A limited amount of movement in the top 10 of ESPN.com's weekly NBA Power Rankings can't change the fact that one of the season's most anticipated weeks has arrived.
The annual passage of the Super Bowl inevitably shifts more of the nation's sporting spotlight onto the NBA, which presumably helps explain why Kevin Durant's much-anticipated return to Oklahoma City in Golden State Warriors colors was scheduled for this coming weekend, just a few sleeps away now.
On Saturday night, to be precise, Durant will visit Chesapeake Energy Arena with his new team for the first time ... but only after the Warriors stop in Memphis to face the only club that's beaten them twice this season.
A back-to-back can't get much tougher for the Dubs than a rematch with the Grizzlies followed by a ride on the Russell Westbrook triple-double train in what figures to be a contentious return for No. 35. We're guessing you haven't forgotten how the Grizz pounded Golden State by 21 points in Memphis on Dec. 10 before their unforgettable fourth-quarter rally from 19 points down in Oakland on Jan. 6.
Yet there was no threat, on this Rankings Monday, of Durant & Co. losing their grip on the top spot in our latest NBA power poll. Not when the Warriors, despite their unexpected overtime loss Saturday night at Sacramento, still sport such a gaudy average point margin of plus-12.8.
That's more than seven points higher than the average nightly point margin boasted by the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers. More importantly, Golden State would set a new single-season NBA record if it can keep its average win margin above the plus-12.3 reading posted by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who famously won a league-record 33 consecutive games en route to a championship.
The Warriors' average scoring margin last season was a mere plus-10.8 when they won a record-setting 73 games. So, yes, it's going to take more than one narrow loss in OT, even to the struggling Kings, to knock Golden State off its perch.
Read on for the rest of our 1-to-30 order, which finds Toronto out of the top 10 for the first time all season -- replaced by Indiana -- and surprising Miami all the way up to a hard-to-believe No. 13. Profuse thanks, furthermore, go to ESPN Stats & Info and the Elias Sports Bureau, with ESPN research ace Micah Adams running the point, for the considerable background data they all supply to assist the Committee (of One) in its efforts to arrange things here properly.
The Warriors' OT loss at Sacramento is bound to generate some overreaction, given that any Warriors loss usually does. But it's tough for us to get too worked up about the slip-up when they have such a great shot to join the 1995-96 Bulls on the short list of teams to lead the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency in the same season -- Golden State is No. 1 offensively and narrowly down to No. 2 defensively as we speak -- and sport the impressive average nightly point margin numbers detailed above. The Dubs have now won nine consecutive games against the Clippers (by an average margin of 13.1 PPG) and got there with their 33rd game already this season with at least 30 assists. No team in league history had previously recorded 33 such performances through its first 50 games of the season.
Monday's TNT date in Memphis launches the Spurs' annual Rodeo Road Trip, with this edition spanning eight games and denying them another home game until (gasp) March 1. Bear in mind, however, that the Spurs went 7-1 on last season's RRT and are a robust 82-35 overall on RRT excursions since the practice began during the 2002-03 season when they moved to the AT&T Center. The eight games in total, which spill across both sides of the All-Star break, will require San Antonio to travel 7,371 miles but are spaced out somewhat comfortably over a span of 21 days. As the unstoppable Micah Adams notes, Gregg Popovich has a higher winning percentage in RRT games (.701) than he does in all other games in the Pop era (.694).
Who knew? Who ever imagined that a game pitting the Cavs against the Wizards in the nation's capital on the Monday after the Super Bowl could be billed as a bona fide showdown? Yet that's where we are after Cleveland's recent 2-6 funk while the Wiz were in the process of stretching their home winning streak to a bulbous 17 games. Washington hasn't lost on its own floor since Dec. 6, when President Obama still had 45 days remaining in office. The Cavs, meanwhile, aren't exactly back in championship form yet, since they only sport the league's 15th-ranked defense. They also surely rank as the toughest opponent that Scotty Brooks' crew will have faced on this ride, given that only four of the 17 wins so far came against teams that currently sport winning records (Celtics, Pacers, Clippers and Grizzlies). Buckle up! This should be a fun way to start our post-Super Bowl lives.
The Committee (of One) was greeted by a number of quizzical looks, even from D.C. fans around the office, after bumping John Wall's Wizards all the way into the top five last week. Not sure we understand why, though. Washington has won a whopping 17 games in a row on its home floor in a run of dominance that has only been topped once in franchise history, when the 1974-75 squad reeled off 22 successive victories at the old Capital Centre. The Wiz also happen to be a tidy 28-12 since their nightmarish 2-8 start, which means they've been playing good ball for 2 ½ months now. I don't love their odds of winning four more home dates (against Cleveland, Indiana, Oklahoma City and Utah) to extend the streak all the way to Golden State's visit to the nation's capital on Feb. 28, but these guys have been rolling for a while now.
