Do early season NBA power ratings mean anything? With a long season ahead and so much volatility in the league, can we place any stock in the best-to-worst team rankings?
Okay, so we asked this exactly same question of the NHL earlier today. You can read more HERE.
Since we're on the subject, let's look at this week's power rankings according to NBA.com:
Last Week: 1Golden State Warriors
Pace: 100.2 (6) OffRtg: 112.5 (3) DefRtg: 100.2 (1) NetRtg: +12.3 (1)
What goes around comes around. The Warriors probably benefited from the Suns playing the second game of a home-road back-to-back on Friday, exacting some revenge with a 22-point victory in which they scored 67 points on just 49 second-half possessions. And less than 24 hours later, the Warriors themselves came out flat against the Spurs, trailing by as many as 22 points before coming all the way back and then losing a late lead. Teams with a rest advantage (didn’t play the day before, opponent did) were 8-1 over the last four days and are 53-32 (.624) on the season (including 19-11 on the road), which would be the best rest-advantage record of the last eight years.
Teams playing the second night of a back-to-back have suffered more defensively than offensively, and the loss to San Antonio on Saturday was the Warriors’ worst defensive game of the season (112 points allowed on 101 possessions). Of course, there are six teams that have allowed more than that (110.9 per 100) for the whole season, and if that’s your worst defensive game of the year, you’re pretty darn good defensively. Despite that “bad” game, the Warriors have allowed 7.9 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average (108.1), which would rank as *the third best mark in the 26 years for which we have play-by-play data.
* Behind only the 2003-04 Spurs (-8.3) and the 2007-08 Celtics (-8.1).
Neither team will have a rest advantage in any of the Warriors’ three games this week, though their visit to Philadelphia on Saturday is the start of a five-game trip in which they’ll have two back-to-backs.
Week 8: vs. ORL, vs. POR, @ PHI
Last Week: 2Phoenix Suns
Pace: 100.9 (4) OffRtg: 110.4 (9) DefRtg: 104.2 (2) NetRtg: +6.2 (3)
We knew that Deandre Ayton’s mobility on defense would be tested against the Warriors. But it quickly became obvious that his interior offense would also be critical with this particular matchup. Ayton totaled 47 points in the two games (his two highest scoring games of the season), with his usage rate over 30% for just the second and third times in these two seasons with Chris Paul. Devin Booker’s absence for all but the first 18 minutes of the first game had something to do with that, but even before Booker suffered his hamstring injury, Ayton was getting a lot of touches and offensive boards. Trade season begins in less than 10 days and the Suns’ lack of a more perimeter-oriented five man still feels like something that could/should be addressed between now and the Feb. 10 trade deadline.
The Suns’ defense was fantastic in Phoenix on Tuesday and they were able to keep things ugly and close through the first half of the rematch, with the two teams combining for just 99 points on 101 possessions before halftime on Friday. They protected the rim pretty well in the second half, but they could only hold the Warriors (who shot 21-for-37 from outside the restricted area after halftime) down for so long.
The good news regarding Booker is that the Suns just began a nine-day stretch where they’re playing only two games. They’re still plenty good enough defensively to win games without Booker, though their next two opponents — the Spurs and Celtics — have each had some strong offensive games in the last week.
Week 8: vs. SAS, vs. BOS
Last Week: 5 ↑Milwaukee Bucks
Pace: 99.8 (10) OffRtg: 110.1 (10) DefRtg: 106.3 (8) NetRtg: +3.9 (5)
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s game-winning reverse in Charlotte on Wednesday was just his ninth go-ahead bucket in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime in his career. Khris Middleton (17 such buckets in their nine years together) remains the Bucks’ top closer, but the value of Antetokounmpo was obvious when he missed their loss in Toronto on Thursday. In that game, the Raptors totaled 29 second-chance points and Pascal Siakam (20 points) was continually taking advantage of his matchup with Pat Connaughton.
The Bucks were 8-5 (including 2-0 in the playoffs) without Antetokounmpo last season and they got their first ’21-22 win without him on Saturday, never trailing the similarly shorthanded Heat. While the Toronto loss featured a lot of Jrue Holiday one-on-one (with some good results), the Miami win featured more ball movement, and it was the Bucks’ most efficient offensive performance of the season (124 points on 99 possessions). The Bucks have still been almost 25 points per 100 possessions better with the Finals MVP on the floor (plus-13.1) than they’ve been with him off the floor (minus-11.5).
The Bucks remain undefeated (10-0) when they’ve had Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton all in the lineup. Antetokounmpo (right calf soreness) is listed as questionable for their game against the Cavs on Monday as the Bucks continue to await the return of Donte DiVincenzo and hope that Brook Lopez (who had back surgery on Thursday) might return by the end of the season.
Week 8: vs. CLE, @ MIA, @ HOU, @ NYK
Last Week: 6 ↑Chicago Bulls
Pace: 99.3 (13) OffRtg: 110.5 (8) DefRtg: 105.8 (7) NetRtg: +4.7 (4)
It was a big week for the Bulls and the Bulls came up big. They almost blew two leads of more than 20 points, but held off the two teams — Charlotte and New York — that entered the week directly behind them in the East standings. Then, for the second time this season, they beat Brooklyn with a big fourth quarter. There are only four players who’ve shot better than 50% on at least 20 clutch shots, the Bulls have two of the four, and those two guys — DeMar DeRozan (12-for-21) and Zach LaVine (15-for-29) — have also combined to shoot 34-for-35 (97%) on clutch free throws.
Games 15-19 were the Bulls’ worst five-game stretch of offense this season (106.1 points scored per 100 possessions). Games 20-24 have been the best (119.4 per 100). DeRozan (28.4 points on 56% shooting over those five games) has been fantastic and Nikola Vucevic (18.2 on 51%) has seemingly found his shot. He had more buckets from outside the paint in the wins over Charlotte and New York (13-for-22) than he had in his previous six games combined (12-for-40).
