NBA Power Rankings: December

december power rankings

With the midway point of the NBA season nearing, it’s time to examine the best teams of last month in the December power rankings. This month teams have battled their way back into the playoffs, or gained ground on the top of their conference. If you haven’t read the October or November power rankings you should know the stats are from this month (December) only, not the entire NBA season. By focusing on one month at a time there is more variety in the ranking and you see which team is hot right now. Anyways, here’s the December power rankings:

1. Houston Rockets (11-4)

Offensive Rating: 113.4 (3rd of 30)

Defensive Rating: 109.3 (18th of 30)

Team MVP: James Harden – 35.9 PPG (45/40/89), 7.5 APG, 1.8 SPG

Although they were the 14th seed in the West during November, the Rockets turned things around during December. They currently hold the 5th seed and have looked completely unstoppable. Harden has entered his name back into the MVP conversation with crazy performance after crazy performance this month. He scored over 400 points in the last 10 games of the month, becoming the 3rd player alongside Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan to accomplish that feat. Additionally, he had a 50-point triple-double against the Lakers on the 13th and a 40-point triple-double on the 31st against the Grizzlies. The Rockets have hopped on Harden back and he has carried them to success.

It may not be sustainable come playoff time, but the Harden isos have been worked to perfection this month. The Rockets offense had struggled significantly during the first two months of the season, but it appears they finally figured it out. Before December the Rockets had the 18th ranked offense, now they hold the 3rd best offense. James Harden has been the obvious catalyst for this offensive jolt, but Clint Capela‘s play and the addition of Austin Rivers shouldn’t be ignored. Through their last 11 games, the Rockets have lost one time and only lost by 2 points. The Rockets have been nearly unstoppable and were a no-brainer to lead the December power rankings.

2. San Antonio Spurs (11-5)

Offensive Rating: 116.6 (1st of 30)

Defensive Rating: 105.9 (7th of 30)

Team MVP: LaMarcus Aldridge – 22.1 PPG (59/40/84), 6.7 RPG, 1.1 BPG

After being considered a long shot for the playoffs, the Spurs have battled their way back into a spot. Not only has their defense improved drastically, but their offense was the best during December. For comparison, the Spurs had a 112.1 defensive rating (26th of 30) and a 108.7 offensive rating (24th of 30) before this month. The massive improvements may be a sign that Gregg Popovich is finally learning out how to use his new team. The loss of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green this offseason, as well as Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV this preseason, caused a major disruption in the Spurs organization. Also, incorporating a new star such as DeMar DeRozan into the team is no easy task. If this month is a sign the Spurs have figured things out, the rest of the NBA should be terrified.

3. Indiana Pacers (12-3)

Offensive Rating: 109.7 (14th of 30)

Defensive Rating: 99.6 (1st of 30)

Team MVP: Myles Turner – 15.4 PPG (52/47/64), 9.5 RPG, 3.1 BPG

It’s no question the Pacers greatest strength is their consistency and depth, so it’s no surprise they haven’t had a losing month. But, with the return of their star player, Victor Oladipo, the team had their best month of the season. Their .800 winning percentage in December is due to their elite defensive play. Through December they held a league-best 99.6 defensive rating. Their elite defensive rating was a result of the Pacers’ being top 5 in steals and blocks as well as being top 10 in defensive rebounding and opponent’s points in the paint.

Offensively the Pacers relied on a team effort with Bogan Bogdanovic leading the way. He averaged a team-high 17.4 ppg on 48-37-87 shooting splits. The entire team still contributed as 6 players averaged 10+ points per game and Darren Collison chipped in 9.6 points per game. Although the team has played very well and displayed impressive depth, they’re not number one for a reason. In December, the Pacers had a very soft schedule. They only played 5 teams above .500 this month and although they have quality wins over the Bucks, Sixers, and Kings they haven’t beaten enough elite competition. They still deserve a top 3 spot for taking care of business against lesser teams, but the Pacers still have to prove they can beat the best of the best.

4. Miami Heat (9-5)

Offensive Rating: 107.9 (20th of 30)

Defensive Rating: 104.1 (5th of 30)

Team MVP: Justise Winslow – 14.8 PPG (48/41/59), 5.6 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.5 SPG

Despite having one of the toughest schedules in December, the Heat crawled their way back into the playoffs. After a rough start to the season, Miami seems to be figuring things out. Since Goran Dragic is injured, Justise Winslow is the new starting point guard. Although it was just one game, 24 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists is a promising start. Offensively this team still has plenty to desire, but on defense, they’re finally realizing their potential. Their defensive rating before December ranked 10th at 106.9, but last month they ranked 5th at 104.1. They even held the Rockets and Pelicans, 2 of the top 4 offenses this month, to 99 and 96 points, respectively. Additionally, they held top-ranked Bucks’ offense to just 84 points. The Heat’s incredible defensive play through December lands them in the top 5 of the power rankings.

