NBA Power Rankings: Bucks Leaving LeBron, Luka and the Raptors in the Dust

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 2, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: Bucks Leaving LeBron, Luka and the Raptors in the Dust

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    The teams occupying the extreme ends of our NBA Power Rankings pulled away from one another this week as the elites reeled off winning streaks and the dregs down below strung losses together.

    The upshot of such a wide gap between the league's best and worst squads is the 20-team pool making up a crowded middle class. Sure, there's still a top 10 by default. But the dividing line between, say, the ninth- and 16th-best teams is hazier than usual.

    Just as they did last year, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks are blowing past everyone else. In fact, they're ahead of where they were after 20 games a season ago. What's most exciting is the group trying (and, this week, failing) to make up ground.

    You've got the title-defending Toronto Raptors, LeBron James' 17-3 Los Angeles Lakers and Luka Doncic's offensively incendiary Dallas Mavericks.

    What more could you want?

30-26

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    30. Atlanta Hawks (28)

    Losers of 10 straight and 13 of 14 overall, the Hawks are hurting.

    That's despite Trae Young's continued individual offensive wizardry. He tied a career high with 49 points (including eight of the Hawks' 10 points in overtime) on Friday, but it wasn't enough to avoid a 105-104 loss to the Indiana Pacers.

    Atlanta, in leaning so heavily on Young and Jabari Parker (who lit up his former Bucks teammates with 33 points on Wednesday), clearly isn't prioritizing defense. That's understandable; the Hawks don't have anyone capable of anchoring that end of the floor. No team puts opponents on the foul line more frequently—a telltale indicator of defensive ineptitude—than the Hawks, who also surrender the highest opponent offensive rebound percentage in the league.

    Atlanta just gets blown by, pushed around and physically dominated to a greater degree than any other team.

            

    29. New York Knicks (29)

    The Knicks keep finding new ways to give close games away, which makes their current six-game slide all the more frustrating. Five of New York's losses in the ongoing skid came by single digits, and if not for a ghastly 19-of-33 shooting night from the foul line in Friday's 101-95 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, there wouldn't be a losing streak to discuss in the first place.

    Free-throw woes aside, the Knicks attempt too many long mid-rangers and not enough threes while also suffering from a clear lack of playmaking at the point. They committed 14 turnovers to match a paltry 14 assists in that loss to Philadelphia. New York ranks last in assist-to-turnover ratio.

    When this roster of fallback options came together in July, it was easy to see the offensive struggles coming. No spacing and no threatening pick-and-roll ball-handlers running the show meant good decisions and good shots would be in short supply.

    Anyone else wondering if RJ Barrett is already thinking of declining his qualifying offer in 2023? It's never too early to plot a good escape.

           

    28. Golden State Warriors (30)

    The Warriors blew a 10-point advantage with 3:18 left against the Oklahoma City Thunder last Monday, failing to score during that brutal, win-squandering span. It's no small wonder that head coach Steve Kerr turned to a new closing lineup on Wednesday, a like-sized collection of wings and forwards—Draymond Green, Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III and Eric Paschall—and second-year center Omari Spellman.

    It worked out a little better, as the Warriors delivered a 104-90 victory to their bloodied head coach.

    Spellman, who The Athletic's Anthony Slater reports has lost 55 pounds since summer league, is a different player and person than he was as a rookie. In a season that will feature plenty of losing, snatching Spellman from Atlanta for next to nothing and drafting fellow Villanova Wildcat Paschall at No. 41 look like wins.

    Against Chicago, Spellman put up 13 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and two steals in his first double-double of the year. 

    The Warriors are 4-17 with the second-worst net rating in the league. Night to night, it's ugly in Golden State. But there have been a handful of encouraging signs if you look hard enough.

                     

    27. Cleveland Cavaliers (26)

    The Cavs have lost nine of their last 10 games, which means you've got to scour the nooks and crannies of their last several weeks to locate morsels of mild positivity. The gains they made in ball security from Wednesday to Friday satisfy that search.

