NBA Power Rankings: Can LeBron, Lakers Finally Chase Down Bucks for Top Spot?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2020

NBA Power Rankings: Can LeBron, Lakers Finally Chase Down Bucks for Top Spot?

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    Halfway through the 2019-20 season, the Milwaukee Bucks' hold on the No. 1 spot in our NBA power rankings is looser than it's been in weeks.

    With LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers reeling off wins despite injury concerns and the Utah Jazz engineering their patented midseason run, the Bucks don't have the luxury of coasting.

    Elsewhere, the Miami Heat's bizarre woes away from home continued, and Chris Paul's timeless trickery earned the Oklahoma City Thunder a second week in the top 10.

    As always, rankings consider record, advanced stats, recent play and health as we try to set up an order that reflects the current strength of all 30 teams. For most of this year, we've had a gap between the top-ranked Bucks and everyone else. That divide, once a chasm, is now razor-thin.

30-26

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    30. Atlanta Hawks (29)

    Trae Young earned his first 40-point triple-double in Wednesday's 122-115 loss to the Houston Rockets, making him the third-youngest player (behind LeBron James and Luka Doncic) to ever pull that off. Despite Young's statistical stockpiling, Atlanta has lost four straight and is still stuck at No. 30 in net rating with a league-low eight wins.

    Kevin Huerter scored at least 20 points in back-to-back games for the first time in his career earlier this month, going for 26 in a win over the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 4 and following that with 22 points in last Monday's loss to the Denver Nuggets. He was a combined 18-of-30 from the field in those contests.

    The Hawks defense remains atrocious, but credit head coach Lloyd Pierce for throwing a new wrinkle at the league's toughest cover. Atlanta forced James Harden to his left(!) later in Wednesday's loss and had some success, allowing 19 points over the final three quarters after surrendering 22 in the first alone.

    You've got to find the little glimmers of hope in a season this bleak.

            

    29. Golden State Warriors (28)

    The Warriors missed their first 17 threes in last Monday's 111-98 loss to the Sacramento Kings—not exactly an event worthy of a double-take in this stopgap season, but certainly a cold spell that underscores just how much things have changed since last year.

    Stephen Curry is upping the intensity of his workouts as he recovers from a broken left hand, and D'Angelo Russell returned to the lineup Sunday after missing the Warriors' previous six games with a shoulder contusion.

    Those developments point to better offensive performance, as does Omari Spellman's emerging value as a pick-and-pop center. He started his first game of the year Friday against the Los Angeles Clippers, led the team with 17 points and has been scorching from deep in January.

    It's worth noting, though, that Golden State defended at a top-10 clip in the six-game stint Russell missed and has been markedly better with him off the floor all year. He might make games more watchable, but there's not much evidence to suggest Russell will actually improve the Warriors.

    Sunday's loss to the Memphis Grizzlies was Golden State's eighth in a row.

            

    28. Cleveland Cavaliers (30)

    It hasn't been the smoothest half-season in Cleveland, and the last thing an already fraught team-coach relationship needed was more evidence head coach John Beilein might not have the best connective touch with his young team.

    The Cavs recovered from their mid-week drama to take down the decimated Detroit Pistons in overtime on Thursday, ending a five-game losing streak behind a career-high 35 points from Tristan Thompson. They then took out the Nuggets in Denver on Saturday as Collin Sexton turned in 25 points.

    The turmoil may never end, but Cleveland has done more than enough on the floor to get out of the basement.

            

    27. Minnesota Timberwolves (27)

    Jarrett Culver logged more than 30 minutes once in his first 30 professional games, but injuries up and down Minnesota's roster have nudged the rookie into a much larger role. He's cracked the 30-minute mark five times in his last seven contests.

    Culver is also nine of his last 24 from deep, an encouraging sign for a rookie who's already flashed playmaking chops and useful wing defense. His 24 points in Tuesday's 119-112 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies were a career high.

    With Karl-Anthony Towns' missed-games streak up to 13, the rookie's growth has given the Wolves a kernel of positivity during a difficult stretch. Thursday's win over the Portland Trail Blazers salvaged a 1-2 week, but Minnesota's offense remains on life support. In the 13 games Towns has missed, the Wolves are 28th in scoring efficiency.

