NBA Power Rankings: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks Are Taking over

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 25, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks Are Taking over

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    Change is afoot in the NBA, with plans for midseason tournaments and playoff reseeding gaining steam.

    We've got some changes in this week's edition of the NBA Power Rankings, too, although they might not be of the full-on league-altering variety. Unless you're a Los Angeles Lakers devotee, in which case, the shuffle at the top of our list might feel like a similarly big deal.

    Let's just say we've overlooked the steady dominance of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks for too long.

    As always, rankings consider team record, health, advanced metrics and recent play. The goal is to organize all 30 teams into an order that reflects the league's current power structure.

    Here's where we stand one month into the season.

30-26

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    30. Golden State Warriors (30)

    The Warriors almost made it tough on us this week, winning in Memphis behind 29 points from Alec Burks and 11 assists from new starting point guard Draymond Green. But a 48-point throttling on Wednesday in Dallas, in which the injury-riddled Warriors had just eight players available, eliminated any chance of an escape from the basement.

    Green missed Golden State's final two games of the week with a sore heel.

    Burks has been scoring effectively, but it says a lot about where the Warriors are that the most important aspect (to them) for his comeback season is the value he might generate as a trade piece. The ball is only in his hands this much because D'Angelo Russell and Stephen Curry are hurt, but these numbers might eventually net Golden State a second-rounder via trade.

    The Warriors had actually been defending a bit better before the Dallas deluge, but they conclude the first month of the season with the league's worst net rating and fewest wins.

           

    29. New York Knicks (29)

    The Knicks offense ranks last in efficiency, due partly to a dearth of overall talent but also to some alarming play-type mismanagement. They rank 30th in cut frequency, a spot they occupied last year, too. Compounding matters, they post up entirely too often despite generating an anemic points-per-possession return on such plays.

    By relying on inefficient play types and ignoring ones that produce greater returns, the Knicks aren't doing themselves any favors.

    Like so many other issues with this team, it's hard to apportion blame. Head coach David Fizdale has yet to establish an identity for his squad, and nobody seems to know what he stands for as a coach. On the other hand, look at this roster.

    The power forwards! The tunnel-vision chuckers! The non-shooting point guards!

    New York took down the Cleveland Cavaliers last Monday, and the Warriors are an abomination right now. So there was never any danger of a slip to 30th. That's not the same thing as saying things are going well for the Knicks.

           

    28. Atlanta Hawks (25)

    The Hawks rank in the bottom five in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and no, this isn't one of those situations in which they're actually half-decent with their best player on the floor and awful when he's not. Atlanta's net rating is actually lower in the minutes Trae Young plays.

    With such a reliance on youth (rookies Cam Reddish and De'Andre Hunter have started since the jump, and Atlanta's top seven rotation players by minutes per game are 24 or younger), ugly numbers should be the expectation. But we've already reached the point at which long-term concerns are cropping up.

    For example, Reddish is on pace to post a true shooting percentage under 40 percent on over eight field-goal attempts per game, which is practically unheard of in the modern era. The ball didn't go in for him enough at Duke, either, and we're seeing virtually all his predraft weaknesses manifest themselves during the first month of the season.

    Atlanta has lost nine of its last 10 games.

            

    27. Memphis Grizzlies (28)

    You'd have a hard time finding two more different players than Brandon Clarke and Larry Bird, but the Grizzlies' springy forward and Larry Legend are the only rookies to average at least 20 points and nine rebounds per 36 minutes while also hitting at least 40 percent of their threes.

    Statistical cherry-picking can yield strange points of comparison like that one, but don't let the specificity of the numbers obscure the point: Clarke looks good enough to join Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. as a third cornerstone in Memphis.

    The Grizz are on a three-game losing streak, but few young teams have a three-man core that makes as much sense as the one in Memphis: a game-changing point guard, a stretch big who defends the rim and, in Clarke, a hyper-athletic multiposition stopper who'll never need plays called for him.

