NBA Power Rankings: Could the West go through New Orleans?

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Picture this: Zion Williamson vs. Ja Morant in this year’s Western Conference finals. The New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies look capable of bringing that showdown to NBA audiences this year with their recent surge to the top of the West standings.

Then again, just a few weeks ago, some were quivering at the idea of the Utah Jazz going on a deep run through this year’s leaky Western Conference. The way things are going in the West, any team hovering in the middle of the pack could switch places with New Orleans or Memphis by mid-January.

But for now, the Pelicans’ recent dominance has to be commended. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies look like they can beat anyone with Morant on the floor, and even boast championship depth when their star point guard is out. These two teams could be trouble for any contending team in the Western Conference from here on out, and they might not even have to win consistently to stay on top of the standings, either.

In the East, the Brooklyn Nets look like they’re starting to come into midseason form under coach Jacque Vaughn.

Note: Throughout the regular season, our panel (Kendra Andrews, Tim Bontemps, Jamal Collier, Nick Friedell, Andrew Lopez, Tim MacMahon, Dave McMenamin and Ohm Youngmisuk) is ranking all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are playing the best basketball now and which teams are looking most like title contenders.

Previous rankings: Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6 | Week 7 | Week 8

1. Boston Celtics
2022-23 record: 22-7
Previous ranking: 1

After losing games to the Warriors and Clippers, the Celtics did literally everything they could to throw away a third straight game against the Lakers, only to make a miraculous comeback and win in overtime. Now, the Celtics can look forward to potentially getting defensive anchor Robert Williams on the court for the first time this season, possibly as soon as Friday at home against Orlando. — Bontemps

2. Milwaukee Bucks
2022-23 record: 20-7
Previous ranking: 2

The Bucks have won five of their past six games, including a blowout victory over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night, and their rotation appears to be close to adding another piece. Forward Joe Ingles, who signed with the team over the summer but has not played since tearing his ACL in January, has been working out with Milwaukee’s G-League squad, and coach Mike Budenholzer acknowledged Ingles is “getting close” to his season debut. — Collier

3. New Orleans Pelicans
2022-23 record: 18-9
Previous ranking: 4

Brandon Ingram is set to miss another week for the Pelicans, but Zion Williamson has made sure they have surged to the top of the West even without Ingram’s presence. The Pelicans are 7-1 in their past eight games, and Williamson has scored 25 points in seven straight games — the second-longest streak of his career. The reigning Western Conference Player of the Week is averaging 29.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks per game in the past eight while shooting 66.4% from the floor. — Lopez

4. Memphis Grizzlies
2022-23 record: 18-9
Previous ranking: 6

The Grizzlies consider Tyus Jones to be the best backup point guard in the NBA, and his past two fill-in starts have bolstered that claim. Jones had 22 points, 11 assists and 3 steals in Monday’s win over the Hawks, and 28 points, 10 assists and 2 steals in a Dec. 5 victory over the Heat. Memphis is 22-8 in games missed by Ja Morant since the start of last season. — MacMahon

5. Denver Nuggets
2022-23 record: 16-10
Previous ranking: 7

Jamal Murray gifted the Nuggets a win over the Portland Trail Blazers as time expired, one-upping Damian Lillard‘s clutch shot just seconds before. Then, Nikola Jokic followed that up with another triple-double against the Jazz. It’s clear that Denver’s offense is continuing to roll, but its defense is still struggling, allowing 114.6 points per 100 possessions — 26th in the league. — Andrews

6. Cleveland Cavaliers
2022-23 record: 17-11
Previous ranking: 5

After a stretch in which he topped double digits in scoring just once over eight games, Caris LeVert went on a heater, scoring 20-plus points in three straight games last week, averaging 22.3 points (on 48.2% shooting), 4.3 assists and 4 rebounds against Sacramento, Oklahoma City and San Antonio. — McMenamin

7. Phoenix Suns
2022-23 record: 16-12
Previous ranking: 3

Phoenix is in a bit of a free fall, loser of five straight and six of its past seven to fall from first to fourth in the Western Conference standings. Just when the Suns got the good news that Chris Paul was back to his old self with 24 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists against New Orleans, they had to deal with Devin Booker’s absence in the next two games due to hamstring tightness — an injury that haunted him throughout last season and the playoffs. — McMenamin

8. Brooklyn Nets
2022-23 record: 17-12
Previous ranking: 13

Four wins in a row and eight of their past nine — the Nets are rolling. Sure, they’ve played a lot of home games recently, and they’ve caught some schedule breaks playing a lot of bad teams that are missing key players, but the Nets continue to take care of business behind Kevin Durant. He continues to play at an MVP level — averaging 28.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6 assists over his first five games in December. — Friedell

