NBA Power Rankings: Nuggets nudge past Bucks, Warriors for No. 1; red-hot Rockets soar into top five
Denver gets much-deserved recognition for sitting atop the brutal West
So let me be honest: I fully expect the Golden State Warriors to come back around and be the top-ranked team in these Power Rankings between now and the end of the regular season. And probably sooner instead of later. Even if they continue to stumble -- and "stumble" is all relative, because all we're talking about is the Warriors losing three of their past six; they still are atop the NBA in offensive rating and true shooting percentage, Boogie Cousins is a-coming and there's no way Klay Thompson shoots this poorly all season -- I'm still picking them to win it all this season, barring some sort of game-changing injury to Steph Curry.
But how could I in good faith put the Warriors at the top of any power ranking after blowing such an enormous lead at home to the Houston Rockets?
Well, I certainly could do it. Because they'll still be the best team in the NBA when all is said and done.
But the NBA is so doggone bunched-up at the top that you can make a case for one of a half-dozen teams being at the top of any sort of power ranking.
The Warriors? Of course. The Milwaukee Bucks? I had them at the top last week, but then they lost to the Kyle Lowry-less Raptors at home. But the way that Mike Budenholzer has used players like Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon to open things up for Giannis Antetokounmpo has been masterful. The Raptors? I think they're the team most poised to beat the Warriors in a seven-game series. The Rockets? No one's hotter, and I'm certainly a prisoner of every moment. The Celtics? Maybe at some point later in the season, if they can fully put things together. Want to make a case for the 76ers, or the Thunder, or even the Pacers? You'd be wrong, but you wouldn't be crazy.
This week I'm giving the Denver Nuggets, back in action on Monday against the surging Rockets (8 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), some much overdue praise as the top team in these rankings. What they've done this season is nothing short of remarkable, especially considering the amount of injuries they've survived en route to a 26-11 record at the top of the brutal Western Conference. This week's Power Pankings theme is one stat (or in some cases more than one stat) that says something interesting about each team. For the Nikola Jokic-led Nuggets, it's this: No team assists on a higher percentage of its baskets than the Nuggets. That's what happens when you have perhaps the best passing big man in NBA history as the fulcrum of your offense.
Now that I've fully broken out of my "Warriors-need-to-be-number-one-and-no-one-else-is-close" malaise, let's get wacky.
Here are this week's Power Rankings:
|1||Nuggets||There are a hundred keys to the success of the Nuggets this season as MVP candidate Nikola Jokic has led his team to the best record in the stacked West. One big key is how the big man's remarkable passing ability has set the tone for a team that ranks No. 1 in the NBA in assist percentage. This team is now at (mostly) full strength after they have been thriving despite a rash of injuries. Also, Jamal Murray may be inconsistent, but he's also a star in the making.||3||54-28|
|2||Bucks||To give you a bit of perspective for exactly what Brook Lopez has meant to the Bucks: He has the best net rating on the team that has the best net rating in the NBA. We saw exactly what Lopez can mean for his team on New Year's Day, when the Bucks smoked the Pistons and Lopez hit 7 of his 12 3-point attempts.||1||60-22|
|3||Warriors||Klay Thompson is shooting 35.2 percent from 3, by far the worst of his career. Take out his record-breaking 14 3-pointer night in October and he's sitting at 33.1 percent 3-point shooting. Perhaps even more strange is that Thompson, one of the best 3-point shooters in history, is eschewing 3s in favor of mid-range shots. He's averaging the second-most mid-range attempts in the NBA at 7.1 per game. (His teammate, Kevin Durant, ranks third.) In the first year of the Warriors' dynasty, nobody on the team ranked in the top 40 in the NBA in mid-range attempts. Is anyone really questioning, though, whether the Warriors are still favored to win it? They're still tops in the NBA in true shooting percentage and in offensive rating, and have yet to add Boogie Cousins. (The defense -- 17th in the NBA in defensive rating, and 23rd in the NBA over their recent 3-3 stretch -- is concerning.) I fully expect the Warriors to be No. 1 in these Power Rankings again soon. But some things will have to change between now and then.||--||57-25|
