NBA Power Rankings: Superstar Incompatibility Exposing Philadelphia 76ers

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2020

NBA Power Rankings: Superstar Incompatibility Exposing Philadelphia 76ers

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    New decade, same top team for this edition of the NBA Power Rankings, as the unbreakable Milwaukee Bucks keep holding together while cracks form in the facades of their would-be challengers.

    That's not to say everything's the same in our first set of rankings for 2020. Two East powerhouses find themselves in new positions outside the top 10. Injuries are to blame for the Toronto Raptors' slide, but something a bit more concerning is behind the Philadelphia 76ers' downward trend.

    Rankings consider record, advanced stats, recent play and health—all with the goal of organizing 30 teams into an order that reflects the league's current hierarchy.

    We could simplify these going forward by listing just two categories: the Bucks and everyone else.

    But where's the fun in that?

    NBC Sports Boston and Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix returns to The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss David Stern, highlights from the 2010s and freezing-cold takes and predictions for the 2020s including Player of the Decade, Team of the Decade, LeBron James, age limits, NBA expansion and the New York Knicks.


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    30. Cleveland Cavaliers (25)

    Kevin Love is frustrated again, and the Cavs have lost four straight after winning four of their previous five games to climb all the way to 25th in our rankings.

    Cleveland's offense—controlled mainly by young guards like Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and, increasingly over the last several games, Kevin Porter Jr.—owns the league's highest turnover rate and a bottom-five assist percentage. It's hard to fault Love for his annoyance at Cleveland's amateur-hour exploits, especially if it's true he was told the team planned to compete for the playoffs when he signed his $120.4 million extension in 2018.

    Still, outbursts at shootaround and during games aren't setting a great tone for a team that could use a little leadership.


    29. Atlanta Hawks (30)

    Trae Young only missed two games with a sprained ankle, returning to score 28 points in a 109-106 loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday. John Collins left that contest with a back contusion and joined Cam Reddish and Jabari Parker on the sidelines when Atlanta suited back up on Saturday to face the Pacers.

    Despite seeming set up for failure (shorthanded and on the second night of a back-to-back set against a playoff-bound opponent), the Hawks secured an improbable 116-111 win behind 41 points from Young and a season-best performance from Kevin Huerter, who finished with 26 points, six rebounds and five assists on 10-of-18 shooting.

    Atlanta is 4-22 over its last 26 games, but a 2-1 week is enough to get it out of the basement. And at least Young's quick comeback means future losses will feature some exciting offense.


    28. Golden State Warriors (27)

    The Warriors were without D'Angelo Russell in all three contests this week and lost by 15 points to a Minnesota Timberwolves team missing its three leading scorers on Thursday. That ought to assuage any concerns that too much competent play would compromise draft position. Since winning four straight, Golden State has reasserted its futility with an 0-4 mark that has it tied for last in the league with 28 losses on the year.

    The good news for the Dubs: Both Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III look like desirable trade assets.

    The Warriors may need to swing a deal if they want to address a roster crunch brought about by two-way players Damion Lee and Ky Bowman approaching the end of their permitted days with the big club. Marquese Chriss could also be cut or dealt, but ideally, the Warriors could extract a second-rounder for one of their veteran wings while opening up a spot for a converted two-way player.

    Oh, and even if Golden State has returned to its losing ways, its defense remains mostly respectable. The Warriors are 13th in defensive efficiency since Dec. 1.


    27. Minnesota Timberwolves (29)

    At least the Wolves defense has improved in recent weeks, ranking first overall since Christmas.

    We're dealing with a tiny sample, though, and you won't find anyone ready to proclaim Minnesota relevant again until Karl-Anthony Towns gets back on the floor. His four missed games this week ran his inactive streak to 10 straight. Even if the Wolves have stabilized a bit after starting December 0-11, don't expect Towns to rush back.

    This may not be a season worth saving.