9. LA Clippers
2022-23 record: 16-13
Previous ranking: 8

Ty Lue not only has Kawhi Leonard and Paul George back on the floor, but Leonard delivered his best game since tearing his right ACL on June 14, 2021. Leonard made 10 of 12 shots and had 25 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. He had lift on his shot, moved well and hit two 3s. It’s no coincidence that the Clippers got their best win of the season as well, crushing the league-leading Boston Celtics by 20. Perhaps Lue’s team is finally turning the corner and finding some much-needed time together on the court. At the moment, the only injured rotation player is Norman Powell, who remains out with a groin injury. — Youngmisuk

10. Philadelphia 76ers
2022-23 record: 15-12
Previous ranking: 14

Not a bad week’s work for Joel Embiid, who averaged only 40.7 points on 65.7% shooting in three wins for Philadelphia. When Embiid is playing like this, he is the league’s most dominant interior presence — and is capable of leading the 76ers to a whole lot of victories. — Bontemps

11. Sacramento Kings
2022-23 record: 14-12
Previous ranking: 9

The Kings showed how good they can be in close game situations, slamming the door on the Cavaliers on Friday as they finished the game on a 19-0 run. But, their blowout loss to the 76ers on Tuesday showed the duality of this team.— Andrews

12. Portland Trail Blazers
2022-23 record: 15-12
Previous ranking: 12

Damian Lillard is cooking again, and the Blazers appear to be righting their ship again. Portland has won four of its past five with Lillard scoring 40, 36 and 38 in his past three games. And this mini surge could not have come at a better time. Portland hits the road for six straight games and will play 10 of its next 12 away from Oregon. — Youngmisuk

13. Golden State Warriors
2022-23 record: 14-14
Previous ranking: 10

The Golden State Warriors nabbed their most impressive win of the season — which was also their best, most complete game — in a Finals rematch against the Celtics. But just two days later they lost in blowout fashion to the Bucks in a performance that lacked effort. — Andrews

14. Dallas Mavericks
2022-23 record: 14-13
Previous ranking: 11

Luka Doncic‘s 38-point, 11-rebound outing in Monday’s win over the Thunder was his 37th career 35-point double-double, matching Dirk Nowitzki for the most in franchise history. Doncic finished two assists shy of his 27th career 30-point triple-double. It was also the 34th consecutive 20-point performance for him, tying a franchise record set by Mark Aguirre in 1983-84. — MacMahon

15. New York Knicks
2022-23 record: 14-13
Previous ranking: 23

Going into the Cavaliers game at Madison Square Garden 10 days ago, it was hard to know in what direction things were headed for the Knicks. Now, New York sits in a top-six playoff spot in the East headed into a series in Chicago against the Bulls on Wednesday and Friday. — Bontemps

16. Atlanta Hawks
2022-23 record: 14-14
Previous ranking: 15

Hawks rookie AJ Griffin picked up his second game-winning buzzer beater of the season on Sunday when he got a shot to fall against the Bulls despite there being 0.5 on the clock to start the play. Griffin previously hit a layup to win an overtime game against the Raptors. Griffin becomes the second rookie with multiple game-winning buzzer beaters in a season (Toni Kukoc, 1993-94 Bulls) and only the second Hawks player in team history with two game-winning buzzer beaters in a season (Richie Guerin, 1966-67). — Lopez

17. Utah Jazz
2022-23 record: 16-14
Previous ranking: 20

Nickeil Alexander-Walker has taken advantage of playing time that opened up when Collin Sexton strained his right hamstring. Alexander-Walker has averaged 17 points on 61.5% shooting (14-of-24 on 3s) in the past four games. He had 19 points and six assists off the bench in Tuesday’s win over the Pelicans, his former team that traded him away last season. — MacMahon

18. Indiana Pacers
2022-23 record: 14-14
Previous ranking: 16

Indiana has dropped six of its past eight games to fall back to .500 on the season. The schedule for the rest of the month is unforgiving, including games against the Warriors, Celtics, Cavaliers (twice), Clippers and Pelicans. — Collier

19. Toronto Raptors
2022-23 record: 13-14
Previous ranking: 18

Not only can Toronto not make a shot, but O.G. Anunoby, Otto Porter Jr. and Precious Achiuwa are all out — removing a lot of the length from the Raptors’ frontcourt. It’s too early, and the East standings are too bunched up for there to be too much panic north of the border, but the form the team has been in over the past few weeks is certainly cause for concern. — Bontemps

