NBA December Power Rankings by Athlenda

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About a third into the season of NBA and the battle rages in the Western Conference with 14 teams fighting for 8 playoff spots. The East, on the other hand, features only 6 teams that can make some noise in the playoffs with the rest of the conference providing them with easy wins and a boost of confidence. Is it time for the league to rethink the conference system? In any case, we are looking at how the 30 teams of NBA performed the past month. Let’s begin. 

The December NBA Power Rankings

1. Golden State Warriors (Previous Ranking: 1st)
2nd in the Western Conference, 19-9 record (6-6 since Nov. 15)

Don’t look too much into their mediocre record the past month in the NBA. The Warriors went through a mini-crisis due to internal conflict and injuries to Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Both are back now and the Warriors remain a tier above everyone else in the league.

2. Toronto Raptors (Previous Ranking: 2nd)1st in the Eastern Conference, 22-7 record (10-4 since Nov. 15)

The Toronto Raptors remain atop the East and they have the best record in the league. The question is not if they are a great regular season team, but if they can replicate their success in the playoffs. Kawhi is playing at an MVP level and Pascal Siakam has been a revelation. He is a lock for the most improved player award. Their heart and soul, Kyle Lowry has greatly increased his creation, dishing the most assists in the league this season.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder (Previous Ranking: 7th)
1st in the Western Conference, 17-8 record (8-3 since Nov. 15)

It is time to consider the Thunder as a legitimate contender. They defend better than anyone with Steven Adams dominating the paint. Russell Westbrook seems to have matured and is more willing to share offensive duties, and Paul George is enjoying the best season of his career on both ends of the floor. They have been the hottest team in the league since the previous Power Rankings.

4. Milwaukee Bucks (Previous Ranking: 3rd)
2nd in the Eastern Conference, 18-8 record (8-4 record since Nov. 15)

A couple of ugly losses shouldn’t be too concerning. The Bucks keep running and shooting maniacally, fueled by the threat of Giannis barrelling to the rim. The role players are all enjoying coach Bud’s influence, as was the case in Atlanta. Guys barely in the rotation the past years are now solid contributors. Getting everyone involved has a ripple effect on defence, where everyone gives their best effort. An underrated part of their success? Malcolm Brogdon is monstrously efficient scoring 15ppg with 52/48/98 splits.

5. Philadelphia 76ers (Previous Ranking: 10th)
3rd in the Eastern Conference, 19-9 record (10-2 since Nov. 15)

The Jimmy Butler acquisition further decimated the 76ers rotation of capable backups and also brought up Joel Embiid’s grumpy comments on his new role. Still, this is nitpicking. The Sixers have a great record since trading for him, and they look unbeatable at home. Having lost only once in Philadelphia and being better at closing games, the 76ers remain high in the standings despite being only slightly above average in offence and defence. If only the could find a solution to the Markelle Fultz conundrum.

6. Denver Nuggets (Previous Ranking: 5th)
3rd in the Western Conference, 18-9 record (9-4 since Nov. 15)

The injury bug has bitten the Denver Nuggets hard and they are now missing three of their starters. Considering also the absence of Isaiah Thomas the active roster is paper thin. They are facing a challenge to remain on the upper echelon of the West and they will need third-year players Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley to step up. Even if signing Nick Young doesn’t help, it adds entertainment value.

7. Boston Celtics (Previous Ranking: 6th)
5th in the Eastern Conference, 16-10 record (8-4 since Nov. 15)

The Celtics are on a 6-game winning streak and have been quietly rounding into form. They have revived their offence after inserting Marcus Morris in their starting lineup. It will be difficult for Stevens to keep bringing both Hayward and Brown off the bench, but it works for now. Brown, the most disappointing Celtic thus far, is averaging more than 20ppg off the bench in their last three games coming back from injury. Since moving Hayward to the bench, the Celtics offence improved from 27th in the league to the best one by a wide margin in the last 10 games.

