Posted: Tuesday November 30, 2010 1:30PM ; Updated: Tuesday November 30, 2010 6:56PM
Britt Robson
Britt Robson>NBA POWER RANKINGS

Mavs on top in month of surprises

Story Highlights

Tyson Chandler's spark on defense has helped the Mavericks to six straight wins

Though No. 2 this week, the Spurs still hold the league's best record at 14-2

After a surprisingly strong start, New Orleans dropped four of its last five

For the fourth straight week, a different Western Conference team has grabbed the top spot in our Power Rankings.

It wasn't easy to dislodge the Spurs, who continue to hold the best record, at 14-2, but the Mavericks completed an impressive week that included road victories against San Antonio and Oklahoma City, which had won five in a row entering the game. Dallas has won six consecutive games and 10 of its last 12 -- good enough to follow the Lakers, Hornets (who have cooled off after a hot start) and Spurs as West teams in the No. 1 position.

With a full month of the season in the books, there have already been a boatload of unexpected developments around the league. Instead of the usual analysis, this week's comments will focus on the biggest early-season surprise for each team.

(All stats and records are through Nov. 29.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 7
Coach Rick Carlisle has always craved a defensive identity for Dallas, but he needed the right player to set the tone. A few years ago, center Tyson Chandler would have been an obvious candidate, but chronic foot injuries and excessive fouling made it difficult for the spindly 7-footer to stay on the court. Right about the time he fell under the radar -- the Bobcats dumped him in a money-saving trade with Dallas last summer -- Chandler has been rejuvenated under Carlisle. Healthy for all 17 games, he's been a superb rim protector and, as a bonus, one of the league's most efficient scorers. Remembering his days converting lobs from Chris Paul in New Orleans, he's shooting 67.6 percent from the field to go with a career-best 80 percent at the line. (He had 19 points on 3-of-3 from the field and 13-of-16 from the line in Friday's victory at San Antonio.)
 
2San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 1
Two years ago, it was Roger Mason. Last season, it was George Hill. For this year's previously obscure three-point assassin, San Antonio reached down deeper than ever and plucked 26-year-old rookie Gary Neal, a veteran of the European leagues. Neal's scintillating summer league campaign persuaded Spurs management to give him a chance. It's not a minor decision: The Spurs' offense is predicated on open shooters nailing threes, often under make-or-break circumstances in crunch time. Like Mason and Hill before him, Neal has responded well, hitting 40.8 percent from deep. He removed all doubts about his composure last week in Minnesota, where coach Gregg Popovich drew up a play for him with 16 seconds left in regulation and the Spurs down three. Neal was fouled shooting a three. Despite having attempted only two free throws all season to that point, Neal made all three to tie a game the Spurs would eventually win in OT.
 
3Boston Celtics
Last Week: 4
Shaquille O'Neal is producing at a level no one could reasonably expect from a 38-year-old, 325-pound behemoth with more NBA tread on his tires than only a dozen or so players in league history. On a per-minute basis, Shaq leads the Celtics in rebounding (if you eliminate rookie Luke Harangody's 15-minute sample size) and is second to Paul Pierce in scoring. While Shaq can no longer sustain his excellence, he proved last week that he was still capable of big numbers as he had 25 points (on 9-of-10 shooting) and 11 rebounds against Brook Lopez and the Nets. Perhaps just as significant, Shaq is keeping things loose, whether posing for pictures as a statue in Harvard Square just before the season, or unlocking the knots in Kevin Garnett's psyche with his gentle-giant routine.
 
4Utah Jazz
Last Week: 9
Utah Jazz (14-5)
That the Jazz aren't producing surprises is no surprise for a franchise coached by Jerry Sloan, who for decades has been running the same sets to near-perfection with a rotating cast of characters. Swingman C.J. Miles has come up big in the clutch on a various occasions but is shooting only 40.3 percent overall, including 31.9 percent from three-point range. Deron Williams has his worst assist-to-turnover ratio since his rookie season but finds the moments to bury a big jumper and create a steal in crunch time, as he did in Friday's victory against the Lakers. The Jazz rank behind only Boston in assists. And despite the absence of floor-spacing center Mehmet Okur, Utah has won six in a row and 14 of 19 to start the season. None of this is especially surprising.
 
5Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 2
The coming-out party for Shannon Brown began on opening night, when the fifth-year backup guard drained four straight three-pointers in the final period to lead the Lakers to a comeback victory against Houston. Brown, who signed a two-year, $4.6 million deal in the offseason, has continued to pay big dividends, converting a career-best 47.5 percent from deep (his high for a full season is 37.8 percent) and ranking second to Kobe Bryant on the Lakers in points per minute. While Derek Fisher and Steve Blake are likewise shooting better than 45 percent from long range, neither can buy a bucket from inside the arc (Fisher is at 40.9 percent overall and Blake is at 38 percent), making Brown's 48.6 percent a crucial upgrade. It's no coincidence that Brown's current mini-slump -- 4-of-17 from the field, including 0-of-4 from long range -- has occurred during back-to-back losses to Utah and Indiana.
 
6Orlando Magic
Last Week: 5
Two surprises: the dramatic expansion of Dwight Howard's game and how it has actually hindered his and Orlando's offensive prowess. Anyone who has seen the center play has to marvel at what his offseason work, which included sessions with Hakeem Olajuwon, has wrought -- especially the increased range of Howard's jumper and the improvement with his left hand. But because Howard has more confidence and capability away from the basket, his offensive rebounds and the number of shots he attempts at the rim are both at a career low. As a result of the change in his shot locations, Howard's shooting percentage is up at every distance but down overall, from last year's league-best 61.2 percent to 59.5 percent. Howard is also shooting more free throws (13 per game) and making fewer (53.8 percent) than at any time in his career. Add in a slight dip in his teammates' overall shooting, and the Magic's offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) has plummeted from fourth last season to 13th in 2010-11.
 
7Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 8
Kevin Durant's scoring title deservedly garnered the glitz, but the Thunder's enormous improvement last season was rooted in an overhauled defense that utilized length to switch effectively on pick-and-rolls. With the roster essentially intact, it was reasonable to expect that the Thunder would get pounded a bit defending the paint but otherwise force difficult jumpers away from the hoop. But OKC has missed defensive architect Ron Adams (who joined Tom Thibodeau's staff in Chicago) more than expected, especially in its diligence guarding out to the three-point line. After finishing third in the league in opposing three-point percentage (34.0) last season, OKC is a surprising 28th (39.4 percent) this year, and it has yielded better than 50 percent shooting from deep in four of its six losses.
 
8Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 6
By at least one measure, the Bulls have played the NBA's toughest schedule, with nine of 15 games on the road, only four against the weaker Eastern Conference and just one against their woeful Central Division rivals. Yet they are 9-6 despite that grind and Carlos Boozer's absence. Many people expected the continued development of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. But the Bulls don't stay above .500 without the contributions of Boozer's replacement, second-year power forward Taj Gibson, whose infectious energy beside Noah provides Chicago with frontcourt tenacity to complement Rose's motor in transition. Gibson has also improved his shooting (from 49.4 percent as a rookie to 51.1 percent this season) and scoring average (from 9.0 to 11.3 in the same number of minutes).
 
9Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 13
The surprise is that management is allowing the Carmelo Anthony saga to continue without trading him. When Carmelo drilled a buzzer-beating jumper to defeat the Bulls on Friday in Denver, the fans erupted, players hugged ... and, inevitably, the reality that Anthony is almost certain to be gone, either by the February trading deadline or the end of the season, reasserted itself. Let's be clear here: Anthony has already rejected Denver's best possible offer. He doesn't want to be there. And if Derrick Favors continues his impressive rookie season in New Jersey, it's not certain that the Nuggets would be able to make the deal involving Favors that they reportedly backed away from last summer. All the enthusiasm Nuggets fans have shown for a team that is 10-6 against the NBA's third-toughest schedule seems like the equivalent of panning for fool's gold.
 
10New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 3
The Hornets have been full of surprises. Begin with the wholly unanticipated 11-1 start, games won through the tried-and-true methodology of team defense by a committed blend of holdover stars (Chris Paul, David West) and incoming role players (Marco Belinelli, Jason Smith). It was a formula built to endure, so of course New Orleans immediately spit the bit, dropping four of five and being outscored by an average of 12 points in the fourth quarter of its last three defeats. Logic says that reality for the Hornets lies between their impressive start and their feeble recent stretch. Unless we want to blame everything on newly acquired Jarrett Jack -- who, come to think of it, has been wretched in his brief Hornets tenure -- the third surprise of the season would be if New Orleans fails to regroup and buckle down for a legitimate playoff run.
 
11Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 12
Indiana's little surprise is breakout stardom of its big man, and the big surprise is the unlikely resurrection of its little point guard. First, hats off to 7-2 center Roy Hibbert, who is playing at an All-Star level in his third year. Less heralded but more surprising is the re-emergence of backup point guard T.J. Ford, long a resident of coach Jim O'Brien's doghouse. After Ford finished plus-14 compared to starter Darren Collison's minus-18 in Friday's overtime loss to Oklahoma City (when their point guard counterpart Russell Westbrook went off for a career-high 43 points), Ford was allowed to play the final 4:55 over Collision as the rapidly improving Pacers held off the Lakers on the road Sunday.
 
