NBA Power Rankings: Lakers Can Officially Prove Status as NBA's Best This Week

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 16, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: Lakers Can Officially Prove Status as NBA's Best This Week

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    It's not a good sign for the rest of the league when Giannis Antetokounmpo, his Milwaukee Bucks already trampling everything in their path, can turn a tiny offseason slight into potent mid-December motivation.

    If a team this dominant still feels like it has something to prove, how does anyone else even have a chance?

    The Los Angeles Lakers are doing their best to keep things interesting, sticking right with the Bucks' breakneck pace and standing out as the only challenger to Milwaukee's reign atop the rankings. They'll face the Bucks this Thursday in what can safely be called a potential NBA Finals preview.

    The Dallas Mavericks had been right in the thick of things for several weeks as well, but the loss of Luka Doncic to an ankle sprain means they'll have to sit out the top tier until they get their 20-year-old MVP candidate back.

    As always, rankings consider team record, advanced stats, health and recent play to organize all 30 teams into an order that reflects the league's current hierarchy. Of course, we say "all 30 teams," but the way things have gone so far, it's really more like there are 28 clubs vying with one another beneath an elite two-team VIP section up above.

    The Bucks and Lakers have been that good.

30-26

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    30. Golden State Warriors (28)

    The Warriors have five losing streaks of at least three games this year. They had a total of three such streaks in the preceding five regular seasons of the Steve Kerr era.

    Not that it needed to be said in light of this year's 5-23 mark, but Golden State's dynastic run feels like it happened ages ago.

    The Warriors have generally kept their defeats respectable since getting absolutely undressed in that 48-point loss to the Mavs on Nov. 20, but when you scan back through their December defeats, it's notable that so many of these recent stumbles are coming against other teams in the league's bottom tier. In the first week of December, Atlanta and Charlotte handled the Dubs. This past week, it was the Grizzlies and Knicks.

    Golden State's defense is chronically disorganized and noncommunicative. Its offense can't score unless it's in transition, ranking ahead of only the Knicks and Bulls in half-court sets.

    The Warriors have lost four in a row and are...not good.

               

    29. New York Knicks (30)

    After Marcus Morris Sr.'s 36 points helped them beat the Warriors in overtime on Wednesday, the Knicks had a good case to move out of the cellar. When they followed that with a two-point win over the Kings on Friday, it had to happen.

    Yes, even if it seems clear New York's dysfunction is nowhere near its end point.

    Ian Begley of SNY.tv reported Wednesday that Knicks president Steve Mills would likely be removed from his position by the end of the season, or possibly sooner, "unless the club somehow turns things around."

    If ownership is still holding out hope that a season this bad could be salvaged, it creates a scenario in which Mills, perhaps angling to keep his job, would be incentivized to make the kinds of win-now, shortsighted moves that have set the Knicks back several times in the past.

            

    28. New Orleans Pelicans (25)

    When you lose 12 games in a row, there's never just one reason.

    New Orleans, which hasn't won a game since Nov. 21, ranks in the bottom six in both offensive and defensive efficiency in the three-week stretch since its last victory. There are two reasons right there. On the year, no team has struggled to score so mightily in the clutch. That's a third one.

    The Pels are in danger of seeing this skid last an uncomfortably long time. If they can't take care of the Warriors in San Francisco on Dec. 20, the Pelicans' difficult, road-heavy upcoming schedule might not yield a win until mid-January.

            

    27. Cleveland Cavaliers (29)

    Despite being the subject of trade speculation (or maybe because of it; he senses an opportunity to escape!), Kevin Love turned in his best statistical performance in weeks during Cleveland's 117-109 overtime win in San Antonio on Thursday. His 30 points were a season high, and the 17 boards he collected were his most since Nov. 1. Perhaps most importantly, his late three extended the game beyond regulation.

    At times, Love has been visibly frustrated with the play of inexperienced guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. It's hard to blame him considering he's gone from playing with one of the most intuitive offensive minds in NBA history, LeBron James, to a pair of ball-handlers whose floor-reading skills are still in their infant stages.

    Cedi Osman, not a noted facilitator, has set Love up for more buckets than either Sexton or Garland.