    Jackson has especially stepped it up lately. He scored 20 points in Saturday's 109-108 loss to the Lakers and is on fire from deep. Per Omari Sankofa of The Athletic: "[Jackson] had four games last season with at least five 3-point attempts. He has six since Nov. 9 this year. Last year, he had two games with at least four makes from downtown. This year, he already has four."

    If you're not in on Memphis' future, correct that.

           

    26. Cleveland Cavaliers (24)

    Head coach John Beilein benched starting guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland to start the second half against the Miami Heat on Wednesday, and that won't be the last "teaching moment" of the season for the inexperienced Cavs.

    Cleveland ended a six-game slide with Saturday's 110-104 win over the reeling Portland Trail Blazers and is 3-9 in November. On the year, the Cavs offense has been worse with Sexton and Garland on the floor than it's been overall, which isn't a great sign for that duo's future as the scoring and playmaking engines of an offense.

    On the bright side, Tristan Thompson already has multiple 25-point games this year, something he's never done in a full season before. Yeah, sure, somebody's got to get numbers on a lottery team. But Thompson's play has been a bright spot.

25-21

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    25. Detroit Pistons (23)

    Yet another East team coming undone, the Pistons have lost six of their last seven games to fall to 5-11.

    Blake Griffin is still chipping off the rust after missing 11 of Detroit's first 12 games, so it's too early to panic. But it's not exactly encouraging that his three-point shot, a key driver of last year's success, has abandoned him. Add to that Griffin's career-high turnover rate and you've got an alarming omen of regression from the injury-plagued star.

    Time will tell, but it's starting to seem like Griffin's many ailments over the years have become too much to overcome. And if he's not playing at an All-Star level, it's hard to know where Detroit will get its offensive production.

           

    24. Chicago Bulls (26)

    It's not hard to figure out where the Bulls belong on the league's food chain; they've settled that question by only beating teams with worse net ratings than their own: the Detroit Pistons (twice), New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies, Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets. Chicago predatorily picks off the sickest and weakest members of the NBA pack, but it's the prey for everyone else.

    The Bulls announced Wednesday that Otto Porter Jr. will be out at least another two weeks after a second MRI showed a bone bruise in his left foot.

    Porter's efficient scoring provided a boost to the Bulls last season, and the lack of replacement wings makes his absence even more damaging. However, it's hard to argue a healthy Porter would cure Chicago's greatest ill, which statistics suggest is a misplaced belief that games end after 12 minutes.

    The Bulls outscore opponents by 3.6 points per 100 possessions in first quarters, but they trend consistently downward in each subsequent quarter, bottoming out with a minus-5.6 net rating in fourth quarters.

    Meanwhile, Zach LaVine went from a benching and more mutinous talk on Friday to 49 points, 13 made treys and a game-winner on Saturday. Quite a turnaround.

           

    23. Charlotte Hornets (21)

    Devonte' Graham is one of the best breakout stories going, Miles Bridges dropped 31 points Friday against the Washington Wizards, PJ Washington intrigues on both ends, and Nicolas Batum is back from injury. But even amid so many positives, the Hornets are hurting.

    Charlotte somehow blew an eight-point lead with less than a minute remaining against the Bulls on Saturday, watching helplessly as Zach LaVine scored 22 points in the fourth quarter and extended the Hornets' losing streak to four games. Overall, Charlotte has lost eight of its last 10 contests, many of which featured similar late-game failures.

    Too many turnovers, not enough defense and some gut-punch defeats all overshadow long stretches of encouraging play. That's the synopsis of the Hornets' season so far.

           

    22. New Orleans Pelicans (27)

    New Orleans got 15 fourth-quarter points from Brandon Ingram on Thursday, just enough to beat the Phoenix Suns by a final of 124-121 and extend its winning streak to a season-best three games. Back-to-back road defeats to the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers resulted in a 2-2 week, but the arrow is pointing up for New Orleans.

    JJ Redick has been on an absolute heater, hitting treys at a higher per-game volume than ever despite his lowest minutes per game since 2011-12. He was a major reason Ingram's takeover against Phoenix had any impact; if not for Redick's 14 first-quarter points, the game could have been out of reach.

