NBA Power Rankings: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors Retake the Throne
The tremors started last week, as the reloaded, driven Golden State Warriors strung together a few big offensive nights ahead of DeMarcus Cousins' return.
This week, the earthquake hit.
The Dubs are back on top behind a nine-game winning streak, napalm-hot offense and frightening depth. Now, when Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant rest together, Cousins, Klay Thompson and a crew of battle-tested title-winners obliterate opposing backups.
With apologies to the Milwaukee Bucks, there was no other option. The Warriors had to take the top spot.
Rankings are based on team record, recent play, injuries and advanced metrics such as net rating. They reflect the hierarchy of the league as it exists today.
Last week's ranking in parentheses.
30. Cleveland Cavaliers (30)
For much of the year, there were five awful teams that occupied a separate, lower tier of the NBA: Cleveland, New York, Chicago, Phoenix and Atlanta. Losers in 17 of their last 18 games, on pace for the worst defensive rating in history and dead last in net rating this year, the Cavaliers have established a new bottom tier.
They're the only ones in it.
29. New York Knicks (29)
The Knicks are 3-20 since Dec. 1, Enes Kanter is asking to be traded, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Allonzo Trier are beefing, everything not nailed down (and not named Kristaps Porzingis or Kevin Knox) is available and head coach David Fizdale is masking the pain wth good humor.
Say it with me: Other than that, everything is fine!
28. Chicago Bulls (28)
Under Fred Hoiberg, Chicago posted a 101.0 offensive rating, a 110.6 defensive rating and a minus-9.5 net rating. Under Jim Boylen, the Bulls have a 101.4 offensive rating, a 112.2 defensive rating and a minus-10.9 net rating, despite better health from key contributors.
It's almost like the head coach wasn't the problem.
This probably isn't the best time to deliver more bad news, but Wendell Carter Jr. is due to miss eight to 12 weeks following surgery on his left thumb.
27. Phoenix Suns (27)
The Suns are 2-13 in their last 15 games and haven't won since that shocking upset against Denver on Jan. 12. At least Devin Booker is showing some fight. He and Gorgui Dieng mixed it up, and both earned ejections as the Wolves blew out the Suns on Tuesday.
Dragan Bender is getting time at the 5 lately, and his pair of double-doubles in two losses to the Wolves this week proves anybody can get numbers on a team that's this bad.
26. Memphis Grizzlies (25)
Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are available via trade, officially, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. And if Gasol's swan song in Memphis winds up being his 22-point, 17-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in Wednesday's 118-107 loss to the Hornets, well...that feels about right.
The Grizzlies are 3-18 in their last 21 games. This is the end of the road.
25. Orlando Magic (26)
The Magic are 29th in free-throw rate and 26th in offensive rebound percentage, which mostly explains their 24th-ranked offense. When you don't get freebies by drawing contact and rarely manufacture second chances to score, you've got little chance of putting up points at a passable rate.
At 1-4 in its last five games, Orlando is wasting a phenomenal season from Nikola Vucevic, who averaged 23.4 points, 12.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 blocks in that stretch. One guy can only do so much.
24. Atlanta Hawks (23)
John Collins scored a career-high 35 points in Wednesday's 121-101 win over the Bulls as he continued to pile up numbers in his sophomore season. He's up to 19.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game on 59.1 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent from deep.
It's concerning, though, that his block and steal rates are both dramatically down from last year. Is this an effort thing? A team-mandated change in tactics to keep a young big out of foul trouble?
Hopefully, it's the latter. The Hawks (1-2 this week) need their prized prospects to stay focused on the little things as they rebuild.
23. Dallas Mavericks (21)
Dallas snapped a four-game losing streak with Tuesday's 106-98 win over the Clippers, and Dennis Smith Jr. returned from the brink of what seemed like an inevitable trade to start and contribute 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Head coach Rick Carlisle largely staggered Smith and Luka Doncic's minutes, which could keep Smith happy and pump up his trade value. That's a win-win.
Visibly frustrated, Doncic was 0-of-8 from deep in the win over L.A., but he'll be fine. He can keep riding the high of his first triple-double, which came in Monday's loss to the Bucks.
22. Detroit Pistons (24)
The Pistons are 3-2 in their last five games after they eked out a 98-94 win against New Orleans on Wednesday, but Blake Griffin isn't happy with his team's level of focus. When Reggie Jackson mugged for the camera as Griffin delivered that sober indictment in a postgame interview, it was almost too on the nose to be believable.
Griffin is doing all he can. He put up 37 points, nine rebounds and seven assists against the Pels, giving him 17 30-point games on the year, the most he's had in a single season. Over his last five contests, Detroit's surefire All-Star is averaging 33.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists with a 51.4/41.9/77.4 shooting split.
