BDL's Most Interesting Power Rankings: Might the Clippers' ship be sinking?

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. Los Angeles Clippers (6-7; last week: 27): After successfully bringing DeAndre Jordan back into the fold this summer, many expected the Clippers to return to form as a mid-to-high-50-win team considered one of the NBA's few true title contenders. But after losing three straight, five of six and seven of nine, headlined by a pair of dispiriting losses to the Golden State Warriors, L.A.'s under .500 after 13 games for the first time since Chris Paul came to town, and under .500, period, for the first time since Doc Rivers took over. Folks are frustrated.

Dan Woike of the Orange County Register reported that, after a Sunday matinee loss to the Toronto Raptors during which the Clips trailed by as many as 29 points, reserve forward Josh Smith was "involved in a frustration-fueled argument" with "an unspecified Clipper coach," with "profanities and yelling" audible through the Clippers' locker room walls. Smith, Paul Pierce and Lance Stephenson — three veterans imported this summer to bolster a lacking bench — have all struggled to fill their new roles. The CP3-Blake Griffin Clippers have always been led by their potent offense, but their defense now lags something fierce, ranking 22nd among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession, according to NBA.com's stat tool.

It almost seems like, after losing that massive lead to the Warriors, the Clippers have collectively short-circuited; for all their talent and experience, the club looks rudderless right now.

"The good thing about it is, this isn't game 80, 81 or 82," Paul said Sunday, according to Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times. "We have time. And nobody's going to feel sorry for us."

After a rough week, though, you'd forgive him for taking a moment to feel sorry for himself.

2. Golden State Warriors (15-0; last week: 2): Eric Freeman's parting words on the Dubs in last week's rankings: "Keep an eye on them until they lose, at the very least." Well, we're still watching.

After Sunday's win over the Denver Nuggets, the Warriors now sit at 15-0, tied with the 1948-49 Washington Capitols and the 1993-94 Houston Rockets for the most consecutive season-opening wins in NBA history. They could own the record all by themselves after Tuesday's home tilt with the woeful Los Angeles Lakers. There is a non-zero chance that they could be undefeated on New Year's Day 2016. They boast the league's best offense, its most valuable player and its best lineup. We're watching history in the making, with all the boring parts replaced by an endless supply of 3-pointers. (Man, why can't degree-granting institutions let you major in that?)

3. Oklahoma City Thunder (8-6; last week: 4): Sunday's win over the Dallas Mavericks makes OKC 3-3 without Kevin Durant, who remains sidelined by a hamstring strain, but Russell Westbrook and company haven't exactly looked graceful while treading water in KD's absence.

They've been roughly a top-10 offense and a bottom-10 defense over the last half-dozen games — a more muted version of the all-O/no-D Thunder we saw after 2015's All-Star break, during which Durant scarcely saw action due to his foot woes while Westbrook put up insane numbers and carried the club to the brink of a playoff berth. The feeling's been tough to shake, as we watch a KD-and-Russ-centered offense (now, just Russ-centered) with limited complementary contributions, questions about the wing rotation, uninspiring defense and late-game calls/execution ... haven't we seen this movie before? What's Billy Donovan doing differently from Scott Brooks, again? Why doesn't this collection of talent — even with Durant sidelined — look better and more potent? These are familiar questions, and given the astronomical stakes of this season, the answers must come quickly.

4. New York Knicks (8-6; last week: 7): Per NBA.com, New York ranks 15th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession, 14th in points allowed per possession and 15th in net rating (a measurement of whether you outscore your opponents over the course of 100 possessions, or vice versa). Through one month of play, more or less, the Knicks have been average.

That, in and of itself, is amazing, given how awful last year's model was. (The 2014-15 Knicks didn't notch their eighth win until Jan. 23, in their 44th game.) As you've probably heard, this meteoric rise to mediocrity has been fueled in large part by the stunning early performance of 7-foot-3 rookie Kristaps Porzingis:

The 2015 draft's No. 4 pick leads New York in rebounds and blocks, and ranks second on the team in scoring. The Knicks have outscored opponents by 67 points in the 366 minutes he's played, by far the club's top plus-minus mark. With Porzingis on the floor, the Knicks have scored (104 points per 100 possessions) and prevented baskets (97.5 points-per-100) at clips that would rank among the league's top six teams. When he's sat, they've performed like a bottom-10 unit on both ends.

