NBA power rankings: Bucks, Bulls are on the rise

The Houston Rockets, who last week owned the NBA’s worst record, but now are on a league-best six-game winning streak, are proof of how unpredictable the NBA can be.

That said, as the season crosses the 30% threshold, we’re watching a handful of top teams separate themselves from the rest of the competition. Both conferences have three clubs each with a winning percentage better than .600, with the white-hot Suns and Warriors having split a pair of matchups this past week.

But while those clubs are somewhat easy to peg, where do the rest of the teams fall in our weekly power rankings?

(Note: SI’s NBA staff is ranking every team from best to worst all season long, taking into account how each squad is currently playing.)

1. Phoenix Suns

Current record: 19-4

Previous ranking: 2

After reeling off 18 wins in a row—and going undefeated throughout the entire month of November—the Suns get an opportunity to begin a new run after falling to the Warriors on Friday. But they’ll likely need to do it without Devin Booker, who remains on the mend following a hamstring tweak during the first half of last week’s victory over Golden State. Phoenix dodged a huge bullet when ace defender Mikal Bridges dislocated—but didn’t break—the pinky finger on his shooting hand late last week.

2. Golden State Warriors

Current record: 19-4

Previous ranking: 1

If he catches fire, this could be the week that Stephen Curry breaks the NBA record for three-pointers made in a career. He needs 23 more to surpass Ray Allen’s 2,973 figure, and has three contests—Monday versus Orlando, Wednesday versus Portland, and Saturday versus Philly in primetime on ABC—to get there. Curry’s averaging 5.4 made triples per game, so it’d take him being even more supernova than we’re used to. But then again, the only way you get anywhere near a record like this is by regularly going outside the bounds of what we expect.

3. Milwaukee Bucks

Current record: 15-9

Previous ranking: 4

Just in case it wasn’t already clear that the Bucks would be fine after starting slowly, consider this: The Bucks, winners in nine of their last 10, are a perfect 10-0 when Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo play together this season. A good reminder that any East contender’s title path will likely run through Milwaukee before making it to the NBA Finals.

4. Chicago Bulls

Current record: 16-8

Previous ranking: 7

With 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting in the fourth quarter of a comeback win over Brooklyn Saturday, Bulls wing DeMar DeRozan extended his league lead in fourth quarter scoring this season. He’s been a 50-40-90 player in fourth periods thus far, shooting 52.9% from the field, 45.5% from deep and 90.4% from the line to go with his 178 points. Teammate Zach LaVine, with 149 points, ranks third in the category.

5. Utah Jazz

Current record: 16-7

Previous ranking: 5

The odds of Rudy Gobert ever winning MVP are relatively slim, given the stat profile such players normally accumulate. But no one can doubt his otherworldly impact. His showing in Utah’s one-point win over the Cavs Sunday was a perfect example: He had 20 rebounds and five blocks to go with just six points. Yet he made arguably the two biggest plays of the contest, both in the final two minutes: A beautiful, driving dunk on a gambling Jarrett Allen, and perfectly timed help near the rim, which prompted Cleveland’s Darius Garland to reset the play all over again and take an almost 30-foot shot that misfired in the closing moments. Gobert may not score much, but he’s a game-changer.

6. Brooklyn Nets

Current record: 16-7

Previous ranking: 3

On some level, it might be a good thing that the Nets are playing for an NBA title rather than a spot in the college football playoff. That’s because, despite being in first place in the Eastern Conference, the Nets really haven’t beaten anyone of note standings-wise to this point. Of the eight teams currently enjoying top-four positioning in each conference, the Nets are the only one with a losing record against teams .500 or better, at 6-7. They own the league’s best mark, at 10-0, against sub-.500 competition, where they’ve done the majority of their damage. And because of how the schedule falls, they likely won’t get another chance against an elite opponent until Jan. 7 against the Bucks.

7. Miami Heat

Current record: 14-10

Previous ranking: 6

The biggest takeaway from this week—even after losing three of four—was that the Heat would be losing Bam Adebayo for four to six weeks after surgery on his shooting thumb; an injury that weakens the team’s defensive versatility and robs it of one of its best playmakers on offense. The ailment makes it even tougher sledding for a team that’s already playing without early MVP candidate Jimmy Butler (tailbone).