    The Pelicans are a respectable 6-11 after a first month marked by a mountain of injuries, a torturous schedule and a defense that no-shows more often than not.

           

    21. Portland Trail Blazers (18)

    The Carmelo Anthony signing was a desperate move, but the Blazers had reason for desperation. Viewed that way, it's difficult to fault them for taking a chance on a former star who'd been out of the league for a full year.

    Portland is 2-10 in November, and Damian Lillard, whose immense burden we noted last week, missed losses to New Orleans and the Milwaukee Bucks with back spasms. Hassan Whiteside also sat against the Bucks on Thursday, though his absence might have been a positive. The big man with a notorious history of inconsistent effort had been sleepwalking for several games prior to sitting out.

    The oft-stated irony of the Blazers' struggle is that two players it willingly let walk, Al Farouq-Aminu and Moe Harkless, are almost exactly what the roster needs. But we should still credit Portland for recognizing its ceiling wasn't high enough with those two and gambling that a change could raise it.

    This is just what happens when a team loses a bet that big.

20-16

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    20. San Antonio Spurs (19)

    In search of an offensive boost, head coach Gregg Popovich inserted Patty Mills into the starting lineup on Wednesday. It worked, as the Spurs scored a season-high 132 points. But San Antonio surrendered 138 to the Washington Wizards, which produced its seventh straight loss.

    A win in New York on Saturday halted the skid at eight, San Antonio's longest since 1996.

    The Spurs have had downswings before, and the wise move (for the last 20 years or so) has been to dismiss those swoons. But we're in uncharted territory now. San Antonio hasn't struggled to this degree at any point in Popovich's tenure.

    If this trend doesn't reverse—quickly and dramatically—the Spurs will have to start thinking about roster changes and building for a post-Popovich future. These are strange times.

                  

    19. Washington Wizards (22)

    If you're scanning League Pass in search of entertaining basketball, you could do worse than defaulting to the Wizards. No team has a greater disparity in its offensive and defensive ratings than Washington, which piles up points on one end and surrenders equally large heaps on the other.

    Whenever the Wizards are on, it's bucket time. And not just because of Bradley Beal.

    Among players who've attempted at least 90 shots this year, Moritz Wagner's true shooting percentage is second to none. As Fred Katz of The Athletic noted, Wagner hasn't shot a single mid-ranger this season.

    "Offensively, [Wagner] sees the next play. And it's a knack. It's a knack in you," head coach Scott Brooks told Katz. "I think he's one of the best on our team of, if he's in a little spot and he doesn't have the ball and he sees our guard about to get the ball, he's meeting him with a step-up screen or some type of ball-screen."

    A relentless pick-setter who refuses to take bad shots and has a preternatural understanding of where to be at all times? No wonder the Wizards are scoring in droves. Don't forget Davis Bertans, who's shredding the nets from deep, just as he did last year with San Antonio.

    Washington has scored at least 120 points in five of its last six games but is just 2-4 in that span. If Brooks could ever coax half-decent defense from this group, a playoff trip might actually become realistic.

            

    18. Orlando Magic (14)

    The Magic were last week's big climbers, but they fall hard this time around because of injuries to a pair of major contributors. Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon both left Wednesday's 113-97 loss in Toronto with sprained ankles.

    According to The Athletic's Shams Charania, Vucevic will miss a minimum of four weeks, while The Athletic's Josh Robbins reported Gordon would be out indefinitely.

    For anyone hoping to get a longer look at defensive dynamo Jonathan Isaac in the center spot, there's at least a sliver of silver lining to Orlando's otherwise terrible injury situation. Mo Bamba may also get an extended chance to spread the floor and shed the bust label.

    Isaac hung 25 points, nine rebounds, four steals and two blocks on the Indiana Pacers in Saturday's 111-106 loss, hitting four threes to boot. It wasn't enough, and Orlando will continue to struggle without a pair of key frontcourt players.

    The Magic are 4-3 in their last seven games. But with significant health issues, they have to take a rankings hit.

