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Let's face it — the best and most powerful teams in the NBA don't really change from week to week. A handful of results in the middle of winter can only mean so much to a franchise's championship hopes. What does shift regularly, though, is how much interest a squad can hold over the course of a season. Every Monday, BDL's Most Interesting Power Rankings track the teams most worthy of your attention.
THE TOP 15
1. San Antonio Spurs (20-5; last week: 2): Imagine how it must feel to be the Golden State Warriors. After winning your first 24 games, you finally lose one ... and that means you've only got a four-game lead for the top spot in the conference.
As the Warriors chased history by showing us the future, the Spurs moved forward by reaching back to the past. San Antonio still plays the beautiful game — no team passes the ball more, and only Golden State averages more assists and adjusted assists (which includes "hockey" assists and passes that lead to free throws), per NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data — but the Spurs are making hay this year by slowing things down, running offense through two excellent frontcourt players (MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, shooting 56 percent in December) and snuffing out opposing offenses at a historic level.
According to NBA.com's stat tool, the Spurs' league-leading defense has allowed a microscopic 91.9 points per 100 possessions, which would be the second-best full-season defensive efficiency mark in the last 19 years behind ... the 2003-04 Spurs. According to Basketball-Reference.com, which uses a different method to calculate possessions, the Spurs are giving up 93.8-per-100, which would be the top full-season defensive rating since before the introduction of the 3-point shot.
Some of that might be due to a soft early schedule; as NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted, most of their work against the league's top offenses still lies ahead. Then again, the Atlanta Hawks had a top-10 offense until they played San Antonio on Saturday ... and then the Spurs held them to 25 first-half points en route to a 25-point blowout. Objects in the rear-view mirror are always closer than they appear, and no matter how Golden State bounces back, these Spurs — now 12-0 at home, with 10 of their next 13 at AT&T Center — are closer still.
2. Golden State Warriors (24-1; last week: 1): Even on the second night of a back-to-back, after going to double-overtime in Boston and not arriving in Milwaukee until after 3 a.m., Stephen Curry gets loose:
Despite having finally tasted defeat, the Warriors remain not only favorites to defend their title, but also the league's most explosive offense. They'll likely stick around the top of these rankings, even if they don't face dramatic circumstances, by virtue of their joyful, energizing style.
And if should-be All-Star Draymond Green's right — if the end of the streak takes a weight off Golden State's shoulders, allowing them to play more freely — then the Dubs' encore ought to be must-see TV.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (16-8; last week: 4): The Thunder have won five straight, including a 37-point devastation of the Memphis Grizzlies and a comfortable win over Atlanta that saw Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both score 20 points and dish 10 assists in the same game for the first time. After a shaky start, Oklahoma City's 9-2 in its last 11 games, outscoring the opposition by 10.3 points per 100 possessions in that span — behind only San Antonio and Golden State, per NBA.com — thanks in part to finding what looks like an intriguing small-ball lineup.
The five-man unit of Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters and Anthony Morrow has shared the floor for 34 minutes this season; 32 have come in the last 11 games, in which the group has racked up 108 points and outscored opponents by 49 points. A small sample, yes, but the ingredients make sense. Ibaka can anchor against centers and handle himself switching onto guards, while serving as a screener, dive man and pick-and-pop floor-spacer. Durant's long and stout enough to handle spot defensive duty against opposing fours and fives, and a terrifying release valve spotting up around a Westbrook-Ibaka pick-and-roll.
For all the clucking about his selfishness, nobody throws more passes that lead to assists, hockey assists or free-throw attempts than Westbrook, according to SportVU. Morrow's one of the most accurate 3-point shooters ever; Waiters has enough off-the-bounce juice to drive past hard-charging closeouts and get to the rim; both grade out well as supplementary spot-up and catch-and-shoot options.
When the Thunder run spread pick-and-roll with this lineup, the result's very often going to be a dump-off pass for a dunk or layup, or a kickout to an open and very capable marksman. They'll give some buckets back, but Ibaka's rim protection, Durant's length, and the size and physicality of Waiters and Westbrook means Donovan can experiment with hiding Morrow, a weaker defender, on less-threatening wings while continuing to reap the benefits of his hiccup-quick release.
It's still too soon to call this a killer lineup, but the early returns have been promising, and it looks like the still-adjusting Donovan is growing more willing to let his horses run. It'll be fun to find out just how fast and far they can go.
4. Charlotte Hornets (14-9; last week: NR): Something about the Hornets feels like a mirage, or a trick of the light. It's hard to look at this roster, full of nice-enough players whose individual games don't blow your hair back — well, except for you, Jeremy Lin — and feel like what's come thus far (like joining Golden State and San Antonio as the only teams in the top six in offensive and defensive efficiency) will continue.
