Posted: Fri January 11, 2013 9:51AM; Updated: Fri January 11, 2013 2:02PM
Matt Dollinger

L.A. Story: Clippers claim top spot as Lakers continue free fall

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Chris Paul
Chris Paul leads the league in steals and assists and ranks third in Player Efficiency Rating.
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Clippers are on top and the Lakers are once again dangerously close to the bottom -- haven't we heard this story already?

For yet another week, it's the same show out of Los Angeles as the Clippers continue to be the toast of the NBA while their neighbors continue to spiral out of control, unable to solve this season's riddle. The Clips bounced back from their two-game skid with a 3-0 week, which included a win over the Lakers, who have now dropped five straight and suffered even bigger setbacks off the floor with the indefinite losses of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.

The Clippers can no longer be treated like just a cute little story out of Los Angeles. As we approach the midpoint of the season, it's become clear that there's been a complete role reversal in Los Angeles. The Clippers are the definitive headliners. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have been reduced to the opening acts. It's a harsh reality, but this is Hollywood, what did you expect?

The Lakers tumble to No. 19 in this week's Power Rankings. But they aren't the only ones to fall, as the Hawks slid six spots to No. 14 after an 0-4 week. Meanwhile, the Celtics, Pacers and Trail Blazers are among the teams to rise.

(Note: All statistics and records are through Jan. 10.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 2
Since: 3-0
All is well once again after three convincing wins. It's no surprise that a team led by Chris Paul is showing resiliency. The point guard averaged 25.3 points and 12.6 assists last week to help Los Angeles rebound from its second-worst worst spell of the season. Paul has powered the Clippers to the best record in the league, which is why he's my clear-cut Most Valuable Player at this point. Strong arguments can be made for others -- Chris Mannix believes Kevin Durant is the pick, and others favor LeBron James -- but Paul's prowess at the point gives him the edge in my eyes. Paul leads the league in total steals and assists and is second in Offensive Rating and third in Player Efficiency Rating. He's also shown the grit and consistency to lead his team on a franchise-record winning streak.
2 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 3
Since: 3-1
The Thunder put their humbling loss to the Wizards behind them with a feel-good win against Minnesota, the team that started their recent three-week slump, in which they suffered four of their eight losses. Oklahoma City will always be known for its offense, but it was its defense that keyed the Minnesota victory and impressed Rob Mahoney of The Point Forward. Mahoney explained that Oklahoma City's "selective-switching" defense can fluster teams and he pointed out that its athletic big men are actually more flexible on defense than people think. Indeed, the Thunder rank sixth in points allowed per possession.
3 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 1
Since: 2-1
We knew it would be a short ride for the Spurs at the top, but one loss won't exactly sound an alarm in San Antonio. Gregg Popovich's long-run emphasis is paying off for his Spurs. San Antonio is 22-6 on at least one night of rest, but just 5-4 on no rest. Even better, the Spurs are 4-0 when having at least two days off to prepare. Popovich is content with letting the Spurs take their lumps on back-to-back nights in order to get his veteran stars some much-needed R&R.
4 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 5
Since: 3-1
The Grizzlies went 3-0 on a Western road trip, but that hasn't quelled talk of a possible shakeup. According to reports, Memphis is dangling Rudy Gay on the trade market and drawing interest from several star-hungry teams. Gay is shooting a career-low 40.8 percent and could be in need of a change of scenery. Given that Gay is owed $37.2 million the two seasons after this one and that small-market Memphis has several other big-money commitments, it's understandable that the Grizzlies would explore their options. 
5 Miami Heat
Last Week: 4
Since: 1-3
Miami Heat (23-11)
The Heat struggled against the league's top two defenses last week, failing to crack 90 points at home against the Bulls and then scoring a season-low 77 against the Pacers. Even LeBron James hasn't been exempt from their recent woes, seeing his 33-game streak of 20 points or more snapped in the Heat's loss to Trail Blazers on Thursday. Miami's offense is one of the best in the league, but it's struggled at times this season and showed in its playoff series against Indiana last year that it is susceptible to bruising defenses. That's not much of a surprise considering Miami's love affair with small-ball offense, but it does provide a blueprint for opponents. Should Miami run into a bigger opponent in the playoffs, there's going to be a huge strain on James and Chris Bosh to hold their own under the hoop.
