NBA Power Rankings: Lakers Are Hot but Not League's Best Team

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 9, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: Lakers Are Hot but Not League's Best Team

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo isn't interested in the parity that was supposed to result from the demise of the Golden State Warriors.

    His Milwaukee Bucks continued to set themselves apart from the field this week, trailed closely by just one other juggernaut: LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers.

    Everyone else is a notch below the clear top tier, though that 3-10 range in the rankings continues to provide the unpredictability many hoped would materialize higher up.

    As always, our rankings consider team record, advanced stats, health and recent performance to slot all 30 teams into an order that reflects the NBA hierarchy as it exists right now. Plenty has changed since last week, but Giannis and the Bucks remain right where they belong.

30-26

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    30. New York Knicks (29)

    Did you get a parking ticket this week? Miss out on a promotion to district manager? Spill coffee on your favorite pants?

    Sorry, friend, but you didn't have a bad week.

    The Knicks, though? They had a bad week—one that started with a 44-point loss to the Bucks on Tuesday, followed by a desultory effort in another drubbing on Thursday, this one a 37-point defeat at home against Denver. They became the seventh team in NBA history to lose consecutive games by at least 35 points, and given the lack of engagement from most of the roster, they were lucky not to lose both contests by 50.

    Unsurprisingly, the Knicks fired head coach David Fizdale on Friday, as reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. We've been critical of Fizdale in this space, but he was only a small part of the problem. You don't flail around aimlessly for 20 years, pivoting from one shortsighted plan to the next because you have the wrong coach.

    The 4-19 Knicks' woebegone plight is the result of top-down, systemic rot.

               

    29. Cleveland Cavaliers (27)

    According to a report from The Athletic's Joe Vardon and Shams Charania, Cavs head coach John Beilein has lost a significant portion of the locker room, largely because some members of the team aren't on board with Beilein's collegiate approach and terminology.

    Considering Beilein spent 40 years coaching in college, and the unavoidable frustration that comes with losing, very little of this was hard to see coming.

    Cleveland has lost six straight and 12 of its last 13 overall, with Saturday's total no-show of a 141-94 defeat in Philadelphia screaming that much of the team had thrown in the towel.

               

    28. Golden State Warriors (28)

    The Warriors are getting healthy bodies back on the floor, but extra resources are mostly leading to weirdness. Kevon Looney, Willie Cauley-Stein and Draymond Green shared the floor Wednesday in a supersized grouping that would have been unheard of in their dynastic heyday.

    D'Angelo Russell returned from a nine-game absence in that 106-91 loss to Charlotte, looking none the worse for wear. He scored 18 points on 14 shots and continued what's quietly been his most productive season. Better still, Glenn Robinson III contributed 20 points and the go-ahead dunk in Saturday's 100-98 win over the Bulls in Chicago, getting Golden State to 5-19 on the year.

    Even before beating the Bulls and ending their four-game slide, the Dubs were in no danger of slipping to 30th in our rankings. The Knicks are just as bad and roughly 6,000 times more dysfunctional, and Cleveland is coming undone.

    It's not a high bar to clear, but the Warriors seem likely to rank above those two franchises for a while.

            

    27. Atlanta Hawks (30)

    The Hawks' 104-79 win over the Warriors last Monday was their first since Nov. 12. Golden State was playing the second leg of a road back-to-back, rested Draymond Green and turned it over 23 times while shooting 3-of-17 from deep.

    Atlanta will still take it, though, along with Sunday's bench-fueled 122-107 success in Charlotte. Beggars can't be choosers.

    Kevin Huerter returned to action in Wednesday's loss to Brooklyn after missing the previous 11 games, but he'll be on a minutes restriction for the foreseeable future and won't address the Hawks' prime ailment: shoddy defense.

