You win some, you lose some. Derrick Rose and other NBA stars have hit the injury list of late, but this week we got one back when superstar Kobe Bryant made his return. His comeback hasn’t lifted the Lakers in the rankings just yet, but there’s still plenty of time for that.
The real story in the NBA continues to be the new elites, Indiana and Portland. The Pacers’ win against the Heat reestablishes them as the league’s best team, and that’s no knock on the Trail Blazers, who also continue to prove they’re for real despite a drop to second.
A big win against its rival gets Indiana back on top. It doesn’t matter what month it is, any win against that older brother that’s been beating you down for years is a big one. The Pacers remain atop the East in the standings and are a perfect 10-0 at home. That’s shaping up well for a potential home-court advantage in a rematch with Miami.
2 Trail Blazers 18-4 -1
The last time Portland started a season this well was in 1990 behind Drexler and Porter, a team that reached the Western Conference Finals. Will Aldridge and Lillard one day be remembered with that same reverence? It’s trending that way.
3 Thunder 17-4
Oklahoma City is in line to gain that No. 1 spot at some point soon. The Thunder have won 11 of their last 12 games, but none were nicer than the 24-point blowout of the Pacers. Oklahoma City is still undefeated (10-0) on its homecourt.
4 Heat 16-6
They are still the defending champs. They are still the favorites for a title. But right now, in mid-December, they have lost ownership of the East. The Heat entered Tuesday averaging 103.5 points on 50.8 percent shooting but scored just 84 points on 42.9 percent against Indiana.
5 Spurs 17-4
You know the Spurs are doing their thing when assists pile up. San Antonio leads the league with 25.1 assists per game, and finding the open man results in a 49.1 percent shooting clip as a team, second best in the league.
6 Rockets 15-7
Dwight Howard was harassed all last season for lackluster play, yet this season his numbers remain nearly identical but criticism is much more silenced. Why? Because Howard made the right decision to get out of the LA spotlight and go play winning basketball in Houston.
7 Nuggets 13-8
Tom Schad recently wrote for the Denver Post that Brian Shaw threw away the junk food his players had been eating pregame in the hope of an answer to the Nuggets’ sluggish starts. He made them eat healthy before Monday’s win in Washington, but the team still came out slow. But uh, hey coach, maybe it’s not the food; the Nuggets just ended a six-game road trip and eight of their last nine games have been on the road. Those are road legs, not greasy food legs.
8 Clippers 15-8
There’s a sentiment the Clippers are still destined to lose in the first or second round, mostly because of poor defense. But hey, this team has held its opponents to an average of 84 points through its last three games.
9 Warriors 12-10
The Warriors entered the season with enormous expectations after their playoff run and a marquee move to get Andre Iguodala. Last year’s team was good but not elite until the postseason — and that was with Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack. But right now, with Iggy hurt and weaker depth, the team is actually playing to fair expectations. When Iggy does return, expect a dramatic shift. 10 Mavericks 13-9
For Dirk Nowitzki’s sake, it’s too bad this Mavericks team doesn’t have just one extra piece. Monta Ellis is phenomenal as a second or third option, he’s proving that at 21.5 points on 47.2 percent shooting and 5.6 assists per game. But neither the aged duo of Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, nor the three-point shooting of Jose Calderon, offer enough gas to make Dallas a true contender. This is about their peak. 11 Suns 12-9 +5
The Suns won all three games this week, including road wins against the Rockets and Lakers. Nobody would have guessed that 20 games in, the Suns would have a spot in the top eight out West, ahead of the Warriors, Grizzlies and Timberwolves.
12 Grizzlies 10-11 -1
It’s actually impressive the Grizzlies are still able to field a team at this point. Already missing Marc Gasol and Tony Allen, it now appears that Quincy Pondexter could miss significant time with a stress fracture in his right foot. In the competitive West, this depleted stretch hurts.
13 Lakers 10-11
The good news is that Kobe Bryant already looked much better in his second game back, shooting 6-of-11 for 20 points. The bad news is the Lakers are 0-2 at home since his return. 14 Hawks 11-11 +3
At .500, the Hawks act as the moat surrounding the Pacers and Heat in the East. Atlanta is capable of holding this .500 mark throughout the season, and it actually could result in home-court advantage in the first round come spring.