Since Dec. 16, when Isaiah Thomas returned from an injury absence that coincided with a three-game losing streak, Boston is a sparkly 20-6, which ranks as the league's second-best record in that span behind Golden State's 20-4 mark despite the fact that Avery Bradley has missed 15 of those games. Thomas also happens to be the league's leading scorer in that same stretch as he inches closer to the prospect of 50-40-90 season while averaging 30 PPG ... something only Stephen Curry (last season) has ever managed. As it stands, Boston's little big man is averaging 29.9 PPG to move to No. 2 in the scoring charts behind Russell Westbrook and thus has a real chance to become the first-ever Celtic to lead the league in scoring. That's right: For all the Celtics' success going all the way back to the late 1950s, they've never fielded an NBA scoring champion. Brad Stevens, meanwhile, is about to join Larry Brown and Fred Schaus as the only head coaches to appear in an NCAA tournament championship game as well as the NBA All-Star Game.
On Tuesday at home against Orlando, James Harden has an opportunity to match Moses Malone's feat (achieved twice during the 1981-82 season) by scoring 40 or more points for the third successive game. Malone's '81-82 campaign, in case you've forgotten, was the last time an NBA player won Most Valuable Player honors from a sub-.500 team. And Harden -- which I had most definitely forgotten -- only managed 14 points in Orlando in the teams' first meeting this season. In case you missed it: Yao Ming just joined Malone (No. 24), Clyde Drexler (No. 22), Calvin Murphy (No. 23), Hakeem Olajuwon (No. 34) and Rudy Tomjanovich (No. 45) in becoming the sixth Rocket to have his jersey number retired. You can safely presume that Harden, no matter what happens against the Magic, will someday join them.
It's up to the Hawks somehow to lift the collective spirits of the locals after the Falcons' Super Bowl, uh, unraveling. The same Hawks, mind you, who've mustered all of one trip to the conference finals (in 2015) in their first 48 NBA seasons in town since relocating from St. Louis. Yet #eventhehawks are starting to develop quite a stubborn streak; Thursday night's furious fourth-quarter comeback against the Rockets in Dwight Howard's return to Houston -- sparked mostly by Tim Hardaway Jr. -- marked the second time in a nine-day span that Atlanta assembled a 40-point performance in the final period to pull out a W. Over the previous 15 seasons, according to Elias, Atlanta won only one game in which it trailed after three quarters and then scored 40 or more points in the fourth.
If you believe in the value of nightly average point margin when it comes to measuring a team's strength, Utah deserves its status as the current holder of the last home-court advantage playoff spot in the West, thanks to a reading of plus-4.1 that ranks sixth in the league overall. In other developments last week: Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert both topped 25 points in the same game for the second time in a win over the Bucks, while Joe Johnson continued to show us (in Utah's wins over Milwaukee and Charlotte) that he's an effective option at power forward at this point in his career (as strange as that sounds).
It won't make it any easier to re-sign him in the summer, but it was quite a turnaround for JaMychal Green when he followed up a scoreless outing against Oklahoma City with a career-high 29 points -- with Marc Gasol, Tony Allen and Chandler Parsons resting -- in a win over Minnesota. That victory capped a 4-2 road trip for the Grizzlies, who are as close to full strength health-wise as they've been all season as the battle for the West's No. 4 seed tightens up. Another plus point for the Grizz: They're one of only three teams in the conference, alongside mighty Golden State and San Antonio, with a winning record (12-11) against .500-or-better teams.
Tough to get attention in the East at the minute with Boston and Washington flying ... and with Cleveland and Chicago engulfed by drama. But under the radar is working nicely for the Pacers, who swept their three games last week against sub-.500 outfits in the conference (road wins at Orlando and Brooklyn to go with a home triumph over Detroit) to quietly stretch their winning streak to six games. Glenn Robinson III, meanwhile, made some news with his invite to the league's annual slam dunk contest. It's only a four-man field and features no shortage of mystery with Robinson having thrown down only 34 career dunks in the NBA as of Thursday's announcement of the participants. Compare that to DeAndre Jordan's 1,507 career regular-season dunks. Or Aaron Gordon's 138. Or the zero dunks, for that matter, that we've seen in real games from the Suns' Derrick Jones Jr., who has spent the bulk of his rookie season in the D-League.