    In more encouraging news, Cam Reddish actually made some baskets! He went 10-of-17 for 25 points against Brooklyn after failing to make half his shots in all but two of his previous 18 games. The rookie is still on pace to post the third-lowest true shooting percentage (among players taking at least eight shots per game) in the three-point era, but credit where credit's due.

            

    26. Memphis Grizzlies (26)

    De'Anthony Melton has looked like a reliable rotation contributor since seeing his role increase this month. In four December games, he's averaging 9.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists. There are positives to Ja Morant's back spasms.

    The most encouraging news, though, is that Morant may be nearing a return. He participated in some elements of Memphis' practice on Friday, and though he didn't end up playing in Saturday's 126-112 loss to the Jazz, there was at least some possibility of him suiting up, according to Michael Wallace of Grizzlies.com.

    Memphis is 1-9 in its last 10 games, but in keeping with the theme of silver linings around dark clouds, Jaren Jackson Jr.'s aggression on offense has been a plus. His three highest shot-attempt totals on the season all came this past week, and he's gotten up at least five threes in 13 of his last 14 outings.

    His development into a premier floor-stretching big is vital to the Grizzlies' future. So far, so good.

25-21

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    25. New Orleans Pelicans (24)

    The Pels have lost eight straight games, Zion Williamson isn't close to game action and he won't play back-to-backs whenever he returns to the rotation.

    But in news that won't thoroughly bum out New Orleans loyalists, Lonzo Ball had himself a game on Thursday.

    Though the Pelicans fell 139-132 to the Suns in overtime, Ball piled up 20 points, 11 assists, six rebounds, three steals and two blocks on a ridiculously efficient 6-of-9 from the field. It was easily his best game with the franchise and, all things considered, might have been the most complete effort of his career.

    He even went 4-of-4 from the foul line, tying a career high in made freebies and setting a new mark for most attempts in a game without a miss—not bad for a guy who shot under 50 percent from the stripe in his first two seasons and whose career has been marked by a crippling allergy to contact.

              

    24. Charlotte Hornets (20)

    Devonte' Graham is nowhere near 750 career three-point attempts, the accepted threshold at which long-range shooting percentages become more signal than noise. But it's still stunning that after a rookie year in which the ball simply didn't go in the basket often enough (from anywhere) to make Graham profile as a viable rotation weapon, he's second to James Harden in total made treys this season.

    The 10 treys he bagged against the Warriors on Wednesday set a franchise record and put him in elite long-range company. He's now one of 14 players in league history with multiple games of nine or more made threes.

    Graham added 29 more points in Friday's loss to Brooklyn, and P.J. Washington's 20 points and eight rebounds weren't enough to avoid another defeat against Atlanta on Sunday.

    Charlotte's win-loss mark has been out of step with its net rating all year. We may be seeing the Hornets fall back to where their advanced metrics say they belong.

                 

    23. Washington Wizards (21)

    The Wizards announced last Monday that center Thomas Bryant would miss at least three weeks with a stress reaction in his right foot, and though Ian Mahinmi and Moritz Wagner returned to action in Thursday's 119-113 win against the Sixers, it's worth suggesting Washington should scrap conventional bigs and lean even harder into its offense-only identity.

    Davis Bertans ripped off 25 points and was a plus-14 against the Sixers, hitting seven of his 13 attempts from deep. The 27-year-old sniper is loving a life lived free of the Spurs' strictures. He and JJ Redick are the only guys in the league hitting at least 44 percent from deep on more than seven attempts per game this year. In the entire history of the league, Stephen Curry is the only other player to marry that kind of volume and efficiency from deep.

    Sure, he'll give up plenty on defense, but who are the Wizards stopping anyway?

    Washington went 1-3 during a tough week that also included losses to the Heat and Clippers. This isn't necessarily an advice column. But...be yourselves, Wizards. Try to score 150, and hope you only give up 149.