|4||Raptors||Doesn't feel quite right putting the Raptors this low. I could certainly have them at No. 1. But that blowout loss to the San Antonio Spurs is still fresh in my memory, so here we are. Anyway: Do you know what the most valuable shot in the NBA is? It's the corner 3. Did you know that only three teams shoot more corner 3s per game than the Raptors, who average 9.1 corner 3s per game? Specifically, it's Danny Green, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam who are taking those shots.||2||58-24|
|5||Rockets||My Lord, James Harden. Harden's usage is the highest in the NBA by far. His 39 percent usage so far this season would be the highest since Russell Westbrook's record usage rate in 2016-17. He's averaging 33.7 points per game, a career high, but this heater that Harden is on goes a ways deeper than just his recent five-game streak of 40-plus-point games. Over the past month, Harden has averaged 39.6 points per game over a 14-game span. Daryl Morey is right: Harden must be considered in the conversation among the best offensive players ever.||6||53-29|
|6||76ers||Jimmy Butler is sowing seeds of discontent. I feel like I've heard this before. First it was Chicago. Then Minneapolis, where he put in motion the long process that ended on Sunday night, with Tom Thibodeau's firing. Now Butler, not even two months into his Philadelphia 76ers career, is reportedly causing scenes with head coach Brett Brown about how he's being used in their offense. It's true that Joel Embiid is (and should be) this team's focal point; Embiid has the second-highest usage percentage in the NBA. And it's true that Butler ranks 96th in the NBA in usage (22.6 percent). But that ranks second on the Sixers, above even Ben Simmons. Butler's usage has decreased the past two seasons, since his career-high 26.09 percent usage in his final season on the Bulls. Perhaps he needs to look in a mirror.||1||51-31|
|7||Pacers||Somehow, some way, the Pacers have the NBA's second-best net rating and the NBA's second-best defensive rating. There were signs of this last season, but Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner and Co. have taken their all-out-effort defense to a new level this season. Bravo.||1||48-34|
|8||Thunder||I don't mean to throw any water on the Thunder's party. They have outperformed every expectation put on their shoulders this season. Paul George has turned in a campaign that will get him MVP votes and could win him Defensive Player of the Year. That said: The Thunder have had the NBA's easiest strength of schedule so far, per ESPN, and they have the NBA's most difficult strength of schedule going forward, per Tankathon.com. Restrain your enthusiasm a bit about the Thunder finishing the season where they stand now as a two- or three-seed in the stacked West.||1||49-33|
|9||Celtics||I'm not here to tell you Daniel Theis is going to win anyone a title. But I am here to tell you that Daniel Theis is currently leading the NBA in defensive rating, tied with the Mavericks' Maxi Kleber. Theis has been huge for the Celtics after Aron Baynes' injury.||1||49-33|
|10||Clippers||I don't know what to call Tobias Harris. Is he a superstar? Is he even a star? He doesn't seem to have that mentality that comes with a superstar; he's just one of those guys who gets his work done in the hardest working way possible. All I know is that there is one player in the NBA who averages 20-plus points per game and eight-plus rebounds per game while shooting above 40 percent from 3. That player's name is Tobias Harris.||1||48-34|
|11||Spurs||Have issues with the Spurs' shot selection? I certainly do! I wish the Spurs would hop on into the modern NBA when it comes to shooting 3s; they rank last in the league in 3-point attempts. But this is where we must consider that Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest coaches in NBA history for a reason, while you and me are not. The Spurs work to get the best shot, not just the first good shot, and it shows. This team makes 3s at a higher percentage than any team in the NBA. They may take an abundance of mid-range shots -- the worst shot you can take, according to math, and a shot that the Spurs take at a higher rate than anyone else -- but they happen to make those shots at a really high rate (42.0 percent, fifth in the NBA). You know what I want? I want a Rockets-Spurs playoff series. Two completely different offensive philosophies going at it.||3||48-34|
|12||Trail Blazers||The Blazers have scored 4,449 points this season. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have scored 1,870 of those points. That's 42 percent of their team's scoring. That's, um, not balanced. It's too bad that we likely will never be able to see what this version of the Lillard-McCollum show could look like with a third superstar.||--||53-29|