20. Miami Heat
2022-23 record: 13-15
Previous ranking: 19

Miami still can’t seem to find its way. The Heat beat the Pacers on Monday night but then lost to the Spurs and Pistons. Jimmy Butler is doing his part now that he’s back — as evidenced by the 23.8 points, 7 rebounds and 5.6 assists that he’s averaging over five games in December. — Friedell

21. Minnesota Timberwolves
2022-23 record: 13-14
Previous ranking: 20

The Timberwolves are managing to tread water without Karl Anthony-Towns on offense, finding ways to score without their second-leading scorer. Surprisingly, it’s been D’Angelo Russell who has seen a good jump in production, scoring 20 points in the fourth on Friday and averaging 24.8 points. — Andrews

22. Los Angeles Lakers
2022-23 record: 11-16
Previous ranking: 22

With a third of the season in the books and the Lakers staring at an 11-16 record, the “what ifs” are starting to pile up. Tuesday’s loss to the Celtics was another one. L.A. blew a 13-point lead with 4:25 remaining, punctuated by Anthony Davis’ two missed free throws with 28 seconds remaining. It brought to mind both the Indiana loss (when the Lakers wasted a 17-point fourth-quarter lead) and the Philadelphia defeat (when Davis missed a potential go-ahead free throw with 3.1 seconds left). — McMenamin

23. Chicago Bulls
2022-23 record: 11-15
Previous ranking: 25

The Bulls are a league-worst 3-10 in clutch games — games within five points in the last five minutes — this season, including their latest loss at the buzzer in overtime against the Hawks. The poor record marks a steep drop-off from their excellent clutch performance last season when they were 25-16 in the clutch — fourth best in the NBA. — Collier

24. Washington Wizards
2022-23 record: 11-17
Previous ranking: 21

The Wizards need Bradley Beal back ASAP. The star guard is nearing a return from an injured hamstring and was cleared to resume basketball activities on Monday. Washington has lost seven straight games and is banged up. Kristaps Porzingis left Monday’s loss in the third quarter with back tightness, but he said he was feeling better. Monte Morris and Rui Hachimura have been among other injured players. This is a treacherous portion of the schedule that can really break the Wizards’ back with 10 of their next 12 games on the road. — Youngmisuk

25. Oklahoma City Thunder
2022-23 record: 11-16
Previous ranking: 24

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has played in 25 games for the Thunder this season. He has been the leading scorer in 23 of them, including tying his career high with 42 points on Monday against Dallas. Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 10.1 free throws per game, joining Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic as the only players averaging double-digit attempts. In his past 10 games, Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging a whopping 13.5 attempts from the stripe, and he’s making 12.9 (95.6 FT%) a game. — Lopez

26. Orlando Magic
2022-23 record: 8-20
Previous ranking: 30

Orlando has won three straight. Yes, it’s true. Paolo Banchero is averaging 21.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists a game over his past four contests. Franz Wagner is also in the midst of a nice stretch, scoring 34 points in Friday’s win over the Raptors. — Friedell

27. San Antonio Spurs
2022-23 record: 9-18
Previous ranking: 29

Three days off between games gave the Spurs the rest they needed to kick-start a three-game winning streak. After defeating Houston and Miami, San Antonio led Cleveland by as many as 19 late in the third quarter, but the Cavaliers stormed back. After a missed Tre Jones layup, the Cavs pushed forward with Donovan Mitchell charging in for a layup. But Keldon Johnson was able to block the ball at its highest point to save the victory. It was only Johnson’s third block of the season. — Lopez

28. Houston Rockets
2022-23 record: 9-18
Previous ranking: 27

Rookie power forward Jabari Smith Jr. has averaged 13.3 points while shooting 51.2% from the floor and 52.1% from 3-point range while the Rockets have won six of their past 10 games. Second-year center Alperen Sengun (13.4 points, 10.4 rebounds) averaged a double-double during that stretch. — MacMahon

29. Charlotte Hornets
2022-23 record: 7-20
Previous ranking: 26

Charlotte has lost five straight and now LaMelo Ball is still having ankle issues. Things aren’t going well for the Hornets — with the largest issue aside from health being the continued problems on defense. The Hornets have given up an average of 123.3 points over their past four games. — Friedell

30. Detroit Pistons
2022-23 record: 7-22
Previous ranking: 28

Cade Cunningham played in just 12 games and averaged 19.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6 assists during his sophomore year in the NBA before deciding to have season-ending shin surgery this week. The Pistons will have to navigate the rest of the season without the former No.1 overall pick. — Collier

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