For the first time this season (and maybe ever), the Oklahoma City Thunder are on top of the NBC Sports weekly NBA Power Rankings, knocking the Celtics down a peg after beating them Tuesday night. Kind of an All-Star theme with some of the teams as they try to promote players to get into the showcase (All-Star fan voting is open on the NBA.com website or on the app).
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (23-9, Last Week No. 6). In the little over a week since Christmas the Thunder have wins over the Timberwolves, Nuggets and Celtics (and are 5-0 overall). More than a statement, the Thunder have announced themselves as title contenders and the biggest threat in the West to the Denver Nuggets (who we know can flip the switch to another gear, but feel more vulnerable than last season). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander gets a lot of credit — and should as a legit MVP candidate and the best driver in the game who just dropped 36 on the Celtics — but don’t sleep on the contributions of Jalen Williams and Luguentz Dort on the wing. The Thunder head out of a four-game road trip this week.
Shai was LOCKED IN tonight.
— NBA (@NBA) January 3, 2024
2. Boston Celtics (26-7, LW 1). For a team that had won 11-of-12 before Tuesday night’s loss to the Thunder, there have been some signs the Celtics seem to have hit a mid-season doldrums — needing OT to beat the Pistons and a two-point win against the Raptors (both at home, where Boston remains 16-0 on the season). That loss to OKC was also only the second time this season Boston has lost with its regular starting five in place, they are now 15-2 with that group opening games. The “Get Derrick White” to the All-Star Game” campaign is in full swing in Boston, but fans are going to need to convince East coaches because he’s not getting in as a starter and the coaches pick the reserves. Two fun games this week in Indiana against the Pacers (Saturday and Monday).
3. Milwaukee Bucks (24-9, LW 2). Is Milwaukee’s defense good enough to win a championship? The offense certainly is. Damian Dillard has made this team better in the half-court and the clutch, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is getting overlooked in the MVP debate — 30.9 points and 11.3 rebounds a game with the best shooting of his career (64.7 true shooting percentage). While the defense has improved from the dreadful first few weeks of the season (since returning to more drop coverage), in its last six games this defense is 13th in the league (via Cleaning the Glass) and recent losses to the Knicks and Pacers Lillard got targeted at points. This is a second round of the playoffs and beyond problem, but the defense has to be the team’s trade deadline target. Winnable games this week against the Spurs, Rockets and Jazz.
4. Minnesota Timberwolves (24-8, LW 3). Anyone making the “this won’t work in the playoffs” argument about Minnesota can point to Monday’s loss to the Knicks as example 1A — Julius Randle torched them for 39, owning the paint and glass. The loss to the Thunder last week also can be on that list. On the “why this will work in the playoffs” side of the scale are three things: 1) The team being 11-2 in clutch games this season (within five points in the final five minutes) and the playoffs are all about clutch games; 2) The league’s best defense will work in the postseason; 3) Anthony Edwards, who has scored 31+ in three straight games and is playoff tested. Heavy road schedule coming up for Minnesota this month.
5. Philadelphia 76ers (23-10, LW 4). The OG Anunoby trade to the Knicks was a minor loss for the 76ers — he was a potential off-season target with Philly’s cap space (and would have been a brilliant wing fit). The Sixers’ 20-point win over the Magic last Wednesday, then one two nights later against the Rockets, were their first two wins of the season without Joel Embiid. The Sixers went 2-2 with the reigning MVP — and current frontrunner to repeat — but he returned Tuesday as the Sixers thrashed the Bulls. It’s worth noting those missed games have Embiid on pace to finish with fewer than 65 games played, if that happens he cannot repeat as MVP under the new league rules. The 76ers face Anunoby and the Knicks on Friday.
6. Denver Nuggets (24-11, LW 5). Aaron Gordon only missed two games after being attacked by a dog and needing 21 stitches, and he instantly clicked again with the rest of the starters in a win over Charlotte (every starter was at least +26 for the night). Gordon missed the Nuggets blowout loss to the Thunder by 26, but for a team that has won 10-of-12 and was on the second night of a back-to-back, we’re going to flush that game and move on. Nikola Jokic is a lock All-Star Game starter in the West, but will Jamal Murray get his first-ever spot on the roster? He deserves it, but it will be up to the coaches to vote for him as a reserve (in a conference with SGA, Doncic and Curry he’s not getting voted in a starter by the fans, sorry). The Nuggets have a showcase game in Golden State on Thursday.
