NBA Power Rankings: Kawhi is nearly back and the Spurs have never been better

It's almost Christmas, which means the NBA is about to embark on one of their best stretches of the season. Nobody can say they're still getting used to the season. Everyone has found their groove at this point and we're still in the early stages of the season where it's more about the quality of teams than draft positioning, or getting some rest before a road trip comes up.

With that, a clear top tier has finally emerged from the pack, and surprisingly, there's more teams than one would expect. In season's past, the highest tier of the NBA was dominated by a small group. This season features six teams all dominating their opponents in their own way. The Rockets have been the clear-cut best regular season team so far, but nobody would say they're a better team than the Warriors in a playoff series right now. That's a question that may not be answered until May.

A few of the surprise teams in the mix? The Celtics and Raptors have always been good, but I don't think they have ever looked this good. Boston has the league's best defense. The Raptors are dominating anybody they come across. This is one of the first times those two have felt like they've truly belonged in the discussion with the other elite teams in the league like the Warriors, Cavaliers and Rockets.

Then, of course, there's the Spurs. Forever consistent, they've crashed into the top of the highest tier without Kawhi Leonard. They're proof that the regular season can have a fail-proof formula, as long as the entire team buys into it what is being preached. Of course talent is needed, but even at their weakest points, the Spurs have persisted on. 

Christmas is soon and the NBA is just starting to hit it's stride. This is going to be fun.

Biggest Movers
7 Thunder
8 76ers
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Teams
 
