NBA Power Rankings Week 9: The Bucks can't stop winning; James Harden can't stop scoring

The Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers have separated themselves as the top two teams in the league. With identical 24-3 records, the juggernauts are on a collision course ... for Thursday night.

In a potential NBA Finals preview and, much more importantly, an early head-to-head battle for Power Rankings supremacy, the Bucks are hosting the Lakers in a national TV showdown.

As for our latest list: After our dynamic duo checks in, plenty of movement follows in this week's edition.

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

Previous: Week 8 | 7 | 6 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | 1 | Camp | Free agency | Post-Finals

1. Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 24-3
Week 8 ranking: 1

The Bucks haven't lost since Nov. 8, and they weren't challenged much last week, registering four wins over teams with a combined win rate of 31.4% this season. That changes this week, as they start off with games against the Mavericks and Lakers, who combined have a win rate of 78.8%. -- Snellings

This week: DAL, LAL, @NY, IND

2. Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 24-3
Week 8 ranking: 2

The Lakers won their 14th consecutive road game Sunday against the Hawks. The NBA record for most consecutive road wins is 16 by the 1971-72 Lakers. The current squad has to win road games against the Pacers on Tuesday and against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks on Thursday to tie the long-standing record. -- Spears

This week: @IND, @MIL, DEN

3. LA Clippers
Record: 20-8
Week 8 ranking: 4

The absence of Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams explains the loss to the Bulls, if you're just scanning box scores and wondering what in the world happened there. And it came at the conclusion of a six-game, nine-day road trip against primarily Eastern Conference teams. The Clippers did check off Leonard's return to Toronto and another return for Paul George to Indianapolis, handling business along the way. -- Young

This week: PHX, HOU, @SA, @OKC

4. Miami Heat
Record: 19-7
Week 8 ranking: 6

They didn't win, but the Heat showed they are more than capable of hanging with the Lakers. A few plays here, a couple of bounces there, and Miami would've had another marquee win to solidify its status as a legitimate contender. It came up short in the clutch, which is normally this team's strength: On the season, the Heat have a plus-22.3 rating in clutch time (third in the league) -- and on top of that are 5-0 in overtime games this season. -- Young

This week: @MEM, @PHI, NY

5. Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 20-8
Week 8 ranking: 10

Joel Embiid's 38-point, 13-rebound stat line was not the only impressive feat in Thursday's win at Boston. For the first time this season, Philadelphia won on the road against a team over .500. Two under-the-radar developments during the Sixers' 13-3 stretch of games since Nov. 15 is the play of Tobias Harris and the increased usage of first-round pick Matisse Thybulle. In the past five games, Harris is averaging 23.4 points and shooting 49% from the field and 38.1% from 3. Thybulle had been averaging 24.6 minutes in his previous five games before exiting Sunday with an upset stomach. -- Marks

This week: MIA, DAL, WSH

6. Boston Celtics
Record: 17-7
Week 8 ranking: 3

The losses last week at Indiana and at home to Philadelphia proved that the Celtics are entrenched within the second tier of teams in the Eastern Conference. While we certainly can applaud their 17-7 record, the loss to Philadelphia exposed their lack of bench depth. Apart from 20 points from Enes Kanter, the Celtics had only a Brad Wanamaker basket to show for the reserves. If Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown struggles (they shot a combined 8-27 from the field in the Philadelphia loss), Boston does not have a safety net besides Marcus Smart coming off the bench. -- Marks

This week: @DAL, DET, CHA

7. Toronto Raptors
Record: 17-8
Week 8 ranking: 7

The Raptors lost their fourth straight game against elite competition this week, falling by 20 points to the Clippers on an emotional night with Kawhi Leonard receiving his championship ring. This followed losses in their most recent matchups against the 76ers, Rockets and Heat -- who have a combined win rate of 70%. The Raptors bounced back with a win over the Nets, and Toronto starts this week with three very winnable games. -- Snellings