Having clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker, the Bulls are just a half game behind the Nets for first place in the East. Both teams have a relatively easy December schedule and the final meeting will be Jan. 12 in Chicago. Of course, the Bulls have some teams on their tail, too. Their first meeting with the 13-11 Cavs will be Wednesday in Cleveland, and they’ll be looking for revenge (having lost a close game nine days ago) when they visit the 14-10 Heat on Saturday.
Week 8: vs. DEN, @ CLE, @ MIA
Last Week: 7 ↑Utah Jazz
Pace: 98.0 (19) OffRtg: 116.2 (1) DefRtg: 106.9 (11) NetRtg: +9.4 (2)
The 27 3-pointers that the Jazz made against the Celtics on Friday are tied for the fourth most in NBA history, but they’re not the most that the Jazz have made this (calendar) year. There have been 25 total instances of a team making at least 25 3s (including playoffs), and five of those 25 have come from the Jazz in 2021. Over their current four-game winning streak, the Jazz have outscored their opponents by 117 points (29 per game) from beyond the arc. Mike Conley was on fire over the weekend (10-for-12 against the Celtics and Cavs) and now leads the league in 3-point percentage at 47.5%.
The Jazz’s top-ranked offense has eight December games against teams that currently rank in the top 10 defensively. And they’ve begun the month by scoring 127.5 points per 100 possessions against the ones that rank ninth and third. For the season, the Jazz have scored 3.5 more points per 100 possessions than any other team and 8.1 more than the league average. That latter mark would be the third best differential in the 26 seasons for which we have play-by-play data, and if that phrasing sounds familiar, it’s because you read it regarding the Warriors’ defense above. The Golden State-Phoenix showdown was great, but it’s time to find a 2022 calendar, so you can circle the date (Jan. 1) of the first meeting between the Warriors and Jazz.
The absence of Hassan Whiteside (bruised glute) on Sunday allowed for the first real look (a little less than 10 minutes in which the Jazz were outscored by two points) at Rudy Gay playing the five. The Cavs are big, so it wasn’t a bad test, and Whiteside has a couple of more days to recover. But small ball would be even more interesting as the Jazz face the Wolves and Sixers this week. Rudy Gobert is 13-8 in his career against Karl-Anthony Towns, but just 2-5 against Joel Embiid.
Week 8: @ MIN, @ PHI, @ WAS
Last Week: 3 ↓Brooklyn Nets
Pace: 100.2 (7) OffRtg: 109.3 (12) DefRtg: 105.6 (6) NetRtg: +3.6 (6)
There are eight teams that are at least four games over .500 and the Nets are 1-6 against the other seven, with the one win (vs. Washington) having come on the seventh day of the season. They struggled to stop DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine on Saturday, and the Nets’ 107 points on 99 possessions was their most efficient performance in a loss. But in total, they’ve scored less than a point per possession over the seven games against the best teams, with James Harden having registered an effective field goal percentage of just 39.1% on 105 total shots. He has an effective field goal percentage of 53.5% (and a much higher free throw rate) in his other 16 games.
The Nets remain in first place in the Eastern Conference and in the top 10 on defense, but news that Joe Harris required surgery on his ankle is a tough blow. The addition of Patty Mills in the summer was universally lauded at the time, and it’s been more critical than expected, given Harris’ extended absence and the unvaccinated status of Kyrie Irving. Without Mills, the Nets wouldn’t have anybody around Harden and Kevin Durant to shoot quickly and competently. Durant, Harden, Harris and Mills are the only Nets that have shot 3-pointers with any kind of volume or success, and they’ve been outscored by 14 points per game from beyond the arc over the last four.
The good news is that the Nets have actually outscored two of those four opponents in the restricted area, having been no better than a +0 in the restricted area in their first 19 games of the season. The team that ranks 29th in restricted area points per game (the Nets are 30th) is the team — Dallas — that they’ll visit on Tuesday, the start of a three-game, four-day trip.
Week 8: @ DAL, @ HOU, @ ATL, @ DET
Last Week: 16 ↑Cleveland Cavaliers
Pace: 97.4 (24) OffRtg: 107.5 (19) DefRtg: 104.7 (3) NetRtg: +2.9 (8)
It was noted in this space last week that the Cavs’ opponents on their three-game road trip – Dallas, Miami and Washington – were a combined 19-5 at home entering Week 7. And the Cavs didn’t just win all three games, they led all three by more than 30 points. Jarrett Allen (25 points per game on 76% shooting) was dominant inside, Darius Garland shot 19-for-32 from outside the paint, and Kevin Love gave them a big lift off the bench in Miami.
The league’s third-ranked defense also shined, holding the three opponents to just 98.3 points per 100 possessions. Allen and Evan Mobley combined to block 17 shots over the three games and the Cavs’ rotations were energetic. Their performance against Utah on Sunday was just as impressive, but they came up just one possession short of their first five-game winning streak since April 2018.
The Cavs will face two more top-10 offenses on Monday and Wednesday, having yet to face either the Bucks or the Bulls this season.
Week 8: @ MIL, vs. CHI, @ MIN, vs. SAC
Last Week: 4 ↓Miami Heat
Pace: 96.6 (27) OffRtg: 110.5 (7) DefRtg: 107.4 (12) NetRtg: +3.2 (7)
Jimmy Butler is a five-time All-Defense selection, and, without him over the last four games, the Heat have had four of their seven worst defensive performances of the season, allowing more than 115 points per 100 possessions in all four. Bam Adebayo is a two-time All-Defense selection. He’s missed the last three games, and he’s out four to six weeks after having surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb. So the Heat will continue to have some issues defensively, even when Butler (bruised tailbone, questionable for Monday night) returns. And their loss in Milwaukee on Saturday began a stretch of four straight games (including another one vs. the Bucks) against teams that currently rank in the top 10 offensively.