8. Los Angeles Lakers (Previous Ranking: 12th)
 5th in the Western Conference, 17-10 record (9-4 since Nov. 15)

Whoever thought that a LeBron led team might miss the playoffs must be disappointed right now. The Lakers are rolling a lot earlier than anyone believed and they somehow defend at a very high level despite LeBron cruising on that end. Kyle Kuzma has taken strides on defence and he is the second leading scorer on the team. They still face issues with the development of Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, but they are productive despite them and that’s a victory.

9. Los Angeles Clippers (Previous Ranking: 11th)
4th in the Western Conference, 17-10 record (9-5 since Nov. 15)

Lacking a true all-star player, Doc Rivers has designed a rotation that features at least two very effective scorers at all times. A healthy Gallinari with the much improved Tobias Harris in the starting line-up and the always tricky Lou Williams with the ultra-dynamic Montrezl Harrell (another good bet for the most improved player of the year award) off the bench. The rotation is filled with solid all-around players (Avery Bradley and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) and specialists like Boban Marjanovic. They are tough to play against, but they probably have a lower ceiling than the teams above them.

10. Indiana Pacers (Previous Ranking: 8th)
4th in the Eastern Conference, 17-10 record (9-4 since Nov. 15)

When Victor Oladipo was out last year, the Pacers looked lost. This season they are able to survive his 10-game absence, even if they have a pretty soft schedule to thank. Tyreke Evans was signed to be the safety valve when Oladipo misses time, but he hasn’t found his rhythm yet. As long as they keep defending at an elite level they will have no problem securing the fifth playoff spot, but they need their star’s help to fight for home-court advantage in the first round.

11. Memphis Grizzlies (Previous Ranking: 9th)
6th in the Eastern Conference, 15-11 record (7-6 since Nov. 15)

Talk about a surprise! Everybody thought that Joakim Noah has been unofficially retired, but the Grizzlies signed him and he is performing well off the bench. The Grizzlies are probably the most experienced teams in the league, and they can drag opponents at a pace they feel comfortable. On the other hand, they are also old. This can be a problem when Jaren Jackson Jr. cannot provide a spark of freshness.

12. Dallas Mavericks (Previous Ranking: 22nd)
7th in the Western Conference, 14-11 record (8-3 since Nov.15)

The Dallas Mavericks seem hell-bent to make the playoffs, despite pundits predicting them out of the picture altogether. Luka Doncic has brought excitement to the team, Harrison Barnes’ return gives another scorer for Carlisle to work with but the bench has been their differentiating factor, beating poor second units behind the solid playmaking of J.J. Barea. Doncic also ranks among the leagues best clutch scorers already:

13. Portland Blazers (Previous Ranking: 4th)
8th in the Western Conference, 15-12 record (5-8 since Nov. 15)

For a while during the start of the season, the Blazers seemed to be taking a step forward. They have dropped off significantly since then, both in these Rankings and in the actual NBA standings. They had a very tough schedule to blame but that doesn’t erase the fact that they cannot beat good teams with regularity. As usual the past few years, they are a bit above average offensively and a bit below average defensively, relying on heroics from Dame Lillard and C.J. McCollum for their success. As is the case with a lot of teams treading water right now, they need someone in the wing positions to start making threes.

14. San Antonio Spurs (Previous Ranking: 13th)
10th in the Western Conference, 14-14 record (7-8 since Nov. 15)

For an ageing team that has lost its identity, is among the worst defences in the league, shoots the least amount of three-pointers and finds it difficult to score in the paint, it is a miraculous achievement to have a .500 record. It has been said that Gregg Popovich can coach any team to the playoffs, and this season might be the proof. Despite the roster turnover, the injuries and a mediocre season from LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs aren’t going away.

15. Sacramento Kings (Previous Ranking: 17th)
9th in the Western Conference, 14-12 record (6-6 since Nov. 15)

Despite popular belief, the Kings aren’t willing to fall off. They keep a positive record in an extremely competitive Western Conference. The return of Bogdanovic gives them another option to attack from the perimeter and allows coach Joerger to change the pace when he wants to. Maybe their ineffective defence will catch up to them as the season progresses, so enjoy them while they are hot.