So many colleagues were quick to chastise me for choosing DeMar DeRozan as an All-Star starter in the East ahead of backcourt mate Kyle Lowry. The following isn't meant to slight Lowry, who just posted his ninth career triple-double in Sunday's much-needed W in Brooklyn and whose contributions at both ends are obviously pivotal. But Toronto's recent 2-8 nosedive includes four losses in which DeRozan was forced to sit out due to an ankle injury. DeRozan, in other words, isn't the only member of this All-Star duo who benefits from his backcourt mate's presence. The bigger question mark, though, is figuring out what Toronto's recent struggles will do to its trade-deadline ambitions. If the Raps were reportedly hesitant to make an all-in attempt to try to pry Paul Millsap out of Atlanta back when Millsap was available and they were right on Cleveland's heels, what happens now that they're mired in a four-way jumble behind the Cavs with the Celtics, Wizards and Hawks?
The Thunder play only two road games total in February, after being forced to survive 12 roadies in January, but there's nothing easy about their week ahead. LeBron James and the Cavs make their lone OKC visit of the season Thursday, followed by Kevin Durant's first-ever game in town as a visitor on Saturday in what merely ranks as the most anticipated game of the regular season. How much have Russell Westbrook's and Durant's lives changed since they ceased to be teammates? According to our man Micah Adams' calculations, Westbrook leads the league with 83.7 frontcourt touches per game. Durant ranks 56th with just 48.2 frontcourt touches per game. For more preview chatter, click to our interview with Thunder guard Victor Oladipo on Sunday night's "NBA Insiders" show on ESPN Radio.
We're suddenly up to three teams this season that can claim to have assembled a double-digit win streak: Golden State, Houston and, yes, Miami. The Heat, who were 11-30 when this improbable run began, have stunningly won 10 in a row, good for the longest unbeaten spell this league has ever seen from a team that was at least 19 games under .500 when it began. Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Hassan Whiteside ... all flourishing. Judging by the enclosed tweet, owner Micky Arison seems fine with it all, too, no matter what all this winning does to the Heat's draft position in June or how many outsiders are advocating a tanking strategy.
The Clippers are the only team in the league that will be asked to play 10 road games within an 11-game span this season. They lost three of five on the road from Jan. 21 through Feb. 1, returned home for a one-game pasting by the Warriors, then began another five-game trip Sunday with what we all believe to be Paul Pierce's final appearance at Boston Garden. According to ESPN's Basketball Power Index, LA's February schedule ranks as the toughest month any team will face all season, followed by the Suns' December and Houston's March; Oklahoma City's January and Chicago's March are tied for fourth. The Clippers, of course, are facing all of this without Chris Paul. They're 19-7 this season when CP3, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are all in uniform but have been missing at least one of them just as often, going 12-13 in those games.
Portland's offense is so potent that the Blazers enjoy more margin for error than most teams. When these guys simply hold the opposition under 105 points, as opposed to the usual 100, they're 13-4. The problem, of course, is that the Blazers have been breached for 120 points or more 14 times and 125 points or more nine times. Both figures are league-highs. But perhaps we're focusing too much on the gloom for a team that, as my "NBA Insiders" co-host Brian Windhorst memorably noted Sunday night on our ESPN Radio show, has left you with the impression lately that they lose every single night. The encouraging reality for Portland is this: Its remaining strength of schedule, entering the weekend, ranked 26th in the league and is thus more favorable than any other team vying for the West's No. 8 seed. Heading into the Blazers' home loss Friday to Dallas, they and the Mavericks had played the league's third- and second-toughest schedules to date according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index. Things in Portlandia probably aren't as bad as they seem.
The Nuggets have reached the 50-game threshold as the West's No. 8 seed but not as the favorite to finish there, according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index. Our trusty BPI says that Denver, at present, only has a 30 percent shot to finish eighth in the conference, which represents better odds than Dallas (14 percent) or Sacramento (4 percent) but leaves the Nuggets well behind Portland (46 percent) despite the continued emergence of Nikola Jokic (who just uncorked his first career triple-double). The Blazers lead the season series 2-1 and can clinch the tiebreaker with a home win over the Nuggets on March 28. Denver also faces the ninth-toughest remaining schedule in the league, according to BPI, while Portland's rates as the sixth-easiest from here.
Stephen Curry, James Harden, Isaiah Thomas ... and Yogi Ferrell. That's the complete list of players to sink nine 3-pointers in a single game this season after Ferrell's fairy tale of a performance Friday night in Portland. The Mavs are 4-0 since Ferrell joined Steph's brother Seth in Rick Carlisle's backcourt, while Seth has improved to 9-3 as a starter and has amassed five 20-point games as a key spark to Dallas' much-improved offense in 2017 after totaling just four in his first three NBA seasons. Ferrell and the younger Curry are two of a league-high six undrafted players to start a game this season for Carlisle, who continues to get the most out of any roster Mark Cuban hands him. (The other four, in case you're not in the mood for quizzes, are Wesley Matthews, Dorian Finney-Smith, Salah Mejri and J.J. Barea.)