The Heat played P.J. Tucker at center for a little more than eight minutes against Cleveland on Wednesday and were somehow outscored by 23 points (allowing 32 points on 16 defensive possessions) in those eight minutes. So Omer Yurtseven has been seeing regular burn and Udonis Haslem played six minutes in their win in Indiana on Friday. Markieff Morris (still out with the whiplash suffered in Denver on Nov. 8) would obviously help in Adebayo’s absence.
The Heat have yet to have a homestand of more than two games. Their first (a three-game stand) is this week, and it includes a couple of big Eastern Conference matchups.
Week 8: vs. MEM, vs. MIL, vs. CHI
Last Week: 11 ↑Boston Celtics
Pace: 97.7 (22) OffRtg: 108.3 (16) DefRtg: 106.5 (9) NetRtg: +1.8 (10)
The Celtics won ugly against the Sixers on Wednesday, with the two teams combining to score just 175 points on 185 total possessions. The Celtics’ starting backcourt — Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown — combined to shoot just 5-for-18, but the starting frontcourt — Al Horford and Robert Williams III — combined to block seven shots, including Georges Niang’s potential game-winning 3-pointer. (As noted above, it was Horford who really blew up that play.) It was the Celtics’ least efficient offensive performance in a game they won since the 2019 playoffs.
Things were much different over the first two games of the Celtics’ five-game trip. The Celtics and their opponents — Utah and Portland — combined to score 134 points per 100 possessions on Friday and Saturday. One night, the Celtics were allowing the Jazz to make 27 3s, failing to come with (quick) enough pressure when they switched ball screens. They shot 52%, made all 22 of their free throws, and committed just six turnovers, but that wasn’t enough, and it was their most efficient offensive performance in a game they lost since … well, the 2021 playoffs, when the Nets had the most efficient series ever.
The next night, the Celtics made 21 3s of their own, registering the seventh most efficient performance of the last 26 years (but only the second most efficient of the last four days), despite the absences of Brown and Horford. The two games of the trip were the first two times this season that Jayson Tatum has had double-digit free throw attempts, and he was 20-for-21 at the stripe.
The Celtics will face some tougher defenses — the Clippers and Suns rank in the top five defensively — later this week. Their win over the Lakers a couple of weeks ago was their most efficient performance of the season prior to Saturday.
Week 8: @ LAL, @ LAC, @ PHX
Last Week: 13 ↑Philadelphia 76ers
Pace: 96.2 (29) OffRtg: 109.6 (11) DefRtg: 108.1 (15) NetRtg: +1.4 (11)
As expected, the Sixers’ defense has been much improved with the return of Joel Embiid. The four games since he came back from COVID have been the team’s best four-game stretch of defense this season (100.0 points allowed per 100 possessions). The first three opponents had bottom-10 offenses at the time (the Celtics have since had one of the most efficient games in NBA history), but the Sixers kept the Hawks’ second-ranked offense in check on Friday.
Of course, things have been nearly as ugly on the other end of the floor, where Seth Curry has been the only Sixer shooting well. Tyrese Maxey has a pretty amazing 46/6 assist/turnover ratio over the last eight games, but has shot just 29% over the last five. And since he scored 42 points in his first game back, Embiid has shot just 17-for-56 (30%), including just 7-for-35 on 2-point shots outside the restricted area.
One of those seven makes was the game-winner in Atlanta on Friday. With ugly offense on both ends of the floor, each of the Sixers’ last four games have been within a point in the final minute. Two years ago (under a different coach), Embiid got a game-winning dunk by setting a pin-down screen for Tobias Harris and sealing the switching defender. They ran a similar action in Boston on Wednesday, but Harris couldn’t get Embiid the ball and Georges Niang’s game-winning 3-point attempt was blocked. Credit Al Horford (who was on that Sixers team two years ago and also fed a sealing Embiid on a game-winning possession) for the pressure defense that blew up the play.
The win in Atlanta was start of seven straight games against teams that currently rank in the top seven offensively, though the fourth-ranked Hornets will be without their starting backcourt on Monday and Wednesday.
Week 8: @ CHA, @ CHA, vs. UTA, vs. GSW
Last Week: 12 ↑Charlotte Hornets
Pace: 101.8 (2) OffRtg: 112.2 (4) DefRtg: 112.2 (29) NetRtg: -0.0 (17)
The Hornets have taken the Wizards’ formula from a few years ago – fast pace, efficient offense, terrible defense – and made it more fun. After seemingly making progress defensively before Thanksgiving, they’ve slid back to 29th in points allowed per 100 possessions, with the last five games having been their worst stretch on that end of the floor this season (125.1 per 100). But they’ve had the league’s No. 1 offense since Thanksgiving, with seven different Hornets averaging double-figures over those five games. All seven have shot much better than the league average on more than three 3-point attempts per night.
Unfortunately, the Hornets got hit by COVID this weekend, and they’ll be without LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Mason Plumlee and Jalen McDaniels for at least a few more games. But, even without their starting backcourt, the offense didn’t slow down as they completed a four-game trip in Atlanta on Sunday. In fact, the 130-127 victory is tied (with their 146-143 loss in Houston eight days earlier) for their most efficient performance of the season. Kelly Oubre Jr. (28 points, 6-for-10 from 3) probably didn’t need an excuse to let it fly.
