NBA Power Rankings: The Okafor Trade
As the weather is cooling down and the holidays are approaching, the NBA is heating up like Reggie Miller in NBA Jam. The season is over a third of the way through. Which teams look like contenders and who are the pretenders who are sinking back to earth. Check in this week and every week to get a glimpse at the NBA hierarchy.
- Golden State Warriors (22-6) (Last week’s ranking: 1) – Even losing Steph Curry to a sprained ankle can’t hold back these Warriors. Golden State has not lost since November 27., and look like a dominant team despite being without the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player. They just came off a road trip where they went 6-0. It was the first time in franchise history where the Warriors swept a road trip of six or more games. While Curry has been out, Kevin Durant has played his way into the MVP conversation. He has put the Warriors on his back and has them currently battling with the Rockets for the top seed in the Western Conference. Once Curry is able to return to the court, look out.
- Houston Rockets (21-4) (Last week’s ranking: 2) – Even a 10-game winning streak can’t put a stop to the rumot mill. Several media outlets are currently conjuring ways for the Rockets to land LeBron James if he decides to leave Cleveland as a free agent after the season. I say the Rockets should not change a thing. They are keeping pace with the Warriors at the top of the Western Conference standings and that’s after they played without Chris Paul for the first month of the season. The Rockets have a nice, long homestand leading up to their Christmas Day clash in Oklahoma City. They should be able to pad their division lead over San Antonio in the process.
- Boston Celtics (23-6) (Last week’s ranking: 3) – The Celtics keep rolling. Their lone loss of the week required some vintage Manu Ginobili highlights to end the first half and the game. Boston has been thriving with a young team and Jayson Tatum is leading the league in three point percentage. With the Cavaliers continuing to lurk beneath them, the Celtics need to continue to bank wins. Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving has improved his play each month so far and has scorched opponents in December. Irving is shooting over 50 percent from both the floor and beyond the arc in December.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (19-8) (Last week’s ranking: 4) – What is the floor for a LeBron James-led team? It is hard to fathom his team winning less than 50 games even though the Cavaliers won only 51 games a year ago. That likely speaks more to the team’s effort level a year ago than anything else. This year, LeBron has locked in and Cleveland is on pace for 58 wins without Isaiah Thomas. Could the Cavs return to the 60-game plateau? With the way the Celtics have played so far, the Cavaliers might need home-court advantage more than they expected after Gordon Hayward’s injury.
- San Antonio Spurs (19-8) (Last week’s ranking: 5) – Spurs fans have plenty of reasons to be excited this week. Franchise cornerstone and former NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is set to make his season debut against the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night. The Spurs did a fantastic job to start the year without both Leonard and Tony Parker in the lineup, thanks in large part to the play of Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge. Now that San Antonio is finally returning to full strength, we will see if they are capable of competing with the Rockets and Warriors for Western Conference supremacy.
- Toronto Raptors (17-8) (Last week’s ranking: 6) – The Raptors are settling in after an uneven start. They are third in offensive rating and have been 20th in assist percentage. 20th doesn’t sound great but it is a massive improvement after being last in the league two years in a row. Coach Dwane Casey has succeeded with making changes to the team without having to shake up the roster. DeMar DeRozan is starting to revert to his old self though. He has not made a single three in the past seven games and has only attempted 11. Thankfully, the team as a whole is attempting eight more threes a game. The Raptors look to be a possible contender with their new style of play and remain a must watch as the trade deadline approaches.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (16-11) (Last week’s ranking: 8) – Don’t look now, but the Timberwolves are one of the four teams in the Western Conference who are separating themselves from the rest of the pack. They have gotten better as a team with each passing week. JImmy Butler, Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are the stars, but don’t overlook role players such as Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson. If Minnesota does anything special this season, it will be because of their role players.
- Washington Wizards (14-12) (Last week’s ranking: 11) – Bradley Beal is keeping the Wizards afloat. The Wizards still have a 2.4 point differential, which slots them as the fourth best team in the Eastern Conference. That sounds just about right for the Wizards. They are clearly behind the Celtics and Cavaliers and need John Wall to keep up with Toronto. The Wizards have invested heavily in this core. They might top out as a team that can win a series or two. It will be tough for them to add major pieces with their cap situation so what happens if they flame out this season? The Wall-Beal pairing is superb but in a stacked NBA, they will need more than that to compete.
