January begins and we're not exactly where we thought we'd be at this point, but we're close. The Warriors and Cavaliers are the best teams in the league. It doesn't seem that any team can really challenge them in the playoffs, but of course, that's why they play the games.
There are certainly surprises, though. Houston looking every bit like a superpower is one. The Bulls going from promising to pathetic in a month is another. Maybe the most surprising is just how good this season has been, even with so many teams at or under .500.
The two worst teams in the West and the two worst teams in the East had 29 wins last year on January 1st. This year it's 36. There's a wider middle, which either means more mediocrity or more parity despite the top heavy nature of the superpowers, but either way, the bad teams aren't as bad this season.
We all think we know where this season is headed, another Cavs-Warriors Finals. But we thought the same last year, and got a wildly entertaining playoffs en route to it, and a finale no one could have seen coming. The point is, this season has already been worth the ride. It's not about where this ends up, we'll get to that one way or another in June. It's everything that's been happening in between that should keep your attention.
Here are this week's power rankings.
|Kyrie Irving averaged over seven assists per game in December, becoming much more of a playmaker. They won their signature game on Christmas, and as of Monday have a three-game lead over the Raptors. You have to think LeBron's annual sabbatical to Miami is just around the corner. The Cavs are running out of regular-season stuff to focus on.||2||13-11|
|Golden State sets such a high bar it's hard to keep perspective. They were in a tight game late vs. the Raptors despite owning a 42-17 lead after the first quarter, and they only beat the Mavericks by nine. They're still the best team in the league, or at least tied with Cleveland in that regard, but they're also not invulnerable, the way they seemed last year.||--||19-4|
|The Rockets had the best record in December at 15-2, are undefeated on back to backs this season (no other team can claim this), and James Harden just dropped the best modern-era triple-double with a 53-16-17 line. Oh, and Houston was the sixth best team defensively in December. We need to start thinking of Houston as a top-tier team in this league.||2||7-16|
|The Spurs were No. 1 on Sunday morning, but the loss to the Hawks bumps them here. Overall, the Spurs have a lot of warning signs beneath the sterling record they're likely to maintain.This is a weird version of the Spurs, likely to finish with a top-three record and yet suspect for how they'll match up in the playoffs. They don't seem like the usual Spurs team... but then, doubting them also seems stupid.||--||8-13|
|The Warriors game was acceptable, the Suns loss seemed pretty random. Toronto's schedule is tougher the next week, but then evens out again. This is the end of their last multi-game western road trip. I'm keeping them up here this week, but if they slip this week, there will be consequences.||--||11-13|
|I've got them up a spot despite the Cavaliers loss. Look, they're not a championship contender, and I have some concerns for how they'll perform in the playoffs. But they're good enough to be in every non-contender game, and Isaiah Thomas is incredible enough for them to close. You know how when you don't know what to have for dinner and you and your significant other just simultaneously go "Pizza? Pizza." The Celtics are that kind of safe, if uninspiring, fallback.||4||13-11|
|Memphis' schedule gets fairly brutal the next two weeks, but then again, they're zombie cyborg cockroaches that will outlive Keith Richards, so who knows?||4||13-10|
|OKC has won six of its last eight, five of those by double-digits. They're beating teams they should, and comfortably. That's a big step forward and shows that the Thunder are better than most gave them credit for in the preseason. They slip here because of how other teams have played, but they're basically tied with Boston and Memphis, all of whom have beaten one another in the past two weeks.||--||6-16|
|Bounced back against some bad teams this week. Just as they get rolling, George Hill goes down with another random injury. They begin a six-game eastern road trip this week that's going to let us know a lot about whether they're ready to beat some good teams.||3||16-7|
|They've evened out a bit, but their formula still seems more sound for playoff contention compared to the teams in their tier. It should be noted when you're evaluating how "valuable" a player is that the Bucks are being beaten by 5.9 points per 100 possessions when Antetokounmpo is on the bench, and are beating their opponents by 6.8 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. The Bucks are terrible when the Greek Freak isn't out there.||3||15-9|
|They finish 10-5 in December and are right back in the playoff hunt. You need to prepare yourself now for A) Otto Porter getting a max deal this summer, and B) for him to deserve it.||2||14-10|
|Mike Budenholzer's ability to craft a defense (Hawks are 5th in defensive rating) is terrific. But they need a trade for an offensive upgrade. There are a lot of reasons for them to be calling a team like Denver about a deal. But if they decide to move Millsap, they have to alter their plans in a more significant way.||2||12-12|