This week: CLE, @DET, WSH, DAL

8. Dallas Mavericks
Record: 17-8
Week 8 ranking: 5

Luka Doncic's sprained right ankle comes at an especially tough time for the Mavs. The Luka-less rally that fell short in overtime against the Heat was the opener of a five-game run through the beasts of the East, with the Bucks, Celtics, 76ers and Raptors up this week. Backup point guards Jalen Brunson and J.J. Barea combined for 30 points, nine rebounds and 13 assists in 47 minutes against Miami. -- MacMahon

This week: @MIL, BOS, @PHI, @TOR

9. Denver Nuggets
Record: 17-8
Week 8 ranking: 8

Sunday's win over New York was a "line drive in the box score" kind of game for Denver. It was ugly for large stretches, but in the end, it was a third straight win as the Nuggets have gotten their feet back under them after a rough patch a week ago. Nikola Jokic played one of his best games of the season against Steven Adams and Oklahoma City on Saturday, and, like the Nuggets tend to do, they found winning plays in the clutch. But maybe more importantly, they've found some more regular run for Michael Porter Jr., who had tangible impact against (Knicks disclaimer incoming) the Knicks. -- Young

This week: ORL, MIN, @LAL

10. Houston Rockets
Record: 17-9
Week 8 ranking: 9

James Harden is such a ridiculous scorer that his 55- and 54-point games on the Rockets' two-game road sweep weren't at all shocking. It's not even his highest-scoring two-game stretch of the past few weeks! But who would have imagined that Harden would need a total of only 11 free throws? Harden's dozen 50-point games in the 2019 calendar year are as many as LeBron James has in his career. No other active player has scored 50 points more than six times, a feat accomplished by Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard. -- MacMahon

This week: SA, @LAC, @PHX

11. Indiana Pacers
Record: 18-9
Week 8 ranking: 11

The Pacers have continued to play well this season, slotting in as the sixth Eastern Conference team with a greater than .600 win percentage and a positive scoring margin of at least 5.0 points. They've been doing this without former All-Star Victor Oladipo, who still is recovering from a knee injury; and it appears that they will have to continue to play without him for the "near future," based on recent comments from coach Nate McMillan. -- Snellings

This week: LAL, SAC, @MIL

12. Brooklyn Nets
Record: 14-12
Week 8 ranking: 13

In Brooklyn's two losses to Charlotte and Toronto this week, the Nets shot a combined 22-of-84 (26.2%) from 3, including 4-of-23 in the second half alone against the Hornets, in a game Brooklyn led by 11 at the break. The Nets would bounce back in a 20-point win over the Sixers on Sunday, hitting 9-of-24 from 3 (37.5%). The rout also saw the return of Wilson Chandler from a 25-game suspension. -- Marks

This week: @NO, @SA, ATL

13. Utah Jazz
Record: 15-11
Week 8 ranking: 12

The Jazz's lack of depth has reached an alarming stage, an issue exacerbated by Mike Conley's sore hamstring. As The Salt Lake Tribune's Andy Larsen tweeted: Utah's starting five outscored the Warriors by 25 points in 21 minutes; all other Jazz lineups were minus-17 in 27 minutes. The Jazz haven't figured out how to generate offense without a finishing/scoring threat at the 5, a role Derrick Favors used to fill when Rudy Gobert rested. Utah averages only 90.3 points per 100 possessions in Ed Davis' 170 minutes. -- MacMahon

This week: ORL, @ATL, @CHA

14. Sacramento Kings
Record: 12-14
Week 8 ranking: 21

Keep an eye on forward Marvin Bagley after his return from a fractured with right thumb. In his third game, the No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft had 17 points and 6 rebounds in 22 minutes in a win over the Warriors on Sunday. Starting point guard De'Aaron Fox could also return from a severely sprained right ankle as early as Tuesday against Charlotte. -- Spears

This week: @CHA, @IND, @MEM

15. Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 11-14
Week 8 ranking: 18