    The Cavs played the Rockets tough the day before breaking through against the Spurs, and though we got another conspicuous instance of a veteran clashing with head coach Jon Beilein (Tristan Thompson this time), the team's play has been markedly better.

    Onward and upward, Cavs!

             

    26. Atlanta Hawks (27)

    After breaking through with their first two-win week since October last time around, the Hawks lost all four of their games in this rankings session.

    Their best shot at a win came last Tuesday against Miami, but the Heat ran off a 22-0 run that bridged the fourth quarter and overtime to turn a close game into a 135-121 laugher.

    Atlanta cripples its offense with turnovers and gets destroyed on the glass. Nobody allows opponents to collect a higher percentage of their own misses than the Hawks.

    Trae Young still wows with deep shots and thread-the-needle passing, but the Hawks aren't going to win consistently until they can compete physically on D and on the boards.

25-21

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    25. Washington Wizards (23)

    Losers of four straight, the defense-averse Wizards have now given up at least 112 points in every game since Nov. 4. That 18-game streak ties them for the sixth-longest such run in league history. Even if you have to factor in the uptick in pace during recent seasons, that's still a whole lot of points surrendered.

    There are still reasons to watch Washington, not the least of which being long-range sniper Davis Bertans. Despite his team's recent struggles (1-6 in December), the 27-year-old forward, acquired for next to nothing in a salary-clearing move by the Spurs over the summer, is on pace to join Stephen Curry as the only other player to make at least 45 percent from deep on eight or more attempts per game.

    Bertans isn't hitting cheapies, either. He's deadly from waaaaay beyond the arc.

            

    24. Memphis Grizzlies (26)

    Ja Morant wasn't the sole reason Memphis beat the Warriors and Suns to start the week (he was actually a minus-six against Phoenix), but the rookie's return from a four-game absence due to back spasms definitely reinvigorated a flagging Grizzlies team.

    So did the dunk that reduced Aron Baynes to atomic dust.

    Sorry, that minus-six against Phoenix must have been a typo. Based on that highlight, Morant had to have been at least plus-five million.

    Memphis couldn't handle the Bucks on Friday, but Jaren Jackson Jr. became the youngest player to post a 40-spot in more than a decade, hitting nine threes, a Grizzlies record, en route to a career-high 43 points in the 127-114 defeat.

    Morant is back, Brandon Clarke is battling his rookie teammate for the league lead in disrespectful posterizations, and Jackson is drilling everything from distance. At 3-1 this week and 9-17 overall, the ridiculously entertaining Grizzlies don't belong in the bottom five anymore.

            

    23. Minnesota Timberwolves (18)

    Karl-Anthony Towns scored 39 points against the Clippers on Friday, his third time cracking the 30-point mark in his last five games, but it wasn't enough to help the Wolves avoid their seventh straight loss.

    Towns' three-point attempt rate is down in December, and while some of that has to do with opponents adjusting to his high-volume approach from deep, there's evidence to suggest his teammates aren't finding him often enough when he's open.

    In addition to gallingly poor post entries (which also hurt Towns), it seems we must now add the pick-and-pop setup to the list of Jeff Teague's facilitation shortcomings.

    Wolves fans are screaming about the buried lede here, though. Towns, Teague and everything else have less to do with an 0-7 December than Minnesota's league-worst defensive rating for the month.

            

    22. San Antonio Spurs (21)

    You could pick from any number of statistical indicators explaining how this season's Spurs are falling short of the sustained excellence they managed over the previous two decades. But one tidbit, courtesy of Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express News, drives the point home: Following Thursday's loss to the Cavs, San Antonio fell to 1-4 against East teams with losing records this year.

    Through the years, regardless of roster composition or style of play, one thing you could always count on from the Spurs was a take-care-of-business reliability that produced consistent success against bad teams. They'd always out-execute the league's dregs.

    Over the last five full seasons, San Antonio ran up a 150-38 mark against sub-.500 teams. Last year's 26-15 mark was the low point, but this season's Spurs have already dropped nine games to opponents with losing records.

    If Patty Mills hadn't saved them against the Suns on Saturday, that number could have been 10.

