1. Golden State Warriors (-)
Since the 15th: 4-2
Draymond is right to point out that Phoenix and Utah have had some of the best luck with line up consistency in this covid season. He forgot to mention Golden State has the third most consistent crew. Curry, Poole, Wiggins, Green, and Looney have logged 341 minutes together but the Jenga tower falls quickly. No other Warriors line up have played 50 minutes togethers. In these small sizes line ups have wildly unpredictable outcomes. As hard as it is with all the absences Golden State needs to figure out a bench lineup. The have a 16-point net rating swing from a positive 15.04 to -1.12 when Curry sits.
2. Utah Jazz (-)
Since the 15th: 7-2
The Jazz train is continuing to roll on through their competition. They have maintained a top 5 offense (1) and defensive (5) through the first three months of the season. They have also had one of the best stretches of continuity. Their starting five has played 20 more minutes than any other ling up used this league and 138 minutes more than the 5th most used line up. After the league shutting down following a Rudy Gobert positive test nearly 2 years ago it is possible Utah is playing things extra careful.
3. Chicago Bulls (↑5)
Since the 15th: 6-0
Chicago’s offense has sky rocketed. Over their 6-game win streak the Bulls have averaged 121.7 points per game. On the 15th of December they had the best offensive rating, now it is up to the 4ths best in the league. The competition has been weaker, however this s what good teams do. They bury bad competition. Chicago’s only close game ended in a game winning buzzer beater from DeMar DeRozan moving Chicago to 2-2 on the season in games decided by 3 or less points. Closing out close games will be vitally important as the Bulls look poised to challenge for the East Finals.
4. Phoenix Suns (-)
Since the 15th: 5-3
Remember when Phoenix was criticized for picking Cam Johnson? He is certainly starting to pay off now. Offensively Cam has put up 15.3 points since the 15th on 53.8% from the field and 49.1% from deep. He also has looked great playing the passing lanes and helping corral defensive rebounds. I’m sure internally Phoenix is excited about his development and potential to replace Jae Crowder when the time comes.
5. Milwaukee Bucks (↑1)
Since the 15th: 6-2
Milwaukee is really dialing in their offense. They run a nice double screen actions with Portis setting the first screen then popping and Giannis setting the second screen for a ball handler, usually Jrue. Holiday does an excellent job attacking off this and the double screen creates enough confusion for Giannis to have some easy rolls to the rim. Yet they are not done experimenting. Milwaukee has been trying some Middleton at the 5 lineups to maximize spacing and shooting. In just 12 minutes the quintet of Holiday, Middleton Matthews, DiVencenzo and Connaughton have an offensive rating of 125 points per 100 possessions and outscore opponents by 12.5 points per 100 possessions.
6. Brooklyn Nets (↓3)
Since the 15th: 3-2
The league needs to watch out, Harden is back. After returning from health and safety protocols, Harden looks to have slimmed down, his handles look quicker, and the numbers back up his return to form. In his last 3 games Harden is playing 39.6 minutes, scoring 36 points, while also dishing out 11.7 assists and pulling in 10.7 boards.
7. Miami Heat (↑3)
Since the 15th: 7-1
Going 7 and 1 seemed a lot more impressive before digging into Miami’s competition, which included a total of 5 games against Detroit, Orlando, and Houston. One of those was even a loss. Still Miami continuing to win with Bam Adebayo and half their reserves sidelined is huge. Shout out to Kyle Guy for stepping in playing 24 minutes and dropping 17 points on a 10 day. The East is looking like a 4-team conference so the battle for seeding could be intense.
8. Memphis Grizzlies (↑2)
Since the 15th: 6-3
After a rocky return which caused fans to momentarily turn on Ja Morant, he seems to be back in his stride. The potential first time all-star closed out the Suns then proceeded to drop 41 points on the Lakers. He has no fear and is ready to be in the superstar conversation. Around him Memphis continues to bully their opponents winning the rebounding battle over their last nine games by an average of 6 rebounds per game. Against Phoenix who were without Ayton the Grizzlies pulled in 50 rebounds to the Suns mere 35.
9. Philadelphia 76ers (↑2)
Since the 15th: 4-3
Philly has pieced together an impressive road record winning 4 out of their last 5 in opposing markets gyms. On the season Philly has played just 14 games at home compared to their 21 on the road and yet they have lost the same number of games at home. It might be time for Philly fans to consider why Embiid has a 62.9% true shooting percentage on the road but only hits 54.1% at home. Is it time the fans recruit Simmons to return? The pressure of Philly on Embiid might be too much at the moment.
10. Charlotte Hornets (↑7)
Since the 15th: 4-3
The Hornets are fighting and clawing to stay above .500. They survived a tough 6 game west coast swing and are now facing some weaker competition in the first two weeks of the new year. On the Covid front most of the Hornets have returned to the lineup however, Bridges, Washington and Lewis remain unavailable. Rozier’s initial return saw a couple game slump but in his last 4 he has really found the touch, scoring 24.8 points per game on 48.8% three-point shooting.
