With a month and a half of basketball in the books, the shape of the 2021-22 NBA standings is beginning to take place. The league is paced by two powerhouses […]
With a month and a half of basketball in the books, the shape of the 2021-22 NBA standings is beginning to take place.
The league is paced by two powerhouses in the Western Conference: Devin Booker and the surging Phoenix Suns, who enter December on a 17-game win streak, and an 18-3 Golden State Warriors squad that hasn’t even gotten back Klay Thompson yet. Right behind them, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and the 15-6 Brooklyn Nets have claimed the top spot in the Eastern Conference, with the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, and Milwaukee Bucks right behind them.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers, both expected to be contenders in therirrespective conferences, ae off to dissapoitning starts between a mix of injuries and poor play.
Through roughly 20 games, where does your team rank? Which teams are trending upwards, and which ones are already beginning to fade away? Read on for my full Power Rankings, and if you’d like to debate or discuss any rankings, join the conversation with @SakSports on Twitter.
December Power Rankings
Phoenix Suns (18-3) [Last Month: 18]
Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and the defending Western Conference champions stumbled out of the gate this season with a 2-3 start that had them ranked 18th in my November Power Rankings. Since then, Phoenix has officially put the league on notice, with an incredible 17 straight wins, capped off by a signature 104-96 win over an incredibly strong Warriors team on the last night of the month. The Suns rank fourth in points per game (112.2,) third in assists per game (26.4,) and third in average point differential (+7.6.) Booker (23.2 PPG,) Deandre Ayton (16.0 PPG,) Paul (14.5 PPG,) and Mikal Bridges (12.4 PPG) round out a balanced scoring attack for Phoenix.
Golden State Warriors (18-3) [Last Month: 3]
I’m not sure anyone expected the Golden State Warriors to be this good, this soon. The Warriors did lose a close bout with the Suns to close out the month of November, but are still tied for the NBA’s best record at 18-3 and hold a league-leading +12.6 average point differential: all before Klay Thompson returns to the court sometime over the next month. The Warriors entered their matchup with the Suns on a 14-1 tear, with just one of those 14 wins coming by 10 points or fewer. Golden State is burying their opponents, thanks to Steph Curry’s second-in-the-NBA 27.8 PPG-scoring, and the Warriors are showing shades of their 73-9 season all over again.
Brooklyn Nets (15-6) [Last Month: 6]
After a ho-hum 4-3 start from Kevin Durant, James Harden, and the Brooklyn Nets, the star-studded powerhouse put together an 11-3 record over the past month to claim the top seed in the conference. Brooklyn has already knocked off the Knicks, Celtics, and 76ers this season, but hasn’t been able to overcome the Bucks, Bulls, Heat, Suns, or Warriors. In other words, Brooklyn needs to work on beating the best of the best if they want to bring an NBA title to New York City. Durant is certainly doing his part, with a league-leading 28.6 points per game.
Utah Jazz (14-7) [Last Month: 1]
After a hot 5-1 start that put Donovan Mitchell (23.2 PPG) and the Utah Jazz on top of the last month’s Power Rankings, the team has cooled off and lost their lead in the Western Conference. Since then, Utah has gone 9-7 and has lost games to the Pelicans, Grizzlies, Magic, Pacers, and Heat. Still, the Jazz have one of the best offenses in the NBA, an unexpected complement to their stout defense led by Rudy Gobert. Coming off back-to-back wins of 20 points or more against the Pelicans and Trail Blazers, the Jazz may be ready to heat up again.
Miami Heat (13-8) [Last Month: 2]
Like the Jazz, the Miami Heat have stumbled in the standings after starting the season an impressive 5-1. Miami has gone just 8-7 in their last 15 games, barely breaking .500. The Heat are also 2-3 over their last five games, with losses to the Nuggets, Timberwolves, and Wizards. Miami also lost three straight against Denver and both Los Angeles squads to kick off a brutal five-game road trip in the beginning of the month. Miami is a solid 7-3 in conference play this season.
