NBA Power Rankings: Suns take over No. 1 after knocking off Warriors
The East is deeper than the West this season, but the top two teams in the league and three of the top four in these NBA Power Rankings are in the West — and the Suns and Warriors are a clear first and second. Brooklyn and Milwaukee (and maybe others) are playing the long game, but the best is in the West right now.
1. Suns (18-3, Last Week No. 2). There are a few reasons Phoenix beat Golden State Tuesday: Mikal Bridges’ “Defensive Player of the Year mixtape” effort on Stephen Curry, and the impressive versatility and depth of the Suns’ roster. But maybe the biggest is how good the Suns are in the clutch — the Suns are 9-1 in games that had clutch time this season (within 5 points in the final 5 minutes) and have outscored teams by 52.9 points per 100 possessions in those minutes. That’s not a typo, a +52.9 net rating in clutch minutes. Make it within 3 points in the final 3 minutes and the Suns are 6-1 with a +42.9 net rating. That’s the kind of numbers that will carry over to the playoffs.
2. Warriors (18-3, LW 1). From the Warriors’ perspective, they can brush off the loss to the Suns: Stephen Curry had a rare off night (4-of-21 shooting), they were careless with the ball (23 turnovers), and they were still in the game at the end. Plus, they haven’t added Klay Thompson or James Wiseman to the rotation yet (those are coming later this month). Golden State can still feel like it will be the better team when the games really matter in May. The Warriors get another shot at the Suns Friday night to kick-off a four-game homestand.
3. Nets (15-6, LW 3). The basketball gods continue to throw obstacles in the path of the Nets — now Joe Harris will be out at least a month, maybe two, following ankle surgery — but the team just continues to win and sit atop the East. The Nets have won 8-of-10, but the two losses were two the two teams above them in this ranking, and the schedule toughens up with a hot Minnesota team, then Chicago, then four on the road. The Nets have work to do, but plenty of time left this regular season to do it.
4. Jazz (14-7, LW 5). Here are Rudy Gobert’s comments after the loss to the Pelicans (via Eric Walden of the Salt Lake Tribune): “When we’re moving the ball and finding the open man, it’s simple. It’s a blessing to have so many great shooters and guys who can get to the rim… It’s fun when we do that. No matter who scores, it’s fun when we win. And when we don’t, we make it hard on ourselves.” The Jazz did make it hard on themselves during a split of two games against New Orleans, but this week the Jazz get the rare three days off to clear their heads before hosting Boston then going out on the road for four.
5. Bucks (13-8, LW 8). The Bucks have brought in DeMarcus Cousins for a little more depth up front as they await the return of Brook Lopez from a back injury. Without Lopez, Milwaukee has given Bobby Portis more run at center, but the biggest change is Giannis Antetokounmpo having played 62% of his minutes this season at center. The Bucks have won seven in a row, all against teams below .500, but they are blowing those teams out (+14.4 net rating in those seven). Interesting test against the Heat on Saturday.
6. Heat (13-8, LW 4). Miami has come back to earth in the past couple of weeks: a 4-3 record with a +3 net rating and a middle of the pack offense and defense. Injuries have played a role in that, with Markieff Morris still out from the Jokic cheap shot, and both Tyler Herro and Jimmy Butler missing recent games. Now comes word that Bam Adebayo is out for likely 4-6 weeks with thumb surgery — he is averaging 18.7 points and 10.2 rebounds a game, anchors the Miami defense, and will mean more Dewayne Dedmon and more small lineups.
7. Bulls (14-8, LW 6). One of four teams ranked in the top 10 and offense and defense so far this season, but a red flag has gone up over the last eight games as that defense has fallen off to bottom 10 in the league for that stretch (using Cleaning the Glass’s figures with a garbage time filter). DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and the offense is still clicking, and defensive specialist Alex Caruso pitched in with another poster dunk over P.J. Tucker, one that shut down the United Center.
