NBA Power Rankings: Steph's Warriors Closing in on Giannis, Bucks for Top Spot

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 18, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: Steph's Warriors Closing in on Giannis, Bucks for Top Spot

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    The Golden State Warriors aren't going to let Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks get comfortable atop our NBA Power Rankings after all.

    In the wake of an incandescent week from Stephen Curry, the Dubs suddenly look like the two-time defending champs we know them to be and are nipping at Milwaukee's heels for the No. 1 spot.

    Elsewhere, the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans have livened up, and James Harden refuses to stop scoring. Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving breathed life into the Boston Celtics at exactly the right time, and LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers are having a rough go of things without their leader.

    These rankings consider record, injuries, recent play and advanced stats such as net rating—all in an effort to organize 30 teams into an order that reflects current strength.

    Nobody looks stronger than the Warriors and Bucks.

30-26

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    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

    30. Cleveland Cavaliers (30)

    Cleveland has given up the pretense of caring on D and is in line to finish with the worst defensive rating (by far) in Basketball Reference's database, which goes back to 1973-74.

    But hey, Cedi Osman scored 20 points and Collin Sexton committed just one turnover in a 101-95 win against the Lakers, which snapped a 12-game losing streak. Sometimes, you've got to focus on the positives.

                          

    29. New York Knicks (29)

    New York is 3-18 since Dec. 1 and continues to find new ways to lose. 

    On Thursday, the Knicks blew a 19-point lead against Washington and fell 101-100 when Allonzo Trier goaltended Thomas Bryant's last-second layup attempt. An 11-point fourth quarter led to the close finish.

    The Knicks may not be overtly trying to lose these games, but they might as well be. 

                   

    28. Chicago Bulls (27)

    The Bulls have lost nine in a row, but at least their five-game road trip concluded in Denver on Thursday.

    The league's worst offense has been slightly better in the last month, but Chicago's pace under head coach Jim Boylen remains glacial. Despite a rocky start marked by players complaining to the NBPA about draconian practices, a near mutiny and some schematic red flags, the Bulls solidified their commitment to Boylen with a pay bump and job security for next season.

    What could go wrong? 

                  

    27. Phoenix Suns (26)

    Phoenix got its best win of the season Saturday, downing the Nuggets 102-93 behind Kelly Oubre Jr.'s 26 points. The victory was all the more impressive because of Devin Booker's absence with a back injury. Booker's return against Indiana didn't go quite so well, as the guard looked unlike himself en route to eight points in a 131-97 loss.

    The rest of January looks rough, as Phoenix (1-2 this week) will play five of its final seven games this month on the road. That return engagement with Denver on Jan. 25 should be particularly difficult, considering the Nuggets' likely hunger for revenge.

                 

    26. Orlando Magic (28)

    The Magic played at the league's second-slowest pace this past week, and it worked out. A 2-1 mark with wins against Boston and Houston on back-to-back nights injected life into Orlando's fading playoff hopes.

    Better still, the victory over Houston came via a fourth-quarter rally (helped in no small part by Harden's shooting 1-of-17 from deep). If the Magic are going to salvage this season, they'll need to tap into that resiliency often.  

25-21

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    25. Memphis Grizzlies (24)

    Losers in nine of their last 10 outings, the Grizzlies will get Boston and Toronto (on the road) in their next two games. Something tells me the losing isn't quite finished.

    Kyle Anderson's ankle will keep him out until at least February, further thinning Memphis' wing options. Chandler Parsons is on the way out, and Dillon Brooks' season is likely over following surgery to repair a ligament in his toe.

    Remember when the Grizzlies were 12-5 and leading the West? That was a real thing that happened.

                  

    24. Detroit Pistons (23)

    The Pistons' season may still be headed down the tubes, and they may also still own the league's fifth-worst net rating since Dec. 1, but at least Blake Griffin got a little catharsis this week.

    He scored 44 points in Saturday's 109-104 road win over the Clippers, and though he denied ill intent, he appeared to snub his former boss, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer before the game. Maybe he was sprinting toward a supply closet looking for one of those "Pioneers" T-shirts L.A. had made up as part of its 2017 free-agency pitch to Griffin. Those are probably collector's items.

    The Pistons went 2-1 this week (3-1 if you count Griffin's owning Ballmer as a victory).

                  

    23. Atlanta Hawks (25)

    The Hawks have a three-game winning streak this season (they beat Washington, New York and Detroit from Dec. 18 to 23), but this was easily their best week of the year. Atlanta downed the playoff-bound 76ers and Thunder and had a loss to Milwaukee sandwiched in between.