|13||Jazz||Over the past 15 games, dating back to early December, the Jazz -- who struggled mightily on defense early in the season -- have ranked second in the NBA in defensive rating. This team is on the right path. The Jazz have had the NBA's most difficult strength of schedule up to this point; going forward, they have the second-easiest schedule in the NBA, and the easiest in the Western Conference, according to Tankathon.com. Expect another second-half surge from the Jazz, a la last season.||--||50-32|
|14||Lakers||I understand LeBron's presence on a team obviously dominates everything on offense. But even that doesn't help me understand this fact: In 39 games this season, Lonzo Ball has only attempted 42 free throws. When you're playing 30 minutes per game, shouldn't you almost accidentally, just by the fact you're on the floor a lot, attempt more than one free throw per game? Perhaps it's because Lonzo knows it's not exactly his strength. He's only made 18 of those 42 free throws (42.9 percent). The Lakers rank last in the NBA in free-throw percentage. They're also now 1-5 without LeBron.||4||37-45|
|15||Kings||Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the De'Aaron Fox effect, which has made the Kings one of the best League Pass teams of the year. This team is fun! Really fun! When's the last time you thought that about the Kings? The speedy Fox has spearheaded the second-fastest-paced team in the NBA. Buddy Hield is averaging more than 20 points per game on 44.1 percent 3-point shooting. This team is going places.||--||39-43|
|16||Nets||We should all be inspired with the way Sean Marks has built a promising team in Brooklyn with one hand tied behind his back (that hand being tied by the ill-advised Celtics trade an eon ago that mortgaged the team's future). This team's scouting, drafting, trading and player development has been Spurs-esque. Joe Harris is one of the players the Nets took a chance on that other teams didn't. The former second-round pick (traded away for scraps by the Cleveland Cavaliers, waived by the Orlando Magic) is leading the NBA in 3-point percentage, hitting 49.2 percent of the five 3-pointers he attempts per game.||2||42-40|
|17||Mavericks||Luca Doncic is a stud ... but you already knew that. He's the hands-down Rookie of the Year, and a future MVP candidate. But a couple hidden reasons for the Mavericks' surprising season that had them in the thick of the playoff race until their recent cold streak: reserves J.J. Barea and Maxi Kleber. Barea leads the NBA in assist percentage, while Kleber leads the NBA in defensive rating.||--||33-49|
|18||Timberwolves||I was planning to tell you all about the NBA's current leader in assist-to-turnover ratio, Timberwolves backup point guard Tyus Jones. He's been great on the other side of the ball as well, as only Russell Westbrook and Marcus Smart have a higher steal percentage among players who've tallied more than 600 minutes. I was going to tell you how insanely curious I am about what his restricted free agency will look like this offseason. But then owner Glen Taylor fired head coach and team president Tom Thibodeau after Sunday's win over the Lakers, so that's kind of the main storyline with the Timberwolves moving forward, isn't it? Bizarre timing.||3||36-46|
|19||Heat||I've spent way too much time searching for an interesting stat about the Heat, and I've yet to find one, so here is my conclusion: The Heat are the least interesting team in the NBA. They're not good; they're not bad. They're very good at defense (seventh in defensive rating), but they're not elite. They have seven players averaging in double figures in scoring (eight if you want to round up Kelly Olynk's 9.6 points per game), but no one averaging more than 18.5 points per game (Josh Richardson). The most telling stat about the Heat is their record: They are .500. They are the definition of average.||--||39-43|
|20||Pelicans||Wanna hear something depressing? Anthony Davis is having an MVP-caliber season. He's averaging 37.0 minutes (second in the NBA), 28.5 points (fourth), 13.3 rebounds (fourth), 2.6 blocks (second) and 1.8 steals (seventh). Advanced stats love him, too. He ranks first in player efficiency rating, second in player impact estimate, third in value over replacement player and first in win shares. Incredible season -- and his team is next-to-last in the Western Conference. How the Pelicans have shaped their organization around Davis in his seven seasons is criminal. For the sake of basketball, please, please trade him, if not this season then this offseason. (Side note: Still think this team can make the playoffs!)||--||33-49|