6 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 6
Since: 0-2
Last week was merely a flesh wound for the Warriors. Yes, Golden State suffered back-to-back loses for only the second time this season and the first time since November, but falling to the Clippers and Grizzlies is nothing to be ashamed of. The Warriors actually beat the Clippers the week before and the Grizzlies are a team built to beat Golden State: a defensively strong team on the perimeter and an offensively dominant team on the inside. Andrew Bogut could help combat that type of opponent if he's able to return from ankle surgery and make an impact.
7 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 10
Since: 3-1
The Pacers are coming off two of their best wins of the season, holding the Heat to a season-low 77 points and, two nights later, limiting the Carmelo Anthony-less Knicks to a season-worst 76 points. Indiana's defense is the most efficient in the league, holding opponents to 95.4 points per 100 possessions. There's very little that's aesthetically pleasing about the Pacers -- their rare national-television game Thursday showed that to the world -- but they've been incredibly effective of late, winning 12 of their last 15.
8 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 9
Since: 3-1
For the time being, Houston is moving on without Royce White, which is a shame for both parties, but particularly the latter. The Rockets have been just fine without the first-round pick, leading the league in scoring while playing at the fastest pace. If White were able to work out a deal and return to the team, would he even crack the rotation? The power-forward platoon of Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson has been doing an admirable job this season, combining to average 21.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. They've been so good that they've kept the Rockets' other rookie forward, Terrence Jones, glued to the bench.
9 New York Knicks
Last Week: 7
Since: 1-2
Anthony turned one bad game for the Knicks into two by confronting Kevin Garnett after Cheerio Gate, leading to a one-game suspension and a New York loss at Indiana in his absence. The Knicks have lost four of their last six and haven't benefited much from the return of Amar'e Stoudemire. New York is likely to get a bigger boost when Iman Shumpert returns (the second-year guard has begun practicing), and the team could sorely use him while Raymond Felton is on the mend.
10 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 11
Since: 3-0
The Nuggets are finally starting to live up to preseason expectations. Denver started No. 7 in my Power Rankings, yet plummeted after playing .500 ball through the first month and a half. But the slow start came during the Nuggets' toughest stretch of the season that included 20 of their first 32 games on the road. Now, Denver is gradually ascending, turning in another impressive week and cracking the top 10 for the first time since the preseason.
11 Brooklyn Nets
Last Week: 14
Since: 3-0
The Nets sure know how to make Mikhail Prokhorov look good, going 6-1 since hastily firing Avery Johnson and promoting P.J. Carlesimo to interim coach. Granted, five of those wins came against losing teams, but Brooklyn hasn't played this well over a prolonged period of time since early November. The Nets have scored at least 100 points five times in seven games under Carlesimo, after doing it only seven times in 28 games under Johnson. If the Nets continue to play like this, Carlesimo won't be going anywhere, whether Phil Jackson has interest in coaching or not
12 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 12
Since: 2-1
Chicago's offense has come to life lately, capped by a season-high 118 points in Monday's victory against Cleveland. The difference has been Carlos Boozer, who is averaging 24.6 points and 11.8 rebounds in the last five games. The scoring-challenged Bulls are a different team when Boozer asserts himself on offense, going 7-2 in games he scores 20 points. Until Derrick Rose returns, the Bulls could do a lot worse than letting Boozer shoot 15-20 times per game. Boozer's ability to post up and spot up on pick-and-rolls is perfect for Chicago's half-court sets.  
13 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 16
Since: 4-0
The Blazers stood at 6-10 at the end of November, seemingly destined for a mediocre season. But Terry Stotts' team has played exceptionally well ever since, going 14-5 and knocking off teams like the Knicks, Grizzlies and Heat. The Blazers have a bright future with the trio of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum. But they'll have a tough decision to make at the end of the year if they want to keep J.J. Hickson in Portland. Hickson, who has come out of nowhere to be one of 12 players in the league averaging a double-double, signed a one-year, $4 million deal last offseason, and he will be looking to cash in this summer.
