The NBA can throw up some surprises from time to time.
This week, that game was the Lakers visiting Oklahoma City without LeBron James or Anthony Davis. A streaking team against a team with no depth, missing its superstars? This should have been a stroll for the Thunder. The Lakers, however, pulled of a 125-110 win, and it wasn't nearly that close.
We also had the Nuggets somehow losing at home to Cleveland and the Heat getting taken down by the Knicks. The NBA: It's damn confusing!
Oh, and to top of all that weirdness, Kyrie Irving is back. Nothing weird about his return; he's just kind of an odd dude.
Throughout the season, Inside Sport will be bringing you our NBA Power Rankings. These are not necessarily ranking based on records. This is a purely subjective assessment of how a team is progressing, projected and playing.
All records are as of Thursday night Australian time.
30. Golden State (Down 1)
(9-33) Last week: 0-3
A tough stretch of games for the Dubs, with the Clippers, Mavs and red hot Grizzlies on the menu. As expected, they lost them all, stretching their losing streak to nine games. Throw in Atlanta's win over Phoenix and Golden State are now back to last place in the league standings.
D'Angelo Russell returned against Memphis and showed little signs of rust, hitting 34 points on red hot shooting. If he can click with Curry, the Warriors have another core piece.
They need Russell to work out, or at least get them another foundational player in a trade. The only silver lining to this season in the bay is that Golden State have found some young rotation pieces such as Eric Paschall.
29. Atlanta Hawks (Up 1)
(9-32 Record) Last week: 1-2
The Hawks picked up a win for the second week in a row, taking down a lacklustre Suns squad.
That doesn't explain Atlanta's move out of the Power Rankings basement – that's all on Golden State.
The scuttlebutt continues about Atlanta bringing in Detriot's Andre Drummond. It makes sense. Drummond would be the best teammate that Young has had in his short career, would be a terrific pick and roll partner and is good enough to at least take the Hawks defense to 'not a tyre fire' levels of competency. Should the trade happen, the package would be interesting. Atlanta have deadwood salaries that can be moved - the ghost of Chandler Parsons is almost a perfect match – and they could have three first rounders in this year's draft.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers (Steady)
(12-29) Last week: 2-3
An interesting week in Cleveland, to say the least.
They start the week losing in heartbreaking fashion to Detroit. In the ensuing film session, Coach John Beilein refers to his team as 'thugs'. He insists he misspoke and meant to say 'slugs'. Wow. The Cavs regroup, beating the Pistons in the second of the home and home, smack down the Nuggets in Denver, then lose to the two LA teams by a aggregate 54 points.
That's a roller coaster of a week, if I've ever seen one.
27. New York Knicks (Steady)
(11-30) Last week: 1-2
The Knicks are reportedly joining the Andre Drummond sweepstakes. My question is this: why?
The Knicks have little to show for their half a season's efforts and should most certainly look to be shedding 'assets' rather than taking on a player they'll have to pay long term. And if the Knicks absolutely must make a play to try to regain some sort of relevance, why target a centre, when perhaps their best prospect is Mitchell Robinson? Of course, it's the Knicks, so common sense and decision making are not always happy bedfellows.
26. Detroit Pistons (Steady)
(15-27) Last week: 2-3
Out of absolutely nowhere, the Pistons somehow managed to upend the Celtics, in Boston. I've no idea how they managed to do it, although I can only assume that the Celtics were looking ahead to their Bucks match up. That's a good lesson: every NBA team is elite. These are the best players in the world – if you don't show up ready to play, anyone can take you down. Even a team that starts the league's youngest player in Sekou Doumbouya.
25. Washington Wizards (Steady)
(13-27) Last week: 1-2
Washington just about has their full complement back playing with the return of Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans and Thomas Bryant all fit and firing – only rookie Rui Hachimura is still sidelined.
Not that the returning trio, let alone Hachimura, will help the Wizards historically porous defense. Beal, Bryant and Hachimura are three of the worst four defenders in the NBA, according to individual Defensive Ratings. The other in that quartet? Washington's Isiah Thomas, of course.
24. Charlotte Hornets (Down 1)
(15-29) Last week: 0-4
The Hornets have dug up their old Nicolas Batum. They've even put him on an NBA court; presumably to show potential suitors that ol' Nic still has a pulse. It hasn't gone particularly well, although Batum did post 9 points, 7 boards and a pair of steals against Portland.
