The Warriors have firmly entrenched themselves in the top spot of these NBA Power Rankings, but underneath them there are a lot of teams jockeying for position, trying to prove themselves contenders. The Suns are just the hottest of those right now.
1. Warriors (12-2, Last Week No. 1). It may be early, but Stephen Curry and the Warriors made a very public statement that they are contenders again with Tuesday’s thumping of the Nets. The Warriors are the best team in the league right now and have multiple paths to get better. Klay Thompson is still a month away from a return (if things go well), but the Warriors are reportedly going to get big man James Wiseman back in the next week or two. Wiseman showed flashes as a rookie and averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds on 51.9% shooting, but mostly was running around and looking lost and being out of position, especially on defense. The Warriors are counting on him to make a leap this season.
2. Suns (10-3, LW 12). Winners of nine in a row, and while they did it against a soft stretch of the schedule it counts just the same. The Suns have the fourth-ranked defense in the league, and the second-best over the past two weeks, giving up less than a point per possession, and much of the recent run came without Deandre Ayton on the floor (who expected Frank Kaminsky to step up, anyone?). So far they have tuned out the noise around team owner Robert Sarver, and the louder noise Sarver made defending himself (while his wife undercut him with her actions). The schedule gets tougher for the Suns with two against the Mavericks, one against the Nuggets, then four on the road.
3. Bulls (10-4, LW 7). Pundits across the basketball spectrum panned the DeMar DeRozan signing by the Bulls as an overpay, and they may regret the final year of the deal, but he has been worth every penny this season. DeRozan leads the team in scoring at 26.9 points a game and leads the NBA in rubbing salt in the wounds of Lakers fans. The big difference in DeRozan’s game is he has gone from a career 28.2% 3-point shooter to 36.7% this season. Alex Caruso, who was already closing games, has moved into the starting lineup, and he along with Lonzo Ball have the Bulls as a top-10 defense with their disruptive style.
4. Wizards (10-3, LW 9). The Wizards sit atop the Eastern Conference standings, but are they the best team in the East? Are they contenders? They are a playoff team, but they have work to do to convince me they are a threat to come out of the East. The defense has been good (fifth in the league), but the offense has been pedestrian — something that can improve as Bradley Beal at some point makes the jump from pretty well — 23.3 points a game but on 25% shooting from 3 — back to the All-NBA elite player we know him to be. Between now and Dec. 28 the Wizards play 16 road games to just six at home. Tough home and home with Miami this week that could be telling.
5. Nets (10-5, LW 4). The Nets had started to look like an elite team until Tuesday when the Warriors showed them what elite looks like. Still, the Nets have won 8-of-10 and went 5-of-1 on a road trip (the only loss was to a good Bulls team on the second night of a back-to-back). They have a top-10 defense, and while the offense is 16th for the season (10th without garbage time) the holes on that end of the floor were exposed by the Warriors (in addition to missing Kyrie Irving and Joe Harris that game, the Nets need more athleticism off the bench). One other flaw is that they don’t force turnovers (11.3% of opponent possessions, second worst in the league), leading to rather pedestrian transition numbers.
6. Nuggets (9-5, LW 10). Denver has kept winning this season without Jamal Murray (ACL) and now Michael Porter Jr. (back), but the big surprise was the win over Indy without a suspended Nikola Jokic — the Nuggets have been dreadful with him off the floor this season. These are not your Doug Moe Nuggets (or even last year’s Nuggets), they are winning with a top-five defense and enough offense when Jokic is on the court (he is playing at an MVP level again this season). Denver has been winning tough games but it doesn’t get easier this week with Philadelphia, Chicago, and at Phoenix.
7. Heat (9-5, LW 2). When Miami went to the Finals two seasons ago, they were 9th in the league in 3-point attempts and 2nd in 3-point percentage (37.9%). This season the Heat are 20th in the league in attempts from beyond the arc and 16th in percentage (34.9%). Those numbers should improve as Duncan Robinson finds his groove and Kyle Lowry shoots a little better than he has, but it’s something to watch. The Heat went 2-3 on its just-completed road trip, not bad considering Jimmy Butler missed a majority of it. After two games at home, Miami heads back out on the road on Saturday for four more.
