NBA Power Rankings: Celtics remain on top but Suns jump up to second
We head into the holiday season and the Boston Celtics are still rolling atop the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings this week. The Suns jumped up to second with a few wins while the Bucks stumbled, but the Pelicans remain in the top 10 and a surprise to be there.
1. Celtics (17-4, Last week No.1). Joe Mazzulla is going to get some Coach of the Year votes. It may be too early to start thinking about awards not voted on until April, but Mazzulla was thrust into an awkward situation with the suspension of Ime Udoka for the season, and all he has done is preside over the best offense in the history of the NBA — a 120.9 net rating (for comparison, the Jazz had the best offense in the NBA the previous two seasons at 116.2 and 116.5). Mazzulla didn’t mess with what works and kept the team focused. He deserves credit for that. Two interesting games this week against the Miami Heat, both in Boston (and the second one may see Jimmy Butler return).
2. Suns (14-6, LW 3). The Suns are not the same team away from the Footprint Center in Phoenix — they are 11-1 at home and 3-5 on the road so far this season. Starting Sunday that will be put to the test as the Suns head out on the road for 6-of-7. Will Phoenix have Chris Paul for those games? Suns just-extended head of basketball ops James Jones said “he’s close” to a possible C3P return (he has missed 10 games with a heel injury), but there is no official return date set (he is out Wednesday vs. Chicago). One of the games on the upcoming road trip is against Dallas and Luka Doncic, the first time the playoff foes from last season have met since opening night.
3. Bucks (14-5, LW 2). After their 9-0 start to the season, the Bucks are a .500 team, with a pedestrian defense and a bottom-10 offense in that stretch. It’s hard to read too much into that with Khris Middleton still out — although he is poised to return this week, a massive boost for the team in the half-court — all of which may be a sign there are vulnerabilities in Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo set a career-best with nine dunks against the Cavaliers, a team with generally good rim protection but not in transition last Friday night.
4. Cavaliers (13-8, LW 4). Donovan Mitchell has been everything the Cavaliers have hoped for and more, but the first quarter of the season has shown Jarrett Allen is the most valuable Cavalier — he solidifies their paint defense and provides quality screen setting on offense. The Cavaliers have been 6.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court this season, but it’s the defensive end that comes apart when he misses games. Cleveland is a team of streaks: Win eight in a row, lose five in a row, win 5-of-6, then they fell again Monday in Toronto. LeBron and the Lakers come to town next Tuesday.
5. Grizzlies (12-8, LW 12). Memphis may only be 3-2 in games Jaren Jackson Jr. has played since his return, but they have outscored opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions in the minutes he is on the court — he matters that much to this team. We also need to give some love to Santi Aldama, who played well with Jackson out and his defense and finishing are going to help this team win games when it matters. A couple of interesting games against the East are coming up, Friday night against the 76ers then Monday against the Heat.
6. Pelicans (12-8, LW 9). Is New Orleans for real? On paper they are one of a handful of teams with a top-10 offense and defense, the traditional sign of a contender (it’s also a flawed measure, Boston doesn’t have a top-10 D right now but they are clearly contenders). Doubters will point to the fact opponents are shooting just 33.2% from 3 against the Pelicans (something likely to go up), plus that the Pelicans are 8-1 against teams under .500 but 4-7 against teams over that mark. Still, you have to beat the teams in front of you and the Pelicans have the fourth-best net rating in the league. Good tests are coming up with games this week against Toronto and Denver.
7. 76ers (12-9, LW 16). James Harden is expected to return on Philadelphia’s three-game road trip, maybe in Houston next Monday night (good soft landing spot). The 76ers are 8-4 in the dozen games Harden has missed so far and have the best defense in the NBA over that stretch — that is the end of the floor where they need to thrive after Harden (and, eventually, Tyrese Maxey) returns. The 76ers have those eight wins without Harden because B-Ball Paul Reed, Shake Milton and others (including Tobias Harris) have stepped up in recent games.
8. Nuggets (13-7, LW 11). Denver outscores its opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions when Nikola Jokic is on the court, but gets outscored by 13.9 per 100 when he sits — the team is +26.7 when he plays. That’s the kind of wild on/off differential that helped him win back-to-back MVPs, but it was supposed to be different this season with the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the maturation of Bones Highland and the addition of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The issues with the Nuggets bench remains and it’s something they need to solve if they want to challenge the teams above them in this ranking.
9. Clippers (13-9, LW 7). It’s still hard to figure out what these Clippers are. They won the first three games Kawhi Leonard was back, and they have a ridiculous +31.7 net rating in the limited minutes that Paul George and Leonard are on the court together. But this team can’t stay healthy — Leonard was out with a sprained ankle — and gets its rotations set, so it just keeps treading water. Tuesday night in Portland started 6-of-7 on the road for Los Angeles.
