The Golden State Warriors, for the third successive season, are the first team in the NBA to reach the 20-win marker.
They've also stretched their ridiculous all-time record to 111 games without losing two regular-season dates in a row, thanks to Sunday night's big fourth quarter in Minneapolis. (The next-longest such streak is Utah's 95 games in a row without losing two straight from 1997-99.)
So there was no chance, in other words, that the Warriors' meek showing Saturday night in Memphis could endanger their status as the top team in ESPN.com's weekly NBA Power Rankings.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have leapfrogged the Toronto Raptors to regain their rightful spot as the highest-ranked Eastern Conference representative on our ladder, while the New York Knicks are suddenly right there with the NFL's Giants in their back-page worthiness by virtue of their unexpected rise to a heady No. 12. The Warriors, though, were never in doubt for a second successive week at No. 1 after throttling Chris Paul's LA Clippers in last week's marquee matchup.
The Clips, by contrast, have sunk to No. 7, passed up by both Houston and Memphis after the surprising Rockets and Grizzlies went a combined 8-0 last week.
There's plenty more, as always, for you to dig into within the rest of our 1-to-30 order. Profuse thanks go to ESPN Stats & Information and the Elias Sports Bureau -- with research ace Micah Adams running the point -- for providing such helpful background data to help your tireless Committee (of One) arrange things.
When they lose, they really l-o-s-e; three of the Warriors' four defeats to date came by 20 points or more after only two losses total in the 20s over the previous two seasons. Chances always were, however, that Golden State would have to endure at least one unsightly showing on such a compacted trip, which comes to an end Tuesday night in New Orleans after five games in seven days and nearly 6,000 air miles traveled in that span. The Dubs were spectacular with their ball movement in the game that mattered most, shredding the Clippers despite the fact that they didn't even shoot the 3 well that night. So perspective is badly needed if you're in the mood to make too much about what happened in Memphis.
It's good to be the champs. They can lose three in a row to earn a drop to No. 4 from the heartless (and clueless) Committee (of One), then uncork a 4-0 week in response -- leading off with yet another win over Toronto -- to get Clevelanders everywhere cackling at the Committee for not being smart enough to understand that the Cavs were merely bored after Thanksgiving. It also helps to have that LeBron James guy, who will have the honor of celebrating his 32nd birthday in 18 days as the only player in league history with more than 27,000 points and 7,000 assists.
Tim Duncan's historic No. 21 will be retired in a postgame ceremony Sunday, so a teary week for your trusty Committee awaits. We do have a surprise planned to commemorate the occasion, mind you, but that's as much as we can say about it for now. Stay tuned. In Kawhi Leonard news, meanwhile, Duncan's heir apparent -- both in terms of importance to the franchise and his devotion to spotlight avoidance -- is up to seven 30-point games this season after San Antonio smoked poor Brooklyn on Saturday night. Kawhi had only four such games coming into this season ... all of them coming last season.
Did we doom the Raptors to a third loss already this season to Cleveland by bumping them up to No. 2 last week? Blame us if you wish, Torontonians, but the Raps' strong play at both ends during their recent six-game winning streak -- as well as the shock to the system of a three-game Cavs skid -- gave us all the justification we needed. Don't forget that the Raps have won eight of nine to help the locals get through their MLS Cup disappointment and are tied with the Warriors for the league lead in offensive efficiency despite playing at a much slower pace. Which ain't easy to do, folks.
With our annual First Trimester awards coming out later this week, we assumed as recently as Friday night that Mike D'Antoni was a lock to win Coach of the First Trimester. Turns out he's got a battle on his hands with Memphis' David Fizdale, thanks to what the Grizzlies keep doing despite playing without Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons. But D'Antoni might well win it anyway, in a nod to the impact he's had on unleashing the best James Harden we've ever seen. It also doesn't hurt to have Patrick Beverley back, either, as evidenced by Houston's 11-2 record since Beverley's return and the huge impact he's made when Harden needs a breather.
Congrats to our old colleague John Hollinger, one of three Memphis front-office executives to receive a contract extension last week amid the injury-riddled Grizzlies' wholly unexpected 17-8 start. But I had to chuckle when I saw that the Grizz, before their 21-point pounding of the Warriors, had won the first five games of their winning streak by a combined total of 13 points and have been living off their close-game success so far. Professor Hollinger and I used to have epic arguments at the proverbial office water cooler about how impressive (or random) the results of close games really were. Perhaps that tune can still change!
