Jazz (16-5 Last Week No. 2). Utah has won 12-of-13, but that one loss to Denver over the weekend was a reminder of the work this team still has to do. Part of that work is to figure out an answer for Nikola Jokic, who continues to torch Rudy Gobert and anyone else the Jazz put on him. That said, Utah still has the fifth-best offense in the league over the last 7 games. As a team they are draining threes — even had 20 in the loss to Denver, the problem was Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley went cold, 5-of-22 overall — and the last couple of games Bojan Bogdanovic has started to find his groove. The Jazz are not going to fade away.
Clippers (16-6, LW 3). Here is the most impressive thing about the Clippers this past week: In the two games without Paul George and Kawhi Leonard they beat Miami and hung with Atlanta — there is quality depth on this team. The Clippers have been dominant when their two stars have both played — 9-1 in those games (with the one loss being Tuesday to Brooklyn). The Clipper offense has been impressive all season, but over their last 7 games they are 3rd in defense (stats via Cleaning the Glass); if L.A. figures out that end of the court consistently they are a threat to anyone.
76ers (15-6 LW 5). The “Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can’t play together” camp is taking a beating this season — Philly is +14.9 points per 100 possession when they are on the court together. So what’s different? “This year I can’t even explain it. It’s just been different…” Embiid said. “I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s just been fun.” Philly’s starting five — Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Embiid — is +17.1 per 100 possessions with their offense driving their success.
Lakers (16-6, LW 1). These Lakers don’t take a lot of threes (25th in the league in attempts a game) but they have become sharpshooters with the ones they take, shooting 38.1% as a team — way up from 34.9% last season and 33.3% LeBron’s first season as a Laker. LeBron James is a big part of that, shooting 40.9% from three this season, by far a career high and basically even with Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard. Los Angeles went 5-2 on their road trip and now come home to a softer schedule (after Denver on Thursday).
Nuggets (12-8 LW 7). This ranking might actually be a little low. There are no statement wins in January, but if a team was going to make one that demolition of Utah on Sunday is what it would look like. The Nuggets got a little lucky — 15-of-17 from three in the first half is not sustainable — but they also earned the win. Denver is playing better defense of late, not elite but solid, and that helps. Nikola Jokic strengthened his MVP case in that game with 47 points and 12 rebounds.
Nets (14-9, LW 8). Brooklyn plays its best games against the league’s better teams — it is 9-3 against teams over .500. The defense is still a legitimate issue, the Clippers had an offensive rating of 120 in their meeting, but if Brooklyn can get just a couple of stops it’s enough for their insane offense to overwhelm opponents. Against a good Clippers team, Brooklyn’s big three scored 90 points. Since the trade the Nets have also played much faster, which makes matching up with them even more difficult.
Bucks (12-8, LW 4). In their last six games, Milwaukee has been elite offensively (122.5 offensive rating, third-best in the league for that stretch) but have been bottom 10 in defense (115.6 defensive rating), and that has led to a 3-3 record (despite that +7 net rating). In their losses this past week, the Bucks gave up 126 points to Charlotte and 131 to New Orleans — it’s jarring to see that from what has been an elite defense the past couple of seasons. Teams are hitting those threes the Bucks have surrendered the past two seasons. Is that a statistical fluke that will normalize as the season goes on, or is it time for Milwaukee to adjust a little?
Suns (11-8 LW 12). Despite Chris Paul‘s mastery of the pick-and-roll and Devin Booker‘s shooting, the Suns have a middle of the pack offense. Why? Chris Paul shooting just 32.8% from three is part of it, as is the fact Phoenix doesn’t get to the free throw line enough (second-lowest free throws attempts per game, 18.9, and second-lowest free throw rate in the league). The Suns need to draw fouls. If that play the Suns ran to get Booker a game-winner against Dallas looks familiar, it’s because Paul’s Clippers used to run it all the time (for J.J. Redick). It still works beautifully.
Celtics (11-8, LW 6). Kemba Walker has been back for a couple of weeks now, but he has not rounded into his All-Star form yet, and the Celtics need him to. Walker had 19 points against Golden State Tuesday but shot just 6-of-18. Walker is shooting just 30% from three (his career average is 36%), his 48.2 true shooting percentage is dreadful, he’s getting to the free throw line less often, and he’s basically been a slightly above average point guard. He’s not a player expected to add a lot on the defensive end; Boston needs him to be more of a contributor on the offensive end.
Pacers (12-9, LW 9). Myles Turner is getting mentions as a potential Defensive Player of the Year — but there is little chance he will be an All-Star). Turner is averaging 3.9 blocked shots a game which, if he can keep it up all season, would be the most in two decades (Alonzo Mourning in 1999). Cleveland’s Collin Sexton has talked about needing to look out for Turner when he drove the paint — a sign of his impact on opponents. Turner is altering a lot of shots. That said, if the coaches put a Pacer on the All-Star bench (they are not getting a starter) it will come down to Malcolm Brogdon or Domantas Sabonis, with Turner on the outside looking in.
