Having completed just over one-third of the NBA’s regular season to date, it’s time for another check in on the state of the NBA, and assessing where each team stands in relativity, via our December 2018 NBA power rankings.
1. Denver Nuggets (Net Change: +4) — The Denver Nuggets are not a flash in the gold-mining pan. Save for a couple of hiccups on back-to-back nights during a mini-trip out east, Denver has been perfect since the day before Thanksgiving. That streak includes wins against four of the top eight teams in the Western Conference and a pair of wins against Toronto. Center Nikola Jokic has been playing out of his mind in December, averaging a near triple-double this month with 21.7 points, 11 rebounds, and 8.6 assists per game through Monday morning
2. Golden State Warriors (Net Change: none) — Stephen Curry’s “nobody actually landed on the moon” controversy distracted everyone from the fact that after a very un-Golden-State-like month of November, in which the Warriors went 7-7, they’re 5-2 through the first half of December. It shouldn’t be any surprise that said rebound coincides with Curry’s return to the lineup; he’s averaged 28.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.0 assists in December, scoring more than 30 points in four of Golden State’s seven games. Now, Golden State will look forward to the arrival of Demarcus Cousins into the lineup, as he partook in his first full practice with the Warriors this weekend.
3. Toronto Raptors (Net Change: -2) — December hasn’t been kind to the Toronto Raptors, with the team losing four games in two weeks after losing four games all season previous to that. Most recently, the Raptors blew a 13-point third quarter lead against Denver, allowing the Nuggets to go on a 23-2 run to win a game in which Toronto finished with a season-low 86 points. The Raptors are starting to look like the walking wounded, with four of their five starters missing time this month due to injury. But there’s no rest for the weary, as Toronto has games against key Eastern Conference rivals in the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers this week.
4. Milwaukee Bucks (Net Change: -1) — Giannis Antetokounmpo remains the best player in the conference, with a 29.0 player efficiency rating (PER) despite carrying a larger burden to anchor his team on both ends of the floor. Despite the franchise’s best efforts, he’s not getting as much support from his teammates as everyone would’ve liked to see. Khris Middleton has struggled since the 2018 season has gone on, with his effective field goal percentage dropping to 34% in December (the second-lowest mark among players with at least 50 field goal attempts), and point guard Malcolm Brogdon is currently battling a nagging hamstring injury. If it weren’t for the better-than-anticipated play of Eric Bledsoe (his 17.6 points per game is second-best on the team), the Bucks would be all but a one-man band.
5. Indiana Pacers (Net Change: +5) — Indianapolis saw their seven-game winning streak end on a last second tip-in by the Cleveland Cavaliers. But during the said seven-game streak, they had five different players lead them in scoring, and four different players lead them in assists, highlighting the versatility and well-roundedness of the Pacers lineup. While Victor Oladipo has had a somewhat predictable regression in his scoring output, his assist and rebound totals are up from last year. Meanwhile, the rest of the Pacers lineup, including Bojan Bogdanovich, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, and Thaddeus Young, have all contributed greatly to the Pacers’ scoring totals this year, easing the burden on Oladipo.
6. Boston Celtics (Net Change: +1) — After a three-day mini-vacation of sorts, the Boston Celtics will embark on a grueling stretch of basketball that includes 19 games over the next 36 games; they won’t have two consecutive nights off until January 24th. Thankfully, the Celtics have arguably the deepest roster in the NBA, meaning they won’t be forced to put as much wear and tear on their top guys. Could that finally translate into more playing time for Jaylen Brown? The third-year forward is having a hard time trying to find his role on the team, thanks to the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward into the lineup.
7. Oklahoma City Thunder (Net Change: +2) — Though Russell Westbrook is averaging over 20 and 10 per game, it’s the efforts of Oklahoma City’s supporting cast, headlined by Paul George, that’s got the Thunder just one game out of first place in the entire Western Conference. George leads the team with 24.9 points per game while pulling down a career-best 7.8 points per game. Offseason acquisition Dennis Schroder and center Steven Adams join Westbrook and George as the four guys on Oklahoma City averaging more than 16 points per game. The Thunder are also getting meaningful contributions for Jerami Grant and even Nerlens Noel (averaging a career-high +6.1 when he’ s on the floor).