    Kevin Huerter has shown flashes of being more than a shooter, and the one-handed dime he tapped to Taurean Prince against the Bucks stands out as the latest evidence. He also scored 29 points against the Sixers last Friday and is 12 of his last 21 from deep, bringing his season mark up to 39.1 percent.

    Remarkably, Atlanta is 8-7 over the last calendar month. Time for these guys to get a bump up the rankings.

                     

    22. Charlotte Hornets (20)

    Charlotte finished its six-game road trip with a 2-4 record, though Monday's 108-93 win over the Spurs, in which Tony Parker's return to San Antonio produced all the feels, made the journey seem a bit more successful than it was.

    Cody Zeller's absence (hand) is, once again, coinciding with a Hornets slide. Nothing like two years ago, when Charlotte was 33-29 with him and 3-17 without him, but it's clear from the Hornets' 3-5 mark over his recent eight-game stint on the sideline that Zeller matters. 

                   

    21. Dallas Mavericks (19)

    Dallas' bench was its greatest strength through the first half of the season, but because Maxi Kleber moved into the starting five and J.J. Barea is out for the season following surgery to repair a torn Achilles, the Mavs have lost the drivers of their strong reserve group. Barea and Kleber were both part of Dallas' best five-man unit.

    It's possible the Mavericks will add depth via a seemingly inevitable Dennis Smith Jr. trade, but Barea's pick-and-roll artistry and irritating (in the best way) playing style aren't easily replaceable.

    The Mavs went 1-2 this week to fall four games under .500 for the first time since early November.

20-16

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    20. Minnesota Timberwolves (18)

    Karl-Anthony Towns had 27 points and 27 rebounds in a head-to-head matchup with Anthony Davis on Saturday, but that big night produced Minnesota's only victory in a 1-2 week. And really, it was hard to be positive about that result after watching the Wolves roll over during Tuesday's 149-107 loss to the Sixers.

    Robert Covington still has no timetable for a return from his ankle injury, which means Minnesota's defense won't be in top form for a while.

              

    19. Sacramento Kings (21)

    Harry Giles III has logged double-digit minutes in every contest since Jan. 1, and he's teamed with Marvin Bagley III as a net-positive duo in that same span. That's impressive growth for a twosome that got crushed when sharing the floor through Dec. 31. Giles' passing and improving defense pair well with Bagley's bounce and energy.

    The Kings hounded Charlotte into 18 turnovers Saturday, giving them three consecutive contests with at least that many forced giveaways. Activity like that is part of the reason Sacramento is in the top half of  the league in defensive efficiency over the last month.

           

    18. Washington Wizards (22)

    Bradley Beal and Oscar Robertson are the only players to post more than one game with at least 40 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists in a season. Beal has needed multiple overtimes to eclipse those marks both times this year, with the most recent coming in a 140-138 double-OT loss to the Raptors on Sunday.

    Tomas Satoransky looks good in a larger role (for the third year in a row, basically), and Washington took down Milwaukee this past Friday to start its week. The ending was even better, as Thomas Bryant's last-second layup counted when Allonzo Trier batted it from above the cylinder, giving the Wiz a 101-100 win over the Knicks in London and a 6-3 record in their last nine games.

           

    17. Los Angeles Lakers (15)

    This is your regularly scheduled "how good are the Lakers without LeBron James?" blurb. And this week, the answer is (still) "not very." 

    L.A. is 5-7 since James went down with a groin injury on Christmas and had only beaten non-playoff teams in that stretch until taking out the reeling Thunder 138-128 in overtime Thursday. With James back at practice but unlikely to play until after Monday's meeting with the Warriors, the Lakers will have to make do for a little longer.

                      

    16. Miami Heat (17)

    Erik Spoelstra has a tough job.

    The Heat's roster is deep but short on stars, which inherently creates tension around roles and minutes—especially when you've got outspoken players who are itching for action. Last year, the Heat fined Hassan Whiteside for using some choice language when he requested more playing time, and Dion Waiters got into the act after he saw just a dozen minutes in Tuesday's 124-86 blowout loss in Milwaukee.

    "[Expletive] patience," Waiters told reporters. "I want to play. I've been patient long enough. What do I got to be patient for? Come on man. I've been patient. I think everybody knows that. It’s time. What are we waiting for? If I'm out there, play me."

    That earned him a fine on Thursday.

