NBA power rankings: Thunder warning
Here’s a bombshell headline: "The league now belongs to Kevin Durant." Well, for right now at least, it absolutely does. Durant is averaging 31.3 points on 51 percent shooting, 7.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game. His team is playing the league’s best basketball even without superstar Russell Westbrook.
There are moments, and often times you don’t realize them until years afterward, when eras shift and the league changes hands. Maybe we’re watching that moment right now with Durant and LeBron James? Or, maybe the Heat will eventually just rally for a third consecutive title and none of this means anything. Only time will tell.
Note: NBA rankings are updated each week before Wednesday’s games.
Follow the NBA season through the lens of Jimmy Spencer on Twitter at @JimmySpencerNBA.
Kevin Durant can’t be stopped. The current MVP frontrunner hit another game winner on Monday and extended his streak of 30-or-more points to 11 games. That’s the longest run in more than a decade since Tracy McGrady hit 14 consecutive games in 2003. Could this be when the league shifts into Durant’s hands? If he wins a title, it may be seen as that.
There’s been so much made of the Pacers’ overtaking of the East, that it’s important to remember the NBA crown isn’t awarded just for finally toppling the defending-champion Heat. The West is as loaded as ever. After moving back to the top of the rankings last week, Indy lost twice in a five-game Western Conference trip to Phoenix and in Denver. Not too much to worry about here though, as Indy is still 13-4 against the West.
Let’s be real for a moment: The Heat’s recent win over the Spurs is proof that January basketball is meaningless for elite teams. There was little competitiveness in a game that serves as a preseason matchup for two teams with postseasons all but guaranteed. The Heat saw the return of Dwyane Wade, who had missed four consecutive games, and cruised past the injured Spurs. And no one cared.
Portland has to be running on empty as it closes out January. The Blazers just played their eighth game in 12 days, which might help explain the losses in four of their last six games — and that all of those teams are .500 and better. Still, an 18-point home loss to the Memphis Grizzlies even after a night off is worrisome.
The Clippers are showing surprising depth since Chris Paul’s injury. They’re 9-3 without their superstar, and Blake Griffin is carrying quite a load. He is averaging 25.5 points on 56 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds and 4.9 assists since Paul went down. If he can learn to play like a superstar on his own, it stands to reason he may show greater confidence and leadership when Paul returns.
Dwight Howard wasn’t voted as an All-Star, James Harden has already missed seven games and Omer Asik has only played in 17 games, averaging just 18.3 minutes. If you knew those facts coming out of the offseason, it may have been cause for concern. Yet, here are the Rockets with 30 wins and it’s not even February. Houston is also 3-0 against San Antonio this season.
Gauging the Spurs based off their January success would be like judging a musician for what he or she does in sound check. But it is a bit alarming the Spurs are still just 1-11 against the league’s top-seven winning percentages. A dominating 32-1 record against all other teams is impressive, but is this Spurs team still built to win in the postseason? I think we all know that answer remains a yes. Let them get healthy before making any judgment.
Phoenix has already surpassed last year’s win total (25), and it’s still January. Jeff Hornacek should collect his Coach of the Year award at the All-Star Game. The Suns, even without Eric Bledsoe right now, are proving they deserve to remain in the playoffs conversation, as they move ahead of the Warriors in the West standings. The win over the Pacers was another reminder that Phoenix isn’t backing down.
Which team would be scarier to face in the postseason: The Warriors, Suns, Rockets or Grizzlies? Postseason-tough Memphis certainly makes it an interesting question. With Marc Gasol back, the Griz have won six of their last seven games and just rolled the Trail Blazers. They’re now nipping on the Warriors’ and Mavericks’ heels in the playoff hunt.
Golden State is trending the wrong way as they celebrate Stephen Curry — the team’s first All-Star starter since Latrell Sprewell in 1995. The Warriors have lost six of their last nine games, struggling defensively and relying far too much on the scoring of Curry. Even more alarming is that the Warriors are 12-16 against teams .500 or better.
That Feb. 20 trade deadline is approaching, and it will be interesting to see what the Raptors do. As stated last week, Kyle Lowry is playing like an All-Star. But he’s also a free agent on a team that was supposed to tank instead of contend for first-round home-court advantage. If GM Masai Ujiri trades Lowry, he may need to bring in players who can continue to fuel the Raptors into the playoffs — and help them long term.
Every time Shawn Marion and Vince Carter take the court together, rims born around 1997 start having horrible flashbacks. It’s no longer the dunks they fear, however. Now, it’s just the 40.7 percent shooting of Carter. (They don’t fear Marion or his 47 percent shooting at all.)
The Nets are steadily climbing the rankings. It’s good to see that Jason Kidd smirk again, the one that’s wiping away the smirks from all other faces. The Nets are 10-2 in 2014 and perhaps things are turning around at the right time. Three of Brooklyn’s next four games offer a tough test: Oklahoma City, Indiana and San Antonio. If things keep going this way, maybe Jay-Z will decide it’s more fun to be a Nets owner than negotiating other people’s contracts.