    In keeping with the theme of a season in which nothing's come easy, San Antonio has gone to overtime in an NBA-record four straight games.

            

    21. Chicago Bulls (22)

    Zach LaVine scored 31 points and added to his list of game-winners this season when he finished a short push shot from the right baseline while being mugged by Montrezl Harrell in the Bulls' 109-106 win against the Clippers on Saturday.

    Even if that win came against a Clips team missing Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and JaMychal Green and playing its third game in four nights, the Bulls will take it. Anything would have been an improvement on their 73-point output in Friday's ghastly 10-point loss to the Hornets.

    The Bulls, 2-2 for the second week in a row, are still capable of the ugliest offensive basketball this side of the Knicks. But LaVine can fill it up, and opponents are scoring just 99.1 points per 100 possessions when Kris Dunn and Wendell Carter Jr. share the floor.

20-16

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    20. Charlotte Hornets (24)

    Among the questions I didn't expect to be asking myself when we kicked off this year's power rankings in October, "Is this a little too much Devonte' Graham coverage?" ranks right at the top.

    But really, other than rookie P.J. Washington's better-than-anticipated performance and a point differential that continues to signal an imminent collapse, what else warrants even a fraction of the discussion Graham's breakout deserves?

    He scored a career-high 40 points in Wednesday's 113-108 road win over the Nets. For context, Graham didn't score his 40th point of the 2018-19 season until Dec. 29, 2018. It's concerning that he's hitting under 40 percent of his two-point shots and lacks the in-between game to punish opponents who'll inevitably chase him over screens more often. But let's not pick nits about a player who's juiced his scoring average by over 15 points per game from last year—while making massive efficiency gains.

    Charlotte will lose Washington for at least five games to a fractured finger. But a 3-1 week that included a pair of road wins over the Nets and Bulls has the Hornets on the upswing.

            

    19. Portland Trail Blazers (16)

    Hassan Whiteside's double-double streak reached six games when he posted 33 points and 11 boards in Thursday's loss to the Nuggets, but the Blazers went just 2-4 in that stretch. All four of those losses came by at least a dozen points, and Portland is now 1-10 against opponents with records above .500.

    In the West, only the Warriors have been worse against winning teams.

    Portland ranks among the bottom five in three key defensive categories: opponent turnover percentage, opponent offensive rebound rate and opponent free-throw rate. You'd think the presence of Whiteside in the lane would at least address the last two categories, but it's clear the Blazers simply aren't making teams work for their points around the bucket.

           

    18. Phoenix Suns (17)

    Aron Baynes retook the floor Monday after missing nine of the Suns' previous 10 games. Though he logged just 15 minutes in Phoenix's win over the Wolves, he managed a dozen points, made a couple of threes and committed four personal fouls. So, basically, he picked up where he left off in his surprising standout season.

    Ricky Rubio was brilliant in that win over Minnesota as well, handing out 14 assists and performing offensive surgery on the Wolves. When he's at his best, which he was against his former team, Rubio is a death-by-1,000-cuts maestro. He slices a defense up over and over, subtly, almost painlessly. Each skip pass and hesitation dribble seems innocuous until, at game's end, the opponent realizes it's been cut to ribbons.

    It was Rubio's league-leading fifth game this year with at least 10 assists and one or fewer turnovers.

    It was a 1-2 week for the Suns...but with Baynes back and Rubio doing his thing, they look a lot more like the team that sprinted out to that 5-2 start.

            

    17. Sacramento Kings (20)

    Nemanja Bjelica's 30 points on 13-of-18 shooting technically came during the window for last week's power rankings, but that performance warrants mention alongside his game-winning buzzer-beater in Monday's 119-118 win at Houston.

    Richaun Holmes remains the main reason the Kings have surged after an 0-5 start and elbowed their way back to relevancy, but those two games from Bjelica—who's setting career marks in accuracy from deep—produced potentially season-altering back-to-back road wins.

    It's hard to move the Kings up after a week that also included an unacceptable home loss to the Knicks, but this team has won four of its last five contests overall and got Marvin Bagley III back from injury for Wednesday's 94-93 win over the Thunder.

