The NBA is a league where you always have to be on your guard.
Last week, the Lakers took out the Thunder in Oklahoma City without LeBron James or Anthony Davis. They then got LeBron back and got waxed by the Celtics.
Orlando posted a landmark win over those same Lakers, then lost to the Warriors. The Clippers fell asleep and gave up a comeback win to Atlanta, sans Trae Young.
Speaking of guard, the Rockets appear to be doing very little of that – not that they're panicking.
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.
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30. Golden State (Steady)
(10-36) Last week: 1-3
Signs of growth in Golden State.
In their win at home versus the Magic, rookies Jordan Poole and Eric Paschall scored 21 and 20 points respectively. Since the turn of the calendar, Golden State are 10th in the NBA in defensive rating. D'Angelo Russell appears to be gaining some traction within the offense, going for 24.2 points and 7.5 assists through January.
The positivity was upped with news that Steph Curry is planning an early March return from his broken hand. Does that complicate things, though? Everyone will have to play differently with Curry on the court. And does his transcendence take Golden State from a likely top 3 pick to, say, the 8th pick in this years draft?
29. Atlanta Hawks (Steady)
(11-34 Record) Last week: 2-2
Hmmm.....some Ewing Theory in play for Atlanta?
The Hawks took down the clearly napping LA Clippers yesterday on the back of a 33 point 16 rebound and 3 steal effort from John Collins.
For all of Trae Young's magnificent counting stats, there is an argument that he just is not and never will be a winning basketball player. He may as well be made out of smoke on defense, for all the resistance he provides.
Yes, he makes highlight reel deep 3s and pretty passes, but there doesn't appear to be a lot of actual offense being ran in Atlanta. Maybe that's down to a lack of talent. Perhaps it's Coach Lloyd Pierce's fault.
But given Pierce's 1st hand experience of The Process in Philadelphia, you would think he'd know the value of running an actual NBA offense, no matter the overall talent of the squad, rather than just handing one person the ball and hoping something happens.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers (Steady)
(12-32) Last week: 0-3
A large part of the Cavs' problems this season – but far from the only problem – is their crippling lack of ball movement. Kevin Love has never been a playmaker. The youngsters in the backcourt are all scorers at heart. Is Cedi Osman their most creative player? Yikes!
Fortunately, the Cavs 1st round pick Daruis Garland is starting to show some playmaking chops. Over his last 7 games, he's averaging 6.2 assists a night, against a season average of 3.6. If he can keep that up, the more scoring oriented players of the young core like Collin Sexton and Kevin Porter Jr might actually fit together.
27. New York Knicks (Steady)
(12-33) Last week: 1-3
Success is relative for the Knicks.
Over the past few weeks, New York has avoided any catastrophic blowouts, and managed to pick up periodic wins. It's just enough to keep the masses from rebelling. To that end, Mike Miller's interim coaching stint has been a success.
What's also a positive for New York is the form of Julius Randle. Since Miller came on board to replace the axed David Fizdale, Randle has put up a consistent 20/10/3 per night, with decent percentages.
26. Washington Wizards (Down 1)
(14-29) Last week: 1-2
In worrying news for the Wizards, star Bradley Beal publicly voiced his displeasure at the direction of the franchise this week. Of course, Beal should perhaps have known what to expect this season, given John Wall was injured, and the team had brought in a slew of new players.
Then throw in the crazy amount of injuries the team – including Beal himself – have dealt with and the results should have been easy to predict. Still, they've at least been fun to watch.
Beal's griping makes the Davis Bertans situation intriguing. With Bertans on an expiring deal and playing career best ball, the team would be smart to sell high, if they don't want to pay him (given the paucity of this season's free agent class, Bertans will be getting paaaaaaiiiiid!).
But in trading away a key contributor, does that send the right message to Beal?
25. Charlotte Hornets (Down 1)
(15-30) Last week: 0-1
An extremely light schedule for Charlotte this week, with just the solitary game. The loss to Orlando took their losing streak to 7 games, and a sorry record of only 2 wins in their past 15.
