NBA Power Rankings: Bucks move up to No. 1 to start 2019 as each team gets a New Year's resolution
The Bucks have the perfect Giannis-centered roster and they enter 2019 with an impressive resume
As 2018 morphs into 2019, it affords us all a moment to reassess where we stand, and to figure how we can improve ourselves in the coming year: Lose weight, exercise more, read more great books, call our mothers, etc.
NBA teams can do the same thing. The first two and a half months of the NBA season have come at us fast. LeBron's growing pains in Los Angeles, Jimmy Butler's trade to Philadelphia, the roller coaster rides of teams like the Houston Rockets, Luka Doncic's emergence not just as a rookie-of-the-year-caliber player but a future-MVP-caliber player. Things are more bunched up than ever before in the West, while the top of the East suddenly appears incredibly strong.
New Year's Day marks a perfect time to take a breath and reassess and come up with a New Year's resolution or two.
If you're the New Orleans Pelicans, your resolution should be to figure out the best return for Anthony Davis and just pull the trigger. I hate it too. But this franchise has failed to capitalize on his greatness so far; it's time to plan for the future.
And for the Miami Heat, your resolution should be to continue to employ the sudden greatness of Justise Winslow. In his age-22 season, Winslow has suddenly emerged as a player who could be a foundational piece for a franchise. Winslow and the Heat won six of eight to close 2018 and start the new year with three winnable games -- at Cleveland on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET, watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), vs. Washington on Friday and at Atlanta on Sunday.
Here are our New Year's rankings and resolutions:
|1||Bucks||Aw, hell, let's get carried away: The Bucks are our new No. 1 team in the NBA. It's not so much because of the Bucks winning a bunch of games during an easy stretch of the season - getting two December wins apiece against the Knicks and the Cavaliers isn't exactly something to write home about. But it's their entire resume. I don't know if they're going to be this same team in the playoffs, but I know I want them to be. The Bucks' resolution: To continue using the perfect Giannis-centered roster to be the most well-rounded team in the NBA (first in offensive efficiency, third in defensive efficiency).||2||53-19|
|2||Raptors||The Raptors' resolution: To do everything they can to get that No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference - because home-court advantage could be the difference-maker in a conference where it's hard to see much separation between the top four teams.||--||51-21|
|3||Warriors||I still think the Warriors are the best team in the NBA. But they have not been playing like it. Of course, it doesn't really matter, not right now. The Warriors' resolution: To keep pacing themselves through the regular season so they are in prime form for the playoffs. The Warriors needn't worry about power rankings like these, or chatter around their team's struggles, because the only thing that matters is whether they're winning another trophy in June. One of the least talked about things about the Warriors dynasty is how much of a toll playing so deep into June each of the past four years has taken on this team's core. For example, Klay Thompson played in 391 games the last four seasons between the regular season and the playoffs. December struggles will give pundits something to talk about, but struggles in May and June are the only ones that matter.||2||49-22|
|4||Nuggets||The Nuggets' resolution: To not get carried away with their early success. The Nuggets have been awesome - awesome! - so far. They're in first place in the stacked West, for God's sake. But how many of you think they will be the best team in the West, when all is said and done? I can't imagine too many of you, unless you are Nuggets fans or a parent of one of their players. If this team ends up as a 5-seed and loses in the first round, that should still be considered an unmitigated success. This team is heading nowhere but up in the future.||1||48-22|
|5||76ers||The 76ers' resolution: Shore up on defense. Since they traded for Jimmy Butler, one of the best defenders in the NBA, the 76ers have had the NBA's second-rated offense, but the league's 15th-rated defense. Before that they were 19th in offensive rating but ninth in defensive rating. I'd assume the defense will improve in time.||1||47-25|
|6||Pacers||The Pacers have the best defense in the NBA, and have risen to the top tier of the Eastern Conference on the strength of that; they have a ridiculous 98.4 defensive rating over the past 13 games, tops in the NBA as the Pacers have gone 11-2 in that stretch. The Pacers' resolution: Continue to embrace that defensive identity in an NBA that's been increasingly more offense-focused.||1||44-29|
|7||Thunder||The Thunder's resolution: To weather a much more difficult schedule during the next few months. The Thunder have been better than just about anyone could have imagined through their first 35 games - but that's been with the NBA's easiest strength of schedule so far.||1||42-30|