Chicago Bulls (14-8) [Last Month: 5]
The Chicago Bulls have one of the best records in the Eastern Conference, but stop me if you’ve heard this one before: after a 5-1 start, Chicago went 9-7 in the month of November. The Bulls offense has been a bit streaky as of late, with both 133-point and 77-point performances over their last five games. DeMar DeRozan has fit perfectly in Chicago, leading the team with 25.9 PPG and shooting a team-high 48.9% from the field. Incumbent Bulls star Zach LaVine is right behind him, averaging 25.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.
Milwaukee Bucks (13-8) [Last Month: 11]
Finally a change of pace: a team that stumbled out of the gate but then regained their footing in November. The Milwaukee Bucks hardly looked like the defending NBA Champions after a 3-4 start, but they enter December on a seven-game win streak with a 10-4 record over the past month. The only reason I can’t rank the Bucks higher is the quality of opponents over this win streak: with games against the Magic, Pacers, and Thunder making up four of the seven wins. In their last two games against Eastern Conference contenders, the Hawks and Celtics, the Bucks are 0-2 and lost by an average of 15 points. Giannis Anteokounmpo is still Giannis Anteokounmpo, averaging 27.0 PPG, and the Bucks recently signed veteran big man DeMarcus Cousins to a one-year, low-risk, high-reward deal.
Washington Wizards (13-8) [Last Month: 9]
Back to our previous trend: 5-1 teams just treading in place in the month of November. The new-look, Russell Westbrook-less Washington Wizards went 8-7 over the past month, but earned a couple solid wins over the Mavericks and Heat. Bradley Beal is averaging 22.9 points per game, a little low for his standards, but he has more help this year thanks to depth the Westbrook trade brought Washington. Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope make up three of the Wizards top five leading scorers this season, with Harrell surprisingly posting the fifth-best PER (27.43) in the league.
Atlanta Hawks (11-10) [Last Month: 15]
Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks had a mediocre 3-3 start, and have only gone one game over .500 since then. But this time, the near-.500 record feels a little better. The Hawks are right in the 10-team playoff picture, have extended their average point differential to +2.6, and have picked up wins over the Celtics and Bucks. The Hawks are one game removed from a seven-game winning streak, but had previously lost six in a row (against an absolute gauntlet of opponents) before that.
Charlotte Hornets (13-10) [Last Month: 12]
The Charlotte Hornets enter December on a two-game losing streak, but are 7-3 over their last ten games. It’s a perfect example of Charlotte’s up-and-down season. LaMelo Ball and the Hornets dropped six straight games earlier this month before rattling off five straight wins, including a 106-102 victory over the Warriors. Charlotte led the NBA in points per game (114.4) after 133-119 and 146-143 losses to the Bulls and Rockets in their last two games. The Hornets lead the league in points per game without a 20.0+ points per game scorer, as Miles Bridges leads the way with 19.8 PPG.
Minnesota Timberwolves (11-10) [Last Month: 20]
I didn’t have much t say about the Minnesota Timberwolves in last month’s Power Rankings, but the team is on the rise. Minnesota went 8-8 overall in November, but is currently riding a red-hot 7-1 stretch that has included wins over the 76ers, Heat, and Pacers. Karl-Anthony Towns (23.5 PPG) leads a three-head scoring attack alongside last year’s top pick Anthony Edwards (22.0 PPG) and D’Angelo Russell (19.4 PPG.)
New York Knicks (11-10) [Last Month: 4]
Starting this season with a 5-1 record must be a curse, as the New York Knicks also started 5-1 before settling in to a subpar 6-9 stretch over the month of November. The Knicks have alternated wins and losses over their last nine games, with recent losses to strong Brooklyn, Phoenix, and Chicago squads. Kemba Walker might be on his way out of New York already, and the Knicks currently stand 7th in the Eastern Conference.
Boston Celtics (11-10) [Last Month: 21]
The Boston Celtics opened the season with one of the worst defenses in NBA history, allowing 118.3 points per night, but have settled down mightily and now only allow 105.5 points per game. The result of this defensive improvement was a 9-6 record over the past month, with key wins over the Lakers and Bucks. After tiebreakers, the Celtics sit 11th in the East at the start of November, but as one of five teams with an 11-10 record in the conference, Boston could be the 7th seed with just one more win.