7. Los Angeles Clippers (20-12, LW 7). The Clippers went 11-2 in December and Tyronne Lue summed it the change in his team from those ugly first six games with James Harden to the winning streak this way, “I think one, playing with better pace; I think two, just our rotations and guys getting getting used to one another. I think James getting more comfortable with PG and Kawhi and those guys get more comfortable him as well.” Or, he summed it up this way another day: Their attitude shifted to “let’s win games and continue to get better instead of lose games and get better.” The Clippers are on the road this week in Phoenix, New Orleans, then return to Los Angeles to be “at” the Lakers.
8. New Orleans Pelicans (20-14, LW 12). Since getting smacked around by the Lakers in Las Vegas during the In-Season Tournament, the Pelicans have responded going 8-3 and have a league-best +13.4 net rating in those 11. New Orleans exacted some revenge on Los Angeles last week being them by 20 with Zion Williamson — who took a lot of heat for his IST performance — scoring 26 with six assists, and that was the second game last week where he, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum each score more than 20. The Pelicans have 6-of-7 coming up on the road as they have a brutal January schedule (and their one home game in this stretch is the Clippers).
9. Orlando Magic (19-14, LW 11). Orlando is taking care of business against the teams it should beat, but is 9-10 on the season against teams over .500 — not a bad record, but a sign of where this team stands in the East pecking order. That record against below .500 teams is a sign of how coach Jamahl Mosley has his team playing hard every night — which is why it was funny to hear Tom Thibodeau complain about the Magic getting hustle calls against his Knicks when those are the calls This’ teams thrive upon. Paolo Banchero should be a lock All-Star, and coaches should at least consider Franz Wagner for a slot. A couple of big tests this week against Denver and Minnesota.
10. New York Knicks (18-15, LW 9). OG Anunoby has played just one game for the Knicks — a win over the Timberwolves — but it was instantly clear how things will be different with the elite 3&D wing in the lineup: more drive-and-kicks because of the spacing, and better ball movement overall. Plus, improved wing defense. That said, losing Immanuel Quickley hurts, while Anunoby is the best player in the trade today that could be Quickley three years from now. The Knicks remain a good team but one waiting for a true No. 1 to become available (and no, that is not Donovan Mitchell under any circumstances). New York played 10 straight games against teams over .500 and went 5-5, things soften up now except on Friday against the 76ers.
11. Sacramento Kings (19-13, LW 13). Malik Monk is not getting mentioned enough in early Sixth Man of the Year discussions, and he has shown his value over recent weeks — 14.8 points a game shooting 42.1% from 3 in his last 15 games — as the Kings have won 8-of-12. Speaking of recognition, De’Aaron Fox should be a lock All-Star for the Kings (and in my book is on pace to be an All-NBA player as well). Domantas Sabots will be in the mix for an All-Star slot as well but the West front court is a crowded place and it’s going to fall to the coaches picking the reserves. The Kings have been playing well and we’d like to just flush that loss to Portland… but man that was ugly. Interesting games this week against Orlando and a hot New Orleans squad.
12. Indiana Pacers (18-14, LW 17). Tyrese Haliburton will be an All-Star this season, but will he be an All-Star starter? Assuming the fan vote ensures Damian Lillard gets one of the guard spots in the East (which is deserved), the other comes down to Haliburton, Jalen Brunson, Jaylen Brown, and Tyrese Maxey. The Pacers have won four in a row, finding their footing again after their post-IST slump, with the latest of those wins coming over the rival Bucks. There is some real fire in that Indiana/Milwaukee rivalry (they play again Wednesday) and what fans really need is a seven-game series between these two. Indiana also has two against Boston coming up later this week.
13. Miami Heat (19-14, LW 10). This team still feels like a sleeping giant — Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Tyler Herro have played eight games together this season, yet if the playoffs started today, they would host a first-round playoff series. Rookie sensation Jaime Jaquez Jr. is basking — or, maybe more accurately uncomfortably sitting — in the spotlight this week as the Heat face the two Los Angeles teams, where Jaquez grew up and played his college ball. Erik Spoelstra said Jaquez working hard to earn chances at UCLA (where he was the face of the program by his senior season) and not just jumping into the portal and going somewhere easier impressed the Heat and was part of what drew them to him. Jaquez is on pace to be a lock First Team All-Rookie Team player this season.