Devonte' Graham has predictably fallen away after a white hot start to the season, but he's shown some signs of stabilisation of late with impressive games against Phoenix and Portland.
23. Chicago Bulls (Up 1)
(15-27) Last week: 2-2
Chicago were able to snap a six game losing streak against the hapless Pistons, who lost star man Andre Drummond to a mindless ejection through the game. They also picked up a routine win against Washington.
Chicago are rumoured to be looking to offload some deadwood this trade deadline, with former lottery pick Denzel Valentine and veteran Thad Young the headliners. Valentine has failed to produce in his three NBA seasons and is now behind Kris Dunn (a natural point guard) and the perennially crocked Chandler Hutchison in the depth chart. Young was expected to provide a veteran presence to the young Bulls. He may well have done that, but his influence on the court has waned considerably.
22. Sacramento Kings (Down 2)
(15-26) Last week: 0-3
The injuries continue to mount for the Kings. Just when they get Marvin Bagley back (he's only played 11 games this season) they lose Richaun Holmes, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Harrison Barnes for periods. Thankfully none of those injuries appear serious.
Coach Luke Walton exhumed his former teammate Trevor Ariza and the 16 year veteran responded with a 3 game stretch of 14.7 points (9 of 17 shooting from the arc) 7.3 rebounds and 2.3 steals. De'Aaron Fox has finally found his groove, posting 27.8 points and 8.8 assists over his past 5 games.
21. New Orleans Pelicans (Up 1)
(15-26) Last week: 2-1
All right! Zion Williamson is expected to make his long awaited NBA debut on January 22nd against the Spurs. Not before time. Tell me that a man that can do this, isn't ready to hit an NBA court soon.
Zion's fit with Brandon Ingram is vital to the long term health of the team. Ingram, to his credit, has emerged as a viable #1 option this season, putting up career highs in practically every category. David Griffin's decision to not extend Ingram before the season started is going to get very expensive. He's worth it, though. He and Zion are the future of this team.
20. Minnesota Timberwolves (Down 4)
(15-25) Last week: 1-3
Gorgui Deng has filled in admirably for the injured Karl Anthony Towns. The much maligned Senegalese has put up 12.5 points, 7.1 boards, 2.6 assists and a block per night in 2020. Impressively, he's also hit 44% of the 4 three pointers he's attempting per game.
That being said, KAT's return can't come soon enough. After a nice 3 wins from 4 streak, the Wolves have dropped 3 straight. Their next 3 games: Indiana, Toronto and Denver.
Andrew Wiggins is back, which is nice. He's also back to normal, which is not. Wiggins has close to a 1:1 assists to turnover ratio and is shooting under 28% from the arc since his return.
19. Phoenix Suns (Steady)
(16-24) Last week: 2-1
The Suns did the unthinkable – losing to the Atlanta Hawks. That's a shame, because the Suns have a 5-5 record in their last 10. Much of that comes down to the stellar play of Devin Booker, who has averaged 32.9 points and 6.4 assists over his last 10 games. Kelly Oubre has been the sidekick that the Suns have been looking for, putting up 20.2 points and 7.9 boards through that stretch. Oubre's $15 million per year contract is an absolute bargain. If DeAndre Ayton develops as hoped, the Suns will at least have their core.
18. Brooklyn Nets (Steady)
(18-22) Last week: 2-3
So much for last week's prediction!
Kyrie Irving returned for the Nets this week, with as easy a reintroduction as you could ask: Atlanta without Trae Young. Kyrie hung an effortless 21 on the Hawks and followed it up with 32 in the loss to the streaking Utah Jazz. He ran into a Josh Richardson shaped wall against the Sixers, scoring 14 points on 6 of 21 shooting. Irving fell back into his worst habits in this game, with needless over dribbling. He danced, but Richardson – and on occasion Ben Simmons – matched him step for step.
17. Portland Trailblazers (Steady)
(18-24) Last week: 2-2
After a 2-8 run, the Blazers have steadied with wins at home to Charlotte and an impressive victory in Houston. Damian Lillard has been the one shining light – again – for Portland this season. Dame is posting his customary scoring numbers (26.8 per game) with his usual excellent deep shooting (3.4 treys at 36%). He's also averaging a career high 7.6 assists a night this season. He's found a chemistry with Carmelo Anthony that is encouraging.
Now if only the Blazers could play defense......