|21||Hornets||I know plus-minus can be a weird stat that doesn't tell the whole story. But I think it's somewhat telling that the Hornets leader in plus-minus is the always reliable Marvin Williams. He is this team's defensive quarterback, the veteran leader who makes sure all five players on the floor are on the same page defensively. It doesn't hurt that he's shooting 38.3 percent from 3 on a career-high 4.9 attempts per game.||1||39-43|
|22||Grizzlies||What a letdown by the Grizzlies after starting the season outpacing anyone's expectations. A month ago this team was sitting at 15-9; since then, they've gone 3-12. What's gone wrong in those 15 games is pretty simple. Their defense has held strong (10th in the NBA during that stretch), but they simply can't put the ball in the bucket, with the NBA's 29th-rated offense. They're still grinding their opponents to a halt (the NBA's slowest-paced team), but at some point, you've got to score points. Only the Chicago Bulls scored fewer points per game than the Grizzlies during the past 15 games, and the Grizzlies have the NBA's lowest 3-point percentage during that stretch.||6||33-49|
|23||Pistons||Blake Griffin has become an incredibly efficient and versatile offensive player at this point in his career. He's averaging career highs in 3-point attempts (6.4 per game) and 3-point percentage (36.5 percent), as well as points per game (25.1). All of which makes the fact that his team is the second-worst team in the NBA in true shooting percentage that much more depressing.||--||41-41|
|24||Magic||The Magic's defense is actually pretty good, ranking 14th in the NBA, but its offense ranks only 26th. One guy who has helped this team's offense has been Terrence Ross, who has embraced the role of sixth man. The microwave scorer is averaging a career-high 13.3 points per game on near-40 percent 3-point shooting.||--||42-40|
|25||Wizards||I searched far and wide for something nice to say about the Wizards, and ... I found it! One statistic that'll give Wizards fans something to be happy about as this team tanks its way toward the 2019 draft. Here it is: Thomas Bryant, a former second-round pick, is leading the NBA in effective field goal percentage. He's been a nice find for the Wizards during a brutal season.||--||32-50|
|26||Hawks||The Hawks may be toward the bottom of the NBA's standings and aiming for a high lottery pick, but they lead the NBA in two categories. They have the fastest pace in the NBA (above the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers). And they have the highest turnover percentage in the NBA. (Pssst. Hey, guys. Zion Williamson would be really fun next to Trae Young ... yet you guys have won six of your past 10. Why?)||2||29-53|
|27||Bulls||Did you know that Zach LaVine gets his shot blocked more than any other player in the NBA -- an average of 1.8 times per game? Weird! Also, Kris Dunn and Wendell Carter Jr. both rank in the top 10 in the NBA in fouls per game, which probably isn't significant, but is definitely somewhat weird.||--||22-60|
|28||Suns||Devin Booker ranks third in the NBA in usage. His 3-point shooting numbers are down (32.6 percent) but his assist numbers are way up (6.9 assists per game). What's his ceiling? I don't know. I think it's really, really high, but I'm still not sure. But I know that right now, he is awesome. I'm relatively bullish on the future of this Suns team two or three years down the road. I don't know if this group will ever be even average on defense, but Booker, DeAndre Ayton, TJ Warren and Mikal Bridges makes up a nice young core -- and we'll see what the Phoenix future has in store for Josh Jackson and Kelly Oubre, if anything.||2||19-63|
|29||Knicks||For the Knicks, more losses are a good thing. The only thing that matters this season is the development of their young players and their positioning for a top pick in the 2019 draft. That's why December was a great month for the Knicks, despite their 2-12 record. Kevin Knox's December was so impressive he won rookie of the month: 17.1 points and 6.0 rebounds per game while shooting 38.4 percent from deep. Even more impressive was Emmanuel Mudiay, who averaged a team-high 18.6 points and 5.5 assists while keeping his turnovers down.||--||17-65|
|30||Cavaliers||The Cavaliers' defense isn't just bad; it's abysmal. They rank dead-last in the NBA in defensive rating, nearly three points per 100 possessions worse than the 29th-place team. But maybe they're getting better as the season wears on, right? Um, nope. Over the past 10 games, that defensive rating has been even worse -- a putrid 119.2 points per possession.||--||19-63|
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