On Tuesday, Porzingis became the 21st player in the last 30 years to score 29 points and grab 11 rebounds before his 21st birthday, joining a list of all-timers, All-Stars and all-around talents. On Saturday, he became just the second since 1985 to score 24 points, pull down 14 boards and block seven shots before he could buy a six-pack; the other was Shaq. Hence the instant hero worship, flights of fancy, mass consumption and doubling down on still-way-too-much-way-too-soon comparisons and projections.

Maybe you want to see the young Latvian prove he's more foundation than fad. Maybe you want to see the bubble burst when the 20-year-old starts to stumble, as all rookies do, in the best league in the world. Maybe you want to see how long Carmelo Anthony — who, after a slow start post-knee surgery, is averaging just under 24 points, seven rebounds and three assists per game while shooting 45 percent from the field, 38 percent from 3-point range and 83 percent from the foul line over the past eight contests — continues to be cool with Knicks fans chanting someone else's name.

Wherever you're coming from, though, there's a reason to watch. The Knicks, right now, are one of the most fascinating clubs in the NBA. This is insane, unexpected and delightful.

5. Indiana Pacers (8-5; last week: NR): Know who's got the league's best net rating over the past 10 games? ... OK, you're right. It's the Warriors. But guess who's after them? That's right: Frank Vogel's crew has been crunching cats recently, outscoring opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions over the last 10, just behind Golden State, while winning five of six and eight of 10.

Paul George looks *great* this season. (AP/Matt Slocum)
Paul George looks *great* this season. (AP/Matt Slocum)

For all the offseason attention paid to the Pacers' planned shift into a faster-paced, more ball-movement-focused attack in which Paul George saw lots of time at power forward, Indiana still does it with defense, ranking second in the league in both steals per game and opponents' turnover percentage, third in points allowed per possession, and fifth in points scored off turnovers. The offense has perked up a bit, too, with C.J. Miles and George Hill bombing away from deep, Monta Ellis taking a more central playmaking role, and reserves like Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger and Glenn Robinson III offering plenty of spark.

It's all brought together by George, who's looking every ounce the superstar he was growing into before breaking his leg in the summer of 2014 and is averaging 27.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game on 46/47/84 shooting splits during Indy's 10-game rip. George's smooth brand of two-way excellence makes the Pacers worth a regular look-see. While you're appreciating him, you just might find yourself realizing that the rest of Vogel's Pacers ain't half bad to watch, either.

6. San Antonio Spurs (10-3; last week: 11): It's time for your latest "Kawhi Leonard is becoming a full-on star" update.

Leonard's on pace to be just the 16th player since blocks and steals were recorded to average 21 points, seven rebounds, 1.5 steals and one block per game in a season. The rest of the list: nine enshrined Hall of Famers (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Elvin Hayes, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson), one future first-ballot Hall of Famer (LeBron James), four players who at least have interesting HoF arguments (Marques Johnson, Shawn Marion, Tracy McGrady, Chris Webber) and noted contemporary outlier DeMarcus Cousins.

He's doing all that while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 45 percent from 3-point range on 4.1 attempts per game, and continuing to lock up opponents' top scorers.

This has been your "Kawhi Leonard is becoming a full-on star" update.

7. Cleveland Cavaliers (10-3; last week: 10): The Cavs and Spurs occupy similar spaces for me. I always like checking in on them, I know I'll enjoy watching them, but I also believe they'll ultimately play a major role in defining the overarching story of this season and that they're not yet what they will be. That can make it hard to get super dialed-in on them early in the season, when I'm trying to catch up with the teams experiencing more significant upheaval or not performing as expected.

Then I remember San Antonio's got the league's best defense and is outscoring opponents by more points per 100 possessions than anybody but the Warriors, despite LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green continuing to scuffle. I remember Cleveland's got the NBA's third-best offense despite zero contributions from injured scoring savant Kyrie Irving, and a near top-10 defense without top wing deterrent Iman Shumpert. I remember it's exceedingly likely that both teams will get better once those pieces are fully integrated, and then I get amped about how awesome they've been thus far, and how devastating they could become very soon.

8. Miami Heat (8-4; last week: 13): Heading into the season, many expected Miami to rise and fall on the strength of its starting five, because it remained unclear whether the reserve corps could offer enough support to push Erik Spoelstra's club back toward the top of the conference. So far, though, the starting lineup's been just about a wash — the five-man unit of Hassan Whiteside, Chris Bosh, Luol Deng, Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade has been outscored by four points in 138 total minutes — and while mix-and-match units featuring some combination of bench pieces have shined.

