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NBA Power Rankings: Can Miami Heat Unseat Indiana Pacers from Pole Position?

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterNovember 22, 2013

NBA Power Rankings: Can Miami Heat Unseat Indiana Pacers from Pole Position?

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    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    Can you feel it? The rumbling in the NBA power rankings?

    They're moving and changing, just as the actual league that lay beneath them is sorting itself out. In that case, think of these power rankings as the tectonic plates floating around on the magma of actual basketball being played in actual arenas by actual people.

    Not into clumsy, nerdy metaphors? In that case, think of these power rankings as my humble attempt to make sense of the Association from week to week and share the results of those musings with you, the good folks of the Internet.

    Not into earnest declarations and mission statements being laid bare? Too much breaking of the fourth wall for you?

    Then, please, click away, see which teams I slotted where and have at it in the comments below!

30. Utah Jazz

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    You can say this much about the Utah Jazz: They're consistent...ly bad. They've lost four in a row since scoring a seven-point win over the New Orleans Pelicans that ended Utah's eight-game season-starting skid.

    Granted, those four defeats have come against quality clubs, including a home-and-home sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.

    Meanwhile, Jabari Parker has yet to score fewer than 21 points in a game since arriving at Duke. Just sayin'.

    Well, not just sayin', actually. Parker might be the best player in the 2014 draft, the Jazz might wind up with the top pick and the LDS connection between prospect and potential team is difficult to ignore.

29. Milwaukee Bucks

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    The Jazz still own the longest losing streak of the season, but guess who's got the stinkiest skid running?

    That's right—the Milwaukee Bucks!

    Like the Jazz, the Bucks have hit upon hard times during a tough stretch in their schedule. Of the six teams to which Milwaukee has lost over the last week-and-a-half, only one (the Orlando Magic) isn't currently in the playoff picture in either conference.

    And that defeat in Orlando came courtesy of Arron Afflalo's career-best 36-point outburst (more on him later).

    The next 10 games should give Milwaukee ample opportunity to right its ship, though. Between now and Dec. 7, the Bucks will take on the fading Philadelphia 76ers and the bumbling Brooklyn Nets while navigating two games apiece against the Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Bobcats and Boston Celtics.

    If the Bucks don't escape that portion of their season with their dignity intact, it might be high time for team owner Herb Kohl to ditch his desire for long-term mediocrity and give general manager John Hammond the green light to pare down the roster for a real rebuild.

28. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    We're just over three weeks into the season, and already a slew of squads have resorted to holding closed-door, players-only meetings.

    The Cleveland Cavaliers appear to have gotten the ball rolling in that regard. According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, the Cavs had theirs after suffering through a 29-point beatdown at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 13. Subsequent whispers, via the Associated Press, have pegged second-year swingman Dion Waiters as the chief culprit.

    Regardless of who might've tussled with whom at what point, the fact remains that this team is a mess right now. The Cavs have dropped four of their last five, with an overtime win against the Wizards as the lone reprieve and an offense that'd be the NBA's worst absent that of the Jazz.

    On the bright side, Mike Brown has Cleveland defending at a top-10 rate, and as far as that abysmal offense is concerned, Kyrie Irving seems to be finding his stroke.

    The All-Star guard torched John Wall and Co. for a total of 69 points on 23-of-42 shooting from the floor in the Cavs' last two games, both against Washington.

27. Boston Celtics

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    Will the real Boston Celtics please stand up?

    Oh, there you are! A week of blowout losses will do wonders for tempering any team's rejiggered early-season expectations, won't it?

    In Boston's case, that means dropping four games in a week by an average of 16.5 points. The C's probably aren't as bad as their recent margins of defeat may indicate, not that GM Danny Ainge much minds watching the losses pile up.

    He may be reluctant to refer to Boston's rebuilding strategy as tanking, but if it looks like a tank, smells like a tank and tanks like a tank...

26. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Speaking of teams being who we thought they were, the Philadelphia 76ers really took it on the chin this past week, didn't they?

    I mean, they kept things reasonably close against the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors and took the Dallas Mavericks down to the wire. But a 37-point loss to the New Orleans Pelicans? Really, Sixers?!