          

    17. Sacramento Kings (16)

    Bogdan Bogdanovic got the credit last week, and he deserves more after continuing to contribute to Sacramento's success without De'Aaron Fox. His 31 points were integral in Tuesday's win over the Phoenix Suns. Just don't forget Cory Joseph, who had 14 assists and helped slow down Devin Booker in that 120-116 home victory.

    It's worth wondering if the Kings playing well without Fox will be good for the franchise point guard. He's seeing Joseph's more measured, cautious, defense-first approach work. The Kings don't want Fox to abandon his speed, which makes him special, but it could be a positive if he learns something about moderation, mixing it up and defense during his time out.

    The Kings are slinging it from three far more often under Luke Walton than they did with Dave Joerger in charge, and that adjusted shot profile is helping make up for an alarming decline in attempt rates at the rim.

    After failing its first road test in Brooklyn on Friday and passing in Washington on Sunday, Sacramento is 7-8 with a rough two-step still left on its trip out East. Boston and Philadelphia loom on Monday and Wednesday, but the full-season outlook is far better than it was when an 0-5 start made it seem like the sky was falling.

           

    16. Brooklyn Nets (20)

    The Nets went 3-1 in the four games Kyrie Irving missed with a right shoulder impingement this week, filling the hole by committee but leaning largely on Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen, who had 22 points and 17 rebounds in Wednesday's 101-91 win over the Charlotte Hornets.

    That victory helped wash out the bitter taste of a 29-point throttling at the hands of the Indiana Pacers last Monday.

    The Nets' perimeter defense has improved of late, but it's helped that many opponents during Irving's absence were of the sub-.500 variety.

    Sunday's victory in New York got Brooklyn back to .500 itself, and it'll get its chance to move above the breakeven mark for the first time this season on Monday in Cleveland.

15-11

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    15. Oklahoma City Thunder (17)

    The Thunder are masters of the narrow defeat, as evidenced most recently by Friday's 130-127 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. It was OKC's seventh loss by five points or fewer.

    Let's also keep in mind the quality of recent competition. Oklahoma City faced the Lakers twice and the Los Angeles Clippers once this week, falling by a combined total of just 10 points. This is how you wind up with the largest negative disparity between expected and actual wins.

    The Thunder, according to more predictive numbers, are much better than their 5-10 record.

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looked typically poised in scoring 24 points against the Lakers on Friday, and Chris Paul is quietly posting the second-highest true shooting percentage of his career.

    If you're looking beyond record, you'll see quite a bit to like in OKC.

             

    14. Minnesota Timberwolves (15)

    Phoenix hit the Wolves with some zone defense Saturday, and the tactic worked out, resulting in a 100-98 Wolves loss. Minnesota is getting its threes up this season, ranking fourth in long-range attempt frequency, but it's not hitting enough of them.

    The Suns, missing key defenders Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio, may have gone zone partly out of necessity. But they had reason to believe the strategy would pay off. Minnesota is shooting just 31.1 percent on threes, tied for last in the league.

    The Timberwolves have lost four of their last five games and may continue to struggle if their shots keep clanking and they don't find a way to get Karl-Anthony Towns the ball more often when it matters. He finished the Phoenix loss with 31 points and 17 boards but took just three shots in the fourth quarter.

    On the year, his field-goal and free-throw attempt rates are lower in the fourth quarter than in any other. That's not going to work for these Wolves.

            

    13. Phoenix Suns (10)

    The schedule was hard on the Suns this week, as they soldiered through five games in seven days, concluding with a brutal road back-to-back that wrapped up a 1-4 stretch in Denver on Sunday. 

    We have to dump them from the top 10, but it'd be hasty to cite this tough run as evidence the Suns' start was a mirage. Aron Baynes (hip) and Ricky Rubio (back) are hurting, and both have been integral to a Phoenix defense that slid out of the top 10 but is still a pleasant surprise after it ranked 29th a year ago.

    Devin Booker is doing what he can to make up for the Suns' critical absences. He worked his way to 35 points (27 of which came in the second half), 12 rebounds and nine assists in Saturday's 100-98 win over the Wolves and is still playing the best all-around ball of his career.

    If the Suns can survive a schedule that won't ease up for another month or so, they'll be positioned to compete for a playoff spot.