            

    22. Chicago Bulls (25)

    The Bulls hardly live up to their namesake on offense, where their general docility and placid confusion make them seem more like dairy cows. Their scoring efficiency ranks dead last in half-court sets. The defensive end is where they look more like the matador-goring type.

    No team bullies (sorry) opponents into a higher turnover percentage than Chicago, and Monday's 113-108 road win over the Kings was a prime example of what the Bulls' panic-inducing defense can accomplish. Sure, Chicago nearly blew the lead its defense built. And yes, the Kings, playing without De'Aaron Fox, are short on the kind of dynamic, downhill decision-makers that make an aggressive defense pay. But the Bulls hurried the Kings all night, forcing 18 turnovers and collecting nine steals in the victory.

    You wouldn't expect a team leaning heavily on Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen to be defined by its defense. But here we are.

    The Bulls would probably like a do-over on their 100-98 loss to the Warriors on Friday, but those victories against Sacramento and Memphis still gave them their first winning streak of the season. This low in the rankings, a 2-2 week is not so bad.

                    

    21. San Antonio Spurs (23)

    LaMarcus Aldridge missed Tuesday's win against Houston with right thigh soreness, and while it's never ideal when a struggling team's top frontcourt option is unavailable, at least it offered one young Spur a step-up chance.

    To the delight of a loud faction of pro-Lonnie Walker IV fandom, the sophomore guard logged 35 minutes and scored a career-high 28 points in the 135-133 double-overtime win. Walker's previous high-point total was just 16, and his 35 minutes were nine more than he'd ever played in an NBA game.

    Aldridge returned on Saturday to lead the way with 19 points as the Spurs erased a nine-point deficit with 1:50 remaining in regulation to force overtime, eventually escaping with a 105-104 win. In the wake of a 2-11 stretch, San Antonio has now won twice in a row.

20-16

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    20. Sacramento Kings (16)

    In July, Dewayne Dedmon was the shrewd veteran signing. The floor-stretching 5 who'd stabilize Sacramento's porous interior defense and make everyone forget about Willie Cauley-Stein's inconsistency. Richaun Holmes was practically an afterthought, somewhere around fifth on a big-man depth chart that also included Marvin Bagley III, Nemanja Bjelica and Harry Giles III.

    Now, it's hard to imagine where Sacramento would be without Holmes' energetic rebounding and rafter-scraping lob-cramming.

    Holmes and the perennially solid Harrison Barnes are the Kings' top two-man pairing among those who've played at least 400 minutes, producing a net rating that'd rank just outside the NBA's top 10 full-season figures for a club that is firmly in negative territory overall. Their effectiveness is no mirage, as most of their minutes have come against first units since Holmes cracked the starting five on Oct. 30.

    Monday's home loss to Chicago was a mess, and that 11-2 run the Kings surrendered to end regulation in Saturday's overtime failure against the Spurs had to sting. But Holmes scored a career-high 28 points on Wednesday against the Blazers, and all logic flew out the window as Sacramento blitzed the Mavs in Dallas on Sunday.

    So there were a couple pinpricks of light in an otherwise dark 1-3 week.

              

    19. Detroit Pistons (22)

    Despite (or perhaps because of) attempts to annoy Giannis Antetokounmpo with some extracurricular bumps and shoves, Detroit got smoked by the Bucks on Wednesday. Other than that 127-103 shellacking, the Pistons had themselves a solid week, finishing 2-1 and improving to 9-14 overall.

    If they could get back on defense once in a while, they'd be in even better shape. The Pistons rank 30th in opponent transition frequency. With those types of plays yielding far higher returns than half-court possessions, it's no wonder Detroit is only 20th in overall defensive efficiency.

    It'd also help if the Pistons could get up a few more threes. They shoot it more accurately than anyone from deep but rank in the middle of the pack in attempt frequency. Trading a little accuracy for greater volume would be a the smart mathematical move—one that could further juice an offensive rating that already ranks in the top 10.