They are back home for a two-game series with the Sixers, who have been struggling offensively (so something has got to give). The first of the two meetings is the second game of Charlotte’s sixth back-to-back this season. The Hornets are 0-5 in the second games of back-to-backs so far, having allowed 119.4 points per 100 possessions over the five losses. That would actually be an improvement on their last five games overall.
Week 8: vs. PHI, vs. PHI, vs. SAC
Last Week: 8 ↓Washington Wizards
Pace: 97.4 (23) OffRtg: 106.7 (23) DefRtg: 107.4 (13) NetRtg: -0.7 (19)
On the first possession of Cavs-Wizards on Friday, Jarrett Allen got an easy pick-and-roll dunk and Bradley Beal raised his hand in the air because he knew he should have been in the paint to meet Allen’s roll to the rim. But the Wizards’ weak-side defense wasn’t any better after that. Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyle Kuzma and Deni Avdija all failed to get between Allen (7-for-7 in the restricted area) and the rim when it was seemingly their job as the low man on the weak side. Montrezl Harrell didn’t make things any tougher on the Cavs, maximizing the size of the passing lane by keeping his arms at his sides as he defended the pick-and-roll.
Washington’s 11-5 start to the season was built on a top-five defense. But that defense has suffered some slippage and the last five games (117.1 points allowed per 100 possessions) have been the Wizards’ worst defensive stretch to date. Opponent 3-point shooting has a lot to do with the slide, but the Wizards have also rebounded worse, and they continue to force a paltry amount of turnovers. In fact, their opponent turnover rate (11.8 per 100 possessions) would be the second lowest of the last 25 years. Four of the five opponents currently rank in the bottom 12 offensively, so it’s not a strength-of-schedule issue.
The Wizards will face the league’s No. 1 offense (that of the Jazz) twice in the next two weeks. Before they get to the first of those two meetings, they need to take care of business against the Pacers and Pistons. With losses in New Orleans and San Antonio over the last two weeks, they’re 4-2 against the eight teams that are currently at least four games under .500.
Week 8: @ IND, @ DET, vs. UTA
Last Week: 10 ↓LA Clippers
Pace: 99.6 (11) OffRtg: 105.7 (26) DefRtg: 105.0 (4) NetRtg: +0.7 (13)
According to this year’s GM Survey, Ty Lue is the coach who makes the best in-game adjustments. Witness the play he drew up (with the Lakers trapping Paul George) to get a wide-open corner 3 for Luke Kennard with a little more than a minute to go on Friday. Though the Clips rank 26th offensively overall, only the Suns have been more efficient in the clutch, with LA having scored 96 points on 71 possessions with the score within five points in the last five minutes.
With some lineup changes (featuring a big frontline of Marcus Morris, Serge Ibaka and Ivica Zubac) and with Kennard averaging 15.7 points on an effective field goal percentage of 76%, the Clippers’ offense was strong overall (118 points scored per 100 possessions) for a three-game stretch that culminated with the win over the Lakers. But that’s the only win in their last five games, which has been their worst stretch of defense (116.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) this season.
It was a stretch of five games in seven nights, and the Clippers are now 0-4 in the second games of back-to-backs, having scored just 96.4 points per 100 possessions over the four losses. Their next back-to-back isn’t until after Christmas, the Blazers might be struggling more than they are, and they’ll have a rest advantage when they host the Celtics on Wednesday.
Week 8: @ POR, vs. BOS, vs. ORL
Last Week: 15 ↑Atlanta Hawks
Pace: 98.2 (18) OffRtg: 112.7 (2) DefRtg: 110.3 (24) NetRtg: +2.4 (9)
It looked like the Hawks were following the Bucks toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings, especially with their schedule remaining home-heavy for another two weeks. But they’ve lost their last three games at State Farm Arena, with all three coming in important Eastern Conference matchups (against New York, Philly and Charlotte). They had fourth quarter leads against both the Sixers and Hornets over the weekend, but they shot just 2-for-9 in the clutch on Friday, and they were unable get the stops they needed on Sunday. The Hawks did get a clutch win in Indiana last week, though Kevin Huerter got away with a foul on what could have been a game-winning fast break for the Pacers.
Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot has been the starter in place of Bogdan Bogdanovic (who’s out at least another week) and was also on the floor down the stretch of the Hawks’ three close games last week. He certainly wasn’t the only guy who missed big shots, but his 3 for the lead late in the Philly game was wide open. The Hawks rank second in 3-point percentage overall (37.8%), but 29th in clutch 3-point percentage (2-for-17, 12%), with Trae Young 0-for-6.
With the losses to the Sixers and Hornets, the Hawks are 2-5 in games played between the six East teams that have 11 or 12 losses total (sixth-11th place). They’ll have four more games within that group later this month, but they face a couple of different challenges this week. Their game in Minnesota on Monday is the second of a back-to-back (they’re 1-4 on back ends thus far), and they’ll host the first-place Nets on Friday.
Week 8: @ MIN, vs. BKN
Last Week: 23 ↑Memphis Grizzlies
Pace: 99.5 (12) OffRtg: 110.7 (6) DefRtg: 111.5 (27) NetRtg: -0.8 (20)
Without Ja Morant, the Grizzlies have turned to defense. What was the league’s 30th-ranked defense at the time of Morant’s knee injury has held the opponent under a point per possession in each of the four games since, having done so just three times in the 19 games prior. Improvement has come in the paint — where opponents have shot just 39.7% over the four games, down from 56% prior — as much as it’s come on the perimeter. The last three games are three of the six times the Grizzlies have allowed fewer than 25 points in the restricted area.