    That said, the Timberwolves climb on the strength of their first multi-win week since November.


    26. Washington Wizards (28)

    Where are these guys coming from?

    Garrison Mathews, professional shooterscored 28 points on nine field-goal attempts, hitting four threes and working his way to the line for an incomprehensible 13 free-throw attempts in last Monday's 123-105 win against the Miami Heat.

    In five G League games this season, Mathews had shot a total of 11 free throws.

    Don't forget Jordan McRae, who scored 29 points against the Heat and came one short of his career high with 35 points in Friday's loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

    The 80 bench points Washington hung on the Heat were a franchise record...until its reserves scored 92 points to beat the Denver Nuggets on Saturday. Ish Smith exploded for a career-best 32 points and eight assists off the bench, and Troy Brown Jr. contributed 25 points and 14 boards in the upset.

    Teams with scoring issues should probably commission studies of Washington's offense, as just about everyone who suits up for the Wizards this year turns into a walking bucket. Even with Bradley Beal missing three of the Wizards' four games this week, they still managed to go 2-2 and put up 114.9 points per 100 possessions, a figure that would rank second in the league for the season.


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    25. New York Knicks (26)

    Strength (or weakness, in this case) of opponent has to matter in this analysis, but it's still true that the Knicks are quietly operating like a real NBA team since Mike Miller took over for David Fizdale as head coach.

    New York is 6-8 in 14 games under its new head coach and has done a much better job taking care of the ball and leveraging its size on the offensive glass. Julius Randle is thriving in the Knicks' improved spacing. His streak of 30-point games ended at three on Wednesday when his 22 points led the team in a 117-93 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

    Marcus Morris hasn't minded the new setup, either. He scored a career-best 38 points in a game the Knicks nearly stole against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, though they ultimately fell by a final of 135-132.

    The Knicks aren't good, but they've been consistently competitive lately. Considering where things stood before Fizdale's ouster (4-18 with the NBA's worst net rating), that's an enormous change.


    24. Sacramento Kings (22)

    If you could isolate a few choice portions of Sacramento's 128-123 home win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday, you'd assume the Kings were a clear playoff team. For stretches of the victory that halted their eight-game skid, they harassed Memphis into turnovers, zipped up the floor and leveraged their speed and shooting to serious effect.

    De'Aaron Fox, specifically, comes alive in those accelerated conditions. No one can stay with him in the open floor, and there's something about a faster pace that also seems to ignite his defensive intensity. He logged five steals and two blocks to go along with 27 points and nine assists against the Grizzlies. When he's the aggressor on D, you can easily spot the All-Defensive potential.

    Of course, the Kings also got blasted by a 42-26 margin in the first quarter of that game and fell into a 20-point hole, which made their frantic second-quarter burst necessary in the first place. If they could play like they did in those successful stretches all the time, then they certainly wouldn't have needed an inspired effort to beat the lottery-bound Grizz at home.

    The flashes of dominant two-way play are exactly what makes this Kings season so frustrating. These guys can compete with anyone when they crank the pace and embrace chaos, fueling breakaways with frenetic defense. They just rarely tap into that version of themselves.

    Losers in nine of their last 10, the Kings lose more ground this week.


    23. Charlotte Hornets (24)

    Devonte' Graham's three-point shot feels legitimate. He's made multiple triples in all but four games this season. Unfortunately, his inability to score from anywhere else is just as real.

    Graham is shooting a shockingly poor 36.4 percent on two-pointers, and he's converted fewer than a quarter of his attempted twos from outside the restricted area. That inaccuracy is one reason the Hornets' effective field-goal percentage is under 50 percent over the last two weeks.

    Charlotte got off its six-game slide with Thursday's 109-106 win at Cleveland, and Terry Rozier's 29 points produced a 123-120 overtime victory against the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday, just its second victory over an opponent with a winning record this year. The first came against the Indiana Pacers way back on Nov. 5.

