NBA Power Rankings: Defense fuels Warriors back to No. 1, serves as big key to Giannis, Bucks' success

They say that defense wins championships.

But is that still true in an NBA that keeps pushing and pushing the limits of the offensive revolution?

I think so. The Golden State Warriors have only once ranked outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency during their historic run, and that was last season, when they ranked 11th. (Before that: Second, sixth, first.)

On Friday night, I went to Milwaukee to see what I expected to be a thrilling display of offense between the two highest-ranked offenses in the league so far this season in the Warriors and the Bucks.

Nope. The two coaches schemed the myriad of superstars out of the game as best they could. Giannis Antetokounmpo led both teams with only 22 points. Kevin Durant scored only 11. The Bucks, back in action on Monday against the Cavaliers (8 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), were held under 100 points for the first time all season.

This week's Power Rankings will focus on defense, and defense is the reason the Warriors are back atop these rankings after getting knocked off the top spot for the first time all season last week.

Biggest Movers
3 Mavericks
6 Rockets
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1 Warriors The Warriors are back atop the West and back atop these rankings. After the Warriors went into Milwaukee and beat the Bucks in a defensive battle on Friday for their third win in a row, Steve Kerr said he could feel the momentum building for this team. And that was before news of Draymond Green due to return Monday at home against the Timberwolves. Oh yeah: DeMarcus Cousins is nearing his return as well, and in warmups on Friday, I watched him hit eight straight threes from the wing. One of the keys in holding Golden State together during this injured stretch has been Alfonzo McKinnie. He's been making shots -- 46.2 percent from three on the season -- but he's also been a huge addition on defense. McKinnie has posted one of the top defensive field goal percentages in the NBA so far. 120-10
2 Raptors Apparently, I'm a jinx. The Raptors have lost three of their past four, including an oddball loss in Brooklyn, since I (perhaps belatedly) elevated them to the top spot last week. Kyle Lowry, so great to begin the season, has sputtered the past couple weeks; he hasn't scored more than 10 points in any of his past five games, and was held scoreless in the Raptors' loss to the Bucks on Sunday, going 0-for-5 from three. This team does still feel like the best-constructed team to have a shot against the Warriors in a 7-game series. Pascal Siakam has one of the top defensive field goal percentages in the league, and he's contested more three-point shots than anyone in NBA. This team is scary good. 123-8
3 76ers Why is this 76ers' defense not better? I still expect that this will become an elite NBA defense -- but the Sixers currently only rank 10th in the NBA in defensive rating, and advanced statistics show the defense has gotten (barely) worse since Jimmy Butler's arrival. With the caveat that I still think the Sixers will be in the mix for the top seed in the East when all is said and done, I have some concerns about this team's roster construction and this team's chemistry. Those concerns were underscored by Joel Embiid recently voicing his frustrations on the offensive end since Butler came over. --19-11
4 Bucks As remarkable as Giannis Antetokounmpo has been on the offensive end, a big chunk of his MVP candidacy might rest on what he's doing on defense. The Greek Freak ranks second in the NBA in defensive win shares. The only players in the NBA who rank in the top 30 in both steals and blocks are Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol. As much as we've focused on the Bucks' offensive reinvention, their defense ranks sixth in the NBA. --19-9
5 Nuggets We might be entering a rough patch of the season for the Nuggets, who just lost two road games in a row at Charlotte and Atlanta (?!?). Gary Harris is expected to miss a month to rehab his injured hip, and Paul Millsap broke his toe in the Hornets loss. The Nuggets' surprisingly good defense, which ranks fourth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, will have to rely even more on the excellence of Mason Plumlee, who is amazingly the NBA's current leader in defensive box plus/minus. --19-9