    Darius Garland was a wreck in Wednesday's 116-104 loss to the Orlando Magic, committing eight of Cleveland's 25 turnovers himself. Though the Cavs still fell by a final of 119-110 against the Bucks on Friday, Garland was markedly better, registering 21 points, six assists and just a single turnover.

    Kevin Love, who's made efforts to talk Garland through his rookie struggles, told Kelsey Russo of The Athletic: "He's super receptive. He wants to get better. That was good to see out of him."

    Cleveland has ranked right near the bottom of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency over its last 10 games, plunging its record from 4-5 to 5-14.

           

    26. Memphis Grizzlies (27)

    It was starting to seem like every team toward the bottom of our rankings agreed to pack it in at the same time. The Warriors, Knicks, Hawks and Cavs all saw their records nosedive. But the Grizzlies pulled off an improbable 115-107 win in Minnesota on Sunday to stop their own losing streak at six games.

    Jaren Jackson Jr. produced an efficient 28 points in last Monday's 126-114 loss at Indiana and has quietly developed into a high-volume, deadeye shooter. He made at least four threes just twice last year and has already done so five times this season.

    It's hard to focus on his growth (and Brandon Clarke's rookie breakout), though. Nobody cares about anything else when Ja Morant goes tumbling into a baseline cameraman's knee and has to be assisted off the floor, which he did in Indiana. He returned to action later in the game, but this will not be the last time Morant's disregard for his own safety overshadows everything else Memphis does.

    When asked about reining in his aggressiveness on drives, which had produced a handful of scary spills prior to the big one in Indiana, Morant told reporters"I've been playing like this all my life. It got me here, and I'm going to continue to play like that."

    Morant won't be playing like that any time soon. He's week-to-week with back spasms.

25-21

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    25. Chicago Bulls (24)

    After last year's rocky start and some stubborn quotes that conjure memories of Mark Jackson's final paranoid months with the Golden State Warriors in 2014, it's easy to pile on Bulls head coach Jim Boylen. Everyone is criticizing his blitzing scheme against the pick-and-roll, which Boylen adheres to regardless of the opponent's offensive strengths.

    But the Bulls are a mid-pack defense—not so bad for a personnel package that includes large helpings of Zach LaVine. And if Chicago didn't have the largest gap between expected and actual effective field-goal percentage in the league, its record would probably be close enough to .500 to quiet dissatisfied rumblings from management and the media.

    This is a young Bulls team with positive signs all over the place. Wendell Carter Jr. has improved in his second year. LaVine made 13 threes and hit a game-winner last week. He also hung 36 points on the Warriors in Wednesday's loss. Still, the optics of a hard-driving, unbending coach aren't great. And we can't just pretend the team didn't come this close to turning on him last season.

    Chicago is 6-14 and has lost four of its last five games. If something doesn't change soon, the tension bubbling up could boil over.

            

    24. New Orleans Pelicans (22)

    Undone by late-game offensive gridlock in all three of their losses this week, the Pelicans continued the struggle that has seen their clutch offense fall to 30th in the league. 

    Clutch samples are inherently small, and it's early enough for one hot shooting stretch to significantly change the numbers. But the Pels' failure to find buckets down the stretch is still concerning.

    There are plenty of new pieces here, but we're a quarter of the way through the season. New Orleans should be figuring out its best closing options by now. And though Jrue Holiday is among the league's best two-way guards, he's not the kind of conventional break-you-down pick-and-roll ball-handler many teams turn to when they need a late bucket.

    Chris Paul showed the Pelicans what a player like that can do down the stretch of Sunday's 107-104 defeat.

            

    23. San Antonio Spurs (20)

    The Spurs put forth a solid effort in their 114-104 loss to the Lakers last Monday, and they actually beat the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday by a final of 107-97. But there's no way to put a positive spin on their 2-11 record in their last 13 games.

    San Antonio's unorthodox shot profile worked last year, but only because it was uncommonly efficient from all three levels. The story is different now as the Spurs are still cleaning up from the disfavored mid-range area but haven't been nearly so accurate on threes or at the rim.

