Posted: Fri December 14, 2012 1:06PM; Updated: Fri December 14, 2012 6:45PM
Matt Dollinger
Matt Dollinger>NBA POWER RANKINGS

The biggest surprise in California? It's not the Lakers

Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

While the Lakers' struggles continue to be the talk of the league, plenty of other teams have surprised us this season for different reasons.

No two teams have exceeded expectations more than the Warriors (No. 6) and Hawks (No. 8), and both climbed the Power Rankings once again this week. Despite the absence of a traditional high-volume, go-to-scorer on either team, Golden State and Atlanta have knocked off some of the best in the league and currently rank among the elite. And they're not the only ones experiencing success by playing team ball. The Clippers ascended to No. 4, despite their best player averaging the third-most points, and the Spurs, Jazz, Celtics and Bulls also rank in the top third despite rarely turning to hero ball on offense.

Those seven teams have more in common than just the absence of a high-scoring No. 1 option. They also share the ball more than most squads, each ranking in the top 10 in assists, and six of the seven also rank in the top 10 in offensive efficiency. Teams like the Thunder and Knicks, who have stars in Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, will always be dangerous and among the NBA's best on offense, but others teams are proving there are ways to thrive without a premier scorer.

The Thunder retain the top spot for the second week in a row, but there's been plenty of shuffling in the top 10. Here's where all 30 teams rank this week. (All stats and records are through Thursday.)

NBA Power Rankings
 
1 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 1
Since: 3-0
Oklahoma City is rolling, one victory away from the franchise's first 10-game winning streak since 1996. Many assumed the Thunder were compromising the present and setting themselves up for the future with the James Harden trade, but the deal has managed to improve the current product as well, leading to a more-efficient defense and the league's best offense. On top of that production, OKC gained cap flexibility and draft picks in the deal. Is this what it looks to have your cake and eat it, too?
 
2 New York Knicks
Last Week: 4
Since: 3-1
Jason Kidd's transformation from the league's best point guard to one of its most efficient shooting guards -- at age 39, no less -- has been fascinating to watch. After primarily playing the point for the last 17 years, Kidd shifted to the 2 this season to start alongside Raymond Felton. He hasn't missed a beat, shooting 49.5 percent from the field (he's a career 40.1 shooter), 52.7 percent from three-point range (35.1) and 92.6 percent from the free-throw line (78.5). He's leading the league in three-point percentage after never finishing in the top 10 before. That's an incredible transition for a guy who has made a Hall of Fame career out of being a pass-first point guard.
 
3 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 3
Since: 3-2
Tim Duncan's 13-year All-Star Game streak came to an end last season, but he's more than earned a nod this season. The 36-year-old is averaging 17.8 points and 10.2 rebounds, his best numbers in three years. He ranks fourth in Player Efficiency Rating at 25.9, behind only LeBron James, Durant and Anthony, and Duncan is the main reason a balanced Spurs team has matched the Thunder for the NBA lead with 18 victories. There are other guys who would probably (OK, definitely) be more entertaining to watch on All-Star weekend, but there are few players, if any, more deserving in the Western Conference.
 
4 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 6
Since: 4-0
"A Tribe Called Bench" has led the Clippers to eight straight wins and made them the hottest team outside of Oklahoma City. Los Angeles arguably owns the best bench in the league and that's with veterans Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill still sidelined. Jamal Crawford averages more points (17.1) than any full-time sub in the NBA, but the group has also gotten big contributions from Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe. Barnes was one of the team's least-heralded offseason additions, but he's been one of the most important. The Clippers are 10-1 when he scores at least 10 points.
 
5 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 2
Since: 1-2
The Grizzlies have hit their first rough patch of the season. Memphis went 12-1 in November, averaging 99.5 points and beating opponents by an average of 9.8. Since then, the Grizzlies have gone just 2-3 and seen their scoring average fall to 92.4. Sloopy ball handling has contributed to the dip in play; Memphis is averaging four more turnovers a game in December. Mike Conley is averaging a career-worst 3.1 turnovers a game, but it's the struggles of backup Jerry Bayless that really has the team concerned. Bayless has totaled more turnovers (eight) than field goals (five) in the last five games and forced Memphis to take a look at veteran point guard Mike Bibby as an alternative option. The Mavs' signing of Derek Fisher had the desired wake-up effect on Darren Collison -- maybe the Grizzlies can pull off the same with Bibby and Bayless.
 
6 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 9
Since: 4-0
By stunning the Heat in Miami, the Warriors proved there is nothing fluky about their best start since 1991-92. Golden State is 5-0 on a seven-game road trip, with visits to Orlando and Atlanta remaining. What's even more impressive is that they've won 10 of their last 12 and boast a 7-2 mark against teams with winning records. Mark Jackson has to be considered an early Coach of the Year favorite, given that the Warriors finished 20 games below .500 last season. He's done it with a roster that averages 25.2 years old and features four rookies. He's also done it by emphasizing rebounding; Golden State is 14-1 when winning the battle on the glass. It'll be even better on the boards when center Andrew Bogut returns.
 