    Better still, Buddy Hield is finally heating up from deep.

    Don't look now, but the Kings are a surprising 12-14, and their net rating since Nov. 1 is in positive territory.

            

    16. Detroit Pistons (19)

    You've can't overlook the fact that he's doing it largely against backups, but it's still incredible to note Derrick Rose's per-36 numbers are right in line with the ones he produced as the 2010-11 MVP. In fact, he's actually more efficient from the field now than he was in that breakthrough campaign nearly a decade ago.

    If Rose keeps hitting game-winners like he did on Monday against the Pelicans, he'll easily improve on last year's sixth-place finish in voting for Sixth Man of the Year.

    Detroit has been on a quiet climb up the rankings over the last few weeks, and it's difficult to overlook Rose's contributions to that effort. When he's on the floor, the Pistons produce a plus-4.2 net rating. When he's not, that figure tumbles to minus-3.2. Those numbers can be noisy, but it feels fair to say Rose has a lot to do with the Pistons' modest success.

    His 10 fourth-quarter points in Saturday's 115-107 win against the Rockets—a game Blake Griffin couldn't participate in after halftime because of knee soreness—were yet another example of his value.

    The Pistons won two of their three games this week and are a solid 5-2 in December.

15-11

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    15. Orlando Magic (14)

    Most teams are going to struggle with a three-game set that includes the Bucks, Lakers and Rockets, so we're not going to bury the Magic for going 0-3 against that gauntlet.

    Plus, Nikola Vucevic finally got back on the floor after missing nearly a month with a sprained ankle, scoring 20 points and hauling in nine rebounds in Sunday's 130-119 win over the crumbling Pelicans.

    Markelle Fultz tied his season high with nine assists against Milwaukee on Monday and produced a highlight in transition when he shed Jrue Holiday with a behind-the-back dribble and elevated for a dunk as JJ Redick made a business decision and ducked out of the way.

    Orlando's 130 points Sunday were a season high, but the Pels tend to make most offenses look good. The Magic, 12-14, still need to get their offense out of the league's bottom six before they'll scare any top-quality opponents.

            

    14. Oklahoma City Thunder (15)

    The Thunder have been one of the league's biggest yo-yos this season, never losing or winning more than three games in a row. That may seem like inconsistency when viewed one way, but there's something reliable about this OKC team, which makes a habit of staying competitive.

    Oklahoma City has just one double-digit loss in the last calendar month.

    Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are posting a ridiculous plus-25.6 net rating when they play together, and the Thunder's defense has crept up to 13th in the league.

    The Thunder may be a cobbled-together collection of young lottery tickets and trade fodder, but they're making it work. OKC is 5-3 in its last eight games.

            

    13. Brooklyn Nets (12)

    Brooklyn needed (but didn't get) a Wednesday win over the Hornets, falling 113-108 to the irresistible force that is Devonte' Graham. That seemed like a critical missed opportunity because their weekend meetings—against Toronto on Saturday and the Sixers on Sunday—looked like a two-game losing streak waiting to happen.

    Though the Nets fell short against the Raptors, they caught a break as Joel Embiid sat out Sunday's game with an upper respiratory illness. Brooklyn capitalized on its opportunity, blowing past the diminished Sixers to improve its record to 14-12.

    Spencer Dinwiddie led the way with 24 points, extending a strange streak to four straight games in which he's scored exactly that many. Nobody seems certain about Kyrie Irving's return date, and the All-Star guard has now missed 15 games with a lingering shoulder impingement.

    What seems clear, though, is that Dinwiddie's role shouldn't shrink by much whenever Irving makes it back. Dinwiddie has played at an All-Star level, and the Nets are now 10-5 with him running the show. 

          

    12. Utah Jazz (13)

    Mike Conley's hamstring prevented him from playing at all this week, making it five straight games on the shelf. Though Conley's pre-injury play was hugely disappointing, his absence still left a shot-creation void in a struggling Jazz offense.

    Joe Ingles, starting in Conley's place, has filled in admirably.

    He scored a season-high 23 points in a road win over the Wolves on Wednesday, and he's had four games with at least eight assists in the month of December alone. Conley only had three such games all year before going down with injury.