After an impressive three-game winning streak, the Thunder climbed into the actual playoff conversation, sitting seventh in the Western Conference for a week. A one-point loss on the road to the Kings and a humbling loss to the Nuggets in Denver now leave OKC in a tie for eighth. More importantly, it's officially trade season, and the Thunder figure to factor heavily in various rumors and rumblings leading into the Feb. 6 deadline. -- Young

This week: CHI, MEM, PHX, LAC

16. Phoenix Suns
Record: 11-14
Week 8 ranking: 16

Center Deandre Ayton will be eligible to return to action Tuesday against the host Clippers after serving a 25-game suspension for using a banned diuretic. The No. 1 pick of the 2018 draft has played in only one regular-season game this season. Monty Williams has been supportive of Ayton, and the Suns' coach told ESPN's The Undefeated: "At this point, it's bigger than basketball." -- Spears

This week: POR, @LAC, @OKC, HOU

17. Orlando Magic
Record: 12-14
Week 8 ranking: 17

The Magic were tested this week with three games against elite competition, and they struggled in losing by a combined 41 points to the Rockets, Lakers and Bucks -- before bouncing back with a win over the lowly Pelicans. The Magic got excellent news with the return of Nikola Vucevic from an ankle injury on Sunday; their lone All-Star is the key to Orlando remaining in playoff contention this season. -- Snellings

This week: @UTAH, @DEN, @POR

18. Charlotte Hornets
Record: 12-17
Week 8 ranking: 23

The Hornets completed their best week of the season with wins against Washington, Brooklyn and Chicago. The victory over the Nets was important for two reasons: The Hornets overcame a 20-point deficit and also beat a team over .500 on the road for the first time this season. While Devonte' Graham's 40-point performance against Brooklyn was the signature highlight, the Hornets' defense at Chicago was the best overall takeaway. During that game, Charlotte held the Bulls to 73 points on 30% shooting from the field and 20.6% from 3. -- Marks

This week: SAC, @CLE, UTAH, @BOS

19. Detroit Pistons
Record: 11-15
Week 8 ranking: 20

The Pistons earned a big win in Houston to finish their week, capping a stretch of five wins in seven games, with their only losses to the Bucks and Mavericks. Blake Griffin left the Rockets game early with knee soreness, which is of concern, but Derrick Rose picked up the slack with 20 points and 12 assists -- just two games after hitting the game winner against the Pelicans. Rose is averaging 16.4 points and 6.0 assists per game on the season and is a leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate thus far. -- Snellings

This week: WSH, TOR, @BOS, CHI

20. Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 10-16
Week 8 ranking: 15

It's one step forward and two steps back for Portland. And the one step forward was more like a shuffle of the feet. The Blazers have lost three of four, with the one win being over the Knicks. The three losses have come by an average of 16.6 points, preventing any opportunity for Damian Lillard to do his big-shot thing. Carmelo Anthony was a Band-Aid, but a likely temporary one. The offense is a little better since adding him (up 3.2 points per 100), but the defense isn't (down 2.0), as the Blazers rank 21st in defensive rating. -- Young

This week: @PHX, GS, ORL, MIN

21. Minnesota Timberwolves
Record: 10-15
Week 8 ranking: 14

The Timberwolves are in free-fall mode, losers of seven straight games to drop out of the top eight in the Western Conference. Their defense has abandoned them of late, as they have allowed their opponents to score a whopping 127.4 points per game and hit 51.3% on field goal attempts during the losing streak. -- Snellings

This week: NO, @DEN, @POR

22. Chicago Bulls
Record: 10-18
Week 8 ranking: 24

Zach LaVine has shown improvement in his already-talented offensive game by becoming a stronger 3-point shooter. The 6-foot-6 guard is shooting a career-high 41.1% from 3-point range and also is nailing a career-high 3.1 treys per contest. The six-year NBA veteran made all seven of his 3-point attempts during a win over Atlanta on Dec. 11. -- Spears

