Posted: Fri December 21, 2012 1:35PM; Updated: Fri December 21, 2012 6:29PM
Matt Dollinger
Matt Dollinger>NBA POWER RANKINGS

Clippers take over No. 1 spot; Celtics, Sixers plummet

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It's strange, but true: The Clippers might be the best team in the NBA.

That statement would have been met with unadulterated laughter the past few years, but it's a reality that opponents are quickly coming to face this season. With the Thunder cooling off in Minnesota on Thursday, the Clippers own the league's longest winning streak at 11 games, matching a franchise record. They don't possess the NBA's best record -- that distinction still goes to Oklahoma City -- but they are tied for the lead with the Thunder in point differential (plus-8.8) and rank in the top four in both points scored and allowed per possession.

The Clippers have taken steps forward this season behind the NBA's best point guard and one of the league's most potent benches. Chris Paul deserves to be in the early discussion for MVP, and the Clippers' reserves -- better known as "A Tribe Called Bench" these days -- keep producing hits thanks to guards Jamal Crawford (16.6 points per game) and Eric Bledsoe (22.8 Player Efficiency Rating) and swingman Matt Barnes (13-1 in games he scores in double digits).

Yes, it might sound unnatural, but the Clippers are serious title contenders and are only going to get better after Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill return. Coach Vinny Del Negro might have trouble doling out the minutes, but that's not a bad problem to have.

The Clippers' ascension to the top spot -- which the Thunder held the previous two weeks -- isn't the only shakeup this week. The Pacers (No. 10) and Nuggets (No. 11) have moved up several spots, while the Celtics (No. 16) and 76ers (No. 20) have fallen.

(All stats and records are through Dec. 20.)

NBA Power Rankings
 
1 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 4
Since: 3-0
The Clippers have routed opponents by an average of 15.1 points during their winning streak. Utah is the only team to score 100 points against the Clippers in the last 11 games, and Los Angeles held Milwaukee, Detroit and New Orleans to an average of 79.3 points in victories this past week. To make things even better, Blake Griffin has returned to his Kia-hopping form, dunking everything and averaging 19.8 points (on 58.5 percent shooting) and 8.4 rebounds in December while getting plenty of rest (31 minutes per game this month). It's scary to think how good the Clippers are now and how much better they could be once at full strength.
 
2 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 1
Since: 3-1
The Thunder lost for the first time in nearly a month when Minnesota harassed them into their worst shooting night in weeks. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined for 66 points, but the bench managed only seven. OKC also had no answer for Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic (52 points and 21 rebounds combined). In the grand scheme of things, the Thunder have very little to worry about. Their league-leading offense is allowed an off night once every month and it came without sharpshooting sixth man Kevin Martin, who was out with a quad injury.
 
3 New York Knicks
Last Week: 2
Since: 2-1
Jeremy Lin turned in another memorable performance at Madison Square Garden with Carmelo Anthony on the bench, but the Knicks didn't sweat their first home loss of the season. Anthony returned two nights later to power the Knicks over Brooklyn, a more accurate testament to the team's current state. Meanwhile, Amar'e Stoudemire is inching toward his season debut. Stoudemire could return from a knee injury as soon as next week.
 
4 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 5
Since: 3-1

Memphis quietly continues to enjoy its best start in franchise history, flying under the radar in part because its league-leading defense isn't as highlight-friendly as the Thunder's No. 1 offense. But the numbers show that Memphis is dominating, with the NBA's third-highest margin of victory (plus-6.6 points), 22 consecutive games of holding opponents under 100 points and an 11-2 home record. Letting the numbers do the talking is fine for the Grizzlies. Just ask their new vice president of basketball operations.

 
5 Miami Heat
Last Week: 7
Since: 3-0
Miami Heat (17-6)
The Big Three alone might be enough to win back-to-back titles, but they'll have to do it with one of the thinnest frontcourt in the league. Outside of Chris Bosh, LeBron James is physically the biggest player in the Heat's rotation. Neither of the team's backup big men, Rashard Lewis or Udonis Haslem, is capable of guarding centers, meaning Bosh, a natural power forward, faces the task every night. Miami is 29th in rebounding and that's with a healthy roster. Should an injury occur, the Heat would have to turn to Joel Anthony or Dexter Pittman for big minutes, a situation that likely makes Erik Spoelstra shiver. All of this might just make the Heat's second straight championship that much more impressive, but if they fall short we'll know it was because of just that.
 