    It also doesn't help that the Spurs defense sits in the bottom third, a position owed largely to an approach that produces the fewest opponent turnovers in the league.

             

    22. Detroit Pistons (25)

    Luke Kennard has done enough this year to establish himself as a true second option in a solid offense. His points and assists per 36 minutes are both up, and he's lost almost nothing in terms of scoring efficiency while increasing his usage rate. Better still, he's cut his turnover percentage despite handling the ball more than he did a year ago.

    Though the fit alongside Blake Griffin is sometimes clunky, those two help the Pistons to a positive net rating when sharing the floor. That's no small feat on a team with an overall figure well below the breakeven mark.

    Up next: getting his defense to the point at which he's no longer targeted by every opposing offense.

    Detroit went 2-2 this week but is just 3-8 in its last 11 games. If any of its big contracts were tradeable for value, a blow-up would make sense. As it is, the Pistons just feel stuck.

            

    21. Washington Wizards (19)

    We've touched on this in previous weeks, but the Wizards' extreme offense-defense split continues to grow—to the point history is coming into the picture.

    Washington is on pace to join a shortlist of teams in Basketball Reference's database (which extends back to 1973-74 in this particular metric) to record offensive and defensive ratings that are both over 112 points per 100 possessions.

    The Wizards have lost four of their last five. Even an offense this good needs to give itself a little help on the other end.

20-16

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    20. Charlotte Hornets (23)

    PJ Washington broke out of a slump with 26 points in Friday's 110-107 win over the Pistons, Charlotte's second victory over Detroit this week. Prior to that effort, Washington had failed to reach double figures in five of his previous six games.

    The rookie forward's contributions remain well ahead of expectations, though. On the season, he leads all first-year players in wins added, according to Jacob Goldstein's player impact plus-minus.

    Devonte' Graham remains the biggest story of Charlotte's season, at least in part because his ascent has allowed Terry Rozier to move to the 2 more often, juicing the offense. Unfortunately, Graham and Rozier's shared minutes are a major reason Charlotte can't stop anyone. With those two on the court together, the Hornets' defensive rating plummets, and their opponents live at the line.

    It's worth pointing out that the Hornets' net rating is better with Graham and Rozier together than it is for the season overall. But there's not a lot of evidence these two can work together—at least defensively—on a winner.

           

    19. Orlando Magic (18)

    You had to know Orlando's scoring struggles would return in full force with Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon out. Both suffered sprained ankles on Nov. 20 against Toronto. Gordon only missed three games, but Vooch has yet to return, which had a lot to do with some alarmingly low point totals. The Magic managed just 88 in a loss to Detroit last Monday, and Friday's 83-point output against Toronto was even worse.

    There's some good news.

    The Magic, defensively, are doing a nice impression of the Bucks by allowing a relatively high opponent three-point attempt rate but severely limiting chances at close range. Based on the shot profile Orlando permits, it's reasonable to believe its defensive performance to date, which ranks just inside the top 10, is legitimate.

    The scoring-challenged Magic still escaped the week with a 2-2 record, mainly because the Cavs and Warriors offer less defensive resistance than just about anyone.

           

    18. Oklahoma City Thunder (15)

    You can only beat who's in front of you, but it's telling that of the Thunder's eight wins, six have come against the Warriors and Pelicans. That leaves OKC with a 2-11 mark against the rest of the league.

    Perhaps even more concerning: Oklahoma City is 2-7 away from home. That's not what you'd expect from a club with veterans like Chris Paul and Steven Adams leading the way. Those two have won plenty, at home and on the road, which should make steadier play with less dramatic location-based splits easier to come by.

    At 8-11, OKC is just a half-game out of the eighth spot in the West. It's too early to worry about playoff positioning, but the Thunder's respectable start is a long way from what many expected in a teardown season.