|8||Celtics||The Celtics' resolution: To find some sort of balance between a defense-first team and an efficient offensive team. Over the past 15 games the Celtics have gone 11-4, and have had the most efficient offense in the NBA. That's a complete flip from the first month and a half of the season, where the Celtics were a defensive force but struggled mightily to create shots. The best version of the Celtics is both of these teams. That version can win the East and give the Warriors a series in the Finals. We'll see if they can put those two versions of themselves together by April.||--||43-29|
|9||Clippers||The Clippers' resolution: To play with confidence instead of a chip on their shoulder. I don't know if it lasts into the playoffs; their Staples Center roommates do have LeBron James. But you can make a very, very good argument that the best Los Angeles team this season has been the Clippers, not the Lakers. Their depth is second-to-none in the NBA.||1||42-30|
|10||Lakers||The Lakers' resolution: To develop an identity outside of LeBron James. The gist of Kevin Durant's recent comments about LeBron's presence creating a "toxic" environment were correct: A player of his caliber, and with his unique skill set, can make it incredibly difficult for teammates to figure their best role and become their best selves. Let's hope that LeBron's groin injury could be a blessing in disguise, where the rest of the Lakers learn a bit about themselves, and become better LeBron teammates in the process.||1||31-40|
|11||Rockets||The Rockets, winners of nine of their last 10, are the hottest team in the NBA. The Rockets' resolution: Keep feeding Eric Gordon. While it's true that Gordon has been bad this year - his 30.3 percent shooting from three-point range would be the worst in his career except for his injury-shortened 2011-12 season - it's also true that the Rockets won't be going deep into the playoffs without him.||3||45-27|
|12||Trail Blazers||The Blazers' resolution: Go all-out on Damian Lillard's MVP candidacy. The Blazers aren't going to win the West this season, right? This team is really good, but clearly falls short of being a top-tier team in the conference. But Lillard could produce a Russell Westbrook 2016-17-like season for the Blazers and give this winning franchise in a great basketball city something to be incredibly proud of. That's worth something, right?||1||44-27|
|13||Jazz||The Jazz's resolution: Find out who is the most reliable second option behind Donovan Mitchell. The Jazz might be one second banana away from being a championship contender. Can they shock the world in next season's free agency and land a player of consequence? Side note: The Jazz were struggling mightily on defense at the beginning of the season. Over the past 15 games, they have the second-best defensive rating in the NBA.||--||42-30|
|14||Spurs||The Spurs' resolution: To keep LaMarcus Aldridge doing whatever it is he's been doing the past dozen games, when the Spurs have been 9-3, their best stretch of the season. During that stretch, Aldridge has looked like the All-Star of 2017-18; he's been averaging 22.1 points per game on just shy of 60 percent shooting as the Spurs have had the most efficient offense in the NBA. Before that? 18.3 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting.||2||42-30|
|15||Kings||The Kings' resolution: To just go with it. Whatever has been happening this season with the Kings - De'Aaron Fox looking like the best point guard of the stacked 2017 PG class, Buddy Hield justifying Vivek Ranadive's every wish from the DeMarcus Cousins' trade, Willie Cauley-Stein looking like a better-than-serviceable NBA big man - has been one of the most surprising stories in the NBA. They might have a gem in Fox, and tons of nice young pieces around him. And we still have no idea what the ceiling can be for Marvin Bagley III. This team's heading in the right direction for the first time in a long time.||--||35-36|
|16||Grizzlies||The Grizzlies, once the surprise darling of the early NBA season, have come back to earth, losers of eight of their last 11. The Grizzlies' resolution: To continue to empower Jaren Jackson Jr., who may not be the team's most talented player right now, but is certainly the future of the franchise.||4||29-42|
|17||Mavericks||The Mavericks' resolution: To get some consistency between home games and road games. The Mavericks have the craziest home-road splits in the league. Luka Doncic's team - we can call the Mavs that now, right? - have the second-best home record in the NBA, at 15-3, and the worst road record, at 2-15.||1||28-44|
|18||Nets||The Nets' resolution: To keep on keeping on. Sean Marks inherited a load of lemons when he took over as general manager several years ago. Despite having miserable records, the Nets have been hamstrung without high draft picks since that terrible Boston Celtics trade, but they are now out from under those trade obligations, and Marks has built up an impressive culture with head coach Kenny Atkinson and players the Nets have found on scrap heaps or picked shrewdly in lower parts of the draft: Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert. This longest-in-the-NBA winning streak is not a fluke; the Nets are a solid, deep team. Keep on keeping on, and hopefully, add a major piece or two in the 2019 offseason.||1||37-36|