    Utah's offense still ranks in the bottom 10, largely because it turns the ball over more frequently than any team in the West. But at least the Jazz knocked out a 2-1 week after losing five of their previous seven games. The Heat and Clippers are the only worrisome opponents on Utah's remaining 2019 schedule, so these next couple of weeks should offer plenty of chances for the offense to catch a rhythm.

            

    11. Dallas Mavericks (3)

    Luka Doncic's European career included several seasons in Spain before he crossed an ocean to dominate a second continent, but it was still hard to avoid being impressed by his fluent Spanish address to fans who came to see his Mavs hand the Pistons a 122-111 loss in Mexico City on Thursday.

    He also speaks triple-double.

    Doncic went off for 41 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in the win, registering his eighth triple-double this season. It was the second time he'd logged one with at least 40 points, which is one more than LeBron James, the only other guy to put up even a single 40-point triple-double before turning 21. 

    Alas, the MVP candidate suffered a moderate ankle sprain just two minutes into Saturday's overtime loss to the Heat. He may not return for a couple of weeks, which means the Mavericks have to take a rankings hit. Though Dallas has one of the league's most effective benches, a rotation without Doncic means reserves will have to shift into larger roles against more starter-heavy opposing lineups.

    The Mavs have been just fine without Doncic on the floor this year (plus-8.0 net rating), but we can't trumpet the 20-year-old superstar's brilliance every week and then pretend his absence won't make a massive difference.

10. Indiana Pacers

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    Last Week: 11

    Wednesday's 122-117 win over the visiting Celtics was perhaps the Pacers' most significant of the season. 

    It was the Pacers' first this year against a top-tier opponent, and the bench was key to getting the job done. Aaron and Justin Holiday played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter, and both Doug McDermott and T.J. McConnell saw meaningful action down the stretch.

    Unfortunately, the marginalization of Myles Turner continues apace. He played less than a minute in the final frame of Indiana's signature win over Boston and ranks eighth among Pacers regulars in minutes per fourth quarter. Still a valuable defensive weapon, Turner matters to his team. But as was the case from the moment Indiana extended Domantas Sabonis, there's an allocation-of-resources problem to solve on this payroll.

    A Turner trade continues to seem like the simplistic fix.

    After losing to the Clippers on Monday, the Pacers ran off three straight wins to reach 6-2 in December and close the week at 18-9.

9. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 10

    Jerami Grant played his best game as a member of the Nuggets on Thursday, scoring 20 points, hitting five of his six attempts from deep and defending across five positions. Basically, he delivered on the expectations of those (raises hand) who thought his acquisition this past summer was one of the unsung steals of the offseason.

    His play in that 114-99 win over the Blazers was key to ending an alarming stretch in which the Nuggets had lost five of their last six games. If Grant can find that level of play more consistently, he'll help Denver avoid those sorts of skids.

    The bigger story this past week was Nikola Jokic's gradual return to form. He hit 11 of 14 shots from the field in Saturday's 110-102 victory against the Thunder, handing out 12 assists and extending his streak of double-digit scoring games to a season-high five. He added a sixth game to that run in Sunday's win over the Knicks, Denver's third straight victory.

    Jokic is still shooting it worse and averaging fewer points, rebounds and assists per 36 minutes than he did a year ago, but he's looked a lot more like his old self since the calendar flipped to December. That said, the Nuggets are just 4-4 in the month, so we can't rush their rankings rise just yet. 

8. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 7

    It says something about James Harden's exploits this year that his 55 points against the Cavs on Wednesday hardly registered as a big deal. I mean, it was only his third-highest scoring total of 2019-20. He did make a career-high-tying 10 threes, but he's so badly warped our understanding of what constitutes a "big night" that it was hard to get excited...until he did basically the same thing against the Magic two nights later.

    With another 54 points and 10 more made triples, Harden became the first player in NBA history to crack the 50-point mark and hit at least 10 threes in back-to-back games.