This week: @OKC, @WSH, @DET

23. San Antonio Spurs
Record: 10-15
Week 8 ranking: 19

Lonnie Walker is taking advantage of a larger role and seems to be earning some trust from coach Gregg Popovich. Walker is averaging 21.7 minutes over the past five games, after getting double-digit minutes only twice in the first 20 games, when he had seven DNP-CDs. Walker, a 2018 first-round pick, has averaged 13.8 points on 54.2% shooting in those five games and is one of only three Spurs with a positive plus-minus (plus-10) during that span. -- MacMahon

This week: @HOU, BKN, LAC

24. Memphis Grizzlies
Record: 9-17
Week 8 ranking: 26

Don't forget about 23-year-old Dillon Brooks when discussing the Grizzlies' intriguing young core. Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and steal of the draft Brandon Clarke are Memphis' cornerstones, but Brooks has a chance to be a long-term part of that group. He just lit it up during the Grizzlies' 3-1 week, when Brooks averaged 22.5 points per game with a 61.7 true shooting percentage. -- MacMahon

This week: MIA, @OKC, @CLE, SAC

25. Washington Wizards
Record: 7-17
Week 8 ranking: 22

All bow to Davis Bertans, your 3-point overlord. There's not much to be excited about right now with the Wizards (they've lost seven of eight), but Bertans' recent 3-point light shows have been somewhat uplifting. In December, Bertans is hitting 5.3 3-pointers a game on almost 50% shooting. -- Young

This week: @DET, CHI, @TOR, @PHI

26. New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 6-21
Week 8 ranking: 25

After such a promising offseason, the Pelicans appear to be falling out of contention for a playoff spot before Zion Williamson makes his debut. The Pelicans hit a new low in New Orleans, as their 12-game losing streak is the franchise's longest since the Hornets moved to the Big Easy. The Pelicans have been outscored by 154 points during the dozen-game drought. -- MacMahon

This week: BKN, @MIN, @GS

27. New York Knicks
Record: 6-21
Week 8 ranking: 30

Our own Kevin Pelton explained it best after the Knicks won on the road against Sacramento: Where would this New York team be if point guard Elfrid Payton had not been injured? In a two-game road win streak, Payton had a plus-9 plus-minus on the court, averaged 15 points per game while shooting 51.9% from the field and 46.2% from 3. While Payton did not start in either contest, he did average 8.6 minutes during the fourth quarter, second highest on the team. -- Marks

This week: ATL, @MIA, MIL

28. Cleveland Cavaliers
Record: 6-20
Week 8 ranking: 29

The Cavaliers will not be measured this season on wins or losses but on two other things: player development and putting their young players in a position to play meaningful minutes in close games. While the 17-point loss to Milwaukee on Saturday would not qualify, the six-point loss to Houston and the win on the road at San Antonio do. In the Houston game, rookie Kevin Porter Jr. scored a career-high 25-points, including six 3-pointers. The next night in San Antonio, Collin Sexton tallied 28 points on only a single turnover in the Cavaliers' overtime triumph. -- Marks

This week: @TOR, CHA, MEM

29. Atlanta Hawks
Record: 6-21
Week 8 ranking: 27

Atlanta's John Collins will be eligible to play next Monday at Cleveland after completing his 25-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance. The struggling Hawks, who are tied with the Knicks for the worst record in the Eastern Conference, could desperately use him. Collins averaged 17.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in five games this season. -- Spears

This week: @NY, UTAH, @BKN

30. Golden State Warriors
Record: 5-23
Week 8 ranking: 28

The injury-plagued and struggling Warriors scored a season-low 79 points against Sacramento on Sunday despite forcing their foes to an NBA season-high 29 turnovers -- Golden State is 0-9 this season when scoring 99 points or fewer. The good news is the new Chase Center has kept Warriors fans interested, as the franchise's sell-out streak was extended to 355 games. -- Spears

This week: @POR, NO