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BDL's Most Interesting Power Rankings: Golden State's super, human

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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.


1. Golden State Warriors (31-2; last week: 1): With Stephen Curry in uniform, the Warriors are appointment television, purveyors of a breathtaking brand of basketball that demands and rewards your attention. As we saw this week, though, with the reigning MVP sidelined or compromised, Golden State becomes something perhaps even more compelling: a vulnerable team that has to struggle and scrap, just like everyone else.

The Warriors split the two games in which Curry sat to rest his ailing left leg and held on to beat the Denver Nuggets on Saturday despite Curry exiting in the second quarter, thanks largely to the all-court brilliance of Draymond Green.

On Saturday, Green became the first Warrior ever to post consecutive triple-doubles twice in the same season. He now leads the NBA with six triple-doubles, and is on pace to join Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, John Havlicek, Grant Hill, Magic Johnson, Fat Lever and Oscar Robertson as only the eighth player ever to average more than 15 points, nine rebounds and seven assists per game for a season.

Yet even with Green checking every box and Klay Thompson (26.2 points per game over his last 10 outings) carrying the scoring load, the no-Steph Dubs can still get blown out and look, as our Eric Freeman wrote, "flat-out average" for long stretches. The Warriors remain one victory ahead of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' 72-win pace, and Curry could be back in uniform on Monday. But with so many contributors — Harrison Barnes, Brandon Rush, Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa — also injured, Warrior wins can no longer be assumed. Works for me. Superman's more interesting when he can bleed.

2. Phoenix Suns (12-25; last week: 30): Now, the other end of the spectrum.

Suns guards Ronnie Price (left) and Brandon Knight feel the pain of everyone. (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)
Suns guards Ronnie Price (left) and Brandon Knight feel the pain of everyone. (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

Eric relegated Phoenix to the basement last week because "the only thing worse than a bad team is one that can't even fall apart with any flair." I'd submit that alternating close losses with blowout defeats — as the Suns have in losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder by a combined eight points, while also falling to the San Antonio SpursSacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers by a combined 76 points — represents just the right kind of losing flash.

Allowing a Kings club whose coach had just questioned his players' intestinal fortitude to score the most points allowed in four quarters by any Suns team in the last 25 years shows true implosion panache. Following that up by producing just 22 first-half points against L.A., a franchise-record low, and trailing a 7-27 team by 38 points? I think the setting Suns have style.

A team desperate for guidance and leadership in the midst of losing nine straight, losing two top assistants and losing its best player would figure to turn to a 15-year veteran with an NBA championship on his resume. Instead, Tyson Chandler got himself thrown out of what was then a four-point game against Sacramento by arguing a no-call, and then ghosted to two points in 20 minutes in the Laker loss. Mirza Teletovic describes the Suns' problems as "a matter of understanding basketball," which seems a significant matter. Markieff Morris' apologies have become more relevant than his game, as he racks up DNP-CDs in his long-broiling beef with the club that traded away his twin brother this summer.

And yet, with rookie Devin Booker bombing away, sophomore T.J. Warren getting buckets and Brandon Knight seeming equally capable of exploding for 25 and committing a backbreaking turnover, there's something very watchable about the Suns' ongoing heat death. And that's just on the court. Phoenix has multiple veterans to shop on moveable-enough contracts if ownership calls for a teardown, as well as multiple young players on cheap deals, all of its own future draft picks, and four additional first-rounders to ship out if Robert Sarver demands a playoff push. I don't know which way this'll go, but the magnitude, variety and potential implications of the Suns' struggles make them fascinating.

3. San Antonio Spurs (29-6; last week: 5): No longer content to just snuff out opponents with one of the stingiest defenses we've ever seen, the Spurs have spent the past several weeks getting their O cranked up, too. San Antonio's averaging 114.1 points-per-100 over its past 10 games, as Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge carry the load.

Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw form as potent a playmaking platoon as you'll find. Long-struggling Danny Green just had his best offensive game of the season, scoring 18 points and shooting 6-for-8 from deep to beat the Houston Rockets. San Antonio continues to get bench contributions from reserves like Kyle Anderson, Jonathon Simmons and burgeoning folk hero Boban Marjanovic. Even if Tim Duncan doesn't score, they're still good money.

The Spurs have won 23 games by 10 or more points this season; only two other teams (Golden State and the Oklahoma City Thunder) have 23 wins total. This is a very scary team, and a very fun one to watch ... even for its notoriously taciturn MVP candidate.