6 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 3
Since: 1-2
The sluggish Spurs suffered back-to-back losses for the second time in two weeks, but it's hardly been a sluggish season. San Antonio is playing at the second-fastest pace in the league, up from seventh last season, which was easily its quickest in the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich era. Just like last season, Popovich is spreading the minutes around to keep his players fresh: Duncan and Tony Parker are the only Spurs averaging at least 30 minutes a game.
 
7 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 6
Since: 2-2
I profiled Mark Jackson earlier this week and detailed his mission to transform Golden State into a hard-nosed team. The Warriors have seen dramatic improvement in both defense and rebounding this year, but Wednesday's loss at Sacramento was a setback for the D as they allowed a season-worst 131 points. The game marked just the second time all season (15-2) that the Warriors have lost when winning the rebounding battle, a point of pride for Jackson and his players.
 
8 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 8
Since: 1-2
It's been a tough week for Josh Smith. It started with a 1-of-12 effort in a loss to the Warriors and didn't get much better when the Hawks needed overtime to avoid falling to the NBA-worst Wizards. But the week definitely hit a low in the fourth quarter of a loss to Oklahoma City on Wednesday. The eight-second sequence might be the most humbling of Smith's career. It's worth a watch. Unless, of course, you're Josh Smith.
 
9 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 12
Since: 2-1
Chicago Bulls (14-10)
The Bulls have won six of eight to climb a season-high four games above .500. Joakim Noah had 11 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in Tuesday's victory against Boston, his second career triple-double. The news off the court is promising, too: Coach Tom Thibodeau said Derrick Rose is on schedule to return for the second half of the season, making the Bulls the league's biggest sleeping giant. Chicago is already one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference as is, so imagine how good it will be with the 2011 MVP.
 
10 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 16
Since: 3-1
Are things finally clicking for Paul George? The Pacer was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week after averaging 23.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks while shooting 47.4 percent from three-point range. George has always been regarded as having All-Star talent, but also a role-player mentality. But as long as Danny Granger is out, Indiana needs George's confidence to match his skill. The Pacers are 7-2 when he scores at least 20 points, which he's averaged over the last three weeks since four- and zero-point efforts on back-to-back nights. With Roy Hibbert struggling to play up to his maximum-salary deal, it's going to be up to George to carry the Pacers' offense, which ranks 28th in points per possession.
 
11 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 19
Since: 3-1
Thursday was rough, as Denver went 0-for-22 from three-point range in a loss to Portland to set an NBA record for most attempts without a make. But the fact that the Nuggets are barely above .500 is more impressive than it sounds. Denver has played 19 of 27 games on the road and became the first team in 27 years to start the season with 17 of 23 games away from home. On top of that, the Nuggets have played the fourth-toughest schedule. Not all of Denver's struggles can be pinned on its brutal schedule, but odds are in favor of the Nuggets bouncing back when they play nine of their next 13 games at the Pepsi Center.
 
12 Brooklyn Nets
Last Week: 11
Since: 1-3
The Nets looked like the best team in New York after downing the Knicks in overtime in late November. But December has been a sobering month for Brooklyn, which has lost eight of 10. Some of its struggles are deceptive, though. The Nets played half of those games without center Brook Lopez, who ranks eighth in the NBA with a 23.7 PER, and all eight of their losses came against winning teams, including the Heat, Thunder, Knicks (twice) and Warriors. With Lopez back in the lineup, Brooklyn should bounce back and play more like the team that started 9-4.
 
13 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 15
Since: 3-2
The Wolves nabbed the most impressive victory of the last week, ending the Thunder's winning streak even with Ricky Rubio going scoreless in 18 minutes off the bench as he eases back from ACL surgery. Minnesota can also feel good about Kevin Love's 28-point effort, which included 4-of-9 shooting from three-point range, after he entered the game with a 21.9 percent mark from deep. Minnesota's defense has been stingy all season, and its offense will catch up soon once Love and Rubio return to form.
 
14 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 14
Since: 2-2
The backcourt duo of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis has Milwaukee positioned to make the playoffs after a two-year absence, but is it worth building around? Ellis, a potential free agent next summer, thrived next to Stephen Curry in Golden State, but the same can't be said for his time playing with Jennings, a restricted free agent after the season. The eighth-year guard is shooting career lows from the field (38.7 percent) and three-point range (20.0). He's coming off his worst game of the season: Ellis missed his first 13 shots, went 1-of-14 and finished with a season-low four points in a loss to the Grizzlies on Wednesday.
 