21. Sacramento Kings (19)
Buddy Hield hit a buzzer-beater on Saturday to stun the Pistons and log Sacramento's only victory on its six-game road trip. Two dates remain—at the Grizzlies and at the Clippers—before the weary Kings return to Sacramento.
With three starters out against Toronto and playing the second night of a back-to-back, the run-and-gun Kings faltered late. Marvin Bagley III posted a career-high 22 points in his first start, but Sacramento had few other bright spots to celebrate in that 120-105 defeat. If De'Aaron Fox's sore toe lingers, things could get ugly.
The Kings are 24-24 with a minus-1.7 net rating. In the West, only the Grizzlies and Suns grade out worse by that metric.
20. Miami Heat (16)
Yes, the East is a joke. We just have to accept that and wait for the NBA to do away with conferences—the sooner the better.
19. Los Angeles Lakers (17)
"No one here is just counting on LeBron [James] carrying all the weight and taking us there," Lakers head coach Luke Walton told Bill Oram of The Athletic on Wednesday.
That's some insular thinking, because everyone else in the universe knows L.A.'s playoff chances depend entirely on James.
The Lakers are still without Lonzo Ball (ankle), and they've slipped from fourth to ninth in the West during James' 15-game absence with a groin injury. They'll play seven of their nine February contests on the road.
18. Charlotte Hornets (22)
Nicolas Batum has shot the lights out over the last two weeks, hitting 52.4 percent of his field goals and 50.0 percent of his deep tries. Of course, with just six field-goal attempts per game during that span, it's hard to make that efficiency count for much.
Charlotte has won four of its last five and is back to just one game under .500 (23-24). In a stellar display of mediocrity, the Hornets have spent the entire season between one game over and four games under .500. This bunch is as average as it gets.
17. Minnesota Timberwolves (20)
Derrick Rose scored 29 points after halftime and hit a last-second game-winner to beat the Suns on Sunday. Two days later, Karl-Anthony Towns uncorked 25 points, 18 rebounds and seven assists to down Phoenix again—this time by a more comfortable margin of 118-91.
It should be noted Towns seems to like playing against Bender, whom the Suns exhumed to play center with the rest of their conventional bigs sidelined.
After a dreadful start, the Wolves defense has improved substantially, ranking just outside the top 10 in January.
16. Los Angeles Clippers (15)
The Clippers won road games over the Spurs and Heat this week, producing a 2-2 mark that prevents yet another significant drop in the rankings. L.A. still fouls shooters too often, doesn't force enough turnovers and is vulnerable against physical bigs down low.
Still, the Clippers are a solid 26-22 and are clinging to the eighth seed in the West. With a soft schedule until a six-game road trip starts Feb. 2, L.A. had better bank wins while it can.
15. Washington Wizards (18)
No, you're fixated on the idea that just won't go away in the wake of Washington's 7-5 record since John Wall's season ended December 26. I'm certainly not warming to the notion that the absence of a defense-averse, physically hobbled, sporadically engaged point guard who can't shoot might somehow improve a team.
No, sir. Not me. Perish the thought.
All I'm saying is there's a little too much knee-jerk dismissiveness when that theory gets raised.
At the very least, we can say Bradley Beal and Washington's defense seem to have come alive sans Wall. The longer this goes on, the less it'll look like a coincidence.
14. New Orleans Pelicans (12)
Anthony Davis' finger injury will keep him out until at least next week, according to Wojnarowski. That's a favorable result, all things considered. If his absence extends any longer, New Orleans (1-2 this week and a loser in four of its last five games) could quickly find itself in the lower third of our rankings.
The paper-thin Pelicans are 2-6 in games AD's missed this year, which is actually better than you might expect.
13. Brooklyn Nets (14)
D'Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie continue to propel Brooklyn on one of the season's most surprising runs. The Nets are a remarkable 18-5 since Dec. 7, and while their peripherals suggest there may be some smoke and mirrors at work (plus-2.7 net rating ranks 11th in the league and should have produced about four fewer wins, according to Cleaning the Glass), you've got to appreciate the results.
Brooklyn has won five straight and owns the No. 6 seed in the East. Not bad for a club that was once 10 games under .500.
Here's hoping Dinwiddie's right thumb injury won't keep him shelved for too long.
12. San Antonio Spurs (10)
San Antonio couldn't hold an eight-point lead in the final two-and-a-half minutes Wednesday, falling 122-120 against the host 76ers. That wrapped a 1-2 week that knocked the Spurs' record down to 27-22. They're just 6-5 in January.
LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan may be San Antonio's biggest stars, but they're not making the biggest impact on winning. The Spurs have a minus-0.1 net rating when those two share the floor. When both sit, giving way to reserve-led units, the Spurs' net rating leaps to plus-11.4.