7 Miami Heat
Last Week: 5
Since: 2-1
Miami Heat (14-6)
The last-second loss to Golden State was Miami's third defeat in five games. But it's not time to panic. The Heat had three similar stretches last season when they lost three times in four games during a condensed schedule. What's actually concerning is the defense, which has plummeted from fourth last season to 21st in points allowed per possession. The Heat have already allowed opponents to score 100 points in 11 of 20 games after permitting that much in just 16 of 66 contests last season.
 
8 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 7
Since: 4-1
Atlanta has won five of six to start December since a Nov. 30 home loss to the Cavaliers ended its six-game winning streak. Defense continues to be key, as the Hawks rank fifth in points allowed per possession and have held opponents to 90 points or fewer in three of the last four games. The Hawks have also not allowed an opponent to shoot above 50 percent this season. Atlanta has used that defense to fluster some of the league's best offenses -- the Grizzlies, Clippers and Thunder among them -- forcing turnovers on 16.5 percent of opponents' possessions, the highest mark in the league.
 
9 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 10
Since: 2-1
The Celtics' older, relatively shallow roster is going to be put to the test during an upcoming 17-day stretch that features seven of nine games on the road, including visits to San Antonio, Chicago, Brooklyn, the Clippers and Golden State. Too bad for the Celtics that resting aging star players isn't always an option. This could be a time when the Celtics choose to rely even more on the young legs of Rajon Rondo, who hasn't missed a beat since unceremoniously ending his double-digit assist streak with an ejection and two-game suspension. Rondo has strung together four double-digit assist games in a row.
 
10 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 15
Since: 3-0
Utah Jazz (13-10)
Utah continues to bully teams down low, with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap controlling the paint during a four-game winning streak that has included victories against the Lakers in Los Angeles and the visiting Spurs. But Utah's offense (No. 7 in efficiency) has also been getting a huge boost from its three-point shooters, highlighted by Mo Williams' game-winning triple against San Antonio. Utah is shooting 45 percent (27-of-60) from three-point range in its last three games, up from its season average of 37.6.
 
11 Brooklyn Nets
Last Week: 8
Since: 1-3
The Nets are plodding down the court these days -- and that's with 7-foot center Brook Lopez sidelined. Brooklyn is second to last in pace (90.9 possessions per 48 minutes) and averaging the third-fewest fast-break points. Part of the reason is the Nets don't gamble very often on defense, producing the fifth-fewest turnovers (14.1). On offense, coach Avery Johnson leans on post-ups and isolations. No one will ever call the Nets free-flowing, but they make every possession count, scoring at the seventh-most-efficient rate in the league.
 
12 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 13
Since: 3-1
Just as we predicted, Marco Belinelli is carrying the offensive load for the Bulls. OK, so maybe not everyone saw it coming, but coach Tom Thibodeau has found a gem in the Italian shooting guard. Belinelli is averaging 19 points in his last five games, helping Chicago go 4-1 in place of injured Rip Hamilton. He's leading Chicago in three-point shooting (40 percent) and giving an anemic offense the much-needed spot-up shooter it's lacked since trading Kyle Korver.
 
13 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 11
Since: 2-2
Philadelphia's record is a bit deceiving as the Sixers have defeated only two teams (Celtics twice, Jazz) with current winning records. The offense and defense have slipped in efficiency this season, too. Philadelphia's long-term prospects still hinge on Andrew Bynum, who didn't offer much optimism despite saying he would play this season. Until then, the Sixers will ride the hot hand of Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner. (Holiday was diagnoed with a sprained foot and is a game-time decision Friday against Indiana.) Both have taken big steps forward, with Holiday averaging career numbers and Turner shooting 44.7 from three-point range, which as Rob Mahoney notes, is nearly double his career average.
 
14 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 17
Since: 3-0
Ersan Ilyasova is finally playing like his former self -- and it's making the Bucks a different team. After scoring in double digits only four times in his first 15 games, Ilyasova has topped that mark in each of his last four, averaging 16 points and 8.2 rebounds. It's no coincidence that Milwaukee won three of those games and gave the Spurs a battle for three quarters in its only loss. The Bucks are 7-1 when Ilyasova scores at least 10 points.
 