    Waiters is averaging 15.4 minutes per game and shooting 36.8 percent from the field in five contests since returning from an ankle injury that shelved him for a year. Can't imagine why Spoelstra wouldn't want a 36.8 percent volume shooter on the floor more often...

    The Heat went 1-1 in a light week.

15-11

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    15. Los Angeles Clippers (12)

    The Clippers' slide continued this week with three straight home losses. Increasingly, it's becoming obvious L.A. has no answer for powerful interior opponents. Blake Griffin trounced his old team for 44 points, Anthony Davis went for 46 and Rudy Gobert hung 23 points and 22 rebounds on the Clips' overwhelmed bigs.

    With a defensive rebound rate of just 68.6 percent in their three losses this week, the Clippers further exemplified their frailty inside.

    Something significant will have to change if L.A. intends to maintain its tenuous playoff position.

               

    14. Brooklyn Nets (16)

    D'Angelo Russell held down the fort with averages of 24.0 points and 6.9 assists on 49.7 percent shooting during Spencer Dinwiddie's nine-game slump (in which he averaged 10.9 points on 35.9 percent shooting) from Dec. 28 to Jan. 14. Russell's run culminated with 34 points in Monday's 109-102 win over the Celtics.

    Then, finally, Dinwiddie broke out with 25 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter and OT of Wednesday's thrilling 145-142 win against Houston.

    Brooklyn is 6-2 in its last eight games.

               

    13. Oklahoma City Thunder (9)

    The Thunder have lost five of their last six, and what was once the best defense in the league looked unrecognizable during this rough patch.

    The Hawks hung 142 points on OKC and won by 16 on Tuesday, and OKC hasn't held anyone under the century mark since Dec. 17. The 100-point barrier means less than it did in the days before The Great NBA Offensive Explosion of 2018-19, but it's still telling that the Thunder are struggling more than at any point this season to get consistent stops.

                     

    12. New Orleans Pelicans (14)

    New Orleans' win against the Clips on Monday, in which it blew a 20-point third-quarter lead, was its first road victory against a West opponent since opening night. It would have had another one had Stephen Curry not gone thermonuclear in the third quarter of Wednesday's 147-140 defeat.

    Davis had 30 points and 18 rebounds in that one, and he's averaging 36.0 points, 14.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists with shooting splits of 52.1/37.5/87.7 over his last five games.

    The Pels are 4-2 in their last six, should have almost five more wins based on their point differential and have climbed to third in offensive efficiency. In a just world, or at least one that divided conferences in a way that made the tiniest bit of geographical sense, they'd be in the mix for a top-four seed in the East. Instead, they're outside the West playoff picture.

               

    11. Portland Trail Blazers (11) 

    If it feels like Portland, owner of the league's ninth-best record, is getting hosed by continually missing out on the top 10, well...it kind of is. Especially since the Blazers' two losses this week came at Denver and then at Sacramento the next night.

    Still, the Spurs, Jazz and Rockets have all been better in terms of net rating over the past calendar month. Recent play has to matter more, and Portland has been juuuuuuuuust a smidge behind those three teams, which happen to occupy the Nos. 8-10 spots in our rankings.

10. San Antonio Spurs

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    Last Week: 7

    The San Antonio Spurs lost two of three this week, but at least they got Rudy Gay back for Wednesday's 105-101 win over the Mavs. Gay (wrist), in action for the first time since Jan. 5, scored 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting in 22 minutes while giving San Antonio the extra dynamic second "big" it was missing.

    With Gay at the 4 this year, the Spurs have a plus-4.3 net rating—better than their plus-2.4 figure for the season. Of course, San Antonio is plus-10.7 when Davis Bertans mans the power forward spot, so maybe it's not just Gay who unlocks the team's best looks.

    The Spurs are ninth in offensive efficiency this month, predictably slipping from the absurd heights they managed in December. If they can settle into that relatively modest level of scoring efficiency, they'll have a chance to stick around the edges of our top 10 the rest of the way.

    In the wake of a 1-2 week, though, they have to lose ground from last week's No. 7 ranking.

9. Utah Jazz

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    Last Week: 13

    The Utah Jazz may not have a conventional point guard for at least another week, but maybe the training staff should hold Ricky Rubio, Dante Exum and Raul Neto out a little longer.

    Because this is working.

    Donovan Mitchell is averaging 27.2 points, 4.9 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game in January, and the Jazz have won five straight contests. He got JaVale McGee with a one-handed slam Friday and has looked more like the breakout star we saw a season ago since he took over primary ball-handling duties.