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1 Rockets Nobody in the NBA is hotter than the Rockets right now. The closest they've come to a loss since Chris Paul's return was a seven-point win over the Trail Blazers on Saturday, but they even overcame that with 48 points from James Harden. As always, it's too easy to talk about the MVP race, but Harden is daring people to not give it to him this season. --65-17
2 Warriors Stephen Curry has been fighting numerous injuries, but the Warriors just keep chugging along without a care in the world. Kevin Durant has been incredible on both ends of the floor and he's stepped up his game to make up for the absence of others. It seems like the only thing standing in their way are the in-game ejections. 258-24
3 Spurs San Antonio is this good without Kawhi Leonard. Again, the Spurs are this good without Kawhi Leonard. There's some legitimate questions and concerns about how his return could impact LaMarcus Aldridge, but San Antonio has shown it can survive a bump in the road and move on like there was never a problem. 347-35
4 Cavaliers The streak ends at 13, and man, what a streak it was. The only real knock against Cleveland for the last month is that its schedule hasn't exactly been filled with world beaters, but LeBron James and Co. have beaten everyone in front of them and that's all that matters. 250-32
5 Celtics The only real criticism of the Celtics is that their offense is merely above average instead of good, which will sometimes lead to ugly games like their win over the Pistons on Sunday. Besides that? Not much to criticize right now. They're just playing excellent basketball. 255-27
6 Raptors The Raptors are beating the pants off of teams and they're flying under the radar. They have the NBA's third-best net rating behind the Warriors and the Rockets. Don't be surprised if they catch teams by surprise late in the season. 159-23
7 Pacers The Pacers have transitioned from just a fun basketball team to a legitimately-good basketball team. What Victor Oladipo is doing right now is just unprecedented. You just don't go from an average-to-borderline-bad shooter to one of the most automatic guys in the league in one offseason. But that's what he's done. He just set a new career high to help the Pacers come back and beat the Nuggets on Sunday. 648-34
8 Bucks Adding a player like Eric Bledsoe is starting to pay dividends when you gloss over the Bucks' win column. Milwaukee is 11-4 since acquiring Bledsoe and it's a popular landing spot in DeAndre Jordan sweepstakes. How all of this ends up fitting together will be a good question, but the Bucks can figure that out on the fly. 644-38
9 Wizards Washington would have gone 3-1 on their West Coast trip had there not been some funky shenanigans involving the clock against the Clippers. Bradley Beal is why they've managed to survive without John Wall. He's been on a scoring bender, including 51 in Portland, and it's been fun to watch. 143-39
10 Timberwolves Something interesting about the Wolves. While many teams have abandoned focusing on offensive rebounds, because of a system Tom Thibodeau and the Celtics ran years ago, Minnesota actually plays for them. This factor in to why the defense has struggled so much. 547-35
11 Pelicans DeMarcus Cousins has been pouring in points as of late. He had 40 against the Nuggets and 38 against the Kings. Cousins and Davis are one of the most entertaining offensive duos in the league. 548-34
12 Thunder The Thunder aren't perfect yet, but they've quietly been putting together a string of wins. The loss to Brooklyn was bad, but they had won three straight before that and the managed to survive the Grizzlies. This could be the start of OKC finally turning a corner. 748-34
13 Jazz The Jazz quickly came back down to Earth, but that had more to do with playing good teams than anything else. Their schedule doesn't get any easier, with games against the Celtics, Cavs, Rockets, Spurs and Thunder (twice) before Christmas Day. 248-34
14 Pistons The Pistons might finally be regressing back to the mean. Stan Van Gundy's squad is a clear tier above the middle, but when it comes to being in the elite circle, they might be on the outside looking in. They've lost six in a row, but on the plus side, they were all relatively close losses. 639-43
15 76ers Four straight losses, including the Lakers and Suns, result in a really bad week for the 76ers. A reminder that even the good, young teams still lose games they shouldn't. 852-30
16 Trail Blazers Portland's defense has been very good so far and deserves praise. Then it ran into a buzz saw of DeMarcus Cousins (38 points), Bradley Beal (51 points) and James Harden (48 points). Even the best defenses can't survive that. 749-33
17 Nuggets Without Paul Millsap or Nikola Jokic, Denver is just not the same team. The Nuggets can still score in spurts, but the defense has completely fallen back to what it was like last season. They gave up a huge run to the Pacers at the end of the fourth quarter and in overtime to lose a very winnable game. 546-36
18 Heat Offensively, Miami needs a shakeup of some kind. Erik Spoelstra's group is slipping further and further down on that end of the floor. They're one of the worst shooting teams in the NBA, but they're somehow managing to stick around .500. --44-38
19 Knicks It's funny how the Knicks can have the same record as the Sixers yet feel like nowhere near the same team. If you look at the metrics, they're right behind them in net rating, they have a slightly better offense and a worse defense. If the Knicks stop losing to teams like the Bulls, this might be a conversation worth exploring more. 229-53
20 Lakers Brandon Ingram still hasn't put it all together, but he's been having a solid sophomore year. Making everybody who gave up on him so quickly into his career look even sillier. 135-47
21 Nets Jahlil Okafor is on the Nets now, which is going to be really interesting to watch. He can't possibly make their defense worse so the only place they can go from here is up. It will be nice to see to see Okafor actually get some meaningful NBA minutes again. 428-54
22 Kings Watching the Kings is like gambling in Vegas. Sometimes they go boom (a win over the Pelicans) and sometimes they go bust (blown out by the Raptors). Either way it's going to be a good time. Just don't get too attached to them or you'll find yourself trying to hitch a ride to the airport. 127-55
23 Magic The Magic might be the most injured team in the NBA right now. Aaron Gordon, Terrence Ross, Jonathan Isaac, and Evan Fournier have all missed or are missing significant time due to a variety of injuries. Add in their regression on offense and it's the perfect mix to create a lot of losing. 125-57
24 Hornets Speaking of injured teams, every time the Hornets get someone back from the injury report, they lose a different player to injury. Charlotte needs some serious help on the bench, making them an interesting team to watch before the trade deadline. 436-46
25 Mavericks Dennis Smith Jr. getting hurt is a bummer, because he's one of the better reasons to watch this team right now. Luckily, it was a minor issue and the rookie should be back on the floor relatively soon. 124-58
26 Suns Mike James has a full contract with the Suns now, making him one of the first success stories of the new era of two-way contracts. It's always cool to see fringe guys climb their way on to a main roster. He celebrated his new deal with a 25-point night against San Antonio. 121-61
27 Clippers Danilo Gallinari is back and Milos Teodosic could be making a return soon. It might be too late at this point to save the Clippers' season, but it's not too late to make them a little more fun. With Griffin and Beverley both hurt, they are going to get a huge dose of Teodosic on offense. That's a good thing from an entertainment perspective. 342-40
28 Bulls How rough is Chicago's advanced numbers? It's 2010 Bobcats-level rough. The offense in particular is amazingly terrible. Yet, they're on a two-game win streak. The NBA, where the bizarre happens. 227-55
29 Grizzlies Marc Gasol hasn't quite forced himself out yet, but with every public comment he makes, it sure feels like it's building towards that. The "Grit N Grind" era didn't die for this. --22-60
30 Hawks Atlanta probably should have beaten the Magic twice this week, but it failed to close them out in Orlando. The Hawks ended Sunday by benching Dennis Schroder in a loss. They're are searching for answers that I'm not sure exist. 224-58
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