We’re basically a quarter of the way through the season. What have we learned? Well, the NBA's three hottest teams—the Warriors, Cavs and Clippers—all took unexpected losses this week, the Raptors are on fire, the Spurs are still the Spurs, and the rest of the league is falling in behind—so basically, very little, one could say.
But, tracking that information is why we have Power Rankings, and there continues to be plenty of change from week to week. The Hawks are nosediving, the Bucks suddenly look dangerous, the Knicks might be pulling it together, and yeah, a solid chunk of the league ranges from inconsistent to bad.
Look out for Warriors–Clippers (Wednesday) and Cavs–Raptors (Monday) for signs of where next week’s ranks might be headed. Until then, here’s where we stand.
30. Philadelphia 76ers (4–16)
Last Week: 28
Net Rating: -10.5
The Sixers and Kings had a game postponed this week due to bizarre condensation on the court in Philly. I can’t wait until that game is made up in March and directly impacts the lottery. (Don’t forget Philly gets Sacramento’s first-rounder if it’s in the top 10).
29. Brooklyn Nets (5–14)
Last Week: 29
Net Rating: -8.5
Oh, the Nets. Basically, to invoke the late Dennis Green, they are who we thought they were. They aren’t boring, and they’re taking organizational steps forward, but they aren’t very good. Sean Kilpatrick’s emergence as a useful part has helped mitigate the fact Jeremy Lin has been hurt, and they’ve gotten to see what they have in Isaiah Whitehead, who’s a gamer with some talent but probably not a true point guard. First-rounder Caris LeVert will be available to play this week, which is also worth following. You can spell Brooklyn without “broken” (apologies for that one).
But basically, the losing is kind of expected. It’s depressing, but not disastrous—the Nets knew they weren’t going to win games. They inked respectable veterans (Trevor Booker, Randy Foye) to decent contracts, were careful not to tie up too much long-term cash, and understood that they have to wait out the whole not-having-lottery-picks problem. It’s an organizational instance where information gathering tends to take precedence over results, so anything positive or negative they can wean about their slew of young guys (Kilpatrick, Whitehead, LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) is still progress. You hate to make excuses for teams, and there’s not even draft incentive for the Nets to tank, but it requires a little perspective.
Another interesting plot point: they might get Donatas Motiejunas this week, who if healthy should adequately use a chunk of touches. The only thing is, the reported team-friendliness of his offer sheet might actually just bite the Nets in the ass instead—the Rockets’ risk in matching is heavily mitigated by a pair of options that kick in before the end of the year and trigger guaranteed money. And so it goes in Brooklyn, where even the best of intentions and hedges have no real bearing on how fast this franchise gets where it wants to go.
28. Dallas Mavericks (4–15)
Last Week: 30
Net Rating: -6.2
Something tells me these bottom three teams are going be fairly permanent all season.
27. Phoenix Suns (6–14)
Last Week: 27
Net Rating: -5.1
If you missed Andrew Sharp’s Q&A with rising star Devin Booker, here it is. If you missed any Suns games this week, well, then you didn’t really miss too much.
26. Minnesota Timberwolves (6–14)
Last Week: 24
Net Rating: -0.5
Man, people really, really jumped the gun on these kids—but it doesn’t make their growth less entertaining.
25. Miami Heat (7–13)
Last Week: 25
Net Rating: -2.0
The Heat are figuring out how to eke out wins, and to their credit have been legitimately blown out just once all season. There just isn’t much of substance to prognosticate here. Pat Riley is counting the days until July 1.
24. Washington Wizards (6–12)
Last Week: 26
Net Rating: -3.2
Since missing three games with an injury, Brad Beal is shooting 50% from the field, 47% from three and averaging 27 points per game, so at least that max deal doesn’t look too bad.
23. Sacramento Kings (7–13)
Last Week: 21
Net Rating: -4.0
22. Denver Nuggets (7–13)
Last Week: 20
Net Rating: -4.8
Wilson Chandler is apparently now a vegan, and he’s been Denver’s best player, and now I wish they would trade him to, say, the Clippers.
21. New Orleans Pelicans (7–14)
Last Week: 22
Net Rating: -2.3
If the Pelicans make the playoffs, Anthony Davis should probably be the MVP, but they probably won’t, so he probably won’t be. Basketball can seems so simple, sometimes.
