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 FIFTEEN
1. San Antonio Spurs (36-6, last week: 2): The Warriors still hold the league's best record by a 1 1/2-game margin, but it's increasingly difficult to argue that the Spurs aren't playing the best ball at this moment. Thursday's win over the Cleveland Cavaliers was arguably their most impressive performance of the season — they trailed big early, had their few weaknesses exposed, and calmly built a comeback that allowed them to finish the game in total control of the proceedings. They then followed up that win by trouncing the Mavericks 112-83 on Sunday, running their winning streak to 11 and their home record to 24-0. Their average point differential since December 1 is plus-19.3, which means it's actually sensible to predict a San Antonio blowout every night.
The Spurs still appear to struggle with athletic, disruptive big men in the Serge Ibaka mold and may find that they depend too much on Tony Parker in mid-May (when he turns 34), but no team seems so confident under pressure. Next Monday's matchup with Golden State increasingly looks like the most exciting game of the season so far.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (28-10, LW: 4): The loss to the Spurs does not exactly rate as a disappointment for the Cavs, because they looked quite good for all but the fourth quarter. Nevertheless, it was the second time in two tries that Cleveland has looked like the lesser team in crunch time against one of the NBA's two best squads. It shouldn't be too much concern for LeBron and Co. right now given that their path through the East is so much easier, and figuring out that Tristan Thompson can frustrate the Spurs' bigs may end up as a bigger long-term victory than a single regular-season win. However, it's not wrong to think that the Cavs need a strong showing when the play the Warriors again this Monday to prove that they're just as good as the West's elite.
3. Golden State Warriors (37-4, LW: 1): It's not an insult to say that the odds-on title favorites would rank lower on this list if they weren't about to face the Cavaliers for the second and last time this regular season. Remarkably, the Warriors head into that matchup at Quicken Loans Arena having lost two of three while playing with a distinct lack of inspiration for a longer stretch. Saturday's 18-point loss at the Pistons marked the first time in 2015-16 that the Warriors have lost without a built-in excuse (the others came a day after a double-OT win or with at least one key player missing)
Yes, Stephen Curry can still do this ...
... but they have lacked their usual spark lately. That's an understandable turn of events given their string of injuries and the challenges any team faces to stay motivated for 82 games. At the same time, we can't dismiss such matters when putting together this incredibly important weekly list. It's no shame to be an elite, very watchable team that's not firing on all cylinders.
4. Sacramento Kings (17-23, LW: 14): Is an ungodly mess still an ungodly mess if it reaches its goals? The Kings are a neutral's dream, playing tight games that feature crazy comebacks and buzzer-beaters more often than any other team in the league. That status appears to be driving head coach George Karl nuts, particularly because he has to depend on DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo on a nightly basis. They're unstable, unpredictable, and not especially good.
Yet the Kings are still good enough to sit just one game behind the Utah Jazz for the No. 8 spot in the West. It's possible that Sacramento will end up in the postseason, the goal that owner Vivek Ranadive and the front office put forward this offseason when they assembled the team with little regard for long-term viability. Does that mean the Kings are good? Will we have to congratulate them on their success? Is up down?
5. Chicago Bulls (23-16, LW: 3): Jimmy Butler has set a new career high three times in roughly 45 days, with his most recent coming in Thursday's 53-point outburst against the Sixers. That accomplishment would be exciting enough without the underlying question of whether Butler's ascendance has been good for the team. Factor in last week's potentially season-ending shoulder injury for Joakim Noah and it's easy to see Chicago near the point of no return on heading into a new Butler-led era in which Tom Thibodeau-era mainstays become much less prominent. It's usually pretty fascinating to see a team in such obvious transition, especially when they could still emerge on the other side as the best challengers to the Cavs in the postseason.
6. Dallas Mavericks (23-19, LW: 11): It's hard to get especially excited about a team that just lost four of six during a tough stretch and finds itself slowly dropping down the West standings. But I'm giving them this high ranking on the strength of their peculiar style. The Mavs manage to entertain without much athleticism. Rather, the fun is in teamwide execution that threatens to fall apart at any moment — aging veterans pass with verve, hit jumpers, and generally look creaky. It's the basketball version of robot soccer:
They're not quick, but they get the ball in the goal.
7. New York Knicks (20-22, LW: 5): The Knicks are back in the East playoff race (2 1/2 back of games back of the No. 8 Celtics right now), but they're on this list almost entirely because Kristaps Porzingis continues to be one of the most exciting players in the league. The Latvian sensation is expanding his game to show many of the reported talents that made him such an intriguing draft prospect. He has already attempted 37 three-pointers in nine January games (only seven off his previous high for a month), is scoring in a variety of ways, and hasn't shown any less of an ability to block shots and finish misses with highlight-reel dunks. It's rare to see a largely unknown top pick display all the talents we were promised so quickly. Maybe Porzingis will show a few more before the season's finished.
8. Los Angeles Clippers (26-14, LW: 8): Hey, did you know that the Clippers ended a 10-game winning streak on Saturday when they lost to the Kings? It's OK if you didn't, because nobody seems to have paid much attention as they took their usual spot among the top four of the conference. Maybe that's because the big Clippers winning streak in the absence of a major player (Blake Griffin, in this case) is now an annual occurrence of the Doc Rivers era.
