The Suns have continued to roll despite recent injuries and lineup absences.
As we enter Week 9 of the NBA schedule, Christmas (and its slate of five games on ABC and ESPN) is just 12 days away, which means trade season is just two days way.
On Dec. 15, most of the players who signed new contracts this past summer are eligible to be traded. That doesn’t mean that something is going to happen on Wednesday, but it’s certainly not impossible. And with teams having a pretty good grasp of how their season is going, it’s certainly could be time to make changes.
Of course, all those players becoming trade-eligible really opens up the possibilities in regard to the Philadelphia 76ers and Ben Simmons. It seems pretty clear that Simmons won’t be playing for the Sixers this season, so they have between now and the Feb. 10 trade deadline to get something for him and maximize their opportunity to compete for a championship with Joel Embiid.
It will be fascinating to see what they ultimately get for him, when that deal takes place, and how many teams the Sixers need to involve to make it work for all parties.
On the floor, the Sixers got their biggest win of the season on Saturday, preventing Stephen Curry from making history on their floor and knocking the Warriors down from the No. 1 spot in the Power Rankings.
Plus-Minus Players of the Week
Teams of the Week
- Make It Last Forever: Utah (3-0) — Before the Sixers beat the Warriors, they got thumped by the Jazz. But they were just one of three teams that lost to Utah by more than 20 points last week.
- Something Just Ain’t Right: Detroit (0-4) — The Pistons had a few opportunities to end their losing streak (now at 12 games), playing the Thunder, the struggling Wizards, and the Pelicans. No dice.
East vs. West
Schedule strength through Week 8
- Toughest: 1. Portland, 2. Cleveland, 3. Detroit
- Easiest: 1. L.A. Lakers, 2. Utah, 3. Golden State
- Schedule strength is based on cumulative opponent record, and adjusted for home vs. away and days of rest before a game.
Movement in the Rankings
- High jumps of the week: L.A. Lakers (+5), Memphis (+5), Indiana (+4)
- Free falls of the week: Boston (-7), Chicago (-4), Minnesota (-3), New York (-3)
Week 9 Team to Watch
- L.A. Lakers — The Lakers have shown some signs of life, winning five of their last seven games to climb above .500 and into sixth place in the West. But it’s been a pretty easy stretch of schedule and the opponents get tougher with a three-game road trip this week. The Lakers are in Dallas on Wednesday, in Minnesota on Friday, and in Chicago on Sunday. It will be their first meeting with the Mavs and their second time facing both the Bulls and Wolves, who each beat the Lakers handily in L.A. last month.
Previous Power Rankings
Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank)
OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank)
DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank)
NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions (League Rank)
The league has averaged 98.7 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 108.4 points scored per 100 possessions this season.
NBA.com’s Power Rankings, released every Monday during the season, are just one man’s opinion. If you have an issue with the rankings, or have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail or contact him via Twitter.
Pace: 100.9 (4) OffRtg: 110.3 (8) DefRtg: 103.6 (2) NetRtg: +6.6 (3)
Though the Suns are 21-4 and have a starting lineup that went to The Finals five months ago, that starting lineup hasn’t been particularly great this season. It’s outscored its opponents by just 0.9 points per 100 possessions (by just three total points in its 292 minutes), a mark which ranks 22nd among 37 lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together. It wasn’t exactly dominant last regular season (plus-4.7 per 100) either.
But the Suns are 3-1 without Devin Booker (4-1 if you count the win over the Warriors in which he injured his hamstring in the first half), and they thumped the Celtics on Friday (Boston’s worst offensive performance since Week 1) without both Booker and Deandre Ayton. While the Suns’ starting lineup has allowed 110.5 points per 100 possessions, all other Phoenix lineups have allowed just 101.4. JaVale McGee filled in for Ayton on Friday and registered 21 points (his highest total in 2 1/2 years), 15 rebounds and two blocks in a little more than 26 minutes. He has the third-best rim protection mark (behind only those of Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo) among 37 players that have defended at least 100 shots at the rim, and the Suns have allowed less than a point per possession with him on the floor.
The Suns have played only seven games (every other team has played at least nine) against the 14 teams that currently have winning records. Six of their next eight games are within that group, with one of the exceptions being their visit to Portland on Tuesday, when they’ll have a rest disadvantage.
Week 9: @ LAC, @ POR, vs. WAS, vs. CHA
Pace: 100.1 (7) OffRtg: 111.9 (4) DefRtg: 99.9 (1) NetRtg: +12.0 (1)
Stephen Curry, it seems, is human. It’s not like he hasn’t been in the spotlight before, but with the hype surrounding his chase of the all-time 3-point record reaching a fever pitch last week, Curry shot just 9-for-31 (29%) from beyond the arc against the Blazers and Sixers. So he remains six 3s away from tying Ray Allen and seven from holding the record for himself. Next stop: Indiana, with only the Wizards (34%) having allowed their opponents to take a lower percentage of their shots from 3-point range than the Pacers (35%). The only player to make seven 3s against Indiana this season was LaMelo Ball on opening night, but defending Curry is obviously unlike anything the Pacers have had to do this season.
The Warriors had a 13-point lead in the third quarter on Saturday, but the loss in Philly was their first defeat that wasn’t within five points in the last five minutes. They rank just 22nd offensively (107.8 points scored per 100 possessions) over the last 15 days, having seen a big drop in the percentage of their shots (24%, down from 30% prior) that have come in the restricted area. The 3-point record is the main topic of conversation, but the Warriors are now in second place in the West.
They’ve got four more games (two back-to-backs) on this trip through the East, and the Pacers are actually playing better than the other three opponents.