             

    17. Portland Trail Blazers (21)

    The schedule helped, as Portland ran off three straight wins against the Bulls, Thunder and Bulls again this week, completing its first three-game winning streak of a season that was looking bleak. And though the sample sizes are still too small to be dispositive, it's worth noting that Carmelo Anthony has graded out as a positive asset since joining the Blazers.

    He scored 25 points against the Bulls last Monday, then put up 19 more on 9-of-11 shooting in Wednesday's (kinda sorta) homecoming in Oklahoma City. Incredibly, that performance was the most efficient shooting night of Anthony's career.

    Even if aided by a soft slate, the Blazers are back from the brink.

            

    16. Sacramento Kings (17)

    Harrison Barnes may have cost the Kings a little more than some would have liked, but the stability he's imparted during a tumultuous start to the season has real value. The Kings are a surprising 5-4 since De'Aaron Fox went down with an ankle sprain, and Barnes' 17.9 points per game on 51.0 percent shooting in that span have made a major difference.

    The defense has impressed, too.

    Sacramento ranks 17th in defensive efficiency overall but owns the No. 8 defensive rating in the league over its last nine games. That's even more impressive when you consider the Kings' tough, road-heavy schedule. The single-digit defeats they suffered in Boston and Philadelphia this past week were as encouraging as losses get.

    Dewayne Dedmon's three-point stroke, a major reason he appeared to be such a solid offseason signing, is still missing. And though Buddy Hield can fill it up (he hit a franchise-record 11 threes in that loss to the Celtics), his defensive performance remains suspect.

    That the Kings are a respectable 8-10 (8-5 since that nausea-inducing 0-5 start) despite a tough slate, key injuries and more games on the road than at home speaks to their fitness as a playoff contender.

15-11

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    15. Phoenix Suns (13)

    The Suns' recent collapse owes to several factors, not the least of which being injuries that sidelined Ricky Rubio for four of their last seven games and Aron Baynes for five. If those two key contributors to Phoenix's hot start hadn't missed time, we probably wouldn't have seen the defense crater and the already shaky rebounding performance get even worse.

    During their 1-6 stretch since Nov. 18, the Suns' defensive rating was 115.2, well down from the 105.0 they managed before the skid started. Few teams have been worse on the boards lately, either. Phoenix's 47.3 percent rebound rate over the last two weeks ranks 29th.

    Devin Booker scored 27 points and consumed Rui Hachimura's soul with a flying, one-handed backboard-pin block on Wednesday, but even that highlight came in a 140-132 loss.

    Baynes and Rubio are both back, and the Suns have a plus-8.9 net rating when those two share the floor. That's the good news. The bad news is that all the momentum of a 5-2 start is gone.

            

    14. Minnesota Timberwolves (14)

    Jeff Teague accepted a move to the bench this week as the Wolves handed the starting point guard gig to rookie Jarrett Culver. The sample's too small to draw a causal link yet, but Minnesota did go 2-1 with 12-point road wins over Atlanta and San Antonio before gagging away one of the worst losses you'll see this year, falling at home to the depleted Grizzlies.

    Despite Ja Morant not traveling with the team, Jonas Valanciunas sitting out with illness and Brandon Clarke logging only 10 minutes because of a hip contusion, Memphis controlled the proceedings throughout, handing Minnesota its fifth consecutive home loss.

    The Wolves have been the best clutch team in the league, posting a ridiculous plus-29.1 net rating in the last five minutes when the score is within five points. That's a good way to rack up tight wins that obscure a team's actual quality. With losses like Sunday's in Memphis, it gets much easier to view Minnesota's 10-9 record as the product of smoke and mirrors.

            

    13. Brooklyn Nets (16)

    Spencer Dinwiddie called game Monday, hitting the decisive jumper with 1.8 seconds left and narrowly avoiding what would have been a disastrous loss to the Cavs. Up by nine with just over two minutes to go, Brooklyn nearly gave that one away.

    The Nets split a pair of games with the Celtics on Wednesday and Friday, getting 32 points from Dinwiddie to lead the way in the latter contest, a 112-107 win. Then, as if trying to bookend the week with nail-biters, Brooklyn blew a late lead to the Heat on Sunday, surrendering a 10-0 closing run to fall to 2-2 for the week.