    OK, really, and we shouldn't be all that surprised. Remember, folks, Philly's Big Three consists of Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes, all of whom are essentially auditioning for trades out of town.

25. Sacramento Kings

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    A sweep of an early-season, home-and-home, back-to-back against the Phoenix Suns may not seem like much to write home about, but for the Sacramento Kings, it's progress enough.

    And not just because the setup was (and continues to be) so hyphen-friendly.

    Game 1 of that series saw Sacramento scrap back in the fourth quarter before fending off the hard-charging Suns in Game 2.

    To be sure, the Kings likely benefited from the absence of Eric Bledsoe from both of those meetings. But hey, wins are wins, even more so when DeMarcus Cousins is turning in monstrous double-doubles in support.

24. New York Knicks

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    If you're a New York Knicks fan and you're seeing where I ranked your favorite team this week, you're probably either A) so angry with the low placement that you want to punch me in the face, or B) you're too sad and depressed by their sloppy start to care.

    In any case, there's no denying that the Knicks are hurting right now. They've lost four in a row, with the latest coming in heartbreaking fashion against the Indiana Pacers in overtime.

    Still, it's too early for folks in the Big Apple to give up on their beloved Knickerbockers. Of their four latest losses, three have come by seven points or fewer.

    Contrary to popular belief, this team is playing competitive ball right now and should see that effort reflected in the wins column once Tyson Chandler returns.

23. Brooklyn Nets

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    On the one hand, the Brooklyn Nets should be relieved (if not happy) that the Knicks have struggled to the extent that they have in the early going. New York's multilevel turmoil has taken most of the spotlight off Brooklyn, thereby allowing the Nets to suffer through their one-year project without drawing too much ire.

    Still, the Nets must be kicking themselves. This is their one great chance to steal the Knicks' thunder, to convert disgruntled fans in other boroughs, and here they are, with a 3-8 record identical to that of their long-entrenched neighbors.

    If the Nets can ever get their core healthy enough to play together for an extended period of time, they should be able turn this thing around and take a bite out of the Big Apple.

    For now, though, injuries to Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Andrei Kirilenko, the rapid aging of Kevin Garnett and Joe Johnson, and the suspect coaching of Jason Kidd have combined to make Brooklyn the most expensive stink bomb in NBA history.

    So far, anyway.

22. Orlando Magic

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    Forget for a moment that the Orlando Magic have come crashing back to Earth like a panicked Sandra Bullock. Have you seen the way Arron Afflalo is playing?!

    Over his last six games, the UCLA product and Dwight Howard trade bait has averaged a studly 25.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists while scorching the nets to the tune of 55.8 percent from the floor and 57.9 percent from three!

    It's probably also worth mentioning that the Magic have dropped five of those six. Are Afflalo's scoring exploits to blame? I doubt it.

    At the very least, the swingman's success must be giving Magic GM Rob Hennigan pause as he considers whether he should keep Afflalo as a veteran building block or trade him to a contender while his stock is still at its peak.

21. Detroit Pistons

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    If Arron Afflalo is indeed on the market, it seems reasonable to suggest that the Detroit Pistons, who drafted him in 2007, might have a keen interest. They've yet to find a steady starter at shooting guard and could stand to thin out their massive frontcourt.

    Truth be told, the titanic trio of Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe has done anything but take the NBA by storm. According to NBA.com, the Pistons have thus far been outscored by 31 points in the 231 minutes those three have shared, with the opposition scoring a whopping 111.7 points per 100 possessions against them.

    If you're looking for a frame of reference, that's nearly six points more than the Jazz's league-worst mark. Keep in mind too that the Smith-Drummond-Monroe triad is the most heavily used of any that Mo Cheeks has employed to this point.

    Expect GM Joe Dumars to wheel and deal a bit if Detroit continues to slip, particularly on the defensive end.

20. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Good news, Los Angeles Lakers fans: Kobe Bryant is almost back. 

    Chances are, you didn't need me to tell you this. You've all probably been freaking out since Bryant first set foot on the practice court.