             

    18. Minnesota Timberwolves (14)

    Minnesota lost all three of its games this week, part of an 0-4 skid that dropped its overall record to 10-12. Until Friday's overtime loss to the Thunder, the Wolves had been at or above .500 every day this year—no small feat for a club that has just one winning season since 2004-05.

    Much more on that deflating defeat in OKC to come, but suffice it to say the Timberwolves were probably still reeling from that one when they landed in Los Angeles to close out the week against a formidable Lakers team.

    The Wolves' winless streak had to result in a rankings drop, and the upcoming schedule means they may not get their heads above water for a while. But let's not consign yet another Minnesota season to the scrap heap just yet.

    Karl-Anthony Towns is still in line to set new career highs in points, assists and made threes per game. Plus, a weakened lower half of the West means Minnesota remains right in the thick of the race for a playoff spot, despite this difficult stretch.

                   

    17. Phoenix Suns (15)

    The Suns will gladly take this week's 2-2 mark, especially since all four games came on the road following an ugly 1-6 run that flipped the season's vibe from positive to anxious. Orlando shot the lights out in Wednesday's 128-114 loss, and critical late misses from the foul line cost the Suns against Houston on Saturday.

    Those two could have turned out differently, but considering the Suns also blew a 20-point lead and needed a pair of clutch threes from Kelly Oubre Jr. to salvage Monday's win in Charlotte, fortune treated Phoenix equitably overall.

    Devin Booker hung 44 points on the Pelicans in Thursday's 139-132 win, and Ricky Rubio kept the offense humming with an average of 12.3 assists per game for the week.

    The Suns seemed to be unraveling in the latter half of November, but they're looking steadier now. At 10-12, Phoenix has a positive net rating and should benefit from its next four games coming at home against losing teams.

            

    16. Portland Trail Blazers (17)

    Season-ending injuries are devastating in any circumstance, but Rodney Hood's torn Achilles, suffered in Friday's 136-113 loss to the Lakers, was a particularly rough one. Hood had been shooting the cover off the ball, hitting a career-best 49.3 percent from long range and filling a vital wing scoring role for a Blazers team that badly needed it.

    This season's difficult start may have gotten to Terry Stotts. He got tossed from the Lakers loss after getting a pair of technical fouls for arguing a third-quarter call.

    He hadn't been ejected in any of his 879 previous games as a head coach.

    Counting Sunday's loss to the visiting Thunder, the Blazers have gone 4-3 in their last seven games. That's good enough for a small climb.

15-11

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    15. Oklahoma City Thunder (18)

    Steven Adams was the one who threw the full-court pass; Dennis Schroder somehow drifted under it, caught it and flipped it in to tie the game as the buzzer sounded; and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 11 of OKC's 17 points in overtime.

    But the Thunder's shocking 137-129 win against Minnesota on Friday was mostly the result of Chris Paul's world-class snitching.

    CP3, a player uniquely devoted to wringing every last drop of competitive advantage out of the NBA rule book—whether by flopping, call-baiting, well-timed ripthroughs or encyclopedic knowledge of obscure technicalities—saw Jordan Bell's jersey untucked with 1.1 seconds remaining as he entered the game ahead of Karl-Anthony Towns' second free-throw attempt. So he screamed about it.

    Referee Scott Foster correctly called a delay of game on Bell, Minnesota's second of the night, resulting in a technical foul. Danilo Gallinari made the free throw to cut the deficit to a single point, KAT accidentally made his second shot from the foul line, and the Adams-to-Schroder touchdown sent the contest to OT.

    Oklahoma City moved to 10-12 with Sunday's win in Portland, and it's 5-2 in its last seven games.

                   

    14. Orlando Magic (19)

    Orlando set its season high in scoring on Tuesday, beating the Wizards by a final of 127-120 behind 31 points from Evan Fournier. The Magic didn't wait long to break their own mark, putting up 128 points in their 14-point win over the visiting Suns the very next night. 

