Merry Christmas to all! Our Power Rankings have filled up on far too much turkey and ham, eaten its (and others) share of gingerbread, and the less said about it's cider consumption, the better.
So what did Santa bring the Rankings for Christmas?
It brought some upsets on Christmas Day – talking about the basketball, not about our overstuffed belly – a contender riding a losing streak, some unexpected form at the foot of the league, and a 1st time #30.
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. Atlanta Hawks (Down 1)
(6-25 Record) Last week: 0-3
We have a new cellar dweller in our Power Rankings as the Hawks finally hit rock bottom. An 8 game losing streak, with 5 of those losses by 10+ points, has bestowed a league worst record upon the Hawks.
Trae Young is their only shining light. The 2nd year guard is pouring in 29 points and 8 assists a night. John Collins returned this week, posting 27 and 10 with a pair of blocks and steals thrown in. His return is the best Christmas gift the Hawks could get, but it's too little too late for this season.
29. New York Knicks (Down 2)
(7-24) Last week: 0-3
After a brilliant stretch last week (it's all relative) the Knicks fell back to earth with a loss to the Wizards, and blowouts against the Bucks and Heat.
The Knicks net rating of -9.3 is only 'bested' by the Hawks -9.4. Their offensive and defensive ratings both rank 29th in the league, so it's only appropriate that they're ranked 29th in our Power Rankings as well.
28. New Orleans Pelicans (Steady)
(8-24) Last week: 2-1
Signs of life in New Orleans.
After breaking their monstrous losing streak against the now equally moribund Wolves, they went out and lost to the Warriors. Swings and roundabouts? Not quite.
The Pelicans pulled out an strong performance to take down the Trailblazers before upsetting the heavily fancied Nuggets on Christmas Day, behind big games from Brandon Ingram (31 points with seven 3's) and Jrue Holiday (20 points and 8 assists) with Derrick Favors playing some huge defensive minutes to force Nikola Jokic into 5 turnovers and a poor shooting night.
It's lucky they've notched up those wins now. Their next 3? Pacers, Rockets and Lakers.
27. Golden State (Up 3)
(8-24) Last week: 3-0
Wow! The Warriors live!
Victories over the Pelicans and Timberwolves are fair enough – all teams that are at the tail of the NBA field. The Christmas Day victory over the Rockets, though? Hand up who saw that coming.
This tweet says it better than we ever could.
26. Washington Wizards (Down 1)
(9-20) Last week: 1-2
Washington closed out their pre-Christmas schedule with a win over the Knicks. That might not seem like much, but an already thin Wizards lineup was missing Thomas Bryant, Davis Bertans, Rui Hachimura and Isiah Thomas. Short of Bradley Beal going off for 60, somebody needed to step up and Troy Brown did, scoring 26 points with 9 boards and 7 assists.
The Wizards are young and developing. Despite the poor record, they have a plan to evolve through that youth and – for once – they're sticking to it.
25. Cleveland Cavaliers (Up 1)
(9-21) Last week: 2-0
Whilst we were all waiting for a resolution to the Kevin Love situation, the Cavs went and made a trade, selling high on bench spark plug Jordan Clarkson to bring in a pair of 2nd round picks, also taking a low risk flyer on Aussie Dante Exum.
The former #5 pick has done 3/5 of nothing through his injury marred NBA career, and it's those injuries that muddy the waters with Exum. Is he good, but unlucky? Was he no good to begin with? Have the injuries robbed him of the quickness that made him such a highly touted prospect?
For the Cavs, this is a no brainer. Clarkson isn't going to be a long term building block, and if Exum doesn't work out, you get a pair of picks.
24. Memphis Grizzlies (Down 1)
(11-20) Last week: 1-2
Memphis are a young side and play like a young side, with a strong win over the Heat balanced by a loss to the Cavaliers. Still, the losses don't matter quite as much as the process for this seasons Grizzlies.
To that end, Jaren Jackson Jr has looked impressive with 21.3 points, 4 made 3's and a pair of blocks per game over the past week. Young Canadian guard Dillon Brooks has put up 15.3 points, 5 boards and 3 assists per match this week.
23. Detroit Pistons (Down 2)
(11-20) Last week: 0-3
It's hard to be too harsh on Detroit for their winless week, let alone their run of 6 losses in 7.
They've played and lost to Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas and Toronto through that stretch, and beaten the Rockets. They've done it without Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Luke Kennard, Christian Wood and Derrick Rose for parts of that run.
Just as things were starting to come together, they fall apart again. The poor Pistons just can't get out of their own way.