8. Philadelphia 76ers (Net Change: -2) — The Philadelphia 76ers are now 12-6 since acquiring Jimmy Butler and building a true “Big Three” nucleus comprised of three of the top 25 players in the NBA today. So why does this experiment feel like the line stated by Bruce Banner in “The Avengers,” when he says: “we’re not a team; we’re a ticking time bomb”? Until they figure out a way to placate Joel Embiid, who’s been publicly grousing about his role in this offense since Butler came in town, things could very well come to a head the first time this team faces a real stretch of adversity.
9. Los Angeles Lakers (Net Change: +6) — The Los Angeles Lakers rebounded from a shaky first month of the season, going 10-4 in the month of November. But they’ve followed that up with three losses in seven games halfway through December. After missing out on Trevor Ariza, all signs point to the Lakers continuing to seek a floor-spacing shooter from the wing. Don’t expect it to be a blockbuster deal, though, as the Lakers don’t want to part with any of their young assets (even if there are already questions about whether LeBron James and Brandon Ingram can fit while on the floor together).
10. Los Angeles Clippers (Net Change: +1) — The month of December has been the “life comes at you fast” moment for the Los Angeles Clippers. Entering December with a 15-6 record, the Clippers have gone 2-6 over their first eight games, surrendering almost 119 points per game in that stretch. Tobias Harris and Boban Marjanovic have still been two of the main stalwarts for the team, but how the team will handle what could be a several-week stretch without scoring savant Lou Williams will be a storyline worth watching between now and All-Star break.
11. Portland Trail Blazers (Net Change: -7) — Unfortunately, the storyline of the Portland Trail Blazers remains virtually the same as it has over the past several seasons. The backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is playing as well as they ever have, averaging just a hair under a combined 50 points per game combined (including Lillard’s 27.3 points per game, good for 5th-most in the NBA). After that, the situation gets quite a bit murkier. Center Jusuf Nurkic hasn’t been able to match his 2016-2017 stat totals to date, second-year center Zach Collins has cooled off considerably after his hot start to the season, and besides Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic, nobody on this team averages in double-figures in scoring.
12. Sacramento Kings (Net Change: +6) — Despite what head coach Dave Joerger might tell you (or might’ve been forced to tell you), rookie forward Marvin Bagley III is no Luka Doncic. While the Sacramento Kings are still tinkering what their optimal lineup would look like (probably comprising a combination of the resurgent De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nemanja Bjelica, and Willie Cauley-Stein), they’re able to experiment with their lineups and rotations while knowing they have the rare winning record (16-14) this far into the season. Outside of the Golden State Warriors, no team in the Western Conference scores more points per game than the Kings (115.4).
13. Dallas Mavericks (Net Change: +11) — Luka Doncic has been so good that he actually caused an opposing coach (Dave Joerger) to gush so much that the latter’s organization felt insecure about their guy lauding another team’s player so much. A week before Doncic had 28 points, nine assists, and six rebounds against Joerger’s Sacramento Kings, he had the famous 11-point outburst to close out a come-from-behind win over the Houston Rockets (In a game in which he stated he “wasn’t playing great”). Everything that was said about him leading up to the draft has proven true to date: the polish and basketball acumen he’s shown in just a handful of month vast exceeds anything we’re accustomed to seeing from a guy who can’t legally purchase an adult beverage.
14. Memphis Grizzlies (Net Change: -1) — Memphis has cooled off considerably since their 12-5 start leading up to Thanksgiving weekend, going 5-9 since then, including a 3-6 record of December. While they’re currently neck-and-neck with the Dallas Mavericks for the lead in the Southwest division, they’re also one of five teams jockeying for the last two spots in the Western Conference playoff standings. Having signed veteran big man Joakim Noah, and with their public flirtation with discarded guard Austin Rivers, it’s clear that the Grizzlies are still trying to shore up some of their shortcomings, having set their sights on qualifying for the postseason.
15. Houston Rockets (Net Change: +1) — James Harden followed up his NBA-record fourth triple-double in which he scored 50 points (in a win against the Los Angeles Lakers) with another triple-double featuring a 32-12-10 stat line in the following game (against the Memphis Grizzlies). Not coincidentally, Harden has picked up where he left off last year, leading the NBA in scoring with 31.5 points per game; through his first eight games in December, he’s scored at least 29 points in seven of them. None of that is still enough to help the Rockets crack the top eight teams in the Western Conference. Also, by the time you’ve finished reading this statement, James Harden will have traveled seven steps without dribbling the basketball.