    Aaron Gordon scored 32 points in that one, a figure he didn't reach once last year.

    Friday's win in Cleveland got the Magic back to .500 for the first time since they were 2-2 back on Oct. 30, but they're unlikely to get above the break-even mark any time soon. Next week's schedule features the Bucks, Lakers and Rockets.

    Oh, and all that uncharacteristic offensive punch we saw from the Magic this week? It only managed to get Orlando's offensive rating up to 26th. There's still plenty of work to be done on that end.

    Let's allow the Magic to enjoy their four-game winning streak, though. They've earned it—and done it with Nikola Vucevic still sidelined by that nasty ankle sprain.

            

    13. Utah Jazz (12)

    Utah mercifully concluded a five-game road trip with Monday's loss to the Sixers. In all, the Jazz went just 1-4 and made an alarming habit of getting smoked in first halves. They trailed by 15 at the break in Memphis, 40(!!!) in Toronto and 18 in Philly. 

    The Jazz have made a habit of disappointing starts in recent seasons, but they tend to sort themselves out eventually. There's more scoring talent here than there was at any point during head coach Quin Snyder's tenure, but Mike Conley remains adrift, and nobody on the roster appears capable of slowing down opposing superstar wings (theoretically Royce O'Neale's job).

    Joe Ingles got his second straight start in Saturday's 126-112 win over Memphis, becoming the first Jazz player to record 10 assists in a game this year.

    Utah is 4-7 against teams at or above .500 and has slipped out of the top 10 in defensive efficiency, an unusual position for a team that hasn't finished lower than third since 2015-16...when it was seventh.

            

    12. Brooklyn Nets (13)

    Kyrie Irving's right shoulder impingement has kept him on the bench since a Nov. 14 loss at Denver. Head coach Kenny Atkinson told reporters Sunday that Irving could return to practice in a week or two, but the Nets' recent play suggests there's no reason to rush the star guard back.

    Brooklyn is 9-3 since Irving left the lineup, but before one folds that stat into the "Irving is more trouble than he's worth" narrative, it has to be acknowledged that the Nets ran that record up against a creampuff schedule. Of those nine wins, just two—against Boston on Nov. 29 and on Sunday against a shaky Denver team—featured opponents with winning records.

    It's still true that Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen have shone without their ball-dominant teammate. Dinwiddie's 24 points and back-to-back layups in the final minute were key to Brooklyn's 105-102 win over Denver on Sunday, its third straight overall.

    The hope should be that those two sustain their elevated levels of play when Irving eventually retakes the floor.

           

    11. Indiana Pacers (11)

    The Pacers went 3-2 on their now completed five-game road trip, but as has been the case for much of the year, they ran up that respectable record mainly against a lineup of nobodies. Following a three-point loss in Philadelphia on Nov. 30, Indy visited the Grizzlies, Thunder, Pistons and Knicks.

    Detroit took Indy down on Friday by a final of 108-101, and Julius Randle's missed free throw with one-tenth of a second left in a 104-103 game was the only reason it didn't take overtime to beat the Knicks on Saturday.

    It's hard to ignore Indiana's plus-4.7 net rating and 15-8 mark, but it's even harder to view those figures as reliable indicators of the team's quality. The rest of December will handle that; the Pacers face the Clippers, Celtics, Lakers, Bucks, Raptors, Heat and Sixers before the month is out.

    By the time we flip the calendar to 2020, there's no way Indiana will still have played the easiest schedule in the league.

10. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 6

    Nikola Jokic's rough season continued this week, as a dishearteningly apathetic version of the guy who warranted MVP consideration a year ago managed just three shots in the first half of Tuesday's 105-96 loss to the Lakers.

    Jokic is out of shape and less involved in Denver's offense than ever. His teammates remain supportive, but they also understand the Nuggets can't reach their ceiling unless things change.

