NBA Power Rankings: Nobody is knocking the Celtics off the top spot this week
Most of the NBA’s eyes are on Dec. 15 and the coming trade season, but games are still being played and the Celtics are still looking dominant, which is why they top this week’s NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings. The Bucks are back up to second, knocking the Suns down to third.
1. Celtics (20-5, Last week No.1). Fueling the Celtics’ historically good offense — they are on pace to have the most efficient offense in NBA history — is the 3-pointer. Boston is on pace to make more 3s than any team in NBA history: They are averaging 16.6 3s a game, which is on pace for 1,361. The 2020-21 Utah Jazz made 16.74 3s per game that season, but because of the COVID-shortened season they “only” made 1,205 total — Boston should smash that number. The Celtics are 2-0 to start a tough road trip, with the Suns, Warriors and then both Los Angeles teams left on the schedule.
2. Bucks (17-6, LW 3). Brook Lopez is having maybe the best season of his career, playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level on that end of the floor with a league-leading three blocks a game, plus pitching in 15.3 points a night — and the time to do that is a contract year. Nobody around the league thinks he’s bolting the Bucks, he’ll get an extension or sign a new deal in the offseason, but he’s getting a big raise from the $13.9 million he’s making now. Friday night in Dallas starts a string of 8-of-10 on the road for Milwaukee (they are 6-3 away from home so far).
3. Suns (16-8, LW 2). Chris Paul returns to the Suns lineup on Wednesday night after missing a month with a heel injury. Phoenix went 9-5 while Paul rested heel, with a +5.9 net rating that was fourth best in the NBA over that stretch. Really interesting test coming up over the weekend with the team just below the Suns in this ranking — games Friday and Sunday nights in New Orleans. The Pelicans are just on the Suns’ heels in the West, can Phoenix establish itself early as the team to beat to get the top seed out West, or is New Orleans more of a real threat than some give them credit for?
4. Pelicans (15-8, LW 6). The conventional wisdom was that having CJ McCollum and Zion Williamson full-time in the Pelicans lineup would spell trouble for the team’s defense, but coach Willie Green has them playing the third-best defense in the NBA on that end. Of late, Zion Williamson is starting to contribute on that end — his athleticism made him a defensive force at Duke, but in the NBA he has been more of a target for offenses. That has looked better of late, and it helps that Zion can occasionally do this:
5. Grizzlies (15-9, LW 5). Desmond Bane remains out, but the return of Jaren Jackson Jr. is starting to have the expected impact on defense — the Grizzlies are sixth in the league in defense over their last six games (stats via Cleaning the Glass, and BTW the Griz are 5-1 in that stretch). The offense, carried by Ja Morant, continues to be in the top 10 in the league. This is just a reminder of how big a difference Jackson Jr. can make at the rim.
6. Cavaliers (16-9, LW 4). After beating the Lakers Tuesday, the Cavaliers are 11-1 at home in the Rocket Mortgage Field House, with a +12.2 net rating. However, on the road the Cavs are 5-8, albeit with a +1.3 net rating (they have been a little unlucky on the road). That matters because the win over Los Angeles was the first of 9-of-11 games at home. It also helps that Cleveland got Jarrett Allen back against the Lakers, he has played at a Defensive Player of the Year level when healthy this season.
7. Warriors (13-12, LW 12). While they had a nice recent win in Minnesota, Golden State is 2-10 away from the Chase Center this season with a -8.5 net rating. Their offense stumbles a little away from home (15th in the league), but the issue has been on defense where they are second worst in the league (and 12.8 per 100 worse than their defense at home). This matters because the Warriors have 7-of-8 coming up on the road, including games against the Bucks, 76ers, and both New York teams. The Warriors have recalled James Wiseman from the G-League after he got seven games under his belt.
8. Mavericks (13-11, LW 11). Luka Doncic continues to play at an MVP level, but Jason Kidd knows he needs to reduce Doncic’s minutes at some point. He told Yahoo Sports: “For 82 games, it’s no way that he can play at this level, the usage is just way too high. No one can.” Tim Hardaway is providing some help since being moved into the starting lineup, scoring 21.3 points per game and shooting 52.5% on 3-pointers.
9. Kings (13-9, LW 15). Sacramento fans were mocked for chanting “40 wins” after a good Summer League outing, but suddenly that number seems low for the feel-good story of the season. Based purely on point differential so far, Cleaning the Glass projects the Kings to finish with 49 or 50 wins, while the more nuanced formulas at fivethirtyeight.com suggest 44 or 42 wins. The Kings’ offense has come back to earth the last couple of weeks, but Mike Brown’s defensive lessons seem to be taking hold as the Kings have the third-best defense in the NBA over the last six games. Sacramento is heading out on the road for six games against the East.
10. Nuggets (14-10, LW 8). Maybe some home cooking will help turn around the Nuggets’ 26th-ranked defense — the stat that makes us question if they really are a threat in the West. Denver is tied for the most road games in the league, but after Portland on Thursday have 6-of-7 at home in the Rocky Mountains. If your question is, ‘does Denver struggle defensively in the halfcourt or transition?’ the answer is yes. Both rank in the bottom 10 in the league. The one bright spot is the fifth-ranked offense, which is led by Nikola Jokic, who is having another MVP-level season statistically (even if it is highly unlikely voters will give him a third-straight award).