    Houston lost last Monday on Nemanja Bjelica's buzzer-beater and ran out of gas after Harden's scoring heroics in the middle of the week, falling 115-107 to Detroit on Saturday. The Pistons' Bruce Brown harassed Harden with full-court pressure, "limiting" him to 39 points on 14-of-33 shooting, a wise approach with the Rockets playing the second night of a back-to-back set without Russell Westbrook (rest) to share the ball-handling load.

    A 4-3 mark in December looks a little worse when you note all three defeats came against losing teams. After stabilizing in the second half of November, the Rockets have also returned to their early-season struggles on D. They rank in the bottom third of the league in defensive efficiency over their last seven games.

7. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 8

    Just two weeks ago, the Toronto Raptors were the league's surprise contender. They'd climbed all the way to third in our rankings on the strength of Pascal Siakam's rise to stardom and a sterling two-way performance.

    Reality hit hard after that.

    Toronto didn't hold up against the four upper-tier opponents it faced after a seven-game winning streak ran its record to 15-4 on Dec. 1. Falls to the Heat, Rockets, Sixers and Clippers illustrated that while the Raps are still worthy of their pleasant-surprise status, the "shocking contender" designation was hasty.

    Fred VanVleet's bruised knee held him out of Wednesday's 20-point loss to the Clips, and Siakam has just two 30-point games in December after registering seven in October and November. He may still be in the All-NBA mix by season's end, but he's now feeling the challenge of scouting reports focusing primarily on how to stop him. Those deadly spin moves aren't as effective when opposing coaches spend film sessions drilling their players on how to be ready for them.

    The Raptors closed the week with a positive, taking care of Brooklyn at home to go 2-1 overall. But it feels like Toronto may be settling into position just outside the league's elite.

6. Miami Heat

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    Last Week: 9

    The Heat continued to keep things interesting with a 6-0 run in the final minute of regulation to force overtime against the Hawks on Tuesday. Once in OT, Miami disposed of drama by scoring 16 unanswered points, ultimately producing a 135-121 win—all this after Trae Young proclaimed the contest "over" late in the fourth quarter.

    Welp.

    Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler both finished that game with triple-doubles, while Duncan Robinson drilled 10 threes, a franchise record.

    After building a lead as large as 14 points in the first half against the mighty Lakers on Friday, Miami couldn't quite hold on, falling by a final of 113-110 when Butler's last-second three didn't fall. The defeat snapped the Heat's 11-game home winning streak. Adebayo logged another triple-double in Saturday's 122-118 overtime win in Dallas, though Luka Doncic's early exit puts a bit of an asterisk next to that result.

    In all, Miami has just one loss to a team outside the top 10 this year, and that came way back on Oct. 27 to the Timberwolves. 

    Ball security and a shot profile that suggests mild offensive regression is on the way are the only reasons to be skeptical of Miami's excellent start. Winners in four of their last five and basically unbeatable unless facing an elite opponent, the Heat show no signs of slowing down.

5. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 4

    It was a good week for Kemba Walker. Less so for the Celtics, collectively.

    Boston easily took down the Cavs on Monday by a final of 110-88 but went on to drop back-to-back games in Indiana and at home against Philadelphia. That produced the Celtics' second sub-.500 week of the season, despite Walker totaling 95 points on 51.6 percent shooting over those three contests.

    Neither Robert Williams (hip) nor Marcus Smart (eye infection) saw action this week, but Gordon Hayward returned to the floor last Monday. Of course, the snakebit Hayward took a shot to the nose that warranted concussion testing in just his second game back.

    The ugly (and accidental) shot from Doug McDermott didn't result in a break, but it was hard to avoid thinking Hayward could stand to catch one on the health front. He's had one fluky injury after another during his Boston tenure.

    The Celtics are still a solid 17-7, and the loss to the Sixers was only their first one at home this year. They lose ground this week, but with top-10 ranks on both offense and defense, they'll be fine as they heal up.

4. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 5

    Joel Embiid's season-high 38 points answered critics and offset another offensive dud from Ben Simmons in Philly's 115-109 win over the Celtics on Thursday. Patiently passing out of repeated double-teams and icing the game with clutch free throws, Embiid balanced prudence and physical dominance. It was a perfectly measured-yet-overpowering effort for a Sixers team that wants Embiid to throw his weight around but needs him in one piece five months from now.