    The Jazz have a plus-7.8 net rating in January and have their full-season defensive efficiency up to fourth. After underperforming its point differential for most of the year, Utah's record is starting to align with its peripherals.

    No wonder Joe Ingles is so confident.

8. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 6

    James Harden is making history every night, and it's only been enough to earn the Houston Rockets a 3-4 mark over their past seven games.

    After going 1-of-17 from deep in Sunday's loss to Orlando, he uncorked a season-high 57 points in Monday's win over the Grizzlies, which came on the second night of a back-to-back.

    "What he just did, we take for granted a little bit," head coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters. "Another day, he scores 57. On dead legs and playing the minutes he's been playing? He played 43 minutes last night. That's rare, rare people who can do what he does."

    Harden one-upped himself with 58 points Wednesday against Brooklyn in a losing cause. His streak of 30-point games is at 18, a figure bettered only by Wilt Chamberlain—who amassed his longer streaks in the early '60s against chain-smoking 6'7" centers with second jobs in the offseason.

    Sorry (not sorry) if this is blasphemy, but what Harden's doing is more impressive.

    At some point, we'll hit the limit for how much Harden can handle on his own. Clint Capela's four- to six-week hiatus with a right thumb injury may get us there, especially with Chris Paul (hamstring) still sidelined.

    Worry about the potential that fatigue could ruin another playoff run later. For now, the ridiculously overtaxed Harden is playing like he's hungry for a second MVP award while single-handedly keeping Houston afloat.

7. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 2

    It's hard to recall this year's Denver Nuggets looking worse than they did during Saturday's 102-93 loss at Phoenix, a game in which Devin Booker didn't play (back). And that's saying something when you consider Denver also got tuned up by the Warriors at home Tuesday—losing possession of the West's top seed in the process.

    The Nuggets surrendered an NBA-record 51 first-quarter points to the magma-hot Dubs and spent a good portion of the second half trailing by 30 before falling 142-111. The result prompted some reflective thinking from head coach Mike Malone, who told reporters: "[The Warriors] have levels. We don't have that level yet."

    Denver's defense, such a pleasant early surprise, has collapsed over the last month. Don't be fooled by a full-season defensive efficiency figure that still hovers around the top 10. Since Dec. 18, the Nuggets rank in the bottom five on that end.

    At least Nikola Jokic showed life with 40 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in a 116-113 win over the Blazers.

    If the Nuggets are for real, we'll see it in how they respond to this week's humbling stretch.

6. Indiana Pacers

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    Last Week: 8

    The Indiana Pacers have won two of three and nine of their last 12 games overall, but the Sixers bashed them by 24 in Indiana on Thursday, taking a 2-1 season-series edge that could prove important in playoff seeding. Indy will get a chance to earn a split on March 10.

    The Pacers defense has quietly slipped in recent weeks, and though it ranks third on the season, it has only been 25th in January.

    Myles Turner's return should fix that. The DPOY candidate took the floor after four games off with a sore shoulder and helped the Pacers shut down the Suns in Tuesday's 131-97 romp. Funny how the league leader in blocks per game (who has also shown better anticipation and mobility this season) can jump-start a defense.

    Indy's schedule has been the NBA's easiest, so tougher times are ahead. But we can't ding the Pacers for how their performance might suffer in the future.

5. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 10

    Friday's two-point loss at home to the Hawks wasn't as bad as the result looked. Atlanta has been significantly better of late, and Joel Embiid's ankle kept him on the bench. Mike Muscala is a fine backup, but it seems safe to say Embiid would have made a difference in that one.

    Ben Simmons logged a triple-double against the Hawks and then inhaled 22 rebounds in a 108-105 win over New York on Sunday. Throw in a vengeful 149-107 shellacking of Jimmy Butler's old Timberwolves on Tuesday, and you've got an impressive week, on balance, for the Sixers.

    And that was before Embiid posted 22 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and three blocks in Thursday's 120-96 bludgeoning of the Pacers.

    The Sixers now embark on a season-defining stretch in which every opponent it sees before Feb. 13 will be above .500. The slate includes virtually every measuring stick you can imagine: Houston, OKC, Denver twice, Golden State, Toronto and Boston. They're all there.

    Get ready to learn what Philadelphia's made of.

4. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 4

    After all that—Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown doing some passive-aggressive finger-pointing; a controversy-inducing finish in Orlando among three straight losses; Irving doing some ace diplomacy by relaying his conversation with/apology to LeBron James and then admitting Brown was right; and a thrilling home win over Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors—Boston remains in the No. 4 spot.