            

    26. Detroit Pistons (22)

    The unraveling Pistons will probably be without Blake Griffin for the rest of the season following the forward's knee surgery on Tuesday. Detroit applied for a disabled player exception for Griffin, as reported by The Athletic's Shams Charania, which doesn't preclude him from playing again this season but certainly casts doubt on that possibility.

    The Pistons have lost 11 of their last 14 games and should be initiating a complete teardown headlined by trades of Andre Drummond, Derrick Rose and anyone else over the age of 25 who isn't nailed down.

    At least rookie Sekou Doumbouya tempers the pain of Detroit's sad state. His power dunk (complete with a post-landing staredown) on Tristan Thompson in Tuesday's 115-113 win over the Cavs was the only bright spot in a pitch-dark week.

25-21

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    25. New York Knicks (25)

    While it's possible we should credit the Saturday nightlife in New York for the Knicks' 124-121 win over the Miami Heat on Sunday, there's no denying the win came at a good time.

    The Knicks had lost their previous five games and were starting to shed some of the positive mojo that developed in the initial stage of Mike Miller's installation as head coach.

    Offense was the culprit in the Knicks' three losses to open the week as their leading scorers in those games—RJ Barrett, Frank Ntilikina and Taj Gibson—all registered totals in the teens. Julius Randle put an end to that punchless streak with 26 points on Sunday, and Barrett joined in with 23 points of his own.

           

    24. Washington Wizards (26)

    Bradley Beal and Thomas Bryant rejoined the Wizards on Sunday, but they couldn't conjure the victory that would have given Washington its first winning rankings session since November.

    The Wizards will happily take their 2-2 mark considering they achieved it with the likes of Jordan McRae, Ish Smith and Troy Brown Jr. leading the charge. Brown's rebounding, in particular, was impressive throughout Washington's water-treading during Beal's absence. Over his last five games, the 20-year-old shooting guard has totaled 50 boards.

    Let's give the Wizards a boost following a respectable week and Beal's return to the fold.

           

    23. Charlotte Hornets (23)

    Miles Bridges looked good offensively in Wednesday's 112-110 overtime loss to the Toronto Raptors, hitting six threes en route to 26 points. But yet another icy shooting effort from Devonte' Graham (3-of-15) and a short bench prevented the Hornets from earning their first home win since Dec. 17.

    Charlotte started a four-game trip Friday with a 109-92 loss to the Utah Jazz, which means it won't even get a chance to try for a home win until Jan. 20. That'll make it at least a month of Charlotte fans coming to the arena to see their team do nothing but lose.

    Big picture: Almost everyone was sure the Hornets would be among the league's very worst teams this season, but a point-differential-defying 12-16 start made mediocrity seem plausible. Now, with the offense sputtering, hot starts cooling off and a 2-10 mark in its last 12 games, we're seeing the team's performance fall back into line with preseason expectations.

           

    22. Chicago Bulls (21)

    There's no good time to lose a 20-year-old starting center who happens to be one of two players on the roster with over 1,000 minutes and a positive on-court net rating (Tomas Satoransky is the other), but the Bulls probably would have preferred better timing for Wendell Carter Jr.'s high ankle sprain.

    Chicago lost Carter, who'll miss 4-6 weeks, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania, four games into a season-high six-game skid. Friday's 116-105 loss to the Pacers saw Chicago botch rotations and wilt inside as Indiana racked up a healthy 70 points in the paint, immediately highlighting the void inside.

    Carter is key to Chicago's aggressive defensive scheme, as his mobility allows for traps high on the floor that speed opponents up and force turnovers. Without better work at the point of attack, it's too easy to puncture the Bulls' schemes and feast at close range.

    Saturday's 108-99 win in Detroit provided a reprieve, but the Boston Celtics loom on Monday.

            

    21. Portland Trail Blazers (20)

    Carmelo Anthony is no stranger to clutch buckets, but the one he hit to ice the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday had a little extra meaning attached—not just because Melo is long past the days of reliable dominance, but also because it gave the Blazers their first victory over an opponent with a winning record since November.

    Portland finished its five-game road trip with a loss to the Wolves on Thursday and then dropped Saturday's meeting with the Milwaukee Bucks, falling to 16-24 on the year. The Blazers were 14-16 on Dec. 21, but they rank 29th in defensive efficiency since then. Hence the 2-8 mark over their last 10 games.