Los Angeles Clippers (11-10)[Last Month: 25]
Like the Celtics, the Los Angeles Clippers had a very disappointing start to the season with a poor 1-4 start: but rebounded in the month of November with a solid 10-6 record. Without Kawhi Leonard, it’s been the Paul George show in Los Angeles, with the All-Star leading the Clippers in pints per game (25.9) assists per game (5.1) and field goal percentage (43.1%.) For the Clippers to get even better, George will need more support, as only one teammate currently averages double digits: Reggie Jackson, with 17.6 PPG.
Philadelphia 76ers (11-10) [Last Month: 7]
With Ben Simmons out of the picture. the Philadelphia 76ers live and die by the availability of big man Joel Embiid. Philadelphia is 8-3 when their All-Star center plays this season, and a poor 3-7 when the double-double machine (22.8 PPG, 10.3 RPG) can’t suit up. Philadelphia is stuck in a pack of five 11-10 teams in the Eastern Conference, but could go on a run with Embiid back on the court.
Los Angeles Lakers (12-11) [Last Month: 10]
The Los Angeles Lakers’ 2021-22 season is off to a shaky, unpredictable start that also has been marred by injuries and availability issues. When LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook are all on the floor, ideally with a full supporting cast, the Lakers are good, but alarmingly not great. Take James (25.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 6.8 APG) off the court, as the Lakers have already had to do for 12 of their 23 games (and will have to do again as James enters COVID-protocols,) and things get much tougher for Los Angeles. The Lakers went 8-8 over the past month, but haven’t beaten a team over .500 in their last 11 matchups.
Portland Trail Blazers (11-11) [Last Month: 14]
The Portland Trail Blazers haven’t emerged as a particularly good or bad team yet this season: they rode an 8-8 month to go from 3-3 to 11-11. The Trail Blazers recently had a solid four-game win streak, downing the Raptors, Bulls, 76ers, and Nuggets all in Portland. They followed that up with a three-game losing streak on the road against the Kings, Warriors, and Jazz. Portland is 10-1 on their home floor (only the Warriors have more home wins) but an abysmal 1-10 on the road (only the Rockets have less road wins.) Damian Lillard has at least improved from a slow start, currently averaging 21.5 points and 7.8 assists per game alongside co-star CJ McCollum.
Dallas Mavericks (10-9) [Last Month: 13]
The Dallas Mavericks are 10-9, somehow good for fourth place in the Western Conference, but hold a negative point differential on the season, being outscored by 2.4 points per game. Dallas went just 6-7 over the last month, and enter December ice-cold on a 1-5 stretch with losses to the Suns, Clippers, Wizards, and Cavaliers. Luka Doncic has been phenomenal as always, putting up 25.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game, but overall, the Mavericks have the 23rd-best offense in the league, scoring 104.2 points per game.
Memphis Grizzlies (11-10) [Last Month: 16]
Ja Morant (24.1 PPG, 6.8 APG) and the Memphis Grizzlies would be the fifth seed in the Western Conference if the season ended today. Despite holding a winning record, the Grizzlies are outscored by an average of 4.4 points per night, thanks to an NBA-worst scoring defense and a couple of huge losses (32 points to Toronto, 43 points to Minnesota, 25 points to Phoenix.) Still, with a Top Ten-scoring offense and a weak Southwest division, the Grizzlies will get a chance to be playoff contenders all season long.
Denver Nuggets (10-10) [Last Month: 8]
In terms of their record, the Denver Nuggets sit 10th in the Western Conference, but are just 0.5 games behind the fourth-seeded Mavericks in a tight standings cluster. However, with Michael Porter Jr. joining Jamal Murray on the sidelines, out indefinitely with a back injury, the Nuggets are losing some of their firepower. The Nuggets just stopped a six-game losing streak, but reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic (26.2 PPG, 13.7 RPG, 6.4 APG, and an uncanny 35.59 PER) can only take the team so far.