Week 9: @ IND, @ NYK, @ BOS, @ TOR
Pace: 98.1 (20) OffRtg: 117.5 (1) DefRtg: 106.2 (6) NetRtg: +11.3 (2)
The Jazz are seemingly in the portion of their schedule where they just destroy everything in sight. They’ve won seven straight games, with five of the seven wins having come by 22 points or more. The Jazz are the only team to have scored more than 130 points per 100 possessions three times this season, and all three instances have come in the last two weeks. Two of the three came against teams — Boston and Minnesota — that ranked fifth and eighth defensively prior to their meeting with the Jazz.
Over the course of the winning streak, the Jazz have scored an amazing 136.4 points per 100 possessions (shooting 66% on 2s and 48% on 3s) after halftime. Overall, they’ve scored 4.5 more points per 100 possessions than any other team this season. They continue to rain 3s on their opponents, but, as noted on Thursday, the real improvement has come in the paint, where they’ve shot 61.1% (best in the league), up from 56.8% (14th) last season. Rudy Gobert has shot 80% in the restricted area and the Jazz have four of the 33 players who’ve shot 45% or better on at least 50 non-restricted-area shots in the paint.
The Jazz have two six-game homestands this season, and the first of the two begins Wednesday (after a three-day break). The toughest defense they’ll face between now and their Jan. 1 meeting with the Warriors is that of the fourth-ranked Clippers.
Week 9: vs. LAC, vs. SAS, vs. WAS
Pace: 99.8 (10) OffRtg: 110.5 (6) DefRtg: 106.3 (7) NetRtg: +4.2 (4)
If you’ve followed the Bucks over the last few years, you know that, when they’ve lost, it’s often because the opponent made a lot of 3s. That hasn’t been the case as much this season — they’ve actually allowed more 3s per game in their wins (14.6) than in their losses (13.1) – but their first defeat in which they’ve had their three best players available came with the Heat shooting 22-for-47 from beyond the arc, including 9-for-15 from the corners. Only the Heat themselves (48.0%) have allowed their opponents to take a greater percentage of their shots from 3-point range than the Bucks (45.6%).
The Bucks still have the league’s second-best record (12-2), with top-five marks on both ends of the floor, since Khris Middleton’s return to the lineup. (They’re not far from ranking in the top five on both ends overall.) The Rockets and Knicks combined for 36 3s against them over the weekend, but the Bucks outscored the two teams by a combined score of 118-85 in the restricted area (80-64) and on free throws (38-21).
The wins in Houston and New York were the start of a stretch where the Bucks are playing 13 of 14 games against teams that are currently at or below .500, with the one exception being their game against the Cavs on Saturday. The Bucks had a rest advantage when they won a close game last week, but the Cavs (who have Thursday and Friday off) will have it this time, with the Bucks in New Orleans the night before.
Week 9: @ BOS, vs. IND, @ NOP, vs. CLE
Pace: 99.9 (9) OffRtg: 109.5 (13) DefRtg: 106.0 (5) NetRtg: +3.5 (7)
Entering the Nets’ big game against the Warriors about a month ago, Kevin Durant had a true shooting percentage of 68.2%, which would have been the best mark in NBA history for a player averaging at least 25 points per game (topping Stephen Curry’s mark of 67.5% in 2017-18). Durant hasn’t been nearly as efficient since then (57.7%), but he continues to carry the Nets offensively. And what was kind of amazing is that he was leading the league in scoring without a single 40-point game … until Sunday, when he dropped 51 in Detroit. (There were 19 40-point games from other players prior to that.)
Durant is making an impact on the other floor as well. When the Nets lost in Houston without him on Wednesday, it was their worst defensive performance (114 points allowed on 93 possessions) since opening night. And in their three wins last week, they held the Mavs, Hawks and Pistons to just 40 points on 70 fourth-quarter possessions (57.1 per 100), with Durant’s block of Trae Young being the defensive highlight. Nic Claxton barely got any first-half playing time in those three games, but was on the floor for all but 38 seconds of the three fourth quarters, getting key stops against both Young and Luka Doncic after switches.
The Nets and Warriors remain the only teams that haven’t lost two straight games. The Nets have a five-game homestand before they head West for Christmas, and they’ll have a rest advantage (with the opponent having played the night before) for each of their next three games. They’re 2-1 in rest-advantage games thus far, though both wins (Oct. 31 and Nov. 5) were against Detroit.
Week 9: vs. TOR, vs. PHI, vs. ORL, vs. DEN
Pace: 98.1 (19) OffRtg: 108.2 (19) DefRtg: 104.1 (3) NetRtg: +4.1 (5)
The Cavs are looking more and more like one of the best teams in the NBA. They’ve won seven of their last nine games, with the two losses coming (by a total of nine points) to the Jazz (winners of seven straight) and Bucks (12 of their last 14). Overall, the Cavs have played the league’s second toughest schedule to date, with 16 of their 28 games having come against the other 13 teams that currently have winning records. They’re only 5-11 in those 16 games, but three of the five wins, including a destruction of the Bulls on Wednesday, have come in this 7-2 stretch.
The Cavs have outscored the league’s second toughest schedule by 4.1 points per 100 possessions, the league’s fifth best mark and an improvement of 12.4 per 100 from last season. In the last 25 years, that improvement has only been topped by the 2007-08 Celtics (+14.3) and the 1997-98 Spurs (+13.2), two teams that added two Hall of Famers to their starting lineups. So, Lauri Markkanen is David Robinson (it seems they’ll have military service in common) and Evan Mobley is Tim Duncan, basically.
This team knows how it wants to play, it seems to have answers for however you want to defend it, and its starting lineup has been nearly as good on offense (116.2 points scored per 100 possessions) as its been on defense (96.9 allowed), even though it essentially has only one guy who can handle the ball. Darius Garland has been fantastic running the pick-and-roll, Isaac Okoro has been an improved finisher at the rim (as Karl-Anthony Towns witnessed up close), and the bigs have done a lot more than just catch lobs. (Sometimes, they throw lobs to each other.)
