The top two spots remain locked in, as they have for weeks now, but under that there remains a lot of movement in these NBA power rankings, with the red-hot Jazz climbing up to third.
1. Bucks (36-6, Last Week No. 1). Milwaukee is on a 70-win pace, and while we rightfully credit Giannis Antetokounmpo for much of that (right now he’d get my MVP vote, again), it is the Bucks’ defense that sets them apart. Milwaukee’s 101.6 defensive rating (using NBA.com’s numbers) is the best in the league by more than two full points. Their system protects the paint first, last, and always, and with that gives up the most three-point attempts in the league per game. However, their length and athleticism can contest some of those, and the Bucks take away all of an opponent’s easy buckets at the rim. It works.
2. Lakers (33-7, LW No. 2). Winners of nine in a row, and that includes beating OKC when LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Danny Green were all out. Kyle Kuzma lit up the Thunder with 36 in that game, but was very pedestrian (5-of-13 shooting, 11 points) two nights later against the Cavaliers, missing all his threes. Kuzma tends to be up-and-down, which concerns teams that see him as a No. 3 option or a sixth man and might want to trade for him (it also should concern the Lakers, somewhat, although he’s given them what they need this season).
3. Jazz (28-12, LW 4). Utah has won 10 in a row and they continue to tear it up on offense — a league-best 122 offensive rating over those 10 games. Donovan Mitchell has played like an All-Star, Joe Ingles has thrived as a starter, Bojan Bogdanovic is having big games, and the Jazz are undefeated since adding Jordan Clarkson to their bench. All of this is without Mike Conley in the mix (still out with a hamstring issue), but it leads to questions about how to fit him in upon his return.
4. Rockets (26-13, LW 5). At the midway point of the season, James Harden is on pace to average 37.8 points per game for the season, the most by any player not named Wilt Chamberlain. What’s amazing is he has taken on that increased offensive load and been even more efficient this season, with a ridiculous 63.6 true shooting percentage. Those numbers have slipped a little in recent weeks as teams are throwing ridiculous double-teams at Harden to force the ball out of his hands, but how he is making teams adjust is another reason is in the middle of the MVP mix this season.
5. Celtics (27-11, LW 3). Boston’s offense looked clumsy during a three-game losing streak, that was until Jayson Tatum exploded for 41 against a shorthanded Pelicans team on Saturday. It was an All-Star level performance from Tatum, but will the coaches pick him as a reserve in the East? Probably. My money is on the player/media vote bumping Kemba Walker into a starting role, but either way he will be in Chicago as well. Thursday night the Celtics get a good measuring stick game against the Bucks in Milwaukee.
6. Nuggets (27-12, LW 7). In the last 15 games, Denver has looked like the team we expected going into the season: Winning games (11-4) thanks to an elite offense led by Nikola Jokic (second best in the NBA in the last 15), but that masks a troubling defense (28th in the NBA over that same stretch). The impressive Nuggets defense from the first part of the season is gone, and if it doesn’t make a return — or the Nuggets don’t make a trade to boost it — that end of the floor could have them fishing in Cabo earlier than they expected this postseason.
7. Clippers (28-13, LW 6). Some nights, the Clippers look like the team the rest of the West feared — they can take apart anybody. Just ask the Lakers. But there are other nights they look disjointed and uninterested, and they do not impress, such as recent losses to Memphis and Denver. Doc Rivers, what do you think of the inconsistency? “I think we’ve been inconsistent on both ends. It is what it is. I’m not that frightened by it.” Should he be?
8. Heat (27-12, LW 8). Miami keeps winning games — 9-6 in its last 15 — but that’s become in spite of their defense and not because of it. The Heat have been a bottom 10 defensive team over those 15 games (and the team has a net rating of -0.1, basically even). Last weekend’s losses to the Nets and Knicks are the kind of off games teams with poor defenses have. The Heat need to turn this around to keep home court through the first round of the playoffs.
9. Raptors (25-14, LW 10). Toronto went a respectable 6-5 without Pascal Siakam, but now he’s back in the rotation (as is Norman Powell; Marc Gasol is still out but is expected to return soon) and the wins need to flow again. Nick Nurse is hoping the return of his likely All-Star in Siakam sparks an offense that was top 10 in the league in November but, with all the injuries, has fallen back to middle-of-the pack in the last 10 games (which, considering the missing players, is not that bad).
