DGS NBA Power Rankings – Happy New Year!
New year, new power rankings. As we open 2018, there are some surprises, some disappointments, and more than a few highlights. The Warriors are still number one but after them there has been a lot of movement. Which teams will hang in the playoff hunt? Have any teams pushed themselves into the championship mix? Kick off your shoes, put your feet up, and enjoy the newest NBA power rankings courtesy of Double G Sports:
- Golden State Warriors (29-8) (Last week’s ranking: 1) – Can things get any better for the Warriors? Over the last two weeks, they’ve leapfrogged the Rockets for the top seed in the Western Conference, saw Stephen Curry return in a big way and defeated the Cavaliers in controversial fashion on Christmas Day. The Warriors appear to be cruising their way through the regular season, but they could be looking to add another big man before the trade deadline. Rookie Jordan Bell has been a nice surprise early on, and it’s hard to believe the Bulls gave him up for nothing on draft night. His speed and versatility on defense has allowed Draymond Green to play fewer minutes while also keeping JaVale McGee glued to the bench.
- Houston Rockets (26-9) (Last week’s ranking: 2) – Tough break for the Rockets. All-Star guard and MVP candidate James Harden will miss two weeks with a left hamstring strain. They were already passed in the standings by the Warriors, and if Houston is unable to win without Harden in the lineup, they could also find themselves behind the Spurs by the time he is able to return. Harden has never missed more than three consecutive games since joining the Rockets, so his absence will be a huge test for the rest of the roster. Chris Paul has been banged up this season as well, but his return the lineup could keep the Rockets in most games. If he is unable to play at a high level, I don’t see Houston winning too many games with Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza leading the charge.
- Boston Celtics (30-10) (Last week’s ranking: 3) – While the Celtics have cooled since their hot start, Kyrie Irving has continued to heat up. For December, his shooting percentages put him in the 50-40-90 club despite taking nearly 20 shots a game. Jayson Tatum has continued to look every bit as good as advertised and seems like a perennial all-star in the making. Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart continue to anchor the league’s best defense. We knew the Celtics would be good this year but they are proving that they must be included in any championship conversation, particularly if Gordon Hayward can return.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (24-12) (Last week’s ranking: 4) – Isaiah Thomas is coming back. Thomas is expected to debut as a Cavalier tonight. He will be the key to the Cavs ability to contend for a title. LeBron James has performed at an MVP level so far and the Cavaliers still only possess a 2.8 point differential, which would put them as a mid-tier playoff team. LeBron has made a career of disproving doubters and taking it up a notch in the playoffs but he will need Thomas this year. The competition at the top of the league is simply too good for LeBron to win another title as a one-man show. Thomas will need to space the floor with his shooting, serve as a second ball-handler, and be ready when teams double James. As valuable as the Brooklyn pick might be, Thomas’ ability to get the Cavs back to the finals alongside James will determine the winner and loser of that deal.
- Toronto Raptors (25-10) (Last week’s ranking: 6) – The Raptors are making their case. They have the best point differential in the Eastern Conference and it is not particularly close. The Celtics trail them by nearly three points a contest. The spectre of postseason expectations will continue to rise its ugly head until the Raptors can make an NBA finals. Nonetheless, they are passing the eye test. The new offense and DeRozan’s willingness to expand his game outside of the three-point arc has made them dramatically more dynamic. Ball movement is crisp. Against the Bucks, DeRozan killed Milwaukee and set a franchise record for points scored. However, he did it off of actions and beyond the arc (5-9) in addition to his normal midrange and foul-drawing mastery. His movement off the ball and ability to find other players when doubled has made the Raptors harder to guard as a team and hopefully that much more dangerous once the playoffs start.
- San Antonio Spurs (25-12) (Last week’s ranking: 5) – The Spurs have done an admirable job staying afloat in the Wild West while slowly working Kawhi Leonard back from injury. With James Harden sidelined in Houston, the Spurs have a chance to grab hold of the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference over the next couple of weeks. Even without Leonard and Tony Parker for much of the opening month of the season, the Spurs continued winning games. They finished December with an 11-5 record and haven’t had a losing month since December of 2014, when they went 8-10. That’s astonishing.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (24-14) (Last week’s ranking: 7) – Minnesota is now a whopping ten games over .500 after beating the Lakers at home on Monday night. With the Thunder surging, they are going to have to keep this up if they want to remain atop their division. Interestingly enough, 20 of their 24 victories have come against Western Conference opponents, while eight of their 14 losses have come against Eastern Conference opponents. They will need to start winning games against the East if they want to be taken more seriously come playoff time. They face the Nets and Celtics on the road this week, so now is the perfect time to start.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (20-17) (Last week’s ranking: 14) – The Thunder have been playing much better basketball as of late, vaulting back over .500 by a few games before suffering setbacks against the Bucks and Mavericks over the weekend. Russell Westbrook already has 12 triple-doubles on the season, making a case for his second consecutive MVP trophy. Sure, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony have upped their games recently, but the reason the Thunder are back in the playoff picture is their defense. They are currently top five in both Defensive Rating and points allowed, but will need to start playing better on the road, as only six of their 20 victories have come away from Chesapeake Energy Arena.