Four of the Cavs’ five most efficient games of the season have come in December. That includes their Dec. 1 win in Miami, in which they scored 111 points on just 93 possessions. They’ll host the Heat on Monday, and they’ll begin a big, three-game trip (through Milwaukee, Atlanta and Boston) on Saturday.
Week 9: vs. MIA, vs. HOU, @ MIL, @ ATL
Pace: 96.6 (26) OffRtg: 110.4 (7) DefRtg: 106.9 (9) NetRtg: +3.5 (6)
Jimmy Butler returned from a four-game absence on Monday, only to re-aggravate his bruised tailbone with another hard fall in the first half against Memphis. The Heat were the fifth straight victim of the Grizzlies’ grab-the-first-lead-and-never-give-it-up routine, committing a season-high 23 turnovers and making a season-low six 3-pointers. Butler couldn’t finish the game, missed the next two, and isn’t with the team as the Heat begin a four-game trip in Cleveland on Monday.
But the Heat won their two more important games last week, holding the Bucks and Bulls to just 102 points per 100 possessions on Wednesday and Saturday. The win over Milwaukee was the champs’ first defeat with Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the lineup. The Bulls were obviously shorthanded themselves, but the Heat outscored them by 13 points in less than 27 minutes with Chicago’s three healthy starters on the floor. Miami made 41 3-pointers and recorded assists on 80% of its buckets over the two wins.
The Heat have now outscored their opponents (by two points) in 314 total minutes with Kyle Lowry on the floor without Butler or Bam Adebayo. Caleb Martin had a huge game (career-high 28 points) before being lost to health and safety protocols and Duncan Robinson may have found his shot. He’s still below the league average (34.8%) for the season, but is 16-for-35 (46%) from 3-point range over the last five games, now tied (with Bojan Bogdanovic) for the league lead with 29 corner 3s.
The Heat’s stretch of important Eastern Conference matchups continues with games in Cleveland and Philadelphia. They were clobbered by the Cavs earlier this month and have yet to face the Sixers.
Week 9: @ CLE, @ PHI, @ ORL, @ DET
Pace: 98.9 (14) OffRtg: 109.6 (12) DefRtg: 106.8 (8) NetRtg: +2.8 (8)
A week ago, the Bulls were just a half game out of first place, coming off a big win in Brooklyn. Now, they’re in the midst of a COVID outbreak, with nine players (including one who just joined the team) in Health and Safety Protocols. They managed to pick up a win against Denver (behind a big game from Zach LaVine) on Monday, but then lost two games in Cleveland and Miami by a total of 49 points. After that, they lost LaVine.
Coby White (who entered the protocols on Dec. 1) is out of quarantine and Javonte Green (Dec. 3) could be out soon. But, as we’ve seen elsewhere around the league, returning from quarantine is not the same as being ready to play.
The (thin) silver lining is that the Bulls are in a stretch of schedule where they’re playing just three games over 10 days from Dec. 9-18. (They have three stretches of five games in seven days this season, with the next of those beginning Dec. 26.) Their visit from the Pistons on Tuesday also begins a stretch of nine games where the Lakers (who they’ll host on Sunday) are the only opponent currently over .500. So there’s an opportunity to tread water if they can keep everybody else healthy.
Week 9: vs. DET, @ TOR, vs. LAL
Pace: 95.9 (30) OffRtg: 110.0 (9) DefRtg: 109.0 (18) NetRtg: +1.0 (12)
The Sixers escaped Charlotte with two narrow wins last week, having failed to show much urgency on the defensive end of the floor and having allowed the shorthanded Hornets to score 100 points in the restricted area over the two games. When they returned home, they couldn’t finish defensive possessions against the Jazz, allowing the league’s No. 1 offense to grab 16 offensive boards and score 91 points (on just 72 possessions) over the final 36 minutes.
But with all eyes on Philly on Saturday, the Sixers became just the second team (and the first since October) to hold the Warriors under a point per possession. They stuck to the history-chasing Stephen Curry and closed down the openings that he creates for others. The starting lineup coach Doc Rivers employed (with Matisse Thybulle in Danny Green’s place) had been outscored by 30 points per 100 possessions in 52 minutes prior to Saturday, but the change worked out. Nobody has defended the elder Curry on more shots than Thybulle this season, and the Kia MVP favorite is 5-for-20 (including 2-for-15 from 3-point range) on those shots.
The Sixers still have two more games on this stretch of seven straight against teams that rank in the top seven offensively. And when this stretch is over, they get a visit from the guy who scored 51 points on Sunday.
Week 9: @ MEM, vs. MIA, @ BKN, vs. NOP
Pace: 99.0 (12) OffRtg: 110.5 (5) DefRtg: 110.3 (23) NetRtg: +0.2 (13)
The Grizzlies’ no-Ja-Morant winning streak came to an end with a 21-7, fourth-quarter run from the Mavs on Wednesday. The Grizzlies rank 26th in free throw percentage (despite having three rotation guys who’ve shot better than 90%) and they were 15-for-25 from the line in a game they lost by eight. They’ve barely scored a point per possession in two games against the Mavs this month. (Only the Thunder’s offense has been worse against Dallas’ 15th-ranked defense.)
But the Grizzlies rebounded by shutting down the Lakers 24 hours later. Some of the Lakers’ offensive issues (like some of their 22 turnovers) were self-inflicted, but the Grizzlies’ rotations and close-outs were on point in what was the sixth time since they lost Morant that they held their opponent under a point per possession. Their win over the Rockets on Saturday was a more efficient game on both ends of the floor, but the Grizzlies still have the league’s No. 1 defense over this 7-1 stretch.