10. Pacers (25-15, LW 12). With Domantas Sabonis sidelined on Friday, Myles Turner broke out with a 27 point, 14 rebound night. It’s the kind of game that will have other teams calling and checking on Turner’s availability at the trade deadline, but reports are those calls are getting shot down. The Pacers are +6.3 per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together, and the Indy brass wants to see how that looks with Victor Oladipo back.
11. Thunder (23-17, LW 11). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continues to improve during his second season (and the tutelage of Chris Paul can’t hurt), this week becoming the youngest player in NBA history with a 20-20-10 triple-double. Trade rumors continue to swirl around Danilo Gallinari and the Thunder, and OKC is looking for players on SGA’s timeline to build for the future.
— NBA (@NBA) January 14, 2020
12. Mavericks (25-15, LW 9). Dallas has gone 4-4 with Kristaps Prozingis sidelined, but he is expected back Wednesday night from his knee/illness issues. Dallas elite offense remained top six with KP out, but the defense fell from middle of the pack to bottom 10 without his length and rim protection inside. Luka Doncic seems destined to start in the All-Star game this season, as he should, but he will be the only Maverick playing on Sunday.
13. 76ers (25-16, LW 13). Sixers fans are calling for Brett Brown’s head with Philadelphia having lost 6-of-8 and not looking like a threat to the Bucks right now (despite what happened on Christmas Day). The offense is clunky, but the problems start here: Ben Simmons has taken 18 shots outside the paint all season, and two of those were end-of-half heaves that don’t really count. Simmons has to get into the paint to be effective, that’s also where Joel Embiid is at his best, and that allows teams to pack the paint and defend Philly’s strengths. Changing coaches will not change the flaws in the roster construction, that’s an Elton Brand thing.
14. Grizzlies (19-22, LW 19). The NBA world is falling in love with Ja Morant right now, but the Grizzlies have two quality rookies — Brandon Clarke has been solid for them. Here’s Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins on Clarke: “The great thing about Brandon is he doesn’t try to do too much, he plays to his strengths. We knew that when he was coming out of Gonzaga, he’s a guy who plays great team basketball on both ends of the floor. Obviously a super-efficient player on the offensive end, kind of takes what the defense gives him, picks his spots whether it’s the roller game or the floater game, we’re seeing him shoot the three ball a little bit more. Defensively, being in the right place, getting his hands on some defections, he doesn’t get a lot of blocks but he comes over in his rotations… he does it in a team capacity.”
15. Magic (19-21, LW 14). It seems fitting the Magic are in the middle of these power rankings: Orlando has a net offensive rating of 105.1 and a net defensive rating of 105.1 — exactly neutral. Cleaning the Glass projects the Magic to go 41-41. Orlando seems destined to get the seven or eight seed in the East, which puts it in the hands of management what direction to go at the trade deadline, stay this middle of the road course or think about a retooling effort by moving Evan Fournier or other quality players (except Jonathan Isaac).
16. Nets (18-21, LW 17). Kyrie Irving is back, Caris LeVert is back, and now we can finally start to see what this Nets roster looks like healthy. The offense looked good against the Hawks “defense” but, more importantly, was respectable against the Jazz defense on Monday. Brooklyn just lost that game because their defense couldn’t slow the red-hot Jazz. It doesn’t get easier for the Nets, their next four games are the 76ers, Bucks, 76ers (again), and Lakers. That’s a gauntlet.
17. Spurs (17-21, LW 16). The Spurs 22-year playoff streak is not dead yet, despite the record San Antonio is just half a game out of the final playoff spot in the West (one game back in the loss column). What has to keep Gregg Popovich up at night (at least until the third glass of Pinot) is the bottom 10 defense from this team. It’s very un-Popovich, and there is no simple answer with this roster as constructed.
18. Kings (15-25, LW 18). Marvin Bagley is back after missing eight games with a sore foot and looked pretty good against the Magic with 18 points and six boards. Combine that with the faster pace of late — which has helped De’Aaron Fox — and maybe Luke Walton’s roster can start to look like the on-the-rise team everyone expected before the season tipped off.