14. Dallas Mavericks (19-15, LW 8). Kyrie Irving is back after missing a dozen games with a right heel injury, and the Mavericks went 6-6 in those games. Dallas needs him because the load Luka Doncic has had to take on during those dozen games is the kind of thing that would wear any player down (he’s played almost 40 minutes a game when available in that stretch and has done so through a sore quad). The Mavericks have the chance to get right the next couple of weeks with seven in a row at home, starting with two against the Trail Blazers.
15. Cleveland Cavaliers (18-15, LW 14). The Cavaliers have held their own, going 5-3 without Darius Garland and Evan Mobley (both out injured). While Donovan Mitchell to the Knicks rumors refuse to die (even though they should), all reports out of Cleveland is the plan is to not make any major moves at the deadline, get healthy and see if this team can take a step forward in the playoffs. The results from that run — and if Mitchell signs a contract extension — will inform the team’s offseason moves. There are hard decisions coming, but those are after this season. A soft stretch of games coming up for the Cavaliers this week.
16. Phoenix Suns (18-15, LW 20). Sometimes a team just needs an easy stretch of games to get their feet under them and start to turn things around, and Phoenix hopes that’s what this four-game win streak is — especially with Bradley Beal back and scoring 20+ in two of those wins. Beal will not be an All-Star, but it’s a safe bet Kevin Durant and Devin Booker will both make that cut. We’ll see if the Suns’ little run is for real this week against the Clippers, Heat and surging Grizzlies.
17. Los Angeles Lakers (17-17, LW 16). In the Lakers’ last 11 games, LeBron James is averaging 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game with a 61 true shooting percentage, while Anthony Davis has been even better averaging 31.1 points and 12.4 rebounds a game while playing elite defense. They both have played at an All-NBA level and been everything Lakers fans could ask. Yet despite that the Lakers are 3-8 in those games (since winning the In-Season Tournament) with a -4.6 net rating. Despite what Austin Reaves thinks, all signs point to this being a pretty average team — one capable of stretches of elite play, but not one who looks like they string together three or four strong series in a row in the playoffs. That puts pressure on GM Rob Pelinka heading into the next month before the trade deadline.
18. Golden State Warriors (16-17, LW 15). When asked about Draymond Green — who has now missed 10 games so far during his indefinite suspension — Steve Kerr said he has not been around the practice facility and, “We’ve been giving him his space, he’s been giving us ours.” Interesting phrasing. There is no timeline for Green’s return, but when he does Kerr is going to have some tough minutes decisions to make because Jonathan Kuminga has earned more run with his play while Green is out. After a showdown with the defending champion Nuggets Thursday the Warriors schedule softens up for the rest of the week.
19. Houston Rockets (16-15, LW 18). Will the coaches select Alpren Şengün as an All-Star reserve? He’s got a legitimate case averaging 21.3 points a game on 54.4% shooting with 9.1 rebounds a game (he’s also in the early mix for Most Improved Player), but in All-Star voting sometimes reputation trumps stats, and Şengün is the new kid on the block. The Rockets are 1-3 so far on a seven-game homestand and it doesn’t get easier this week with Timberwolves and Bucks on the schedule.
20. Utah Jazz (15-19, LW 23). All hail Jordan Clarkson, who broke Utah’s shockingly long streak without a triple-double, going all the way back to Carlos Boozer in 2008. (It’s wild that Deron Williams, Donovan Mitchell, Gordon Hayward or someone didn’t have one between Boozer and Clarkson). Utah will push Lauri Markkanen as an All-Star, but the team’s struggles are not helping his cause in a conference deep with good frontcourt players. A tough road swing starts Friday in Boston, followed by Philly and Milwaukee.
Jordan Clarkson secures his first career triple-double and becomes the first Jazz player with a triple-double since Carlos Boozer on 2/13/2008. pic.twitter.com/iItFL9Nwen
— NBA (@NBA) January 2, 2024
21. Chicago Bulls (15-20, LW 21). Zach LaVine is expected to return this week from his foot infection, which is something a team without Nikola Vucevic and Torey Craig could use to help boost the offense. LaVine is averaging 21 points a game and is a respected shooter. The Bulls have gone 10-6 so far with LaVine out, and while his return should help on the court it is not likely to boost his trade prospects because the primary concern teams have — the $178 million on his contract — does not change. Two games against Charlotte this week should help the Bulls pick up a couple of wins whenever LaVine does return.