It’s not clear when we’ll get an answer to the “Can they defend this well with Morant?” question, because the point guard is now in health and safety protocols. But his absence has obviously provided an opportunity for other guys to shine offensively. Desmond Bane (21.2 points per game over the last five) was hurting the Lakers so badly on Thursday that they ran a double-team at him when he iso’d against Carmelo Anthony early in the fourth quarter.
The Grizzlies’ four-game homestand wraps Monday against the Sixers, but they could be without Steven Adams, who sprained his left ankle against the Rockets. Over the last two seasons, Joel Embiid has shot just 15-for-39 (38%, with just six free throw attempts) when being defended by Adams.
Week 9: vs. PHI, @ POR, @ SAC, vs. POR
Pace: 99.4 (11) OffRtg: 106.1 (25) DefRtg: 104.9 (4) NetRtg: +1.2 (11)
The Clippers’ reserves have been terrific all season, ranking as the fifth-best bench in the league. But there’s big a difference between winning the minutes when you star is off the floor and winning the games when the star isn’t available at all. The Clippers lost to the Kings in their first game of the season without Paul George, but they beat the Celtics and Magic without him last week, with six guys averaging double-figures over the two games.
Rookie Brandon Boston Jr. scored 27 points against Boston, driving through Marcus Smart, pulling up for early-clock 3s and going behind the back in transition. Luke Kennard shot 11-for-17 from beyond the arc over the two wins, and now has the second best mark (45.1%) among 115 players with at least 100 3-point attempts. And Reggie Jackson came up huge down the stretch on Saturday, scoring or creating each of the Clippers’ final 13 points, and capping it all with the game-winning jumper. George (11-for-21) and Jackson (13-for-25) are two of eight players who have shot better than 50% on at least 20 clutch shots this season.
The Clippers are now 10-4 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, and 5-8 otherwise. (Only five teams have fewer non-clutch wins.) After they host the first-place Suns on Monday, they’ll have played 19 of their 28 games at home. The schedule will start to get road-heavy with their visit to Utah on Wednesday.
Week 9: vs. PHX, @ UTA, @ OKC
Pace: 101.2 (2) OffRtg: 112.9 (2) DefRtg: 113.1 (30) NetRtg: -0.1 (17)
Cody Martin committed one of the biggest mental mistakes we’ve seen in a long time, intentionally fouling De’Aaron Fox in the backcourt with the Hornets up one, the Kings in the bonus, and only 2.4 seconds left on Friday. But Fox bailed him out, missing both free throws, and the Hornets escaped with a win in what was their fifth straight game that was within three points in the final minute of the fourth quarter. Somebody get Eric Collins some hot tea for those vocal chords.
Aside from the dumb foul, Martin (the official league leader in 3-point percentage at 48.3%) has been solid as the Hornets’ starting point guard with five guys (including LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier and Ish Smith) in health and safety protocols. The absences haven’t hurt the Charlotte offense, which has scored 122 points per 100 possessions over the four games without Ball and Rozier. The opponents haven’t been highly ranked defensively, but the Hornets even scored efficiently (115.4 per 100) in 73 total minutes with Joel Embiid on the floor as they lost two close games to the Sixers last week. Kelly Oubre Jr. (66.0%) and Miles Bridges (62.3%) rank eighth and 16th in effective field goal percentage among 121 players with at least 50 field goal attempts in December.
The Hornets and Celtics are the only two teams that haven’t had a rest advantage game this season (a couple of teams have had six), and they’ll both have their first on Monday. The Hornets’ is the first game of their longest road trip of the season — six games in West arenas over 11 days — and they’re just 1-5 in Western Conference arenas thus far.
Week 9: @ DAL, @ SAS, @ POR, @ PHX
Pace: 98.4 (18) OffRtg: 112.7 (3) DefRtg: 110.4 (24) NetRtg: +2.3 (9)
The Hawks have followed their seven-game winning streak with a 2-4 stretch, unable to find any consistency on either end of the floor. Defense has obviously been the larger issue this season, but they scored just 14 points on 26 fourth-quarter possessions (with as many turnovers as field goals) against Brooklyn on Friday, losing a game they led by 11 in the third.
Overall, the Hawks are one of two teams — Charlotte is the other — with a higher effective field goal percentage on shots outside the paint (53.5%, third) than they have in the paint (53.1%, 24th). But they were 1-for-13 outside the restricted area in that fourth quarter, continuing to struggle offensively down the stretch of close games. Last season, the Hawks ranked seventh in clutch offense (114.2 points scored per 100 possessions). This season, they rank 30th, having scored just 46 points on 60 clutch possessions (76.7 per 100) as they’ve gone 3-6 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. Trae Young leads the league in clutch usage rate (47.9%), but is 7-for-25 on clutch shots, with just one assist and five turnovers.
After an 8-1 start at home, the Hawks have lost four straight at State Farm Arena, scoring less than 105 per 100 in three of the four losses. They still have five games left on a stretch where they’re playing 13 of 18 at home.
Week 9: vs. HOU, @ ORL, vs. DEN, vs. CLE
Pace: 97.0 (24) OffRtg: 107.4 (21) DefRtg: 108.9 (17) NetRtg: -1.5 (22)
The Wizards’ slide continues, with an overtime escape in Detroit (against a team that’s lost 12 straight) being the only win in their last five games. What was a top-five defense just a few weeks ago continues to struggle, and the offense hasn’t been able to compensate.
There are eight lineups that have been outscored by at least 10 points per 100 possessions in 100 minutes or more. Five of those belong to the Rockets, Pistons, Thunder (x 2) and Spurs, teams that have won no more than 10 games. Two of the others (along with the Rockets’ lineup) have been shelved (by the Knicks and Mavs) because they were so ineffective. The seventh is that of the Wizards (minus-10.7 in 223 minutes), which has scored just 96.1 points per 100 possessions.