19. Trail Blazers (17-24, LW 15). What held Carmelo Anthony back from an NBA job for so long was concerns about his defense. In their past 10 games, the Trail Blazers have gone 3-7 and have the worst defense in the NBA over that stretch. That’s not all ‘Melo, but he’s not solving problems on that end. Three tough games on the road for Portland this week: Houston, Dallas, and OKC.
20. Pelicans (15-26, LW 24). Zion Williamson will be back in a week — Jan. 22 against the Spurs is the target date — but the Pelicans have won 3-of-4 without him. If David Griffin doesn’t like the trade offers for Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors, does he just keep the band together, add Zion, and see if they can make up the four games to get in the playoffs?
21. Suns (16-24, LW 22). Deandre Ayton is back to coming off the bench — with Dario Saric starting next to Aron Baynes — and that seems to be working for Phoenix. It allows Monty Williams to still pair Devin Booker and Ayton, they show some real chemistry, while keeping his best lineups on the floor. As a side note: There is no way this should lead to a technical and ejection in the NBA, there are some young refs with quick triggers (and some older ones, too) who are sucking the emotion out of the game.
22. Timberwolves (15-24, LW 20). There are positive rumblings that Karl-Anthony Towns could return to soon. He has missed 14 games and the Timberwolves are 5-9 without him, with the offense 14.8 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the bench. The only thing that has kept Minnesota afloat with him out is the third-ranked defense in the NBA for that stretch.
23. Bulls (14-27, LW 21). Wendell Carter Jr. being out weeks with a sprained ankle will be a real blow to Chicago, the offense flows better with him on the court and coach Jim Boylen described him as the Bulls best defensive player. When Carter has been on the court this season the Bulls outscore opponents by 1.4 points per 100 possessions, but when he sits they get outscored by 6.1. The Bulls have lost 7-of-8.
24. Wizards (13-26, LW 26). John Wall is practicing with the team and taking on contact, fueling speculation he could play this season after all. Wall isn’t the only Wizard getting healthy: Davis Bertans, Bradley Beal, and Thomas Bryant all returned to the rotation over the weekend. Washington has six of its next eight on the road.
25. Pistons (14-27, LW 25). Just how good are Sekou Doumbouya and Thon Maker? That’s the question the Pistons should try to answer the rest of the season, with Blake Griffin done until next fall and Andre Drummond on the trade block (what team is going to be the buyer for him, and will they offer much?). Doumbouya has a lot of promise and Detroit should give him the room to show it the rest of the season.
26. Knicks (11-30, LW 27). Mitchell Robinson has looked steadier under new coach Mike Miller, if you’re looking for the silver lining in the dark cloud of this season. R.J. Barrett is putting up numbers but has a lot of work to do to become efficient at the NBA level. After that… it gets thin when quality young players for the Knicks. Kevin Knox has not caught up to the game after showing some early promise.
27. Cavaliers (12-29, LW 28). Collin Sexton could have his shot blocked more times this season than he has assists (hat tip to @Cavsanada for this stat). Sexton has had his shot blocked 76 times this season (1.9 times per game) and he has 91 assists, a difference of just 15. It’s probably not going to happen, but it’s something to watch if you have to watch Cavs games.
28. Hornets (15-28, LW 23). There was a point earlier in the season where Charlotte was the luckiest team in the league, the team most outperforming its point differential. That has regressed to the mean in recent weeks, including the current five-game losing streak (and losing 11-of-13). Devonte’ Graham may still be the frontrunner for Most Improved Player but he has had some rough outings and been inconsistent of late.
29. Hawks (9-32, LW 29). Fans want Trae Young in the All-Star Game — he leads East guards in the fan vote — and it’s easy to understand why, Young is fun to watch averaging 28.9 points and 8.4 assists per game. His team, however, is terrible and Young’s defense contributes to that. Should the media/fan voters put Ben Simmons, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving and other East guards who are a little more two way higher on their ballots?
30. Warriors (9-33 LW 30). Stephen Curry is taking shots again. Klay Thompson says he is itching to get back on the court. Both of them will be re-evaluated next month but how much do the Warriors really want to push them to return (and potentially hurt their lottery odds in the process)? The Warriors have lost nine in a row and seem to be banking losses for the potential return of their stars.