    Though Graham is not scoring efficiently, his gravity still sucks defenders out of the lane. And his 24 combined assists in Charlotte's two wins this week showed he's contributing in other ways.


    22. Detroit Pistons (19)

    Derrick Rose's 22 points bolstered his case for Sixth Man of the Year and secured a 111-104 win over the Warriors on Saturday, but Detroit lost the other three games of its trip out West this week, falling to 13-24 on the season.

    The Golden State game marked rookie Sekou Doumbouya's second start of the season, and his 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting were a career high. As Andre Drummond trade chatter intensifies, the possibility of a broader shift toward younger players also becomes more realistic. Sixteen points may not represent Doumbouya's best scoring output for long.

    The Pistons are still within striking distance of an East playoff spot because nobody outside the conference's top six teams seems interested in playing respectable ball for more than a couple of weeks at a time. But it's hard to place confidence in a Detroit team whose defense has quietly ranked in the bottom 10 since Dec. 1.


    21. Chicago Bulls (16)

    The schedule handed Chicago a brutal slate this past week, resulting in losses to the Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics. For another team, a gauntlet like that might have served as a sort of test, a way to establish a position relative to the league's best.

    In the Bulls' case, all the 0-3 week did was highlight what we already knew: Chicago, 1-14 against teams above .500, simply isn't cut out to compete with top-level opponents.

    It was interesting to see head coach Jim Boylen cut some fat from his rotation, reducing it to an eight-man operation against Boston on Saturday. And Zach LaVine's career-high 14 free-throw attempts represented another positive sign for the Bulls, who've searched all year for ways to score in the half-court.

    With a defense buoyed by luck and an offense stuck in mud, the Bulls may be in for a rough January.


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    20. Portland Trail Blazers (18)

    Carmelo Anthony scored a season-high 26 points in New York on Wednesday, but Mitchell Robinson's 22 points on a perfect 11-of-11 shooting night helped the Knicks saddle the struggling Blazers with a 117-93 loss.

    Portland's listless pick-and-roll defense allowed much of Robinson's damage inside, a troubling development. The Knicks have spaced the floor better lately, but it's not like they boast a collection of "stay home at all costs" threats from deep. Portland could have mitigated the interior damage, but that would have required some commitment, communication and defensive force.

    Those have been in short supply for the Blazers' bottom-10 defense.

    Damian Lillard's 35 points against an even more accommodating Washington defense got Portland off its five-game run of futility, but the losing ways resumed with Sunday's loss to the Miami Heat.


    19. Brooklyn Nets (15)

    Spencer Dinwiddie's reinforcements finally showed up as Caris LeVert scored 13 points in 16 minutes of Saturday's 121-102 loss to the Toronto Raptors. LeVert had missed 24 games following surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb, and the slithery guard looked like himself in his return.

    Dinwiddie's 23 points still led the way for Brooklyn in defeat. That he's topped the Nets in scoring for 12 straight games illustrates the roster's lack of supporting firepower. LeVert's return will help, but more significant assistance is still a long way off.

    Kyrie Irving remains nowhere near a return from a lingering shoulder injury, and it's starting to feel like the Nets might see Kevin Durant play before their other high-profile free-agent acquisition.

    Brooklyn's five-game slide is partly the product of a difficult schedule, and LeVert will help as his minutes restriction loosens up. But at 16-18 with a minus-1.6 net rating, rankings slippage was inevitable.


    18. New Orleans Pelicans (23)

    Lonzo Ball hit a career-high seven threes against the Houston Rockets on Dec. 29 and is shooting 40 percent (24-of-60) from deep over his last eight games. The Pels are 6-2 in that stretch, Zion Williamson completed his first full practice on Thursday, and JJ Redick's running lefty bank shot produced a last-second win over the Kings on Saturday.

    New Orleans blew a 14-point lead with four minutes left against the Kings, setting the stage for Redick's unlikely game-winning drive. The dramatics shouldn't have been necessary, but maybe the result was a sign the Pelicans' darkest days are over.