The Hornets are caught between a rock and a hard place at the moment. They have an owner that famously doesn't want to bottom out. They have veteran talent that can help them stay somewhat competitive.
They also have the makings of a solid young core, that need time on the floor to make their mistakes and grow from them.
24. Detroit Pistons (Up 2)
(17-28) Last week: 2-1
Against a weaker schedule (Atlanta, Washington and Sacramento) Detroit went 2-1, which is about par. With Blake Griffin out, the Pistons have reverted to Power Forward by Committee, with Markeiff Morris combining with youngsters Christian Wood and Sekou Doumbouya to make up for Griffin's production. So far, it working. Wood is playing excellent basketball over the past 6 weeks, averaging 11.1 points and 6 rebounds a night off the bench.
For a team that famously never tanks, and isn't a free agent destination of choice, hitting on mid 1st rounders like Doubouya and free agents like Wood are vital.
23. Sacramento Kings (Down 1)
(15-29) Last week: 0-3
The Kings' plummet into the abyss continues, with their losing streak now at 6 games.
De'Aaron Fox is starting to resemble his old self, with 19 points and 6.3 assists per game through this week.
The biggest news out of Cowtown this week was that the Kings made a trade, and received the best player involved. Unfortunately, when that player is Kent Bazemore, it's not really moving the needle.
22. Minnesota Timberwolves (Down 2)
(15-29) Last week: 0-4
Minnesota traded veteran point guard Jeff Teague this week. Does that mean the Wolves brass consider Andrew Wiggins a lead play maker, now? Well, Wiggins has responded with 22 assists in 3 games since the trade, so perhaps there is something to work with, there.
Karl Anthony Towns finally returned from his 11 game injury absence. It hasn't helped the winning though, with the Wolves now on a 7 game skid.
A worry stat for Minny fans: without Towns, the Wolves were ranked 2nd in the NBA in defensive rating. Since his return, they've given up 115.5 points per game.
21. Chicago Bulls (Up 2)
(17-29) Last week: 2-2
The Bulls appear to be stuck in neutral, thanks in no small part to continuing injury issues. Otto Porter appears to be permacrocked. Now Wendell Carter has gone down with an ankle injury. Luke Kornet and Daniel Gafford have stepped up manfully, but they're career backups.
This team – frighteningly – will only go as far as Zach LaVine can carry them. The 6th year guard is averaging 25 points a game on the season, but has stepped it up since the turn of the year, averaging 29.6 per game, on reasonable efficiency. There is a legitimate case to be made that LaVine is an All Start this season. And that, people, is terrifying.
20. Brooklyn Nets (Down 2)
(18-24) Last week: 0-2
In their first 11 games – all played before Kyrie Irving got hurt – the Nets were 4-7.
In the 26 games they played without Kyrie, the Nets went 13-13.
Since Irving's return, the Nets have a 1-5 record.
And then he goes and says this:
Let me ask you, Dear Reader: would you like to play basketball with Kyrie Irving?
19. Phoenix Suns (Steady)
(18-26) Last week: 2-2
The Suns continue to sit just outside the playoff picture, which when you think about it, is fairly impressive.
The team hasn't been relevant since the first half of the last decade, their best player doesn't play defense, their prized big man missed a huge chunk of the season (to be clear, I'm talking about DeAndre Ayton, not Aron Baynes), and the rest of the roster is made up of retreads.
Monty Williams has done a great job holding the team together through a tumultuous first half of the campaign. It's an outside chance, but could the Suns make the playoffs? Ayton's recent form – 24.3 points and 14.5 boards in his last 4 games – says that there might be a run in them.
18. Portland Trailblazers (Down 1)
(19-26) Last week: 1-2
In light of their salary saving trade this week, perhaps Portland GM Neil Olshey has finally come to terms with the catastrophe that has been this season. The fascinating postscript to this trade: does this mean Portland will offload other veterans and give the season up? Watch this space.