8. Boston Celtics

Current record: 13-11

Previous ranking: 13

Consider this to be an Al Horford appreciation post, if nothing else. No player has been challenged more often defensively 1-on-1 than the 63 times Horford has this season, according to Synergy Sports. Opponents generate just 0.762 points per iso against him, and only score 36.5% of the time. His three-point shooting has taken a step back, but is connecting on better than 50% of his shots from midrange, according to Basketball-Reference. Not bad for a 35-year-old big man, who averages 12.8, 8.2 and 3.5.

9. Washington Wizards

Current record: 14-10

Previous ranking: 9

If there’s a team that played above its head to start the season out East, it might be Washington. The Wiz passed the eye test early on, taking away opponents’ three-point opportunities while relying on depth around Bradley Beal. But the advanced numbers point to a regression that we’re seeing play out. Yes, they’re fourth in the East, at 14-10. But they’ve been perfect—5-0 so far—in games decided by three points or fewer, and a league-best 11-1 in games that are within five points in the final five minutes of play. It all suggests the good luck may run thin sometime soon. Their negative point differential—rare for a team with a winning record—also suggests that.

10. Cleveland Cavaliers

Current record: 13-11

Previous ranking: 16

For those waiting or expecting for the Cavaliers to hit a rough patch and fall out of the playoff mix, you could find yourself waiting for quite awhile. For starters, they’ve gone a respectable 6-7 since losing Collin Sexton. But perhaps even more important: They’ve gone 13-7 in the games rookie Evan Mobley has played, and sport a 2.9 net rating, one of the 10 best in the league. Having played the NBA’s toughest schedule so far, they have the easiest remaining slate as they push for a playoff berth.

11. Charlotte Hornets

Current record: 14-11

Previous ranking: 13-9

The Hornets logged one of their better wins of the season Sunday, beating Atlanta on the road while playing vastly shorthanded. Miles Bridges—seemingly earning a bigger contract with each additional performance—helped fill the scoring gaps left behind by LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier with 32 points and 4-of-4 shooting in the fourth period. Missing four players due to COVID protocols, the Hornets tapped into their biggest weapon, notching 17 triples against Atlanta to earn the victory. They are tied for the league-lead in threes made this season, with 359 through 25 games.

12. Memphis Grizzlies

Current record: 13-10

Previous ranking: 20

The sizzling Grizzlies have gotten contributions from a handful of different players since Ja Morant went down with a knee sprain that figures to keep him out a few weeks. Dillon Brooks stepped up with 21 in the first game of Morant’s absence. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane had 25 and 23, respectively, in the second one. Jackson had 27 in the third. And Bane had 29 in the fourth. The result: Four straight Memphis wins, which have lifted the Grizzlies into fourth place out West for now, without their star.

13. Philadelphia 76ers

Current record: 12-11

Previous ranking: 18

It might have been easy to assume Joel Embiid was completely back to normal after his bout with COVID-19 that kept him out nine games; particularly after he exploded for 42 points and 14 rebounds in his first game back. But after 4-for-16 and 3-for-17 showings in the days that followed, Embiid said he’s still working to regain his conditioning. He looked more himself against Atlanta Friday, logging 28 and 12 while hitting the game-winning basket late.

14. Minnesota Timberwolves

Current record: 11-12

Previous ranking: 14

In the midst of perhaps his best scoring stretch since the very beginning of the season, Karl-Anthony Towns took one of the nastier falls you’ll see as he let go of the rim following a dunk last week, falling directly on his tailbone before writhing in pain against Washington. Fortunately for Towns and the Wolves, it isn’t a long-term injury that should keep him out too long. But Minnesota, which had won seven of eight at the time of Towns’s injury, lost that game against the Wizards, then went on to lose the game after that in Brooklyn, too.