    Despite losing 13 straight between Nov. 23 and Dec. 17, New Orleans finds itself a mere three games out of the West's eighth playoff spot. With momentum like they've generated over the last two weeks, the Pels' postseason hopes, which once seemed farcical, are getting pretty serious.


    17. Phoenix Suns (21)

    Devin Booker's strange struggles and reluctance to fire from deep lately haven't curbed his scoring. His streak of 30-point games reached five in Friday's 120-112 win over the Knicks, a game that saw the Phoenix guard hit more than one three for the first time since Dec. 9.

    Phoenix's defense has been abysmal over the last six weeks, ranking ahead of only the Blazers, Cavs and Wizards since Dec. 1. So even if Booker's resourceful scoring means the Suns can put up points with just about anyone, it won't matter if they can't get a few stops now and then.

    Two-big lineups often produce better defensive results, so it's encouraging that the Suns started Aron Baynes and Deandre Ayton together against the Knicks. Ayton's focus and execution on that end have yet to reach passable levels, though, so there's no guarantee Phoenix has overcome its defensive issues—if head coach Monty Williams even decides to stick with a pair of conventional centers against lineups smaller than New York's.

    The Suns are 3-2 in their last five after dropping eight straight games.


    16. Memphis Grizzlies (20)

    Memphis went into L.A. and smoked the shorthanded Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, taking advantage of a rotation missing Patrick Beverley, Paul George and Moe Harkless. The 140-114 final gave the Grizzlies their largest margin of victory this season, and Sunday's win against the Suns completed a difficult road back-to-back.

    Memphis is 9-6 since Dec. 9. That's more than a third of the season to date in which the Grizzlies have played winning ball.

    Ja Morant's supreme feats of athleticism and craft deserve all the notice they're getting, but don't forget to credit the rookie point guard for his poise, willingness to keep the ball moving and understanding that not every touch has to result in a highlight. It must be difficult to resist attempting a head-down drive in search of a poster dunk on every touch, particularly for a guy with his quickness and bounce.

    But Morant is figuring out how to play with just enough control when he has to. The Rookie of the Year race is already over.


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    15. San Antonio Spurs (17)

    Dejounte Murray didn't sulk when head coach Gregg Popovich benched him in the fourth quarter of a tight game against the Warriors on Tuesday, which was a good thing for the Spurs. Murray's seven points and key steal in overtime iced a 117-113 win.

    "Prior to his [season-ending knee injury last year] and even in the beginning of this season, he probably would have gotten down on himself a little more than he would have liked and we would have liked," teammate Patty Mills told Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News. "But this time he put it behind him and came out and played."

    San Antonio is 5-4 in the nine games Murray has started since reclaiming his first-unit spot on Dec. 14.

    Losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Milwaukee Bucks this week got 2020 off to a poor start, but the Spurs have played .500 ball since dropping to 5-11 on Nov. 22. They're solidifying their position as a middle-of-the-pack squad.


    14. Orlando Magic (14)

    Jonathan Isaac's left knee contorted in a way knees aren't meant to contort on Wednesday, necessitating his removal from the court via stretcher. Fortunately for Isaac, the Magic and the wide swath of the basketball-watching public that wants to see Isaac reach his All-Star and DPOY potential, nothing was torn. But it will still be at least two months before we see Isaac back on the floor, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

    That's a huge blow for a Magic team defined by its defense. Isaac is one of the league's rangiest, most versatile stoppers, and his absence creates a hole no one on the roster can fill unless Aaron Gordon finally does what everyone's been hoping: Give up on the playmaking and embrace his inner defense-first role player.

    Orlando lost a game it should have expected to win (against Atlanta last Monday) but then earned a win it probably didn't see coming (against Miami on Friday), so things evened out in the record department. At 2-2 this week, the Magic retain their two-game cushion over Charlotte for the East's final playoff spot.