John Wall has said that being left off the USA Basketball national team pool will motivate him to prove people wrong. Hopefully Bradley Beal, who made the list at a less-populated position, alternately doesn’t lose all motivation. Kidding. The road win at Golden State provides motivation for all.
The Timberwolves are pushing Western Conference coaches to send center Nikola Pekovic to his first All-Star Game. They’re calling him and Kevin Love the "Bruise Brothers." I don’t think they meant "bruised" brothers. Fingers crossed Pekovic isn’t sitting for an extended period. He is suffering from a right ankle injury, bursitis that will keep him out for at least 7-to-10 days before further evaluation. Pekovic is averaging 20.3 points and 9.7 rebounds in the Wolves’ last 20 games.
Credit Mike Budenholzer for holding things together in Atlanta after the loss of Al Horford. The Hawks went 16-13 with Horford and are now 7-8 in the 15 games without him. The team statistics for Atlanta have held somewhat steady, with similar averages in scoring and only a slight drop off defensively.
The two-faced Nuggets are never a good bet in Vegas. From game to game, they’re completely unpredictable. The league’s streakiest team lost at home against the Cavs before losing a pair of road games in Phoenix and Portland. Then boom, they win at home against the league-best Pacers and win in Sacramento. Four consecutive upcoming home games could mean another streak in the right direction for Denver.
Carmelo Anthony wants to win a championship. He calls it the sole achievement he seeks. If that’s the case, does it make sense for him to return to a team that’s pacing to win less than 35 games? Maybe. Not many other teams can offer a greater guarantee of a title plus heavy dollars in what will likely be his final max contract. And, come on, the Knicks have won three straight.
The season limps along. The forever short-handed Bulls continue to have a rough go. But only Bulls fans too young to remember anything from 1998 or earlier will ever be caught saying: "Man, nothing ever works out for us."
The stat line Anthony Davis put up on Tuesday night (30 points, eight blocks and seven rebounds) could provide enough optimism to keep Pelicans fans happy until their next big moment: The draft lottery.
Charlotte is 1-7 against Southeast division counterparts and is eight games under .500. They’re also still, miraculously, clinging to the No. 8 seed while pacing toward just 32 wins. If that happens, David Stern should retire (oh, wait).
This point needs to beaten into the ground: It’s not Josh Smith’s fault. Smith is the same player he’s always been, and now he’s out of position in Detroit. He has always taken bad shots. He will make them some nights though, he’ll be great in transition, and he can defend the perimeter. The problem in Detroit is heavier: The pieces don’t fit. Looks for some trade-deadline shakeups.
No, Gordon Hayward isn’t the type of guy who can lead the Jazz into contention. But he can certainly be a second, or third, option on a playoff team. He will need to stay healthy though. He’s played just six January games, but he is shooting 52.2 percent for 22.7 points per game while adding 5.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists this month. There’s plenty of building left to do, but the pieces are starting to shine.
It’s a shame that both DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay both went down at the same time. The Kings were actually playing some pretty strong, entertaining basketball. Without them though, rookie Ben McLemore has an opportunity to get more shots. He’s shooting 50 percent on 6 of 12 shots per game in each of the Kings last two games, losses to the Nuggets and Jazz. Sac has dropped four in a row.
Fox Sports Ohio NBA columnist Sam Amico pointed out on Twitter Tuesday night one depressing fact: The Cavs "won" a coin flip that resulted in not getting Anthony Davis in the 2012 draft. You see, Cleveland and New Orleans finished with the same record that prior season, but the Cavs won the flip and got the first set of combinations in the lottery, while the then-Hornets got the second set. Well, that second set of combinations ultimately won first pick, and Anthony Davis went to New Orleans. I’m sure Cavs fans were happy Amico reminded them of that during Tuesday night’s loss to the Pelicans as Davis tallied 30 points, eight blocks and seven rebounds.
Rajon Rondo wants to "stick to the script" and, at least on his end, would like to stay in Boston for the rest of his career. It’s a classy statement in this day of what-have-you-done-lately loyalty. It’s also the right idea, as Danny Ainge has set up the Celtics quite well into the future.
Carmelo Anthony’s wife, La La, has gone on Bravo and stated her husband "definitely" wants to stay in New York. That’s so LA of her. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant is out another three weeks.
The 76ers have lost 10 of their last 12 games. The rare silver lining continues to be the play of Rookie of the Year favorite Michael Carter-Williams, who is averaging 17.4 points, 6.7 assists and 5.6 rebounds for the season. His shooting will need to improve, however, as the kid is shooting just 40 percent and only 29.9 percent from 3-point range.
Arron Afflalo needs to be an All-Star in the East, and not in one those "good players on a real bad team" ways. He’s having a career season, averaging a career-high 20.4 points on 47 percent shooting and 3.8 assists. Of course, in today’s NBA, he’s probably a second- or even third-tier star for an actual contending team.
The Bucks have lost 11 of 12 since the start of 2014, being outscored by an average of 16 points per game. During the woeful stretch, Larry Sanders is shooting 35.9 percent and Ersan Ilyasova is shooting 38.7 percent. And here’s a fun trivia question to throw out: Who is the one team with a winning record that’s lost to the Bucks? Trick question (then smirk). The best they’ve done is beat the .500 Bulls.