|Charlotte's formula, in the abstract, looks like the kind of team that could make a run once the playoffs start. But they are 0-6 vs. the Cavs, Raptors and Celtics. Consistency is better than big wins, but the Hornets should have their sights set a little higher than a first-round one-and-done.||1||14-11|
|Paul George sounds depressed about his situation. Imagine if they get worse? They have a tissue-soft schedule in January. If the Pacers don't go over .500 this month, they need to consider major changes.||4||9-16|
|This team is the gnat of the Eastern Conference. They're insignificant and easily defeatable, but they just keep buzzing around. They had won three of five before Sunday's loss to Indiana, somehow. The Magic are the third-worst team in the East via Basketball Reference's Simple Rating System, but keep finding wins like the loose change you pull together to get a burrito at midnight.||8||5-19|
|They beat the bad teams (13-4 vs. teams under. 500) and lose to good teams (3-13 vs. teams at or above .500). That is New York's model. Their playoff hopes may honestly come down to how their opponents are playing at the time they meet.||1||11-12|
|Woof. Remember last year when the Clippers went on a long winning streak without Blake Griffin? Not so much this year. Still, I'm not ready to jump on the "time to blow it up" train. They are injured and just trying to get through the NBA's winter. They'll put together a run and wind up close to where we thought they would. Surprising runs by Houston, Memphis, Utah and Oklahoma City could wind up costing them home-court, however, and that matters a great deal in the big picture.||8||12-12|
|The Pelicans have won five of six, mostly against middling-to-bad teams. But they have to start somewhere. Tyreke Evans just returned, giving them one more weapon, and they picked up Donatas Motiejunas. It won't take much to win the West's 8th seed, which no one is good enough to securely claim. Don't be shocked if the Pelicans somehow find their way back into this thing.||8||7-19|
|The DeMarcus Cousins drama ramps up, they win four straight. They turn the corner and get positive "They're in 8th!" vibes, they lose two straight. The schedule gets brutal later this month. They have zero room for error, and this is a team with a lot of error to make room for.||5||10-14|
|I was all set to give them a bump. Had it all set. They'd won 5 of 7 including a heart-breaker loss to Atlanta. They might have turned the corner, right? Then they lost to the Sixers, at home, when Philly was on a back to back, with nine guys available. Just incredible. Two steps forward, 2.5 steps back, every time for Denver. Most concerning is that this defense is just so bad. Not even close to playoff-caliber.||1||11-11|
|They beat the Kings without Dame, and after leading at the half vs. San Antonio, things looked promising. Nope, Spurs blew them out in the second half. However, that's the Spurs, and Portland managed to beat the Wolves Sunday. Is this a dead cat bounce, or have they finally turned the corner? You can't play your worst basketball all the time, right?||1||11-13|
|They are who we thought they were, and when they started off 11-7, we let them off the hook. Any time you bench your key free agent point guard two months into his first season, things are not going great. There's too much talent here for this team to be this bad. Chicago has lost eight of 11.||7||16-8|
|Their starters are terrible. That is the crux of the issue and there's not much more than that. Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris, they've all played terribly. It's like someone uploaded a virus to this team's mainframe.||7||4-18|
|Four of the Mavericks' rotation players have defensive ratings above 110. If you're not stat inclined, imagine a slow-motion video of a large man stepping on a rotten peach. That's what much of the Mavericks' defense looks like.||3||11-11|
|Honestly, if they just cut their turnover rate to get into the top half of the league, they'd probably be within playoff range. They're 22nd in turnovers surrendered and 23rd in opponent points off turnovers. Stop being young and stupid, basically.||--||11-12|
|Here's a stat that shocked me: The Sixers are sixth in 3-pointers made, and 10th in percentage. They have a dominant big man in Joel Embiid, and shooters. But they're 30th in offensive rating because they are 28th in non-restricted area shots in the paint, and 28th in free throw rate. What I'm trying to say is that there's a good team hiding underneath this team.||2||12-11|
|I think their rebuilding effort will take less time than you think. There's a blueprint somewhere in there, with Kenny Atkinson. Need to trade Lopez for assets and hit a few free-agency steals.||3||16-7|
|This year's Heat team is going to go down as one of those that fans talk about to test each other's devotion. "Name all the members of the 2016-17 Heat team. Remember Derrick Williams?!"||6||14-10|
|There is no plan, on or off the court, on either side of the ball. They're like if you put a duck, an old golden retriever, an armadillo, and a meerkat inside a circle on a sandlot and told them to do calculus.||--||19-4|
|If something seems too good to be true, like the Lakers' November performance, it probably is. They were a league-worst 2-14 in the month of December. Back to the drawing board. The concerns about whether they have a young core that can really go somewhere are starting to get louder.||9||12-12|