Or perhaps it's because the Clippers are enough of a known quantity that it's hard to put too much stock into any regular-season winning streak. This is still the team that blows big leads with regularity and can't seem to figure out an ideal late-game offensive hierarchy. Their season is now so much about the postseason that it's hard to buy into many signs of success before the spring. They've been interesting lately precisely because we can't find much of note in a run that would look inspired from nearly any other group.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder (30-12, LW: 6): Our Kelly Dwyer already rejected the ideas behind Kevin Durant's latest criticism of the media, but let me add to the chorus — the Thunder are really good and pretty clearly look like the league's fourth contender behind the obvious top three. Last week's run of four games in six games yielded nothing but wins, including convincing defeats of the Mavericks (108-89) and Heat (99-74), and it's a fair bet to predict more despite an upcoming run of five road games in six against inferior competition. It's the same old story with OKC, but it's a pretty engrossing tale whenever Durant and Russell Westbrook are playing at a high level. If the title talk doesn't come soon, it'll only be because they don't play a member of the elite until February 6, when they host Golden State.
10. Toronto Raptors (25-15, LW: 14): Taking four in a row isn't such a big deal when only one of the wins came against a team with a winning record (the Magic), but holding a 1 1/2-game lead for second place in the East is notable given how crowded that area has been throughout this season. It's also time to pay the Raptors a little more attention with the All-Star Game less than a month away. We're going to see either one or both of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan serving as de facto host of the weekend, and it's not great to ignore them right before such a big party. Of course, that doesn't mean Toronto's a dark-horse contender just yet.
11. Detroit Pistons (22-18, LW: 15): We're going to give a lot of credit to any team that handily beats the Warriors when they're at full strength with two days of rest. It's fair to wonder if Reggie Jackson's improvement is just a statistical mirage, but there's no way to argue with Andre Drummond inside. Stan Van Gundy has this team in line for a playoff berth and has pretty much the entire rotation playing some of the best basketball of their careers. Monday's game against the Bulls should be a strong test before a four-game road trip against the West's middle-tier squads.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves (13-29, LW: not ranked): The Wolves became interesting this week almost by accident. Ending a nine-game losing streak with Sunday's blowout of the Suns was nice, but it's still hard to get too excited about a team that can't figure out how to assemble its promising core together in a manner that could lead to lasting success. They have glaring issues at both ends and can only rely on the excitement surrounding Rookie of the Year favorite Karl-Anthony Towns for so long. Just ask Andrew Wiggins, who now gets his game picked apart on Twitter every time he suits up.
Credit Britt Robson, then, for bringing new levels to Minnesota's troubles via a fascinating two-part interview with interim head coach Sam Mitchell. Never considered one of the league's ablest tacticians, Mitchell explains the challenges of this season and responds to several of the most glaring criticisms of the team in excellent detail. The interview may not change your opinion of Mitchell, but it will likely convince you that more goes into NBA head coaching than we usually consider.
13. Atlanta Hawks (24-17, LW: 7): It wasn't the best week for the Hawks — they lost two of three against iffy competition. They're in the top half here largely because the revelation of their Uno circle has changed the way I think about the team. If Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder struggle to play together, is it because one played a particularly vicious "Draw Four" during their last game? Literally any event can be tied back to this card game if you try hard enough. And I have been trying very hard.
14. Boston Celtics (22-19, LW: 12): The Celtics have bounced back from a run of six losses in seven games with four straight wins, regaining their spot at No. 8 in the East in the process. This week brings matchups against the Mavs, Raptors, and Bulls, which should serve as another referendum on their fitness for anything more than a brief first-round playoff appearance. And then we'll ask the same question another fifteen times before April.
15. Indiana Pacers (22-19, LW: NR): It's worth keeping an eye on Myles Turner, one of the more impressive rookies in this year's class. The 19-year-old center missed more than a month before returning in very late December and has put up efficient scoring numbers in limited minutes. Those promising appearances turned into a bona fide starring role in Sunday's win over the Nuggets, when he put up a team-high 25 points (11-of-13 FG), seven rebounds, and two blocks in 29 minutes. That's probably going to be a rare occurrence, but Turner figures to get more of a look from here on out.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
26. Charlotte Hornets (18-22, LW: NR): Oof, the injury to Al Jefferson has sunk what had previously been one of the best stories in the league. The Hornets have lost nine of 10 since Jefferson hit the shelf and won't get many breaks from the schedule this week, either. A group that seemed to discovering itself along with the rest of us now can't find much of anything that works.
27. Los Angeles Lakers (9-34, LW: 27): It was a rough week for the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour, which made its last rip to Oakland and otherwise saw its headliner experience Achilles pain (in his right foot, not the one he snapped in April 2013) on Saturday at Utah. This is bad news, because the organization doesn't work with its young players well enough to have much purpose whenever Kobe isn't the center of its universe. The best news is that they're now only 3 1/2 games behind ahead of the next team on our list in the race for top lottery odds.
28. Philadelphia 76ers (5-37, LW: 30): The Sixers are much improved, enough so that they beat the Blazers by 15 points for their second win in two weeks. It's a mark of how low they were before that this represents notable progress. For that matter, the Sixers' new fortunes have robbed them of some of the qualities that made them such a notable experiment. Now they're just a bad team depending on journeyman Ish Smith in crunch time. It takes a truly brave tanking plan to trot out to make him a welcome addition.
29. Phoenix Suns (13-29, LW: 26): The Suns were 12-16 on December 18. They've lost 13 of 14 and have no reason to keep their coach and roster together. At least some basketball fans will have a chance to catch up on their sleep when they play the Spurs on TNT this Thursday.
30. Brooklyn Nets (11-30, LW: 29): Congratulations to Brooklyn on its "Best Picture" nomination. It probably doesn't stand a chance to win, but at least it'll get more people to see the movie. Expect big things from Saoirse Ronan in the future.
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