20. Orlando Magic (9–12)
Last Week: 23
Net Rating: -4.0
The defense, as we predicted, is effective. The Magic owns the league’s third-best defensive rating, allowing a solid 100.8 points per 100 possessions. The team’s overall performance has been way harder to peg.
19. Los Angeles Lakers (10–12)
Last Week: 14
Net Rating: -5.0
The Lakers appear to be regressing back into the fun-but-distinctly-not-good tier of teams, but Lou Williams just went for 40 in the year 2016. The fun is all we need from them this season.
18. Atlanta Hawks (10–11)
Last week: 11
Net Rating: -1.4
Wow, what happened here? Did Gucci Mane’s recent courtside proposal just soak up all the quality juju at Philips Arena and leave the Hawks gasping for breath? Remember when the Hawks were 9–2? Well, they aren’t anymore, dropping nine of 10 games while playing the least efficient offense in the league, struggling heavily with turnovers, rebounding at a poor rate and posting the worst true shooting percentage of all 30 teams. Yuck.
So yeah, this has been a stark fall into the back half of the rankings after cracking the top five three weeks ago. I mean, it doesn’t help that Paul Millsap has been out with a hip injury, although his performance leading into that absence had been sub-standard, too. They’ve also been on the road for much of this span. But look: Atlanta just lost to Detroit by 36, then to Toronto by 44 the next night, and no crappy travel schedule can quite justify those results—something’s off here, on both sides of the ball.
I believe this team can defend, because we’ve seen it, and we know Mike Budenholzer can coach it. After all these weird blowouts, the Hawks still own the NBA’s second-most efficient defense. That said, when Millsap sits, you’re mostly looking at weird Mike Muscala/Dwight Howard pairings and small lineups with Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha sticking forwards. They can either go awkwardly big or painfully small, due to glaring lack of defensive-minded interior depth in the frontcourt, and that’s an explosively bad recipe when the majority of teams in the league can spread you out and expose that.
The other side of the ball was always going to be up and down—the Hawks have a bunch of streaky perimeter shooters and are leaning on turnover-prone but talented Dennis Schröder to get them the basketball every night. Growing pains were a given. Howard’s been up and down, but also can’t be leaned on as a go-to option at this stage of his career. When this team is bad, it’s going to break very bad. I’d hedge on Atlanta ticking back upward at some point once healthy, but just playing .500 caliber basketball from here would be progress. They’re in danger of losing the pack.
17. Indiana Pacers (10–10)
Last Week: 17
Net Rating: -2.7
Beat the Clippers twice, get blown out by the Blazers, and yeah, nobody else knows what to do with these guys, either.
16. Portland Trailblazers (11–10)
Last Week: 16
Net Rating: -1.9
The Blazers and their leaky defense take the show on a critical road trip, with just one home game between now and Dec. 20 and a tricky set of opponents on deck. We’ll see how things look when they get back.
15. New York Knicks (11–9)
Last Week: 15
Net Rating: -2.8
Derrick Rose looks mostly fine… which is going to put the Knicks in a tricky negotiation position come July, which is such a Knicks thing. They’re in a playoff spot!
14. Memphis Grizzlies (13–8)
Last Week: 7
Net Rating: -1.1
No Mike Conley for a while is rough, but instead of harping on that, let’s give some love to Tony Allen for an incredible week. Go watch the fourth quarter of last week’s Grizzlies-Magic game.
13. Charlotte Hornets (11–9)
Last Week: 9
Net Rating: +2.7
Charlotte’s dropped six of nine games. In the six losses, opponents are putting up nearly 116 points per game on average. Scoring is up around the league this year, but yeesh.
12. Detroit Pistons (11–11)
Last Week: 18
The Pistons can feel good about getting Reggie Jackson back, but what's equally important is that the defense has quietly come around in recent weeks, and they’re allowing the fewest points per game in the East.
11. Boston Celtics (12–8)
Last Week: 10
Net Rating: +2.0
The Celtics are playing better, but haven’t looked especially dominant, even in winning nine of their last 13. The record conceals a team that struggles on the glass and lacks the every-night consistency you want in a playoff team, two factors that are probably connected.