10. Pacers (12-8, LW 13). Indiana and Myles Turner came through Los Angeles — the Pacers beat the Lakers on a dramatic game-winner by rookie Andrew Nembhard, but fell to the Clippers — and that revived trade speculation going back to this summer. While Turner works to ignore the noise and is having a career year so far, the bigger question becomes would the Pacers still trade him? Or do they want to keep him with Tyrese Haliburton long-term? Even if Indiana doesn’t want to trade him, if they think he will bolt in free agency next summer they may not have a choice, but for now the buzz around the NBA is the Pacers are not eager to deal (and would need to be blown away by an offer).
11. Mavericks (10-10, LW 6). Tuesday night’s win over the Warriors sums things up for the Mavericks:
On any given night they can compete with anyone and win, but it takes a 41-point triple-double from Luka Doncic (12 rebounds, 12 assists) to have a chance. There is no secondary shot creation (off-season acquisition Christian Wood is coming off the bench), and with that the workload on Doncic is incredible. How long can he keep this up? That one game explains why no team wants to face the Mavericks in the playoffs, but what it will take for Doncic to get this team to the postseason is a lot to ask.
12. Warriors (11-11, LW 19). Golden State is 8-4 in last 12 and has found its footing. A key part of that was a move by Steve Kerr to split more of the minutes of Draymond Green and Stephen Curry more, having Green play with the second unit in place of the youngsters who did not work out as a group. The result has been something steady that works and doesn’t blow leads. Throw in Klay Thompson finding his legs again and the Warriors are starting to look like the Warriors again.
13. Raptors (11-9, LW 17). Pascal Siakam returned from a 10-game absence Monday and looked like his best self, getting downhill, attacking the rim, grabbing rebounds, and pushing the pace. Toronto went 5-5 without Siakam but it didn’t take long to see why they missed him. Scottie Barnes is back on the court as well, and with OG Anunoby playing at an All-Star — maybe Defensive Player of the Year — level, it could be time for the Raptors to string tother a few wins (doing so at Brooklyn and at New Orleans will not be so easy, however).
14. Jazz (12-11, LW 5). Losers of five in a row and 8-of-10, Utah has come back to earth after its fast start. The Jazz’s problems are on the defensive end, where they are second worst in the league over the last 10 games. The bad news is that in a very tight West, even a little losing a few games means a quick tumble down the standings (the Jazz fell to eighth in the West, part of the play-in). The good news is they are home for 7-of-8 coming up, a chance to rest and turn this thing around (the Jazz lost the opener of the homestead to the Bulls).
15. Kings (10-9, LW 8). Sacramento looks at the way De’Aaron Fox is thriving, the way Domantas Sabonis fits in with them, and yes, the way Tyrese Haliburton has blossomed in Indiana, and think they nailed the trade (something Sam Amick talked about at The Athletic). Maybe they were right, if they can hold on to a playoff spot. The Kings have had one of the easiest schedules in the league but that is about to change with a 7-of-8 on the road starting Saturday against the Clippers.
16. Nets (11-11, LW 21). The Nets could be getting T.J. Warren back on Friday night, which could be a huge boost if Warren can get back close to his vintage self. Warren was one of the breakout stars of the bubble, averaging 26.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game for the Pacers. However, he has played just four games since the bubble due to stress fractures in his foot. Kevin Durant may want nothing to do with the MVP conversation, but he continues to play at that level: 30 points per game on an insane 65.9 true shooting percentage, plus 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a night.
17. Wizards (11-10, LW 15). Consistency has not been in the Wizards’ vocabulary this season. Last week they dropped two games to the Heat, then watched Kristaps Porzingis go off for a career-high 41 against the Timberwolves in a win. Sometimes consistency can come when a team bonds on the road, which is what Washington needs to happen — 14 of its next 20 games are outside DMV. Bradley Beal seems to be finding his scoring groove again, which would help bring some consistency to the table.
18. Trail Blazers (11-10, LW 10). Good news in Portland: Damian Lillard is targeting Sunday to return from his latest calf strain. They need him. The Trail Blazers have gone 1-4 without him this time, including their worst loss of the season, a blown 18-point second-half lead to a Clippers team without either of their stars. Lillard is averaging 26.3 points and seven assists a game this season, showing the explosion we were used to from the perennial All-Star. Hopefully he gets back to being that player quickly.
19. Hawks (11-10, LW 19). This team’s success seems fragile at times — Clint Capela has to sit a couple of games with dental pain and the defense comes apart, leading to losses. Trae Young and Dejounte Murray are blending fairly well together (+4.7 net rating when both are on the court) but the players around them have not meshed with the duo, and we thought the offense would thrive but it is 22nd in the league. Atlanta needs to pick up some wins in a soft part of the schedule this week (Orlando, OKC, and the New York Knicks).