    That's a lot of activity for no movement in the rankings, but the various elements that defined the Celtics' newsy week sort of canceled one another out. Though, to be fair, if not for Irving's luminous 27-point, 18-assist clutch-shot-drilling heroism in that Wednesday win over Toronto, Boston would have found itself closer to the 10th spot than the first.

    Jayson Tatum scored a career-high 34 points in Monday's loss to the Nets, and Al Horford looked about as good as he has all year in scoring 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting to help beat the Raptors—a pair of positive signs.

    On the flip side, the Celtics have already lost as many road games as they did a year ago (13).

    It feels like we're going to do this with the Celtics all season. They'll unravel, and then Irving and their sheer depth of talent will pull everything back together. May as well just get used to the swings.

3. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 3

    Kawhi Leonard has quietly ramped up his production while looking progressively springier as the season has gone on. His January scoring average and shooting efficiency are the best of any month, and he looked just as driven during Wednesday's tough loss to the struggling Celtics, scoring 33 points on 19 shots and snatching four steals.

    If not for a bench letdown, Toronto could have overcome Irving's eruption and won that contest.

    Pascal Siakam needed a last-second game-winner to get Toronto by Phoenix on Thursday, but we'll excuse the close margin on account of its back-to-back status.

    Leonard has cracked the 40-point mark twice in his last seven games. Before that, the last time he'd reached that scoring threshold was Jan. 21, 2017. Though still sitting during the second night of back-to-back sets, Leonard looks every bit as good as the guy who finished in the top three in MVP voting during his last two healthy seasons (2015-16 and 2016-17).

    As proof, note he's one of six players with a usage rate over 30 percent and a true-shooting percentage north of 60 percent this season, joining Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Curry and James. All of those guys are on this year's MVP short list.

    Toronto has won six of its last seven and leads the NBA with 34 wins.

2. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 5

    "They know who we are," Durant told reporters when asked if Tuesday's 142-111 deconstruction of the Nuggets was about sending a message.

    Such is life for Golden State, a team that usually feels little need to prove itself—even when facing a conference-leading opponent on the road. Still, it sure seemed like the Warriors were out to demoralize Denver when they hit 10 threes and scored 51 points in the first quarter Tuesday.

    If it wasn't a message to the Nuggets, the performance, part of a six-game winning streak, should still serve notice to the rest of us: The Warriors are better than everyone when they want to be.

    Curry scored 48 against Dallas on Sunday and then became the first player to hit at least eight threes in three straight games, a feat he achieved after incinerating the Pelicans with a third-quarter takeover (and 41 points) Wednesday. He's effectively duplicating the offensive numbers he posted during the 2015-16 season, when he became the first unanimous MVP. In fact, he's shooting it better from deep than he did during that all-timer of a year.

    Draymond Green hit four threes against New Orleans, looked more comfortable on offense than he has all year and is averaging 10.2 assists over his last five games. Klay Thompson's slump is over. Curry averaged 37.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists with a shooting split of 54.5/55.0/100.0 in a 4-0 week. Durant is still Durant. DeMarcus Cousins returns Friday.

    Golden State is a league-best 6-1 with a plus-15.1 net rating and a 130.1 offensive rating (!!!) since Jan. 1.

    The Warriors—the real Warriors—are finally here.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    The Milwaukee Bucks went 3-1 this week (3-0 in games Antetokounmpo played) and continue to sit atop the NBA in net rating while being the only team to rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. 

    Antetokounmpo missed last Friday's loss to Washington because of hip and quad soreness, but he looked none the worse for wear after returning. He bullied his way to 19 free-throw attempts and 33 points against the Hawks on Sunday and then responded to the Heat's zone looks and paint-packing tendencies by handing out 10 assists against just two turnovers on Tuesday.

    Based on their recent play, the Warriors have a strong case for the top spot. But then you trim the sample to include only games from the last calendar month, and you see Milwaukee with the top net rating in that span. You also see that the Bucks have outscored their opponents by more over the past month than they have on the season overall.

    The Bucks know their identity, and their superstar, though limited, can still adapt to different coverages.  Most importantly, they're getting better as the season progresses. Golden State will have to sustain its level of play a little longer if it wants to overtake these guys.

    Maybe that seems inevitable, but maybe the Bucks have another level to reach as well. Either way, we're in for a fight.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, Jan. 17.