Of note in that mix: second-year guard Tyler Johnson (8.5 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists in 20.9 minutes per game, shooting 47.4 percent from 3) has been kind of a godsend, especially with all the weirdness surrounding Gerald Green, and Justise Winslow is already pretty much indispensable. Forty-two five-man Miami lineups have outscored the opposition thus far; 26 of them include the rookie out of Duke, a key cog in smaller, faster alignments that have caused major problems for opponents.

9. Minnesota Timberwolves (5-8; last week: 9): I know they've lost six of seven. I don't really care. Karl-Anthony Towns at the elbow bumping Andrew Wiggins' defender then hitting him on the cut with an on-time bounce pass for a dunk is our present as well as our future. The state of our basketball union is as strong as this finish:

10. Utah Jazz (6-6; last week: NR): Every time I watch the Jazz, they're playing their tails off, grinding out possessions knowing that they're often at a disadvantage in terms of offensive firepower (especially with Gordon Hayward making just 41 percent of his shots and 30 percent of his 3s). Rudy Gobert's a monster who will protect the rim even if it nearly kills him. Derrick Favors is one of the NBA's best and toughest two-way bigs. Alec Burks is a freaking weapon.

Trey Burke's hot shooting might tail off soon, but Rodney Hood's should pick up. Joe Ingles and Raul Neto are crafty with the ball. Quin Snyder's staff keeps Utah well-drilled. There's a funkiness to this roster — one that might ultimately be at its best playing two bigs, three wings and no point guards — that remains stylistically appealing to me, even if their games tend to be low-scoring slugfests.

11. New Orleans Pelicans (3-11; last week: 6): It's hard to believe a team that employs Anthony Davis has been such a chore to watch; injuries are a cruel mistress. The schedule does them no favors, and at this point, the most compelling thing about the Pelicans might be finding out whether they're capable of a miracle.

Even amid New Orleans' dismal start, though, there have been some reasons for optimism. Ryan Anderson (19.3 points and seven rebounds per game, 48.1 percent from the floor and 39.3 percent from deep) has been great. Journeyman Ish Smith's been a much-needed sparkplug and steadying agent. Tyreke Evans might be back sooner than expected. And, as he reminded us in Sunday's win over the Phoenix Suns, Anthony Davis is still Anthony Davis:

12. Phoenix Suns (7-6; last week: NR): They dropped one to the desperate Pelicans on Sunday, but Jeff Hornacek's offense has been dynamite over the last six games, scoring at a rate (109.2 points per 100 possessions) eclipsed only by the Warriors while playing at the league's fastest pace. Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe have clicked, combining to average nearly 45 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds per game while bombing more than 10 triples a night and connecting on 40 percent of them. T.J. Warren's getting buckets, Devin Booker's looking ready to contribute at the tender age of 19, and vets Tyson Chandler and P.J. Tucker have the Phoenix defense in the middle of the pack.

If Hornacek can get rarely gruntled Markieff Morris on track — and Sunday's 17-point, eight-rebound, three-assist outing might be a start — the Suns could really take off.

13. Orlando Magic (6-7; last week: NR): I can't yet call the Magic good, but damn, are they frisky. Three overtime contests in their first 13 games, seven games decided by five points or less, an according-to-the-script leap into the top 10 in points allowed per possession under defensive-minded Scott Skiles, and a rotation full of 26-and-under contributors (we see you, Dewayne Dedmon) committed to playing hard.

Evan Fournier's scoring has helped the Magic make strides. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Evan Fournier's scoring has helped the Magic make strides. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

I'm not sure how many people saw Evan Fournier becoming the league's No. 23 scorer, ahead of guys like Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade, back when Orlando plucked him from Denver in the deal that sent Arron Afflalo back to Colorado, but that's who he's turned into, serving as a much-needed, accurate, high-volume 3-point shooter for a team short on those. You become a rotation mainstay when you hit nearly 38 percent of your 3s while taking 6.5 per game ... especially when you pitch daggers in OT.

There's still plenty to figure out here — ongoing third-quarter collapses (the more things change, the more they stay the same), the search for a steady rotation, the lighting of various candles and praying that Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton will start hitting more than 40 percent of their shots, etc. — but for the first time in a while, there's real hope that Orlando's big questions might have answers.

14. Washington Wizards (6-4; last week: 12): After three straight wins to help shake the static over supposed softness, the still-running (fourth in the league in possessions per game) and gunning (23.7 3-point attempts per game, up from 16.8 last year) Wiz look to have settled in as at least a Pretty Good Team That Could Become More.