We're not yet 25 games into the Clippers' schedule, and frankly, we're dizzy: They're a legit top-tier team on the Cavs/Warriors level! No, wait, they're a mirage! No, wait, they thrashed the Cavs in Cleveland and thus they're back! No, wait, we shall never consider them title material again after the manner in which they lost at home to the Dubs again! The flawlessness of Chris Paul's 20-point, 20-assist, zero-turnover gem against New Orleans can't camouflage the sheer exasperation these guys inspire in a season where we really need a true challenger or two to emerge to challenge the Golden State/Cleveland duopoly.
With 12 triple-doubles in 24 games, Russell Westbrook is on pace for 41 of them this season, which would tie the single-season mark established by the one and only Oscar Robertson in the Big O's historic 1961-62 season, when Robertson played 79 of 80 games and averaged a triple-double. Our trusty research ace/noted quipster Micah Adams couldn't resist pointing out that Westbrook's inability to stretch his streak of consecutive triple-doubles beyond seven by falling short in Sunday night's win over Boston -- combined with Tim Frazier's triple-double for the victorious Pelicans in Phoenix -- means that the rest of the NBA has reclaimed a 14-12 edge over Angry Russ when it comes to triple-doubles for the season.
For all the justified props Gordon Hayward has been getting during Utah's 8-2 surge, don't ignore what Rudy Gobert has been doing since landing that nine-figure contract on Halloween. Beyond all of his rim protecting, Gobert is leading the league in field goal percentage (.671), ranks second in screen assists (5.9 per game per NBA.com/Stats) and is averaging career highs in points (11.8 PPG) and rebounds (11.6 RPG) as well as blocks (2.8 RPG). Maybe best of all for the injury-plagued Jazz: Gobert is the only Utah starter who hasn't missed multiple games due to health woes.
The Bulls didn't just inflict San Antonio's first road defeat of the season last Thursday night. The Bulls also prevented the Spurs -- when San Antonio sat just one win away -- from matching the longest road winning streak at the start of any one season; Golden State's 14-0 launch last season established the record. And there's more: Chicago also stopped the Spurs from becoming the only current NBA franchise to sport an all-time road record of .500 or better. That's deep. That's also what we've come to expect from these Bulls, who tend to play up (or down) to the competition. (San Antonio, for the record, is now 814-816 all-time in road games, which is pretty crazy when you think about it.)
Quite an agonizing week on the scoreboard for the Celtics, who started it by taking a one-point loss at Houston when Al Horford uncharacteristically missed on an opportunity inside at the buzzer and ended it with a one-possession loss in Oklahoma City in which they managed to halt Russell Westbrook's run of triple-doubles but came up short regardless. Yet you can probably guess where we're going from here. Some things, frankly, are just bigger than basketball. And dare we say that the unsettling nature of a bomb scare on the flight to OKC, hoax or not, most certainly qualifies.
Concern about Phil Jackson's reputation among potential free-agent targets after the whole LeBron James "posse" controversy has been replaced by mounting concern about what Jackson's ongoing commentary about Carmelo Anthony is doing to alienate the star he actually has on the roster. The secondary scare here is that the constant churn of Phil headlines continues to overshadow the fact that the Knicks, winners of 11 of 15 to capitalize on a manageable stretch of schedule, have been a pleasant surprise on par with Chicago. The fact that everyone's so focused on the off-court extracurriculars might explain why New York has received so little of the same love that the Bulls are getting for an equally surprising start.
A heavy loss at Cleveland in the opener of a five-game trip could have been much worse if Kemba Walker's scary-looking collision with LeBron James resulted in more than a knee contusion. Fortunately for the Hornets, Walker insists he'll be on the floor for Monday night's stop at Indiana. For more on Walker's All-Star bid, we refer you to our recent visit with him on the TrueHoop Conversations podcast. For more on whether Charlotte will continue to play with more focus and edge on the road than it does at home, as Steve Clifford contends, stay tuned this week.
As flat as the Pacers looked during the game and as down as they looked after it on Friday night in Dallas, I certainly wasn't expecting what we saw the next night against Portland, when Indiana rallied from 20 points down back on their home floor -- not even when you factor in the Blazers' well-chronicled defensive frailties. Paul George scored 15 points in one stretch of the fourth quarter en route to a decisive game-high 37, but few teams at this juncture are as tough to read as the Pacers, who swept their season series with the Clippers and posted another nice win in Oklahoma City to offset all the nights you think something is really wrong behind the scenes.