16. New Orleans Pelicans (Net Change: +1) — Anthony Davis is averaging a head-shaking 28 points (3rd in the NBA), 12.4 rebounds (6th in the NBA), 4.7 assists (more than double his career average), and 2.78 blocks (2nd in the NBA) per game. Alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James, he is one of the three most singularly-destructive NBA forces in the game today. But even Davis can’t will the New Orleans Pelicans to a playoff spot in the wide-open Western Conference by himself. New Orleans’ lack of a true “sidekick” to pair with Davis, and general lack of depth on the bench overall, is glaring, and if it doesn’t change, expect the “Pelicans need to trade Davis” chatter to get much, much louder.
17. Detroit Pistons (Net Change: +2) — Outside of the bright lights of Tinseltown, Blake Griffin has been the butt of jokes far less often this year, especially as he ‘s scoring a career-best 25.4 points per game, and pulling down the second-most rebounds per game (7.7) of his career. However, despite leading the Detroit Pistons in scoring in seven of their first nine games of December, Detroit is only 2-7 in that stretch, holding on to one of the top eight spots in the Eastern Conference. If Detroit could get a little more production from their backcourt, they could move even further up the standings.
18. Utah Jazz (Net Change: -6) — The good news for fans of the Utah Jazz is that they’re still among the best defensive teams in the NBA, and they’ve played more road games than any team in the league to date. The bad news is that Utah is still tied for the second-fewest wins in the Western Conference. If we’re hopping back over to a “glass is half full” perspective, though, you could also take into consideration that Utah is still less than three games out of the top eight in the West, meaning there’s still a very realistic timeframe for this team to get things together and climb up the standings, especially after they enjoy more games at home.
19. San Antonio Spurs (Net Change: -11) — The four-game winning streak the San Antonio Spurs had to bring their record back over .500 was a nice rebound, especially after the 5-11 record they had between the first week of November to December. But their loss to the infighting Chicago Bulls last weekend, when they got outscored 55-31 in the second half, was an ugly look. Unfortunately for the Spurs, they’re exactly where many teams dread most: mediocrity. They’re ranked right around the middle of the NBA in points, rebounds, assists, and points allowed per game.
20. Minnesota Timberwolves (Net Change: +2) — This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but trading away Jimmy Butler has seemingly lifted a huge anchor off the back of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Karl-Anthony Towns, in particular, seems rejuvenated — at least on the offensive end — thanks to being the guy through whom the offense runs. He’s still a laissez-faire rebounder and defender, but that seems to be his destiny at this point in his career. But we’re starting to see more and more flashes of the KAT whom we thought could be a perennial top 10 player in the NBA.
21. Charlotte Hornets (Net Change: -7) — In what isn’t much of a departure from the recent history of this team, all eyes remain firmly affixed on Kemba Walker, the team’s one true “franchise player.” After storming out of the gates scoring 29.6 points (2nd most in the NBA) and hitting four three-point shots per game over his first 16 games, his scoring averages have dropped to 19.2 points and two three-pointers per game ever since (while also seeing his field goal % and three-point % drop by more than 10% each). Now would be a good time for guys like Malik Monk and Miles Bridges, their top picks over the last two NBA Drafts, to up their respective games; Charlotte has only three players averaging double-digit scoring per game, and none of them are those two young guys.
22. Orlando Magic (Net Change: +1) — Nikola Vucevic and his 20.6 points and 11.7 rebounds per game might be the early-season storyline for the Orlando Magic, but don’t overlook the defensive presence brought by Orlando’s last two first-round picks, rookie center Mo Bamba and second-year forward Jonathan Isaac. In the two games they’ve played together, they’ve combined for 34 steals and blocks. Their offense still has a ways to go (they’re both averaging 7.2 points per game in the month of December), but their combination of size and length is starting to pay the dividends that General Manager John Hammond foresaw.