- Washington Wizards (21-16) (Last week’s ranking: 10) – Rumors of the demise of the Eastern Conference have clearly been overstated. Washington leads the group of teams behind the Cavs, Raptors, and Celtics. The Wizards finished December strong to get themselves back into the thick of the playoff race. With the return of John Wall, the Wizards showed they still belong. Meanwhile, they headline the second tier of the East that should contain themselves, Detroit, Milwaukee, and possibly Indiana. Philadelphia seemed ready to enter this group but the health of Joel Embiid is once again imperling their season. How have the Wizards found their way? It has mostly been on the back of Bradley Beal who is a surefire all-star. The Wall-Beal pairing is not quite as good as Curry-Thompson in Golden State but it is hard to find anyone else in their orbit. Beal has mostly stayed healthy and is having a career year as he pours in nearly 25 points a contest on good shooting numbers. His increased aggressiveness is evident in the way he forces the issue on offense. That has materialized in his career high free throw attempts and is opening up things for the Wizards on offense. The next challenge will be for Coach Scott Brooks to fix the defense.
- Detroit Pistons (20-15) (Last week’s ranking: 8) – What to make of the Detroit Pistons. They remain a fairly mediocre team. None of their numbers or players jump off the page outside of Andre Drummond. Drummond has been doing everything for the Pistons. His ability to start offense at the top of the key is the single most important aspect of the team’s turnaround. In fact, almost all of the top reasons for their turnaround come back to Drummond. His free throw shooting is holding steady above 60 percent, which lets Coach Stan Van Gundy play him late in games. In addition, that free throw shooting has led him to initiate contact and compete down low rather than shying away from it. That has helped translate into his 14.3 points a game and more importantly his gaudy rebound numbers.The question will be if Drummond’s massive shoulders can continue to bear the weight of carrying this team without a fellow superstar.
- Milwaukee Bucks (19-16) (Last week’s ranking: 11) – The criticism of Coach Jason Kidd continues to flood in this season. Reports out of Milwaukee do not indicate that his job is in jeopardy yet. Coach Kidd is going to have his hands full as Jabari Parker has now joined the G-League to continue his rehab. When he gets back, it will be another new piece for Kidd to integrate. The Bucks should be contenders this season. There may not have been a better performance this season than what Giannis Antetokounmpo has done. The supporting cast has been up to the task too. Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, and Eric Bledsoe have all played well. The problem is that the offense devolves into Giannis-centric isos. The defense is still a mess. Parker will help but there is too much talent on the roster for the Bucks to get bounced in the first round.
- Denver Nuggets (19-17) (Last week’s ranking: 13) – How about the combination of Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee? The duo has the Nuggets in prime playoff position despite them not being expected to contend this season. Jamal Murray averaged 19.1 points per game in December and is showing he can be a consistent scoring threat. Denver has 10 home games this month, so they have to take advantage of the more favorable portion of their regular season schedule and continue winning basketball games. They have games against the Suns, Jazz and Kings this week, so there is a good chance they are sitting at 22 victories at this time next week.
- Portland Trail Blazers (19-17) (Last week’s ranking: 12) – Damian Lillard is set to return to Portland’s lineup against the Cavaliers on Tuesday after missing five games with a right hamstring strain. Portland went a respectable 3-2 in Lillard’s absence, with Shabazz Napier filling in nicely as a starter, but Portland struggled to score the basketball without him. Lillard will match up against fellow All-Star Isaiah Thomas, who is set to make his Cavaliers debut on Tuesday. C.J. McCollum will benefit from Lillard’s return. He has struggled mightily as the lead guy while his All-Star backcourt mate was sidelined.
- Indiana Pacers (19-18) (Last week’s ranking: 9) – The Pacers simply do not have enough on the roster to win games consistently without Victor Oladipo. They rely so heavily on him on both ends of the floor and the results without him have shown it. They struggled to find anything on offense in all three losses. Against the Bulls, only Darren Collison could get anything going. Domantas Sabonis has not been able to get anything going without his pick and roll partner. When Dipo cannot play, the Pacers do not have enough on offense to compete. The Pacers’ playoff hopes are going to hinge on his healthy return.