Should the Blazers decide to tank, they have of course one major stumbling block: Damian Lillard. Their superstar is simply too good to let this team slide into a juicy top 10 draft slot. Yesterday, he dismantled the Warriors with a career high 61 points, despite running mate CJ McCollum being added to the injury scroll – it's surely more than a mere injury list now.
17. New Orleans Pelicans (Up 4)
(17-28) Last week: 2-2
A split week for the Pelicans, so why the sharp rise in our rankings?
It's the manner of the results more than the results themselves. In their wins, the Pellies gave Utah their only loss of the decade, getting a transcendant performance from Brandon Ingram. They also took out their 'young team on the rise' doppelganger in Memphis. The losses were a closely fought game with the Clippers, and whilst New Orleans weren't at their best against the Spurs, we finally got to see Zion Williamson.
Zion was on a severe minutes restriction. That, combined with his poor fitness and understandable tentativeness, meant he really couldn't get into the flow of the contest. In the final quarter, however, Coach Alvin Gentry put the ball in Zion's hands and let him go to work. The result was 17 points in a span of a little over 3 minutes, including a perfect 4 from 4 from deep. Once he gets his legs under him, we're all in for a hell of a ride.
16. Memphis Grizzlies (Steady)
(20-24) Last week: 1-2
A pair of losses to New Orleans and Boston put to bed the Grizzlies' 7 game winning streak. They've also dropped out of the play-off places, currently sitting a half game behind the Spurs for 8th in the conference.
Nonetheless, this is a young team on the rise, and the streak – which included wins over the Clippers and Rockets, should give this team belief that they belong. And they were feeling themselves for a stretch there.....
James Harden leaves Ja Morant open for a 3 and Ja makes him pay— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) January 15, 2020
â€œTell that mfer about meâ€ 🔥 pic.twitter.com/AMqPzVLz70
15. Orlando Magic (Down 1)
(21-24) Last week: 1-3
Only days after taking down the Lakers in their own floor, Orlando conspired to lose to the lowly Warriors by 14 points.
The Magic continue to plug away, sitting at just below .500, safely ensconced in the lower play-off seedings. They're the NBA's Groundhog Day. The only interesting thing to watch with Orlando is Markelle Fultz, who continues to make strides in reclaiming his once endangered NBA career.
14. San Antonio Spurs (Down 1)
(20-23) Last week: 3-1
Doesn't it just seem so right that it's San Antonio who played party pooper to the Zion Williamson debut celebration? The Spurs took care of business against the Pelicans, easing out to an early lead. They kept Zion – and importantly the crowd – out of the game until Williamson's late burst, before setting things right for their 3rd straight win.
Again, the veterans led the way. LaMarcus Aldridge went off for 32 and 14. He continues to fire away from deep, going 6 for 17 this week. DeMar DeRozan had 20 points of his own against New Orleans. He's quietly playing like an All Star over the past few weeks.
13. Dallas Mavericks (Down 2)
(27-16) Last week: 1-1
Kristaps Porzingis returned from a 10 game absence against the Clippers. He played solidly, but did look tentative. Perhaps that was because he had a very real reminder of the fickleness of human ligaments and tendons, watching teammate Dwight Powell go down with a blown Achilles.
Powell had stepped up manfully with KP out, putting up 13 points, 6.4 boards whilst shooting 71.2% from the floor over those 10 games.
With Powell sidelined and Porzingis being handled with baby gloves, much falls on Maxi Kleber. The 2nd best Maverick to ever come out of Wurzburg, Germany, the versatile big will be expected to play big minutes from time to time, which may be beyond him. That means one thing: Boban time!
12. Houston Rockets (Down 3)
(27-16) Last week: 1-2
The win over Denver was nice, but it doesn't mask the fact that the Rockets are in a spiral.
Losers of 4 straight before the hopefully steadying win against Denver, Houston's problems are easy to trace – efficiency.
James Harden has fallen off a cliff compared to his early season numbers. He's still averaging 31.1 points in January (that's a long way off his season averages) but his true shooting % has dropped almost 12% from December to 52.8%, whilst he's gone ice cold from deep, connecting at 26.9% this calendar year, including an embarrassing 1 from 17 against OKC.