14 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 8
Since: 0-4
Injuries are piling up for the Hawks -- and so are the losses. Atlanta lost its season-worst fourth straight game in a double-digit whupping in Cleveland on Wednesday, officially giving the Hawks cause for concern. The offense has evaporated the last four games, topping 84 points just once and averaging nearly 10 points below its season average. Coach Larry Drew recently called his team "soft," and that was before it lost to the lowly Cavs.
15 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 18
Since: 3-1
Utah Jazz (19-18)
The consensus is that the Jazz will swing a trade before the Feb. 21 deadline. And, as Ian Thomsen wrote this week, a potential deal could feature pending free agent Paul Millsap, who has been a great fit in Utah but is also an attractive player to potential suitors. The Celtics are in desperate need of help down low and would make for ideal trading partners. Would Boston consider a package built around Millsap and Gordon Hayward for Rajon Rondo?
16 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 20
Since: 4-0
It was tough to fathom a week ago that the Celtics were capable of ripping off four straight wins after dropping each of their previous four by double digits. Boston's most unlikely win last week came at Madison Square Garden, where it downed the Knicks despite Rondo's absence because of a suspension. Even with their deficiencies -- and they have plenty to choose from -- the Celtics might be as good of a bet as anyone to challenge the Heat in the East. They've beat New York, Indiana, Atlanta and Chicago this season -- the conference's current Nos. 2-5 seeds -- and possess that certain something (OK, it's called Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce) that makes us assume they'll be a force come the postseason.
17 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 17
Since: 2-2
Scott Skiles and the Bucks mutually agreed to part ways this week, but it sure felt more like the coach was firing the franchise. Yahoo! Sports reported that Skiles "hated his team" and it's not difficult to believe when looking over Milwaukee's roster. Skiles, a defensive-minded coach, was forced to work with a team built around an offensively talented, but defensively negligent backcourt in Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. Skiles had no choice but to play Jennings and Ellis given their contracts and the team's limited options, but both players are subpar defenders, something that likely drove Skiles crazy, and possibly out of Milwaukee. Interim coach Jim Boylan is off to a 2-0 start with the team averaging 106 points after averaging just 95.9 under Skiles.
18 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 15
Since: 1-2
What did the Wolves do to deserve luck like this? For the second time this year, Kevin Love has been sidelined with a serious hand injury due to a freak accident, and this one will likely cost him 8-10 weeks. That's a devastating blow for a team struggling to score as is (100.3 points per 100 possessions) and still carefully monitoring Ricky Rubio's minutes. The Wolves have gone a respectable 7-7 without Love this season, but they are unlikely to stay around .500 with Love in street clothes long term.   
19 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 13
Since: 0-4
Losers of five straight. Losers of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. Losers of hope? The Lakers are in 11th place in the Western Conference. At this point, it's tough to believe Los Angeles will bounce back this season. Sure, the Lakers have Kobe Bryant. They have the tradition. They have Howard and Gasol (once they're healthy) and Steve Nash. They have Jack Nicholson, the purple and gold, Mike D'Antoni, the benefit of the doubt and a bunch of other things. But they don't have wins -- and that's all that matters. Things are so bad that Bryant tried to distract us by joining Twitter. Nice try, Mamba. 
20 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 19
Since: 1-1
Detroit's season-long four-game winning streak ended against the lowly Bobcats, but the Pistons have to feel good about going 6-2 over the last three weeks, with both losses coming in overtime. Credit can be thrown in a lot of directions, but the bench deserves the biggest praise, outscoring opponents by an average of 20.7 points in the last six games. The Pistons don't have much star power, but they possess the depth to make them competitive on a nightly basis.
21 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 22
Since: 1-2
Few offseason moves have been as regrettable as the Raptors' decision to dole out three years and $20 million to Landry Fields. An elbow injury cost Fields most of November and December, but the few cameos he did make were forgettable. On Wednesday, Fields finally played like the player Toronto thought it was signing away from New York, totaling season highs of 10 points and 11 rebounds in a win over the Sixers. No one is expecting the swingman to carry the Raptors, but more efforts like this will at least keep him from pulling them down. 