Then again, they've managed this success against the NBA's fourth-hardest slate, according to ESPN's Strength of Schedule metric. They've held their own against tough competition, going 6-6 against the top eight teams in each conference, with five losses coming by five or fewer points. They've overhauled their offensive profile, vaulting from 26th in 3-point makes, 24th in attempts and dead last in long-range accuracy last year to fifth, 10th and 11th thus far this season, while creating nearly seven more points per game by assist than they did last year.
Look at Charlotte and you see a team getting everything from Nicolas Batum that it hoped it would get from Lance Stephenson, and one on which, as I wrote last week, "just about everyone's playing up to their optimistic projection." (That was before Kemba Walker dropped 33 points on the Grizzlies on 19 shots, further bolstering his career-best shooting.) You see a team that's become much looser and more free-flowing without sacrificing ball security (lowest team turnover rate in the league for the third straight year) or defensive execution. You see a team that reminds, at least a little, of another that few believed in:
The Charlotte Hornets are this year's Atlanta Hawks
— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) December 12, 2015
Hmm. This bears watching.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers (15-7; last week: 6): If a lucrative lifetime deal with Nike didn't already exorcise the grumpy ghost that has seemed to haunt LeBron James this season, you'd hope getting Iman Shumpert back on Friday and the likely return of Kyrie Irving by week's end would do the trick. The Cavs have posted the East's best record and the NBA's No. 3 offense with Mo Williams and Matthew Dellavedova sharing point guard duties (no shade to them; they've done well) and Richard Jefferson and Jared Cunningham playing nearly 800 total minutes. I can't wait to see what they can do with the first-choice options back.
6. Toronto Raptors (16-9; last week: 12): After beating the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday, the Raptors sit a half-game behind Cleveland, having won four straight and five of seven despite missing injured starters Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Cory Joseph have been arguably the East's best backcourt rotation, and Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo have offered plenty of bang for Masai Ujiri's buck. A three-game road trip to face top-10 defenses in Indiana, Charlotte and Miami ought to make for some tough tests, and plenty of fireworks, this week.
7. Boston Celtics (14-10; last week: NR): They've won five of seven, and the two they've dropped were a three-point road loss at San Antonio and a double-overtime thriller against the Dubs. Isaiah Thomas (20.8 points, 6.7 assists, 2.6 rebounds, 1.5 steals in 32.1 minutes per game) is playing like an All-Star. Avery Bradley has become a high-volume knockdown shooter (a career-best 43.1 percent from deep on 5.9 triples per game) while pairing with Jae Crowder to lead a defense unparalleled in forcing turnovers. They're deep up front, and they win tough games:
Kids, your Boston Celtics, you figure them out. Last... 19 road games: 14-5 12 back to back games: 11-1 10 back to back road games: 10-0
— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) December 13, 2015
... and yet, because feelings aren't numbers (shouts to Steve McPherson), I'm still not sure where Boston fits in the sub-Cavs hierarchy. The C's could help clarify things when Cleveland visits TD Garden on Tuesday.
8. Los Angeles Clippers (14-10; last week: 5): After falling under .500 and making me wonder if the ship be sinkin', the Clips have won eight of 11, and might've had a real chance of making it nine had Blake Griffin not gone all Stan "The Lariat" Hansen on Taj Gibson. They're allowing just 97.2 points per 100 possessions during that stretch, tied with the Bulls for third-best in the league, which coach Doc Rivers attributes in part to increased energy and engagement from center DeAndre Jordan. He sure looks bouncy:
Blake Griffin's on pace to become the eighth player ever to average 23.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in a season while making half his shots; the other seven are all Hall of Famers. Chris Paul's version of a slow start is ranking fourth in assists per game, second in assist percentage and sixth among point guards in Player Efficiency Rating. J.J. Redick (49 percent from 3 over his last 10 games) remains steady as she goes. But L.A. still must figure out who should occupy its fifth starting spot.
With all due respect to veteran Luc Richard Mbah a Moute — who's been fine enough and with whom Blake-CP3-DJ-Redick have outscored opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions, the seventh-best net rating among lineups with at least 100 shared minutes — his insertion feels like a safety measure, a stopgap response to early unsteadiness. I'm not saying Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith have all the answers, but I doubt Mbah a Moute does, and I don't think you're going to learn much about who you can become by playing both Lance and Smoove 15 minutes a night during a time of year best spent experimenting. Here's hoping Doc and company, with crisis seemingly averted, get back in the lab soon.
9. Dallas Mavericks (13-11; last week: 10): Dallas is now interesting to me in the sense once related by the character Glen in the film "Accepted."