15 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 20
Since: 2-0
Kevin Love's comments to Yahoo! Sports were as troubling as they come for Minnesota's front office. With the star big man (yes, Glen Taylor, he is a star) set to become a free agent in 2015, the Wolves have only one course of action when it comes to retaining him -- winning. The Wolves have won four of five and could be headed for Love's first career postseason appearance if they can keep up their current play, which should get even better upon Ricky Rubio's return. Ultimately, Love might follow the same path as Kevin Garnett and leave town to pursue a title. But he said he would prefer to end his career in Minnesota. It's up to the Wolves to put the right pieces around him.
 
16 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 12
Since: 1-2
Bench play continues to hinder Indiana. Worst of all has been backup point guard D.J. Augustin, who has fallen farther than Felix Baumgartner and appears to be having confidence issues, ultimately resulting in his demotion to the third string this week. In his place, coach Frank Vogel elevated Ben Hansbrough, little brother of Tyler, in hopes of a spark. The sample size is small, but Ben's 17-minute backup debut against Cleveland was an undeniable success; he totaled six points and two steals and brought an added intensity on both ends for the Pacers' second unit. Best of all was big brother Tyler's coming to Ben's defense after a Tristan Thompson elbow to the head. The Pacers' brotherly duo, only the fourth to ever play together, might be the key to this bench's search for chemistry.
 
17 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 19
Since: 2-1
Dallas' offense has come to life in the last three games, averaging 110.3 points in regulation. While Derek Fisher is the starting point guard, it appears his arrival has revitalized Collison. The fourth-year guard is averaging 15.6 points off the bench in his last three games and, more importantly, shooting 62 percent in those contests. O.J. Mayo will continue to be the go-to scorer in Dirk Nowitzki's absence, but Dallas needs Collison to be a more reliable playmaker.
 
18 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 14
Since: 1-3
The one night return of Linsanity came in a losing effort in OT against the Spurs as all the Rockets got out of the way (James Harden sat out injured) to let Jeremy Lin do his thing. It almost worked. Lin exploded to tie his career high with 38 points on 11-of-21 shooting, including a 4-of-5 effort from three-point range reminiscent of his MSG heyday. But Lin's shooting wasn't his only weapon. The point guard was playing with a different fire all together. Lin diced into the lane to draw foul after foul and made all 12 of his free throws, more than he had attempted in his last nine games combined. When Harden returned next game, the Rockets won, but Lin also scored just 10 points to Harden's 31. Lin needs to figure out a way to be his dynamic self while co-existing with Harden for Houston to reach its potential.
 
19 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 16
Since: 1-2
Denver was widely viewed to have stolen Andre Iguodala from Philadelphia in the Dwight Howard trade, but the swingman has gotten off to a disappointing start. Iguodala is posting a career-low PER of 12.4 (career average 17) while shooting a career-worst 42.1 percent from the field and averaging his most turnovers (3.1) since 2006-07. Denver is also averaging 5.9 more points per 100 possessions with him on the bench, the biggest margin of any player in coach George Karl's rotation.
 
20 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 22
Since: 2-1
How important are LaMarcus Aldridge and Wes Matthews to the Blazers' offense? Portland's offensive rating skyrockets 16 points when the two of them are on the floor. This is largely a result of Portland's anemic bench, which continues to average the fewest points in the league, at 15.3. (The Lakers average the second fewest, at 23.5.) Rookie point guard Damian Lillard didn't need much help from any backups on Thursday as he had 29 points, seven rebounds and six assists in a victory against San Antonio.
 
21 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 18
Since: 0-4

Numbers don't do this team's dysfunction justice. You can junk all the Steve Nash and Pau Gasol excuses -- shouldn't Kobe Bryant, Howard and a couple of warm bodies be enough to beat the Cavs or Magic? Howard isn't just struggling with his free-throw shooting, either. His defensive presence, his trademark ability, hasn't been up to par. Then there's the fact that Bryant's personal success is suddenly toxic to his team's success, with the Lakers going 1-10 when he scored 30 points or more. Maybe Magic Johnson is right, maybe Mike D'Antoni's system will never work in Los Angeles. But for this group of players and coaches to not be able to adapt and play at least .500 ball is stunning. The Lakers' demise continues to be the biggest story of the season, with every painful loss amplifying the chaos.

 
22 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 21
Since: 1-2
The Magic are dangerously close to passing the Lakers in the Power Rankings, something that seemed unfathomable when Howard was dealt last summer. But first-year coach Jacque Vaughn has made sure the team's defense -- which is eighth in efficiency -- didn't leave town just because the three-time Defensive Player of the Year did. The key has been a combination of effort and luck. Orlando is holding opponents to just 31.7 percent from three-point range, second-best in the league and a credit to its perimeter close-outs and rotations. But Magic opponents are also shooting an NBA-worst 70.6 percent from the free-throw line, a credit to the team's good fortunes. Maybe this is the basketball gods' way of invoking karmic justice and rewarding Orlando. It sure would explain the debacle in Laker Land.
 