    For the Nets, it's been pretty simple. With Dinwiddie on the floor, they score at a top-10 clip. When he's not, the offense produces at a level well below the league's worst offenses.

           

    12. Utah Jazz (8)

    A sprained ankle prevented Rudy Gobert from doing anything about Giannis Antetokounmpo's 50 points last Monday, and it's easy to imagine how the league's best interior defender might have changed the result of a game Utah only lost by four.

    Gobert returned for Wednesday's loss at Indiana, and Ed Davis got back on the floor after a 12-game absence against Memphis on Friday. Though the Jazz are getting healthier, we can't ignore their recent rough patch. In addition to losses at Milwaukee and Indy, Utah was flat in the first half against lowly Memphis, heading into the break with a 15-point disadvantage.

    The Jazz woke up and won that contest, but Sunday's massive defeat in Toronto put a 1-3 stamp on the week...with a road date against Philly looming Monday before a return home to play the Lakers on Wednesday. It's not the end of the world when a West team stumbles on a five-game swing out East, but Utah's 12-8 record still reads as underwhelming.

            

    11. Indiana Pacers (12)

    Despite injuries and three of their top four scorers being new to the team, the Pacers posted an 11-4 record in the month of November. Wednesday's 121-102 win over the Jazz may have been Indy's best performance of the year—one defined by the committee approach head coach Nate McMillan prefers.

    "When you have a number of guys who can score and they're offensive-minded, what you have to get is that team to sacrifice. These guys are sacrificing right now." McMillan told reporters after the game.

    It'd be nice if Myles Turner didn't wind up being the one to sacrifice so often. He took just six shots against Utah despite being defended by undersized former teammate Bojan Bogdanovic much of the time. The Pacers are getting results from their decision to pair Turner and Domantas Sabonis in the first unit, but there's little question as to which of the two is getting the most out of the partnership.

    Sabonis is logging career-best figures across the board, while Turner's role and production have shrunk. On the plus side, Turner is still defending the bucket on D and shooting threes more frequently than ever. He, Kristaps Porzingis and Brook Lopez are the only guys currently averaging at least two blocks per game while also attempting at least 40 percent of their shots from beyond the arc.

    Indy would rank higher if it hadn't played the easiest schedule in the league to this point.

10. Miami Heat

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    Last Week: 11

    It might seem like the Heat deserve to rank higher than this, but win-loss record isn't everything.

    Miami has beaten just one team with a winning record since Nov. 3, its effective field-goal percentage is better than its shot location says it should be, and its split between actual and expected opponent effective field-goal percentage benefits similarly from some good luck.

    There wasn't much that looked lucky about Miami's 10-0 closing run against the Nets on Sunday, though. Jimmy Butler worked his way to the foul line late, and the Heat defense did the rest in that 109-106 road win.

    The Heat's five-man unit of Kendrick Nunn, Butler, Duncan Robinson, Meyers Leonard and Bam Adebayo is one of the NBA's most dominant high-usage groups. With Butler and Adebayo moving the ball and three spacers opening the floor, that quintet should remain effective against competition of all quality levels.

    The Heat have performed well so far, but they've got more to prove against better competition than anyone else in the top 10.

9. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 7

    After running up a 10-1 record in their first 11 games, the Celtics have been a pedestrian 4-4 over their last eight. The problem has been on offense, where the Celtics rank last in effective field-goal percentage since Nov. 17.

    Jayson Tatum's three-ball has abandoned him lately, and other than his 39-point outburst against Brooklyn on Wednesday, Kemba Walker has struggled to score efficiently.

    If the Celtics hadn't managed to dominate on D during this 4-4 stretch, their record would look a whole lot worse.

    Fortunately, Gordon Hayward's return is drawing closer. He says he's ahead of his initial six-week timetable. If he picks up where he left off before a broken hand knocked him out on Nov. 9, the Celtics offense will get the boost it needs.

8. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 9

    James Harden put a decisive halt to his five-game run of sub-40-point efforts Saturday, blowtorching the Hawks' Division II defense for 60 points in only 31 minutes of a 158-111 rout.

    Opponents' increased doubling against Harden had been working, and we should expect to see plenty more of it from teams with better schemes and personnel than the Hawks...which is literally the entire rest of the league.

    Now, about Russell Westbrook.

    Russ' points, rebounds and assists per game are all down from last year, which is to be expected with Harden's ball-dominant game soaking up so many possessions. But Westbrook is also posting his worst field-goal and three-point percentages in a decade. No player has ever attempted at least five threes per game with a conversion rate as low as Westbrook's this season.

    Considering volume, we're witnessing the worst three-point performance in NBA history.

    Houston failed three times against quality West opponents last week, losing to the Nuggets, Clippers and Mavs in succession. This week's wins over the Heat and Hawks helped right the ship, but the Rockets can't be encouraged by their struggles against the teams they'll need to beat in playoff settings.

7. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 10

    Joel Embiid went scoreless in last Monday's 101-96 loss to the Raptors as Marc Gasol continued occupying space in the superstar center's head. Quick to rectify his unproductive ways, Embiid hammered home a driving dunk for Philly's first points against the Kings on Wednesday.

    The Sixers won all three of their games this week following that defeat in Toronto, and Embiid totaled 92 points in the process.

    Though Ben Simmons' offensive regression remains a concern, he can still make a difference on the other end. His three steals in the final 14 seconds of a hotly contested 119-116 win over the Pacers on Saturday were good evidence of that.

    Philadelphia is a perfect 9-0 at home, and though its plus-4.6 overall net rating is more good than great, don't overlook the fact that Embiid's presence on the floor boosts that figure to a hefty plus-11.7.

6. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 5

    Denver's winning streak stopped at six on Saturday as the Kings sniffed out Jamal Murray's last-second attempt to find Will Barton in the corner for a potential game-tying three. Time expired, the Nuggets lost and Murray caught some flak for what should have been more fairly termed a team-wide failure to institute a Plan B once the first option went bust.

    Still, the Nuggets are a sterling 13-4 on the year, propelled through Nikola Jokic's ongoing offensive struggles (he was just 3-of-11 with seven points in 36 minutes against the Kings) by the league's No. 1-ranked defense.

    Jokic had better get into shape and start impacting the offense soon, though, because Denver's elite D might be a mirage. Though the Nuggets are holding opponents to the league's second-lowest effective field-goal percentage, the shots they surrender should have them ranked 21st in that statistic. The Nuggets' defense is inarguably improved, but they've been a little lucky.

5. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 3

    The Clippers defense has more options to throw at top-end wing scorers than anybody else, which Luka Doncic learned on Tuesday.

    Los Angeles limited the second-year phenom to 22 points on 4-of-14 shooting, hassling the MVP candidate into seven turnovers with a collective assault spearheaded alternately by Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Moe Harkless and the ever irascible Patrick Beverley.

    If there were a hell designed to punish opposing wings for eternity, those four would be its torturers in residence.

    Montrezl Harrell tipped home the game-winner in Memphis on Wednesday, but the Clips couldn't get past a desperate Spurs team on Friday, falling by a final of 107-97. After a walkover against Washington on Sunday, the Clippers emerged from the week with eight victories in their last nine games.

    L.A. has been a clear top-10 team all season, though it still feels like we haven't come close to seeing its best yet.

4. Dallas Mavericks

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    Last Week: 6

    Luka Doncic's November is complete, and the final numbers are worthy of a double-take triple-double-take: 32.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game in 14 outings.

    You'd be forgiven for ignoring everything else that has gone well in Dallas of late; those figures tend to strip focus from anything else. But it's important to note Doncic has had help from some unlikely sources.

    Tim Hardaway Jr., effectively shoved into last year's Kristaps Porzingis trade because the Knicks wanted off his ugly contract (which they'd offered him less than two years earlier), scored 26 points in Dallas' 120-113 win over the Suns on Friday and has been solid since his insertion into the first unit.