On some level, I get it. A top-10 offense because, duh, healthy Dirk Nowitzki + Rick Carlisle = top-10 offense. An above-average defense because all things are possible through the chest and glutes of Zaza Pachulia. A team full of smart veterans doesn't beat itself, committing turnovers at the league's second-lowest rate; getting more than expected from Deron Williams helps make up for not getting as much as they'd hoped from the post-surgery pairing of Wesley Matthews and Chandler Parsons; they might look better than anticipated because they've played the league's second-lightest schedule.
And yet: can Dirk, who's down to 42 percent from the field and 26 percent from deep over his last 10 games, continue driving the Mavericks' attack? Will Matthews, who paired two huge games against the Washington Wizards (36 points last Sunday, 28 points on Saturday) with combined 9-for-27 shooting in the two intervening games, start stringing together more consistent performances? How long can Williams stay healthy? Can the tremendous work of Dallas' most-used lineup — the five-man group of Pachulia, Nowitzki, Matthews, Williams and Raymond Felton, which has torched the league by 22 points per 100 possessions, the best mark of any NBA unit with at least 100 shared minutes — really hold up? At some point, some of the plates have to stop spinning and start crashing down, right? WHAT ARE YOU?!?!?
10. Sacramento Kings (9-15; last week: NR): I don't care if they're any good. As long as Rajon Rondo keeps doing the kind of Rajon Rondo stuff I feared might be lost forever, I'm watching the Kings.
11. Atlanta Hawks (14-11; last week: 8): The Hawks have seemed to be scuffling for weeks now, dropping nine of their last 15 with a bottom-third-of-the-league offensive efficiency mark over the past month. Some of that's owed to the competition they've faced — Boston twice, the Utah Jazz with Rudy Gobert still available, the Cavs, the Spurs twice, the Thunder twice, and the Raps make for tough sledding — and some of it's due to the ongoing search for a DeMarre Carroll replacement.
While Thabo Sefolosha was still coming back after surgery to repair his broken leg, Coach Bud went with Kent Bazemore. The former Warrior has played well, averaging just over 12 points, four rebounds, two assists, and two combined blocks and steals while shooting 43 percent from 3. Atlanta's starting lineup overall underwhelmed, though, as Bazemore, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Al Horford got outscored by nearly four points per 100 possessions over 166 minutes. So, 11 games ago, in went Thabo.
Like the Thabo-with-starters lineup a lot for ATL. Give up some stretch, but physical, literate lineup. Worked in 14-15. Could work in 15-16
— Kevin Arnovitz (@kevinarnovitz) November 25, 2015
So far, so good: O scoring at a top-three level, D clamping down at a top-seven clip, a very strong +7.4-per-100 net rating. Finding a steady starting five and having developed Bazemore into a valuable bench piece doesn't vault Atlanta back to the ranks of contenders, but it's a start. Next up: getting Tiago Splitter fully healthy and able to spell Millsap (who deserves All-Star consideration) and Horford, and getting Dennis Schröder, who's shooting more often (and worse) while dishing dimes less often this season, to adopt a modicum of chill. (Good luck.)
12. Houston Rockets (12-12; last week: 11): The caveat: eight of Houston's last 10 have come against opponents now under .500. Still, good teams are supposed to get well against also-rans; if we can't say for sure that Houston's found its fire, we can at least say it's found some firepower.
The Rockets have averaged 108 points per 100 possessions over the last 10 games, second only to the Warriors, and the abysmal shooting that plagued Houston back in the bad ol' days that cost Kevin McHale his job has, like the former boss, packed its bags and moved away. Seven Rockets have shot 45 percent or better from the floor over the last 10 games, and eight have shot at least 38 percent from long range, with Houston averaging just under 12 made triples a game during this run. James Harden's looking lively, averaging nearly 30.7 points, 7.2 assists and 6.5 rebounds per game while shooting 45.5 percent from the field, 40.8 percent from 3 and 85.7 percent from the charity stripe. Marcus Thornton and Jason Terry continue to be found money, and Houston's defense and rebounding on both ends have picked up when Dwight Howard shares the floor with young pogo-stick Clint Capela.
Houston will look to keep the good times rolling on a road swing to Denver, Sacramento and Staples Center to play the Lakers. It'll be easier to take them seriously, though, if they carry this offensive performance through the four after that: home for the Clips and Hornets, at Scott Skiles' Orlando Magic, and back home to host the Spurs on Christmas. Keep driving, kicking, swing-swinging and firing against those defenses, and it might be time to reconsider the Rockets.
13. Memphis Grizzlies (13-12; last week: NR): The Grizzlies are 5-10 against opponents that have won at least half of their games and 8-2 against sub-.500 competition; they're 1-7 against top-five units. They beat bad teams and get their doors blown off by good ones. They've become gatekeepers, and now they're searching for a path to something else.