Jaren Jackson Jr. has the fifth best rim protection mark among 53 players who’ve defended at least 75 shots at the rim, with opponents having shot just 47.6% at the rim when he’s been there. He has shot 13-for-24 from 3-point range over the four games that Morant has missed, scoring 27 points in just 20 minutes on Thursday as the Grizz registered the biggest margin of victory in NBA history. Not only have they won all four games without their star, the Grizzlies haven’t trailed in any of the four.
Despite the winning streak, the 13-10 record and the 73-point win, the Grizzlies still have a negative point differential (-12) for the season. Statistically, the Heat have the best offense that the Grizz will have faced since Morant’s injury, but Miami will be without Bam Adebayo (and possibly Jimmy Butler) on Monday.
Week 8: @ MIA, vs. DAL, vs. LAL, vs. HOU
Last Week: 9 ↓Dallas Mavericks
Pace: 97.0 (26) OffRtg: 107.2 (20) DefRtg: 109.0 (18) NetRtg: -1.8 (23)
On Wednesday in New Orleans, the Mavs registered the highest effective field goal percentage in a game in NBA history (79.5%), shooting 22-for-23 in the restricted area, 17-for-26 on other 2-point shots, and 18-for-34 from beyond the arc. But that game was the most anomalous of anomalies last week, which was the first time since Jan. 2019 (Luka Doncic’s rookie season) that the Mavs have been held under a point per possession in three out of four games. They scored 139 points on just 95 possessions (146.3 per 100) in the win in New Orleans, but just 94.5 per 100 in their three losses, with one of those coming two nights later against the same, 28th-ranked Pelicans’ defense.
Kristaps Porzingis (left knee contusion) missed the second game against the Pelicans, and both Doncic (ankle soreness) and Porzingis missed their loss to Memphis on Saturday. But the Mavs have now lost seven of their last nine games, with the league’s 22nd-ranked offense over that stretch (despite one of the most efficient games in NBA history!). They continue to take care of the ball pretty well, but they now rank in the bottom 10 in effective field goal percentage (21st), free throw rate (22nd), and offensive rebounding percentage (25th).
The Mavs had Sunday and Monday to heal, but they have another back-to-back on Tuesday and Wednesday, having a rest disadvantage against the Grizzlies for the second time in five days.
Week 8: vs. BKN, @ MEM, @ IND, @ OKC
Last Week: 20 ↑Denver Nuggets
Pace: 96.1 (30) OffRtg: 108.2 (17) DefRtg: 108.2 (16) NetRtg: -0.0 (16)
Nikola Jokic makes everything better, and the Nuggets ended their six-game losing streak upon his return from a four-game absence. Their wins in Miami and New York last week were two of their four most efficient offensive games of the season, and Jokic led the way. He scored 32 points in less than 27 minutes against the Knicks, shooting 11-for-12 on 2-point shots. He’s now shooting 75.9% (ninth best among 72 players with at least 75 attempts) in the restricted area, 55.7% (fifth best among 76 players with at least 50 attempts) elsewhere in the paint, and 55.3% (seventh best among 76 players with at least 35 attempts) from mid-range.
Neither of those wins was close, and the Nuggets have had just eight games (tied for fewest in the league) that were within five points in the last five minutes. The most recent of those was Wednesday in Orlando, when they didn’t trail until the final two minutes and scored just four points on 10 clutch possessions, with Jokic (one of the most clutch players of the last few years) shooting 0-for-2 and committing a turnover with 43 seconds to go. Prior to that loss to the Magic, the Nuggets had won 30 of the last 31 games that they led by 15 points or more.
The Nuggets are just three games into a seven-game trip, visiting the Bulls on Monday. Chicago won in Denver during Jokic’s absence (Nov. 19) by scoring on five straight possessions down the stretch.
Week 8: @ CHI, @ NOP, @ SAS, @ SAS
Last Week: 17 ↓Minnesota Timberwolves
Pace: 100.1 (8) OffRtg: 106.4 (24) DefRtg: 105.5 (5) NetRtg: +0.9 (12)
The Wolves won seven of their final eight games in November, but they have the Western Conference’s toughest December schedule in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage (entering the month). And their December has begun with two losses that have taken them back below .500. Both games (in Washington and Brooklyn) were close in the fourth quarter, but the Wolves scored just 39 points on 46 fourth quarter possessions, with D’Angelo Russell shooting 2-for-11. Anthony Edwards ended a dry spell on Friday with a tough drive and score over LaMarcus Aldridge, but settled for a step-back 3 on the next possession. For the season, the Wolves are the only team that’s scored less than a point per possession in the fourth quarter.
The Brooklyn loss came without Karl-Anthony Towns, who suffered a hard fall at the end of what was his highest-scoring three-game stretch (30.3 points per game) of the season. Only Nikola Jokic (63.9%) has a higher effective field goal percentage than Towns (58.5%) among 86 players who’ve averaged at least 12 field goal attempts per game. But the Wolves have scored less than a point per possession in his 365 total minutes off the floor.
Their top-five defense has five games this month against teams that currently rank in the top five offensively, and three of those are this week. Their game against the second-ranked Hawks on Monday is their only rest-advantage game in December.
Week 8: vs. ATL, vs. UTA, vs. CLE, @ POR
Last Week: 14 ↓New York Knicks
Pace: 97.0 (25) OffRtg: 108.6 (14) DefRtg: 109.8 (23) NetRtg: -1.2 (21)
The Knicks have a new starting lineup, with Alec Burks replacing Kemba Walker. But with RJ Barrett missing 1 1/2 of their three games, the new lineup allowed 61 points on 44 just defensive possessions last week. Overall, the three games with Walker out of the rotation were three of the Knicks’ five worst defensive games of the season (119 or more points allowed per 100 possessions). With the Grizzlies having seen improvement over the last few games, the Knicks are now the team that’s seen the biggest jump in points allowed per 100 possessions (+2.0) from last season. Opponent 3-point percentage has been a big part of that, but so has the league’s ninth biggest drop in defensive rebounding percentage.