            

    12. Indiana Pacers (13)

    The week of Aaron Holiday ended poetically in Orlando on Saturday as the Pacers' second-year guard hit the go-ahead triple with 8.7 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. The assist, a smooth little pitch back as Holiday drifted up above the arc, came from his brother, Justin.

    In Indiana's only other game this week, a 115-86 beatdown of the Nets in Brooklyn, Holiday set career highs with 24 points and 13 assists.

    With Victor Oladipo still rehabbing and Malcolm Brogdon sidelined for the Pacers' last three games, Holiday picked the right time to play the best ball of his young career. If he sustains this level of performance once Indiana's stars return, it'll give the Pacers one of the deeper collections of ball-handlers in the East.

    The schedule hasn't offered many tests, and when it has, Indiana has generally failed them (see: losses to the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks last week). But the Pacers are 9-3 since their 0-3 start and have won in spite of more than their fair share of injuries.

    You've got to hand it to Indiana. It just never rolls over when adversity hits.

            

    11. Miami Heat (7)

    Jimmy Butler is trying to cultivate a winning brand of dissatisfaction in Miami, and the Heat's chances of sustaining their hot start get better if the rest of the roster buys into the idea that process matters as much as result. As he told reporters after Miami ran its winning streak to five with Friday's 116-108 result in Chicago:

    "A win is a win. I'm not going to downplay that none, but I think the way we have been winning is not the way we would like to win. We played great basketball in the first half. I think we are all proud of that, but then we just have these mental lapses night after night. It just can't happen if we want to be as good as we say we want to be."

    Duncan Robinson got loose against the Cleveland Cavaliers, scoring a career-high 29 points on 9-of-15 shooting from deep. 

    Saturday's 113-86 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers ended Miami's run, and the Heat's cold shooting in that contest might be a sign of things to come. The Heat have the league's highest effective field-goal percentage, but according to Cleaning the Glass, their shot distribution suggests they should rank 12th in that statistic.

    Translation: The Heat have been running hot.

    That may not last.

10. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 11

    As you probably surmised when the earth trembled and flying swine appeared overhead, Ben Simmons made a three.

    Possibly stunned by the sheer improbability of it all, the Sixers fell behind by as many as 17 points before retaking control (behind some stellar stretch-run play from Simmons) to salvage the 109-104 win against the New York Knicks on Wednesday and remain undefeated at home.

    It's a relief to get that first trey out of the way, but it'd be a mistake to view it as evidence of progress. Simmons' reluctance to shoot is actually more pronounced than in years past. He's driving less frequently than ever, is getting to the foul line at a career-low rate and is attempting fewer shots outside 10 feet than he did in either of his first two seasons.

    Still, Philly is on a four-game winning streak after blasting the Miami Heat at home on Saturday. Josh Richardson shredded his former team, dropping in six threes and piling up 32 points in the 113-86 blowout.

    Philadelphia's stint outside the top 10 only lasted a week.

9. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 8

    James Harden's 37 points weren't enough to avoid a 122-119 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday, Houston's second consecutive defeat after reeling off eight straight wins.

    With Eric Gordon out and Danuel House Jr. also sitting in L.A. (he returned Sunday against the Dallas Mavericks), Harden saw multiple defenders throughout—just as he did in Wednesday's 105-95 loss to the Denver Nuggets. It'd be an understatement to say the league's leading scorer is frustrated.

    "Like it's the playoffs, try the whole season," Harden said, per Kelly Iko of The Athletic. "Been running double-teams at me. I've never seen that in the NBA, where you've got really good defenders and other guys just running and pressing at the top of the key. Tell me when the last time you've seen that."

    Harden should expect these elevated levels of defensive attention from now on. Houston's role players will have to go nuclear on their open looks to convince opponents they're more dangerous than a single-covered Harden.

    Unrelated but interesting: Clint Capela's streak of five games with at least 20 boards ended against the Clips. He "only" managed 19 rebounds in the defeat. Don't worry. He got back on his horse with 22 more boards in Sunday's loss to the Mavericks.