8. Celtics (11-10, LW 7). The Celtics are just a slow, grinding, and not very efficient offensive team. They don’t run much (bottom seven in the league), and they are second in the league in isolation possessions. The ball just doesn’t move enough. Boston has gotten a good deal this season in Dennis Schroder, who became a cautionary tale because of the Lakers’ extension he didn’t take, settling for $5.9 million on a one-year deal. He is playing his way into a larger contract next year averaging 17.1 points, 4 rebounds and 4.9 assists a night. Whether that next contract will be in Boston or not is a very different question.
9. Wizards (13-8, LW 10). Bradley Beal has had to transition this season from “If I don’t score 30+ we have no chance to win” to “I can trust these teammates” and coach Wes Unseld thought Saturday’s win over Dallas was a sign how far Beal has come down that road (credit to Josh Robbins at The Athletic for the reporting). Beal scored 26 but had 7 dimes and made the “right basketball play” when it mattered. Despite that the Wizards are 3-5 in their last 8 with a -7.8 net rating and the 25th ranked defense in the league.
10. Hornets (13-10, LW 12). No team is running more than the Hornets this season, with 19.6% of their possessions starting that way, and while they are 12th in the league in efficiency on those plays it still generates them a league-best 25.1 points per game on the break. Of course, it makes sense to play that fast when you have the open-court wizardry of LaMelo Ball on the roster. Charlotte has dropped two in a row on the road (including an ugly one in Houston) and things don’t get easier with the Bucks, Hawks, then two against the 76ers coming up.
11. Hawks (11-10 LW 16). Losing Bogdan Bogdanovic (sprained ankle) and De’Andre Hunter (wrist surgery) has hit the Hawks wing depth hard (Cam Reddish missed some time in there as well), but it hasn’t slowed Atlanta’s momentum. They had won seven in a row and are still 5-1 in their last six, with a top-five offense and defense, and a +16.3 net rating in that stretch (third-best in the league). Trae Young shouldn’t have to worry and campaign to make the All-Star team this season, he has earned that running away (26 points, 9 assists a game) and should be in All-NBA consideration (and probably make the team) if he keeps playing like this.
12. Clippers (11-10, LW 9). Despite the best efforts of Paul George, the Clippers’ offense has come off the rails the past couple of weeks — 26th in the NBA over their last seven games (in which L.A. is 2-5). Maybe the Lakers finally getting healthier (Marcus Morris Sr., Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum all getting back in the rotation) will help with that, but the guy who would really change the dynamic remains a long way off (if he even returns this season, it’s still an unknown). With no LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard, Friday night’s “hallway series” game against the Lakers lacks a lot of luster.
13. 76ers (11-10, LW 11). Joel Embiid’s value to the 76ers could not have been more evident as the team went 2-7 in the games he missed (Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle missed time as well, and Ben Simmons remains away from the team saying he is not mentally ready to play). Another way to look at it: Philadelphia is bottom 10 in the league on defense for the season, but they are 9.1 points per 100 possessions better and have what would be the fourth-best defense in the NBA (104.6 rating) when Embiid is on the court. Right now, this is the Embiid show, which means the front office needs to be sure to maximize his prime.
14. Knicks (11-10, LW 14). Tom Thibodeau gave the starting lineup 20 games but finally shook things up, sending Kemba Walker out of the rotation and starting Alec Burks in his place — slotting Burks in with the other starting four made them 28 points per 100 possessions better. Starting Burks also keeps the strong bench guard rotation of Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley in place — Thibs doesn’t want to mess with what works. That new starting lineup looked better against the Nets, but it was still the bench guards who made the runs that kept it close late. Don’t be surprised when the Walker trade talk ramps up. That
15. Timberwolves (11-10, LW 18). Minnesota is a legit playoff team, or at least they have looked like it in winning 7-of-8. You could have won a lot of bets before the season if you said the Timberwolves would have a top-10 defense a quarter of the way into the season. Karl-Anthony Towns credited both continuity of the core, the growth of Anthony Edwards, and the coaching staff — particularly Elston Turner as the defensive coordinator — for getting this team on its current run. Real tests for the young team are coming up this week with the Wizards, Nets, and Hawks.