16. Memphis Grizzlies (Up 5)
(15-22) Last week: 2-1
With their win over Houston, the Grizzlies have pushed their win streak up to 6 games. And guess what? They're in the playoffs as things stand. Who'd have thought that after a 2-7 start, with a young team and a rookie head coach, that the Grizz would be playoff contenders.
Their young core of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr and Dillon Brooks are cooking – all averaging over 18 points a game through the win streak. Keeping this core together, along with Jonas Valanciunas could lead to a fun few years in Memphis.
15. San Antonio Spurs (Steady)
(17-22) Last week: 1-2
What black magic is this?
Coach Gregg Popvich has turned ageing, stuck in his lane LaMarcus Aldridge into the Texan Splash Mountain. LMA is attempting 5.7 three pointers per game in 2020. He's making 50% of them, which will of course regress. But it's the volume that is vital, here. Aldridge drawing his man away from the rim has opened up the lane for DeMar DeRozan. The mid range maven has lit it up since the turn of the year, posting 29 points per game on a ridiculous 71.3% true shooting. Those driving lanes allowed DeRozan to take Chris Boucher's soul when the Spurs visited his old Toronto stomping ground.
Keep an eye in that clip on OG Anunoby and his late rotation – that doesn't happen if Aldridge is parked 18 feet out, rather than 22.
14. Orlando Magic (Steady)
(20-21) Last week: 2-1
The Magic blew a very winnable game in Phoenix to start the week, surrendering a 4 point lead with under a minute to play. They followed up with a couple of clutch performances in beating the Kings (yeah, ok) and the Lakers (OK!).
The catalyst for the Lakers win was one Markelle N'Gai Fultz. The 3rd year reclamation project recorded his 2nd career triple double (22/11/10) and simply took over this one in crunch time. His late buckets – including one over LeBron James – steered his team to a famous victory.
13. Indiana Pacers (Steady)
(26-15) Last week: 3-0
Save the date, Pacers fans. January 29th is when your man Victor Oladipo will make his long awaited return, 1 year and 4 days since rupturing his quad tendon.
The Pacers also welcomed back Malcolm Brogdon this week. His partnership with Dipo will potentially make or break the Pacers season. They've outperformed expectations with their star man out, and whilst his return should improve the team on paper, basketball isn't played in a vacuum. The first few games will be a feeling out process, but by mid to late February we should see how Oladipo has settled in.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder (Steady)
(23-18) Last week: 3-2
The Thunder continue to confound those that thought they would crater & sell the farm. To be fair, that second part might still happen.
OKC welcomed back their former hero Russell Westbrook with a rousing video tribute. The fun continued for the Thunder faithful as they watched their team destroy the Rockets. In a poetic moment, Chris Paul put the icing on the cake with a gorgeous nutmeg on Isaiah Hartenstein.
11. Dallas Mavericks (Steady)
(26-15) Last week: 3-1
That's 9 straight games missed by Kristaps Porzingis, now. Given his scary injury history, let's hope that this is a case of the Mavs wrapping their man in cotton wool.
Dallas has put together a 3 game win streak to recover to 5-4 in the big Latvian's absence. Their defense – never stellar – has cratered to 23rd in the NBA over this stretch. As good as Luka Doncic is, he can't do it all on his own and the frustration is starting to show.
10. Philadelphia 76ers (Steady)
(26-16) Last week: 2-2
A confounding week for the Philadelphia faithful.
Without the injured Joel Embiid, there was a lot of interest in how the team would perform when turned totally over to Ben Simmons.
We saw what the Australian is capable of when given the space to operate in wins over Boston and Brooklyn, but on the flip side we saw exactly how vital Embiid is at the other end of the floor as the Pacers and Mavericks picked apart the Sixers screen and roll defense.
So I guess we're still no closer to finding out if the Sixers should choose Box A or Box B.
Did Ben Simmons take a three this week? No, of course not! He had space to drive.
9. Houston Rockets (Down 2)
(26-14) Last week: 1-3
As James Harden goes, the Rockets go.
In their lone victory this week, The Beard hung an efficient 32 points, shooting 6 of 11 from deep, on the Wolves. In their 3 losses? An average of 31 points per game, but on an ugly 31% from the floor.
On the positive side of things, Russell Westbrook appears to be settling into a complimentary scorers role. His assists and rebounds are down, but he's hit 23+ points in all bar one of his last 14 games after some maddening early season inconsistency.