8. Utah Jazz

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    Last Week: 9

    Utah split a home-and-home set with the Minnesota Timberwolves and took care of the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans to complete a 3-1 week that nudged its defense to a familiar position: best in the league

    Rudy Gobert had to sit Saturday's win over New Orleans with a sprained ankle, but he's on pace to set a career high in rebounds per game and is nearly hitting his shots at the clip he reached a year ago...when he topped the NBA with a 66.9 field-goal percentage. Though his block rate is down, the two-time DPOY's presence on the floor still coincides with significantly reduced opponent attempts and accuracy at the rim.

    Although the Mike Conley acquisition has yet to pay dividends, the Jazz are getting all they could have asked for from Bojan Bogdanovic, who led them with 30 points in Wednesday's win at Minnesota. He's up over 20 points per game for the first time in his career and, despite attempting more threes than ever, is draining deep shots at a career-high rate.

    Bogdanovic and Donovan Mitchell propelled the Jazz against New Orleans, as Mitchel set a season high with 37 points, punctuating the effort with a vicious tomahawk dunk off a lob from Joe Ingles.

7. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 3

    The Celtics concluded a 1-3 stretch with Friday's 96-92 loss at Denver, but concerns postgame turned to Kemba Walker, who left the game on a stretcher and was transported to a hospital after colliding with teammate Semi Ojeleye. Walker suffered from concussion-like symptoms but was released from the hospital early Saturday morning, according to Yahoo Sports' Chris B. Haynes.

    If the Celtics are to be without Walker, now's a good time. All four of their opponents next week have losing records.

    The Celtics' three recent losses aren't cause for real concern.

    All came by single digits on the road against teams playing well at the time. Boston just happened to catch the Los Angeles Clippers on the first night of the combined Kawhi Leonard-Paul George experience, and Denver was fresh off beating the Houston Rockets by 10 points, its best performance of the season.

    Zoom out and you've got a Boston team that is still 11-4 with a plus-6.8 net rating, sixth-best in the league. The Celtics are among the NBA's best at forcing turnovers and taking care of the ball on offense. That combination is a major reason Boston grades out so highly in catch-all metrics despite a middling effective field-goal percentage and free-throw rate.

6. Dallas Mavericks

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    Last Week: 12

    This is Luka Doncic's universe, and the nearly eight billion people in it (us included) are all just particles of dust floating around. He can see each of us, all at once, because his cosmic vision, like his court vision, is multidimensional and perfect.

    Doncic logged more points, rebounds and assists than the entire Golden State Warriors in the first quarter of Wednesday's 142-94 thrashing—a fine follow-up to the 42-point triple-double he earned against the San Antonio Spurs last Monday.

    Blowouts against Golden State and Cleveland goosed Dallas' numbers, vaulting its net rating and offensive efficiency all the way to No. 1. With Doncic elbowing his way to the forefront of the MVP conversation, it'd be a mistake to discount the Mavs' suddenly sterling statistical rankings.

    Head coach Rick Carlisle is still tinkering with lineups, Kristaps Porzingis isn't consistently dominant yet and Dallas could benefit from a true three-and-D wing (Dorian Finney-Smith has been great so far, but he has to sustain it). But the Mavericks, behind Doncic's ascent to superstardom, are deserving of their first visit to the top 10.

    Dallas' schedule has been far easier than that of any other top-10 team, but they body-slammed the Houston Rockets on Sunday. The Mavs' 45 points in the first quarter were a season high, and they didn't look back from there, cruising to a 137-123 win. Doncic logged his fourth consecutive 30-point, 10-assist effort in that Sunday triumph on the road.

5. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 6

    Denver played its best game of the year on Wednesday, defeating the Houston Rockets by a final of 105-95 behind standout efforts from Nikola Jokic and Torrey Craig. The latter helped hold James Harden under the 30-point mark for the first time since Nov. 3, but Denver's entire defense deserves credit for elevating its focus and intensity against a hot Houston team.

    Friday's 96-92 win over the Boston Celtics, in which Nikola Jokic logged his third triple-double (but first since Oct. 28), proved the Nuggets could sustain that defensive performance. Denver is now 8-0 when holding opponents under 100 points.