15. Atlanta Hawks

Current record: 12-12

Previous ranking: 10

From Nov. 22 to Dec. 1, star guard Trae Young stitched together five consecutive performances with 30 points or more, a stretch in which he averaged nearly nine assists and the resurgent Hawks went 4-1. Atlanta would like to build momentum before the end of the month, when it begins a season-long six-game road trip.

16. Denver Nuggets

Current record: 11-11

Previous ranking: 21

It’s hard to imagine him repeating as MVP with a record at or around .500, but considering the Nuggets are even thinner than they were last year, Nikola Jokić might be even more deserving of the award this year than he was last year. Aside from Jamal Murray and Michael Porter, who could miss the rest of the season following back surgery, wing PJ Dozier tore his ACL. Bol Bol, Bones Hyland and Austin Rivers are all out due to COVID protocol. Yet the Nuggets sit at 11-11, largely because Jokić is an even more efficient and accurate scorer than he was last season, even while forced to do far more.

17. Los Angeles Clippers

Current record: 12-12

Previous ranking: 12

The wins have been coming less frequently for the Clips in recent weeks as Paul George has cooled down from his hot start. Where he shot about 47% overall and 37% from three in his first 12 games of the year, he’s dipped about 10 percentage points in each category in his 11 games since. (He sat out one other game, which they lost.) Los Angeles won 9 of those first 12 contests, but has won only four of its last 12 without George shooting like a star.

18. Dallas Mavericks

Current record: 11-11

Previous ranking: 11

Reggie Bullock, the team’s biggest offseason player acquisition, has been disappointing to say the least. A career 38.5% three-point shooter, the 30-year-old has hit just 27.5% of his tries this season—and just 18.8% over his last eight showings. Without him producing anywhere near his best, the Mavs still feel a key piece or two away from contending at the highest level.

19. Los Angeles Lakers

Current record: 12-12

Previous ranking: 19

Part of what ails the Lakers, who stand at just 12-12 about 30% of the way into the season, is that they’re not getting enough from Talen Horton-Tucker, the 21-year-old they re-signed for three years and almost $31 million. He got a late start to his season, making his debut in mid-November. His first three games were sensational, and he averaged 23.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game on 49% shooting. In the eight games since, he’s averaged 5.9 points and shot an awful 29.7%. Tellingly, he’s registered only as a positive in the plus/minus category once in that eight-game window.

20. San Antonio Spurs

Current record: 8-13

Previous ranking: 25

Keeping in tradition with several other recent Spurs clubs, this San Antonio team currently ranks last in the league in the proportion of shots it takes from three, and first in the proportion of shots it takes from the shorter, 10-to-16-foot midrange area of the court; even without midrange specialist and free-throw taker extraordinaire DeMar DeRozan on the roster anymore. But the team, which ranks 10th in the league on defense, has won four games in a row; including the most recent over the Warriors and Curry, who shot an uncharacteristic 7-for-28 from the field.

21. Toronto Raptors

Current record: 11-13

Previous ranking: 23

Pascal Siakam, still reincorporating himself as the No. 1 option after an offseason surgery, is taking—and making—a career-high share of his shots from the long midrange area, from 16 feet to 23 feet. He’s also canning a better share of his corner threes than ever before, but isn’t taking enough of them to lift his overall three-point percentage back to the levels he saw two and three seasons ago, around 35% or 36%.

22. New York Knicks

Current record: 11-12

Previous ranking: 15

Coach Tom Thibodeau, trying to shake the slumping Knicks, announced that Kemba Walker would be dropped from his rotation. But after the club’s drubbing on Saturday, when a shorthanded Denver team embarrassed New York, Thibodeau warned that more changes to the rotation could be on the way to bolster what’s been a lackluster defense. Among the things to watch: How much longer the hot-and-cold R.J. Barrett stays in what’s been a monthlong cold spell, both inside and outside the arc.

23. Portland Trail Blazers

Current record: 11-13

Previous ranking: 17

A whirlwind week for the Blazers—which saw superstar Damian Lillard exit the lineup to deal with a nagging abdominal injury and general manager Neil Olshey get axed as a result of a workplace culture investigation—ended with first-year coach Chauncey Billups laying into his team after losing 145-117 at home to Boston. “I’ve never seen a team that needs its bench to inspire our starters. That shit is crazy to me,” Billups said as Portland fell to 11-13. “It’s supposed to be the other way around.”