8. Toronto Raptors (Up 1)
(26-14) Last week: 1-1
The Raptors Championship defense is going far better than most expected. At the same stage last season, the Raps were 28-12. Despite losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, then suffering a slew of injuries, the Raps are keeping pace.
Speaking of injuries, Toronto got some good news this week with Pascal Siakam and Norm Powell returning in the loss to the Spurs and Marc Gasol appearing in the win over the Thunder. We're just a Vanvleet away from Toronto getting all their front line players back.
7. Boston Celtics (Down 1)
(27-12) Last week: 2-2
Is there a case for the Celtics to send 3 players to this years All Star game? They have Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum all scoring between 20 and 22 points per game, all are sitting at a minimum 3.4 in win shares. And if you're only selecting two Celtics, who misses out?
Despite (potentially) having 3 All Stars (4 if you count Tacko Fall) (You should count Tacko Fall) the C's suffered a disturbing loss to Detroit to close the week, going down by at home by 13. Their next match is against the Bucks, so hopefully this was just a blip for Boston.
6. Utah Jazz (Up 2)
(28-12) Last week: 3-0
The Jazz's winning streak is up to 10 ( they've won 15 of 16), pushing them up to 2nd in the Western Conference.
Sure, the Jazz have feasted upon the NBA's soft underbelly through the bulk of the run, but that's just rewards for a brutal early season stretch of games they endured.
Utah's balanced attack has been the other key to the run. Over the last 10, the Jazz have 5 different players averaging over 14 points, remembering that Mike Conley is still out.
Rudy Gobert has been a monster through this stretch, posting 14.9 points, 15.1 boards and 1.8 blocks with 66.7% shooting. Gobert simply must be an All Start this season – finally.
5. Miami Heat (Down 2)
(28-10) Last week: 1-2
One of the best features of this season's Heat – to be fair it's a trait of most Spoelstra coached sides – is their ability to be 'up' for each and every contest. They just don't have off days. So you can imagine the coaches frustration at his sides recent Big Apple swing. The loss to Brooklyn would have stung, but not as much as letting the Knicks hang 40 last quarter points on them, in blowing a 14 point second half lead.
In a worrying sign for Miami, their defense has slipped precipitously in the last 10 games, ranking 20th in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions.
4. Los Angeles Clippers (Up 1)
(28-13) Last week: 2-1
The Clippers are not looking like title contenders at the minute.
Sure, they're missing Paul George – out with a hamstring strain – and that clearly doesn't help.
With both George and Kawhi Leonard on the floor together, the Clippers have a 14-4 record with a +10.7 net rating, good for 2nd in the league and a full 5 points higher than their season average.
Since their Christmas Day victory over the Lakers, however, the Clips are a mere 5-3 with a barely positive net rating.
3. Denver Nuggets (Up 1)
(28-12) Last week: 2-1
The Nugs started the week with a shock loss to the Cleveland Thugs...ummm...Slugs, I mean Cavaliers. That seemed to jolt them into action in their next match, comfortably handling the Clippers in Denver.
Nikola Jokic is all the way back, folks. Big Honey is pouring in 25.8 points per game since the calendar flipped with his 3 point shooting rocketing to 48.3%.
2. Los Angeles Lakers (Steady)
(33-8) Last week: 3-1
We touched on it at the top, but the win in OKC without LeBron or AD was hugely impressive. The 15 point margin absolutely flattered the hosts – this one was over with the scoreboard reading 41-19 at quarter time.
Kyle Kuzma, if nothing else, improved his trade value in this game with a career high 36 points. Rajon Rondo set the tone with an electric 1st quarter, finishing with 21 points 12 boards and 8 assists. He and Dwight Howard (12 points, 14 boards, 2 blocks) appear to have taken a dip in some sort of fountain of youth located somewhere in Oklahoma.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (Steady)
(36-6) Last week: 3-0
The Bucks are on pace for perhaps the most under the radar of 70 win seasons.
Whilst the Lakers and Clippers get so much media attention, and the various afflictions and remedies of the Sixers get airplay, the Bucks somehow remain under the radar.
What doesn't remain under the radar, is the Bucks superstar. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the first person since Wilt Chamberlain back in 1966 to average north of 29 points, 12 rebounds and 5 assists per game. Against the Knicks this week, he posted a 37, 9 and 4 line...in a mere 21 minutes on court. Whilst his team might be under the radar, the Greek Freak certainly isn't.