    Sustaining that edge will be much tougher with Isaac out of action.


    13. Indiana Pacers (12)

    The Pacers are 1-4 in their last five games without Malcolm Brogdon (back), though they should get credit for beating the Philadelphia 76ers last Tuesday with Brogdon logging just under eight minutes before shutting it down.

    A ninth-ranked defense couldn't keep the Denver Nuggets from scoring 124 points in a win on Thursday, the highest total by a Pacers opponent this year. Though the rebounding woes that killed Indiana against Denver didn't reach the same level in Saturday's shocking 116-111 road loss to the Hawks, weak play on the glass has haunted the Pacers all year.

    This past week, they ranked last in the league with a 64.7 rebound percentage.


    12. Philadelphia 76ers (9)

    Understanding the cause of a problem isn't the same thing as solving it, but at least there's no mystery to the Sixers' 3-7 record over their last 10 games.

    Miami hit Philadelphia with a heavy dose of zone defense back on Dec. 18, which spurred copycats and created the narrative that a particular defensive approach had "solved" the Sixers. That was an oversimplification that obscured a more nuanced truth. Yes, the Sixers struggled against zone looks, but turnovers, ill-fitting top-line stars, stretches of disengaged defense, reluctant outside shooters and the lack of a reliable pick-and-roll initiator have more to do with this team's struggles than anything else.

    The Sixers were always going to suffer offensive droughts, which is what happens when you've got Ben Simmons—a point guard who won't shoot, won't draw contact inside and gums up spacing for everyone on the floor—running an offense that should be able to spread the floor and capitalize on Joel Embiid's interior dominance.

    What's inexcusable is the Sixers' failure to leverage extreme size, length and quickness into an all-time defense. Philly ranks sixth with a 105.3 defensive rating on the season. But the Sixers have allowed 110.9 points per 100 possessions during their listless four-game losing streak.

    No wonder frustration is bubbling up.


    11. Toronto Raptors (10)

    Fred VanVleet's 29 points netted a 121-102 win in Brooklyn on Saturday, continuing a trend of alternating wins and losses the Raptors have sustained since Christmas Day.

    Toronto's ability to hold steady with key players—Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Norman Powell—sidelined remains impressive, as was its rebound from a horrendous 84-76 loss to the Heat on Thursday. That defeat featured, easily, the Raptors' worst offensive showing of the season, and it's telling that they didn't merely shoot their way to recovery.

    Defined by their defense all season, the Raptors forced 24 Nets turnovers.

    Toronto is just 10-8 since Dec. 1, but it ranks fourth in defensive efficiency during that span.

10. Dallas Mavericks

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Last Week: 7

    Kristaps Porzingis' sore right knee prevented him from playing in all three Mavs games this past week.

    Dallas is now 2-2 on the season without Porzingis, and its point differential is actually higher in the minutes he's spent off the floor, but it was still apparent (particularly in Tuesday's loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder) that the Mavs' league-leading offense benefits from the spacing provided by its 7'3" second option.

    Injuries to Luka Doncic, Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. have all played a role in Dallas' quiet mediocrity of late. And it's likely the Mavericks' record would be worse if they didn't have the most productive bench in the league.

    Luka Doncic's 39-point triple-double wasn't enough to beat the Hornets on Saturday, and that 123-120 overtime defeat was Dallas' third in its last four games. The Mavs are just 6-7 over their last 13 contests, including a pedestrian 3-3 mark since Doncic returned from his ankle sprain.

9. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 13

    Chris Paul's clutch heroics continued on Tuesday against the Mavs, as his tough runner with 40 seconds left completed a comeback from a seven-point deficit in the final three minutes and put the Thunder ahead for good in their 106-101 win.

    Paul's 93 clutch points (with a stellar 66.3 true shooting percentagelead the league.