20. Bulls (9-11, LW 20). After a 6-10 start, the Bulls beat the Celtics and Bucks in back-to-back games and have now won 3-of-4. Part of that can be tied to Patrick Williams, who started the season slowly but has averaged 10.8 points and 5.2 rebounds a game in November, with a fantastic 63.2 true shooting percentage. Plus he plays solid defense. Chicago is 2-1 on its six-game road trip, but things do not get easier with Phoenix, Golden State, and Sacramento remaining.
21. Heat (10-11, LW 24). With the roster shorthanded (Jimmy Butler is out for his seventh straight Wednesday due to right knee soreness) the Heat have leaned heavily into more zone defense. Couper Moorhead noted on Heat Twitter that in the six games including Sunday the Heat had over 330 possessions in the zone, “more than 21 teams used all of last year.” All the roster issues are part of why the Heat have been in 15 clutch games this season (within 5 points in the final five minutes), tied for most in the NBA, and they are 7-8 in those games despite a +9.4 net rating in those minutes.
22. Knicks (10-11, LW 20). RJ Barrett continues to present a challenge for Tom Thibodeau and Knicks fans. On the one hand, he gets you buckets — 18.4 points a game, plus 5.4 rebounds. But he’s terribly inefficient doing it, shooting 27.4% from 3 this season and with an ugly 49.9 true shooting percentage. He has a four-year, $107 million extension that kicks in next season, and while that is not wildly out of line he is not living up to it, either. Thibodeau has given Barrett plenty of room to be Barrett, but if this team wants to take the next steps either he needs to start making more shots, or those shots need to go to someone who will.
23. Timberwolves (10-11, LW 18). Karl-Anthony Towns is now out 4-6 weeks with a calf strain, and even if he beats that timeline it’s concerning for the Timberwolves — it’s never good to be without your franchise player for an extended period. What’s more, the Timberwolves have a -11.8 net rating this season when Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards are on the court together but Towns is not. That can change, maybe going to a more conventional one-big lineup and some D’Angelo Russell pick-and-roll will work, but the pieces have not fit well yet in Minnesota and this isn’t going to help matters.
24. Lakers 7-12, LW 25). The Lakers did what they needed to do, racking up wins (5-of-6) through a soft part of the schedule. Now things get serious, and it didn’t start well with the heartbreaker loss to the Pacers. There are positives with the Lakers — Russell Westbrook’s play off the bench, a more consistent Lonnie Walker IV — but if the losses start piling up again as the schedule gets tougher, tension around this team is going to rise quickly.
25. Thunder (8-13, LW 22). After a strong start to the season, OKC has hit a rough patch losing 5-of-6, with a bottom-10 offense and defense in that stretch. There are positives to take away from the first quarter of the season, beyond the fact Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has ascended to All-NBA level star. Rookie Jalen Williams (the wing out of Santa Clara) has impressed. Aleksej Pokusevski has taken a step forward and is contributing. This team was never going to win a lot of games but there are positives.
26. Hornets (6-15, LW 26). Gordon Hayward’s fractured left shoulder has added drama on and off the court in Charlotte, Terry Rozier is not meant to play point guard but is forced into the role with LaMelo Ball still out, and the lack of shooting and depth has left the Hornets with the worst offense in the NBA this season. Still, there are positives, such as the recent play of center Nick Richards, who has shown potential at the five (and deserves more run over Plumlee).
27. Rockets (5-15, LW 28). After a rough start to the season, rookie Jabari Smith Jr. has looked better of late, averaging 15.8 points per game and shooting 40% from 3 over his last five. What’s more he’s +19 in those five games (for context, he is -125 for the season). It will be a process with him, but he’s showing improvement. Rough stretch for the Rockets this week with three on the road — Denver, Phoenix, Golden State — then coming home to a healthy Philadelphia 76ers team.
28. Pistons (5-18, LW 29). If you hear one name more than any other starting Dec. 15 (when most players signed this summer can be traded, unofficially the start of NBA trading season) it will be Bojan Bogdanovic. He is playing well, averaging 20.3 points a game and shooting 39.7% from 3. A lot of teams are going to be calling, the Pistons just extended him at a fair price, but the question is do they want to keep him to help speed the turnaround next season (with a healthy Cade Cunningham), or should they get younger players and continue the rebuild? One thing is for sure, they are not giving him away, it will take an impressive offer to land him.
29. Magic 5-16, LW 27). Paolo Banchero is back on the court after missing seven games, and scored at least 18 points in each of those games, including 24 on 9-of-17 shooting against the Nets. Markelle Fultz is also close to a return, as is Cole Anthony, adding more ball handlers and shot creators to the mix for the Magic. When healthy, this is an entertaining team to watch, if not one winning many games because of their defense.
30. Spurs (6-15, LW 30). It’s challenging to find bright spots on a Spurs team that has lost eight in a row and 13-of-14, but the one worth talking about might be Devin Vassell. The third-year wing out of Florida State has made a leap this season, averaging 20.4 points, shooting 41.9% from 3, and being more efficient overall despite a massive jump in usage. He deserves consideration for the Most Valuable Player award, even if it’s going to be tough to win it on this team.
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