    The Lakers could certainly use Kobe's confident, self-assured stroke, especially late in games. His ability to convert low-percentage looks at the end of the shot clock will come in handy too.

    But there's no telling how effective Bryant will be coming off a torn Achilles. Nor can the Lakers necessarily count on Kobe to make up for Steve Nash's slide toward retirement.

    What they can do is look to the Black Mamba to provide the sort of swagger and leadership that this team of misfits needs to congeal into a cohesive unit.

    Not just yet, though. According to ESPN's Dave McMenamin, Bryant probably won't play against the Golden State Warriors on Friday and isn't likely to return to the lineup until L.A.'s three-game month-ending Eastern Conference swing at the earliest.

19. Phoenix Suns

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    No team in the NBA has played more close games so far than have the Phoenix Suns.

    Only twice have they been involved in double-digit results (both wins). Meanwhile, five of Phoenix's first 11 games have been decided by three points or fewer.

    Not surprisingly, the Suns are just 1-4 in those five contests. Such heartbreaking defeats are the hallmark of any young team trying to get the hang of this whole "winning in the NBA" thing.

    But the fact that the Suns are experiencing that sting so frequently at this point is a good sign. For one, it means that Phoenix is playing competitive ball, to the extent that it has a legitimate chance to win nearly every time it takes the floor.

    More importantly, these tough losses give this young team ample opportunity to acclimate itself to high-pressure situations—a comfort that will come in handy once the Suns have accumulated the caliber of talent that can not only qualify for the postseason, but make some serious noise therein.

18. Washington Wizards

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    Stop me if you've just heard this story: A fringe playoff team led by a young point guard is starting to get its act together.

    No, I'm not talking about the Nuggets again. Rather, I'm referring to the Washington Wizards. They've eked out close calls against the Timberwolves and Cavs in their last two games, with John Wall dishing out a total of 25 assists against just four turnovers.

    The Wizards are certainly better off when Wall's dishing like that; each of their wins has seen the former No. 1 pick pass for at least nine helpers.

    And with Bradley Beal (21.2 points, 50 percent from three) scorching the nets to the extent that he has so far, Washington doesn't need Wall to score a ton to stay competitive.

    Nor should the team want Wall to, so long as he continues to shoot well under 40 percent from the field.

17. Toronto Raptors

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    Someone has to win the awful Atlantic Division. Why couldn't/shouldn't the Toronto Raptors be the ones to come out on top?

    Their defense is still clamping down at a top-10 clip, and their offense, while far from efficient, at least features two 20-point-per-game scorers (Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan) who can put up points in Dwane Casey's iso-heavy offense.

    It's way too early to write off the Knicks and the Nets. Likewise, it's probably unwise to invest much imaginary stock in a team that's just 5-7 through its first 12 games.

    But that's better than anyone else in the Atlantic Division at the moment. It gives the Raps a path to follow to a top-four seed in the East, even if their record doesn't wind up anywhere near those of the Heat, Pacers and Bulls.

16. Denver Nuggets

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    Another week, another creep up the power rankings for the Denver Nuggets. That'll happen when you take out the Minnesota Timberwolves, nearly upend the Oklahoma City Thunder in their building and beat the Chicago Bulls at home.

    So much for that slow start.

    You may recall that the Nuggets were under .500 into mid-December last season before finishing with a team-record 57 wins. Denver will be hard-pressed to put together such a scintillating finish yet again, even with so many players returning from that team to lead the charge under head coach Brian Shaw.

    But if Ty Lawson (22 points, 8.6 assists) keeps up his All-Star-caliber play, the Nuggets may yet have enough to throw themselves back into the playoff mix out West before too long.

15. Charlotte Bobcats

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    I'm not letting up from my "wait and see" stance with the Charlotte Bobcats, not after the nosedive they took after last season's 7-5 start. The wins they earned over the Cavs and the Nets aren't all that impressive either, considering how bad those teams have been in the early going.

    But let's look on the bright side for a moment. Charlotte is playing top-10-caliber defense, thanks in no small part to the length and athleticism of second-year swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

    The 'Cats offense would probably be much more productive if MKG's jumper were anything close to an actual threat. Luckily, Kemba Walker comes alive from time to time, as he did during his 31-point outburst at Brooklyn's expense.