11. Jazz (14-12, LW 14). Are the Jazz the 10-3 team from the start and the season or the team that has gone 4-9 since? While Utah has dropped 6-of-8, they have been in those games with only one of the losses being by double digits. One pleasant surprise of late has been the play of rookie center Walker Kessler, who has averaged 7.2 points and two blocked shots a game coming off the bench in his last five games. The Jazz are 2-2 on a six-game homestead that wraps up this week with the Warriors then Timberwolves.
12. Nets (13-12, LW 16). TJ Warren returned to the court Friday night and was rusty, as one should expect of a guy who has missed the better part of two seasons. That said, he looked solid and if he can shake off the rust and stay healthy he can bring some needed depth to Brooklyn — depth that is needed because some role players they expected more out of have not lived up to the hype. Joe Harris must still be bothered by his ankle issue as he is averaging 8.6 points a game and shooting 36.8% from 3, numbers far below his pre-injury production.
13. 76ers (12-12, LW 7). James Harden is back, but so much for being eased into things as he had to play 38 minutes in a 2OT loss to the lowly Rockets (a game where Joel Embiid fouled out). Harden was an understandably rusty 4-of-19 shooting in that game, but he made some passes and a couple of step-back 3s that reminded everyone how he juices an offense — which matters because over the past couple of weeks that’s been the weaker end of the court for Philly (23rd in the league over the last seven games). Maybe the Sixers can find their footing on the seven-game homestead that starts against the Lakers Friday.
14. Hawks (13-11, LW 19). The reports of friction between Trae Young and Nate McMillan are not new, those rumors have been all over the league all season, nor are the questions about whether Young will adjust his game to fit better with Dejounte Murray next to him. With those two guards, John Collins has become an afterthought in the offense on too many trips down the court and the long-simmering rumors of a trade for him seem to both be heating up and have some validity this time. The question is what will the Hawks seek in return? The Hawks have 5-of-6 coming up on the road, including both New York teams and a tough test Monday in Memphis.
15. Clippers (14-11, LW 9). Kawhi Leonard is back and, right on cue, knocked down the game-winner in his first game. The Clippers have done a great job with their role players keeping their heads above water — their most-used five-man lineup of Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, George, Marcus Morris and Ivica Zubac has a +15 net rating. The Clippers also have a +18.5 net rating when Leonard and George are on the court together. Now they have to just stay healthy and give this roster a chance to build some chemistry and good habits going forward, then we’ll see what they’ve got.
16. Raptors (12-12, LW 13). Is this ranking too low for the team with the fifth-best net rating in the East? Maybe, but the return of Pascal Siakam has not sparked a middle-of-the-road offense — since he came back Toronto is 2-3 with an offensive rating a couple of points worse than their season average. Siakam is putting up numbers (24.5 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.1 assists a game) but as a team Toronto is just not efficient shooting the ball and it holds them back. Maybe the Raptors two games over the weekend in Orlando will be a chance for the Raptors’ offense to find a groove.
17. Trail Blazers (13-11, LW 18). Damian Lillard is back in the lineup and the Trail Blazers’ offense just looked more fluid, the spacing and ball movement was better in the win against Indiana. Portland had gone 2-5 without him for this stretch, he is too critical to a team with little margin for error to miss much time. The guy Portland could use to get back next is Gary Payton II to help their defense — they are 24th in the league in defense for the season, but that has been worse of late (28th in the NBA over their last seven games). Unfortunately, there is no timeline yet for his return from core muscle surgery this offseason. Portland’s win over Indiana was the start of a four-game homestead that precedes a heavy road stretch through the start of the new year.
18. Lakers 10-13, LW 24). The Lakers are 8-3 in their last 11 games, with a top-10 offense and defense, but it was evident how critical Anthony Davis is to all that in the Lakers’ loss Tuesday in Cleveland (when Davis left the game in the first quarter due to “flu-like symptoms”). As pointed out at The Athletic, during this streak the Lakers have been running a lot more Davis/LeBron James pick-and-rolls (they leaned on it late in the win over the Bucks), and they are doing it closer to the top of the key, not out above the arc.
19. Pacers (13-11, LW 10). Bennedict Mathurin isn’t the only rookie standing out in Indiana (although he is one of the clear top-two rookies so far this season), former Gonzaga point guard Andrew Nembhard dropped 31 points with 13 assists on the Warriors this week in a Pacers’ upset win. The recent struggles with the Pacers (they have dropped 5-of-8) had some league executives hoping Indiana would revert to its plan to trade veterans Myles Turner and Buddy Hield, but the team is two-games over .500 and still the fifth seed in the East — if they stay in the playoff mix, convincing ownership to make that trade becomes very difficult.