4. Los Angeles Clippers (22-13; last week: 10): After dropping three straight to the Spurs, Rockets and Thunder, the Clips have won six in a row, including a perfect 5-0 road trip (well, four road games plus an "away" win over the Lakers on Christmas). Doc Rivers' crew has continued its somewhat maddening, if tactically explicable, tendency to thrive without one of its two All-NBA centerpieces, winning five straight since losing Blake Griffin to a partially torn left quadriceps tendon thanks to Chris Paul's ability to dominate even if his shot's not falling, DeAndre Jordan's prowess as a pick-and-roll finisher and glass-eater, the lights-out shooting of J.J. Redick and timely explosions from reserve scorers Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford.

L.A. has taken advantage of a soft slate — the only over-.500 team they've beaten in the streak is Charlotte, which was without Jeremy Lin and Spencer Hawes — but you don't have to apologize for winning games, especially without Griffin. With only a short trip up to Portland before a five-game homestand, this looks like a prime opportunity for the Clippers to keep the good times rolling and cement themselves alongside OKC as the leaders of the West's second tier.

Kyrie Irving and LeBron James are just getting warmed up. (Getty Images)
Kyrie Irving and LeBron James are just getting warmed up. (Getty Images)

5. Cleveland Cavaliers (22-9; last week: 2):

His strong outing against Phoenix aside, Kyrie Irving is still working out the kinks (13 points and 3.4 assists in 21.6 minutes per game, shooting just 33.9 percent from the floor and 20 percent from 3) after six months on the shelf. Since his return, though, Cleveland has outscored opponents by 21.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor; has scored at a Warriors-topping rate (114.7 points-per-100) when he shares the court with LeBron James and Kevin Love; and has blown opponents away (plus-15.6 points-per-100) when that trio joins Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith in the starting lineup.

The Cavs aren't yet at top speed, but they've won three straight and they've got their full rotation healthy for the first time all year. Just in time, as they're about to hit a rough patch of the schedule, hosting the Toronto Raptors before heading out on a six-game road trip that ends with the Texas triangle (at Dallas, at San Antonio, at Houston) before coming home for a rematch with the Warriors in two weeks. We ought to know a lot more about what the full-force version of this year's Cavaliers might be capable of by the time they return.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder (24-10; last week: 7): Kevin Durant's averaging better than 26.5 points, seven rebounds and 4.5 assists per game while making more than half his shots. Only nine other players have ever done that. The last one? Would you believe ... Kevin Durant, during his MVP season two years back? (Here's where we remind you that Durant might not even be having the most impressive season on his team.)

It's true that Billy Donovan (who recently acknowledged he's got more in-game work to do now than he did at Florida) hasn't brought about the tactical revolution for which many had hoped. It's true that the Thunder still feature piecemeal solutions at off-guard rather than one real answer, which means they could still need an upgrade. It's true that after finding what looked like a hammer small-ball lineup, Donovan has spun the quintet of Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters and Anthony Morrow for just one total minute over the last 10 games.

But it's also true that the Thunder's big lineups have been roasting opponents, and that Donovan has made a positive adjustment by ceding some of veteran D.J. Augustin's minutes to promising rookie Cameron Payne. Only the Spurs have outscored opponents by more points per 100 possessions than OKC since Dec. 1. No matter how reasonable our critiques of Oklahoma City's tactics, there are few organizing organizational principles more awesome than, "Kevin and Russ are going to explode the game now." Sure, the Thunder will need more off-speed pitches come the spring, but damn, is that fastball something.

7. Miami Heat (20-13; last week: 13): After putting the Washington Wizards in the kata ha jime in Sunday's 22-point beating, the Heat now have a top-five defense and sit on the outskirts of the top 10 in points scored per possession. They might finally be getting Goran Dragic into the offensive flow (14.3 points, 5.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game over his last 10 outings, shooting 51.9 percent from the floor) and they sure seem to have Chris Bosh (19.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 33.7 minutes per game since Dec. 1, shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor, 45 percent from 3 and 81 percent from the line) in fine form.

Or, as Bosh said Sunday in his inimitable way:

8. Chicago Bulls (20-12; last week: 8): You think you're watching a team in crisis, and then you see them beat Oklahoma City in their gym, score a gutty overtime win over the Indiana Pacers, and knock off Toronto twice in a week, with the second W coming courtesy of a historic scoring performance by Jimmy Butler.

All of a sudden, the Bulls are having group hugs after road wins and sitting in second place in the conference ... and I'm not totally sure they're all that different of a team, or that they've addressed the issues — how Fred Hoiberg's coaching style fits this roster, what Derrick Rose's proper role is on what now seems like Butler's team, which frontcourt combinations work best in practice, etc. — that caused those rifts in the first place. It's amazing how mountains look like molehills after a four-game winning streak, huh?