Health and Safety Protocols have taken Kyle Kuzma out of the lineup (right after he hit the game-winner in Detroit), and the new group (Deni Avdija in Kuzma’s place) didn’t make a 3-pointer in its 10.6 minutes against Utah on Saturday. Bradley Beal’s 3-point shooting (26% for the season) continues to confound. A greater percentage of his attempts (57%) have come off the catch this season (it was 53% last season), but his 26.3% on catch-and-shoot 3s is the worst mark among 101 players with at least 75 attempts.
The Wizards’ longest homestand of the season (six games over 11 days) begins Monday in Utah. They’re 2-2 in Western Conference arenas thus far.
Week 9: @ DEN, @ SAC, @ PHX, @ UTA
Pace: 101.1 (3) OffRtg: 107.2 (23) DefRtg: 107.6 (11) NetRtg: -0.4 (19)
There are certainly reasons to downplay that the Lakers have risen to sixth place in the West, having won five of their last seven games. The teams below them in the standings have all had major issues regarding absences, consistency, or just lack of talent. And the five wins have come against the Pistons, Kings, Celtics, Thunder and Magic. The Lakers got thumped in the second half by the Grizzlies on Thursday and haven’t beat one of the 17 teams currently .500 or better in more than a month (Nov. 10 vs. Miami).
But they have twice as many double-digit wins in the last 13 days (4) as they did prior to that (2). If you’re going to beat bad teams, it’s certainly better to beat them comfortably. They allowed just 101.3 points per 100 possessions over their four games last week and, against the two good/decent teams they played (Boston and Memphis), they were a plus-21 in 41 total minutes with Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the floor together.
It’s the first real signs of progress, though two straight games without Davis (sore left knee) has put the important stuff on pause. The Lakers do have two days off before they begin a three-game trip in Dallas on Wednesday. It’s an important game in the standings (and for L.A.’s continued development), though it’s not clear if Davis or Luka Doncic will be available.
Week 9: @ DAL, @ MIN, @ CHI
Pace: 98.1 (21) OffRtg: 107.4 (20) DefRtg: 107.2 (10) NetRtg: +0.2 (14)
The Celtics’ five-game trip included one of the most efficient performances of the last 25 years (their 145 points on 97 possessions in Portland), but it was their worst five-game stretch of defense this season. They allowed more than 119 points per 100 possessions as they lost four of the five games, with their opponents taking 34% of their shots in the restricted area, up from 23% prior to the trip. The Lakers’ 64 points in the restricted area on Tuesday were the second most for any team in a game this season (topped by the Lakers’ own 66 against Houston on Nov. 2).
The Celtics were without Jaylen Brown for the entire trip. And for the season, they’ve allowed 11.2 fewer points per 100 possessions with Brown on the floor (98.8) than they have with him off the floor (110.0). That’s the ninth biggest on-off differential among 283 players who’ve played at least 300 minutes through Sunday.
With the five-game trip (their longest of the season) in the books, the Celtics have played 17 of their 27 games on the road. They now play 15 of their next 20 at home, with a five-game homestand (their longest of the season) beginning Monday. It includes a visit from two of the best teams in the league, but also three critical games – vs. the Knicks, Sixers and Cavs – in regard to the Eastern Conference standings.
Week 9: vs. MIL, vs. GSW, vs. NYK
Pace: 96.3 (28) OffRtg: 109.0 (15) DefRtg: 109.3 (19) NetRtg: -0.3 (18)
The Nuggets went 4-3 on their seven-game road trip, alternating wins and losses, with the difference between success and failure mostly being about their offense. Nikola Jokic (who recorded three straight triple-doubles for the second time in his career) shot no worse than 62% in the four wins and no better than 43% in the three losses.
Of course, the Nuggets still outscored their opponent with Jokic on the floor in two of the three defeats. Over the seven games, they were almost 37 points per 100 possessions better with him in the game (plus-14.8) than they were with him on the bench (minus-22.1). JaMychal Green is generally on the other end of that *on-off differential, having played just 12 (3%) of his 360 total minutes alongside the Kia MVP (down from 42% last season). But Green did provide a boost of energy on both ends of the floor (offensive boards, drawn charges, big blocks) in Denver’s overtime win in New Orleans on Wednesday.
* For the season, it’s 29.1 points per 100 possessions, the biggest differential among highest among 283 players who’ve played at least 300 total minutes.
The Nuggets’ longest road trip of the season is over, but they’re home for just two games before heading back East. They’re 5-6 against the Eastern Conference thus far, after going 21-9 last season.
Week 9: vs. WAS, vs. MIN, @ ATL, @ BKN
Pace: 96.4 (27) OffRtg: 107.3 (22) DefRtg: 108.2 (15) NetRtg: -0.9 (20)
If you’ve figured out the Mavs after 26 games, please let the rest of us know what’s going on. Maybe, to have figured out the Mavs is to understand that there’s no figuring them out. They’re the only team to have beaten the Grizzlies in the last 16 days, scoring 28 points in the fourth quarter (against what has been a great defense of late) on Wednesday, despite six turnovers in the period. But they followed that win with a loss in Indiana, shooting 4-for-29 from 3-point range.
The Mavs began the month of December with the highest effective field goal percentage in a game in NBA history (79.5%), and they’ve failed to crack 50% (the league average is 52.1%) in five of their six games since then. Remember when this team (with mostly the same players) had the most efficient offense in NBA history two seasons ago?
Luka Doncic continuing to be hobbled by an ankle injury could be a factor in the Mavs’ recent struggles. They did get their first win of the season without their star on Sunday, holding the Thunder to just 84 points on 95 possessions. They’ve now allowed 11.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Doncic off the floor (100.8) than they have with him on the floor (112.2), though Tim Hardaway Jr. has an even worse on-off differential (13.0 per 100).
The seventh-place Mavs have a three-day break later this weak, but will likely be without Doncic again on Monday (when they get their first crack at the Hornets’ 30th-ranked defense) and Wednesday (when they play their first of three games against the sixth-place Lakers).