Maybe fatigue is to blame? Harden's usage rate hasn't changed, and the steady diet of double teams that come his way has to take its toll eventually. Russell Westbrook was supposed to take some of that responsibility from Harden, but until Coach Mike D'Antoni starts to split his star back court some more, then Harden will continue to wear down, and we'll probably see another playoff face plant.
11. Indiana Pacers (Up 2)
(29-16) Last week: 3-1
A 30 point blowout loss to the streaking Jazz is the only blip in the Pacers recent form. Since getting Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis back in the lineup, the Pacers are 5-1. It's very possible that both could be 1st time All Stars this season. Brogdon is posting 17.4 points, 7.4 assists and 4.4 boards – all career highs. He has thrived with the responsibility of being a lead ball handler.
Sabonis is averaging 17.8 points, 12.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists, playing the type of bully ball that has supposedly gone out of fashion.
These two have set the table beautifully for Victor Oladipo, whose return is imminent.
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10. Oklahoma City Thunder (Up 2)
(26-19) Last week: 3-1
The Thunder continue to purr, with another solid week behind them. The jewel in this week's crown was undoubtedly their take down of the Rockets. Chris Paul in particular played another wonderful game against his old side – it's like he holds a grudge, or something!
OKC are the most interesting side to watch through to the trade deadline. All indications are that they're happy with their lot and want to make a strong playoff push, and perhaps reach the 2nd round. Of course, should they pivot, they can be the key stocking filler for a range of title contenders. They might even hedge their bets, making some trades without a wholesale sell off.
Danilo Gallinari has been lighting it up of late, posting 26.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.2 made trey's per game in his last 6. Given that the Thunder are 6-1 when he hasn't played, do they sell high?
9. Philadelphia 76ers (Up 1)
(29-17) Last week: 3-1
The Sixers have gone 5-3 since Joel Embiid went down, and the team was handed to Ben Simmons. They've shown flashes, for sure. There's even been some chatter that the team would be better off trading Embiid, should GM Elton Brand decide to break up his superstar tandem.
But let's pump the brakes a touch.
Four of those wins were against Brooklyn (twice), Chicago and New York. The losses: Dallas, Indiana and Toronto. As good as the theoretical fit between Al Horford and Simmons is, this team needs a 2nd true star.
But that begs the question: who could the Sixers get for Embiid? And if not 'who' exactly, then what type of player? Personally, I think they would need to be a bigger guard or wing type, that would allow the Sixers to be ultra switchy on defense.
A solid (at worst) outside stroke is a must when playing with Simmons. They would also have to fit in roughly with Simmons timeline.
So, who to target? Well a team that needs a centre.....that has a stockpile of young, talented wings....would the Celtics entertain a Jaylen Brown trade?
Did Ben Simmons take a three this week? No.
8. Boston Celtics (Down 1)
(29-14) Last week: 2-2
The evisceration of the Lakers stopped the rot. Prior to that, the Celtics had lost 6 of 8.
Boston were excellent in that game, but there is an element of the Lakers simply failing to show up. The comfortable follow up win against the streaking Grizzlies will probably do more to put Coach Brad Stevens at ease.
By the way, if I'd told you that Marcus Smart had made 11 shots from beyond the arc in a single game of basketball, how many attempts would you think he'd had? 40? 50? How about 22.
Smart was unconscious against the Suns. As well as dropping a career high 37, he also put up his customary 5 boards and 8 assists as well as playing his usual manic defense.
7. Toronto Raptors (Up 1)
(30-14) Last week: 4-0
With the return of Fred Vanvleet, this week, the Raptors are finally healthy. And it shows in their record – the Champs are currently on a 6 game unbeaten run.
Whilst the return of Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Vanvleet are incredibly important, don't overlook 6th man Norman Powell. The NBA's reigning 'best player named after a Cheers character' (It's a real award, people!) has put up 22.7 points and is knocking down 3.1 threes at 48.2% since coming back from an 11 game absence due to a shoulder strain.