There's some noise here, as DeRozan and Aldridge typically face opposing first units, but the discrepancy is striking.
11. Portland Trail Blazers (11)
The Blazers have won four of their last five games to get to 30-20.
Their 109-104 win at Utah on Monday came courtesy of Damian Lillard's typical late-game reliability, but Jusuf Nurkic's 17-point, four-block third quarter keyed a momentum shift. Tuesday's 123-114 loss at OKC was a predictable result, considering the quality of opponent and quick turnaround time.
Portland needs more consistency (and availability) from Maurice Harkless, whose persistent knee soreness has limited him to seven games this month, and his production has long been a bellwether for the Blazers' success. They're 11-3 when Harkless shoots at least 50 percent from the field.
10. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 13
The Oklahoma City Thunder emerged from their most dispiriting stretch of the season—five losses in six games from Jan. 6 to Jan. 17—to win four in a row and return to our top 10.
Surprisingly, they've straightened out their season by scoring. That's not what you'd expect from a team that built its identity on defense, but OKC averaged 125 points in wins over New York and Portland on Monday and Tuesday. During the last two weeks, the Thunder have scored at a top-five clip.
That's not to say Oklahoma City is all the way back. It took a Paul George four-point play to escape the Sixers 117-115 on Saturday, and Russell Westbrook is still close to posting the least efficient high-volume three-point shooting season of all time.
Nerlens Noel (concussion) is back, which should help OKC's slipping defense. He's second in BBall Index's Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus, trailing only Rudy Gobert.
9. Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 6
Victor Oladipo's season-ending injury, a ruptured quadriceps tendon in his right knee, suffered Wednesday against Toronto, overshadows everything about the Pacers this week.
Indy has won three straight and five of its last six overall, but the focus of the season shifts to survival. The prospects may not be as grim as they seem, as the Pacers have a higher net rating with Oladipo off the floor than on it this year. That's a dramatic change from last season, when they were winless in the seven games Oladipo missed. That's why, for now, we're not punting Indiana from the top 10.
The Pacers will get a chance to prove their excellent defense and depth are enough to warrant continued inclusion in this level of our rankings.
Although, as if losing an All-NBA performer weren't enough, Indiana's schedule is about to get ugly, a natural consequence of playing the league's easiest slate.
8. Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 7
Jamal Murray's jumper is coming around. He's increased his three-point percentage in every month this season, and it's all the way up to 44.1 percent in January. Gary Harris is also back in the starting lineup, as of Wednesday's loss to the Jazz, which strengthens the bench by sending Malik Beasley and his 42 percent conversion rate from deep back to the second unit.
Unfortunately, Denver's defense is collapsing. It ranks 25th in points allowed per possession since Dec. 1, a stretch far too long to be a mere blip, especially with the Nuggets' track record of suspect play on that end over the last couple of seasons.
After looking like a two-way force earlier in the year, the Nuggets (1-1 this week) now resemble what they were last season: An all-offense outfit that needs to pile up the points to offset its lack of stopping power. Opponents get more corner three attempts against Denver than they do against any other team, and only the Hornets and Blazers have forced turnovers less frequently since Jan. 1.
Stop me if you've heard this before, but the Nuggets' fate depends on improving a defense that has fallen apart after a strong start.
7. Utah Jazz
Last Week: 9
Donovan Mitchell's scoring spike—at least 24 points in 10 straight games—will get most of the pub, but Joe Ingles and Gobert deserve equal credit. After all, Utah's net rating with Mitchell on the floor and those two off is an alarming minus-17.9 this season.
Ingles expertly handled increased playmaking duties when Utah's top three point guards were all out of the rotation with injury, and all Gobert's done lately is bolster his DPOY case while shooting 64.2 percent from the field. This team is much more than Mitchell, who is only recently breaking out of a yearlong slump and is still scoring less efficiently than he did as a rookie.
Gobert, not Mitchell, will most likely be the Jazz's lone All-Star representative.
The Jazz are 7-1 in their last eight games and have climbed to ninth in net rating. Since Jan. 1, they're fifth with (surprise!) the league's second-best defense. It took a while, but Utah is looking like the team many (raises hand) expected to secure a top-four playoff seed in the West.
6. Houston Rockets
Last Week: 8
What's the league supposed to do with James Harden?
Dude slapped the Knicks for 61 points on Wednesday, bumping his scoring average up to 36.3 points per game and elbowing his way to the front of the conversation about the greatest offensive stretches in league history. Right now, there's no stopping the man.
Harden may be on a run of consistent dominance, but his Rockets have been less steady. Houston has alternated wins and losses for the entire month of January (but is 16-6 in its last 22 games overall).
Head coach Mike D'Antoni told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle that Chris Paul's return from a hamstring strain is close, perhaps as soon as this weekend or early next week. It'll be good for the Rockets to get a star back into the rotation, but this may also close the book on Harden's incredible run. At the very least, it might mean someone will finally set him up for a bucket.