Despite the defensive struggles, the Knicks hung close with the Nets and Bulls last week. Julius Randle had his best stretch of offense in a while, scoring more points in the paint over the last three games (56) than he had over his previous nine (46). But he had a costly technical foul late in the game in Brooklyn and an even costlier turnover in the final minute against Chicago. The Knicks are 7-7 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes with the league’s 27th-ranked clutch defense (119.4 points allowed per 100 possessions).
The Knicks have played 13 of their 23 games at Madison Square Garden, where they’re just 5-8. They’ve yet to have a road trip of more than two games, and their first begins Tuesday in San Antonio.
Week 8: @ SAS, @ IND, @ TOR, vs. MIL
Last Week: 19 ↓Los Angeles Lakers
Pace: 101.4 (3) OffRtg: 106.9 (22) DefRtg: 108.6 (17) NetRtg: -1.7 (22)
The Lakers have slowed down a bit. The last five games have been their slowest-paced five-game stretch of the season (97.8 possessions per 48 minutes), and the pace has dropped more in Russell Westbrook’s minutes on the floor than it has in his minutes off the floor. You would think that they’d struggle offensively at a slower pace, but it’s also been their best five-game stretch of offense this season (113.6 points scored per 100 possessions), with fewer turnovers and better (though not less frequent) shooting at the rim. Anthony Davis missed the first game of the five-game stretch, but upon returning, has scored at least 16 points in the paint in four straight games for the first time since he led the Pelicans (averaging 35.6 points per game total) to a 10-game winning streak in early 2018.
The Lakers’ 115 points on 93 possessions on Friday was the second most efficient game any team has had against the Clippers’ fourth-ranked defense this season. Alas, the Clippers’ 119 on 94 was also the second most efficient game any team has had against the Lakers, who protected the rim (something they haven’t done well this season), but forced just 10 turnovers and allowed Clippers not named Paul George to shoot 16-for-28 from 3-point range.
With the loss to the Clippers, the Lakers have the worst record (1-3) in games played between the seven West teams that are within three games of .500. The one win came in Week 1 against the team — the Grizzlies — that now has the best record within that group (6-3). The Lakers will play in Memphis twice this month, and they’ll have a rest advantage for the first of those two games (Thursday).
Week 8: vs. BOS, @ MEM, @ OKC, vs. ORL
Last Week: 22 ↑Toronto Raptors
Pace: 96.2 (28) OffRtg: 109.0 (13) DefRtg: 109.2 (20) NetRtg: -0.2 (18)
Maybe the Raptors can win at home, and maybe they can still play defense too. The Raps ranked last defensively in the month of November, but Games 2-4 in their seven-game homestand have been their best stretch of defense (less than a point per possession allowed) since the first three games of the season, and two of the three games have come against teams that rank in the top 10 offensively. The Bucks were playing the second game of a back-to-back without Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday, but the end of the champs’ eight-game winning streak came with some vintage Raps rotations and active hands. On Sunday, the Raptors held the Wizards to just 12 points on 25 first-quarter possessions and never led by less than 10 after that.
Pascal Siakam totaled a team-high 51 points in the two wins. He’s just 5-for-22 from 3-point range over the last six games and it would be good for him to get some more layups and dunks in transition, but he seems to be gaining a rhythm from mid-range. He’s taken 48% of his shots, the 17th highest rate among 240 players with at least 100 field goal attempts (and the highest rate of his career), between the restricted area and the 3-point line, and he’s 16-for-31 (52%) on those shots over the last three games, having seized on some favorable matchups.
As we enter Week 8, the Knicks and Raptors are both below the Play-In Tournament group in the East. They’ll meet for the second time on Friday, with Toronto having won the first meeting behind a career-high 36 points from OG Anunoby, who doesn’t seem to be close to returning from his hip injury.
Week 8: vs. OKC, vs. NYK
Last Week: 18 ↓Portland Trail Blazers
Pace: 98.7 (17) OffRtg: 110.7 (5) DefRtg: 113.3 (30) NetRtg: -2.6 (24)
As noted above, teams with a rest advantage were 8-1 over the last four days. The one loss was the game in which the rested Blazers allowed the Celtics (who ranked 23rd offensively after losing in Utah the night before) to score 145 points on 97 possessions, the seventh most efficient performance for any team in the 26 seasons for which we have play-by-play data. The Blazers made big changes to their defense this season and they’re right back at the bottom of the league in points allowed per 100 possessions. Their opponent effective field goal percentage (55.8%) would be the fourth worst mark in NBA history.
The Boston loss was the third game in a stretch where the Blazers are playing 15 of 19 at home. But, with Damian Lillard out (his abdominal tendinopathy will be re-evaluated this week), their 10-1 home record has become 10-3, with a lot of good teams making their way to the Moda Center in the next 12 days. Without Lillard, the Blazers were relying on Anfernee Simons, who sprained his ankle in the first half of their loss to the Spurs on Thursday, leaving Dennis Smith Jr. to start alongside CJ McCollum in the backcourt.
When you’re missing two of your five leading scorers, it would be good to have a solid defense to keep you in games. Alas …
Week 8: vs. LAC, @ GSW, vs. MIN
Last Week: 26 ↑San Antonio Spurs
Pace: 100.4 (5) OffRtg: 106.9 (21) DefRtg: 106.7 (10) NetRtg: +0.2 (15)
After winning just four of their first 17 games, the Spurs have won four of their last four, with three of the four having come against teams with winning records. The highlight, of course, was Saturday night in San Francisco. That was the Warriors’ first home loss since Oct. 28 and the second time in nine days the Spurs blew a lead of more than 20 points, only to come back in clutch time. Once again, Derrick White hit the go-ahead shot. And once again, Dejounte Murray followed that up with a critical bucket of his own.