20-16

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    20. Sacramento Kings (24)

    Sacramento (2-1 this week) hauled itself out of a 21-point hole to beat the Phoenix Suns by a final of 114-103 on Tuesday, getting 27 points and an inspired two-way effort from De'Aaron Fox. Though the third-year guard hasn't met high expectations this season, he's been better of late, and there are several encouraging signs—not the least of which is his recent uptick in defensive focus.

    Fox is only hitting 30.9 percent of his threes, right in line with the 30.7 percent he made as a rookie, which makes last year's 37.1 percent conversion rate look like a clear anomaly. But he's also shooting the deep ball more frequently while getting to the line more often than ever, and that's the main reason his true shooting percentage is marginally higher than it was in his breakout sophomore season.

    Fox won't be the All-Star many expected this season, but he could easily play like one for the second half if he keeps building on recent trends.

    He may have to perform at that level to offset a glut of injuries (the most recent of which was Richaun Holmes' shoulder, which will cost him multiple weeks) that have teammate Buddy Hield searching for divine assistance.

    19. New Orleans Pelicans (18)

    It's been exciting to see rookie Jaxson Hayes contributing more consistently, as the energetic center put up his first set of back-to-back double-doubles in wins over the Bulls and Knicks this past week. But opportunities for Hayes tend to coincide with injuries to Derrick Favors, and we learned during the Pels' sterling surge in late December that Favors is integral to their success.

    The veteran center left the win over New York with a sore hamstring and didn't suit up for Saturday's grisly 140-105 loss to the Boston Celtics. If this thing lingers, it could stall New Orleans' playoff push.

    Fortunately, Zion Williamson, pregame dunk champion, is nearing a return to action.

    Expect the Pelicans to treat Williamson with extreme caution, limiting his minutes and resting him liberally. That'll limit his statistical impact, but the No. 1 pick's reinsertion into the rotation should provide a spike in excitement and morale.

    New Orleans is 7-3 in its last 10 games, and the defeats came against the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics.

    Anyone else up for a down-to-the-wire race for a playoff spot between these guys and the similarly young and exciting Memphis Grizzlies?

            

    18. Brooklyn Nets (19)

    Kyrie Irving made it back onto the floor in Sunday's blowout win over a Hawks team missing Trae Young, and his return to the Nets lineup couldn't have come at a better time.

    After initially thriving without Irving, the Nets had fallen apart on offense. Spencer Dinwiddie kept things respectable during the early part of the point guard's absence, but Brooklyn has the league's lowest offensive rating (by a mile) since Christmas, a stretch during which it has gone just 2-7.

    Irving completed a breezy 20-minute stint in his comeback, scoring 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting and looking as slick and spry as he did before the injury. Next up: testing his game against an actual NBA team.

                   

    17. Phoenix Suns (17)

    That blown 21-point lead against Sacramento on Tuesday stung, but the Suns recovered to beat the Orlando Magic and Hornets to complete a 2-1 week. Devin Booker's streak of 30-point games also ended during the week, as he couldn't make it eight in a row in Friday's 98-94 win over Orlando.

    He did, however, turn in a thrilling two-way stretch to ice that victory.

    With 52 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Booker buried a three to pull Phoenix within a point at 94-93. He then collected an errant Markelle Fultz pass and converted another pull-up dagger from deep on the other end to put the Suns up for good. The entire sequence took less than 17 seconds.

    The Suns are a solid 5-4 since Christmas, and Booker's three-point shooting, dormant for most of December, is awakening in January.

           

    16. Orlando Magic (14)

    Two more wins this month and the Magic will have their most successful January since 2011-12. That may say more about Orlando's nearly decade-long stretch of mediocrity than anything else, but there are other positive signs beyond a 4-2 start to the month.

    For example, Markelle Fultz scored a career-high 25 points in last Monday's 101-89 win over Brooklyn, and Nikola Vucevic went off for 29 points and nine boards to beat the Wizards on Wednesday.

    Of course, you've got to temper those developments with the frightening implication of Orlando applying for disabled player exceptions on Al-Farouq Aminu and Jonathan Isaac. Those exceptions often carry the assumption that the player's season is over, which would be a devastating blow, particularly in Isaac's case.

    The Magic are a top-five defense and a bottom-five offense, the league's only team with an end-to-end split that dramatic.

15-11

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    15. San Antonio Spurs (15)

    DeMar DeRozan has had higher-scoring seasons but never one this efficient. On pace for a career high in true shooting percentage despite his ongoing refusal to shoot from deep, the 30-year-old has been particularly hot lately. 