    Incredibly, the Nuggets have won nine of their last 10 games with an offense that still ranks below the league average.

    When Denver reclaims its scoring punch (which may not happen until Jokic plays himself into shape), watch out.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 5

    Implausible new theory: The defending champs are paradoxically sneaking up on opponents.

    More plausible new theory: The Raptors are just really good.

    Toronto is 11-4 with a plus-7.3 net rating after a 3-0 week. Its only losses this season have come against the league's top teams—the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks—and as The Athletic's Eric Koreen noted, Toronto is a perfect 9-0 when favored to win.

    Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet remain the firestarters in Toronto, but a cast of role players occupying larger roles have also benefitted from increased burn. Terence Davis, Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have covered the absences of Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry, and OG Anunoby's season-high 24 points against the Charlotte Hornets on Monday led the team.

    Continue overlooking the Raptors at your own risk.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 4

    Paul George hit the big shot against the Oklahoma City Thunder last Monday, a go-ahead trey with 25 seconds left that set up a 90-88 win. Because of the George-against-his-former-team narrative, that bucket got the attention, but Montrezl Harrell won L.A. the game.

    His 28 points, 12 rebounds and five assists on 13-of-20 shooting continued a career season for the high-energy reserve. Though the numbers keep piling up, Harrell hasn't abandoned the relentlessness that got him to this point. As an example: Eight of his rebounds came on the offensive end against OKC.

    George and Leonard finally shared the floor during Wednesday's thrilling 107-104 overtime win against the Boston Celtics, showing only limited glimpses of their combined potential on offense while proving they're already a devastating combo on D.

    Friday brought another nail-biting victory, as Leonard drilled a late go-ahead jumper to beat the Houston Rockets. Interestingly, Lou Williams—not George or Leonard—led L.A. in scoring on both Wednesday and Friday. Yet another example of the Clippers' embarrassment of riches.

    Sunday's victory against New Orleans made it five in a row for the increasingly scary Clips.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last Week: 1

    The Lakers haven't lost since Nov. 10, but they've snuck away with a handful of tight victories in that span, surviving by five points or fewer four times during their ongoing seven-game unbeaten streak.

    The opponents in those narrow wins haven't exactly been world-beaters, either: the Sacramento Kings, Oklahoma City Thunder (twice) and Memphis Grizzlies. That last close shave was a 109-108 escape against the Grizzlies on Saturday.

    That's part of the reason that while several other teams in the top 10 are stringing together blowouts, the Lakers have slipped to third in net rating. In years past, we've largely disregarded the advanced metrics attached to LeBron James' teams, secure in the knowledge that he'd elevate them above whatever baseline they'd set when the moments mattered most.

    Given the way James has performed so far, we should probably keep that approach.

    Still, even with LeBron leading the NBA in assists and playing more consistently on defense, we can't just lock the Lakers into the No. 1 spot and wait for a two- or three-game losing streak to change anything. Other teams are out there wiping the floor with the league, and we can't ignore them while the Lakers cruise.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 2

    When you've got two surging teams who've been consistently good all year, both featuring superstar talent and excelling on both ends, you've got to dig into the numbers to separate them.

    The Bucks and Lakers have similarly killer records (13-3 and 14-2, respectively), and both reside in the top 10 on both offense and defense. Milwaukee has a narrow edge in net rating, but the real differentiator shows up when you factor in strength of schedule.

    Basketball Reference's simple rating system, which combines margin of victory and quality of opponent, gives the Bucks a substantial advantage through the first month of the season. In fact, if the season ended today, the 2019-20 Bucks would have the ninth-highest SRS in NBA history.

    The Bucks have won seven straight games, all but one by at least eight points. With Giannis Antetokounmpo improving on his MVP numbers and on pace to post the second-highest player efficiency rating of all time (Doncic is in the No. 1 spot, which is a ridiculous tidbit to file away for his Hall of Fame induction), it just felt like we needed to give the Bucks their due.

    The Lakers haven't done anything wrong. It's just that Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee are on such a historic track.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Sunday, Nov. 24.