Week 9: vs. CHA, vs. LAL, @ MIN
Pace: 96.1 (29) OffRtg: 108.7 (16) DefRtg: 108.8 (16) NetRtg: -0.1 (16)
On a macro level, the Raptors have won three of their last four games and have allowed just 101.3 points per 100 possessions over their last five, protecting the rim (23.6 points per game allowed in the restricted area) much better than they did prior to that (32.4). They’re trending back toward having a better-than-average defense and they got a win on Friday while scoring less than a point per possession themselves (their first such win since October). Appropriately, the go-ahead bucket (a Gary Trent 3) came after two offensive rebounds.
But the Raptors’ worst defensive game in that five-game stretch (and the one loss in the last four) came against the league’s 30th-ranked offense. The Thunder made 17 3s on Wednesday, with eight of the 17 (you guessed it) coming from the corners. Justin Champagnie’s game winning tip-in came after the buzzer and after he left Mike Muscala alone beyond the arc on the previous possession. The Raptors have gotten 31% of their minutes, the league’s fifth highest rate, from rookies (20%, third highest) or second-year players (11%, 13th highest). Inconsistency and mistakes are to be expected.
The Raps’ seven-game homestand ends Monday against the Kings, and their game in Brooklyn is the second game of a back-to-back. But they’re 3-1 (with three straight wins) on the back end of back-to-backs thus far, and their schedule remains home-heavy for another four weeks.
Week 9: vs. SAC, @ BKN, vs. CHI, vs. GSW
Pace: 97.3 (23) OffRtg: 109.7 (11) DefRtg: 108.0 (13) NetRtg: +1.7 (10)
The 20-game mark was seemingly enough for Pacers president Kevin Pritchard. With trade season opening this week, reports have the Pacers open for business regarding their veteran core. And wouldn’t you know it, the Pacers have won three straight games (for the first time this season) amid the turbulence. Team Hard Luck even picked up a “clutch” win against Dallas on Friday (they were 3-12 in games that were within five in the last five minutes prior to that), scoring 12 points over a six-possession stretch with less than five minutes to go.
Overall, the Pacers have scored almost 120 points per 100 possessions over their last five games, easily their best stretch of offense this season. All five of their starters have averaged at least 14 points per game over that stretch, with Domantas Sabonis (80.6%) and Myles Turner (71.4%) ranking first and fourth in effective field goal percentage among 155 players with at least 40 field goal attempts in December. Depth remains an issue – they’ve been outscored by more than 24 points per 100 possessions with Sabonis off the floor this month – but their starting lineup (with Chris Duarte) has outscored its opponents by 19.0 per 100, the fifth best mark among 37 lineups that have played at least 100 minutes. One reserve who has given them good minutes is Oshae Brissett, who was on the floor down the stretch on Friday.
The Pacers are a top-10 team in regard to point differential, both on a per-game (+2.0) and per-100-possessions (+1.7) basis. If they can remain in the top 10 after their next two games — against the Warriors and Bucks — maybe we should hold off on that trade talk.
Week 9: vs. GSW, @ MIL, vs. DET
Pace: 100.3 (5) OffRtg: 106.6 (24) DefRtg: 107.7 (12) NetRtg: -1.1 (21)
After 18 days apart, the GREATEST LINEUP EVER was reunited on Sunday, and it outscored the Blazers by 20 points in 16.1 minutes in what was a five-point win for the Wolves. The G.L.E. — Patrick Beverley, D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jarred Vanderbilt and Karl-Anthony Towns — has now outscored its opponents by 106 points (50.0 per 100 possessions) in its 108 minutes.
That shouldn’t be possible. The Wolves are 12-15.
The win in Portland ended a five-game losing streak in which the Wolves allowed more than 118 points per 100 possessions. Their pick-and-roll defense got eviscerated by the Hawks, Jazz and Cavs last week, with Atlanta and Utah each draining 25 3-pointers and Cleveland scoring 52 points in the restricted area. But maybe the Wolves just needed Russell back in the lineup? They’ve allowed 17.2 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (98.2) than they have with him off the floor (115.4). That’s the best on-off differential on defense (by a pretty healthy margin) among 283 players who’ve played at least 300 minutes, and it’s almost as crazy a stat as the G.L.E.’s plus-106 in 108 minutes.
The Wolves are in ninth place, and their four games are against the three teams directly in front of them in the Western Conference standings.
Week 9: @ DEN, vs. LAL, vs. DAL
Pace: 96.7 (25) OffRtg: 108.3 (17) DefRtg: 110.5 (25) NetRtg: -2.1 (23)
The Knicks were without Alec Burks (personal) and RJ Barrett or Obi Toppin (Health and Safety Protocols) against Milwaukee on Sunday, but Kemba Walker still got his seventh straight DNP-CD. When he was removed from the rotation, logic had it that inevitable absences in the backcourt would eventually provide Walker with another opportunity to play. But if Sunday (when Kevin Knox even got some rotation burn) wasn’t that opportunity, you really have to wonder when it might come. Rookie Quentin Grimes got his first start and scored 27 points (shooting 7-for-13 from 3-point range) against the Bucks, but the Knicks are 1-6 since Tom Thibodeau said that Walker wouldn’t be playing.
They have the league’s 28th-ranked defense (117.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) over that stretch, even though the Bucks are the only top-10 offense they’ve faced in the seven games. On the other end of the floor, they’ve barely scored a point per possession over the last three. Walker isn’t the solution to their problems, but he obviously wasn’t the only problem in the first place.
The Knicks will have a rest advantage (with the opponent having played the night before) in all three of their games this week. The visit from Stephen Curry and the Warriors will draw the most eyes, but the most important game of the three is against the 10th-place Celtics, who they haven’t faced since their double-overtime, bing-bong-inducing thriller on opening night. The Knicks are 2-1 in rest-advantage games thus far, with the two wins — at New Orleans on Oct. 30 and at San Antonio this past Tuesday — being their two most efficient offensive games of the season.