On Sunday, coach Dave Joerger sat heart-and-soul veterans Zach Randolph and Tony Allen (a late scratch with a sore knee) and started wings Matt Barnes and Courtney Lee, giving Memphis a small-ball look better suited to guard a Miami Heat team whose floor-spacing power forward, Chris Bosh, the plodding Randolph would struggle chasing to the arc. The gambit worked, more or less; the new starting lineup outscored Miami by two points in 21 minutes; small-ball four Jeff Green scored a season-high 26 points; Z-Bo cooked off the bench, sparking Memphis runs that produced 10-point leads in the first and fourth quarters.
After controlling the game from the midpoint of the first, though, the Grizz groaned late, allowing Miami to score the final 11 points and snare a 100-97 win. Despite the late-game reversal, though, Joerger's sticking to his guns:
When asked if lineup change is permanent, Joerger said: "We're going to play like this for a while."
— Ronald Tillery (@CAGrizBeat) December 14, 2015
... which, combined with his comments last week — "Our guys aren't young anymore, you know what I mean? We've been doing this a long time" — could mean the end of grit-and-grind Dinosaur Ball as we've come to know and love it. That'd be interesting; it'd also be sad. Goodnight, bears. Goodnight, chairs. Goodnight, noises everywhere.
14. Washington Wizards (10-12; last week: 26): This is less an evidence-based assessment of where the Wizards stand than a "broadcast your hopes into the world" Secret whisper to the universe:
Universe, if you're going to take Bradley Beal away for a while with another stress reaction in his right leg, then at least allow us to continue having the one-man-wrecking-crew version of John Wall who's averaging 27.3 points, 10.9 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.5 steals over his last eight games while shooting nearly 55 percent from the floor and 46 percent from 3:
... and the confident Otto Porter who handed Dallas a career-high 28 on 11-for-18 shooting:
That's all I ask. One door closes, another window opens, and all that.
15. New Orleans Pelicans (6-17; last week: 14): It's the wrong kind of interesting, but after six losses in eight games, the team with the NBA's third-worst record is now the subject of trade-rumor reports and blow-it-up speculation. You get the sense that if New Orleans meets with more disappointment on its upcoming four-game road trip to Portland, Utah, Phoenix and Denver, we could start seeing the fire behind that smoke.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
26. Chicago Bulls (13-8; last week: 26): I'm with Kelly: even though the defensive numbers remain strong and the record's third-best in the East, Chicago games often feel coated in sludge.
The Bulls looking kind of bad and still being up by nine is sort of their season thus far in a nutshell, huh?
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) December 11, 2015
The new starting lineup of Gibson alongside Pau Gasol, Tony Snell, Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose has yet to catch fire, or throw a spark, or even locate some sticks to rub together, because look, not all of us were in Boy Scouts, all right, Coach? (Translation: it's +1 in 29 minutes over the last two games while continuing to cough up missed shots and turnovers.) Reserve-heavy second-unit lineups featuring not-all-that-cool-with-reduced-minutes Joakim Noah and Doug McDermott, the only guy thus far who's seemed to benefit from playing under Fred Hoiberg, have been more offensively potent and energetic, which is something.
27. Brooklyn Nets (7-16; last week: 29): I know that the Nets have fared better of late — 6-7 since their 1-9 start, a near top-10 defensive efficiency mark over the past 10 games, solid interior production from Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, etc. But with no Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for the next 2 1/2 months, the most exciting Net is ... Shane Larkin, I guess? Well, at least he can levitate:
28. Denver Nuggets (9-14; last week: NR): Will Barton — averaging 14.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, two assists and 1.2 steals in 28.1 minutes per game off the bench, shooting 46 percent from the floor and 39 percent from 3 — has been great in the first consistent significant minutes of his career. Between all the bricks and turnovers, though, there hasn't been much else worth getting excited about on a Denver club that dropped eight straight before winning three of four while curtailing the minutes of struggling rookie Emmanuel Mudiay.
29. Los Angeles Lakers (3-21; last week: 15): For the time being, the Viking funeral pyre's been doused, as Kobe Bryant has begun to step back a bit and leave some oxygen (and shots) for his teammates. It suits him — he's averaging 17.3 points on 47.4 percent shooting, and a downright respectable 35 percent from 3, over the last four games — and it seems to be just fine by rookie D'Angelo Russell (19.7 points on 19 shots, including nine 3-point attempts in 35.2 minutes per game over the last three contests). But it also turns the volume down; if the Lakers are just run-of-the-mill bad, where's the fun in that?
30. Philadelphia 76ers (1-24; last week: 30): There are moments and flashes of excitement — Jerami Grant wreaking two-way havoc, T.J. McConnell turning Andrea Bargnani inside-out, Jahlil Okafor spinning and winning — but unless you root for their opposition and want to see something historic, watching the Sixers mostly feels like wasting time. At least Brett Brown's will stay well compensated for doing it every night. (This all could quickly get much more interesting if a certain mustachioed offensive guru saddles up.)
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