- New Orleans Pelicans (18-18) (Last week’s ranking: 16) – Rajon Rondo has been a revelation for the Pelicans, dishing out a career and franchise-high 25 assists in a win over the Nets last week. The Pelicans are a much better team with Rondo on the floor, but the Pelicans have to play better at home. Losses on their home floor to the Mavericks and Knicks are not going to help their playoff chances. January is shaping up to be a relatively easy month for the Pelicans, who will play nine of their 14 games against teams who are currently under .500.
- New York Knicks (18-18) (Last week’s ranking: 15) – The Knicks’ road woes hurt them a lot to end 2017. They are electric at home (15-6) but miserable anywhere but MSG (3-12 on the road). A home heavy schedule has kept them in the hunt but the new year will not bring them any relief. 13 of their next 17 games will be on the road. If their struggles continue, the Knicks might fall out of the playoff hunt before February begins.
- Miami Heat (19-17) (Last week’s ranking: 19) – The Heat have turned their season around and look like a potential playoff team again. How did they do it? The Heat’s success has come mostly against bottom feeders. They only won a single game in December against a team above .500. That was a one-point win over the Celtics. The Heat are not in the midst of a turnaround like they were last year and it is unclear if they will be able to elevate themselves back to their level of play at the end of last year. Certainly, one key to their success has been the return of Hassan Whiteside. Saturday against Orlando he pulled down 13 rebounds and dished four assists. His presence lets the Heat play inside out. Dion Waiters has missed the last four games so just as Miami gets back Whiteside, they lose another key player. Waiters has been atrocious to start the season but is one of the most important players on the team since he is one of their only ball-handling options. If he can return to form and Whiteside can stay healthy, the Heat should hold onto their playoff spot.
- Philadelphia 76ers (17-19) (Last week’s ranking: 17) – Can it really be as simple as having Joel Embiid on the court? It certainly seems that way. The team is 15-12 with him and 2-7 without him. Embiid is 23rd in PER and 14th in defensive real plus-minus. He is already an elite player on both ends of the floor and fits in beautifully on the team. The problem for the 76ers has been that when a team builds around a player who misses games, they struggle when their centerpiece cannot play. Embiid has “only” missed nine games. That adds up to 25 percent of the games. At the start of the season, Sixers fans would have been pretty happy with 60 games out of Embiid but that simply might not be enough if Philly is going to make a playoff push. Markelle Fultz is supposedly nearing his return so he may be able to fill in and change that but for now, the pressure remains squarely on Embiid to carry the team and keep the process alive.
- Los Angeles Clippers (16-19) (Last week’s ranking: 23) – Break up the Clippers! They have won three in a row and all of the sudden find themselves just a game and a half behind the Pelicans for the eighth seed in the West. Blake Griffin has been a beast since returning to the lineup, and the Clips have had the league’s best offense over the past two weeks. They are also in the stretch of their schedule where they do not leave the state of California for nearly a month. For everyone who called for the Clippers to have a fire sale, I say, not so fast. This team could find themselves in possession of a Western Conference playoff spot sometime in the near future.
- Utah Jazz (16-21) (Last week’s ranking: 18) – One cannot fault the Jazz for their poor record this season, as they have been completely ravaged by injuries. Rookie Donovan Mitchell continues to keep his name in the Rookie of the Year conversation. Since Thanksgiving he has averaged nearly 23 points per game and has kept the Jazz relevant. The question remains whether or not they decide to trade Derrick Favors if things continue to go South. Smart money says yes. They could fetch a valuable asset or two in exchange for the power forward.
- Brooklyn Nets (14-23) (Last week’s ranking: 20) – We might need to check if Jarrett Allen is still alive after Bismack Biyombo’s dunk last night. That dunk aside, Allen was tremendous against the Magic. He blocked two shots and had 16 points to go along with six rebounds. He has become a menace rolling down the lane and finishing around the rim. He has improved each month and the Nets will hope he can continue to be a part of their young core. Unfortunately, the lack of talent on the roster has caught up with the Nets. After a good start, the Nets have slipped to 14-23 and 11th in the Eastern Conference. The problem is that the Nets are closer to the bottom of the league (3.5 games) than to the playoffs (five games). Brooklyn’s process looks good but results may take some time.