    Now, if only Al Jefferson's anklewhich he says has been arthritic since the age of six, per Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer—wasn't such a hindrance, the 'Cats might be able to scratch at a league-average rate on the offensive end and solidify a playoff spot in the sagging Eastern Conference.

14. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Excuse me for a moment while I marvel at the magnificence that is Anthony Davis on a basketball court.

    This last week alone, the second-year stud treated hoops heads everywhere to back-to-back eight-block bonanzas, the first of which propelled the New Orleans Pelicans to a 37-point stomping of the slipping Sixers.

    According to Basketball Reference, no player had put together consecutive block parties on par with The 'Brow's in well over a decade. The last to do it? Dikembe Mutombo, then with Philly, in early December of 2001.

    Keep in mind, Mutombo never came close to averaging 21 points per game, as Davis has so far in 2013-14.

13. Atlanta Hawks

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    If I'm going to freak out every time a young player comes of age, I'd be remiss if I didn't at least acknowledge the season Jeff Teague is having for the Atlanta Hawks.

    The fifth-year point guard out of Wake Forest is currently fourth in the NBA in assists (8.7) and ranks among the top 30 in scoring (18.4 points per game). Teague's perimeter shooting (24.2 percent from three) still leaves much to be desired, though the Hawks have to be happy with the way he's getting to the line—more than twice as often than at any other point in his pro career.

    All of this jives perfectly with what Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer recently told Grantland's Brett Koremenos: That he's essentially trying to turn Teague into the next Tony Parker.

    The fact that Teague runs pick-and-roll nearly 44 percent of the time and is one of the 25 most efficient ball-handlers in the NBA's pet set (per Synergy Sports)—just as Parker has long been—suggests that Budenholzer's experiment is coming along swimmingly.

    That naturally bodes well for Atlanta's future, both immediate and long term.

12. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    If you pulled together all the minutes the Minnesota Timberwolves have played so far this season, you'd probably see that the vast majority have featured excellent basketball on both ends of the floor. The fact that the T-Wolves are currently 11th in offensive efficiency and fifth in defensive efficiency backs up that assertion pretty well.

    The problem is not enough of those quality minutes have come during crunch time in close games. According to NBA.com, Minny's fourth-quarter offense is the fifth-least productive in the league, producing just 94.3 points per 100 possessions with a paltry effective field-goal percentage of .440. It should come as little surprise then that the T-Wolves are 0-5 in games decided by four points or fewer.

    These games wherein the T-Wolves mysteriously forget how to execute properly under pressure serve to remind those watching that this team hasn't been to the playoffs in a decade and that the core of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic, while clearly gifted, hasn't played many meaningful minutes as a whole.

    The point being, the T-Wolves still have to learn how to win games together, even if the talent on hand suggests that such an education shouldn't be necessary.

11. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Don't look now, but the Memphis Grizzlies are getting their act together. You needn't search high and low for the reason either.

    Zach Randolph appears to have rediscovered his All-Star form and then some. Over his last four games, Z-Bo has averaged 24.3 points and 12 rebounds while connecting on 57.4 percent of his field-goal attempts.

    Coincidentally, the Grizzlies are currently riding a four-game winning streak.

    Whatever the cause of Randolph's renaissance may be—improved health, new confidence, the glow of being a new father for the second time—Memphis would do well to make sure that its pudgy pivot keeps up the good work.

10. Houston Rockets

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    You know you've got a problem when Vince Carter, who practically pouted his way out of Toronto a decade ago, is calling you a crybaby.

    Yet, that's how Carter referred to Dwight Howard when asked about the Houston Rockets center's penchant for complaining to the officials, per Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas:

    All the time. He always talks about how I’m a crybaby. I was like, "Yo, you’re the biggest crybaby I know." And then later, he’s like, "Yo, why’d you say that to me?" But I know Dwight. It’s all good, but he is [a crybaby]. 

