league history with a usage rate above 31 percent and a true shooting percentage below 49 percent. Think of him as the anti-James Harden (more on that shortly).

    Of course, when you can put up 24 points, 24 assists and 13 boards like Russ did against the Spurs on Thursday, ugly shooting sort of slips into the background.

    Tuesday's 119-117 loss to the Wolves—further marred by a brutal fall that caused Nerlens Noel to leave the court on a stretcher—and Thursday's 154-147 defeat in San Antonio has the Thunder on their first three-game losing streak since they started the season 0-4.

    Still first in defensive efficiency, at least the Thunder have a foundation to trust as they work through this rough patch.

8. Indiana Pacers

7 of 14

    Steve Babineau/Getty Images

    Last Week: 4

    Though all four contests came on the road, Indianapolis' 2-2 mark this week is discouraging for anyone ready to slot the Pacers into the East's true upper echelon.

    Toronto and Boston both waxed the Pacers by double digits, and a banked-in game-winner by Victor Oladipo was the only reason Indiana escaped Chicago with a win.

    If there's any solace to be taken in the wake of Indy's 135-108 loss to the Celtics, it's that it came on the second leg of a back-to-back set. The Pacers have generally performed well in those circumstances (5-2), but Boston's surging offense proved far too potent—even for Indy's defense, which is tied for second in the league.

    After concluding their road trip in New York on Friday, the Pacers will get five straight games at home, where they're a sturdy 14-5.

    Big-picture concern: Oladipo doesn't have the same downhill burst he showed in his breakout 2017-18 campaign. His field-goal percentage at the rim is down from 69.0 percent to 63.7 percent, and his dunk and free-throw rates are both lower than they were a year ago. It's enough to make you wonder if the 11 games he missed with knee soreness were enough to get him all the way right.

7. San Antonio Spurs

8 of 14

    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Last Week: 8

    We all know the Spurs shot the lights out in December, hitting at higher rates at the rim, from mid-range, and from three (everywhere, basically) than any other team in the league en route to an 11-5 record and the best net rating in the league. We all should know those numbers can't hold up. No team shoots it that well forever*.

    This seems like a good time to mention Wednesday's 96-86 loss to the Grizzlies, in which San Antonio shot just 36.1 percent from the field and snapped a five-game winning streak.

    LaMarcus Aldridge posted a career-high 56 points to get the Spurs back on the right track in Thursday's 154-147 double-overtime win against OKC.

    Fortunately, San Antonio's defense has also come around. Thanks to a tweak to their pick-and-roll coverage—more "icing" the ball-handler, which necessarily keeps all five defenders involved in help rotations—the Spurs are gradually improving a defensive rating that checked in at No. 26 exactly one month ago.

    The Spurs won't remain as good on offense as they were in December. Fortunately, with the defense shaping up, they won't have to.

    *Cut to San Antonio hitting 16 of 19 threes on Thursday. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

6. Houston Rockets

9 of 14

    Cameron Browne/Getty Images

    Last Week: 5

    Portland ended Houston's six-game winning streak Saturday, but the Rockets quickly responded by downing the West-leading Nuggets two nights later. Harden only scored 32 points in that one, marking the first time his point total decreased his scoring average since Dec. 11 against the Blazers...when he had a measly 29.

    The 42 points he scored in Wednesday's 116-109 loss to the Bucks was a bit more on-brand.

    That's nearly a full calendar month that Harden increased his points-per-game figure on a nightly basis, which is absurd. If his rates hold, he'll produce the most efficient high-volume scoring season of all time. Nobody has ever averaged at least 33 points per game with a true shooting percentage north of 61 percent.

    Harden's on pace to be the first.

    The Rockets have played six teams in our top 10 since their Harden-led 12-3 run started Dec. 11, and they've beaten five of them: San Antonio, OKC, Boston, Golden State and Denver.

    At some point, a hot streak isn't really a hot streak anymore. It becomes the norm. Once 14th in the West, Houston seems all but guaranteed a top-four seed by playoff time.

5. Golden State Warriors

10 of 14

    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Last Week: 6

    The Warriors are targeting their two-game trip to Los Angeles (contests against the Clippers on Jan. 18 and the Lakers on Jan. 21) for DeMarcus Cousins' return from a torn Achilles, according to the New York Times' Marc Stein.

    That means they're on the verge of looking very new just as they've begun to remind us more often of the good, old Warriors.