The Raps aren't as deep as they were last season, but come playoff time, their 7 man core will be a nightmare for any opponent.
6. Miami Heat (Down 1)
(31-13) Last week: 3-1
A week that flattered to deceive for the Heat.
They took down the Thunder with a very Miami-like effort: balanced scoring and disciplined defense. They went to sleep against San Antonio, losing to a Spurs team that didn't play that well.
They've eked out a pair of overtime wins at home against the lowly Wizards and Kings to round out the week. Those wins mask what was a pair of lacklustre performances.
To his credit, Kendrick Nunn regained some of that early season magic with 24.5 points per game this week.
5. Denver Nuggets (Down 2)
(30-14) Last week: 2-2
Veteran forward Paul Millsap has missed 8 straight games, now. Yet without their defensive lynchpin, the Nuggets have managed to keep things tight in his absence, due to the contributions of Michael Porter Jr and Jerami Grant.
Porter's efforts have been well documented. The Missouri product had put up 16 points a game in his previous 5, before missing the loss to Houston with – worryingly – back soreness.
Grant has flown under the radar a little, but the man brought in from OKC in the off season has put up 13.9 points, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks since stepping into the starting lineup.
4. Utah Jazz (Up 2)
(31-13) Last week: 3-1
The Jazz's winning streak was halted this week in New Orleans. The Pelicans received a few controversial decisions their way in the OT period, but can rightly argue that the game shouldn't have gone to OT in the first place, with the officials gifting Utah a very soft call at the buzzer.
The Jazz's hot form has allowed them the luxury of easing Mike Conley back into action, after missing 19 of his previous 20 games. He's looked steady coming off the bench in his 3 games since returning.
I've argued for it before, but I believe the Jazz would be best served keeping Conley as the director of the bench unit, leaving a white hot Joe Ingles and the newly minted (4 years, $36 million) Royce O'Neal in a starting unit that is sweeping all before them.
3. Los Angeles Lakers (Down 1)
(35-9) Last week: 2-1
The Lakers laid an egg in Boston, going down by 32 points in a game where Boston were able to gently ease away from a Lakers side that just didn't show up. How bad was the Lakers performance? Their top scorer was JaVale McGee. Any time JaVale McGee leads your team in scoring, it's probably bad.
In the game prior, LA absolutely bullied the Rockets in Houston. Los Angeles piled up a 24-4 advantage in 2nd chance points, without Anthony Davis playing. Dwight Howard came up huge in that game, with 10 boards, 3 blocks and a pair of steals in 24 minutes.
2. Los Angeles Clippers (Up 1)
(31-14) Last week: 3-1
The Clippers somehow lost to Atlanta in their last game. It's not a concern. They are, to an extent, feeling their way through the regular season.
They know that their time isn't the dog days of mid January. To that end, it's no surprise to see the team sit Paul George with minor shoulder issues, or to rest Kawhi Leonard from time to time. They're deep enough to handle those absences at this point of the season.
That said, they still need a leader – both Kawhi and PG missed the Hawks game. When the Hawks made their move, no Clipper stepped up.
With George out, Kawhi has unleashed over the past few games. In his last 6, The Claw has put up a nightly 36 points, 6.6 boards, 4.3 assists, 2.8 steals and knocked down 2.7 three pointers.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (Steady)
(39-6) Last week: 3-0
Another perfect week for the Bucks, who have extended their win streak to 7 games. The ease of the Bucks wins is startling: they're average winning margin over the streak is 16.6 points.
The comfort with which Milwaukee are dispatching their opponents is allowing Coach Budenholzer to rest Giannis Antetokounmpo even more than usual.
The Bucks superstar is averaging a tick over 30 minutes per game on the season and that's down to 27.2 minutes over the streak.
Importantly, Giannis is only playing an average of 6.6 minutes in the 4th quarter over those 7 games. If James Harden's play-off flame outs are any sort of lesson, this sort of rest through the season could be huge come play-off time.