    I mean, he takes a lot of punishment, but I’m like, "Yo, c’mon Dwight, c’mon. You elbowed, you’re sitting in the paint the entire time. What are you whining about?" He told me to stop crying. I was like, "What? Are you serious?"

    Of course, this pseudo-tiff is mere prologue to the terrible fourth quarter through which the Rockets suffered in Big D. Houston could only watch as the Mavs erased a 15-point deficit by shooting nearly 74 percent from the field in the final frame.

    That would go a long way toward describing how the talented Rockets have approached the game this season, particularly on the defensive end.

    A lot of watching and even more whining.

9. Dallas Mavericks

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    Not that the Dallas Mavericks have been much more efficient on the defensive end than have their Lone Star State counterparts. Then again, who needs defense when you're playing the sort of fun, free-wheeling ball that's marked the Mavs' season so far...right?

    It certainly helps to have two singular scorers on hand in Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis, especially in close games. The Mavs are 6-3 in games decided by 10 points or fewer after pulling out a 123-120 shocker against the Rockets.

    Dirk was instrumental in sparking that comeback. He scored 14 of his season-high 35 points in the fourth quarter, thereby upping his scoring average in his last four games to 25.3 points with sensational shooting splits of .593/.476/.955.

    It's all well and good that Ellis is playing like an All-Star, but it's the resurgent play of Nowitzki that should really have Mavs fans whipped into a frenzy.

8. Chicago Bulls

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    Just when you thought the Chicago Bulls were getting their act together, they got handled by the Denver Nuggets.

    As bad as the defeat may seem, it can't completely wipe away all the good done by the five-game winning streak that preceded it.

    Granted, only one of those wins—a 110-94 knockout of the previously undefeated Indiana Pacers—was worthy of immortalization by way of epic poetry. But after getting blown out by Indy and the Miami Heat in the early going, in addition to losing in Philly and barely beating New York, you could forgive the Bulls for feeling as though they've made significant progress.

    Not that they necessarily see it that way. After all, this is a team that has its sights set not on holding its own in November, but rather on seriously contending for a title in April, May and June. 

7. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Make that 13 straight games to start the season in which Chris Paul has tallied double-doubles with points and assists.

    Unfortunately for the Los Angeles Clippers, CP3's latest such effort (17 points, 12 assists) wasn't enough to rescue them from a double-digit deficit against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    As great as Paul has been this seasonhe's leading the league with a career-high 12.5 assiststhe Clippers are going to need much more than his otherworldly offensive play to stay afloat among the NBA's title contenders. They can't expect to succeed against top-tier teams by launching jump shots and failing to protect the paint.

    Those problems undid the Clips against the Thunder. OKC dominated L.A. at the free-throw line (29-15) and in the lane (58-32) while the Clippers attempted to claw back from three (8-of-28).

    Keep in mind, the Thunder aren't exactly an interior-oriented, post-heavy team. It's no wonder then that the Clips have struggled against the likes of the Grizzlies and the Spurs in recent years. Those problems figure to persist unless/until L.A. decides to address its frontcourt deficiencies in earnest.

6. Portland Trail Blazers

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    The Portland Trail Blazers have officially hit the big time. You know how I can tell?

    Not because they've started 10-2 or because they've won their last eight games in a row. Not because the Blazers have five guys scoring in double figures or because they actually have a bench this year.

    To be sure, those are all great indicators of the Blazers' newfound success and should be celebrated by folks in Rip City.

    But what really shows that Portland's finest have come of age (to some extent) is that Grantland's Zach Lowe has already written a detailed breakdown of the Blazers and their schemes.

    OK, maybe I'm being facetious here, but we'll find out soon enough if Portland is for real. The Blazers' next seven games will feature faceoffs with the Bulls, Warriors, Pacers and Thunder, with tough road games against the Lakers and Suns tossed in.

    And a home game against the Knicks, for what it's worth.

5. Golden State Warriors

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    Stephen Curry's concussion-related absence clearly took its toll on the Golden State Warriors' usually explosive offense against the Grizzlies' grit-n-grind defense in a recent 88-81 overtime loss.