    Don't overlook the bench, though. The Mavs' reserves own the league's best overall plus-minus figure and have done well to expand leads whenever Doncic rests.

    This is still all about Luka, though.

    Dallas' halfcourt offense is the most efficient in the league. Its overall offense is, too, but it's telling that the Mavs' scoring isn't dependent on transition play. That's a testament to Doncic's complete control of the game against a set defense. At 20, he's shredding opponents with guile and skill, speed-reading the floor without ever seeming to rush.

    There's just no way to overstate how unusual his dominance is. It's like he lived a previous life in which he did nothing but study James Harden and LeBron James' offensive mastery and is now applying all those lessons after being reincarnated.

    Dallas is 7-1 in its last eight games, and Sunday's road takedown of the Lakers may have been its best effort to date.

3. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 4

    The Raptors closed out Philadelphia with a 10-0 run in last Monday's 101-96 victory, then they beat the Knicks and downed the Magic and Jazz to extend their winning streak to seven games. Sunday's blowout win over Utah, in which Toronto put the Jazz to bed early with a 37-20 first-quarter advantage, should have opened what few eyes remained closed to the Raptors' excellence.

    Pascal Siakam was Toronto's leading scorer in three of its four games this week, but Norman Powell's 33-point effort against Orlando stood out. Had Powell not caught fire in the third quarter, the Raptors, incapable of scoring all night, wouldn't have salvaged that 90-83 victory.

    Say what you want about Powell's career-long inconsistency, but he tends to show up when the Raps need him.

    Toronto is one of two East teams with offensive and defensive ratings in the top 10, and it has yet to lose to an opponent with a record under .500. Thanks to bench contributions from unlikely sources—Terence Davis, Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are still making a huge difference—Fred VanVleet's climb into the upper echelon of lead guards and, of course, Siakam's All-NBA play, the Raptors are more than a cute story of post-title perseverance.

    They're unqualifiedly among the league's elite.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last Week: 2

    The Lakers' 17-2 start tied a franchise record, but their 10-game winning streak screeched to a stop when Luka Doncic and the Mavs rolled into L.A. on Sunday and left with a 114-100 win that wasn't even that close following Dallas' third-quarter surge.

    Not that it needs to be said, but the Lakers have one of the more decorated pasts in the NBA. So any time they approach, tie or set a record, it means a little more than it would for most teams.

    Anthony Davis scored 41 points, defended like a man possessed and secured the game-clinching steal in his boo-filled return to New Orleans on Wednesday. That 114-110 margin would have been larger if not for the Lakers' continued unwillingness to shoot from deep. New Orleans got off 40 threes to L.A's 24 in that one, and the Lakers rank in the bottom third of the league in three-point-attempt rate.

    A much more difficult schedule looms in December, and the loss at home to Dallas got the month off to a rough start. If the Lakers intend to make this hot start count, they've got a few things to clean up.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    In last Monday's 122-118 win over the Jazz, Giannis Antetokounmpo joined Michael Jordan as the only players in NBA history to post at least 50 points, 14 rebounds and six assists in a game without committing a turnover. At the risk of inciting intergenerational GOAT disagreements, it has to be noted that Giannis racked up those numbers in only 38 minutes. Jordan needed 47.

    Khris Middleton made it back from the thigh contusion that held him out for two weeks, but the Bucks' performance without him means they can ease their No. 2 option back into things without any urgency.

    Following wins over Utah, Atlanta, Cleveland and Charlotte this week, Milwaukee's unbeaten streak is at 11 games. For comparison's sake, last year's 60-22 Bucks were 14-6 with a plus-10.6 net rating at the 20-game mark. This time around, they're 17-3 with a plus-10.3 net rating.

    Giannis is unstoppable on offense, and no defense allows fewer attempts at the rim. These Bucks are just as much of a juggernaut as the ones that spent most of last year atop our rankings. 

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball-Reference and Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Sunday, Dec. 1.