- Milwaukee Bucks (15-10) (Last week’s ranking: 13) – Since adding Eric Bledsoe, the Bucks have become a different team. The offense has stayed the same. The Bucks were 11th before Bledsoe arrived in Milwaukee and 11th since he got there. Defensively, his arrival has transformed the team. They were 26th in defense before he played his first game and have been 10th since then. That has propelled the Bucks to their current record and could have them back in the hunt for a top-five seed. He has engaged defensively and his length fits nicely with the Bucks. Coach Jason Kidd has even started to dial back his aggression! If the Bucks can adapt their scheme to be more conservative, the Bucks figure to be a fixture in the top-five and could easily be the best defensive team in the NBA.
- Detroit Pistons (14-12) (Last week’s ranking: 7) – The Pistons are falling fast. Detroit’s offense has reverted back towards the middle of the league. Their bench was playing unsustainably well so it is no surprise that their numbers are regressing to the mean other than Langston Galloway. The starters have continued to struggle and the numbers bear out that other teams are outscoring the Pistons when Detroit’s starters are out there. If that continues, Detroit could find itself falling out of the playoff picture.
- Indiana Pacers (16-11) (Last week’s ranking: 16) – Victor Oladipo is proving he is an all-star. Sunday, Oladipo led the Pacers with 47 points and helped clinch an overtime win over Denver. His three-point percentage seems likely to dip from its lofty 44 percent current mark. Do not tell Oladipo that though, as he has posted his best shooting of the season in December. If Oladipo can keep that mark above 40 percent, he would drastically improve on his 36 percent career number. His combination of shooting and ability to generate offense is making the players around him better. Darren Collison and Lance Stephenson both deserve credit as well, particularly Collison who is having a renaissance year. Domantas Sabonis, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Myles Turner have all thrived this year but they should thank Oladipo and Collison. More than 70 percent of those players field goals have been assisted. Collison and Oladipo are setting the table. With Oladipo’s improved shooting, he is stretching the defense so Collison can penetrate and get looks for the other starters. Indiana will come back down to earth as their shooting regresses but do not be surprised to see Indiana in the playoffs this season. Their backcourts ability to knock down open shots and create off the dribble have made them a dangerous team in the Eastern Conference.
- Philadelphia 76ers (13-13) (Last week’s ranking: 9) – At this point, we know what the 76ers are. Without Joel Embiid, they are a .500 team who could sneak into the playoffs in the East. The injury to Robert Covington really hurts though. Covington is their primary wing stopper and one of their better shooters. They simply do not have any other players on the roster that can imitate his skill set. Combine that with Embiid’s absence and it was no surprise to see Philly struggling to win games. Health will be the biggest factor in determining the 76ers final outcome but they are smart to play it safe with their young players. Markelle Fultz is also approaching his own return from injury and could help bolster their team.
- Denver Nuggets (14-12) (Last week’s ranking: 12) – Denver’s road woes continue, as Sunday’s loss at Indiana dropped them to 4-10 in opposing cities this season. The Nuggets have been hit hard by injuries, but they still have enough talent and depth to remain competitive. Will they take advantage of a injury-riddled Western Conference? That remains to be seen.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (12-14) (Last week’s ranking: 15) – Nobody knows what is wrong with Oklahoma City. The trio of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are not meshing well together at all. George has been nicked up as of late, but the Thunder went down to Mexico City and laid an egg against the Brooklyn Nets last week. Their lack of depth is alarming, and Westbrook is currently the only player on the roster who is keeping his team in games. What’s even more alarming is how well the players traded away by Oklahoma City in the George and Anthony deals are performing. Do you think Sam Presti would like a mulligan on one or both of these trades?
- Portland Trail Blazers (13-13) (Last week’s ranking: 10) – The skidding Trail Blazers have now lost five games in a row, but they would still occupy a postseason spot if the season ended today, due to the fact that the Western Conference has not been as strong as many projected it to be. Another issue with Portland is that they are a respectable 6-5 on the road, but only 7-8 at home. They need to start playing better at Moda Center if they want to be taken seriously. Road games against the Heat, Magic and Hornets this week should help them get back on track.
- New Orleans Pelicans (14-14) (Last week’s ranking: 14) – How’s this for a stat? Rajon Rondo is one of just two players averaging at least 11 points, 11 assists and five rebounds per game this month. The other one is Russell Westbrook. If Rondo can keep his level of play up alongside DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, the Pelicans could be a scary team to face on any given night. They did blow a late lead against the Rockets on Monday night, but they are definitely a force to be reckoned with when they are playing at their best.