11. Denver Nuggets (↑1)
Since the 15th: 3-3
You could build a play-in level team with the guys missing from Denver. In addition to Dozier, Porter Jr, and Murray who have long term injuries, Gordon, Morris, Jeff Green, Hyland, and Nnaji are all either banged up or in health and safety. The Nuggets eked out a win over the warriors however the lack of depth was on full display. In the second half Denver made just 10 shots from the field and went 1 for 18 from three.
12. Cleveland Cavaliers (↓4)
Since the 15th:
Losing the greatest backup Spanish point guard in league history is going to impact one’s teams pretty heavily. Having the lose out weigh the return of Evan Mobley is a bit surprising. Cleveland has gone 0-3 since their rookie’s return to action even though Mobley played well in all three outings. This young Cavs squad will soon be gearing up for a 6-game west coast swing which includes 2 sets of back to backs and 5 games in 7 nights.
13. New York Knicks (↑11)
Since the 15th: 5-3
Kemba is not the problem. Well sort of. Walker was given much love for his 44 points outing against the Hawks and even some for his Christmas day triple double, but the guard has shot 7 for 28 in his last three outings including that Christmas day game. That is the problem with the Knicks, their shooting has fallen way off this season. Last season the Knicks hit 39.2% of their threes which helped give the defense time to set up. This season they are hitting 35.6%. Missed threes generate more long rebounds and fast break opportunities. The Knicks are the 6th worst team at defensing fast break opportunities giving up 1.14 points per possession.
14. New Orleans Pelicans (↑10)
Since the 15th: 5-1
New Orleans has started to wake up. Their recent starting 5 of Graham, Ingram, Hart, Jones and Valanciunas has started to yields some very positive results. Those 5 in 192 minutes have a positive 8.4 net rating. They slow the pace of play down to 96.4 possessions allowing the defense to take over. Rookie Herb Jones has recorded at least 1 block in his last 13 games. Ingram continued his hot stretch until an Achilles injury sidelined him on the 29th. More details on the injury have yet to become available.
15. San Antonio (↑7)
Since the 15th: 4-4
Don’t look now but the Spurs have a top 10 offensive rating. It may not look like much but over the last half of December the Spurs are attempting 33.9 threes per game. Which would be enough to place them in the middle of the league opposed to 29th. Add that to their low turnovers and efficient shooting and San Antonio just might be deadly. In a conference of young up and coming guards, Murray blooming later than Shai and Ja does not mean he should not be in their conversation. Watch out they could make a run for the 8th seed.
16. Washington Wizards (↑4)
Since the 15th: 3-4
Hanging out near .500 over the past stretch is respectable for the Wizards. Aside from the Kings every team they faced believes they should be a playoff team and Washington still managed to get a few signature wins. Getting a victory over Utah in Salt Lake is impressive. Beal came up big in the clutch. With the game tied under four-minute remaining Beal would knock down back-to-back jumpers to take the lead. He would finish with 7 points in those final 4 minutes. Washington may not be home court playoff team they started the season looking like but don’t count them completely out just yet.
17. Oklahoma City Thunder (↑11)
Since the 15th: 5-4
A little three game win streak in the middle of this stretch helped boost Oklahoma City to 7-8 in December. Their big three of Dort, Giddey and Shai have been playing well together moving the ball and balancing the scoring load. The added defensive of Robinson-Earl has helped keep Oklahoma City from being too negative. That quartet’s plus minus together has been abysmal on the season but has shown growth in the recent weeks.
18. Toronto Raptors (↓2)
Since the 15th: 2-2
Covid hit Toronto like a cement truck. Canada’s NBA team looked like a G-League franchise as they were mercilessly defeated by 45 points against a sub optimal Cleveland Cavaliers. The Raptor’s few postponements save them from sliding too far. If that game is any indicator Toronto could have accrued a number of ugly losses.
19. Minnesota Timberwolves (↑6)
Since the 15th: 4-4
For years it felt like the general excuse give by Towns supporters was that he played with subpar teammates. Which has always been truer than not. Seeing the Wolves get a win over Boston without Towns, Russell and Edwards shows how good of a position the franchise is in right now. Edwards has returned giving fans who want the Wolves to move off Towns a look at a true Edwards lead team right now. We will have to see how it goes.
20. Dallas Mavericks (↓1)
Since the 15th: 3-5
Dallas has already cycled through 24 players this season and with Isaiah Thomas entering health and safety protocols after just 1 game expect that number to continue to climb. Luka, Kleber, and Bullock have been sidelined most of the second half of December taking away much of Dallas’s firepower. Still the remaining players have kept things from getting too dark. Dwight Powell had himself a game against Portland then a quick start against Sacramento but resulting in wins for Dallas. Brunson has averaged 22.5 points during the second half of December. Even Porzingis looks alright.