15 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 10
Since: 1-3
Utah Jazz (14-13)
If today is, in fact, not the apocalypse, maybe general manager Dennis Lindsey will finally stop hoarding big men like they're canned goods. SI.com's Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney both agreed that Utah would be wise to unload Al Jefferson over Paul Millsap before the Feb. 21 trade deadline. Golliver pointed out that two young lottery picks coming off the bench, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, fit better playing alongside Millsap, who, like Jefferson, is a free agent after the season. Lindsey should find no shortage of suitors for Jefferson, too. Not many true centers are averaging more than 16 points and 10 rebounds. In fact, there are only two: Jefferson and Dwight Howard.
 
16 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 9
Since: 1-3
Boston went 0-3 on a recent trip to fall to 4-8 on the road. One cause for concern is the defense, which allowed the fewest points per possession last season but is down to 12th this year -- and it really suffers when Kevin Garnett is out of the game. The return of Avery Bradley will help the defense as a whole, but the 6-foot-2 guard can't do much down low to aid Garnett.
 
17 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 18
Since: 3-1
The Rockets' acquisitions of James Harden and Jeremy Lin got all of the headlines, but fellow newcomer Omer Asik is proving he's well worth his three-year, $25.1 million contract in his first season receiving big minutes. The 7-foot center is best known as a strong interior defender, but he's showing there's more to his game. He's averaging 10.4 points and 11.4 rebounds in 31 minutes after averaging 3.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in 14.7 minutes last season. His rebounding average is fourth best in the NBA.
 
18 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 21
Since: 3-0
The Lakers barely -- barely -- avoided losses to the Wizards and Bobcats, but they've emerged with a season-high-tying three-game winning streak. The same problems are still alive and well (poor defense, injured stars, angry Kobe Bryant, etc.), but the Lakers, to their credit, didn't let those get in the way of winning. Mike D'Antoni made his biggest decision since arriving in L.A. by moving Metta World Peace to the bench. D'Antoni is hoping to play World Peace at power forward, creating smaller, faster lineups and allowing Jodie Meeks to crack the starting lineup. The sharpshooting Meeks is D'Antoni's type of player, and he has averaged 17.6 points while hitting a total of 11 three-pointers during the three-game streak.
 
19 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 22
Since: 4-0
After winning four in a row, Orlando is just one game away from the No. 8 seed in the East. (For those scoring at home, Howard and the Lakers trail the West's No. 8 seed by 1.5 games.) If the Magic are serious about the playoffs, they'll need to do something to improve their offense, which ranks 29th in points per possession and just lost co-leading scorer Glen Davis for 4-6 weeks with a dislocated shoulder -- another blow given that veteran forwards Al Harrington and Hedo Turkoglu remain out indefinitely.
 
20 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 13
Since: 0-4
No one can be expected to play well when their three best players are hurt, and the 76ers are no exception. They have been able to hover around .500 without Andrew Bynum, but the absence of Jrue Holiday and the in-game loss of Evan Turner proved crippling in Wednesday's 125-103 loss at Houston. Luckily, both are sidelined with just sprains and could be back Friday against the Hawks. The Sixers desperately need them. Philadelphia has lost five straight and faces an unenviable stretch over the next week, playing host to the Hawks before beginning an eight-game road trip with visits to Brooklyn, Memphis and Golden State.
 
21 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 17
Since: 1-3
Dirk Nowitzki has returned to practice, but there's still no timetable for his return. The man filling in as the Mavericks' leading scorer, a job Nowitzki has held the last 12 seasons, has done an admirable job in his place. O.J. Mayo is averaging 20.2 points and shooting a league-leading 50 percent from three-point range as the offense's No. 1 option, a role no one else on the roster besides the injured Nowitzki is suited to play. It'll be interesting to see how Nowitzki and Mayo play together, but the big man has shown that he can mesh with high-scoring guards, including Michael Finley and Jason Terry.
 
22 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 20
Since: 2-2
J.J. Hickson is giving the Blazers all they could ask for after signing the big man to a one-year, $4 million deal this offseason. Hickson has started every game and is one of just 12 players averaging a double-double. He's been efficient on the offensive end (55.7 percent) and the team's best rebounder on both ends, pulling down 22.1 percent of rebounds while he's on the floor, the fourth-best mark in the league. With LaMarcus Aldridge out with a sprained ankle Thursday, Hickson had 18 points and 18 rebounds for his sixth straight double-double as Portland defeated Denver to extend its winning streak to four.
 
