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Power Rankings: Are the West-best Clippers for real?

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LeBron's highlight-reel moments not enough for win (1:25)

LeBron James drops 24 points and dishes out seven assists, but the Lakers fall to the Magic 108-104. (1:25)

There is less than one month until Christmas Day in the NBA, and two Finals contenders -- the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets -- are stuck at .500, while surprise teams such as the Memphis Grizzlies and first-place LA Clippers are sitting in the upper tier in the West. Which starts are for real?

Throughout the regular season, our panel (ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz, Tim MacMahon and Andre Snellings, The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears and FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring) is ranking all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are playing the best basketball now and which are looking most like title contenders.

Previous rankings: Week 6 | Week 5 | Week 4 | Week 3 | Week 2 | Week 1 | Camp | Free agency

1. Toronto Raptors
Record: 17-4

The Raptors had four games in which they were heavy favorites on the schedule this week, and they picked up four wins, making them the only undefeated team in the association in that stretch. Toronto's 17-4 start is the franchise's best, and the Raptors are one of only two NBA teams holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage under 50 percent (Clippers). The return of C.J. Miles only adds to Toronto's incomparable depth. -- Arnovitz


2. Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 14-5

We finally saw the potential downside of Milwaukee's sudden 3-point shooting barrage this past week, when Bucks center Brook Lopez went an NBA-record 0-of-12 from deep in a two-point loss to Phoenix. Still, coach Mike Budenholzer said he was encouraged that Lopez continued to shoot, a sign that a cold shooting night or two won't thwart the team's larger plan of spacing the floor. -- Herring


3. Golden State Warriors
Record: 14-7

The Warriors are 4-5 with Stephen Curry out with a left groin strain, but they are hoping he can return on the upcoming road trip. The Warriors are 42-64 all time without the two-time NBA MVP in regular-season games. Golden State also has a 25-23 record since the 2014-15 season with Curry out of the lineup. The two-time reigning champs, however, appear to have recovered from their recent skid and drama, as they won back-to-back home games against Portland and Sacramento. -- Spears


4. LA Clippers
Record: 13-6

The NBA might be a superstar league, but with one quarter of the season in the books, the superstar-less Clippers sit atop the Western Conference. They picked up another couple of cardiac wins over the holiday weekend, over Memphis and at Portland. One way an egalitarian team can prosper in the NBA without a top-10 talent? On the defensive end, and the Clippers are holding opponents to a league-best .488 effective field goal percentage. -- Arnovitz


5. Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 12-7

The Thunder took a disappointing home loss to the Nuggets on Saturday, which prompted Russell Westbrook to do a publicized late-night shooting session, but other than that, they continue to chug along at a strong pace. The Thunder have won 12 of their past 15 games and are firmly in the group of six teams within two games of first place in the West. -- Snellings


6. Memphis Grizzlies
Record: 12-7

Rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. was a bright spot during a disappointing weekend for the Grizzlies, who lost two straight games after an unexpected climb to the top of the West standings. The 19-year-old averaged 18 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5 blocks and 3 assists in the losses to the Clippers and Knicks. "He's going to be a special player in this league," coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "There's no doubt about that." -- MacMahon


7. Denver Nuggets
Record: 13-7

The Nuggets seem to have ended their slump, having won three straight games after losing six of their previous seven. Their win streak has come with a balanced team effort, as Nikola Jokic has averaged 9.7 PPG on 27.5 percent shooting the past three games but has led the squad with 8.7 APG to keep his teammates involved. -- Snellings


8. Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 14-8

Oh, you know, just another humdrum week for the Sixers: a mysterious turn in the Markelle Fultz story, their first regular-season home loss since mid-March to ... Cleveland and another step-back dagger from Jimmy Butler. Through the first quarter of the season, the Sixers have posted a neutral point differential (both with and without Butler). But optimists would note that, as currently constituted, the Sixers have the personnel to be far better than the NBA's 16th-best defense. -- Arnovitz


9. Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 12-8

Keep an eye on Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic, who suffered a right shoulder contusion during a loss to the Clippers on Sunday and didn't play in the second half. With Nurkic out, the Blazers turned to Meyers Leonard in the starting five and were outscored 38-16 in the third quarter. Leonard had nine points and 16 rebounds, but if the Blazers are hoping for more offense sans Nurkic, Zach Collins is the better bet. The 7-foot, 235-pound sophomore is averaging 8.4 points and a 37.8 3-point percentage off the bench. -- Spears


10. Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 11-8

The Lakers haven't lost a game to a team other than the Orlando Magic in more than three weeks. This is an indignity the purple and gold can sustain, especially during a week in which they posted the league's best defense. The Lakers now rank 10th overall for the season, with positive trends emerging. First, there's the Tyson Chandler Effect: The Lakers are yielding a stingy 94.6 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. Second, the Lakers are defending without fouling, ranking fourth in the league in opponent free throw attempt rate. -- Arnovitz


11. Indiana Pacers
Record: 11-8

Indiana has taken a by-committee approach to replace the scoring of Victor Oladipo, who missed the past three games because of injury. Bojan Bogdanovic has been more aggressive and efficient than usual lately, averaging nearly 21 points on fewer than 13 shots per game since Oladipo left the lineup. -- Herring


12. Boston Celtics
Record: 10-10

The Celtics have lost four of their past five games to fall to .500 through 20 games and six games behind the Raptors in the Atlantic Division. They are absolutely struggling on offense, ranked 27th in the NBA in offensive rating, with no clear pecking order among their perimeter talent. Their No. 2-rated defense has kept them competitive, but they have to get the O going to get back into contention. -- Snellings


13. Detroit Pistons
Record: 10-7

Detroit avenged a two-point loss on Wednesday in Houston with an overtime victory over the Rockets on Friday at home. Dwane Casey called Andre Drummond's 23-point, 20-rebound, 5-block showing in the win the best -- and most disciplined -- he has seen the big man play. -- Herring


14. Houston Rockets
Record: 9-9

Associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik, the Rockets' defensive guru, rejoined the team on a full-time basis Friday after a brief retirement. His return didn't exactly make an immediate impact, as Houston allowed 119.5 points per 100 possessions in back-to-back road losses to Detroit and Cleveland. The Rockets rank 23rd in defensive rating (110.7), down 16 spots from last season. -- MacMahon


15. New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 10-10

The Pelicans are 10-6 with Anthony Davis and 0-4 when he sits due to an injury, including Saturday's loss to the Wizards, which the perennial All-NBA big man missed due to a strained hip. New Orleans' average margin of defeat without Davis is 12.5 points. (The Hawks have the league's worst average point differential, at minus-11.5.) As much as the Pelicans miss Davis' 27.0 points per game, the bigger problem is that they're the league's worst defense (114.5 points per 100 possessions) without him protecting the rim. -- MacMahon


16. Charlotte Hornets
Record: 9-10

It appears that being benched during Friday's loss to the Thunder motivated Hornets guard Malik Monk. He has shot 32.3 percent from the field in November and 22.6 percent from 3-point range. But the former Kentucky star responded from the benching and broke out of his slump by scoring a season-high 26 points with seven 3-pointers in a loss to the host Hawks on Sunday. Monk is definitely a feast or famine scorer, as he has scored at least 15 points four times this month and scored six or fewer four times. -- Spears


17. Sacramento Kings
Record: 10-10

Kings rookie Marvin Bagley III has scored in double figures in five straight games after scoring 18 on Sunday in a loss to Utah. There is another Kings rookie with Duke ties to keep an eye on in center Harry Giles, who missed last season with knee injuries. Giles played a career-high 20 minutes against Utah, scored 10 points and recorded career highs of eight rebounds and six assists. -- Spears


18. Dallas Mavericks
Record: 9-9

J.J. Barea, 34, the engine of one of the league's elite benches, is emerging as a sleeper Sixth Man of the Year candidate. The savvy sub-6-footer has been one of the main reasons the Mavs have won seven of their past nine games, as Barea has averaged 14.9 points and 5.3 assists while shooting 53.4 percent from the floor in that span. "He is a master at the pick-and-roll," coach Rick Carlisle said. "Very experienced, and he's a winner." -- MacMahon


19. San Antonio Spurs
Record: 9-10

It seems like the Spurs' 6-2 start was a long time ago. San Antonio has lost eight of 11 games since then, and it's reasonable to wonder how much longer coach Gregg Popovich can stick with Dante Cunningham as a starter. Cunningham has the Spurs' worst net rating in that 11-game span by a significant margin, as San Antonio has been outscored by 16.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. -- MacMahon