16. Cavaliers (11-10, LW 19). Evan Mobley returned from his sprained elbow after just four games — all four Cavaliers losses, not so coincidentally. Mobley and Jarrett Allen have paired well as a defensive-minded 4/5 combo and Cleveland is allowing less than a point per possession defensively when both are on the court. That defense (fifth best in the NBA overall) earned them a win in Dallas Monday, the start of a tough stretch of games with 4-of-5 on the road and tough opponents like the Jazz and Bucks.
17. Trail Blazers (11-11, LW 13). The abdominal issue that has been on-and-off with Damian Lillard for a couple of years — and slowed him down both during the Olympics and the start of this season — now has the Blazers’ all-everything guard out for at least 10 days as he tries to get right. Portland remains a Jeykll & Hyde team — 10-1 at home but 1-10 on the road. They are completely different teams depending on if they are staying at home or in a hotel. The good news for Blazers fans is 7-of-8 are at hime.
18. Lakers (12-11, LW 21). Coach Frank Vogel — yes, his seat is getting warm according to league sources — is still searching for lineup combinations that work, and had gone more with a LeBron James at center looks of late (which have looked fantastic for small stretches). Vogel won’t be able to lean on that for the next 10 days or so with LeBron out due to health and safety protocols. LeBron has missed 12 games this season, the Lakers are 5-7 in those games, and they have a -2.2 net rating when he is off the court this season. It remains difficult to know what the Lakers are as a team a quarter of the way into the season because we haven’t seen much of them whole and healthy.
19. Nuggets (10-10, LW 15). The basketball fates continue to take out their wrath on Denver: Jamal Murray and P.J. Dozier are still both out with ACL injuries, Michael Porter Jr. likely is done for the season following another back surgery, and now comes word both Austin Rivers and Bones Hyland are in the league’s health and safety protocols. At least Nikola Jokic has returned from his wrist injury; he continues to have advanced stats this season that rival or exceed his MVP-season a year ago. Monday’s win in Miami (again, good to have Jokic back) started seven in a row and 10-of-12 on the road.
20. Mavericks (10-9, LW 17). Jason Kidd on working with Luka Donic this season: “When I was 22 I just thought I could go 100 mph for 82 games, not understanding that there’s a pace to this, and that there’s a way to make the game easier. So, the conversations we have had so far are ‘How can we make it easier?’ because we know everyone is going to pick you up full court, everyone is going to make it hard on you, how can we move you off the ball and put you in a different situation….Because of the usage rate he has, if he has the ball for 40 minutes a night, we want to make sure he’s standing at the end of the season and not laying down.”
21. Grizzlies (11-10, LW 20). It’s good news that Ja Morant only sprained his knee — his reaction had us all worried — but the Memphis offense likely will be lost without him (there is no timetable for his return, and the Grizzlies are historically cautious bringing stars back). Morant led the league in points scored off drives (13.2 per game) and was second in the number of drives per game when he went down. That aggressiveness is tough to replace. That said, with Tyus Jones and De’Anthony Melton taking on a larger role Memphis has won two in a row since Morant went down.
22. Pacers (9-14, LW 22). Blame injuries, blame bad luck, blame the coach, blame anyone you want, but the Pacers have been in 14 clutch games this season (within 5 points in the final 5 minutes) and are 3-11 — that’s more clutch losses than any other team in the league. The offense is the big culprit as the Pacers have just a 92.8 offensive rating in those minutes, but the defense hasn’t been good either, leading to a dreadful -22.7 net rating in clutch minutes. Indiana has the net rating of a 12-11 team (+1.2) because they are 6-3 in non-clutch games, and there is hope that things will balance out with time. But for now, the Pacers just need to find some wins.