- Utah Jazz (13-14) (Last week’s ranking: 17) – Despite all of their injuries, the Jazz are a fun team to watch. Rudy Gobert has been nearly unstoppable since his return to the court. Alec Burks has also been a man on a mission for the past month. The Jazz have lost three straight games but given the talent they’ve lost in the past several months, you can’t say they’re not giving it their all every night. They could be a surprise playoff team in the West if everything shakes out correctly for them.
- Miami Heat (13-13) (Last week’s ranking: 18) – The Heat are of many Eastern Conference teams sitting right around the eighth seed. The Hassan Whiteside injury hurts but they are deep and Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo should both be able to fill in while he is out. Miami’s biggest problem continues to be Dion Waiters. Waiters and the rest of their free agent signees have been struggling to replicate their success. Waiters has atrocious shooting splits and his struggles are killing the Heat even if they are unsurprising. Their shooting numbers are in line with what they shot last year but they are turning the ball over more than a year ago and their defense has been significantly worse. Last year, it was a second half surge that carried them to the edge of the playoff race. They might need more of the same if they want to make it in this year.
- New York Knicks (13-13) (Last week’s ranking: 20) – When Kristaps Porzingis plays, the Knicks are a playoff contender. Without him, the Knicks could be in the dregs with Chicago and Atlanta. At some point this season, the Knicks may need to face reality and shut Kristaps down so they can add talent via the draft. In the meantime, Porzingis is showcasing a reason for hope. He put the team on his back against Atlanta as he has done so many times this season. He has proven that he is a superstar level talent. Now the Knicks need to start surrounding him with the pieces he needs to make them a contender.
- Orlando Magic (11-17) (Last week’s ranking: 19) – Since their magical 8-4 start, the Magic have gone 3-13. Hopes for making the playoffs this season have disappeared as they fall further and further under .500. However, it should not be all doom and gloom in Orlando. Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Simmons, and Nikola Vucevic have all shown flashes. Vucevic’s defense might be a limiting factor for their ceiling but all three seem like building blocks. Evan Fournier has proven that he is an elite shooter and should help provide the spacing the team needs. Notable for his absence from this list is point guard Elfrid Payton. Payton did not play for much of the Magic’s successful stretch and his lack of shooting can cripple the offense. His relatively strong shooting from beyond the arc belies the reality that defenses concede that shot. The Magic have clearly moved on from Mario Hezonja and would be wise to consider doing the same with Payton and Vucevic, particularly if they can extract anything of value for them. The Magic have the foundation for a long-limbed perimeter team. Simmons, Gordon, rookie Jonathan Isaac, and Fournier could all fit nicely together and become a switch-everything defensive dynamo. For that to happen though, the Magic will need to find their point guard of the future.
- Charlotte Hornets (10-16) (Last week’s ranking: 21) – The Dwightmare continues! Dwight Howard continues his streak of coming to teams and watching them immediately plummet from loftier expectations. The Hornets seemed primed for a mid-40 win season. Nicolas Batum’s injury has played a role in their struggles but even with him back, Charlotte is struggling mightily on offense. The reason is pretty obvious. Watch any game the Hornets play and it devolves to pick and roll heavy offense with a huge dose of Kemba Walker. Batum, Jeremy Lamb, and Malik Monk have had turns at taking over the offense. The results have not been pretty. Charlotte needs another top-level playmaker. Their 22nd ranked offense is not enough unless their defense is absolutely elite. While the Hornets are still 10th in defense, that mark is simply not good enough with the way they are playing on the other end.
- Brooklyn Nets (10-15) (Last week’s ranking: 22) – It would have been hard to imagine the Nets playing this well with the prolonged absences of Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell. The Nets added Jahlil Okafor to the mix over the weekend and now have two of the top three players from the 2015 NBA draft. Okafor has been criminally underrated since the 76ers inexplicably glued him to the bench. He immediately upgrades the Nets’ frontcourt. Okafor is a true post behemoth who can punish smaller players when switched onto him. He has nice touch and showed flashes of a midrange game at Duke. Expect Coach Kenny Atkinson to help him extend to the three-point line. Okafor can also clean the glass, which enables him to play center. The main problem for Okafor is that he was a flammable defensive player while in Philly. That will need to change in Brooklyn as the Nets do not have stoppers on the perimeter and he will have to do a better job protecting the rim. That said, the move is an absolutely home run for the Nets. Trevor Booker was never going to be a factor in their long-term plans and they managed to get Nik Stauskas and a pick in addition to Okafor, who should become their starting center immediately. Most of all, it is great to see Okafor get a chance to play after the 76ers bungled his situation throughout this year.