If you thought last Sunday was a low point in Motown -- when the Pistons followed up three impressive wins on the road with a home defeat to Stan Van Gundy's old pals from Orlando -- think again. Detroit was outscored on its home floor 32-12 by the Joel Embiid-less Sixers in the opening quarter this Sunday. Philly hadn't won a first quarter so decisively since the 2007-08 season. The Pistons, though, are still one of 11 teams in the East sitting at .500 or better. The West, strangely, only has seven.
Not exactly sure how, but the Hawks were still ranked No. 2 leaguewide in defensive efficiency last week in the throes of their 1-9 freefall that dropped them all the way down to No. 20 on our ladder. On this Rankings Monday, you'll still find them at No. 3 somehow in the DE standings. Given the recent struggles, though, Atlanta's comeback from 20 points down at the half to win in Milwaukee -- this season's first such comeback from any team on the NBA map -- has to provide Mike Budenholzer some encouragement, since it suggests his guys are still scrapping. The comeback had a historic element, too, since the Hawks had never before recovered from a halftime deficit that big. They were 0-149 in that situation, believe it or not, in the franchise's 68-season history. #youcanlookitup
We have no choice but to press pause on all the justifiable slobbering over Giannis Antetokounmpo just when Milwaukee became the first team in the league this season to surrender a lead of 20-plus points and lose (Friday night at home to Atlanta) ... and then unraveled down the stretch on the road in Washington after Bucks coach Jason Kidd publicly lamented that his young team needs to "close games better." All that, of course, after a narrow home loss to the powerful Spurs to start a sour week. Those are all games Giannis, Kidd & Co. are really going to wish they had socked away when the schedule, as everyone keeps saying, starts to get tougher. Let's face it: Milwaukee still badly misses Khris Middleton every day, no matter how ridiculous The Greek Freak is.
John Wall's 52 points in a home loss to Orlando accounted for the highest total from a Washington player in defeat since the legendary Earl Monroe rung up 56 in an L to the Lakers in February 1968. Wall outscored Orlando's starters by a bucket and joined Klay Thompson, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook on the short list of players this season who know how it feels to score 30 points in a half. But it still wasn't enough. At least Wall's sixth 20-and-10 game of the season four nights later wasn't wasted along with it, thanks to the Wizards' late rally past the visiting Bucks.
Turns out that the return of Al-Farouq Aminu has not cured all of the Blazers' ills as they had hoped. After winning in Chicago to launch a daunting stretch of eight of nine games on the road, Portland has lost its past three games and surrendered at least 115 points in the two games of those three that Aminu played. Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner, meanwhile, are earning a combined $35 million this season but rank 88th and 95th, respectively, out of 95 shooting guards in ESPN's Real Plus/Minus rankings.
Is rebounding overrated? The 9-15 Nuggets are making that case as the league's No. 1 team on the boards, hauling in 54 percent of available rebounds. Denver last led the league in rebounding in 1992-93, when Dikembe Mutombo was the interior anchor in the Mile High air. Speaking of famous former Nuggets: Carmelo Anthony will be back in Denver come Saturday looking for his first win at the Pepsi Center as a visitor. Since being traded to New York in 2011, Melo's Knicks are 0-4 in Denver, with Anthony having played in three of those games.
The Magic have yet again followed up a promising week with another worrisome one, proceeding from a 4-1 road trip, which they capped by winning in Washington despite John Wall's 52 points, to two poor defensive showings at home (Ls to Boston and Denver) sandwiched around a 109-88 loss in Charlotte that saddled Orlando with a league-leading 10 games in which it has failed to register at least 90 points. This won't help fan morale either: Frank Vogel says the club is weighing whether to send out-of-favor swingman Mario Hezonja, taken fifth overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, to the D-League to get the minutes he's not earning in the Magic Kingdom.
When he had a full complement of 10 players to mix and match, Luke Walton had the Lakers routinely springing surprises. That's been a lot harder to pull off with D'Angelo Russell and Nick Young missing, which has caused what was a top-10 offense in the season's early stages to crater, putting additional pressure on L.A.'s flimsy D. But Russell made his long-awaited return Sunday night after a 3-9 funk in his absence, while Lou Williams continues to be at the forefront of our thinking for the Sixth Man of the First Trimester, which will be unveiled at week's end.