Week 9: vs. GSW, @ HOU, @ BOS
Pace: 99.9 (8) OffRtg: 108.3 (18) DefRtg: 108.2 (14) NetRtg: +0.2 (15)
The Spurs had some gas left in the tank at the end of their five-game week, outscoring the Pelicans, 29-15, in the fourth quarter on Sunday. The offense was clicking, with the Spurs looking very much like a team that ranks in the top six in both ball and player movement. Among 283 players who’ve logged at least 300 total minutes this season, the Spurs have five of the top 10 (including top-ranked Doug McDermott) in regard to average speed on offense, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
The Spurs weren’t so good earlier in games earlier in the week. Over their three losses (to Phoenix, New York and Denver), they were outscored by 60 points (195-135) over the second and third quarters. For the season, the Spurs are a top-three team in both the first (plus-9.8 points per 100 possessions) and fourth quarters (plus-13.6) and a bottom-three team in both the second (minus-10.5) and third (minus-11.3), which is obviously wacky. The differential has been more than twice as big on defense (15.6 per 100) than on offense (7.0).
Despite the loss to the Knicks on Tuesday, the Spurs still have a winning record (5-4) against the Eastern Conference. Their five-game homestand wraps Wednesday with a visit from the Hornets, and then they head West for a four-game trip that includes an extended stay in L.A.
Week 9: vs. CHA, @ UTA, @ SAC
Pace: 98.9 (17) OffRtg: 109.4 (14) DefRtg: 112.6 (28) NetRtg: -3.3 (25)
Before they got Damian Lillard back, the Blazers lost CJ McCollum to a collapsed lung. And as you might imagine, their offense was bad (92.5 points scored per 100 possessions) in two games without either starting guard.
But their defense (against the Clippers and Warriors) was solid, Norman Powell (55 points over the two games) kept them somewhat afloat, and neither game was a blowout. Lillard returned from a five-game absence on Sunday, with the Blazers shuffling the starting lineup even more by replacing Robert Covington with Larry Nance Jr. Alas, Lillard shot 5-for-17, the lineup was outscored by 13 points in less than eight minutes, and the Blazers blew a seven-point, fourth-quarter lead to Minnesota. They actually closed the game with both Covington and Nance on the floor without a center, a look with which they’ve outscored opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions (in 98 total minutes).
Having lost eight of their last nine games, the Blazers have seemingly spiraled out of the playoff picture. But they’ve played the league’s toughest schedule, they’re essentially tied with the 10th-place Kings, and the two teams occupying the top two West Play-In Tournament spots — Dallas and Denver — aren’t exactly taking care of business. Still, trade-scenarios aside, if the Blazers want to remain competitive, they need to find their footing soon. Their schedule remains home-heavy for another four weeks, but nine of their next 12 games are against teams currently over .500.
Week 9: vs. PHX, vs. MEM, vs. CHA, @ MEM
Pace: 101.3 (1) OffRtg: 104.2 (27) DefRtg: 110.0 (21) NetRtg: -5.8 (26)
The Rockets have had the league’s third-ranked offense (117.8 points scored per 100 possessions) since the start of their seven-game winning streak, which featured victories over Chicago, Charlotte and Brooklyn. They continue to share the ball (assisting on more than 2/3 of their buckets) and shoot well from the perimeter, with almost half of their shots (48.6%) coming from 3-point range. Extracting Daniel Theis has led to better spacing and more room for players to drive, roll and cut to the rim. The Rockets lead the league (by a wide margin) in the percentage of their shots (39%) that have come in the restricted area, and they’ve shot 68.1% there over the last nine games, up from 61.3% prior to that.
Their opponents have had some offensive success as well. The winning streak came to an end when the Bucks scored 65 points on 50 possessions in the second half on Friday, and the Grizzlies never gave up the lead after scoring 40 points on 25 possessions in the first quarter the following night. Fouling remains an issue for the Rockets, who rank 29th in opponent free throw rate (25.9 attempts per 100 shots from the field).
The Rockets are just three weeks into a seven-week stretch in which they’re mostly playing the Eastern Conference (18 of 24 games). Their wins over the Bulls, Hornets and Nets were all at home and they’re just 0-2 in East arenas. They’ll play each of their next eight games against the opposite conference, with seven of those eight on the road.
Week 9: @ ATL, @ CLE, vs. NYK, @ DET
Pace: 100.3 (5) OffRtg: 109.7 (10) DefRtg: 112.2 (27) NetRtg: -2.5 (24)
The Kings played a high-scoring barn burner against the league’s 28th-ranked offense on Wednesday, by far the Magic’s most efficient game of the season. But the Kings did play just enough defense (a few minutes worth early in the third quarter) to gain some separation from the 14th-place team in the East. The Kings have allowed 118.9 points per 100 possessions with Tristan Thompson on the floor, the highest on-court mark among 345 players who’ve averaged at least 10 minutes per game. But even Thompson got in on the action on defense in that third-quarter run.
It was also the Kings’ most efficient game of the season, and the offense carried over into the first game of their three-game trip, when they scored 71 points on 53 first-half possessions in Charlotte. De’Aaron Fox totaled 64 points over the two games, but the Kings blew a 12-point, second-half lead to the shorthanded Hornets and Fox missed the game-winning free throws. Prior to that, the Kings were 15-for-15 from the line with the score within three points in the last three minutes.
The Kings have been without Richaun Holmes for all but 10 minutes of the last three games. On Saturday in Cleveland, they started a front line of Marvin Bagley III and Alex Len … and gave up 81 points in the first half. After they finish their trip in Toronto on Monday, they won’t have to leave Northern California for almost three weeks, playing nine of 10 at home, with the only road game at Golden State.