23. Miami Heat (Net Change: -2) — Josh Richardson is not only the leading scorer for the Miami Heat (18.5 points per game), but he’s shooting 40% from three, and playing like the best defender on a team that’s among the best in the league. That’s why the Heat were reluctant to include him in a deal to potentially acquire Jimmy Butler. Of course, Richardson’s play still hasn’t been nearly enough to make Miami a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference. They’re in ninth place in the East as of Tuesday morning, with an upcoming stretch of games against teams like Houston, Milwaukee, and Toronto.
24. Brooklyn Nets (Net Change: -4) — Brooklyn has committed to Spencer Dinwiddie as part of their future (at least for now), with his recent three-year, $34 million contract extension. Now, it remains to be seen what they do with the rest of the expiring contracts and/or cap space they’ll have available. Or, put another way, they have to decide whether they’re going to veer towards being buyers or sellers over the next few months, given that they’re less than three games out of the last Eastern Conference playoff spot, and have just as good a chance as any of the other teams in the mosh pit that’s the middle of the East to rise as high as the 6th seed.
25. Washington Wizards (Net Change: none) — You could practically hear a large faction of fans of the Washington Wizards snickering when John Wall dropped 40 points, 14 assists, and six rebounds on the Los Angeles Lakers, as many around the nation’s capital wouldn’t be disappointed if Wall were to somehow end up on the Lakers, based on some of the trade rumors that have emerged in recent weeks. While we’re on the topic of trades: Washington’s original botching of the three-way trade between Memphis, Phoenix, and the Wizards for forward Trevor Ariza tells you almost everything you need to know about General Manager Ernie Grunfeld’s professional competence.
26. New York Knicks (Net Change: +1) — The win-loss column might not reflect it, but things aren’t all bad for the New York Knicks. Tim Hardaway Jr. has turned into much more than just a punchline about his high-priced contract. Enes Kanter is among the top 12 in the NBA in rebounds, pulling down 11.4 per game. Emmanuel Mudiay, Noah Vonleh, and even Trey Burke have turned into meaningful contributors. David Fizdale is getting his team to play hard. Imagine if they can finally get James Dolan to sell the team?
27. Cleveland Cavaliers (Net Change: +3) — If the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns aren’t careful, the Cleveland Cavaliers are in prime position to swoop in and steal the title of “worst team in the NBA” away from either of those two. If there had been one bright spot for the Cavaliers this season, it was the much-maligned Tristan Thompson ranking in the top 10 in the NBA in rebounding percentage. Now, he joins Kevin Love on the injury list, with Thompson likely being out for at least the next month. So, the Cavaliers will be “battling” their opponents —though it really shouldn’t be much of a battle — with a lineup that consists of Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Cedi Osman, Larry Nance Jr., and the recently-acquired Matthew Dellavadova.
28. Chicago Bulls (Net Change: -2) — If the Chicago Bulls are not deliberately trying to tank the 2018-2019 season, in order to potentially secure better positioning in next year’s NBA Draft, they could’ve certainly fooled us. They won three games in the month of November, which caused them to fire their (now former) lame duck head coach. They’re essentially mothballing Jabari Parker for the remainder of the season, with virtually no chance of him being back next year. Then there was the near-mutiny against a head coach who asked a team that’s tied for the second-fewest wins in the NBA to practice a little harder, which tells you a lot about the construct of this Chicago Bulls team.
29. Phoenix Suns (Net Change: none) — The news of notoriously-cheap owner Robert Sarver asking the citizens of Phoenix to help foot the bill for a renovation of Talking Stick Resort Arena, while threatening to move the team to Las Vegas or Seattle if they don’t acquiesce, is yet another horrible PR move, considering his team currently is currently tied for the second-fewest wins in the NBA to date, and sits dead last in the standings of the Western Conference. Having just dumped one of the few veteran presences on the team (Trevor Ariza), the Suns appear committed to yet another year of maximizing their number of ping pong balls in the NBA Draft lottery.
30. Atlanta Hawks (Net Change: -2) — Even if it came against the comically dysfunctional Washington Wizards, the Atlanta Hawks will take a win any way they can. Prior to beating Washington on Tuesday evening, Atlanta had won one game since November 28th, giving them a league-low six wins entering their game against Washington. While fans inside and outside the greater Atlanta area talk about Trae Young, it’s been second-year forward John Collins who’s led the team in scoring seven out of the last 11 games, including four games with at least 24 points in December.