9. Houston Rockets (16-19; last week: 4): Here are two tweets I wrote during Houston's matchup with the Atlanta Hawks last Tuesday:

After scoring 71 first-half points and leading by as many as 19, the Rockets gave up a 23-7 third-quarter run, got hammered in the fourth, and lost by six. So much for waiting.

They've followed their Christmas shutdown of the Spurs, arguably their best win of the season, by losing four straight to fall three games under .500, and are now just 1 1/2 games up on the Portland Trail Blazers for the West's eighth seed. No team vacillates between vanquisher and vanquished like Houston. At this point, the only thing consistent about them is their inconsistency.

10. Atlanta Hawks (21-14; last week: 6): Al Horford and Paul Millsap have probably been the East's best two-way frontcourt combo, and Kent Bazemore has paired with Thabo Sefolosha to give Mike Budenholzer both offensive production and defensive versatility on the wing. As our Kelly Dwyer recently noted, though, it feels like the Hawks won't hit their groove until they figure out how to get Kyle Korver on track. The 34-year-old sniper has made just four of his last 33 3-point attempts, and is shooting 36.3 percent from deep this season after leading the NBA in long-distance accuracy in each of the last two years.

Until Korver starts cashing in, these Hawks — now sixth in offensive efficiency and 13th in defensive efficiency after Sunday's loss to the New York Knicks — will feel a little less Hawksy than last year's model. As presently constituted, they're mini-Hawking; if they were a town in northeast New Jersey, they'd be Weehawken. This might be just the time for Atlanta to hit its stride, with a slew of mushy defenses — Philly, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Portland, Sacramento, Phoenix, Denver — coming up over the next three weeks.

11. Charlotte Hornets (17-16; last week: 3): The Hornets have been one of the season's most interesting stories, a squad left for dead by many (including me) in training camp due to the loss of defensive stud Michael Kidd-Gilchrist that has followed through on a summertime promise to ratchet up the pace, fire away from deep and overhaul its offensive identity. Now, though, the Hornets find themselves in danger of coming back to Earth, having lost three straight before heading out on a four-game road trip that opens Monday night against the Warriors.

With Al Jefferson sidelined for the next six weeks, Charlotte will have to rely even more on potential All-Stars Nicolas Batum and Kemba Walker to remain within hailing distance of a playoff berth. How successful Steve Clifford's club is at staying afloat without Big Al could inform the front office's decision-making process on how far the Hornets should extend themselves when Jefferson hits free agency this summer.

Now, serious stuff aside: check out your man Jeremy Lamb taking a moment to let former teammate Westbrook know that he didn't appreciate that viral ice-grill after the missed dap last season:

12. Memphis Grizzlies (18-17; last week: not ranked): Yes, Grizzlies games tend to be unadorned affairs, even after the club's recent shift from its traditional two-big alignment to a more modern setup in which Zach Randolph and Tony Allen come off the bench while Courtney Lee and Matt Barnes start on the wing alongside Jeff Green as a small-ball four. And no, the Grizzlies haven't improved or declined dramatically since we fretted about them in November; they win a couple and then they lose a couple, typically beating bad/decent teams and losing to good/very good ones.

And yet, Grizzlies games can give you so many little grace notes worth watching. Take Tuesday's overtime win over Miami, which started with Memphis wearing its beautiful Memphis Sounds throwbacks and also included Allen earning a flagrant foul for pretty blatantly tripping Dwyane Wade to stall a fast break:

... and then having the temerity to signal, if not speak aloud, his "FIRST TEAM ALL-DEFENSE!" catchphrase after a Wade turnover on the very next Heat offensive play:

And that's before you get to Marc Gasol throwing in this bit of nonsense, then punctuating it with a shimmy and a shuffle:

Teams that play at a bottom-five pace and score at a bottom-five clip shouldn't be this fun. And yet, there the Grizzlies are, charming me with other stuff.

13. Sacramento Kings (13-20; last week: NR): They get in a shootout with the best team in the league, mostly succeed thanks to Omri Casspi, and then disintegrate after their cornerstone maxed-out franchise star gets himself tossed. They lose convincingly to the worst team in the league, prompting their famously prickly coach to call them gutless defenders. They absolutely incinerate a team and organization seemingly in even greater disrepair than their own, with said coach and said star, who haven't exactly seemed super simpatico over the past 11 months, bonding over technical fouls:

I don't know what the hell to make of the Kings, but I'll be damned if they don't hold my attention.