8. Jazz (9-5, LW 3). Utah had lost four straight before picking up the W against a depleted 76ers team Tuesday night. The problem wasn’t the offense (although it is down from its best in the league numbers earlier in the season), it’s that the Utah defense has been average at best the last couple of weeks (17th in the league, via Cleaning the Glass). The struggles have come with Rudy Gobert on or off the court. Some of that could be attributed to the Jazz experimenting a little more with switching and other defensive schemes, but the issues are bigger than just that. Good news that Rudy Gay is very close to his debut with the Jazz; they need his depth and savvy off the bench.
9. Clippers (9-5, LW 15). After a rough start to the season when the offensive scheme appears to be “Paul George against the world,” the Clipper offense has woken up the past couple of weeks and been top-10 in the league over that stretch. The key has been balance, plus Reggie Jackson and Nicholas Batum finding their 3-point stroke. Well, all that and it turns out Paul George can take on the world and hold his own. If you like playoff rematches, the Clippers have two games, Sunday and Tuesday, against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks. There could be fireworks, or at least a few technicals.
10. Cavaliers (9-6, LW 11). No Evan Mobley for the next 2-4 weeks due to a sprained elbow is a real blow to both the Cavaliers — 14.6 points and eight rebounds a game, and the Cavs are +5.7 per 100 when he is on the court. But it also sucks for fans of good basketball, who will not get more of Mobley’s “I can’t believe he’s a rookie” plays for a few weeks (plays such as last week’s chase-down block on Jayson Tatum). Lauri Markkanen can slide down and play some four, plus Kevin Love is expected to return to action in the next week, and while he will come off the bench in a limited role he will provide some depth and lineup versatility.
11. Mavericks (9-4, LW 14).Jalen Brunson is playing the most minutes of his career, but has kept his efficiency up, has been the Mavs second-best player most nights, and is putting himself in the early Sixth Man of the Year conversation. Brunson is also playing more next to Luka Doncic, part of an effort by Jason Kidd to get a secondary playmaker out there with Doncic. It’s worked, when they are on the court together Dallas has a +5.4 net rating (Doncic on the court without Brunson is a -20.2 net rating). The Mavs head out Wednesday on a tough four-game road trip, two against the Suns and two against the Clippers.
12. Knicks (8-6, LW 5). The Knicks have stumbled the past couple of weeks, 3-4 with a -1.7 net rating in their last seven, and the reason is the offense has gone cold. This remains a team that has to be confounding for coach Tom Thibodeau, they are pedestrian on defense (15th in the league) and their starting five (Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchel Robinson) has a -18.3 net rating. What saves them is a five-man bench unit (Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burk, Obi Toppin, Taj Gibson) that has a +30.1 net rating). The Knicks’ offense will come around, but can Thibs fix the defense?
13. Celtics (7-7, LW 21). While nobody outside Boston was looking, the Celtics have played quality basketball the past couple of weeks — 5-2 with a +9.9 net rating in their last seven — and it’s all thanks to a best-in-the-league defense over that stretch. Which is even more impressive with Jaylen Brown missing five of those games. Is it a coincidence this run started after Marcus Smart called out Jayson Tatum and Brown? The run of good play may also have come because Dennis Schroder has found his groove, including dropping 38 on the shorthanded Bucks recently. Maybe new coach Ime Udoka is settling into the roster combinations that work. Whatever the reason or reasons, the Celtics look like a playoff team again.
14. 76ers (8-7, LW 6). Losers of five in a row, and not so coincidentally Joel Embiid has been out for five games. Throw in Tobias Harris missing time (he is back, scoring 32 against the Pacers), Matisse Thybulle and Danny Green being out, and the ongoing Ben Simmons saga and the 76ers issues are more about health than anything else. The silver lining in all this has been Tyrese Maxey, who is averaging 17.5 points and 4.4 assists a game, and is shooting 42% from 3. The Sixers have four more games on this road trip, including Denver and Golden State.