20. Heat (11-14, LW 21). The Heat remain a mystery. Jimmy Butler returned last Friday and immediately started draining clutch shots in a statement win against the Celtics, reminding everyone why a healthy Heat team is a threat in the postseason. Then they turn around two nights later and lose to a Grizzlies team resting four starters. Two nights after that they fell to the banged-up and not-very-good Pistons. The good news is that on Tuesday night Victor Oladipo made his debut this season, if he can stay healthy and provide some bench support it would be a massive boost to Miami.
21. Wizards (11-13, LW 17). Kyle Kuzma trade rumors popped up this week and it presents Wizards ownership and management with a question: Do we like where we’re at and should we keep Kuzma and try to re-sign him this summer and see how far the Bradley Beal/Kristaps Porzingis/Kuzma core can go; or, do we sell high on Kuzma and start thinking about the future because we don’t think this team can win a title? History suggests the Wizards will keep Kuzma at the deadline — they just maxed out Beal, they don’t want to blow this up. But if the Wizards are not going to pay up and re-sign him — he will opt out of his $13 million for next season and likely get something closer to $25 million a season — then they have to consider the trade.
22. Knicks (11-13, LW 22). Knicks management is reportedly working the phones heading into the NBA trade season, but not so much to make a blockbuster move, it’s more looking to send out a player or two — Evan Fournier, maybe Immanuel Quickley — to clear up a roster logjam. Tom Thibodeau finally leaned into Quentin Grimes at the two — he is their best defender on the perimeter — and with that Fournier has largely fallen out of the rotation. The Knicks aren’t going to get a lot back for him, but they would love to get off his salary. Interesting test against the Hawks Wednesday.
23. Thunder (11-13, LW 25). Jalen Williams is starting to find his way as a rookie, and we saw it last week with his 27-point game against the Spurs. It was a game where Shai Gilgeous-Alexnader was out and Williams had the ball in his hands more, but he took advantage of the opportunity and showed a tremendous feel for the game for a rookie. The Thunder have started their five-game road trip 2-0, but it doesn’t get easier with Memphis, Cleveland, and Dallas ahead.
24. Timberwolves (11-12, LW 23). One of the bigger misses in my preseason projections was the Minnesota defense — with Rudy Gobert I thought it would be top-10 in the league and help rack up wins while the team figured out if Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns can play together. Instead, Minnesota is 16th in the league in defense and it hasn’t gotten any better of late (despite Anthony Edwards going on a steals tear). With Towns missing a month or more with a calf injury, the fit questions are also on hold. Starting on Friday in Utah, Minnesota is on a five-game road trip through the West, including a couple of games against Portland.
25. Bulls (9-14, LW 20). Trying to shake things up, Billy Donovan put Alex Caruso and Javonte Green in the starting lineup replacing Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Williams, and he may stick with that for a while (although Williams was back with Green out vs. the Kings due to knee soreness). Donovan is searching for something to spark the offense, which remains bottom 10 in the league despite a roster with DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. As the Bulls continue to struggle, the trade rumors around the team continue to grow (other teams are interested in DeRozan but Chicago is more willing to part with Vucevic).
26. Rockets (7-17, LW 27). Jabari Smith has found his stoke. The No.3 pick had a rough start to the season, but over his last 10 games he is averaging 14.2 points per game and is shooting 42.2% on 3-pointers (on 6.4 attempts a game). He has been fantastic on the catch of his shoot because of his quick release, something that pairs well with the slashing of Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. After Thursday’s game in San Antonio, Houston has seven games in a row at home.
27. Hornets (7-17, LW 26). Steve Clifford has his squad putting out a strong effort every night, which is worth noting considering how hard injuries have hit this team (LaMelo Ball has played in just three games, Gordon Hayward has missed 13 and Terry Rozier eight). The Hornets have not just rolled over. With a void in the offense Kelly Oubre Jr. has stepped up as a gunner and is averaging 22.4 points a game over his last 10, and while he’s not terribly efficient doing it no doubt Oubre Jr. is comfortable taking all those extra shots.
28. Pistons (7-19, LW 28). If you’re looking for the silver lining, the fact Cade Cunningham is out (many around the league think for the season, although that is not official yet) means the Pistons have put the ball in the hands of rookie Jaden Ivey and he has shown promise. Ivey is averaging 15.9 points and 4.3 assists a game (that’s the most dimes per game of any rookie). The Pistons are still showing some fight, picking up a win against a Heat team that hasn’t consistently shown the grit of of Detroit this season.
29. Magic 5-20, LW 29). The Magic are finally healthy in the backcourt, with Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony returning to the floor this past week. However, that guard depth did not spark a win and the Magic have dropped nine straight, although all the losses were to teams with records of .500 or better. This is just a tough patch for the Magic and the young core is learning lessons the hard way. However, we can’t go a week without a Bol Bol highlight, how about coast-to-coast for the slam against the Raptors.
30. Spurs (6-18, LW 30). The losing streak has reached 11 straight (second longest in franchise history) and it’s tough to find bright spots at this point (other than Spurs fans watching Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson highlights). One might be the play of backup center Charles Bassey, the second-round pick a year ago out of Western Kentucky, who is averaging six rebounds a night off the bench in San Antonio. The Spurs host the Rockets Thursday night, which is their best chance to break the streak this week.
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