Grizzlies (9-7, LW 13). The Grizzlies’ loss to the Pacers on Tuesday snapped a seven-game win streak that extended back to before their 11-day COVID-19 forced break. The key to that streak and the season is Memphis’ defense, the fourth best in the league. That they had that streak and played such good defense without Jaren Jackson Jr. in the lineup speaks to the impressive depth they are developing in Memphis. Also, while nobody was looking, rookie Desmond Bane is shooting 50.8% on 3.8 threes per game.
Warriors (11-10, LW 14). James Wiseman will be out at least a week with a sprained wrist, which is a blow as he’s started to find a comfort level coming off the bench. In the four games since he was taken out of the starting lineup, his minutes went down (by a couple a night), but his scoring and efficiency have gone up. The bottom line, the Warriors are +5.3 points per 100 possessions in Wiseman’s minutes off the bench. The team, already without Marquese Chriss (broken fibula), will also be without Wiseman and Kevon Looney (sprained ankle) for a couple of games, leaving the Warriors without a traditional center on the active roster.
Spurs (11-10, LW 10). How do the Spurs keep finding these guards? Keldon Johnson slid down the 2019 draft to 29th, but he is now averaging 15 points and 7.5 rebounds a game, starting and playing 30 minutes a night. He has scored in double digits for 11 straight games, including dropping 25 on the Grizzlies in their most recent meeting. The Spurs play 3-of-4 at home this week before heading out on the annual rodeo road trip.
Rockets (10-9 LW 24). Houston has the best half-court defense in the NBA with an 89.6 net rating that is 6.3 better than the league average, and better than both the Lakers and Jazz. However, run on the Rockets and their transition defense is dreadful (25th in the league). Overall, the Rockets have the best defense in the NBA since the Harden trade. The Rockets have won six in a row and, as of now, are within striking distance of a top-six seed that keeps it out of the play-in games (getting there would be a huge win for Houston).
Trail Blazers (11-9, LW 11). Portland is 3-4 since CJ McCollum went down, doing a respectable job of keeping their head above water until he and Jusuf Nurkic return. A lot more has been asked of Anfernee Simons and he has responded averaging 15.8 points per game those last six. Of course, ultimately the pressure falls on Damian Lillard to lead this team and make plays — and nobody is better in the clutch than him.
Hawks (10-10 LW 15). Atlanta is a surprise top-10 defense to start the season, and although some of that was shooting luck — opponents were missing shots they normally hit at a higher rate, via Second Spectrum player tracking — some of it was real. A big part of what works is Clint Capela at center, especially when he is on the court with John Collins at the four giving the Hawks a couple of athletic rim protectors — the Hawks allow less than a point per possession (96.7 defensive rating) when those two share the court.
Cavaliers (10-11, LW 18). Taurean Prince felt like a throw-in on the four-team James Harden trade this season, but he has played some of the best basketball of his career since landing in Cleveland. He’s averaging 9.8 points a game, shooting 41.2% from three, and he’s been solid and gritty on defense. That three-point shooting, in particular, is needed on a Cleveland team that takes fewer threes per game than any in the league. Tough stretch coming up for the Cavaliers as they face the Clippers tonight, then two against the Bucks, then they head out on a five-game road trip.
Raptors (9-12, LW 16). Parents, you want your kids to grow up to be Fred VanVleet — humble, hard working, a guy his teammates can trust and who just gets the job done (and was paid like that guy last offseason). Toronto started it’s 9-of-10 on the road with a win over Orlando where VanVleet dropped a Raptors record 54 points (also the most ever scored by an undrafted player).
Hornets (10-11, LW 22). Gordon Hayward is having a strong season after signing a $120 million contract that was universally derided in basketball circles this offseason. He is averaging 23 points and 5.3 rebounds a game, and more importantly, the offense just flows much better when he is on the court. I still don’t like the back end of that contract for Charlotte, but he’s played well and earned his pay this year — and has to be in consideration as an All-Star. Malik Monk has found a groove the past few games, including scoring 36 points with 9 threes against Miami.
Knicks (9-13, LW 19). How good is rookie Immanuel Quickley playing? In the ultimate sign of respect, midway through the second half Sunday the Clippers switched Kawhi Leonard over to defend him because Quickley was starting to light them up (he finished the game with 25 points). The Knicks under Thibodeau have the eighth ranked defense in the NBA and Quickley is going to have to improve on that end to get more run, but the offense is +5.2 per 100 when he is on the court.