    Will Barton told Harrison Wind of DNVR Sports: "We've got to play through him. Every year that's what's going to work best for us. We're a good team when he's not scoring but we're a great team when he's being dominant down there and we have championship potential when he's cooking, and we know it. We can get away with it some games and beat teams, but to be the team that we want to be we've got to play through him."

    Jokic was better in Friday's road loss to Boston, setting a season high with 30 points. But Sunday's slip in Brooklyn dropped Denver to 1-4 in its last five games, and Jokic's subpar form is a major reason the Nuggets have struggled lately.

    Between Jokic's disappointing play and a defense that may be benefiting from some good luck with respect to opponent field-goal percentage, it feels fair to say Denver is fortunate to be 14-7.

9. Miami Heat

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    Last Week: 10

    The Heat ranked an uninspiring 10th last week because they had yet to fully prove themselves against top competition. They'd beaten the Bucks in Milwaukee, but that was way back on Oct. 26. In the ensuing month, they basically lost to every contender they faced (with the exception of the Rockets on Nov. 3).

    Consider the hole in Miami's resume filled.

    The Heat suffocated Pascal Siakam and handed the Raptors their first home loss of the year on Tuesday, a 121-110 overtime win that featured key contributions from Bam Adebayo, who did the bulk of the work on Siakam, and Jimmy Butler, who seized control with eight quick points to ice the game in the first 55 seconds of OT and finished with a triple-double.

    Butler added another 37 points on Wednesday against Boston, but the Heat were playing their third game in four nights on the road and fell by a final of 112-93. Put that one down as a pristine example of a schedule loss.

    They rebounded to sneak away with a 110-105 overtime win over the Bulls on Sunday, propelled by Tyler Herro scoring 14 of their final 16 points.

    The Heat have to watch their ball security. They're dead last in turnover percentage, which is a major reason an offense that ranks third in effective field-goal percentage is only 12th in points per possession.

    Miami has won five of its last six games and answered a major question with that Toronto win. 

8. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 3

    Kyle Lowry went 2-of-18 from the field in his return on Tuesday against Miami, his first action since missing 11 games with a broken thumb. That errant shooting night, the worst of his career, combined with one of Siakam's most frustrating outings of the season (thanks to stifling Miami defense) to produce Toronto's first loss at home since Game 5 of the 2019 Finals.

    The Rockets shot 22-of-55 from deep and pounded the Raps on the boards to make it two consecutive home defeats, and a punch-drunk Toronto couldn't get itself together on the road in Philly either. Sunday's 110-104 loss to the Sixers concluded an 0-3 week that seemed to come out of nowhere.

    Just seven days ago, Toronto was riding a seven-game winning streak and looking like a much greater threat to come out of the East than anyone could have anticipated.

    The Raptors have had their struggles on the glass all season, and perhaps Lowry's reinsertion into the lineup disrupted the offensive groove. On balance, the veteran guard's return is a positive—even if it takes him a while to settle back in.

    Toronto may not be as dominant as the team that climbed to third last week, but the wheels are hardly falling off after a difficult stretch against top-end competition.

7. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 8

    James Harden scored 50 points and set the NBA record with a 24-of-24 performance from the foul line in a controversial double-overtime loss to the Spurs on Tuesday. He and the Rockets recovered to notch a standout 119-109 road win over Toronto on Thursday, despite the Raptors deploying a box-and-1 for much of the night.

    Harden attempted just five threes in the game, his lowest total of the season. Ben McLemore, ignored by necessity in the Raps' sellout-to-stop-Harden scheme, cranked off 17 threes and made eight of them, scoring 28 points, his highest total since 2014. In fact, three of the eight highest-scoring games in McLemore's career have come since Nov. 30.

    Remember, McLemore came into the league as the seventh pick in 2013. The talent's there; Houston has just simplified the game for him, asking for spot-up threes and a modicum of defensive attentiveness. The setup obviously works for McLemore, who no longer has to stretch outside himself by dribbling or making decisions with the ball. It's still early, but Houston may have executed another successful reclamation project.

    Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook's jarringly awful stat-mongering season continued. He notched a triple-double against Toronto but shot 7-of-27 from the field and turned it over eight times. This, after a 7-of-30 effort in that loss to the Spurs. He notched his third straight triple-double in Saturday's 115-109 win over the Suns, Houston's fourth victory in its last five games.

    Houston posts a minus-10.7 net rating when Westbrook plays without Harden. Keep that in mind when appreciating Russ' counting stats.

6. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 5

    It's more than a little alarming when a team executes its scouting report against the Clippers by holding Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams to a combined 7-of-29 shooting...and still gets blown out by 20 points. That was the case in L.A.'s 117-97 win over the Blazers on Tuesday, and it won't be the last time the Clippers' depth renders opponents' best defensive efforts useless.

    Paul George hit six of his seven three-point attempts in that one and is on pace to set a new career high in long-range accuracy—which is saying something for a guy who's made more than 40 percent of his treys in two separate seasons. Montrezl Harrell also punished Portland's stretched-thin defense for 26 points on 11-of-13 shooting, helping L.A.'s bench continue its dominant play. No reserve group produces more points per game than the Clippers', who actually outscored the starters in the win. 

    Friday's test against the Bucks was a different story, though. Milwaukee pummeled the Clips from start to finish, doubling them up with a 30-15 first-quarter advantage and never looking back in an eye-opening 119-91 win that was nowhere near that close.

    The 17-7 Clippers are still a contender, and they should improve as Leonard's shooting positively regresses. But after a futile effort against a determined Bucks team, L.A. has to lose ground.

5. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 7

    Josh Richardson's bum hamstring has kept him on ice for the Sixers' last six games, which hurts a little extra because Philly's starters—Richardson, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid—have the highest net rating in the league among five-man units with at least 100 minutes of shared court time.

    Of course, as the Sixers' 7-1 mark in Richardson's absence attests, they've made do without him.

    Ben Simmons scored a career-high 34 points (he hadn't cracked the 20-point mark since Philly's season opener), hit his second career three and made nine of his 12 free-throw attempts in Saturday's pulverization of Cleveland. Maybe all his big night proves is that anyone can get loose against the current version of the Cavs, but any signs of offensive aggression from Simmons are welcome in Philadelphia.

    Sunday's win over the Raptors was the most consequential of the week—and arguably the team's biggest since whipping the Heat 113-86 on Nov. 23.

    Simmons didn't hit a third three in the 110-104 victory, but he was again efficient from the field and contributed to a team defensive effort that frustrated Pascal Siakam all night.

    Don't look now, but the Sixers have cracked the top three in defensive efficiency with a tidy 10-2 mark over their last dozen games.

4. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 9

    If you're interested in saving time, go ahead and turn off any game in which the Celtics build a double-digit lead. Boston play-by-play man Sean Grande noted they're undefeated once they get at least 10 points clear of the opponent this season.

    And they continued that streak in Friday's 108-95 home win over the Nuggets.

    Jaylen Brown's season-high 31 points were key to defeating Miami on Wednesday, and Jayson Tatum managed 26 points in that victory over Denver. Those two are now both over the 20-points-per-game mark, and Tatum's development is drawing new levels of attention from defenders. The Nuggets routinely sent two bodies at the 21-year-old wing, forcing the ball out of his hands. Unbothered, Tatum showed his growth as an all-around weapon and kept the ball hopping.

    Everyone focuses on Tatum's scoring chops, but it shouldn't go overlooked that his assist percentage this season is at a career high. Meanwhile, his turnover percentage is at a career low. Tatum's progression toward true stardom continues apace, as does Brown's.

    The Celtics rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and Gordon Hayward returned to full practice on Sunday, signaling he's nearly ready for action after breaking his hand on Nov. 9.