22. Atlanta Hawks (13-19, LW 24). Trae Young should be an All-Star this season without a doubt, averaging 28.3 points and 11.3 assists a game. He could earn enough fan votes to be in the mix for a starting spot (next to Damian Lillard, who seems an East guard lock) but more likely Young will be a reserve. Still, he will be in Indianapolis. If you’re wondering how a team with that kind of firepower at the guard spot is looking up at even the play-in (the No. 11 seed), look no further than the team’s 5-14 record against teams over the past.500. The Hawks need some quality wins, like in the games this week against the Thunder, Pacers and Magic.
23. Toronto Raptors (13-20, LW 25). Immanuel Quickley and Scottie Barnes may take a little bit to mesh, but that has the potential to be the backcourt of the next 5+ years in Toronto and bring a lot of wins to the franchise — this was a good trade for the Raptors (especially if Anunoby was leaving in the summer as a free agent anyway). Expect a Pascal Siakam trade to get done before the trade deadline. Scottie Barnes as well as he has played, may be on the bubble for coaches when it comes to picking All-Star reserves. The Raptors now head out on the road for six straight, starting in Memphis and then swinging West.
24. Memphis Grizzlies (11-22, LW 22). Last Friday’s loss to the Clippers was a reminder of just how much this team misses Steven Adams — Los Angeles owned the glass and paint, and that decided the game. On the season the Grizzlies are bottom 10 in the league in defensive rebounding percentage, a weakness that could haunt them if they make the playoffs. Making the playoffs is not going to be that easy – after winning their first four with Ja Morant back they ran into solid playoff teams and dropped the next three (before beating Spurs on Tuesday). A tough 3-game road trip starts Friday facing Lakers, Suns, and Mavericks.
25. Brooklyn Nets (15-19, LW 19). I’m not sure there is a team that has looked worse over the past few weeks than Brooklyn, losers of 9-of-11, which may torpedo any chances Mikal Bridges has of getting selected as an All-Star by the coaches picking the reserves. It should be noted that while teams are calling the Nets are telling teams they want to be buyers at the trade deadline, not selling on Bridges (although, that could be posturing to get the right price). Brooklyn needs a win and their next two games — at Houston, followed by hosting Oklahoma City — will be tough. Portland coming to Brooklyn on Sunday might be the best shot at a win.
26. Portland Trail Blazers (9-23, LW 26). This season was all about player development and on that front things have been going well with Scoot Henderson, who just continues to look more and more comfortable each game. In his last five games he is averaging 18.6 points and 6.8 assists a game. He and Anfernee Simons are starting to find a rhythm next to each other. That’s all the team can ask this season. The Blazers loss to the Suns Monday was the start of a seven-game road trip that this week finds the team in Dallas and New York.
27. Washington Wizards (6-26, LW 27). It’s good to see Delon Wright back and he has provided a little boost off the bench already. For Wizards fans looking for a reason to be positive, Wright and more run for Bilal Coulibaly are the reasons to tune into games the rest of this season. Two games in Cleveland followed by hosting the Knicks and Thunder this week for the Wizards.
28. Charlotte Hornets (8-24, LW 28). Nothing I saw this week made me smile as broadly as watching Ish Smith get his championship ring in Denver, and the welcome reaction from his former teammates. Good luck finding anyone in the league as well-liked by the other guys in the locker room as Smith. It’s going to be a tough week for the Hornets, not just because of the schedule — two against the Bulls — but because LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward and Mark Williams remain out due to injuries.
29. San Antonio Spurs (5-28, LW 29). Once or twice a game, even on his off nights, Victor Wembanyama does something that just stuns you. The video of him dunking with no dribbles inside the 3-point line got a lot of attention this week, it was his one-legged 3-point almost floater — a shot he tried going back to France — that just had me shaking my head.
30. Detroit Pistons (3-30, LW 30). The Pistons got their win against the Raptors, in part because all the stars aligned (Raptors at a rest disadvantage, the trade leaving them shorthanded) but also because the Pistons had been playing harder in better leading up to that in an effort to not set the record. Then it looked in Houston a couple of nights later like all the lessons learned were lost, it was a bad Detroit outing. Things don’t get easier on the road this week including games against the Warriors and Nuggets.