16. Detroit Pistons (Previous Ranking: 16th)
6th in the Eastern Conference, 13-12 record (6-6 since Nov. 15)

The Detroit Pistons keep balancing on the line of mediocrity. They have a quality (even if suboptimal) frontcourt and Dwane Casey has them defending well. Scoring is another issue though, as they have little to no firepower from the wing positions. When players like Galloway and Bullock are healthy and hit their shots they are fine. When their wings have off nights, they need superhuman efforts from Blake Griffin to be competitive.

17. New Orleans Pelicans (Previous Ranking: 14th)
11th in the Western Conference, 14-15 record (7-8 Since Nov.15)

The Pelicans are once again a team that fights for a .500 record. They play at a fast tempo that suits their roster and they manage to have the 3rd ranked offence in the league. However, they are unable to stop anyone, as they rank 23rd in Defensive Rating. Their issues remain the same year in and year out. Holiday and the bigs are great, but they have very little in terms of supporting cast in the perimeter. Summer signing Julius Randle is having an incredible season and should be a prime candidate for 6th man of the year if he returns to the bench.

18. Charlotte Hornets (Previous Ranking 19th)
7th in the Eastern Conference, 13-13 record (6-6 since Nov. 15)

Kemba Walker is playing like a top-10 offensive player for the Hornets and coach James Borrego has somehow coached them to the 5th best offence in the league. The issue is that they don’t have many options to give the ball to at the end of games, as their other high salary players are having disappointing seasons. They do have exceptional bench production though, with Tony Parker, Miles Bridges and Malik Monk all giving quality minutes to the team.

19. Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous Ranking: 20th)
 12th in the Western Conference, 13-14 record (7-5 Since Nov.  15)

Karl Anthony Towns is playing great again now that Jimmy Butler is not on the team. The addition of Robert Covington has improved both their defence and their spacing on offence. However, it has also shown that he might be a more useful player overall than recent #1 pick Andrew Wiggins, who shows no signs of improvement from the previous seasons. They have the personnel to run more, and coach Tom Thibodeau should consider upping the team’s pace.

20. Utah Jazz (Previous Ranking: 15th)
13th in the Western Conference, 13-15 record (6-8 Since Nov. 15)

It’s not wise to dismiss Utah’s issues as a difficulty to adapt to the new defensive rules. Moreso, the league seems to have collectively solved their offence, daring Ricky Rubio to be the primary attacking force. An even greater focus towards pace and 3pt-shooting across the league means also that DPoY of the year for 2018, Rudy Gobert, is less involved. Kyle Korver at 37 can’t solve all their problems.

21. Houston Rockets (Previous Ranking: 18th)

14th in the Western Conference, 12-14 record (6-7 since Nov. 15)

The Rockets are having an unprecedented drop-off from last season. Despite keeping most of the team that won 65 games and almost reached the NBA finals, they rank 14th in the West with a losing record. They can’t seem to figure out how to break out of this slump. Chris Paul is not his usual self and there is worry that he might be on the decline already, in the first year of a massive 4-year/$160 million contract. They blamed their difficulties on Carmelo Anthony, but there seem to be more fundamental issues with them.

 22. Miami Heat (Previous Ranking: 21st)
9th in the Eastern Conference, 11-15 record (5-7 since Nov. 15)

The last meeting of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James is probably the most exciting thing happening for the Miami Heat this season. The team feels stagnant and this is reflected on their record. Their only bright spot? Justise Winslow has perked up the past few games, hitting the three and running the offence better than expected. The Heat needs him to improve in order to have a core for the future.