    Through Sunday in Toronto, he's been on a run of 11 straight games with at least 20 points and 50 percent shooting, the longest streak since Giannis Antetokounmpo did so for 14 games from Nov. 23 to Dec. 21 and one of just nine such tears in the last decade.

    While DeRozan does damage inside the arc, the rest of the Spurs may have finally relented in their strange quest to pursue the most anachronistic shot profile in the league. Though still dead last overall, the Spurs are in the top half for three-point-attempt rate since Jan. 1.

    LaMarcus Aldridge, suddenly popping beyond the arc regularly, has already set his career high for made threes in a season.

    Next thing you know, the finally modernizing Spurs (3-3 in their last six games) will be trading in their flip phones and checking out this "Internet" thing everyone's been talking about.

                    

    14. Memphis Grizzlies (16)

    Jaren Jackson Jr. would be a much bigger story if not for teammate Ja Morant's nightly feats of aerial carnage and third-eye passing. The Grizzlies' second-year big man became the first player in NBA history to tally at least three blocks and three made triples in three consecutive games this past week, per Peter Edmiston of The Athletic.

    He's 20, by the way.

    Sunday's win at home over Golden State made it five straight for the offensively potent Grizz, who've been on an absolute scoring blitz in January. Only the Utah Jazz have been more prolific in the points department this month.

    Memphis—yes, Memphis—is sitting pretty in the West's eighth and final playoff spot.

           

    13. Indiana Pacers (13)

    Well hey there, Myles Turner! Welcome to the party!

    Without Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis, who had to sit Friday after playing 37 minutes with a gimpy knee in a blowout loss to the Miami Heat on Wednesday (what are you doing, Pacers?), Turner broke out for 27 points and 14 boards in a 116-105 win over the Bulls.

    Both the point and rebound totals were season highs for Turner, who's been marginalized with Sabonis scoring and facilitating from the elbows and in pick-and-rolls with Brogdon. While it may still be best for the Pacers to treat Turner as a third option at full strength, it was encouraging to see the big man succeed in a larger role.

    Indiana has won just four of its last 10 games and hasn't done much to allay concerns that its 20-9 start had a lot to do with a soft schedule.

            

    12. Philadelphia 76ers (12)

    The Sixers won their first game without Joel Embiid following the center's surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left ring finger, felling the Celtics for the third time this year behind 29 points from Josh Richardson on Thursday.

    That win kindled hope the Sixers could up the pace, tap into Al Horford's playmaking and unleash Ben Simmons in quicker, better-spaced looks. But Saturday's 109-91 loss to the Dallas Mavericks brought Philly back to reality. Dwight Powell dominated inside against a thin frontcourt, and Simmons failed to score after halftime.

    Philadelphia can use this Embiid-less stretch to tinker. It should involve Simmons in more screening action and see what he might do with a few more post touches. Much depends on his willingness to stay aggressive and draw contact, two major weaknesses throughout his career, but Simmons now has an opportunity to prove he's capable of making a difference without Embiid anchoring things on both ends.

    So far, not so good.

           

    11. Dallas Mavericks (10)

    Dallas' clutch struggles showed up again in its 107-106 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, and Luka Doncic's frustration was undeniable following (and during) Friday's 129-114 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Doncic, after registering 25 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in a down game against L.A., told reporters, "I've got to get better—a lot."

    If that doesn't illustrate the high standards established by Doncic's superstar play, I'm not sure what does.

    With Kristaps Porzingis still out following PRP therapy on his right knee and an 8-9 record in their last 17 games, the Mavs can't be judged solely by their plus-6.4 net rating, which ranks fourth in the league. They're not a top-10 team at the moment, let alone one that belongs in the top five.

10. Miami Heat

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    Last Week: 8

    Still a ridiculous and NBA-best 17-1 at home, the Heat have run into some issues outside of Miami.

    Losses in Brooklyn on Friday and New York on Sunday dropped them to 1-4 in their last five road games. Miami now owns a 10-11 mark away from home on the season, marking it as a visitor not worth fretting over.

    The roster is meaningfully different now, but it's still odd to note the Heat were actually better on the road than they were at home last season. Quite a turnabout.

    Fickle shooting luck explains a lot of this year's discrepancy, but perhaps we shouldn't overlook the Heat's scoring splits in other areas. One standout: the foul line.