Bulls (8-11, LW 23). No team turns the ball over more than Chicago, which averages 17.6 turnovers a game, or 15.2% of their possessions (second most in the league). The problems start with the guys who have the ball in their hands the most, particularly Zach LaVine, who turns to ball over on 17.1% of his possessions, with Coby White coughing up the ball on 15.5% of their possessions. Not taking care of the ball is a key reason the Bulls have a middle-of-the-pack offense despite all that scoring talent.
Kings (9-11, LW 27). The Kings’ starting lineup — De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes, Marvin Bagley III, and Richaun Holmes — is outscoring teams by 10.9 points per 100 possessions. However, sub Rookie of the Year candidate Tyrese Haliburton in for Bagley and it jumps to +21.5 (which is why Luke Walton often closes games with that lineup. The Kings just won 3-of-4 on the road and now return home for 7-of-8, but there are some tough games to start that run (Celtics, Nuggets, Clippers, 76ers, in order).
Mavericks (8-13, LW 17). Dallas has lost six in a row, and while that hurts Luka Doncic’s MVP case he has actually been a positive +/- in half of those games. Dallas finally has gotten its players back from injury/COVID-19 protocols, now they have to turn around the defense — in their last eight games they have a 121.8 defensive rating, 28th in the league (stats via Cleaning the Glass). With Josh Richardson and the length of Kriztaps Porzingis plus Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleba and Dorian Finney-Smith this should be a better defensive team, but after COVID-19 hit Dallas they have not been able to regain their rhythm. They have dug themselves a hole this season that will not be easy to climb out of.
Pelicans (7-12, LW 26). There is not enough consistent shooting on the Pelicans, but on the nights the shots fall they are very dangerous. Case in point, Eric Bledsoe is shooting 31.4% from three in Pelicans losses but 47.1% in wins. Lonzo Ball has a similar split, and J.J. Redick has generally struggled from deep this season (30% from three). Another concern is that New Orleans has a bottom-10 defense this season despite Stan Van Gundy’s efforts. A big part of the challenge is the Pelicans’ young bigs: When Zion Williamson and Jaxson Hayes are both on the court, New Orleans has a dreadful defensive rating of 128.8.
Heat (7-13 LW 21). Jimmy Butler is back in the rotation and the Heat are finally relatively healthy, but the Heat are just 4-4 when Butler has played so far this season and need to do better. Injuries and COVID-19 have robbed them of steady rotations that let them build the chemistry we saw in the bubble last year, now the Heat have the chance to turn that around and need to do it fast (two games against Washington this week could be a real launching pad for that run).
Magic (8-14 LW 20). With Steve Clifford as the coach, Orlando could always count on a strong defense to keep them in games, the question was just finding enough offense. Not this year. Orlando is 19th in the league in defense, and that has actually gotten a little worse over the past couple of weeks. The Magic have been playing more minutes each game without a point guard — they miss D.J. Augustin, they had turned the ball over to Markelle Fultz (who was solid) but he got injured, and now it’s rookie Cole Anthony learning hard lessons nightly.
Thunder (8-11, LW 25). There has been an Al Horford sighting in Oklahoma City — in the three games since he returned he has averaged 16.3 points a game and been solid on the glass. Two of those games were blowout losses (to the Nets and Rockets). If you think this ranking is too low for a Thunder team that hangs around and finds a way to win games, know that they have been the luckiest team in the NBA this season in terms of outperforming their net rating so far — OKC has the point differential of a 5-14 team. These things tend to balance out.
Pistons (5-16 LW 28). Detroit has just two wins in their last nine games, but those victories came against the Lakers and 76ers (the fact those teams were without Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid, respectively, does not diminish the wins). Griffin jumped in the hot tub time machine and dropped 23 on the Lakers, he is capable of playing like that in flashes. Wayne Ellington continues to be red-hot from three, hitting 49.5% from deep on 6.3 attempts a game.
Wizards (4-13 LW 30). Despite Bradley Beal being on the roster the Washington offense has struggled since returning from its COVID-19 forced break — except against Brooklyn, where they put up 149 and got the win on a Russell Westbrook three. That was a signature win. Bradley Beal may not like being the focus of trade rumors when he has not asked out and been nothing but loyal to the franchise, but that is the way of the NBA now. Other teams are poised and waiting to pounce, whether Beal likes it or not.
Timberwolves (5-15, LW 29). No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards has been moved into the starting lineup and has been much more efficient in that role, scoring 17 points a game, shooting 47.4% from three, and with a true shooting percentage of 61.1 (up from 45.2). It’s small sample size theater considering we’re talking about three games, but the fact is he is thriving, and considering where the Timberwolves are in the standings there is zero reason to move him back to the bench. Let the man learn on the court.