23. Orlando Magic (Previous Ranking: 24th)
 8th in the Eastern Conference, 12-15 record (5-7 Since Nov. 15)

The Magic are in an uncomfortable position. They are in the East’s playoff race by default, but they can’t hope for any success further than that. They have an all-star performer in Nikola Vucevic who they should trade for assets, but the successive losing seasons make it difficult to make a deal that makes the team worse in the short-term. Jonathan Isaac is showing glimpses of a lockdown defender and a building block for the future.

24. Washington Wizards (Previous Ranking: 25th)
 10th in the Eastern Conference, 11-16 record (6-7 since Nov. 15)

The announcement that every player is tradeable sounds like an admittance that the management has screwed up. The Wizards have way too much talent to rank this low. It is their lack of team-spirit and willingness to do all the little things, like crashing the boards and sprinting back on defence that accumulates over the span of a game and piles up their losses. It is time to blow it up and rebuild.

25. Brooklyn Nets (Previous Ranking: 24th)
 11th in the Eastern Conference, 10-18 record (4-9 since Nov. 15)

The gruesome injury of Caris LeVert has completely sidetracked an interesting season for the Nets. D’ Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie are playing for their next contracts, and they are producing good numbers but this doesn’t translate to more wins for the Nets. At least Jarrett Allen looks like a quality big for years to come.

26. New York Knicks (Previous Ranking: 29th)
 12th in the Eastern Conference, 8-20 record (4-9 since Nov. 15)

A couple of surprising victories against conference rivals Celtics and Bucks brought some excitement to the Madison Square Garden. They have a collection of young guys auditioning for a role in the future Knicks. Emmanuel Mudiay has put together a string of good performances, Allonzo Trier is the latest undrafted scorer having success in the league and Kevin Knox shows he can explode at any time. Second-round pick Mitchell Robinson has an exciting athletic package and Dave Fizdale is trying to shape him into a modern center.

27. Atlanta Hawks (Previous Ranking: 28th)
13th in the Eastern Conference, 6-20 record (3-9 since Nov. 15)

You can’t fault rookie Head Coach Lloyd Pierce for having a clear strategy and sticking to it. The Hawks are doing what a young team without many assets should. They play at the fastest pace in the league, entrusting the ball in their rookie point guard’s hands. Learning through his mistakes is the only way for Trae Young to grow in the NBA. He is shooting abysmally thus far, however, he shows a surprising knack getting to the rim. His vision is amazing, passing guys open consistently. They defend ok, given their roster. John Collins is back with a bang, improving his career-high in scoring in the last three games and experimenting with a 3-point shot.

28. Cleveland Cavaliers (Previous Ranking: 30th)
14th in the Eastern Conference, 6-21 record (4 – 9 Since Nov. 15)

The good news? Collin Sexton is legit, averaging roughly 19pts/3reb/3ast per game as a starter, and carries the team to a respectable offence. The bad news? He resembles a cone in the other end of the floor, and his running mates in the backcourt (Clarkson, Burks, Hood) are all guys who love to shoot, pass only when they absolutely have to and are indifferent to defence. At least they got back fan favourite Matthew Dellavedova.

29. Chicago Bulls (Previous Ranking: 27th)
15th in the Eastern Conference, 6-22 record (2-11 since Nov. 15)

The Chicago Bulls front-office fired coach Fred Hoiberg after 4 seasons of disappointing results. It is, however, unclear how much of the blame should fall on him instead of the management. The players turned against his replacement, Jim Boylen, and his militaristic tactics after a franchise-worst 56-point loss to the Celtics. Their only silver lining? Lauri Markkanen is back, and it will be interesting to see the partnership he forms with rookie big Wendell Carter Jr.

30. Phoenix Suns (Previous Ranking: 26th)
 15th in the Western Conference, 4-23 record (1-12 since Nov. 15)

The Phoenix Suns managed only one victory during the past month in the NBA. The gap at the PG position remains open and it hurts them, as they rank 29th in the league in offence despite a respectable talent on that end. DeAndre Ayton and Richaun Holmes probably combine for the worst defensive big man rotation in the league. A reinforcement at the “1” is necessary for Kokoskov to be able to run his offence with such a young roster.

 

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