10. Milwaukee Bucks (10–8)
Last Week: 19
Net Rating: +2.2
Giannis update: If the season ended today, he’d be the first player ever to average at least 22 points, six assists, eight rebounds, two blocks and two steals per game. Related: the Bucks have won five of six. I really miss Khris Middleton now.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder (13–8)
Last Week: 12
Net Rating: +1.4
I have no idea how long Russell Westbrook-averaging-a-triple-double watch is going to last, but hopefully it lasts forever.
8. Chicago Bulls (11–8)
Last Week: 6
Net Rating: +3.1
Beating the Cavs should have felt like a high point. In a week that included embarrassing losses to the Lakers and Mavericks, not so much.
7. Utah Jazz (12–9)
Last Week: 13
Net Rating: +6.6
After winning five of their last six, the Jazz are back on track. Gordon Hayward’s averaging 27 per game in that span, and Quin Snyder’s effectively leaning on a deep bench.
6. Houston Rockets (13–7)
Last Week: 8
Net Rating: +3.3
Beating the Warriors while playing at both teams’ preferred pace was a nice signature win for the Rockets. Who would have thought this revival would be so fun?
5. Cleveland Cavaliers (13–5)
Last Week: 2
Net Rating: +4.5
The Cavs have dropped three straight, including a rough back-to-back with the Clippers at home and Bulls in Chicago, but you also wonder if they’re just a little bit bored. Don’t fret.
4. L.A. Clippers (16–6)
Last week: 3
Net Rating: +10.0
Consider a brief spot of trouble somewhat navigated: the Clips bounced back from that weird double-OT loss in Brooklyn by handily sweeping a road back-to-back against the Cavs (impressive) and the Pelicans (eh, less impressive), then lost a bad one to the Pacers for the second Sunday in a row. The first of four meetings with the Warriors looms Wednesday.
3. San Antonio Spurs (16–4)
Last week: 4
Net Rating: +6.1
I’m guilty of already having fallen into the annual Spurs lull, even though they’ve won 10 of their past eleven, which has included travel spurts on both coasts and three back to backs. That slate included plenty of winnable games, and they’re not blowing teams out, but it’s the consistency that’s a hallmark of this franchise.
2. Toronto Raptors (14–6)
Last Week: 5
Net Rating: +10.2
Before you try and leave an angry message in the comment section and then realize it doesn’t exist on this website anymore: for the record, I don’t believe the Toronto Raptors are the second best team in the league. I don’t think they’re the best team in the East, but there’s no question they’re the hottest one right now. It’s nice to give teams credit when applicable, and so let’s take a moment to recognize a team that’s deep, cohesive, and more than just DeMar DeRozan.
We can start with DeRozan, though, who’s been a treat this season and has stood out alongside Jimmy Butler as the latest proof of the so-called post-Olympic bump. His career year has seen him post just three games with less than 20 points, and included 10 30-plus-point games in Toronto’s first 12. What’s more, during this current six-game win streak, he’s actually shot the ball less than usual, while continuing to dish the ball at a career-high rate. Meanwhile, the Raptors hold far and away the league’s most efficient offense in that span, with an uptick in team assist rate—they hold the league’s second-best offensive rating on the season despite assisting on slightly less than half of their baskets.
Kyle Lowry’s been predictably excellent, converting a personal-best 42% of threes (he might regress) and dishing out 7.4 assists per game, just in time for his pending free agency. But when you go up and down the roster, you see a number of players playing the best ball of their careers, from the notably consistent Jonas Valanciunas to the notoriously streaky Terrence Ross. Unheralded recent draft picks Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam look like finds. DeMarre Carroll’s starting to come on. It also appears the Raptors have finally unearthed Lucas Nogueira in a modified version of Bismack Biyombo’s old role, which saved the franchise millions and has been occasionally incredible to witness. This is a roster that’s been together in this iteration for a whole year, and lest we forget, they won 56 games last season.
The Raptors draw the Cavs—who they pushed hard during an 121–117 loss a few weeks ago—on Monday night. Is Toronto going to match up and beat them in a seven-game set? Unlikely. But there’s something to be said when continuity produces high-level, consistent results, and it’s not a total stretch to think Toronto has a shot at stealing home court advantage in April. This type of success is sustainable, and though the overall talent level tends to preclude them from the big-picture conversation in June, remember that this is an extremely weird league.
1. Golden State Warriors (17–3)
Last Week: 1
Net Rating: +12.8
Golden State has now won 106 straight regular season games without consecutive losses. As for the post-season… awkward.