22 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 21
Since: 0-4
Philadelphia lost for the 13th time in 16 games when it managed a season-low 72 points in a blowout to Toronto on Wednesday. Coach Doug Collins seemed defeated after the game, explaining that his team "had nothing left," but it does have brighter days to look forward to at least: The 76ers play 12 of their next 13 games at home. Then again, Philly fans are notoriously quick to boo bad play. Maybe another road trip would be more accommodating. (For kicks, here's Andrew Bynum's latest hairdo.)
23 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 27
Since: 3-0
We knew the Hornets would be better at full strength and they've been just that lately, running off a season-best three-game winning streak by beating all three Texas teams. New Orleans has had Eric Gordon back in the starting lineup, but the star guard is shooting only 31.9 percent during the streak. But Gordon's presence alone is having a positive effect on the Hornets, totaling a plus-15 in that stretch. As Gordon sheds the rust, New Orleans will continue its gradual climb out of the Western Conference cellar.
24 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 23
Since: 1-3
Everything the Kings did this week was overshadowed by the report that the Maloofs were close to selling the franchise to a group that would move it to Seattle for the 2013-14 season. But those talks may have hit a snag as the Maloofs reportedly want to maintain at least partial control of the team despite selling it. These types of rumblings are just another example of Kings ownership caring more about its off-the-court future than its current on-the-court product. DeMarcus Cousins seems to be sticking around for now, but the roster is an ill-fitting group that's far too heavy at the guard position. Maybe the Kings will finally get around to addressing that problem once they unpack their bags at KeyArena.
25 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 24
Since: 1-3
The Mavericks have lost 10 of their last 12 and find themselves in a position Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle never could have predicted before the season, even after striking out this summer. Dirk Nowitzki has been visibly hobbled since returning from knee surgery, and O.J. Mayo has cooled off since his scintillating start. Dallas could rebound and become a formidable opponent once again this season, but it'll likely be doing so as spoilers, not playoff contenders.
26 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 25
Since: 0-4
Phoenix Suns (12-25)
If you had lost 10 of 11 games, you would try to trade for Rudy Gay, too. The  Suns sorely lack any type of star power and trading for the high-ceiling, high-priced Gay makes sense, despite his shortcomings (inconsistency, not an actual star). Jared Dudley is one of the best role players in the league, but there's really no point to a "glue guy" on a lottery team. Phoenix has the cap room -- and the roster flexibility -- to take a flier on Gay and give him a chance to be the focal point of a free-flowing offense, something he's more suited for than the Grizzlies' plodding ways. 
27 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 26
Since: 0-3
The Magic are in full-fledged free-fall mode, dropping their last 10 games and going winless since Glen Davis went down three weeks ago. While it would be easy to dismiss Orlando as a lost cause, the Magic are still playing competitive basketball despite what their recent struggles would suggest. Of those 10 losses, two came in overtime and eight have been decided by single digits. Orlando is just 2-5 in games decided by five points or fewer this season, a symptom of a young team lacking a reliable go-to-scorer. 
28 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 28
Since: 2-2
The news that Anderson Varejao will miss an additional 6-8 weeks with knee surgery not only hurts the Cavaliers on the floor but also their prospects of trading the veteran for younger pieces. But the injury has sped up the development of young bigs Tyler Zeller and Tristan Thompson, who have both been forced into starting roles, and Kyrie Irving, who is the team's unquestioned leader with Varejao out. 
29 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 30
Since: 1-2
They are dancing in the streets in D.C.! OK, maybe Wizards fans aren't that excited, but, for the first time this season, Washington is not dead last in the Power Rankings. Bradley Beal stunned the mighty Thunder at the last second to give the Wizards their second victory over a participant of last season's Finals. If only the Wizards could get as amped up for the rest of the league, against which they are 3-26. Either way, Washington's recent play has helped it shed its league-worst label on my list.
30 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 29
Since: 1-2
The Bobcats might be better than last season, but that doesn't mean they are better than anyone else this season. Charlotte finally hit rock bottom in these rankings after peaking in the mid-teens earlier this season. Dead last in defensive efficiency, the Bobcats are struggling to stop anyone these days, allowing 16 of their last 19 opponents to eclipse the century mark. The Wizards have four fewer wins, but the Bobcats have gone 3-21 since Thanksgiving.
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