Indiana Pacers (9-14) [Last Month: 23]
The Indiana Pacers have clawed their way out of a 1-6 start, going a more respectable 8-8 over the last month to approach the outer edge of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Indiana’s balanced roster has even outdueled the Jazz, Bulls, and Embiid-less 76ers over the past month. The Pacers are yet to win more than two games in a row, something they’ll need to do to continue creeping up the standings.
Cleveland Cavaliers (11-10) [Last Month: 19]
If this list was made in the middle of November, the Cleveland Cavaliers would have been of the featured teams in the Top Ten. The Cavaliers were once 9-5, with solid wins over the Celtics, Knicks, and Trail Blazers under their belts. But the injury bug took its toll, claiming budding young star Collin Sexton for the rest of the season. The Cavaliers were never expected to be great this season, but for a brief two-week stretch, they looked like a legitimate playoff team with Sexton, Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen, and third overall pick Evan Mobley.
Toronto Raptors (9-13) [Last Month: 17]
After a somewhat promising 4-3 start to their season, the star-less Toronto Raptors went 5-10 in the month of November to settle into the role we expected for the post-Kawhi, post-Kyle Lowry Raptors: a mediocre bottom-feeder in the Eastern Conference. Toronto is just 3-10 in their last 13 games, and has the second-lowest assist total in the league.
Sacramento Kings (8-14) [Last Month: 22]
The Sacramento Kings have also squandered a decent 3-3 start, losing 11 of 16 games in November. The Kings recently beat the Lakers and Trail Blazers in a pair of high-scoring affairs, but currently hold the second-worst scoring defense in the league. De’Aaron Fox (20.1 PPG, 5.5 APG) is still a pleasure to watch, and center Richaun Holmes has the second-best shooting percentage (71.2%) in the NBA among qualified shooters, behind only Rudy Gobert.
San Antonio Spurs (6-13) [Last Month: 24]
The San Antonio Spurs being a bad team is still taking some getting used to, after two decades of regular season dominance. This year’s team is one of the weakest the NBA has to offer, with the sixth-worst record in the league through a month and a half. San Antonio went just 4-9 in November, with two of those wins coming in the month’s final games. Dejounte Murray (19.1 PPG) and the Spurs also recently endured a six-game losing streak , with just two of the six losses coming by less than 10 points.
New Orleans Pelicans (6-17) [Last Month: 26]
Without Zion Williamson and Lonzo Ball, the New Orleans Pelicans aren’t a very good team. New Orleans did play much better in November (5-11) than October (1-6,) but still have their work cut out for them as thy await Zion’s potential return. After a nine-game losing streak early in the season, New Orleans is a respectable 5-5 in their last ten matchups, highlighted by a one-point win in Utah.
Oklahoma City Thunder (6-14) [Last Month: 30]
The Oklahoma City Thunder started this season looking like one of the worst teams I’ve seen in a while, with a 1-5 start and -14.5 point differential at the time. But the Thunder have improved a bit, going 5-9 in November and lowering their point differential to -7.3 (still the third-worst in the NBA.) Still, OKC enters December on a six-game losing streak.
Houston Rockets (4-16) [Last Month: 27]
The Houston Rockets are largely devoid of NBA starting-level talent, but may either get John Wall or some trade pieces in return for Wall on the court soon. As currently constructed, it’s somehow hard to believe Houston even has four wins, including a three-game win streak to close out the month. Prior to that, the Rockets had lost 15 games in a row.
Detroit Pistons (4-17) [Last Month: 28]
Are the Detroit Pistons better with first overall pick Cade Cunningham on the floor? Of course. But it hasn’t exactly translated to wins, and Detroit heads into December on a seven-game losing streak with a brutal matchup against the Suns next on the docket.
Orlando Magic (4-18) [Last Month: 29]
Pick your poison: the Orlando Magic have the worst record in the NBA, a league-worst -10.9 point differential, and enter December tied for the longest losing streak in the league, seven games. Orlando also pairs the third-worst scoring offense in the NBA with the firth-worst defense in the league. It’s going to be a long season for Cole Anthony (19.6 PPG, 5.9 APG) and the Magic.
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