    Miami is the league leader in free-throw rate, and you'd think crafty, aggressive foul-drawing would travel. But the Heat get to the line significantly less on the road, and it costs them a couple of points per game. Paired with poor road rebounding, that seemingly small difference can loom large.

9. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 9

    Chris Paul tore Brooklyn up with his beloved mid-range pull-ups late in the fourth quarter of OKC's 111-103 overtime win on Tuesday, then he so filthily nutmegged Isaiah Hartenstein down the stretch of a blowout win over the Houston Rockets on Thursday that he called for his own removal from the game.

    Paul's "I'm just too nasty to be allowed to continue playing" reaction is the new gold standard in post-highlight celebrations. The bar has been raised.

    CP3 is shooting an unbelievable 52.4 percent from 10-16 feet and remains the league's preeminent clutch scorer.

    OKC went 2-2 this week and is 15-6 since Dec. 1, but the more consequential story continues to be the undimmed divinity of the Point God.

8. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 11

    Serge Ibaka notched his career-high eighth straight double-double in Sunday's loss to San Antonio.

    His seventh entry in that streak, a 112-110 overtime win against Charlotte on Wednesday, might have ended in regulation had Toronto's center not gotten whistled for having a handful of PJ Washington's jersey before the Hornets inbounded the ball in the waning seconds. Terry Rozier hit a free throw to tie the game, but Toronto held strong over the final 17 seconds to reach OT, ultimately pulling out the win.

    That victory wouldn't have been possible without Terence Davis II going off for a career-best 23 points (plus 11 rebounds and five assists), punctuated by two critical threes in the extra frame.

    Toronto survived admirably with a patchwork rotation, going 6-5 in the 11 games Pascal Siakam missed before falling to the Spurs in his return on Sunday. Norman Powell, who hurt his shoulder the same day Siakam suffered the groin injury that put him on the shelf, also rejoined the starting five against San Antonio.

    Now all the Raps need is a return to health for Fred VanVleet and Marc Gasol, and they should get right back in the running for a top-five spot.

7. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 2

    Jayson Tatum set new career highs in points (41) and made treys (six) during Saturday's 140-105 obliteration of the Pelicans. That victory closed the book on a startling three-game losing streak that made last week's ascension to No. 2 in our rankings seem like an obvious misfire.

    The Celtics' 1-3 week actually featured a positive net rating, but that's no surprise with a 35-point win skewing the numbers. In losses to the Wizards, Spurs and Sixers (sans Joel Embiid), Boston looked occasionally disjointed on offense (101.7 points per 100 possessions) and consistently short on intensity.

    The Celtics are still in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency for the season, but they're just 9-6 over the last calendar month and are an alarming 0-3 against the Sixers, a potential playoff obstacle.

    Alarms aren't ringing, but this was a week Boston would like to forget.

6. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Last Week: 4

    Kawhi Leonard piled up 36 points, nine rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block in Friday's 109-100 win over the Warriors, L.A.'s first game following a badly needed four-day break. Though the scoring-starved Dubs didn't exactly present the ideal test, it was still encouraging to see the Clips hold an opponent to 100 points on 38.5 percent shooting after closing the previous week by surrendering 140 points to the Grizzlies and 132 points to the Knicks.

    Granted, the Clippers had to rally from a 10-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter to get the job done against Golden State. But Leonard appeared to have some extra bounce after the time off, and the win came despite the absence of Paul George.

    Sunday's loss in Denver made it a 1-1 week.

    L.A. remains fifth in net rating, but it has had real trouble finding consistent offense with George out, and the defense is allowing too many clean three-point looks.

    Nobody wants to see the full-strength Clips in the playoffs, but the current regular-season version of the team isn't worthy of a top-five spot anymore.

5. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 5

    Russell Westbrook scored a team-high 34 points in his return to OKC on Thursday, but Chris Paul stole the show in a 113-92 Thunder win. That was Houston's only blemish during a 2-1 week that included underwhelming wins over the Hawks and Wolves.

    The Rockets own the league's second-best offense and have defended at a clip just outside the top 10 over the last calendar month, but they're fighting through some health issues at the moment. Clint Capela sat out Saturday's easy win over Minnesota with a bruised heel, and P.J. Tucker left that game with a stinger in his right shoulder.

    Neither frontcourt starter will miss significant time, but if Houston wants to establish the kind of defensive consistency it'll need to be taken seriously in the postseason, Capela and Tucker need to be on the floor.