6 Thunder You could make a pretty solid case that Paul George is the leading contender right now for Defensive Player of the Year as the anchor of the NBA's top-rated defense. He's third in the NBA in steals and leading the league in defensive win shares. 117-10
7 Lakers The rumored progress toward a potential trade that would bring Trevor Ariza to the Lakers would be huge for this team. Getting a three-and-D player of Ariza's caliber would only help the Lakers' defense, which is ranked a surprising ninth in the NBA and has ranked third in the NBA over the Lakers' recent 5-1 stretch. 117-11
8 Celtics Here come the Celtics. The C's have won five in a row, the longest current win streak in the NBA. Most importantly: There's been good signs on offense. Over the past five games, the Celtics actually have the top offensive rating in the NBA. Of course, this team's anchor will always be that versatile, switchy defense, which has the second-best defensive rating in the NBA. 118-10
9 Clippers The Clippers have lost two in a row, including getting smoked at home against a Miami Heat team that only had eight players and playing the second night of a road back-to-back. The Clippers have the depth and talent that they ought to stay in the playoff mix in the stout Western Conference all season. Get this: Boban Marjanovic has the lowest defensive field goal percentage among NBA centers. 117-11
10 Trail Blazers After a rough 1-6 stretch, the Blazers had a get-right win over the awful Phoenix Suns followed by Saturday's clutch crunch-time win over the Timberwolves. One of the most perplexing defensive stats of this NBA season: The Blazers' Seth Curry is the current NBA leader in defensive rating, and has the top defensive field goal percentage in the NBA. Think that might regress? --16-13
11 Grizzlies Marc Gasol has been the brain trust of this resurgence of Grit n' Grind-style defense, but Jaren Jackson Jr. has provided the excitement. Jackson ranks in the top 10 in blocks per game, with 1.9 blocks per game while averaging only 25.2 minutes. He has the tools to become an elite defensive player, if he isn't already. --16-12
12 Pacers How have the Pacers held serve in the 10 games since Victor Oladipo has been injured (they're 6-4 in that span)? On the strength of a defense that's third in the NBA in defensive rating on the season -- and has ranked third over the past 10 games, too, despite missing the All-Defensive Team guard. Myles Turner ranks third in the NBA in blocks per game, with 2.7, and is in the top 10 in defensive win shares. 219-10
13 Jazz The Jazz are 4-2 over their past six games. Remember: This team's brutal schedule was always going to be brutal from opening night until roughly Christmas. After that, things get markedly easier. I'm not selling stock in the Jazz. Far from it. Right now, buy low. 214-15
14 Pistons Remember last week how I warned you about the Pistons, reminding you they started last season 14-6 before missing the playoffs? Well, after winning five in a row, the Pistons have now lost four in a row over a rough patch of schedule (Thunder, Bucks, 76ers, Pelicans -- though three of those were at home). This subpar backcourt can only take this team so far. 113-13
15 Pelicans The Pelicans might have the best one-two defensive punch in the NBA with Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Davis leads the NBA in blocked shots; Holiday is third in steals. Yet they only rank 24th in the NBA in defensive rating. I just wish this team had more depth. Those two rank first and second in the NBA in minutes. 115-15
16 Timberwolves Here comes the real test for the Timberwolves. The honeymoon period after the Jimmy Butler trade went nearly perfectly, as the Wolves went 9-3 in their first 12 games after the move. But only two of those games were on the road. The Wolves embarked on a four-game road trip Saturday, and lost in Portland. Nine of their next 12 games are on the road. But the Timberwolves defense has been for real since Robert Covington and Dario Saric arrived. Covington leads the NBA in both deflections and steals. But a more interesting stat is Karl-Anthony Towns' defensive program. He's 12th in the NBA in blocked shots this season, and only Rudy Gobert has contested more shots this season than Towns. 113-15