15 Timberwolves 11-11
Kevin Love averages a greater combination of points-rebounds-assists than LeBron James and is second in the league behind only Kevin Durant. He went 26-17-6 in Tuesday’s win against Detroit, which was good news for the Wolves, as they had dropped seven of nine games prior. 16 Pistons 10-13 +2
After driving back to .500 with a four-game win streak, the Pistons lost a pair at home to the Heat and Timberwolves. So long as Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond continue to develop, the Pistons will be fine in the East. Drummond is averaging 15.3 rebounds per game in December.
17 Pelicans 10-10 -5
The stumbling continues as the Pelicans dropped both of their games this week, and lost yet another key player. First it was Anthony Davis out with injury, and now Tyreke Evans is out for 1-2 weeks with an ankle sprain.
18 Wizards 9-11 -4
John Wall is nipping at the numbers of point guard king Chris Paul. Wall is averaging 19.6 points and 9.1 assists to Paul’s 18.7 and 12.0. But as Paul has proven, point guards are only as good as the offense around them, and Wall’s Wizards are depleted.
19 Bobcats 10-12 +3
There’s two ways to look at this: The Bobcats’ start of 10-11 is the best in their history. And the Bobcats’ start of 10-11 is — seriously, the best!? — in their history.
20 Cavaliers 8-13 +4
Here comes Cleveland. The Cavs have begun winning on their home floor, where they’ve won four in a row. Kyrie Irving regained that next-great-superstar form in a win against the Knicks on Tuesday, scoring 37 points and dishing 11 assists. Overall though, he’s still struggling and is shooting 39.4 percent for the year and 34.1 percent in December.
21 Celtics 10-14
Here’s why the NBA doesn’t make sense: The Knicks smoke the Nets by 30 points. Then the Celtics crush the Knicks by 41 points. But then the Celtics lose to the Nets. This all happened within five days. It just goes to show you when three bad teams interact, inconsistency is assured.
22 Bulls 8-11 -3
That emphatic “We don’t need Derrick!” type win against the Heat wore off quickly, as the Bulls soon fell back to reality with failures against the Pistons and the lowly Bucks, averaging just 74.5 points in the losses.
23 Kings 6-13 +4
Don’t expect Rudy Gay to come in and become a franchise player. He needs to remain secondary to the progress that DeMarcus Cousins has made this season. Cousins is used a league-high 35 percent of Kings’ possessions. That shouldn’t change.
24 76ers 7-16 -4
Remember when everyone was going nuts over the 76ers’ first four days of the season, when they went 3-0? They’ve gone on to win just four of their next 19 and now the Sixers look like the team everyone expected. The team is being cautious with rookie Michael Carter-Williams, who has been out with a scary right knee infection.
25 Nets 7-14 +1
Make fun of Jason Kidd all you want, but with Tuesday’s win against Boston, the Nets pull to within just two of the eighth-seeded Bulls. At least Kidd knew to coach in the East for his rookie coaching season, right?
26 Magic 7-15 -3
Andrew Nicholson’s game log last season was more erratic than the Healthcare.gov rollout or a Dennis Rodman dream journal. But with consistency in minutes this season, Nicholson is averaging 10 points and 5.3 rebounds. Facing the Grizzlies on Monday without Nikola Vucevic, the second-year Nicholson flashed 19 points and 11 rebounds.
27 Raptors 7-13 -2
Trading Rudy Gay might end up being the biggest win of Toronto’s season. The move opens up room for further deals, like moving Kyle Lowry or re-gifting Greivis Vasquez for Christmas. Masai Ujiri is tearing the house down, and it’s exactly what needs to happen.
28 Knicks 5-15
There’s a game that is played when a team is spiraling: The media begins calling for a coach’s job. Players back him. Ownership backs him. He loses a handful more games. He gets fired. Mike Woodson is on step two of five. The Knicks are off to their worst 20-game start in history. 29 Bucks 5-17 +1
Watching the NBA for the Bucks is like watching Breaking Bad for Hank’s mineral collection or the relationship dynamic between Walt and Skyler — no one does it. There are similarities between fans of the show and Bucks fans though, as both just want another season.
30 Jazz 4-19 -1
Utah dropped each of its four games this past week and is back in the cellar. The silver lining can be found in its core of youngsters. The newest hope, Trey Burke, averaged 13.5 points, 5.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds in last week’s four games, though he did shoot just 34.6 percent.