23 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 24
Since: 1-2
Phoenix ended its seven-game skid in style with a dramatic win over the Grizzlies thanks to Goran Dragic. But maybe the Suns could use a little less drama all together. Phoenix has trailed by double digits in 18 of 23 games, yet is tied with Indiana for the most games decided by three points or fewer (seven). While that number suggests the Suns are struggling to close out games, the biggest issue has been the third quarter, where they own the second-worst scoring margin in the league. Another issue is the lack of a go-to-scorer. Dragic has shown he can hit big shots in the past, but he's shooting just 37.5 percent in the fourth quarter and 21.1 percent on three-point shots.
 
24 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 27
Since: 2-2
In the spectrum of boneheaded things DeMarcus Cousins has done, his cup check on Mayo wasn't that bad. But the fact that we're not up in arms about Cousins intentionally hitting another player in the groin tells you everything you need to know about his lengthy record. His one-game suspension comes at an unfortunate time as Sacramento is playing some of its best ball of the year. The Kings have won three of their last five, with Cousins averaging 21.5 points and 11.3 rebounds over that span. Cousins is a top talent, but his propensity to get himself into trouble makes him a 6-foot-11, 270-pound headache more often than not.
 
25 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 23
Since: 0-5
You know Michael Jordan was loving the Bobcats' 7-5 start. So how much has he despised their 10-game skid? So much that he decided to lace up the Jordans again and give Charlotte some pointers in practice the other day. No, the 49-year-old isn't making another comeback. But who's better qualified to give individual advice in a practice? Who knows, maybe MJ's tips can help the 'Cats snap out of their funk. It's worth a shot.
 
26 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 25
Since: 1-3
The Pistons nabbed just their second road win of the season, in Cleveland, and need to get their offense off house arrest. At home, Detroit averages a respectable 99.5 points, but that number plummets to 89.8 on the road. It's the third-biggest differential in the league and has led to a 2-11 road record. Luckily, Detroit can look forward to playing 12 of its next 17 games at The Palace.
 
27 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 26
Since: 0-4
The return of Anthony Davis couldn't help New Orleans snap its losing streak, which has grown to five, but it should help shore up a defense that ranks 28th in efficiency. On offense, fellow lottery pick Austin Rivers (6.5 PER) continues to struggle. He's shooting just 27.8 percent on all jump shots and an abysmal 17.9 percent on shots 3-9 feet away from the rim. Fellow rookie Brian Roberts might be a better short-term play as the sharpshooter from Dayton continues to knock down shots (43.2 percent shooting from three-point range).
 
28 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 28
Since: 1-3
A gloomy stretch for the Cavaliers got some much-needed sun upon Kyrie Irving's return. The reigning Rookie of the Year put up 28 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in his first game in almost a month, lifting Cleveland past the Lakers. The Cavs have also gotten a nice lift from rookie big man Tyler Zeller the last two weeks. His mask is an eye sore, but Zeller has been solid, averaging 9.3 points and six rebounds over that stretch. With Anderson Varejao dominating in the middle and the team's young building blocks all finally healthy, Cleveland could move up in the next few weeks.
 
29 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 29
Since: 0-4
The Raptors have lost six consecutive games and 12 of 13, but believe it or not, things might actually be about to get worse. Andrea Bargnani, is out indefinitely after tearing an elbow ligament. That means Toronto will have to find someone else to carry the offensive load and fans will have to find someone else to blame for the team's woes. GM Bryan Colangelo has called Toronto's play "unacceptable," but don't expect big roster changes anytime soon. With Bargnani injured, DeMar DeRozan recently extended and Kyle Lowry just acquired, Toronto's three best players aren't going anywhere for now. That makes Dwane Casey's seat on the bench a little hotter, but also puts pressure on Colangelo, whose deal expires at the end of the year, to stir up some magic.
 
30 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 30
Since: 1-3
The Wizards have won three of their last seven and suffered only one double-digit loss in that stretch. Jordan Crawford deserves a healthy helping of praise, averaging 19.5 points during the last seven games and leading the team in scoring in each of the three wins. With A.J. Price sidelined with a broken hand, coach Randy Wittman has moved Crawford back into the starting lineup. But he's just keeping the spot warm until John Wall can return. Just don't ask Wittman exactly when that'll be; he's been Belichick-esque in releasing injury updates about the star point guard.
 
SI Videos
Videos from the Web
 
SI.com
Hot Topics: NBA Playoffs NHL Playoffs Golden State Warriors Bryce Harper Paul Pierce Masai Ujiri
TM & © 2014 Time Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved. Terms under which this service is provided to you. Read our privacy guidelines and ad choices.
SI CoverRead All ArticlesBuy Cover Reprint