The winning streak has been the Spurs’ best stretch of defense this season (97.7 points allowed per 100 possessions), and has pushed them back into the top 10 on that end of the floor. Their when-everybody’s-healthy starting lineup has played just seven games together, but has allowed less than a point per possession in its 83 total minutes.
The Spurs certainly benefited from the Warriors having played a big game against Phoenix the night before. San Antonio is the only team that’s played only one back-to-back (all but the Rockets and Sixers have played at least three), and the only one was in Week 1 (Oct. 22 and 23). Remuneration begins now. The Spurs will play eight back-to-backs over the next six weeks, with two of those part of a five-game Week 8.
Week 8: @ PHX, vs. NYK, vs. DEN, vs. DEN, vs. NOP
Last Week: 21 ↓Indiana Pacers
Pace: 97.9 (21) OffRtg: 108.1 (18) DefRtg: 107.8 (14) NetRtg: +0.3 (14)
The Pacers are playing nine of 10 at home, but they’re just 1-5 on that stretch so far, in part because they continue to struggle in close games. Malcolm Brogdon has scored 1.04 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, the third best mark among 50 players with at least 100 ball-handler possessions, according to Synergy play-type tracking. But his 0.80 points per possession on isolations ranks 47 among 64 players with at least 25 iso possessions. So the Wolves were right to switch a ball-screen for Brogdon in the final minute on Monday and, when they did, the Pacers didn’t have a second option. Two nights later, they got hosed when a foul wasn’t called on Chris Duarte’s fast-break layup for the lead.
At 9-16 (.360), the Pacers still have *a positive point differential (+16 for the season), which is rather amazing. But close-game struggles aren’t the only reason they’ve lost four straight. They’ve shot just 26% from 3-point range over the losing streak and their defense has suffered without Justin Holiday, who’s missed the last two games in health and safety protocols. T.J. McConnell will be out “weeks” with a wrist injury.
* The lowest winning percentage for a team with a positive point differential in NBA history belongs to the 1976-77 Suns, who were 34-48 (.415). The Spurs (8-13, .381, +1) are also “beating” that mark this season.
The Pacers will have a rest advantage in each of their next two games, with Washington and New York each having played the night before. They’re 1-1 in rest-advantage games thus far, with the win (two weeks ago in Chicago) having been their biggest margin of victory this season.
Week 8: vs. WAS, vs. NYK, vs. DAL
Last Week: 24 ↓Sacramento Kings
Pace: 100.0 (9) OffRtg: 108.5 (15) DefRtg: 111.1 (25) NetRtg: -2.6 (25)
The Kings got the Clippers without Paul George on Wednesday and on the second night of a back-to-back on Saturday. But they’ll take what they can get, and with the two wins, they’re 4-3 under Alvin Gentry, even though they’ve been worse statistically (minus-5.1 points per 100 possessions) than they were under Luke Walton (6-11, minus-1.5). Two losses by 25 points or more will do that to you.
One difference under Gentry is De’Aaron Fox’s time of possession, which is down from 6.4 minutes per game under Walton to 5.8 per game over the last seven. Tyrese Haliburton (from 3.8 to 4.6) has been the beneficiary and has averaged 6.9 assists over the seven games, with 11 (and zero turnovers) on Wednesday in L.A. The Kings have still scored just 96 points per 100 possessions in 236 total minutes with Haliburton on the floor without Fox. And they’ve been without Harrison Barnes for the last five games and without Maurice Harkless for the last four. Terence Davis has taken advantage, totaling 51 points (on an effective field goal percentage of 78%) in the two wins over the Clips.
The Kings are in the middle of their first three-day break of the season. With the Blazers really struggling (and Sacramento having won the first two head-to-head meetings) a Play-In Tournament spot could be up for grabs, though the Kings will play their next five games against the Eastern Conference.
Week 8: vs. ORL, @ CHA, @ CLE
Last Week: 29 ↑Houston Rockets
Pace: 102.1 (1) OffRtg: 102.6 (27) DefRtg: 109.0 (19) NetRtg: -6.4 (27)
Break up the Rockets! They’ve won six straight games, with the league’s fourth-ranked offense (118.0 points scored per 100 possessions) over that stretch. Christian Wood (19.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per game) has led the way, but is just one of four Rockets who have averaged at least 15 points on an effective field goal percentage of 60% or better over the six games. The Rockets have assisted on 69% percentage of their buckets, the league’s second highest rate over that stretch and up from just 56% (25th) prior.
One of the other three is Jae’Sean Tate, who did just about everything (32 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and five blocks) in their win in Oklahoma City on Wednesday. Ten of his 11 buckets came in the paint and with the Rockets up one in the final minute, they got the ball to him at the elbow and he went straight to work against Darius Bazley. Of course, with veterans Eric Gordon (24 points and the game-winner against Orlando on Friday), Danuel House Jr, D.J. Augustin and Daniel Theis all contributing to the winning streak, you have to wonder why John Wall can’t get in on the action.
The streak began with wins against the Bulls and Hornets, so it’s not like the Rockets have just beaten other teams at the bottom of the standings. But with the last four wins having come against the Thunder (x2), Magic and Pelicans, visits from Brooklyn and Milwaukee this week will make things a little more interesting.
Week 8: vs. BKN, vs. MIL, @ MEM
Last Week: 27New Orleans Pelicans
Pace: 97.9 (20) OffRtg: 105.8 (25) DefRtg: 112.1 (28) NetRtg: -6.3 (26)
Jonas Valanciunas recent game log is fodder for the hot hand theory, the law of averages, or both. The Pelicans’ big man had missed 10 straight 3-point attempts entering their game in LA last Monday, but proceeded to shoot 7-for-7 from beyond the arc in the first half. And since then, he’s 0-for-8, though still fourth in the league at 46.2% for the season. Tough luck for the Clippers, though the Pelicans also doubled them up in the paint (66-32) in a comfortable win on Monday.