The Bulls' goals should be simple. For starters: Get to 100 points. Chicago is 21-9 when it reaches triple digits offensively, compared to a mere 4-17 when it falls short. Making sure Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic are engaged and contributing is also wise, since those two -- entering the month of February -- were averaging a combined 18.9 points in Bulls wins but only 11.8 points as a tandem in Bulls losses. Very little, of course, proceeds in a straightforward manner for this group, which teased its fans yet again by topping 120 points in back-to-backs wins (over Philadelphia and Oklahoma City) for the first time since the days of Michael Jordan's first three-peat back in 1993 ... only to see Jimmy Butler limp out of the lineup with a heel injury. For the record: Chicago cracked the 120-point plateau only once in its first 48 games of the season.
Andre Drummond is tied for the league lead with Miami's Hassan Whiteside with four 20/20 games this season. He's also on course to average at least 13 rebounds for the fourth successive season, which is something only the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan can match leaguewide. But Drummond's inability to generate much All-Star buzz would seem to support that notion that he's stagnating somewhat this season after landing that mammoth $127 million contract extension in July. Yet there are some recent positives for the Pistons, whether it's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's 38-point eruption (including eight 3-pointers) in a win over New Orleans or Marcus Morris' career-best 36 points in a victory over Minnesota to seize the family record by a point (Markieff Morris' single-game high is 35).
Sometimes you just have to say that maybe it's for the best. Since we did all that All-Star lobbying on behalf of Joel Embiid, he's been forced to sit out five of the last six games, as the Sixers wisely opt for safety when it comes to the rookie big man's health. The reality is that missing 19 of Philly's 50 games to date -- even if there's no official formula for figuring this stuff out -- would be a lot for an All-Star. The Sixers can still revel in the 10-5 record they posted in January after a 10-72 season in 2015-16, along with the strong recent contributions they've received from Robert Covington, Ersan Ilyasova, T.J. McConnell and, yes, Nerlens Noel. Even though the Sixers are off to an 0-3 start in February, good things are happening here.
Things were starting to look promising for the Wolves. After an 0-4 start to 2017, they went 8-3 and, as noted in this section each of the past couple weeks, even found a way to pull out a couple close ones. The momentum that had been bubbling around Karl-Anthony Towns -- who remains on course to become the first player to post a 23 PPG and 11 RPG season at age 21 or younger since Shaquille O'Neal did it twice -- took a major hit Saturday when Minnesota announced that rising star Zach LaVine will require season-ending surgery on his left knee to repair a torn ACL. That news came shortly after we learned, via ESPN's Basketball Power Index, that the Wolves entered the weekend facing the league's second-toughest schedule for the rest of the season.
The cutoff for All-Star selections came at a good time for Kemba Walker, whose individual success might not have been enough to bring a halt to the franchise's l-o-n-g wait for its first All-Star since Gerald Wallace in 2010 if the coaches' vote for reserve spots was happening now. Three more losses on the road last week made it 14 L's in a span of 18 games for the Hornets, who've fallen to 1-12 when key defensive cog Cody Zeller is out injured and dropped out of the top 10 in defensive efficiency along the way. Another unfriendly stretch featuring eight of nine on the road awaits Charlotte after the brief comforts of a four-game homestand that starts Tuesday night against Brooklyn. Let's see how much of a difference newly acquired Miles Plumlee makes ... or else we'll have to start asking if Walker's invitation to the 3-point contest and his first All-Star nod will prove to be as good as this season gets.
Shedding Miles Plumlee's contract was big for the Bucks' financial future, providing some helpful financial flexibility for the offseason when Milwaukee tries to seal contract extensions with Jabari Parker and Tony Snell in addition to any free-agent pursuits. The boost for the Bucks' present comes Wednesday night at Miami, when Khris Middleton makes his season debut after missing the teams' first 50 games thanks to that unfortunate torn hamstring Middleton suffered shortly before training camp. Perhaps in giddy anticipation of Middleton's return, Milwaukee enjoyed a much-needed breakout game Saturday night in Phoenix, recording its highest point total in a regulation road outing (137) since ringing up 140 points way back on April 6, 1979, in the final season that the Jazz spent in New Orleans. Giannis Antetokounmpo & Co. had lost 10 of their previous 11 games before setting off on their rout of the Suns thanks to an 18-point opening quarter in the desert for The Greek Freak.