    This may seem like a big jump for the Celtics, but with a 16-5 mark and two wins this week over fellow top-10 teams, they've earned the leap. 

3. Dallas Mavericks

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    Last Week: 4

    The Mavs steamrolled the Pelicans 130-84 on Saturday, their third win this season by at least 42 points. Though they laid an egg by losing at home to the Kings on Sunday, Dallas emerged from the week with a 3-1 record and 10 wins in their last 12 games.

    The Mavericks' recent record says they're obviously doing plenty right. Luka Doncic remains the helmsman of the NBA's top offense, and nobody turns the ball over less frequently than Dallas does. The connection between Doncic's league-leading touches-per-game figure and a mistake-free attack is not coincidental.

    If the Mavs sustain their current pace, they'll set a new NBA record for offensive rating in a season. And it won't be particularly close.

    The defense could be a little better, and it'd be nice if Kristaps Porzingis could get his true shooting percentage up from its current career low. But Dallas just keeps piling up massive wins and scoring at rates nobody's ever seen.

    Their No. 3 ranking this week puts them above a handful of teams that have the experience and two-way play to qualify as superior title threats, but there's just no way to slot the scorching Mavs any lower.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Last Week: 2

    The Lakers' 121-96 win in Utah on Wednesday stands out as their most impressive feat of the season. Fresh off a 105-96 victory in Denver the night before, L.A. bested a Jazz team that should have been desperate (playing at home for the first time since concluding a disappointing 1-4 road trip) and swept a brutal back-to-back set.

    It was the kind of win that inspires shoeless celebration, and everyone watching LeBron James shimmy around the floor sans shoes could understand the reason for the positive vibe—with the exception of one deeply wounded Jazz broadcast team.

    Anthony Davis, playing through illness during Los Angeles' trip, hit the Jazz for 26 points on 9-of-11 shooting and then dropped 39 points on the Blazers to make it three straight road wins Friday.

    James has been around long enough to know the value of a hot streak, and he's prepared to keep Davis' roll going—no matter what it takes.

    "You see what he did on this road trip being sick?" James asked reporters Friday. "And he's starting to feel a lot better and I don't quite like it. I might sneeze on him a couple of times."

    That's veteran leadership right there, and Davis hung 50 on the Wolves to close the week Sunday. No wonder the Lakers are 21-3.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Chris Schwegler/Getty Images

    Last Week: 1

    Though the Mavs did it just a few days earlier, and though the competition was underwhelming, we shouldn't overlook the Bucks' back-to-back 40-point wins against the Hornets and Knicks on Nov. 30 and Dec. 2. They're now one of just five teams in league history to register consecutive blowouts of that magnitude.

    Not every victory has featured such laughable margins, but the wins just keep coming for the Bucks. Leaders in net rating for the year, Milwaukee is on an NBA season-high 14-game unbeaten streak. Friday's 119-91 win over the Clippers saw the Bucks' advantage climb over 40 points, and they were up by 36 when Giannis Antetokounmpo sat down with just under nine minutes remaining in the game.

    The Bucks' blowouts might be the only thing capable of keeping Giannis from repeating as MVP. He only saw 22 minutes of action against the Knicks, 28 against the Pistons and 26 against the Clips.

    Also, what exactly did Blake Griffin think was going to happen when he spent most of Wednesday's game antagonizing Antetokounmpo? Did he not see the hellacious dunk Giannis uncorked on the entire state of New York two nights earlier? Does he also spend the offseason banging on nuclear warheads with a ball-peen hammer just to see what happens?

    Giannis finished that 127-103 punking of the Pistons with 35 points and nine boards in 28 minutes. Not that we should have needed proof, but I guess we can toss "irritate the best player on the planet" into the discard pile of tactics to try against the Bucks.

    Milwaukee finished the week by handling the Clippers at home Friday, winning its 14th in a row.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Sunday, Dec. 8.