|19||Heat||The Heat are looking like a playoff team, and the reason is Justise Winslow. After a disappointing and injury-hampered first three seasons, Winslow has emerged as a capable point guard in Goran Dragic's absence. Over the past 10 games, as the Heat have gone 7-3, Winslow has averaged 15.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists while shooting 41.2 percent from three. The Heat's resolution: To continue to creatively empower Winslow as a future foundational piece for the franchise.||1||35-36|
|20||Pelicans||The Pelicans' resolution: To position themselves to get the best return possible for Anthony Davis. Yep, you heard me. It's certainly a bit of tea-leaf-reading, but it sure doesn't sound like Davis will be staying in America's most fun city all that much longer, especially given the Pelicans' struggles this year during another brilliant season from The Brow. The Pelicans need to calculate whether trading him in the middle of this season will end up being the better long-term bet compared to waiting to trade him until the offseason. In other words: You like the Lakers' assets, or the Celtics'?||3||31-43|
|21||Timberwolves||The Wolves' resolution: To stop being one of the most Jekyll-and-Hyde teams in the NBA. There are nights, typically at home, when the Wolves look like they could beat anyone in the league in a seven-game series. There are other nights - typically on the road but occasionally at home against the Atlanta Hawks - where the Wolves look like the worst team in the NBA. Their home-road splits are ridiculous: They are 12-6 at home and 5-13 on the road. A little consistency would do wonders for this team.||1||32-40|
|22||Hornets||The Hornets' resolution: To win close games! You couldn't tell it by the Hornets' 17-18 record, but the Hornets actually have the 10th-best net rating in the NBA. There are nine teams with worse net ratings who have the same or better record. The Hornets have the fourth-best net rating in the NBA in losses.||1||32-39|
|23||Pistons||A buzzer-beating shot by Evan Fournier on Sunday sent the Pistons to a 4-15 December - not what you want to hear from a team that has playoff aspirations. The Pistons' resolution: Figure a way forward. What's the ceiling for this team? A six-seed, tops? And what's the floor? Somewhere in the middle of the lottery? They're in the worst place possible for an NBA team: Stuck in the middle.||--||37-34|
|24||Magic||The Magic's resolution: Don't prioritize a playoff spot in 2019 over the development of youngsters who are the Magic's actual future. Nikola Vucevic has been playing All-Star-caliber basketball, but his success might actually hold back the Magic's future.||--||34-38|
|25||Wizards||The Wizards' resolution: Tank, tank, tank. Consider John Wall's season-ending surgery a blessing in disguise. This team wasn't going anywhere this season anyway; getting a high pick and a potential star is the best outcome from this lost season.||--||30-43|
|26||Suns||The Suns' resolution: To stick with the Devin-Booker-as-point-guard experiment through its ups and downs. Is his decision-making always great? Of course not - at least not at this point. But Booker has been playing like a potential All-Star. He's 12th in the NBA in scoring. He's notched 25 points and eight assists in six consecutive games. There are only five other players who've done that in the past 30 years: Michael Jordan, James Harden, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade.||1||17-56|
|27||Bulls||The Bulls' resolution: To figure out how to score somewhat efficiently. The Bulls have the league's least-efficient offense, and by a wide margin - a full three points per 100 possessions removed from the next-to-last-place team, the Atlanta Hawks. I don't know how it'll happen either, but I think it should have something to do with Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.||2||21-52|
|28||Hawks||The Hawks' resolution: To keep losing, but to turn it into a winning culture. Not an easy thing, I know. But if the Hawks youngsters can continue to show progress - like Trae Young actually making threes, and continued growth from John Collins, Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman - and they can add a top-three pick in the offseason, that'll be everything the Hawks could have hoped for for the 2018-19 season.||--||25-48|
|29||Knicks||The Knicks' resolution: To project patience in the face of New York City's trademark lack of patience. Yes, the Knicks are bad. Duh. But their version of bad is a bit of a mirage because of Kristaps Porzingis' injury. It basically gives them a season of development for youngsters - plus a shot at a high pick in the 2019 draft. The New York media will not stand for this, but off-the-scrap heap players who are having productive seasons - like Emmanuel Mudiay or Noah Vonleh - are big-time wins for Scott Perry and the Knicks front office, even if they don't convert to wins right now.||3||14-58|
|30||Cavaliers||The Cavaliers' resolution: To continue the liquidation. This should have been done in the offseason from the moment LeBron went to Los Angeles. But the Cavs found some clarity after their awful start, firing Ty Lue (what did you think he was going to do with this roster, anyway?) and starting the liquidation. Now, they must complete the liquidation if they want to have any hope of becoming a competitive franchise in the next three years.||--||19-53|
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