How do you expect us to project what's going to happen with the No. 8 spot in the West when the Kings can lose to bottom-of-the-West Phoenix at home and then turn around the next night to outlast Golden State on the second half of a back-to-back? Losing to the Suns, by the way, inexplicably dropped Sacramento's record to 1-5 in games in which DeMarcus Cousins records a triple-double and came just a few days after Cousins' monstrous 46 points and 15 boards weren't enough to prevent a narrow defeat in Philly when Joel Embiid was being held out for rest. In other words: Good luck with that forecasting thing.
The understandable focus on Carmelo Anthony these days has presumably kept you from noticing that Kristaps Porzingis' 19 points and 12 boards in a win at Brooklyn accounted for his first double-double since Dec. 30. Or the fact that the Knicks have actually missed Derrick Rose. After D-Rose averaged 19.4 points on 49.4-percent shooting over a 10-game stretch, New York has dipped to just 2-7 when he's been out of the lineup. Melo, for his part, has been open about how draining he's found it dealing with the daily drama surrounding his future, while the Knicks in general -- despite the positive blips they're seeing from the likes of Willy Hernangomez and Kyle O'Quinn -- continue to be dragged down by their defensive and rebounding frailties.
The schedule hasn't been the friendliest, since it featured three road dates after playing host to the scorching-hot Wizards, but a run of four consecutive losses -- under any circumstances -- is not the way New Orleans hoped it would follow up its surprising Jan. 27 thumping of San Antonio. Jrue Holiday has been fantastic of late in support of Anthony Davis, averaging 19.8 points, 8.1 assists and 4.0 rebounds while shooting 52.3 percent from the floor over Holiday's last 10 games. Desperation time has nonetheless arrived for the Pelicans when it comes to their playoff aspirations. Six of New Orleans' nine remaining games this month are on the road, which sets up Monday's home date with Phoenix as a must-win for starters.
Eric Bledsoe appeared on the TrueHoop Conversations podcast with the Committee in mid-January. Not long after that visit, Bledsoe uncorked three 40-point performances in a span of six games after never scoring more than 35 points in his first 395 regular-season games. Coincidence? We think not. Click here for a vintage Zach Lowe deep dive on Bledsoe's successful season to date -- as well as the trade conundrum that surge presents -- and also be advised that Phoenix is now on a short list with Milwaukee when it comes to teams that have produced multiple buzzer-beaters this season thanks to Devin Booker's heroics against Sacramento.
Fun game introduced this week by own our Kevin Pelton both in podcast and print form: Who would you choose as the All-Star representative from the 12 teams that don't have one assuming the NBA employed a system like baseball or hockey where every team had to have at least one All-Star. As Professor Pelton rightly notes, none of those other 12 teams has you scuffling for a suggestion like the Magic, which tells you what sort of season it's been in Central Florida. I suppose Serge Ibaka or Nikola Vucevic is the best option, given the time Evan Fournier has lost to injury this season, but Orlando is reportedly willing to part with either of them before the Feb. 23 trade deadline. Which doesn't sound very All-Star-ish.
The noise made on the Lakers' behalf Thursday night at the Verizon Center certainly annoyed the Wizards, but the Lakers -- with their 29th-ranked defense -- really are a team you want to see in your building. L.A. has dropped 12 consecutive road games dating to a Dec. 16 triumph at Philadelphia, which leaves them just five more losses shy of an unwanted franchise record after last season's Lakers dropped 16 in a row on the road in one miserable stretch. Five of the Lakers' next six games, while we're on the subject, happen to be on the road, but four of them come against sub-.500 teams (Knicks, Pistons, Bucks and Suns). In other news: Does Nick Young's presence in the 3-point contest really make up for Stephen Curry's absence? Seriously? I've been hearing a lot of that sentiment lately, but that's not a claim we're co-signing.
We made a reference in this comment cyberspace last week about how it had to be tough for the Nets to see Yogi Ferrell starting and starring in the Mavericks' unexpected win at San Antonio last Sunday. The ensuing week, however, only piled on the Yogi-related suffering for Brooklyn, with Ferrell playing so well in showdowns with Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard and so many helpful folks on Twitter reminding the NBA's only team with fewer than 10 victories that it let the rookie guard go in early December. Example: Check out this #MeanTweets effort from our pal Mike Peasley (@PeasESPN) from ESPN Radio in Dallas. I suppose we're just as guilty of piling on after hosting a visit with Ferrell on Sunday's edition of the "NBA Insiders" show on ESPN Radio.