20. Minnesota Timberwolves
Record: 9-11

Andrew Wiggins was 0-of-12 from the floor and had the first scoreless showing of his NBA career on Saturday night, while Robert Covington, at 1-of-18, was hardly any better in that win over the Bulls. But that Minnesota won anyway, despite two key players shooting that poorly, is something the Wolves can live with, given how badly they'll need every win in what figures to be a tight Western Conference playoff race. -- Herring


21. Orlando Magic
Record: 10-10

The Magic capped a difficult week with their second win over the otherwise red-hot Lakers in the past five games to remain on top of the Southeast Division. The Magic lost a heartbreaker to the Raptors, then got blown out by the Nuggets in Denver, but with their win in Los Angeles, they've won four of their past six games as they prepare for game three of a six-game road swing on Monday in Golden State. -- Snellings


22. Utah Jazz
Record: 9-11

Coach Quin Snyder made a significant change after the Jazz lost five of six games, starting Jae Crowder instead of Derrick Favors at power forward on Sunday against the Kings. Utah responded by scoring a season-high 133 points, despite the absence of Donovan Mitchell (bruised ribs). Crowder with the regular starters has scored at an elite level (115.9 points per 100 possessions). The starting lineup with Favors has been a bad offensive group (96.9). -- MacMahon


23. Washington Wizards
Record: 7-12

One of the Wizards' biggest issues is their struggles shooting from 3-point range, as they rank 28th in the NBA at 31.8 percent. Renowned shooter Bradley Beal is attempting 7.1 3-pointers per game but making them at a career-low 32.8 percent clip. The 2018 NBA All-Star made 37.5 percent of his 3-pointers last season and 40.4 percent two seasons ago. John Wall is making 32.3 percent of his 3-point shots so far this season, while Kelly Oubre is averaging 27.6 percent. -- Spears


24. Miami Heat
Record: 7-12

The Heat haven't posted a winning week since October, and an offense that features few pure creators has looked unsightly at times. Josh Richardson has been the lone exception, one reason Dwyane Wade said this week that Richardson is "picking up the phone every time we call him." Richardson answered the call in the Heat's lone win this week against Chicago and has posted a true shooting percentage of 61.1 in clutch time this season. -- Arnovitz


25. Brooklyn Nets
Record: 8-13

The Nets have lost four of their past five and seven of their past nine games, sliding toward the Eastern Conference basement. The Nets just lack playmakers with Caris LeVert sidelined, and their 25th-rated defense isn't enough to keep them competitive if they aren't scoring in chunks. -- Snellings


26. New York Knicks
Record: 7-14

The Knicks, who entered last week in the doldrums of a six-game losing streak, ended that slump in a big way with three straight wins over strong opponents. The Knicks seem to have a different star each game, with five players notching 20-point scoring efforts at least once in the past five games. -- Snellings


27. Cleveland Cavaliers
Record: 4-14

This was easily the best week of the season for the Cavaliers, who more than held their own in LeBron James' return to Cleveland on Wednesday before winning both ends of a back-to-back with the Sixers and Rockets. The victory in Philly, in particular, was impressive, as the 76ers were 10-0 at home. These are all positive developments for a Cavs club that hasn't had much good news as of late. -- Herring


28. Chicago Bulls
Record: 5-15

His defense is still nothing to brag about, and probably won't ever be, but Jabari Parker has found something of a rhythm offensively. He has averaged nearly 21 points and nine rebounds while shooting nearly 49 percent overall and 40 percent from 3-point range in his past five games. -- Herring


29. Phoenix Suns
Record: 4-15

The Suns are getting a boost from veteran guard Jamal Crawford off the bench. The 38-year-old has averaged 13 points and two 3-pointers made the past three games. Phoenix also got a game-winning jumper with 0.8 seconds left in a rare win in a 116-114 triumph against the Bucks. While Crawford, Devin Booker and rookie center Deandre Ayton are all playing well, the Suns are still struggling, as they are the only team in the conference with fewer than nine wins. -- Spears


30. Atlanta Hawks
Record: 4-16

The Hawks snapped a 10-game losing streak on Sunday against Charlotte when Kent Bazemore found an open driving lane to the rim with five seconds remaining. The losing hasn't been without hope, including Trae Young's 25-point, 17-assist effort and the auspicious return of John Collins. But the highlight of the week was Vince Carter notching career point 25,000 on a two-handed dunk with 0.5 seconds left in Wednesday's game. -- Arnovitz