14. Los Angeles Lakers (8-27; last week: 15): From Kobe Bryant's commitment to saying things that are somehow very sweet yet also kind of insane, to a remarkable ending to Kobe's career in Boston, to posting consecutive wins for the first time in more than 10 months, to being Undefeated in 2016, to the seemingly nightly jaw-droppers turned in by the likes of D'Angelo Russell:

... and Jordan Clarkson:

... there are kind of a lot of reasons to check out the Lakers right now. (Even if they still stink.)

15. Washington Wizards (15-17; last week: 9): John Wall is awesome. I really, really like watching him play. He has averaged 22.2 points, 11.4 assists, 4.6 points and 2.2 steals per game since the start of December; he's "using" more of his team's offensive possessions and dishing assists on a higher share of his teammates' buckets while keeping his turnover rate steady; he blends balletic grace and explosive physicality like few others in the game. He has been, by some statistical measurements and the eye test, an All-Star-caliber performer again this season (even if the voting public might prefer other options).

John Wall remains worth the price of admission. The rest of the Wizards, though? (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
John Wall remains worth the price of admission. The rest of the Wizards, though? (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

But outside of the magic Wall makes, man, does it often feel like a slog to watch the Wiz. They've shuffled between two games above and below .500 since the start of the season, and with so many expected contributors injured — chiefly Bradley Beal and Nene, but also Alan Anderson and, now, Gary Neal — Washington seems a team between styles, too far away from the shore to go back to the play-big-and-grind-the-other-guys-down approach yet too far away from having the pieces to make the most out of being small and fast.

Instead, you wind up with greater-than-the-doctor-prescribed doses of various veterans and a team that just tends to congeal into a broad grey band, like cloud cover that threatens to rain but doesn't, and yet doesn't even have the decency to pass so you could get a bit of sunshine. It's like the most interesting thing about the Wizards — save, again, for Wall — is how uninteresting they can be while employing personified lightning.


26. Boston Celtics (18-15; last week: 11): I grant that the Celtics are, at worst, pretty good. They're a playoff team in an improved East, an elite defensive squad (second in the NBA behind San Antonio in points allowed per possession) built around the perimeter harassment of Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart, and a deep collection of players capable of executing their responsibilities within Brad Stevens' systems. But this is a subjective ranking of how interesting individual teams are, and if we're not talking about Isaiah Thomas doing some AND 1 stuff off the dribble or Evan Turner dropping off-court jewels, there's just not a whole lot about this iteration of the Celtics that grabs me at the moment. I reserve the right to change my mind if Kelly Olynyk trades his man-bun in for cornrows.

27. Philadelphia 76ers (3-33; last week: 29): There was a moment last week — and oh, what a moment it was! — where the Sixers had won more games than they'd lost over the space of three contests ... and, for that matter, they'd been very competitive in the one they'd lost, too. Then they lost by nine to the Lakers and by 31 to the Clippers to fall to 30 games under .500, and, y'know, there go the good vibes. But we'll always have those first Ish Smith-to-Nerlens Noel pick-and-rolls, gang. They can't take those away.

28. Milwaukee Bucks (14-21; last week: 27): Guys, I appreciate your concern for my well-being, but I don't think O.J. Mayo is going to, like, flip out about finding out that I don't really find a Bucks team that struggles to score, struggles to defend, and doesn't really have one breakout player all that compelling to watch.


ok, so, nobody tell o.j. mayo what i think

(i was never here)

29. Denver Nuggets (12-23; last week: NR): There's individual development to focus on — currently injured 2015 top pick Emmanuel Mudiay, first and foremost; sophomore Gary Harris, who looks like he's got a chance to become a legitimate two-way shooting guard; young bigs Joffrey Lauvergne and Nikola Jokic, who are pretty skilled with the ball for near-7-footers; the just-returned-from-injury Jusuf Nurkic, etc. And, as we've discussed, Will Barton's emergence as a legitimate Most Improved Player candidate has been great.

For the most part, though, Mike Malone's team rarely pops off the page — they're trying to develop good habits and building something, but they've also lost six straight and early-stage rebuilds aren't especially enticing.

30. Brooklyn Nets (10-23; last week: 28): I have lots of respect for the hard work and productivity of Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young. Ex-D-Leaguer Willie Reed's been a fun burst of rebounding/shot-blocking/finishing energy. Shane Larkin has been better than expected. It's just hard to care about a team whose present feels meaningless given the past failings that have resulted in a strip-mined future. Get well soon, Chris McCullough, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and, now, regrettably, Jarrett Jack.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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