23. Raptors (9-13, LW 23). The Raptors gambling, scrambling bottom-10 defense that has been a problem all season has become a bottom-5 problem over the past two weeks, surrendering almost four more points per 100 possessions (stats via Cleaning the Glass). Injuries have played a role in all this. The Raptors seemed to be waiting for Pascal Siakam to return, only to have that happen then watch OG Anunoby go out with a hip injury. As we get past Dec. 15 and trade talk starts to ramp up, expect to hear a lot more Goran Dragic talk, but other GMs will be trying to pry bigger names out of Toronto, too.
24. Spurs (6-13, LW 24). San Antonio has a lot of good — or, at the very least, interesting — players on their roster: Jakob Poeltl (a defensive force when he can stay healthy), Dejounte Murray (playing amazing basketball of late), Devin Vassell, and Keldon Johnson. However, some rough close games — the Spurs are 2-8 in games within 5 points in the final 5 minutes — has meant an unimpressive record so far. Expect to hear a lot of Spurs trade talk as they look to move Thaddeus Young to a playoff team at the deadline, but other GMs will ask about those four names above, too.
25. Kings (8-14, LW 26). Sacramento has gone 2-3 with Alvin Gentry as coach, but with a -9.3 net rating. Not great, but remember Harrison Barnes and Richaun Holmes have missed time with injuries. Gentry has to improve the Kings’ defense if he wants the team to make the play in, and so far it has been a little worse, but that’s a small injury-filled sample size. The problem is the Kings’ theoretical “best five” lineup — De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield, Barnes and Holmes — has a frighteningly bad 126 defensive rating this season. Gentry can’t just lean on that group, unless he can unlock better D from the group.
26. Pelicans (6-17, LW 28). Zion Williamson passed another hurdle and appears to be on track for an early-to-mid December return to the court. Combine that with New Orleans winning 3-of-4 in the past week and there is reason for optimism in the Big Easy. Those wins have been dramatic, such as Jonas Valenciunas shooting 7-of-7 from 3 in the first half against the Clippers, and Devonte’ Graham draining a game-winning three in Utah.
27. Rockets (4-16, LW 30). Break up the Rockets, they have won three in a row and looked feisty. Of course, the drama around the team is John Wall agreed to sit out waiting for a trade at the start of the year, but no trade was coming (nobody is taking on the $91 million over two years he is owed) he wants to return to the rotation. There has to be a way to make this fit and keep developing young guards Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green. Wall is going to have to accept a lesser role and thrive in it (think Derrick Rose in New York) but the Rockets need to give him real run and opportunities.
28. Thunder (6-14, LW 25). Oklahoma City is a weird combination of not good this season but still better than expected, particularly on the defensive end (13th in the league). Josh Giddy already stops you as you’re scanning through League Pass because you need to see what kind of inventive, special pass he will make this game. Lou Dort is going to have teams calling at the deadline, just to see if he might be available. Despite all that the Thunder have still lost six in a row, including to the struggling Rockets on Monday.
29. Pistons (4-17, LW 27). Coach Dwyane Casey summed up the Pistons’ situation well, “We’re trying to grow some young pups who should probably be playing at Gonzaga.” (Relax Pistons fans, we’re sure he meant Michigan or Michigan State.) Those young pups are heavily featured in a starting lineup with four rookies or second-year players, so it’s not a surprise they look better when the more veteran reserves — Cory Joseph, Trey Lyles (who has played well of late) and Hamidou Diallo — come in. The Pistons bench gets them back in games and keeps it close.
30. Magic (4-16, LW 29). Point guard for the Magic appears to be about as long-term a gig as drummer for Spinal Tap. Markelle Fultz had the job last year and was looking like a solid rotation NBA player, but he tore his ACL. Michael Carter-Williams is on the roster but has yet to play following ankle surgery. The job fell to Cole Anthony and he stepped up and impressed in his second season, but he’s out with a sprained ankle. That gave rookie Jalen Suggs the role, but he is now out for “an extended period” with a fractured thumb. Orlando has lost seven straight, hosts Denver Wednesday, then heads out on the road for five in a row.
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