With the Christmas season upon us, there's a non-zero chance you're tuning into the NBA for the first time in the 2016-17 season. And if that's the case, let me be the first to welcome you to what might be the greatest regular season in basketball history.
So whether you're surrounding yourself with loved ones or spending this holiday getting some much needed (solo) rest and relaxation, grab your favorite warm beverage and curl up with the second-to-last NBA power rankings of 2016, where we're far more worried about a thumb injury to J.R. Smith than Blake Griffin's recent surgery.
Philadelphia 76ers (previous ranking: 29)
Coach Brett Brown has called the Sixers' recent struggles the most challenging stretch in his time in Philadelphia, which is truly saying something. For Brown's sake (and the Sixers'), here's hoping the team can come to some sort of resolution with its big-man logjam sooner rather than later.
Brooklyn Nets (26)
Despite a double-digit loss in the end, the Nets played the Warriors tough on Thursday, even taking a lead into halftime. How did Brooklyn manage such a feat? The Nets are the only team in the NBA playing even faster than the Warriors. Conventional wisdom is that when you're a bad team, you want to slow down the game to limit the number of possessions and try to squeeze out a win in the margins, but conventional wisdom often turns out to be wrong.
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Dallas Mavericks (30)
Dirk Nowitzki's return from a sore Achilles is just around the corner, but Rick Carlisle told reporters this week not to get too excited about the Big German's comeback. Carlisle said Nowitzki will likely only play about 20 minutes per game at first, and even he isn't sure what level of production Dirk will provide once he is back on the court.
New Orleans Pelicans (25)
Despite a rough 1-3 stretch against stiff competition over the past week, the Pelicans are in prime position to make up some ground in the playoff hunt with a four-game homestand. The only downside: New Orleans is just 6-10 this season at Smoothie King Arena, including a recent loss to the Thunder.
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Minnesota Timberwolves (28)
Tom Thibodeau might seem like an old-school coach. In reality, though, he's a huge fan of analytics, according to a recent story on the Wolves coach. He can't get enough information and wants to know everything about his team. Unfortunately, all the data in the world hasn't translated to wins (yet) in Minnesota.
Los Angeles Lakers (23)
The wheels have fallen off completely in Los Angeles, as a new injury seems to pop up every week and the Lakers are reeling on the court. The question becomes whether the team will try to package some of its young players in a trade for a superstar. According to Luke Walton, though, the Lakers aren't going to panic. This core group of players is together for the long haul.
Miami Heat (20)
The Heat reportedly have been investigating Goran Dragic trades for most of the season, with teams reportedly low-balling Miami for the time being. Moving on from Dragic would be the final step in the Heat fully embracing a rebuild around Hassan Whiteside and Justise Winslow -- especially if Pat Riley can recoup one of the first-round picks he coughed up to acquire Dragic in the first place.
Orlando Magic (24)
Serge Ibaka has had a quiet career renaissance this year in Orlando, and we couldn't be happier for the former Thunder big man. The only down side is that his resurgence is coming at the expense of Aaron Gordon, who has had to play out of position at small forward rather than his natural spot at the 4.
Mitchell LeffGetty Images
Portland Trail Blazers (17)
Portland's collapse from a team that pushed the Warriors in a playoff series to a squad that's in danger of landing in the lottery has been one of the most surprising stories of this young season. Damian Lillard called out his team for their weak play earlier this week. Their response? Two embarrassing losses, including an upset in the clutch by the lowly Dallas Mavericks. That's not great.
Atlanta Hawks (18)
As if things weren't bad enough in Atlanta after the Hawks' hot start, now Dwight Howard's back is acting up. Howard's health was one of the few bright spots for the Hawks since their season turned south; if the big man is experiencing back problems, this season in Atlanta could be over far sooner than we expected.
Getty ImagesKevin C. Cox
Denver Nuggets (21)
The Nuggets are in the news for reasons that have nothing to do with anyone still on the team, which is about the most fitting thing I can think of for a Denver team that consistently flies so far under the radar they're practically traveling underground. In fact, I'd wager a not-insignificant portion of Nuggets fans thought George Karl was still the coach of the team.
Sacramento Kings (22)
DeMarcus Cousins gave us one of the most entertaining moments of the year with his "ejection that wasn't" earlier this week, and we thank him for that. On the other hand, you have to wonder if his continued high-profile incidents might grease the wheel for a trade to send Boogie elsewhere.
Detroit Pistons (13)
It's easy to rise and fall with a bad week when you're sitting in the middle of the pack, and boy oh boy did the Pistons have a bad week. Stan Van Gundy wasn't shy about questioning his team's effort, naturally, and he definitely didn't want to hear talk about his team holding a "players only" meeting. Good times in Detroit, my friends. Good times.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY SportsTim Fuller
Chicago Bulls (15)
The question in Chicago was always whether the Bulls would be able to keep playing on a razor's edge. The answer: Dwyane Wade's squad is already running out of gas before the New Year, and Wade knows it. He told reporters this week that Chicago has to make the most of smart movement off the ball, cuts at the right time and sharing the rock. Otherwise, the lack of spacing dooms this team.
He's right, of course, but identifying the problem and finding a solution are two very different things.
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY SportsMike Dinovo
Washington Wizards (19)
Usually when a team experiences a big turnaround, you can point to one or two facets of the game that have spurred such improvement. Right now, though, the Wizards are doing everything better than they were at the start of the season. John Wall diagnosed it: They're aggressive on offense, working as a team on defense, and the bench unit has gone from liability to asset almost overnight, thanks to a few tweaks to the rotation from Scott Brooks. Look out, Eastern Conference.