21. Sacramento Kings (↑2)
Since the 15th: 4-5
When Sacramento wins the eke it out. When Sacramento loses, they get blown out. For example, in their back-to-back match ups with the Mavs, game 1 ended by a Chimezie Metu buzzer beater. Game 2 ended in the third quarter when Dwight Powell scored 8 straight points as part of a 12-0 Dallas run. Despite being 4-5 in the second half of the month the Kings have a negative 7 points per game differential.
22. Boston Celtics (↓7)
Since the 15th: 3-5
It is one thing to fall apart against a poised Milwaukee Bucks but Boston lost to Minnesota without Towns, Edwards and Russell as well as the Clippers without Paul George and Reggie Jackson. Tatum was absent both games but still those were wins the Celtics needed and should have had. The 4-42 three-point shooting is inexcusable.
23. Atlanta Hawks (↓5)
Since the 15th: 3-5
The Hawks have the league’s 2nd best offense and the 3rd worse defensive right now. They are lighting it up and getting equally lit up. Which may not be surprising considering Trae Young and some combination of Reddish, Collins, and Capela has been available but also the Hawks have been a position where they have started Gorgui Dieng, Skylar Mays, Chaundee Brown, Wes Iwundu, and Okongwu over their last 6 games. Atlanta needs to finish out this 6-game west coast road swing strong. They have a good chance to pick up a few wins with the final three games being against the Clippers, Lakers, and Kings.
24. Los Angeles Clippers (↓15)
Since the 15th: 2-6
Losing Paul George to what could be a 1-month injury or to what could cost him the rest of the season has sent the Clippers into a tail spin. Making matter worse future winner of the Boston versus Boston 10-year challenge (see the Hoops Temple podcast for details) BJ Boston is in health and safety protocols. With George out this would have been a perfect time for the Clippers to evaluate their prospect. Still do not expect the Clippers to tank as their pick is heading to Oklahoma City as part of the Paul George trade.
25. Indiana Pacers (↓4)
Since the 15th: 2-5
It continues to amaze this writer that the Pacers are this unlucky. In theory they have a very similar roster of B+ to B- talent to that of the Chicago Bulls. However, while the Bulls have grown to be more than the sum of their parts Indiana seems to consistently find ways to be less than their individual talents. As such the Pacers are completely incapable of closing close games. They have dropped to 1-9 in games decided by 3 points or less after DeRozan’s buzzer beater.
26. Los Angeles Lakers (↓13)
Since the 15th: 3-6
It is a sorry state of affairs when signing Stanley Johnson makes your team look so much better. The LeBron at 5 lineups finally have some switch ability with Johnson on the court. Los Angeles needs to figure some consistency out. At this point most their key pieces aside from Davis are there and still no lineup has played together for more than 53 minutes. The Lakers only wins during this stretch came against Portland, Houston, and Dallas without Doncic.
27. Portland Trailblazers (↓1)
Since the 15th: 2-5
In a normal season it would be easy to sympathize with the Blazers struggles. Afterall Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have both missed. Only problem is their starting 5 including CJ and Dame constitute the 5th most played line up in the league thus far. Everyone is missing key players at different points. So, the slide continues. Losing games against New Orleans, Los Angeles Lakers, and the Dallas Mavericks without Luka Doncic really puts into perspective how bad Portland has been.
28. Houston Rockets (↓14)
Since the 15th: 1-8
Listen, 6-game losing streaks is never what a fan wants to see. However, getting Jalen Green back and him having a pair of efficient games is a nice positive sign. Green had back-to-back games where he shot over 45% from three. Prior he had not had back-to-back games shooting over 35% from deep. Fellow Rookie Alperen Sengun also had a career best game where he played 27 minutes, a big accomplishment for the big fellow’s conditioning where he scored 19 points pulled in 11 boards and dished out 5 assists.
29. Orlando Magic (-)
Since the 15th: 2-6
Focus on Franz. With so many players starting to drop out Franz has had the opportunity to stand out which he did when the Bucks came to town on the 28th. The Rookie forward had an efficient 38-point outing. The lanky German found his way to the line frequently knocking down all 10 free throw attempts. The Magic outscored the Bucks in Wagner’s 38 minutes even though they would lose the game by 17.
30. Detroit Pistons (-)
Since the 15th: 1-6
Watching young players develop can be fun but there needs to be promise. Watching the covid reserve Pistons has been a real tough hang. Derrick Walton Jr playing 31 then 36 minutes in his first two games of NBA action this season pretty much sums up the second half of December for Detroit. As the last remaining member of their young core to not be in health and safety protocols Saddiq Bey has taken this opportunity to take a leading role in the offense.
He is averaging 24.3 points over his last 7 games.