    But the fact that the Dubs were able to hang around like they did—without their best player, facing a team that plays an entirely different style of basketball—speaks volumes about how good this team can be come playoff time.

    Assuming, of course, that all of its principal players are healthy. That's always going to be a major concern for the Warriors due to their reliance on injury-prone cornerstones like Curry and Andrew Bogut.

    The addition of Andre Iguodala has given Golden State another hub through whom the team can run its offense (14 assists versus Memphis), with Klay Thompson (.488 from three) and Harrison Barnes ready to pick up the slack if need be.

     

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    During the 2012 NBA Finals, Grantland's Bill Simmons used what he called the "10 Percent Theory" to describe the way the basketball-watching public talked about Russell Westbrook's game. By "10 percent," Simmons meant to convey that we too often obsess over the relatively minor flaws in the repertoire of a great player like Westbrook, ignoring the overwhelmingly positive "90 percent" in the process.

    You could say the same about the Oklahoma City Thunder on the whole this season: We can nitpick this team to death, but that's going to get swallowed up by just how great most of this team is.

    We might cast aspersions at their bench, wonder aloud if Serge Ibaka will ever be a star and decry Scott Brooks' unimaginative offense. But last I checked, they still have two of the game's top players on their roster, they still defend like gangbusters and score at an elite rate in spite of Brooks' schemes, and their bench is probably deeper now than it was last year on player development alone.

    Kevin Durant and Westbrook will be there, and Ibaka might be, but it's the intriguing "unknowns"—between Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson and rookie Steven Adams—whose expanded roles could push the Thunder back toward the top.

3. San Antonio Spurs

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    Everyone's talking about the Blazers' eight-game winning streak, but did you know that the San Antonio Spurs are on an eight-gamer of their own right now?

    Do you know who handed the Spurs their last loss? 

    So why then would I have San Antonio ranked ahead of Portland?

    1. The Spurs are the only "high-quality" team that the Blazers have beaten this year. San Antonio, while not exactly wiping the floor with contenders, has ousted the Grizzlies and the Warriors.

    2. So, maybe the schedules aren't all that disparate. But if you accept that, then consider how efficient the Spurs are on both sides as opposed to the Blazers' explosive potential on one end much more so than the other.

    According to NBA.com, San Antonio is 10th in offensive efficiency and second in defensive efficiency, while PDX is fifth and 14th in those categories, respectively.

    Why does that matter? Because the Spurs outscore the opposition by a whopping 11.3 points per 100 possessions, whereas the Blazers better theirs by a relatively modest 5.5.

    3. The Spurs are the Spurs, so they're going to be good...and they already are. The Blazers, on the other hand, have a habit of starting strong before falling off a cliff.

2. Miami Heat

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    Here's how the Miami Heat have responded to LeBron James' diatribe about defense after losing to the Boston Celtics on Nov. 9.

    Win by 23. Win by six. Win by 16. Win by 16 again. Win by 28. Only one of those opponents (the Mavs) managed to crack 100.

    You could say they responded well.

    And you know what's even better? Because the Heat have been ahead by so much so often, they haven't needed to squeeze extensive minutes out of their stars and have even been able to sit Dwyane Wade for entire games.

    James has averaged 31.7 minutes. Chris Bosh has been pulling under 24. Wade's been out the last two games.

    And yet, the Heat keep on rollin', because—yes—they're still that good.

1. Indiana Pacers

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    Just in case there's any confusion, we're going to do something quickly. Everyone at home, say the following phrase out loud at whatever cadence you prefer, in whatever venue you prefer:

    Paul George is a superstar. Paul George is a superstar.

    I mean, the dude scored 21 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to carry the Indiana Pacers past the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, 103-96. Indy was well-rested and looking like it, while New York was fresh off a depressing road loss to the Pistons the previous day.

    The Pacers were practically sleepwalking from the start, but the team as a whole was good enough to overcome that and keep things close.

    But then came George, the man with ambitions and abilities indicative of superstardom, who rose to the occasion and put the Knicks away.

    That is what elite talents like Paul George do. The kid's money, and he's only getting better.

     

    What do you think of this week's rankings? Let me know on Twitter!

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