Harden has 261 points in his last five games, and none of them were assisted.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 5
After falling to the Thunder on Saturday, Philly smashed the Rockets without Jimmy Butler, and Joel Embiid pasted 33 points and 19 rebounds on the Spurs to complete a 2-1 week. Embiid, working through back pain, has the most 30-10 games in the league this year, and Charles Barkley is the only Sixers player to post more in a season. It seems pertinent to note Embiid has nearly half a year left to pad his total.
Talk all you want about the Sixers' seemingly ill-fitting trio of stars; these guys aren't struggling to produce efficient offense. Philadelphia is third in effective field-goal percentage and second in free-throw rate since Jan. 1, a stretch in which it boasts a 9-3 record.
Turnovers are still an issue, but when you limit opponents' second chances with a top-five defensive rebounding rate, the giveaways hurt a little less.
The Sixers have won five of their last six games and are still coming together as a unit. That should concern the rest of the Eastern Conference.
4. Boston Celtics
Last Week: 4
It's been a month of runs for the Celtics, who started January with four straight wins, followed by a three-game losing streak that gave way to their current five-game surge.
Al Horford still looks a half-step slow, but he's shot the ball more accurately in January than any other month so far, and Aron Baynes' return lends further stability to a once-depleted center spot.
Kyrie Irving sat out Wednesday's win over the Cavs with the flu, but he looked plenty healthy in racking up a career-best eight steals against Miami on Monday. Terry Rozier handled the point just fine in Irving's absence, posting 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists against Cleveland.
Though Irving deserves praise for playing the best offensive basketball of his career, his growth on defense is actually more impressive. Once a massive liability, he's become an asset by staying engaged and putting forth consistent effort on that end. He grades out as a net-positive defender by both BBall Index's PIPM and ESPN's DRPM.
Boston sits fifth in the East, but its point differential is third in the league.
3. Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 3
Kawhi Leonard rested for four straight games, and Toronto hardly missed a beat, downing a trio of lottery-bound teams—Phoenix, Memphis and Sacramento—before falling by a final of 110-106 to the Pacers on Wednesday.
C.J. Miles returned from obscurity this week, logging double-digit point totals in Toronto's three wins after reaching that threshold just four times all season. With Leonard routinely unavailable and Kyle Lowry still searching for consistency from deep, Miles' spacing matters. He's not a key part of the rotation, but he can help if his three-ball starts falling.
The Raptors are 9-3 in January, despite Leonard missing time, the bench still struggling to reach last year's level and Lowry leaving plenty to be desired in the scoring department. It's enough to create a sense that there's a late-season run waiting to kick off once Toronto has everyone healthy and rolling.
For now, the Raps' claim on the No. 3 spot in our rankings holds fast.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 1
The Bucks deserve an apology.
They've won five straight (all by double figures), lead the league in net rating, haven't lost back-to-back games all season and have otherwise done nothing to warrant the loss of their top spot in these rankings.
Sometimes, though, forces beyond a team's control dictate its fate. In this case, those forces reside in the Bay Area, where a sleeping giant isn't just waking up; it's dumping several extra shots of espresso into its morning coffee as it vibrates with barely contained energy.
So, yes, the Bucks fall one spot. And, no, I have nothing bad to say about them.
Eric Bledsoe is finishing a ridiculous 77.3 percent of his shots inside three feet, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only guy with a chance to keep James Harden from winning another MVP, and the Bucks rank in the top three in both offensive (third) and defensive (first) efficiency.
This team is great. There's one that's greater.
1. Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 2
Momentum was building before DeMarcus Cousins' return, but the addition of the All-Star big man seems to have kicked the Warriors into high gear. Boogie hit three triples in his first game back, which signaled that even if his mobility might be compromised in the wake of an Achilles tear, his outside shooting and passing add terrifying new dimensions to an already league-best Warriors attack.
Klay Thompson tied an NBA record by making his first 10 threes against the Lakers on Monday, Stephen Curry is providing entertainment even when things go wrong, and Draymond Green looks like himself again.
Golden State is playing with purpose on offense, defending intensely for longer stretches than it did earlier in the year and generally seems enlivened after several months of lethargy.
The new starting five, with Cousins in place of Kevon Looney, is working. So is a retooled "second unit" composed of Shaun Livingston, Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Green and Cousins that starts second and fourth quarters. Opponents get no breaks when Curry and Kevin Durant rest simultaneously now.
The Warriors are the only team in the league with more than one eight-game winning streak this year, and they own the NBA's top net rating and best record in the month of January.
The most common overreaction to Cousins signing with the Warriors this past summer, that his presence would eventually make Golden State unfairly dominant, is starting to feel true.