22. Chicago Bulls (Up 2)
(12-20) Last week: 1-1
The Bulls are slowly righting the ship. After last weeks statement win over the Clippers, the Bulls backed up by finally beating some teams that they should be beating in the Pistons and Wizards. They did of course lose to Orlando 103-95 in the most Orlando game ever – it was brutal to watch – but baby steps.
Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine are both starting to get back to their regular selves. The Finnisher is putting up 16.4 points and 7.8 boards in his last 5 games. LaVine is averaging 30.6 with 5.2 made 3 pointers per game over the same period.
21. Charlotte Hornets (Down 1)
(13-20) Last week: 0-2
Charlotte lost to Boston and Utah in the Christmas lead in – not unexpected – but the loss to the Cavs prior to those will have hurt.
Devonte Graham has cooled off considerably in the last week or so as the league catches up to him scouting wise.
They'll hope to get back on track, closing 2019 with a home date against the Thunder and a trip to Memphis.
20. Minnesota Timberwolves (Down 1)
(10-19) Last week: 0-3
Merry Christmas, Minny!
Minnesota have now lost 11 straight, including an embarrassingly lifeless loss to Golden State last time out. How does Coach Ryan Saunders, clearly a talent but obviously very inexperienced, drag his side out of the malaise? This isn't a veteran side and the Wolves certainly don't have any winning institutional knowledge to fall back on.
This could get a lot uglier before it starts to improve.
19. Phoenix Suns (Down 2)
(11-19) Last week: 0-3
Seven straight losses coming in to Christmas have taken away the early sheen off of Phoenix's season. Availability hasn't helped, of course. De'Andre Ayton's return to the lineup after suspension was brief – an ankle injury putting him back on the shelf. In addition, Devin Booker, Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio have all missed chucks of the season.
In their absence, Kelly Oubre Jr has taken on the extra responsibility and shined. He's putting up a variety of career highs amongst his 17.7 points, 5.8 boards and 2.2 stocks per game.
18. San Antonio Spurs (Up 4)
(12-17) Last week: 2-1
The Spurs took a beating from the Clippers, but defeated the Nets in an surging East vs surging West match up and eviscerated the Grizzlies in Memphis.
The recent uptick in form makes San Antonio an interesting watch through the trade period. Much like OKC, it makes sense to trade their veterans (in this case Aldridge and DeRozan) and put their faith in youth. However, they're only a game behind the banged up Blazers for 8th in the conference and could very easily make a successful play off push – yet again.
Given Coach Pop's age, there is a prevailing theory that he won't want to go through a rebuild. But Popovich has shown time and time again that he isn't wired like most coaches. If he and RC Buford decide that now is the time to hand it all over to the kids, that's what they'll do, their own record be damned.
17. Sacramento Kings (Down 2)
(12-18) Last week: 0-3
The Kings are in free fall. Again. Losses to Houston and Indiana are acceptable, but when you're chasing your first playoff appearance since the Byzantine Era, you can't afford to lose to the Grizzlies and Hornets.
Getting De'Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley back into the lineup was supposed to lead to an uptick in fortunes. Yes, there will be an inevitable re-bedding in for those two, but the Kings have looked awful since their return.
16. Portland Trailblazers (up 2)
(14-17) Last week: 2-1
A 4 game winning streak was ended before Christmas in a tired looking loss to the Pelicans, in which Damian Lillard took, and missed, 10 shots from deep. Still, the Blazers have to be satisfied somewhat in their record, considering the spate of injuries that have ravaged their roster. They've of course lost starters Jusuf Nurkic, Rodney Hood and Zach Collins to long term injuries and even the replacements haven't been entirely healthy, with Carmelo Anthony currently ailing.
Alongside the star back court pair of Lillard and CJ McCollum, Hassan Whiteside has been the other pillar of Portland's season, giving his side a nightly 15.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks. He's even averaging a career high in assists at, um.....1.3 per game.
15. Orlando Magic (Up 1)
(13-17) Last week: 1-1
The Magic are the quintessential middling team, able to take care of business against the dregs of the NBA, but consistently fall over against the better sides.
The reason for that is quite straightforward. Orlando slow the pace of the game down and rely on their solid defense to shut down the lesser talents. However once they come up against an offensive talent capable of taking it to their defense, they're dead in the water because the Magic offense – averaging a league worst 103.5 points per game - is incapable of keeping them in a game.
14. Oklahoma City Thunder (Steady)
(15-14) Last week: 2-0
OKC closed their pre Christmas schedule with an eye opening win over the Clippers, leaving them firmly ensconced in the playoff positions. An 8-2 December – with games against Memphis, Charlotte and Toronto remaining – has the Thunder sitting well above where most expected them to be.