12Miami Heat
Last Week: 11
Miami Heat (10-8)
Count me among those who are flabbergasted by the Heat's dysfunction. Smarter people than I are continually trying to figure out why. The easy but appropriate way out of that quandary is to blame everyone. LeBron James frequently breaks off plays in the half-court, much as he did to the detriment of Cleveland's flow. Dwyane Wade has been horrible in at least half of the Heat's eight losses. Chris Bosh isn't owning a large piece of the paint even with two of the game's best penetrators on the floor. Erik Spoelstra apparently lacks the gravitas to prevent the inmates from running the asylum. In any case, it is a character check for some very high-profile players. Stay tuned.
 
13Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 14
When the Hawks signed Joe Johnson to a max contract last summer, the need became more acute to foster homegrown talent in order to improve. New coach Larry Drew indicated that Jeff Teague would be the poster boy for that internal development, promising that the second-year point guard would play a much larger role in the team's new Princeton-style motion offense this season. To the surprise and disappointment of Hawks fans, it hasn't happened. Teague's minutes are up slightly, from 10.1 to 13.3 per game, but he hasn't played well enough to dislodge veteran Mike Bibby, or provide a real spark off the bench.
 
14New York Knicks
Last Week: 19
The Knicks couldn't have expected such an immediate impact from Landry Fields, the 39th pick in the 2010 draft. The 6-7 shooting guard from Stanford has started every game, is shooting 54.9 percent from the field and ranks second to Amar'e Stoudemire on the team in rebounding (in fact, he leads all NBA guards with 7.2 rebounds a game and has had three straight double-digit rebounding performances). With Fields sparking the first unit with hard-nosed play at both ends of the court, the Knicks have won six of seven to reach 9-9 for their best 18-game start since 2004-05.
 
15Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 15
Incompetence from Suns management is not a surprise -- consider all the draft picks the team has traded away in the past five or six years -- but the notion that this team could maximize Steve Nash's final two seasons with a ridiculous lack of depth and size in its frontcourt was surprisingly naive even for the Phoenix front office and ownership. The team's only semi-quality big man, Robin Lopez, missed large chunks of time with injuries his first two seasons and is out again with a sprained knee. The rest of the frontcourt -- Hakim Warrick, Hedo Turkoglu, Channing Frye, Josh Childress, Grant Hill -- would be overwhelmed by most power forwards in this league. The result is that Phoenix is last in rebounding percentage and defensive efficiency. That the Suns are 8-9 is a tribute to Nash and coach Alvin Gentry.
 
16Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 10
The law of averages is a laughingstock in Portland, but any mirth is more bitter than sweet as the Blazers undergo a second straight season of decimating injuries. Around the same time that the Blazers announced season-ending knee surgery for former No. 1 pick Greg Oden, it was revealed that star guard Brandon Roy has an arthritic knee that would require daily anti-inflammatory medicine to reduce swelling. Backup center Joel Przybilla still has yet to play a game (a bout of the flu has delayed his comeback from knee surgery), putting more pressure on 36-year-old, 235-pound big man Marcus Camby. And amid the grim injury news, the Blazers have lost five of seven to tumble to .500.
 
17Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 21
Under Byron Scott, the Nets and Hornets had their best NBA seasons in franchise history. At the time Scott was hired last summer, the Cavs likewise expected him to push them forward -- to an NBA championship. When those hopes were soon dashed by LeBron's departure, it was reasonable to wonder how Scott would respond to Cleveland's drastically deflated prospects. The answer has been a month of skilled sideline work that has burnished Scott's coaching reputation. The Cavs are a surprising 7-9 in large part because of the consistent hustle and efficiency Scott has engendered. His passion and competitiveness were exemplified by his recent fine -- the first of his coaching career -- for blatantly criticizing the refs after a 111-100 loss at Orlando in which his underdog Cavs trailed by double figures most of the way.
 
18Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 16
Warriors fans knew they would get dazzling fireworks from guards Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry. They'd seen Andris Biedrins corral double-digit rebounding totals when healthy. And they were aware of forward David Lee's All-Star exploits with the Knicks last year. But the fifth member of the starting lineup, Dorell Wright, came in under the radar, washed out of Miami by the roster-cleansing there, and signed by Golden State to a modest three-year, $11.5 million deal. He's been a constant presence, ranking 12th in the league in minutes (38.4) while nailing the fourth-most three-pointers (41) on 43.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc. According to 82games.com, the Warriors are 8.4 points better per 100 possessions when he plays compared to when he sits.
 
19Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 17
Coach Lionel Hollins' attempt to build a better bench has been disastrous, with subs such as Sam Young, Acie Law and Hasheem Thabeet getting roasted -- especially when they play together. (Hollins recently moved O.J. Mayo to the bench in hopes of jump-starting the struggling guard and generating more scoring from his second unit.) But one bit player from last season who has forced his way into the rotation is third-year big man Darrell Arthur. He is shooting 53.9 percent in a career-high 23.1 minutes, after hitting below 44 percent in each of his first two seasons. Arthur is also getting to the line slightly more often and shooting more accurately, and he's maintaining his per-minute rates in rebounds, assists, blocks and turnovers. Best of all, however, the Grizzlies are 17.2 points per 100 possessions better on defense when Arthur plays compared to when he's on the bench, according to 82games.com. That's one reason why Memphis has improved from 19th to 12th in defensive efficiency.
 
20Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 20
It was difficult to see how the Bobcats were going to repeat last year's first-ever playoff appearance after their best center (Tyson Chandler) and point guard (Raymond Felton) departed. A month into the season that's still true at the pivot, but at the point, D.J. Augustin has been at least a push and perhaps even an upgrade over Raymond Felton. The 5-11 Augustin leads the NBA with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.17 to 1 (Felton's was 2.65 to 1 last season). Augustin's scoring average and true shooting percentage are both higher, mostly because of his 88.1 percent accuracy at the free-throw line (compared to Felton's 76.3 percent in 1.3 fewer attempts per game last season). The Bobcats score 11.4 more points per 100 possessions when Augustin plays compared to when he sits, according to 82games.com.
 
21Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 18
Coach Scott Skiles will always preach defensive stops ahead of offensive conversions, a priority that will lower the shooting percentage of both the Bucks and their opponents. But all that said, few would have guessed that Milwaukee would be this inept at simply putting the ball in the hole. The Bucks are last in shooting accuracy and points per game. The problem is widespread and apparently contagious, as four of the Bucks' top five scorers (excluding Chris Douglas-Roberts and Carlos Delfino, who have played only two and seven games, respectively) have career-low shooting percentages, including such formerly reliable scorers as Corey Maggette, John Salmons and Andrew Bogut. Even the exception, point guard Brandon Jennings, has "improved" to 39 percent after connecting on 37.4 percent as a rookie.
 
22Houston Rockets
Last Week: 24
In retrospect, it was crazy to think that a team could effectively compete for a championship with its cornerstone player, center Yao Ming, limited to no more than half the game and barred from playing on successive nights. Yes, the Rockets have been racked by injuries this season, but the team was winless with point guard Aaron Brooks healthy and 1-4 in Yao's five starts. The surprise is that potential Hall of Fame coach Rick Adelman has been less successful trying to juggle all his talented options than he has been adjusting to a depleted roster. If that continues when Yao and Brooks return, big changes are in store for Houston.
 
23Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 23
Who would have thought that the signature strength of a supposed finesse team would be a brute's banging for extra possessions under the boards? Journeyman power forward Reggie Evans was the man who helped Toronto keep on ticking before breaking his foot against the Celtics last Friday. Before sustaining the injury, the 6-8 Evans had clawed his way for 61 rebounds during a four-game winning streak that had the Raptors at 6-10 -- better than expected after losing Chris Bosh. Rebounds have always been Evans' stock-and-trade, but his previous career best was 9.3 boards per game as a starter for the 52-win Sonics in 2004-05. This year, Evans was hauling in 12.1 per game, and had the highest rebounding percentage in the NBA. Behind Evans, the Raptors were plus-44 on the offensive glass in their first 16 games -- their only statistical advantage over opponents.
 
24New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 27
Derrick Favors was supposed to be a long-term project. But the 6-10 forward, who won't leave his teens until next July 15, is starting out in the NBA at a much higher level than most experts imagined. Sure, he commits more than a few fouls, but Favors is not overwhelmed during his 19.2 minutes on the court. He's shooting 55.4 percent from the field and is as accurate on jumpers inside of 10 feet as he is on shots at the rim. The Nets rebound as well when he's on the court as when he is off it, and, according to the advanced stats at Basketball-Reference.com, he has one of the best "defensive ratings" on the team. Not bad for a kid taken third overall in the 2010 draft because of his potential alone.
 
25Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 22
The surprise -- no, let's call it a mystery -- is the fact that Ben Gordon is averaging just 27.5 minutes, his lowest total since his rookie year in 2004-05. The Pistons rank 20th in offensive efficiency. Gordon, in his prime at age 27, is shooting a Steve Nash-like 51 percent from the field, 45.2 from three-point range (both career highs) and 90.7 percent from the free-throw line. The man playing ahead of him, Rip Hamilton, is enduring one of the worst seasons in his long career. Last week, coach John Kuester was reportedly considering starting Gordon over Hamilton. With GM Joe Dumars having invested nearly $60 million -- and a good chunk of his reputation -- on Gordon's performance for a five-year period beginning last season, playing that meal ticket might be a wise, if belated, move for Kuester's job security in the days and months ahead.
 
26Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 25
The long-awaited awakening of Darko Milicic is the mega-surprise, albeit short-lived so far, in Minnesota. Five teams and seven years after being taken second overall in the 2003 draft, the 7-foot Serbian was a colossal, universally belittled bust who had to be bribed with a $20 million deal by the Timberwolves last summer to risk further humiliation. When not even 6-for-35 shooting in the first six games kept Milicic out of the starting lineup, self-doubts that have constantly sabotaged his obvious skills finally began to fade. Two weeks ago, he dominated Pau Gasol in the paint. Last week, the Spurs' Tim Duncan needed a double team to guard him, and coach Gregg Popovich quoted an assistant comparing Milicic to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Milicic is averaging 16.5 points (on 56.6 percent shooting), 8.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 4.0 blocks in his last five games. Overall, he leads the NBA in blocks (2.9) while averaging a career-high 27 minutes.
 
27Washington Wizards
Last Week: 28
There haven't been many surprises. When healthy, John Wall has been brilliant. Gilbert Arenas is posting hefty numbers but still needs to dominate the ball. Frontcourt mates JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche remain models of inconsistency. Kirk Hinrich has been a busy mentor, leading the team in minutes. I guess with the likes of Arenas, Blatche, McGee and erratic guard Nick Young, along with the stalled development of young players Al Thornton, Yi Jianlian and Hilton Armstrong, not to mention Josh Howard's return on the horizon, the surprise is that coach Flip Saunders has any hair -- or sanity -- left.
 
28Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 29
Power forward Elton Brand's return to form after a couple of miserable years qualifies as a pleasant surprise, but the Sixers' poor first month prompts a search for the surprising negatives. And that leads us to the horrible results from two offseason trades. In June, GM Ed Stefanski dealt Samuel Dalembert to the Kings for Spencer Hawes and Andres Nocioni. Hawes has been soft and woefully inaccurate as a shooter while not protecting the rim nearly as well as Dalembert; Nocioni is an expensive addition to the swingman logjam that also includes top player Andre Iguodala and top pick Evan Turner. In September, with Stefanski now working under new president Rod Thorn, Philadelphia traded two players -- Jason Smith and Willie Green -- who have become regular rotation members for the 12-5 Hornets in exchange for Darius Songaila and Craig Brackins, who have combined for 37 minutes in Philadelphia.
 
29Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 30
There have been no earth-shattering surprises. Rookie Blake Griffin has been extraordinarily good and the team's league-worst record has been equally bad. But both of these developments were at least somewhat predictable. I had pegged Griffin as my breakout star before the season, and the Clippers have a long history of dramatically underachieving relative to their core talent. Yes, the injuries to Chris Kaman and Baron Davis have depleted the depth, but again, that's hardly surprising for two relatively injury-prone veterans. By default, let's go with the rapid development of this year's top pick, 20-year-old Al-Farouq Aminu, who is shooting 54.1 percent from three-point range and averaging 7.8 points in 18.9 minutes.
 
30Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 26
A 1-10 tailspin has doused hopes of Sacramento's parlaying its impressive collection of young talent into a significant step forward this season. You expect an immature rookie like DeMarcus Cousins to struggle, but the regression of last season's Rookie of the Year, Tyreke Evans, has been unanticipated. Evans's shooting percentage, assists, rebounds and scoring are all down from the 20-5-5 inaugural season, thresholds reached only by Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron. According to 82games.com, there are two other troubling trends about Evans' sophomore season: He performs much better at point guard than at shooting guard, but lacks the point guard mentality (his assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.58 to 1) to facilitate for his teammates. Second, the Kings have been subpar on defense (22nd in efficiency) overall, but allow 4.9 more points per 100 possessions with Evans on the court compared to when he sits.

 
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