    Though Paul's late-game production has had a conspicuous impact lately, we shouldn't let that overshadow what Shai Gilgeous-Alexander does for entire games. He's been metronomically consistent, scoring in single digits only once all year and reaching his career high in points, 32, three times in the last eight games.

    There aren't many players who offer such consistent, reliable production with a game so varied and fluid. Gilgeous-Alexander's arsenal of off-time scoops and herky-jerky flips often feels like pure improvisation, which you might think would lend itself to high variance. Not so. SGA gets to his 20 or so points per game (19.9 to be exact) one way or the other.

    OKC has won nine of its last 10 games and ranks seventh in net rating since Dec. 1. As a result, the Thunder join the top 10 for the first time this season.

8. Miami Heat

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Last Week: 5

    Add the Raptors to the list of teams flummoxed by Miami's zone looks. The Heat allowed just two fast-break points and watched as Toronto bricked away, going 6-of-42 from deep in Thursday's throwback 84-76 win.

    It was the Heat who went cold Friday, scoring a grand total of six fourth-quarter points in their unwatchable 105-85 no-show loss to Orlando.

    Weird stat: The Heat are 6-0 in overtime, which, depending on your analytical bent, you could spin as an indicator of good luck or a sign of Miami's gumption in tough situations. Without choosing a side, it's worth noting that success in close games sometimes comes easier for teams with clampdown defenses and an ability to get to the foul line when other tactics fail.

    Miami has both.

    That said, you can't lose to the Wizards and Magic in the same week and expect to stick in the top five of our rankings.

7. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 6

    Welcome to the league, Michael Porter Jr.!

    Though Denver's sophomore rookie forward had quietly been carving out rotation minutes (and even logged a spot start), his career-high 25 points on 11-of-12 shooting in Thursday's 124-116 win over the Pacers stood out as his best performance to date.

    Flaws persist, as you'd expect from a player who barely played in college and effectively redshirted his first NBA season. Passing is a particularly tricky task for Porter, who has 11 assists and 18 turnovers on the year. Fortunately, the Nuggets entrust Nikola Jokic with most of the offensive decision-making in moments that matter, so Porter can stick to what he knows: getting buckets.

    Denver has to slip after a 1-2 week marked by shaky defense, but the Lakers are the only West team with fewer losses. Even if it's felt like a struggle for most of the season, and even if Jokic still isn't his best self, the Nuggets are in fine shape.

6. Utah Jazz

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    Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

    Last Week: 11

    Utah went 3-0 this week, taking down three East opponents—Detroit, Chicago and Orlando—with the only remotely close call coming in Thursday's 102-98 road win over the Bulls. This recent stretch ran Utah's record against the East to a solid 6-1 since it fell to the Sixers back on Dec. 2.

    In a return to familiar trends, the Jazz held all three of their opponents under 100 points this past week. That's the first time Utah has managed the feat since October. As a result of their recent defensive uptick, the Jazz now check in at No. 7 in defensive efficiency.

    That's more like it.

    Just as encouraging, Utah punctuated its win over Orlando with a bench-fueled scoring burst—a rare occurrence for a team whose reserves have consistently surrendered leads rather than build them. Trade acquisition Jordan Clarkson has provided some punch, but it was Georges Niang who sparked the scoring in the fourth-quarter breakout against the Magic.

    If Utah's defense continues its return to form and the bench holds up its end of things more often, we may not have to keep shuttling these guys in and out of the top 10. The Jazz could finally be here to stay.

5. Houston Rockets

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    Last Week: 8

    James Harden made a mockery of the Sixers' supposedly stout defense on Friday night, blowing past single coverage at will and getting just about every split-second decision right at the rim. He finished with 44 points on 24 shots and logged his first triple-double of the season.

    Clint Capela, who significantly outplayed Joel Embiid and finished with 30 points and 14 boards in Houston's 118-108 win, was the beneficiary of several Harden setups.