Veterans Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams are of course playing to their usual standards, whilst Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has proven to be even better than expected. Dennis Schroder has been electric of late, as coach Billy Donovan has found success in a 3 point guard line up of CP3, Shai and Dennis.
13. Brooklyn Nets (Steady)
(16-13) Last week: 1-1
Brooklyn's resurgence continues, sans Kyrie Irving. And Kevin Durant, of course. They've also missed Wilson Chandler until recently. They've just watched David Nwaba go down. Caris LeVert has missed significant chunks of time. Wow, the Nets really have fought an uphill battle, haven't they?
Coach Kenny Atkinson and his staff deserve a ton of credit for firstly integrating new pieces, then righting the ship as players fell around him. No coach has been crowned Coach of the Year without being above .500 since Doc Rivers at the turn of the century. Even so, does Atkinson come into the conversation if the Nets can finish with, say, 46 wins with Kyrie out for half the season?
12. Utah Jazz (Steady)
(18-12) Last week: 2-1
At the beginning of the season, the plan for Utah was quite clearly to let Joe Ingles be the leader of the 2nd unit, and use Royce O'Neal as a wing stopper/spot up shooter. O'Neal was fine, but Ingles cratered. Since moving back into the starting lineup, Slo Mo Joe is averaging 13.8 points (up 6.4), 5.8 assists (up 2.3) with elite 51/51/93 shooting splits; all up by a wide margin on his bench splits.
But what to do with the bench, now? Utah hopes they've solved that issue in acquiring Jordan Clarkson from the Cavs. A career bench gunner – who has admittedly improved his shot selection considerably in recent times – it's hoped that Clarkson's lesser reliance on teammates to put the ball in the bucket will jump start Utah's biggest weakness: it's bench.
11. Dallas Mavericks (Down 1)
(19-10) Last week: 1-1
Thu Mavericks finished their Luka-less Eastern swing with a 2-3 record, but would be kicking themselves at blowing a 30 point lead in their loss to Toronto. As we mentioned last week, coming out of that stretch, sans Luka, with a 3-2 record would have stamped the Mavs as true challengers.
Even so, the Mavericks brass would have to be pleased with the teams efforts of late. Kristaps Porzingis has averaged 22 points, 13.6 boards and 2.6 blocks on the road trip. Jalen Brunson has really stepped it up in Luka's place, putting up 14.6 points and 9.2 assists.
10. Indiana Pacers (Up 1)
(21-10) Last week: 2-1
Winner of 6 out of 7, the Pacers continue to sit on the shoulder of the Eastern Elite. That fact that the streak contains wins over the Lakers, Celtics and Raptors makes an argument that they're already there. The eventual return of Victor Oladipo should give the Pacers the boost they need to solidify that status. Assuming he's close to 100%, Dipo's defense and play making sit in well with the rest of the team, but his ability to put the ball in the basket will be the difference maker for a team that can struggle late in games.
9. Toronto Raptors (Steady)
(21-10) Last week: 2-2
Just as it looked like the Raptors were going to get their full band together, they lose Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and Norm Powell....in the same freaking game!
Toronto won a crazy game against Dallas with those 3 out, but couldn't get it done against Indiana or Boston. So much falls on the diminutive Kyle Lowry/Fred Vanvleet backcourt, now. Perhaps we'll see a breakout from OG Anunoby?
8. Houston Rockets (Steady)
(21-10) Last week: 3-1
We got to see the best and worst of the Houston Rockets this week.
Against the Clippers, in LA no less, Houston ran the Clips right out of their own building. Russell Westbrook was spectacular, dropping 40 with a combination of Patrick Beverley and Paul George guarding him.
Yet on Christmas Day, we saw the lowly Warriors take the Rockets down in the 2nd half, outscoring the Rox by 16. Westbrook was at his OKC best – big, inefficient numbers – as James Harden looked like he may have come straight to the arena from a club.
A quick stat to put the Westbrook apologists in their place: when Russ shoots over 50% from the field, Houston are 9 and 2. Which means he's shot over 50% in 11 of 31 games this season. For all the work that Harden does, Westbrook playing the EFFICIENT 2nd fiddle is vital to any Rockets success.
7. Philadelphia 76ers (Steady)
(23-10) Last week: 3-1
Star centre Joel Embiid said the Sixers were playing scared and that they needed to back themselves against the best. The big man backed words with actions as he led the Sixers to a big Christmas Day win over the Bucks, pouring in 31 points with his 11 boards and highlight reel defensive plays.