15. Grizzlies (7-7, LW 14). Memphis lost 4-of-5 until it met Houston on Monday (the Rockets are every team’s slump buster right now), but Memphis remains a confusing team. Are they the team that beat the Warriors and the Nuggets (twice), or the one that struggled of late and lost to the Pelicans? Part of the confusion comes because Grizzlies have depth issues: When Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are the court together the Grizzlies are +11.6 per 100, but when Morant sits the team is -9 per 100. Consistency is not in the Memphis vocabulary so far this season.
16. Trail Blazers (7-8, LW 17). With storm clouds gathering over the front office, beating Toronto and Houston were the kinds of wins the players needed. Most importantly, they had Damian Lillard back from an abdominal injury in the win over the Raptors, scoring 24 and hitting 3-of-6 from 3. That injury has been a long-term issue for Lillard, it slowed him in the Tokyo Olympics, and Portland needs to get him healthy for the marathon of an NBA season. The Blazers enter a home-heavy part of the schedule where they can get right and climb the ladder in the West.
17. Bucks (6-8, LW 16). Despite the unexpected slow start, there is no panic in Milwaukee. The Bucks are still shorthanded and have dropped 7-of-10 because of it, however, their luck may be about to change with Khris Middleton expected to return Wednesday just as the team starts a five-game homestand. He had been in the league’s health and safety protocols. Another thing not to panic about, Giannis Antetokounmpo leaving Milwaukee. While he was honest with GQ and said it could happen someday (anything can happen in this league) it’s not happening for years. If at all.
18. Lakers (8-7, LW 18). A couple of overtime wins mask how much the Lakers have struggled, particularly in the half court, without LeBron James (who could return Friday in Boston). Without LeBron on the court, the Lakers have an 88 net rating in the half court, which would be worst in the NBA by a mile. Carmelo Anthony and Talen Horton-Tucker got turns in the starting lineup as Frank Vogel both tries to plug guys in for injury and figure out lineups that work.
19. Hornets (8-7, LW 22). Charlotte has won three in a row (including beating the Warriors) on the heels of losing five in a row — this Jykle and Hyde team is hard to predict night to night. Part of the inconsistency is depth related: Their preferred starting five (LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Miles Bridges, Mason Plumlee) has a +7.9 net rating, but once the bench comes in things go upside down.
20. Kings (6-8, LW 19). Rumors of Luke Walton’s job being in danger speak more to the pressure owner Vivek Ranadive has put on the franchise to make the playoffs than it does Walton’s job performance. Not that Walton has looked like John Wooden reincarnated, but to expect more than a roughly .500 team out of this roster would be delusional (the Kings have the net rating of a 7-7 team, and in the past seven games that rating has jumped to +3, Sacramento has just been a little unlucky). I like Walton starting Chimezie Metu in place of Maurice Harkless.
21. Raptors (7-8, LW 8). What is the Raptors’ identity this season. I don’t know, I’m not sure they know, and that partially explains the up-and-down season. The Raptors took a steep drop down the rankings after a brutal week (losing 4-of-5, including to the Pistons) and with the team now out on a six-game road trip, it’s difficult to be optimistic in the short term. That said, this may be too low a ranking for Toronto.
22. Pacers (6-9, LW 20). After a 1-6 start to the season, the Pacers have started to rack up wins because their formally dreadful offense has improved to average — they have the 14th ranked offense in the league over the last seven games, which may sound average but is light years ahead of where they were back in October. One surprising key to that is T.J. McConnell seemingly knocking down every shot he takes right now. The Pacers have 3-of-4 on the road this week, including an interesting test Monday against the Bulls.