Getting Bradley Beal back from his left shoulder injury helps make Washington more compelling, as does John Wall's now-near-nightly eye-popping needle-threading:

15. Boston Celtics (7-6; last week: NR): For all the chatter about Brad Stevens' skillful in-game offensive adjustments and penchant for drawing up excellent plays out of timeouts, it's been Boston's defense — allowing just 96.6 points per 100 possessions, fourth-best in the league — that has carried the day. Fueled by the nightmarish on-ball activity of Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, the Celtics force turnovers on a higher share of opponents' possessions than any other team in the NBA, and turn those costly miscues into points at a league-leading clip. When Boston's wings get charged up, they can ruin an opposing offense's day ... and then there are nights like Sunday in which the Celtics seemed to be on autopilot and proved unequal to the task of walloping the Brooklyn Nets for the second time in three days.

At some point, Stevens has to figure out who besides Isaiah Thomas (averaging 20.7 points and 6.6 assists per game since entering the starting lineup) can consistently threaten defenses enough to elevate Boston above the middle of the pack in offensive efficiency. He'll have to whittle down a rotation that's already seen 10 players log at least 100 minutes — a number that doesn't include first-round picks Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter or Tyler Zeller, who started 59 games last season. And he must figure out how to limit the recurrence of lackadaisical outings like Sunday, a tougher task without Smart, who's expected to miss a couple of weeks with a left leg injury. How successfully Stevens handles those tasks could determine whether Boston's a real threat in the East or still just a nice collection of pretty good pieces.

THE BOTTOM FIVE

Jason Kidd's Bucks are still searching for last year's spark. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Jason Kidd's Bucks are still searching for last year's spark. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

26. Milwaukee Bucks (5-8; last week: NR):

I know I'm supposed to enjoy the Bucks, what with the youth and length and cool new clothes and courts. Right now, though, Milwaukee's not easy on the eyes.

Despite continuing to force loads of turnovers, the Bucks are hemorrhaging points. They're not finishing possessions — dead last in the league in defensive rebounding percentage and second-chance points allowed per game — and they're not defending the arc, with opponents shooting 37.2 percent from deep, including 50.6 percent from the corners, the league's second-worst mark.

The long-range leakage should slow down — as Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus wrote, 3-point defense tends to be random — and it wouldn't be shocking to see the rebounding improve some if Milwaukee plays bigger more now that Jabari Parker's back. For now, though, we'll give the last word to Bucksketball's Jeremy Schmidt: "There’s nothing flukey about what’s happening right now. The Bucks are a bad team."

27. Houston Rockets (5-9; last week: 1): On one hand, the defense has begun to pick up since the move to replace Kevin McHale with J.B. Bickerstaff. On the other, maybe we shouldn't spend much more time or energy on Houston until seven of their top 11 players aren't shooting under 40 percent from the field.

28. Brooklyn Nets (3-11; last week: 29): The Nets have veered closer to "bad" than "horrific" over the past couple of weeks, beating Houston, Atlanta and Boston, taking the Warriors to OT on the second night of a back-to-back, and hanging tough against Sacramento and Charlotte before falling by the wayside late. Lionel Hollins is to be commended for coaxing more competitive play out of his overmatched and underwhelming roster. That hasn't made Brooklyn much more watchable, though ... unless, of course, you're a Celtics fan. (Sunday, of course, being the exception.)

29. Los Angeles Lakers (2-11; last week: 28): Bottom-three units on both ends of the floor. Kobe Bryant yet again battling injuries, trying gamely to fight his way back onto the court, but continuing to clang away in a fashion that makes you think the end is near. More Lou Williams and Marcelo Huertas than any conscientious physician would prescribe. This joke isn't funny anymore. (The silver lining: over the last six games, the Lakers have outscored opponents by nearly five points per 100 possessions when D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson play together.)

30. Philadelphia 76ers (0-14; last week: 30): The Thunder have the NBA's second most-potent offense, scoring an average of 107.5 points per 100 possessions. The Jazz rank 22nd, averaging 100.3 points-per-100. That difference between No. 2 and No. 22 — 7.2 points-per-100 — is not as large as the yawning chasm separating the league's 29th-ranked offense (the Lakers, at 97.7-per-100) from the Sixers, who sit alone in a Vault-Tec-brand shelter somewhere deep in the Earth's mantle, scoring just 90.3-per-100.

It's been 13 years since we've seen an offense this punchless. It's been 16 years since a team turned the ball over this often. No franchise has ever opened consecutive seasons with winless streaks as long as the last two iterations of the Sixers. Philly's getting outscored by nearly the same historically large margin as the Warriors are crushing their opposition. We are watching all-time bad basketball here.

So why should we watch, again?

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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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