    Stephen Curry hit five threes and scored 20 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter to stave off a Kings comeback Saturday, and we got a classic Klay Thompson game in Tuesday's 122-95 blowout of the Knicks. Thompson, whose whole life is a heat check, scored 43 points on 18-of-29 shooting while dribbling just four times in that one, and the Warriors put on one of their trademark third-quarter surges to end the proceedings early.

    Save for too many defensive lapses, there were plenty of vintage Warriors moments this week.

4. Boston Celtics

11 of 14

    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Last Week: 10

    The Celtics are moving the ball better than they have at any point this year, registering at least 30 assists in five straight games before they snapped the streak Thursday at Miami.

    "We're back to what [head coach Brad Stevens] likes to call 0.5-[second] basketball," Marcus Smart told The Athletic's Jay King.

    The quicker decisions have juiced Boston's offense, to the point it now ranks in the top 10 after it languished in the bottom third during a rough start to the year. The defense has been elite all season, and the Celtics have climbed to second in net rating, trailing only the Bucks.

    Smart's improved three-point shooting is starting to feel real, Marcus Morris might be an All-Star and there's still ample room for Boston to improve. Only the Magic get to the foul line less frequently. The Celtics' talent should allow them to generate plenty of extra points by getting to the stripe—if Stevens makes that a point of emphasis.

    Winners of four of their last five, the Celtics are starting to look like the team many thought they'd be before the season.

3. Toronto Raptors

12 of 14

    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Last Week: 7

    We can forgive the Raptors if Tuesday's 104-101 win over the Hawks was closer than it should have been. Toronto was primed for a letdown game after it beat the Bucks (without Kyle Lowry) and Pacers (without Kawhi Leonard) in a back-to-back set on Saturday and Sunday.

    The Raptors have beaten the Pacers in both meetings this year, but Saturday's victory was their first in three tries against Milwaukee. That's part of the reason we can't vault Toronto to No. 1 in the rankings after such a stellar week; the Bucks still hold the season-series edge (not to mention an advantage in loads of catch-all metrics).

    In his first action since he missed six games with a sore back, Lowry looked like himself against Indy, scoring a dozen points and handing out eight assists in 32 minutes while contributing in unseen ways like he always does.

    "There's about 32 other things out there that you're not seeing that he's doing that don't get recorded on the stat sheet," head coach Nick Nurse told reporters afterward. The two tough charges Lowry took were recorded, and both seemed to galvanize the Raptors.

    At No. 2 in the East at 31-12, Toronto rates in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. 

2. Denver Nuggets

13 of 14

    Oscar Baldizon/Getty Images

    Last Week: 2

    Denver is producing gorgeous, pass-heavy offensive sequences that call to mind some of the 2013-14 Spurs' "Beautiful Game" clips. I mean, Nikola Jokic isn't even on the floor for this ball-hopping stretch, and it's a clinic of unselfish play.

    Jokic was on the court at the close of action against Miami on Tuesday, when he hit an awkward, obstructed, ungainly game-winning floater. It would have seemed desperate and ill-advised if you didn't know Jokic is something of a specialist at using his soft touch to finish ugly flips like that.

    Jamal Murray's shooting remains disappointing, but he's compensating in other areas with the highest assist and rebound rates of his career—not to mention the lowest turnover rate he's ever posted. Toss in better defensive feel within the team scheme, and there's no question Murray is playing the best ball of his short career.

    The Nuggets remain in first place out West and have won seven of their last eight. Cathartically, they also avenged their worst loss of the year, a 132-111 waxing by the Clippers on Dec. 22, with a 121-100 victory over L.A. on Thursday.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

14 of 14

    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Last Week: 1

    The Bucks beat the Jazz on Monday, but Utah's approach to guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo will be one we see increasingly emulated for the rest of the season. Utah put Rudy Gobert on Antetokounmpo, and since there's never a need to defend Milwaukee's MVP candidate on the perimeter, Gobert sagged into the lane, clogged the paint and waited down low for Antetokounmpo's attacks.

    The tactic kept a premier shot-blocker near the rim to stifle anyone else who drove the lane, and Antetokounmpo never made the Jazz pay by hitting jumpers. He scored 30 points on 30 shots. Every opponent in the league would qualify that as a good effort against Antetokounmpo.

    Not everyone has Gobert, but this approach makes sense against a superstar with Antetokounmpo's specific limitations.

    Overall, the Bucks went 3-1 this week, with a 123-116 loss to the Raptors representing the only stumble. Milwaukee continues to lead the league in net rating and SRS by considerable margins.

                       

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