17 Mavericks Over the past month, the Mavericks, who were supposed to be a lottery team, have beaten the following NBA teams: The Celtics, Clippers, Trail Blazers, Warriors, Jazz, Thunder and Rockets (twice). This is not a case of a team fattening up their record on the dregs of the NBA; the Mavericks have banked some great wins. Luka Doncic has been incredible, but analytics geeks would point to Maxi Kleber as one of the most underrated bench players in the NBA. He's eighth in the NBA in defensive rating and third in net rating. He is blocking 1.3 shots per game while averaging only 18.7 minutes. 315-12
18 Rockets The Rockets have lost seven of the past nine. After one of those losses -- to the Timberwolves on Monday -- I asked Chris Paul in the locker room what his level of concern is with the Rockets, considering their massive struggles. He said he's not particularly concerned. Perhaps he should be. During that nine-game stretch, the Rockets put up the third-worst defensive rating in the NBA. They're healthy now. No more excuses. 613-14
19 Hornets As I detailed earlier this week, I love Miles Bridges as a perfect role player in today's NBA. A player like Bridges used to be called a tweener; now he's called versatile. Head coach James Borrego told me he's been impressed by the progress Bridges has made on the defensive end as he's learned to play the NBA game. --14-14
20 Spurs The Spurs have won two in the row for the first time since Nov. 3. It's still so jarring to look at the advanced stats and see a Gregg Popovich-coached team ranking next-to-last in the NBA in defensive rating, but I suppose that's what happens when you ship off Kawhi Leonard and ship in DeMar DeRozan -- and then lose Dejounte Murray to injury. 215-14
21 Kings Harry Giles' defense has been atrocious. In fact, he has the worst defensive field goal percentage in the NBA. Here's to hoping he can figure it out, because if he can even be a shadow of the player he was in high school, he'll become a valuable NBA player. Giles has barely played the past couple weeks. I keep waiting for these fast-and-fun Kings to fall off, but with De'Aaron Fox having made an incredible sophomore jump, perhaps that won't actually happen. --15-13
22 Magic A hidden reason for the Magic's success: Terrance Ross, who is coming off the bench and having the best season of his career. Ross is averaging a career-high 14.4 points per game on career-high 40 percent three-point shooting. --13-15
23 Heat The Heat have had some nice wins in the past couple weeks: Over the Pelicans and Jazz at home, then over the Clippers on the road. As offensively-challenged as this team is, Erik Spoelstra is still coaching a top-10 defensive unit. 112-16
24 Wizards The Wizards' defense has been as much of a reason for the team's struggles as anything. Only four teams have a worse defensive rating than the Wizards. That has been marginally better during their past eight games. Maybe they're turning a corner. 111-18
25 Nets The Nets have won two in a row, including an impressive win over the Raptors. Guys: You own your draft pick this year! Tank! Get one more high pick, add a big free agent or two, and things are good. One of the biggest bright spots on the Nets' horizon has been Jarrett Allen, who could become an elite rim protector. 112-18
26 Knicks Only judge the Knicks on the progress of their youngsters this season, not by wins. And by that measure, Mitchell Robinson has been a smashing success. The rookie is top in the NBA in both block percentage and blocks per 48 minutes. 19-21
27 Hawks John Collins is a foundational piece, alongside Trae Young, for the Hawks. A defense that was 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency when Collins was injured the first month of the season has been markedly better (18th in the NBA) since his return. 26-22
28 Bulls Not a promising start for new head coach Jim Boylen. The Bulls' 56-point loss to the Celtics was the worst in franchise history, and afterwards, Boylen was asked if he'd benched his starters because he wanted to embarrass them. "I think your play is embarrassing," Boylen said of his players after the game. This drama is only going to get worse. 16-23
29 Cavaliers Worst defense in the NBA. Third-slowest pace in the NBA. Fewest three-point attempts in the NBA. Just a brutal watch. Thank God the tear-down has begun. 17-22
30 Suns The Suns have lost eight games in a row, the longest losing streak in the NBA. I don't blame them for taking Deandre Ayton. But man, Luka Doncic is looking really good right now, isn't he? 25-24
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