These are obviously not the circumstances Tom Thibodeau was hoping for in advance of Tuesday's sure-to-be-overhyped return to Chicago for the first time as a visiting head coach. The Wolves, when you weigh it based on playing time, rank as the NBA's youngest team at an average age of 24. Youth, though, can only excuse so much for a squad that was billed for such great things by Committee friends we trust so much, be it ESPN's own Brian Windhorst or Wolves superfan (and former top-10 tennis stalwart) Mardy Fish. Minnesota's schedule has been brutal lately, but there's simply no getting around the fact that this team is 6-8 this season in games in which it has held a fourth-quarter lead, including Sunday night's fall from 10 points up to start the fourth against mighty Golden State. Those eight losses are tied with Philadelphia for tops in the league.
Turns out that injuries aren't the Heat's only obstacle during this humbling launch to life post-Dwyane Wade. As noted the other day by our pal Tom Haberstroh, Miami recently endured a 10-game stretch in which it surrendered a seemingly unfathomable 117 points per 100 possessions with the blocks-obsessed Hassan Whiteside on the floor, compared to just 93.9 points per 100 possessions when its box-score-filling machine was sitting. And then the Heat lost to the Bulls for a second time this season ... with D-Wade scoring 28 points to twist the knife.
Instead of dwelling on the 76ers' league-leading four losses by 25 points or more -- they're tied in that category with the Lakers, actually -- Philly suddenly sports a two-game road winning streak for us to dissect, with Sunday night's triumph in Detroit made triply impressive by the fact that Joel Embiid was on a night of imposed rest against the Pistons. T.J. McConnell was just one assist shy of a triple-double against the Pistons in leading the Sixers to their sixth win, territory they couldn't touch last season until Jan. 20.
It was yet another week for the Kings -- despite DeMarcus Cousins' skepticism about a move materializing between now and the Feb. 23 trade deadline -- that presumably pushes them closer to deal mode. Hoping to use a robust road win in Dallas as some sort of springboard, Sacramento instead followed that up with a home loss to the Knicks, then a meek showing in Salt Lake City. Adding to the woes: Sacramento also found out that its recent postponement in Philadelphia has been rescheduled as part of a brutal road trip before the All-Star break that now spans eight games and features three back-to-backs.
A 31-point home loss to Sacramento not only had Rick Carlisle calling timeouts he didn't have but led to the first postgame team film session in Carlisle's career. The crazy thing is, judging by the way Dallas responded in Friday's home win over Indiana, Carlisle's tactics worked. Wes Matthews (21.4 PPG on 46.8 percent shooting from deep) has quietly found his best groove as a Mav during this recent spell of 3-5 competency -- and Dirk Nowitzki is said to be inching closer to a return to the practice floor -- but Carlisle will miss seeing his old friends from Indy on the schedule after Dallas averaged 116 points in its season split with the Pacers.
The Nets are in Houston on Monday night and Jeremy Lin is slated to make his comeback after missing Brooklyn's last 17 games (4-13) with an ankle issue. Good timing for storytellers, since the occasion will reunite Lin and his former Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, while it's obviously huge as well for Lin's new team, which relies on him to run the offense. New Nets coach Kenny Atkinson has instead been forced to survive without his preferred quarterback for 40 days. The Donatas Motiejunas saga, meanwhile, means Brooklyn is now 0-for-3 in restricted free agency in the Sean Marks era, but that was an offer sheet you suspect Marks knew from the beginning that Houston would match.
The Pelicans, through Sunday, have already lost 67 man-games to injury, which doesn't even account for the time Jrue Holiday missed to start the season nursing his wife through the scariest of surgeries. So the notion that Alvin Gentry should be under fire for the Pels' deepening struggles strikes us as more than unjust. But the job security questions are being fired right at Gentry these days, which is what happens when you lose at home to the Sixers when Philly is sporting a 23-game road losing streak. (An aside: We are deeply indebted to our beloved and scrumptious Shaya for helping to fuel this edition of the rankings Sunday night!)
When the Suns and Lakers got together Friday night at Staples Center, it wasn't just a matchup of two teams that love to push the pace while struggling mightily on D. It was a reminder that, more than four years removed from the Steve Nash sign-and-trade blockbuster on July 4, 2012, neither team has found what you would call solid footing yet. Heading into Phoenix's ultimate 119-115 victory, these teams were 24th (Suns) and 28th (Lakers) in winning percentage in the four-plus seasons since the deal despite the presence of three top-10 picks on both rosters.