24. Sacramento Kings

Current record: 10-14

Previous ranking: 24

One thing to watch, now that Alvin Gentry is running the show instead of Luke Walton: How, if at all, does it impact the working dynamic with forward/center Marvin Bagley? The former No. 2 overall pick was out of the rotation entirely to begin the year, then sprinkled in occasionally under the former coach. He’s already gotten a flurry of opportunities with Gentry as coach, including Saturday’s 19-minute, 4-for-6 performance in a narrow victory over the Clippers.

25. Indiana Pacers

Current record: 9-16

Previous ranking: 22

At just 9-16, and solidly in 13th place out East, Indiana has been among the most disappointing teams thus far. But looking on the bright side, the Pacers don’t appear to be anywhere near as bad as their record would indicate. Some metrics would suggest they’ve merely had horrendous luck. Indiana has a positive point differential, meaning it has outscored its opponents on the season. But the Pacers have fared poorly, going just 3-12 in games that qualify as “clutch” scenarios, where the score is within five points with under five minutes to play. Their 1-7 record in games decided by three points or fewer is the NBA’s worst. Over the course of a year, those sorts of numbers will usually balance out some.

26. Houston Rockets

Current record: 7-16

Previous ranking: 30

Don’t look now, but after losing 15 in a row to begin the season 1-16, the Rockets—the Rockets!—have reeled off an NBA-best six in a row. The winning streak began with a surprise win over the surging Bulls. The thing you see far more of now, as compared to the low points of the skid: Joy. Kevin Porter Jr. may not have ended up with a triple-double after all. But you could tell that moment meant something to a young, struggling team.

27. New Orleans Pelicans

Current record: 7-19

Previous ranking: 28

An interesting note from Clippers beat writer Tomer Azarly: Pelicans big man Jonas Valanciunas has shot 12-of-17 from deep against the Clips, including a ridiculous 7-for-8 showing last week. But in the nine most recent games aside from those two contests against Los Angeles, Valanciunas has made just 2-for-21 from outside. For the season, Valanciunas is at 46.9% from three—about nine percentage points better than his career average, on a career-high number of attempts.

28. Orlando Magic

Current record: 5-19

Previous ranking: 29

It almost certainly won’t result in a Rookie of the Year award—Evan Mobley is seemingly in a league of his own for that—but Franz Wagner has quietly been enjoying a fantastic first season in the league. He’s been great defensively and efficient as a shooter all season long. But lately, he’s made a statistical leap as a passer, logging at least four assists in each of his last six contests while posting a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in that span. (He’s averaging 17, 5.7 and 4.5 on 46.5/38.9/78.9.) It’s a considerable jump from the start of the year, when he was averaging fewer than two dimes, and had worse than a 2-to-1 ratio.

29. Detroit Pistons

Current record: 4-18

Previous ranking: 27

It may not be resulting in wins lately, but the Pistons have gotten pretty solid play out of No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham his past three games, as he’s averaging 20 points and 6.7 rebounds on 54.5% shooting and 52.4% from three. On the downside, he’s been turning the ball over twice as much as he’s been assisting in that stretch. But Detroit has nothing but time for Cunningham to develop along with so many of his teammates.

30. Oklahoma City Thunder

Current record: 6-16

Previous ranking: 26

Everyone knows the Thunder had no intent or real hope of reaching the playoffs this season. But no professional team ever expects to be on the receiving end of a 73-point loss. Yes, the Thunder’s defeat—which ranks as the most lopsided loss in NBA history—came on a night where Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Rookie of the Month Josh Giddey weren’t playing. But neither was Memphis star Ja Morant. At least Oklahoma City has a winnable game its next time out; on Monday, the Thunder will play the Pistons, who have a league-low four wins.

More NBA Coverage:
• Is James Harden’s Decline Real or Temporary?
• How the Suns Are Getting It Done
• Who Is to Blame For the Lakers’ Struggles?
• The End of the Neil Olshey Era Leaves Blazers in a State of Disarray  

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