5. Bucks (10-4)

Offensive Rating: 108.4 (18th of 30)

Defensive Rating: 102.1 (3rd of 30)

Team MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo – 25.6 PPG (60/22/72), 12.5 RPG, 6.2 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.9 BPG

Surprisingly, the Bucks relied on defense rather than offense during December. Although Giannis still put up great stats, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton struggled last month. The Bucks offensive rating was down during December due to their struggles, but the defense picked them up. Entering January the Bucks have the NBA’s best record. They did have an easy schedule in December, their only impressive win coming against Toronto, but they still beat the teams they needed to beat. Giannis was responsible for carrying the team and despite his awful performance against Miami (9 pts, 3/12 FG) he did a good job. In 7 of their 14 games this month, Giannis scored at least 30 points, including a 44 point outburst against the Cavs. If he continues to play this well and his teammates pick up their play the Bucks will stay atop the NBA ranks for a long time.

6. Denver Nuggets (8-4)

Offensive Rating: 110.5 (T-8th of 30)

Defensive Rating: 109.1 (16th of 30)

Team MVP: Nikola Jokic – 21 PPG (53/29/86), 10.1 RPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.8 SPG

The Nuggets were once again a team of ups and downs this month. They lost to Atlanta and got embarrassed by the Clippers, but also beat San Antonio and Oklahoma City as well as Toronto, twice. Through all of this, they managed to hold onto the one seed in the West. When factoring in injuries this is even more impressive. Despite missing Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap for parts of December, they have kept a winning record. December was their best month offensively led by Jamal Murray‘s 21.3 points per game and Nikola Jokic’s incredible play. For more in-depth coverage on their success this season, read here.

7. Warriors (10-5)

Offensive Rating: 110.5 (T-8th of 30)

Defensive Rating: 107.0 (11th of 30)

Team MVP: Stephen Curry – 28.1 PPG (46/42/91), 4.7 3PM, 1.7 SPG

The Warriors have continued to look lazy and uninspired, but there is no denying their talent. Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are an unstoppable duo on offense, but the rest of the team hasn’t been great. Even Draymond Green and Klay Thompson haven’t looked like themselves. Draymond is shooting 27% from three and teams have left him wide open while Klay is shooting a mediocre 34% from three. The team has such little depth that Jonas Jerebko is playing over 20 minutes a game and started two games for them in December. Jerebko is a decent player, but definitely not a starter on a championship team. Even with their lack of depth the Warriors cruised to a 10-win month and reminded us of the level of dominance we expect from them.

8. Celtics (9-5)

Offensive Rating: 115.5 (2nd of 30)

Defensive Rating: 106.7 (T-9th of 30)

Team MVP: Kyrie Irving – 24.5 PPG (49/43/91), 7.2 APG, 1.3 SPG

Although they started this month on a 6 game win streak, the Celtics haven’t been very impressive. Their most impressive win was against New Orleans, which is a team that hasn’t been playing well recently. The blowout 133-77 win against the Bulls was nice, but the Bulls are arguably the worst team in the league. The good news for the Celtics is that Kyrie, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown all played well this month. Brown stepped up the most last month, scoring 13.5 points per game shooting 49% from the field and 34% from three. This was a considerable improvement over his November average of 11.3 points per game shooting 42% from the field and 21% from three. The bad news for the Celtics is that Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier have continued to struggle. They’re shooting 37% and 39%, respectively, from the field and are simply not making shots in the offense. The Celtics have shown signs of growth this season, but won’t be a contender in the East unless everybody plays to their capabilities.

9. Thunder (9-6)

Offensive Rating: 108.1 (19th of 30)

Defensive Rating: 102.6 (4th of 30)

Team MVP: Paul George – 30.1 PPG (49/43/85), 8.9 RPG, 2.3 SPG

The Thunder had a good December but left plenty to be desired. The team suffered narrow losses to the Bulls, Pelicans, Timberwolves, and Mavericks, all that could have been avoided. Their bench definitely needs to improve their play, but some responsibility still falls on Westbrook. While Russell Westbrook has continued to have a great all-around impact, he struggled to score the ball in December. He averaged under 20 points per game despite attempting nearly 20 shots a game. He shot 39% from the field, 26% from three, and 61% from the free throw line. The 11.3 RPG, 10.4 APG, and 3.4 SPG in December are amazing, but if he can’t make shots, the Thunder won’t be able to compete for a Western Conference championship.

10. Nets (9-6)

Offensive Rating: 110.1 (11th of 30)

Defensive Rating: 110.4 (20th of 30)

Team MVP: Spencer Dinwiddie 20.0 PPG (47/38/76), 6.0 APG

The Nets may not have been consistent this month, but their 7-game win streak was very impressive. Over those 7 games, the Nets had a top 4 offense due to the incredible play of Spencer Dinwiddie. My early pick for the most improved player award, Spencer Dinwiddie averaged 24 points per game on 52.5% shooting from the field during their win streak. The Nets made the right decision signing him to a 3-year $39 million deal last month. D’Angelo Russell also deserves credit for his great play in December. He scored 29+ points four times and dished out 9+ assists four times as well. At this point, it’s all about consistency for Russell. For the Nets, the question is whether they can build off their win streak or if they will return to their old selves.

All stats via NBA.com and ESPN

 

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