23. Hawks (6-9 LW 23).De’Andre Hunter has been incredibly unlucky with injuries, and is now out about two months with a wrist injury that required surgery. He averaged 10.8 points a game and shot 39.5% from 3, but his wing defense was his big key for the Hawks. Kevin Huerter has moved into the starting role, but there will be more run for Cam Reddish, Delon Wright, and Lou Williams. Atlanta has been slow out of the gate this season, mostly due to a dreadful defense that is 29th in the league, but they also have played a tough schedule (4th or 5th toughest, depending on how you measure it). Things do get easier.
24. Spurs (4-10, LW 24). Still the least lucky team in the NBA, they have a point differential (+0.1) of a 6-7 or maybe 7-6 team, instead they keep losing close games. One bit of luck is that center Jakob Poeltl should return from the COVID list this week — with him on the court the San Antonio starting five plays opponents even (slide Drew Eubanks in at center and that lineup has a -12.7 net rating). What has saved the Spurs so far is the best scoring bench in the league, averaging 41.8 points per game.
25. Thunder (5-8, LW 26). Tanking? We don’t need no stinking’ tanking. The Thunder won four in a row before the schedule turned brutal (a loss to the Nets, with the Heat up next). One of those wins came in dramatic fashion against the Kings with Luguentz Dort picking De’Aaron Fox‘s pocket and going the length of the court for the game-winning layup. The Thunder have one of the worst offenses in the NBA (not a surprise with the focus on playing their youth), but the defense has been respectable and kept them in games.
26. Timberwolves (4-9, LW 27). There are stretches where the Timberwolves look like a playoff team, beating the Lakers for example. Then there are the stretches they are not even close, such as late in the fourth quarter against the Suns, when Karl-Anthony Towns was a force of nature (35 points) but D’Angelo Russell kept calling his own number in crunch time. This is a frustrating team. Here is how Josh Okogie explained them: “I feel like that’s really been the problem with us as a team is how do we not get tired of success. I feel like after we have good performances, we have to be able to put that game behind us and focus on the next one and try to go 1-0 every night.”
27. Pistons (3-10, LW 30). After a rough start to the season (due to sprained ankle during training camp), No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham seems to be getting his legs under him with a 15/8/8 game against the Kings this week. Kelly Olynyk is out for six weeks with an MCL sprain in his left knee. Does that spark interest in a Marvin Bagley III trade? That would not be a bad roll of the dice by the Pistons. Detroit is in the middle of a five-game homestand, its longest of the season.
28. Pelicans (2-13, LW 29). Just 15 games into the season, fivethirtyeight.com gives the Pelicans just a 14% chance of making the playoffs (using their RAPTOR model, the ELO one is more pessimistic). The Pelicans have the worst defense in the NBA and a bottom-five offense, and while some of that offensive stagnation is due to Zion Williamson missing all of the season so far (no official timeline for his return) and Brandon Ingram missing seven games, it also speaks to the roster construction. Which is why there is a lot of buzz around the league about GM David Griffin being on the hot seat in New Orleans. Consider it something to watch going forward.
29. Magic (3-11, LW 25). Orlando’s biggest issue right now is an offense that has scored under a point per possession over its last six games (yes, that is last in the league). It doesn’t help that Jalen Suggs has missed time with a sprained ankle, they have been 14.4 points per 100 possessions better with Suggs on the court this season. The Magic should be more competitive when Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz are healthy and in the rotation, but right now they are limping along with a sluggish offense.
30. Rockets (1-13, LW 28). Losers of 12 in a row as Jalen Green and the Rockets young core gets a trial by fire. There is zero buzz about a possible John Wall trade around the league, and SI’s Chris Mannix said he spoke to executives who might have interest in Wall as a buyout candidate on a minimum contract, but nobody wants the $91.7 million he is owed this season and next on the books (we’re going to assume Wall picks up the $47.4 million player option he has for next season). The Rockets would have to attack so many picks/young players as sweeteners to that trade it’s not worth it to them.
NBA Power Rankings: Warriors locked in on top, Suns rise up to second originally appeared on NBCSports.com