    That James Harden's 20,000th point, scored on a step-back three in the second quarter on Saturday, barely elicits a mention here says a lot about our desensitization to his scoring exploits.

4. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 7

    Denver's defense executed a gorgeous late-game sequence to force the ball out of Luka Doncic's hands with a trap, then it scrambled to cover up shooters, ultimately forcing a turnover before the Mavs could attempt a game-winner in Wednesday's 107-106 victory.

    Nikola Jokic, who scored a career-high 47 points just two days prior against Atlanta, put the Nuggets up by one with an aggressive post-up against the undersized Dorian Finney-Smith on the preceding play and also pumped in 26 of his 33 points after halftime.

    Locked-in defense and an increasingly aggressive Jokic? What more could the Nugs want?

    Maybe a win at home against the hapless Cavs?

    That wasn't to be as Cleveland logged a 111-103 win in Denver on Saturday, joining the Wizards, Pelicans, Kings and Hawks in beating the Nuggets this season. None of those clubs have more than 15 wins this year.

    Denver's constant failure to take care of business against theoretical pushovers resulted in a 3-1 week, but Sunday's victory over the Clippers proved the issues don't extend to more dangerous opponents.

3. Utah Jazz

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    Last Week: 6

    At 14-1 in their last 15 games, the Jazz have quietly been the league's hottest team over the last month. That's if you measure success strictly by record without looking much closer, which makes some sense considering winning is sort of the whole point of playing games in the first place.

    We can't just move on without more scrutiny, though.

    While Utah leads the league in true shooting percentage and offensive efficiency since Dec. 11, it has played exactly two teams with winning records in that span, losing to the Heat on Dec. 23 and beating the Clippers on Dec. 28. Each of the Jazz's other 13 wins came against a sub-.500 opponent, and on the year, they're 5-9 against teams with records of .500 or better.

    It's only fair to note that nine of Utah's wins during its 14-1 run have come on the road, which ups the degree of difficulty a bit. And that 128-126 victory over the surging Pelicans last Monday, in which Bojan Bogdanovic simply couldn't be stopped en route to 35 points, was no ordinary win over a losing team.

    Still, we can't confidently move Utah much higher until it proves itself against stouter competition. The schedule gets rough in late January, which means the Jazz will soon get their chance to validate this run.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last Week: 3

    Anthony Davis escaped major damage following an ugly fall in Tuesday's 117-87 win over the Knicks, but the resulting bruised tailbone held him out against the Mavs and Thunder. The Lakers won both games anyway, getting 35 points and 16 boards from LeBron James in Dallas and an even more impressive all-hands-on-deck effort in Saturday's 125-110 win at OKC.

    James, Davis and Danny Green all sat that one out, but Kyle Kuzma's 36 points vanquished a Thunder team that has been playing some of the league's best ball for over a month.

    The Lakers would surely prefer to win games on the strength of their top-end stars, but any developments suggesting they can preserve James and Davis by resting them more often is even more important. Kuzma has had a down year marked by cold shooting, injury and trade chatter. But if he's finally ready to take control once in a while so the big names can stay fresh, all the better.

    L.A. has won eight in a row, run its record against teams at or below .500 to a perfect 21-0 and firmly resettled itself in this spot with the league's second-best record and net rating.

    In fact, this is as close as the Lakers have come to overtaking the Milwaukee Bucks in weeks.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    The Jazz, Lakers and Grizzlies have higher net ratings than the Bucks since Christmas, and we've always given recent play significant weight in these rankings. Still, it's not like Milwaukee has fallen off a cliff as other teams have improved lately.

    Milwaukee is 8-2 with a plus-7.9 net rating over its last 10 games, and we shouldn't overlook the fact that the Bucks beat the Lakers in a head-to-head meeting on Dec. 19. Giannis Antetokounmpo is still cruising in the lead of the MVP race, and his supporting cast has looked increasingly capable lately.

    Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe combined for 51 points on 19-of-29 shooting to easily get Milwaukee past the Kings on Friday, covering for an out-of-character 13 points from Antetokounmpo. Add to that Brook Lopez's second-place ranking in BBall-Index's defensive player impact plus-minus and it's clear the Bucks have more going for them than the league's best player.

    While acknowledging the margin is as thin as it's been in a while, the Bucks hold onto the top spot for another week. They should be on notice, though. The Lakers look like they're ready for a fight.

          

    Stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Sunday, Jan. 12.

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