After getting flummoxed by the zones Miami and Brooklyn put in front of them, the Sixers feasted upon the Wizards and Pistons for easy victories leading up to Christmas Day.
For all the concern about their offense, the defense remains elite, conceding 104.9 points per game; 3rd in the NBA.
6. Los Angeles Lakers (Down 4)
(24-7) Last week: 0-3
Cracks are starting to appear. That's 4 straight losses for the Lake Show now, against an admittedly tough schedule of Indiana, Milwaukee, Denver and the Clippers.
So given that run of games, why the stark drop? Firstly, the Lakers lack of depth has come to the fore through this run. The Pacers – themselves undermanned – took the Lakers to school with Anthony Davis sitting. Denver handled them with ease whilst LeBron sat with a groin complaint. Whilst Kyle Kuzma finally shed the shackles against the Clips on Christmas day, LeBron aggravated his groin injury and is expected to miss time.
Secondly, the fixture computer has been very kind to the Lakers so far. This is their first serious stretch this season – they've failed miserably. Come playoff time, the depth issue may not matter as much as rotations tighten. The inability to beat quality opponents unless everything is working their way is a big concern, however.
5. Boston Celtics (Up 1)
(21-7) Last week: 3-0
Boston just find a way to make it happen.
Without Marcus Smart and Gordon Hayward, the Celts got a combined 82 points from Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to take down Dallas. Against Detroit, Walker couldn't hit a thing – Grant Williams hits 18 in a 21 point win. Next up Tatum goes for a career high 39 against the Hornets. To close it out, a solid win against an undermanned Raptors on Christmas Day. The Celtics are going to be a load once healthy.
Hayward and Smart are expected back in the next week.
4. Miami Heat (Up 1)
(22-8) Last week: 2-0
Post that inexplicable loss to the Grizzlies, the Heat have taken care of business, blotching the Sixers unbeaten home record before beating the Knicks and grinding out a result against the Jazz. The Jazz match up was a great watch: high intensity defense and some solid offensive execution. However, the visuals were an assault on the eyeballs. The Jazz wore their 'horizon' strip and Miami their powder blue 'Vice' uniform. Both strips are individually great, but together.....it's a lot of colour to process. What makes both of those uniforms pop is their contrast against the more traditional team colours. Together, they made the court like a Ken Done artwork.
3. Denver Nuggets (Up 1)
(21-9) Last week: 3-1
Don't look now, but the Nuggets are starting to purr. Coach of the year candidate Michael Malone has had his team playing lock down defense all season, conceding 103.8 points per 100 possessions (good for 2nd in the NBA). Their previously middling attack is starting to catch up. Against the Lakers, no less than 6 Nuggets hit double figures.
Nikola Jokic is looking like his old self, too. In December, he's upped his scoring by 5 points per game to 20.1, his assists to 8.1 (up by 2.3) and shooting 53/40/88 splits, up from 46/22/74 up to December.
The Nuggets, sitting 2nd in the West, are the real deal.
2. Los Angeles Clippers (Up 1)
(23-10) Last week: 2-2
Doc Rivers has the best and worst of it as an NBA coach this season.
He's managing the finest array of talent in the league both in terms of top end talent and depth. He can chop and change his lineups depending on form and match ups, due to said depth. He can afford to rest his players knowing there is another quality NBA rotation player ready to take their minutes at a moments notice. That all good, right?
He's also having to deal with his front office and medical staff wanting to rest his best two players regularly. Whilst totally understandable, it throws any chance of continuity of rotations out the window. It also takes away valuable reps for his new players to gel with their teammates. He's also coaching the NBA Champions Elect. There is pressure that comes with that, especially when your franchise has such a woeful history as the Clippers do.
The good side if this argument shows up in games like the Christmas Day victory over the Lakers, where you can dust of JaMychal Green in the 2nd half and have him change the game.
The negative rears it's head in matches like the loss to Houston, where you run 10 deep and nobody outside of the stars get to settle into the game. Doc will eventually have to find his core 7 or 8.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (Steady)
(27-5) Last week: 3-1
The titanic battle with the Lakers was a relatively easy game for the Bucks. And it came with a warning: Giannis can hit 3's. The Greek Freak canned 5 from downtown against the Lakers. If anything close to that sort of form continues, we can engrave the MVP trophy now. A reminder that he's shooting over 40% from deep through December.
The Bucks also had a solid win against the Pacers before the Christmas day loss to an inspired Joel Embiid and his Sixers.
The Bucks now have 10 straight games against teams at or below .500, by which time they could have just about locked in the #1 seed through the playoffs.