    Wins over the Pelicans and Nets ran Philadelphia's unbeaten streak to a season-high five games. That streak was snapped Sunday against Brooklyn with Embiid sitting out, but overall it was a strong 3-1 week. 

    Oh, and Matisse Thybulle's tomahawk transition slam against the Nuggets on Tuesday should get some love when those "best of" dunk compilations come out at the end of the month. The rookie hasn't just been a highlight-generator, either. With or without Embiid on the court, Thybulle's minutes have produced positive net ratings—mainly because he's a menace on defense and has hit a scalding 46.7 percent from deep.

    Philly has won 13 of its last 16 games overall.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 6

    Sustained and emphatic boos were the soundtrack to Paul George's 36-point effort in Indiana on Monday, as the former Pacer fired off 16 threes (making seven) in the 110-99 Clippers win.

    Kawhi Leonard's homecoming came next, and the resulting 112-92 win in Toronto was a prime example of how these Clippers can wear down quality opponents. The Raptors competed throughout, but L.A.'s defensive tenacity and breadth of scoring options knocked them out with a 37-14 second quarter. The second half was a formality.

    The Clips are a little thinner than they'd like to be right now, with Lou Williams (calf) joining Patrick Beverley (concussion) and Landry Shamet (ankle) in street clothes for their win over the Wolves. George's 46 points put Minnesota away.

    Shamet returned to face the Bulls on Saturday, but he wasn't enough to offset the absences of Williams, Beverley and Leonard in a game the Clips basically gave away voluntarily.

    Los Angeles is 9-2 in games both Leonard and George play, posting a plus-14.0 net rating with those two on the floor. Both are elite figures that indicate the Clippers are even better than their 20-8 record when they decide to put their premium lineups on the court.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last Week: 2

    LeBron James recovered from a subpar first half to score 17 points and distribute nine assists after the break in the Lakers' 113-110 comeback win over the Heat on Friday. That was the closest call in a week that saw L.A. go 3-0 and extend its road winning streak to 14 straight games.

    With a 24-3 mark on the season, the Lakers are dead even with the Bucks for the league's best record. They've also played the more difficult schedule, but the Lakers trail Milwaukee in both offensive and defensive efficiency by margins large enough to keep them in the No. 2 spot in our rankings.

    The Bucks remain the only team outscoring opponents by more than a dozen points per 100 possessions.

    If the Lakers want to make up ground on the Bucks, they could focus on keeping opponents off the line. Los Angeles is in the middle of the pack in opponent free-throw rate, while the Bucks are one of the league's least foul-prone teams. That's partly a symptom of a Milwaukee defense that walls off the lane and dares opponents to survive on jumpers, thus limiting chances for contact near the basket.

    JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard can be prone to overly aggressive play on the interior. Clean that up, and maybe the Lakers will get closer to overtaking the Bucks.

    If that seems like a niche area for improvement, it is. But that's how closely you have to scrutinize a team this good when searching for flaws.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Last Week: 1

    The Bucks just keep rolling, so we can't pretend there was any mystery about their rank this week. Owners of an NBA season-high 18-game winning streak and still well clear of the field with a plus-13.0 net rating, Milwaukee deserves this spot without much further explanation.

    This week's frozen moments in a season full of them: Giannis Antetokounmpo bullying the Orlando Magic's Jonathan Isaac for a no-frills power dunk in Monday's 110-101 Bucks win, followed by the reigning MVP's vengeance upon summertime affronter Bruno Caboclo on Friday.

    Clearly, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks aren't ready to ease up on the gas. In a 7-0 December, Milwaukee has pounded opponents by 21 points per 100 possessions. Giannis is shooting 45.5 percent (15-of-33) from deep for the month as well, meaning he'll almost certainly surpass the 26 treys he hit in November, his career high for a single month.

    Eric Bledsoe's fractured fibula will hold him out for two weeks, which puts a damper on Thursday's tilt with the Lakers. Of course, as long as Antetokounmpo can stand upright for that one, chances are it'll still be an awfully competitive meeting between the league's two best teams.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Sunday, Dec. 15.

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