- Chicago Bulls (13-24) (Last week’s ranking: 28) – The Bulls are surging. Outside of one blowout loss to Boston, the Bulls have been competitive in every game since Nikola Mirotic returned. Mirotic has been lighting it up for the Bulls and should secure a starting role if that continues. Him and Bobby Portis have thrived and helped Coach Fred Hoiberg’s offense go from horrendous to mediocre. Their emergence alongside Lauri Markkanen and steady Robin Lopez gives them one of the best young frontcourts in the league. When Zach LaVine returns, he could turn the Bulls into a legitimate threat with his shooting and ability to generate his own offense.
- Charlotte Hornets (13-23) (Last week’s ranking: 22) – Not many saw this coming. The Hornets seemed like a playoff contender. Instead, they look like a lottery team. The top three of Kemba Walker, Dwight Howard, and Jeremy Lamb have been getting it done. In fact, Howard has been excellent on the court for Charlotte and their rebounding has been one of the lone bright spots this season. The main problem has been that the offense is unimaginative and stagnant. The team’s overreliance on Walker has made them one-dimensional and predictable. Unfortunately, Coach Steve Clifford has not been able to marshal their defense as he has in the past. It is hard to win games when a team hemorrhages points on one end and cannot generate many on the other.
- Phoenix Suns (14-24) (Last week’s ranking: 25) – Is anyone else still surprised that Greg Monroe is still on the Suns’ roster? He and Tyson Chandler are basically the same player, with Monroe being a few years younger. Phoenix would be smart to move one or both of them before the trade deadline in order to allow Alex Len to continue his development. Chandler did have a fun game-winning alley-oop against the Grizzlies last week, but the Suns still have an extremely long way to go in their massive rebuild.
- Dallas Mavericks (13-25) (Last week’s ranking: 29) – The Mavericks have won four in a row, but similar to Chicago’s recent run, it might be too late to save their season. They continue to beat the good teams, with seven of their December wins coming against opponents with .500 or better records. Dirk Nowitzki is on his last legs but is still proving to be an effective 3-point shooter. Dennis Smith Jr. continues to turn heads, but the Mavericks are still a few solid additions away from competing in the Western Conference.
- Memphis Grizzlies (12-25) (Last week’s ranking: 27) – January will prove to be a crucial month for the Grizzlies. They ended 2017 with a huge road win over the Kings, but they have to start winning games at home if they want to make up any ground in the playoff standings. Memphis has only won three of its past 15 games at FedEx Forum. Tyreke Evans continues to light up the scoreboard, which makes him a prime trade candidate. In fact, the Grizzlies would be smart to sell high on Evans. Could Marc Gasol follow him out the door? Stay tuned.
- Sacramento Kings (12-24) (Last week’s ranking: 26) – The Kings followed up a victory over the Cavaliers with two-straight losses. Vince Carter has turned back the clock lately, but he is wasting the final years of his illustrious career on a terrible team. The Kings allowed the Suns and Grizzlies to torch them from deep, which completely took the wind out of their sails after beating Cleveland. This week, they will look to get back on track against the Hornets and Nuggets
- Orlando Magic (12-26) (Last week’s ranking: 21) – Looking for Magic? There is none left in Orlando. The Magic have gone from a playoff hopeful to a bottom feeder in record time. Their shooting cratered and they have been awful. Coach Frank Vogel is going to be on the hot seat after another year of losing and Elfrid Payton likely needs to go. The Magic need spacing and playmakers. Payton has some playmaking ability but his defense and shooting are both atrocious. Unfortunately, in today’s NBA the 3-and-D archetype has spread across positions and Payton offers neither. There is a good young foundation under all the mess but the Magic need a new orchestrator to lead it.
- Los Angeles Lakers (11-25) (Last week’s ranking: 24) – LA’s defense has been putrid during their current seven-game losing streak. They are going the wrong way in the standings and if they don’t start to turn things around soon, they have to consider the fact that their 2018 first round draft pick might wind up in the hands of the Celtics. The good news for the Lakers is that both Brook Lopez and Lonzo Ball have returned to practice. They need both players back in the lineup ASAP or else this season will continue slipping away from them.
- Atlanta Hawks (10-26) (Last week’s ranking: 30) – The Hawks have been frisky winning three of their last four. It is not surprising to hear that Dennis Schroder led them in scoring in all three wins. It would surprise many to see Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli being two of the other leading scorers for Atlanta in those games. The common denominator is that both space the floor. Coach Mike Budenholzer has had to get creative to space the floor around Schroder with a stripped down roster. Belinelli and Ilyasova have reaped the benefits. Both players were on the wrong side of 30 and coming off down years. Instead of final NBA seasons, both have PERs above 15. Their resurgent seasons and ability to space the floor should keep both in the NBA for a few more years.
Biggest Mover: Oklahoma City Thunder (6)
Biggest Flop: Orlando Magic (7)
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