- Los Angeles Lakers (10-15) (Last week’s ranking: 23) – Winning two games in a row has to feel nice for the young Lakers, who are watching both Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram develop before their very eyes. Ingram played the game of his life over the weekend against the Sixers, hitting a last-second 3-pointer to give the Lakers the victory. Who assisted on that bucket? None other than Ball. They could be a very powerful one-two punch for Los Angeles in the future.
- Los Angeles Clippers (10-15) (Last week’s ranking: 24) – The Clippers will benefit from the return of Milos Teodosic. The Clippers have been struggling at the point guard position ever since Patrick Beverley was lost for the season with a right knee injury. It might be too little, too late for the Clippers, who are also without Blake Griffin for an extended period. It’s tough to find a team who fell from NBA grace faster than the Clippers have over the past few months. Things are looking much brighter for their Staples Center neighbors.
- Phoenix Suns (9-19) (Last week’s ranking: 25) – It’s not secret that this season has not been fun for the Suns. On some nights they look like a competitive team, and on other nights they look like a G-League team. The good news for them is that they play the struggling Kings on Tuesday night. Someone has to win that game.
- Memphis Grizzlies (8-19) (Last week’s ranking: 26) – The Grizzlies, now losers of four straight, are quickly letting their season get away from them. They look disinterested out on the court, and teams are walking all over them on a nightly basis. The quicker the losses continue to pile up, the more the team has to consider moving star center Marc Gasol before February’s trade deadline. It would be a sad day for Grizzlies fans, but this franchise is in need of a full scale rebuild.
- Sacramento Kings (8-18) (Last week’s ranking: 27) – Zach Randolph has been a force for the Kings. He dropped in a season-high 35 points and 13 rebounds in an overtime victory over the Pelicans. He has been a brightspot in what has been an otherwise dark season for Sacramento. They combined savvy veterans with young players and that formula has backfired in their faces so far. They still have plenty of time to turn it around, but one would have to think both George Hill and Vince Carter could be on the trading block.
- Dallas Mavericks (7-20) (Last week’s ranking: 28) – Dirk Nowitzki is on the verge of passing Kevin Willis for No. 6 on the NBA’s all-time list for games played. That’s the exciting news around the Mavericks these days. Team owner Mark Cuban is not ready to count them out of the playoff picture just yet. He states that the team is much more competitive than they were last season, even though they had identical 7-20 records through 27 games during both years. The Mavericks are a little better than their record indicates, but they simply don’t have enough talent to make a serious run right now.
- Atlanta Hawks (6-20) (Last week’s ranking: 29) – More John Collins, please! Collins is becoming one of the lone bright spots for this team. Collins has been a monster this season and might be the only reason to tune in for a Hawks game for anyone outside of Atlanta. The rookie is only playing 23 minutes a game. That number should increase as the Hawks fall further out of the playoff race and embrace the tank. The only problem is that Collins might also be the team’s second best player behind Dennis Schroder already. Successful rebuilds rely on hitting on a few draft picks and the Hawks are off to a good start with Collins.
- Chicago Bulls (6-20) (Last week’s ranking: 30) – Nikola Mirotic is bringing the wins to the Bulls and more could be coming with Zach LaVine expected to return soon as well. While that will hurt their upcoming lottery odds, it could make the Bulls watchable again. Poor Lauri Markkanen is stuck shuffling around the three-point line as announcers like Stacey King praise his “movement off-ball”. That is life for a rookie on a team without creators or spacing. Markkanen continues to be the most reliable source of shooting on the Bulls but LaVine and Mirotic could give him the space to expand his game. Markkanen has shown surprising quickness and athleticism, particularly in switching onto smaller players. He has been a much better defender than expected and it will be interesting to see if that can translate on offense. For now, he is almost exclusively stationed behind the arc. That has impacted his ability to get to the rim or grab offensive boards. With LaVine and Mirotic, Coach Fred Hoiberg should look to some of Minnesota’s old sets that Rick Adelman used when Kevin Love played there.
Biggest Mover: Indiana Pacers (5)
Biggest Flop: Portland Trail Blazers (4)