23 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 23
Since: 3-0
Phoenix Suns (11-15)
Alvin Gentry and the Suns have finally found a winning combination. Phoenix has been as perplexing as any team in the league, following a season-worst seven-game losing streak with a season-best four-game winning streak. So what changed? The starting lineup. The Suns have won their last four games since debuting the starting five of Marcin Gortat, Luis Scola, Jared Dudley, Shannon Brown and Goran Dragic. They also held opponents to 89.5 points in those games, lowering their season average to 101.
 
24 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 29
Since: 4-0
Andrea Bargnani chose a horrible time to open his mouth. The big man hasn't exactly panned out as a No. 1 overall pick, and his recent regrettable declaration might have proved Toronto is better without him. Bargnani called the Raptors "pretty much the worst team in the NBA" last week after their 4-19 start. Cue the Raptors ripping off four straight wins and holding opponents to an average of 90 points with Ed Davis starting in place of Bargnani, who has missed the last five games with an elbow injury.
 
25 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 24
Since: 1-3
DeMarcus Cousins' shot selection is as baffling as his behavior. The Kings' center is shooting just 41.3 percent overall and a hideous 28.7 percent on all jump shots. The latter is particularly troubling considering the 6-foot-11 Cousins has shot more jumpers than all other types of shots combined this season. His affinity for long twos is worst of all. Not only is Cousins missing most of those attempts (34.5 percent), but he's also not under the basket to rebound, leading to a drop-off in his offensive rebounding (4.1 last season to 3.2 this season). Cousins needs to make his way back to the rim, where he's at his most effective and most beneficial to the Kings.
 
26 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 26
Since: 0-4
Greg Monroe continues to be a rare bright spot for Detroit. The big man scored a career-high 35 points against the Raptors on Wednesday, the most by a Piston since Rasheed Wallace in 2007. If not for the All-Star Game's blackballing of big men, Monroe might even have an outside chance of making the East team, averaging 15.7 points and 9.1 rebounds in his post-depleted conference. Monroe is one of the few true post players in the league -- a renaissance big man in a renovated league. Nearly half of his shots come at the rim -- and for good reason. He's shooting 58.8 percent on attempts from 3 feet and in and 33.3 percent from everywhere else on the floor. Detroit would be wise to keep feeding Monroe (13 shots a game) and take away shot attempts from less efficient players.
 
27 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 27
Since: 0-4
We might finally get to see the Hornets at full strength this week. Anthony Davis is healthy (knock on wood) and Eric Gordon could return as early as this weekend (knock very hard on wood). Davis has six games under his belt since coming back from an ankle injury, averaging 13.5 points and 7.5 rebounds, but New Orleans has lost each one and continues to be plagued by the 29th-ranked defense. Gordon's return will be felt more on the offensive end, but it would help both sides of the ball if Austin Rivers gets fewer minutes. The rookie is tied for the worst defensive rating on the team and ranks second worst on offense.
 
28 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 28
Since: 0-4
Kyrie Irving continues to sizzle, while the Cavs only fizzle. Since returning from a broken finger, Irving has averaged 24.8 points and 5.3 assists, but Cleveland has gone just 1-5. The schedule is a bit to blame, with the Cavs falling to just one team with a losing record, but they are unlikely to turn things around this year. That means Cleveland needs to consider trading 30-year-old Anderson Varejao with his stock at an all-time high. Dealing the league's top rebounder (14.4) and one of its best defensive centers obviously won't make Cleveland better in the short term, but it will free up even more minutes for second-year big man Tristan Thompson and rookie center Tyler Zeller and allow the team to acquire more building blocks for the rebuilding process.
 
29 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 25
Since: 0-3
Remember when the Bobcats were good? That time is becoming a distant memory as Charlotte has dropped 13 in a row. The 'Cats should have snapped their skid against the Lakers, but couldn't protect an 18-point third-quarter lead on Tuesday in Los Angeles. The team's defense, its calling card earlier in the season, is now last in the league and has allowed opponents to score at least 100 points in 11 straight games. Charlotte is holding opponents to 92.9 points in wins and a wretched 108.9 points in losses.
 
30 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 30
Since: 0-4
I'd like to move the Wizards out of the cellar for the first time since mid-November, I really would, but an 0-4 week gives me nothing to work with. In their defense, they were relatively good losses -- including a close game with the Lakers and an OT battle with the Hawks. That said, Washington still owns far and away the worst offense in the league and a roster that continues to be plagued by injuries. Said coach Randy Wittman after the latest loss: "We're looking for solutions, we're trying."
 
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