New Orleans was the team that got scorched two nights later, with Dallas registering the highest effective field goal percentage in NBA history (79.5%). But after a 3-16 start to the season, the Pelicans have won four of their last seven games, ranking 10th offensively (114.1 points scored per 100 possessions) over that stretch. They haven’t shot particularly well or gone to the line a ton, but they rank in the top five in both turnover rate (12.1 per 100 possessions) and offensive rebounding percentage (32.5%) over the last 12 days. Willy Hernangomez (15 offensive boards in 39 minutes in Dallas and Houston over the weekend) has made a huge impact in regard to the latter.
The Pelicans’ schedule has been road-heavy and will continue to be so until after Christmas, but they have a couple of days off before they host the Nuggets on Wednesday.
Week 8: vs. DEN, vs. DET, @ SAS
Last Week: 30 ↑Orlando Magic
Pace: 99.1 (15) OffRtg: 101.6 (28) DefRtg: 111.4 (26) NetRtg: -9.8 (29)
On Monday, the Nuggets won in Miami, ending a six-game losing streak with the return of Nikola Jokic from a four-game absence. Two nights later, the Nuggets lost in Orlando, with the Magic ending a seven-game losing streak with the return of Cole Anthony from a six-game absence. His on-off differential (the Magic have been 19.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor) isn’t as big as that of the MVP (27.2), but the Magic are 5-19, and they’ve been outscored by just seven points in Anthony’s 619 minutes on the floor.
All three of the Magic’s games last week were within five points in the last five minutes, and all three were determined by clutch 3-point shooting. Orlando opponents are now an amazing 0-for-19 on clutch 3s this season, and Franz Wagner gave them their first lead against Denver by backing up to a 3 on a pick-and-roll. But Wagner also missed an ambitious 3 for the lead two nights earlier in Philly and Anthony’s 3 for the win in Houston on Friday (a pretty good look given the circumstances) was off the mark. Anthony is now 8-for-9 on clutch 2s, 8-for-9 on clutch free throws, and 0-for-6 on clutch 3s.
The Magic will be without Jalen Suggs (fractured right thumb) for a while. Their new starting lineup (with Gary Harris in Suggs’ place) has been almost as good (plus-8.6 points per 100 possessions) as the original group (plus-11.4), registering a plus-17 in a little less than 20 minutes on Friday. But the Magic were outscored by 21 points in 28 minutes with at least one reserve on the floor. Statistically, their bench remains the worst in the NBA.
Week 8: @ GSW, @ SAC, @ LAC, @ LAL
Last Week: 25 ↓Oklahoma City Thunder
Pace: 99.1 (14) OffRtg: 99.1 (30) DefRtg: 109.2 (21) NetRtg: -10.1 (30)
The Thunder’s first three-day break of the season was Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so they got extra time to wallow in the worst margin of defeat in NBA history (a 152-79 loss in Memphis). The Grizzlies’ 152 points came on just 98 possessions, making it the most efficient performance for any team in 23 1/2 years. The OKC defense had been solid, but dropped from 13th (through Wednesday) to 20th in the league (through Thursday) in 48 minutes.
It really begun to show some slippage the night before, when the Thunder dropped the second of two straight games against Houston. They allowed the Rockets to score 41 points on 25 possessions in the fourth quarter, with nine of their 13 field goals coming in the restricted area. The Thunder were late with help from the weak side, they didn’t step in front of drives, they failed to make the next rotation, and they got caught ball-watching in what was a very winnable game.
They’ll have another very winnable game on Monday. The Thunder and Pistons take matching eight-game losing streaks (tied for the third longest this season) into their game in Detroit, and if the Thunder can get some stops against the Pistons’ 29th-ranked offense, they can climb to 29th themselves.
Week 8: @ DET, @ TOR, vs. LAL, vs. DAL
Last Week: 28 ↓Detroit Pistons
Pace: 98.9 (16) OffRtg: 100.0 (29) DefRtg: 109.7 (22) NetRtg: -9.7 (28)
Cade Cunningham’s offense continues to progress. His career-high 26 points in Portland on Tuesday included a lefty jump hook from the dotted circle and two nights later, he paid tribute to Chris Paul by scoring against him with a snake dribble to the right side of the lane. The Pistons have lost eight straight games, but Cunningham is a plus-5 over the last four, with the team having scored 107.2 points per 100 possessions in his 127 minutes on the floor and just 79.7 in his 65 minutes on the bench.
The Pistons (0-12) are one of two teams – the Thunder (0-11) are the other – that don’t have a win against one of the 13 teams that’s currently over .500, but (thanks to a 17-0 run in the third quarter) they did keep the Suns’ starters on the floor until the final buzzer on Thursday, with Phoenix probably hoping to get some rest before their rematch with the Warriors. Jerami Grant scored 34 points against the league’s third-ranked defense, getting to the line for 14 attempts. With a free throw rate of 38.7 attempts per 100 shots from the field (10th highest among 132 players with at least 200 field goal attempts) and shooting 84% from the line, he ranks eighth in made free throws per game (5.2). The only players ahead of him are former MVPs, MVP candidates, and Harrison Barnes.
The Pistons are 2-0 against the other four teams that are at least nine games under .500, having beat the Magic and the Rockets. They’ll face the other two — Oklahoma City and New Orleans — for the first time this week.
Week 8: vs. OKC, vs. WAS, @ NOP, vs. BKN