    Houston has had its share of mail-in efforts this year. Each of its last five losses have come against a team with a losing record. But the Rockets have also beaten the Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Sixers over the last month, proving their battle-tested regular-season formula of "Harden, Harden and more Harden" works just fine against high-end opponents.

    Though their defense is still subject to long stretches of sub-par effort, the Rockets' Harden-centric offense is all the way up to second in the NBA, trailing only the Mavericks in points per possession.

4. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Last Week: 3

    L.A. handled the Knicks on Sunday to wash out the bitter taste of Friday's 140-114 loss to the Grizzlies and finish the week with a 3-1 mark. But a 6-5 record since Dec. 14 leaves plenty to be desired.

    Part of the Clips' inconsistency stems from the revolving-door nature of its rotation. Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Patrick Beverley and Moe Harkless all sat out games this week.

    It's nice to have Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams steadying the bench amid so much lineup shuffling; their combined 66 points were the main reason Los Angeles got out of New York with the 135-132 win on Sunday.

    The Clippers still rank among the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and they'll profile as a short-list title threat as long as health permits them to play at full strength in the postseason. But the recent version of the Clippers has been less overpowering.

3. Los Angeles Lakers

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    John McCoy/Getty Images

    Last Week: 4

    The Lakers played nearly perfect ball in the first quarter of their 117-107 win over the Suns on Wednesday, scoring a season-high 43 points, hitting their first 11 shots and seemingly short-circuiting every Phoenix offensive possession with a steal or block. The final result undersells L.A.'s thorough dominance.

    In a shocking stat from the win over Phoenix uncovered by's John Schuhmann, James failed to score a point in the paint for the first time in 15 years. He still managed to impact the game (to put it lightly), finishing with 31 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists.

    Anthony Davis went off for 46 points and 13 boards in Friday's 123-113 win over the recently frisky Pelicans. James fell one short of his season high with 15 assists in that one, further proving his limited burst off the dribble won't keep him from tearing opponents apart.

    Sunday's win over Detroit gave them five straight, and outside of that strange four-game losing streak in late December, it's been remarkably smooth sailing for the 29-7 Lakers.

2. Boston Celtics

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Last Week: 2

    The Celtics keep cruising despite the fact that just about every key player's return to the floor coincides with the departure of another. Jaylen Brown couldn't go in Tuesday's win over the Hornets because of a sinus infection, but he returned Friday to take on Atlanta...just as Kemba Walker had to sit out with an illness.

    Throw in longer-term injuries to Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart, and you can start to see why Boston's best lineups have spent so little time on the floor.

    That's been good news for opponents, as the five-man unit of Walker, Brown, Jayson Tatum, Hayward and Smart (which almost never plays together) has destroyed everything in its path. Even if that group doesn't figure to be an integral piece of Boston's regular season, it'd be nice to get enough reps to have an idea of how it might fare come playoff time.

    The Celtics have won eight of their last nine games, and Enes Kanter is quietly filling the role of reliable sixth man better than he had been for most of the year. He's got three straight double-doubles for the first time this season and blocked an uncharacteristic six shots on New Year's Eve against Charlotte.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    Cold shooting and, perhaps, the failure to take a beleaguered and short-handed Wolves team seriously produced the Bucks' lone close call this week. But Milwaukee ratcheted up its league-best defense and got 32 points, 17 rebounds and four assists (ho-hum) from Giannis Antetokounmpo to escape with a 106-104 win against Minnesota on Wednesday.

    The Bucks, who got Eric Bledsoe back last Monday after the guard missed two weeks with a leg fracture, dispatched the Spurs on Saturday to make it five straight wins. At 32-5, Milwaukee is on track to win 70 games.

    Considering letdowns like the one they suffered against Minnesota have been highly unusual this year, there's a good chance the Bucks sustain their pace and become just the third team to crack that elusive 70-win mark.

    Yet again, they're No. 1 here without much controversy.


    Stats courtesy of, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Sunday, Jan. 5.