Week 9: @ TOR, vs. WAS, vs. MEM, vs. SAS
Pace: 98.9 (16) OffRtg: 99.7 (30) DefRtg: 109.4 (20) NetRtg: -9.7 (28)
In that game the Thunder lost by 73, they shot just 5-for-23 (22%) in the first quarter. They haven’t been much better in the first quarter since then and for the season, they’ve been outscored by 21.0 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark for any team in any quarter, in the opening period. But they rebounded from the 73-point loss (and two first quarters in which they allowed 73 points on 53 total possessions) to win their next two games, erasing double-digit deficits in Detroit and Toronto and winning the two second halves by a combined scored of 120-85.
Among 135 players with at least 200 field goal attempts in each of the last two seasons, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has seen the second biggest drop in effective field goal percentage (from 57.1% to 46.3%). He’s also seen drops in throw rate and assist rate from last season. But he totaled 27 free throw attempts and 22 assists (with just five turnovers) in the two wins, capping the Toronto victory with a drive and kick out to Mike Muscala for the game-winning 3.
After coming up empty against the Lakers and Mavs over the weekend, the Thunder are 7-6 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes and 1-12 otherwise. (Only the Wizards (12-1, 3-11) have a bigger discrepancy between their clutch and non-clutch records.) They’ve already played clutch games against both the Pelicans (a win) and Clippers (a loss), and they’ll wrap up their four-game homestand against those two teams on Wednesday and Saturday.
Week 9: vs. NOP, vs. LAC
Pace: 97.9 (22) OffRtg: 105.8 (26) DefRtg: 111.6 (26) NetRtg: -5.8 (27)
With Zion Williamson having suffered a setback with his foot rehab, we now wonder if he’ll play at all this season. Since they drafted him in 2019, the Pelicans are 40-45 (.471) in games Williamson has played and 29-59 (.330) in games he hasn’t. That first mark isn’t great, but it probably gets you in the Western Conference Play-In Tournament this season.
The Pelicans are 7-9, with some wins over good teams, since they got Brandon Ingram back exactly one month ago. Their two most used lineups — Devonte’ Graham, Ingram, Herbert Jones and Jonas Valanciunas with either Josh Hart or Nickeil Alexander-Walker at the other guard spot — have allowed just 101.8 points per 100 possessions in 239 total minutes. Jones continues to look like an impact player on that end of the floor.
But the Pelicans were 1-12 before the 7-9 stretch, they still sit in last place in the Western Conference, and those defensive numbers have come against a handful of bad offenses. Their game in Oklahoma City on Wednesday will be the end of a stretch where the Pelicans will have played eight of 12 games against teams that currently rank in the bottom 10 offensively. So games against Bucks and Sixers (two teams that rank in the top 10) over the weekend will be good tests.
Week 9: @ OKC, vs. MIL, @ PHI
Pace: 99.0 (13) OffRtg: 102.5 (28) DefRtg: 112.9 (29) NetRtg: -10.5 (30)
Through Sunday, there are eight teams that are at least five games under .500. The Magic are 0-5 against the other seven, having allowed the Kings to score 142 points on 101 possessions on Wednesday. Mo Bamba ranks second in the league with 2.2 blocks per game, but as De’Aaron Fox attacked him in the paint (once, twice, thrice), his footwork was that of a guy more interested in compiling blocks than keeping the man with the ball away from the basket. Ultimately, he did neither.
The Magic offense has showed improvement, with three of its five most efficient games of the season having come on the five-game trip that wrapped up on Sunday. Cole Anthony and Franz Wagner having combined to average 40.6 points and 8.6 assists over the five games. For the season, Anthony has shot 37.3% on pull-up 3s, the 11th best mark among 59 players who’ve attempted at least 50. Wagner has shot 41.8% on catch-and-shoot 3s, a mark which ranks 22nd among 101 players who’ve attempted at least 75.
The Magic will now play 15 of their next 16 games within the Eastern Conference, with the one exception (Dec. 23 against New Orleans) being their next game within that group of eight teams at the bottom of the standings.
Week 9: vs. ATL, vs. MIA, @ BKN
Pace: 98.9 (15) OffRtg: 100.4 (29) DefRtg: 110.2 (22) NetRtg: -9.8 (29)
The Pistons had multiple opportunities to pick up a win last week. They faced the Thunder and Pelicans for the first time, they went to overtime against the struggling Wizards, and they had a lead in the fourth quarter against Brooklyn on Sunday. But they came up short all four nights, and their losing streak is now at 12 games. To add injury to insult, Jerami Grant is out at least six weeks with a sprained right thumb. Prior to Sunday, the Pistons’ other four starters had played just 10 minutes together without Grant. And against the Nets, their new lineup (with Hamidou Diallo in Grant’s place) was outscored by 16 points in less than 10 minutes.
The Pistons rank 29th offensively, but their performance on the other end of the floor was more disappointing against Oklahoma City on Monday. The Thunder (the only team that ranks lower offensively than the Pistons) outscored them 40-20 in the restricted area, and while the Pistons’ issues began with their inability to contain the ball, they also failed to rotate from the weak side to prevent all those layups and dunks. And Cade Cunningham was seemingly the weak-side guilty party on multiple occasions (one, two, three). The rookie certainly has some tools on that end of the floor (witness this stunt/steal), but he’s probably got to be a little more willing to get dirty under the basket.
The schedule provides Detroit with more opportunities this week. The Bulls are super-shorthanded and two of the Pistons’ four wins have come against the Pacers (who they’ll visit on Thursday) and the Rockets (who they’ll host on Saturday). Both of those teams are playing better than when they lost the Pistons, but neither is unbeatable.
Week 9: @ CHI, @ IND, vs. HOU, vs. MIA