Indiana Pacers (16)
There are two big trends working in Indiana's favor over the past week or so. First, Jeff Teague is playing like the All-Star point guard he was in Atlanta, helping to turbocharge the Pacers offense. Second, Indiana is a much better defensive team with Monta Ellis sidelined with an injured groin. When he returns, coach Nate McMillan might have to make the tough decision to bring Ellis off the bench.
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Milwaukee Bucks (14)
The Bucks were competitive in two games against the Cavs this week, but LeBron James reportedly wasn't impressed. According to ESPN.com, LeBron felt like Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo turned it up a notch against Cleveland, and the King wondered why the young Bucks don't always play like that.
So there you go, Milwaukee -- time to accept LeBron's challenge.
New York Knicks (10)
Derrick Rose continues to sound like someone who plans to be in New York for the rest of his career -- although to be honest, I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing for the Knicks. He told reporters recently that he plans to bring back all the fans who deserted the Garden during New York's lean years.
I appreciate Rose's enthusiasm, but Derrick, let's be honest: If anyone is going to do that, it's Kristaps.
Memphis Grizzlies (8)
Coach David Fizdale had a sound explanation for why Mike Conley's return actually knocked the Grizzlies off track this week: He probably came back a little too early, and the team had to adjust to his level of play as he adjusted to being back on the court. Now that Conley looks fine once more, we're anxious to see if Memphis can keep defying the odds by winning close game after close game at the buzzer.
Charlotte Hornets (11)
The Hornets are playing fine basketball, as shown by their placement in the top ten, but that's not good enough for coach Steve Clifford. This week, he challenged his team to take the next step over the holiday season and prove that they're really contenders in the Eastern Conference. Improved play for Nicolas Batum would go a long way toward Charlotte making such a definitive statement.
Oklahoma City Thunder (9)
Russell Westbrook is so good and so dominant that we're having to make up stats to define his greatness these days. The latest: Westbrook has more games with 40 points and 10 rebounds than every other point guard COMBINED in the past 30 years.
Oh, and by the way -- yes, he's still averaging a triple-double over a third of the way through the season.
Utah Jazz (7)
What did we learn from the Warriors' epic beatdown of the Jazz this week? Utah doesn't stand a chance against Golden State without a healthy George Hill, for starters. That's an obvious statement, but Hill's absence illustrated the Jazz's one real problem this year: a lack of depth beyond the starters. In another season or two, Utah will be a real problem in the West.
Boston Celtics (12)
With four straight wins -- thanks in large part to the continued All-Star-caliber play of Isaiah Thomas -- the Celtics are the biggest risers in this week's power rankings. More important, Boston once again looks like it could be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference.
However, before the Celtics can make that claim, they still have to topple one more foe.
Los Angeles Clippers (5)
The Clippers have been there and done that when it comes to playing without Blake Griffin, as we saw in L.A.'s impressive win over the Spurs on Thursday night. They'll be just fine with Griffin on the sidelines for a few weeks to recuperate from arthroscopic surgery on his knee.
San Antonio Spurs (3)
A loss to the Blake Griffin-less Clippers is bad news for the Spurs, but not because of the result of the game. San Antonio had been flying under the radar with 19 wins in its past 21 games prior to Thursday's defeat in Los Angeles; falling to the Clippers will bring undue attention to the Spurs headed into the holiday season, as they have to answer questions about why they lost to an underpowered Clips team.
My two cents: These things happen. Moreover, the Clippers were motivated to come out and show they can still win without Griffin. I still believe the Spurs are the superior team, particularly with Griffin sidelined, so I'm putting San Antonio over L.A. this week.
Cleveland Cavaliers (2)
The worry with J.R. Smith breaking his thumb isn't that the Cavs will tumble in the East. They don't need Swish to claim home-court advantage in the conference, after all. The worry is that Smith's absence will have a deleterious effect on the rest of the squad.
Call it trickle-down wear-and-tear, as guys like Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye try to pick up the slack. Their increased workload in December and January could spell problems in June if they're not able to rest up during the regular season.
I know we're only talking about a few minutes here and there, but when you're trying to take down the Warriors, every advantage -- or disadvantage -- matters.
Toronto Raptors (6)
The Raptors keep producing at a historic rate offensively, but Dwane Casey is still way more concerned with his team's defense. The way he sees it, Toronto can win in the regular season with offense alone; if the Raptors want to be a real Finals contender, they have to establish an identity on both ends of the court: “We can’t be up and down, up and down defensively,” Casey said. “We have to make sure we create those defensive habits and maintain them over a longer stretch of time.”
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY SportTom Szczerbowski
Houston Rockets (4)
The Rockets gave James Harden an extension this summer, and if they have their druthers, they'll give him another one as soon as possible. According to a recent report, Houston was the team that spearheaded the new "designated veteran" clause in the new CBA so that they can sign Harden from now until Armageddon. That Daryl Morey is always one step ahead of everyone else.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY SportsTroy Taormina
Golden State Warriors (1)
The only problem the Warriors had earlier this season was their defense, and Golden State went ahead and erased that flaw in the team's game before the end of the calendar year. According to coach Steve Kerr, that's right on schedule for the Warriors:
“You have to go through that early part of the year where you’re figuring things out, and players have to get comfortable with one another — the schemes and the terminology,” Kerr said. “Our defense was not very good. It’s dramatically improved, but this is what we expected.”
The biggest turnaround? Draymond Green quickly learned how to make up for the absence of Andrew Bogut, who used to erase any wayward drives to the rim by an opposing ballhandler who managed to get past Golden State's perimeter defense. Now, Green's essentially playing "free safety," chasing down and snuffing out any threat, anywhere on the court.