Victories this week over Utah (at home) and Brooklyn (on the road) would nudge the Warriors to 26-4 after last season's 29-1 mark through 30 games. Only twice before in NBA history has a team started 26-4 or better in consecutive seasons: Boston (2007-08 and 2008-09) and Chicago (1995-96 and 1996-97).
In the bigger picture, Golden State and Cleveland will enter their NBA Finals rematch on Sunday exactly how we expected: operating out of the top two spots in ESPN.com's weekly NBA Power Rankings.
The surprising Houston Rockets have unexpectedly moved up to No. 3 on the strength of a 10-game winning streak entering their showdown Tuesday with visiting No. 4 San Antonio. The Los Angeles Clippers, meanwhile, have slipped to an equally unexpected No. 9 in a nod to the news that All-Star Blake Griffin, after missing 47 games last season, will have to miss some more time this season.
This week, though, is obviously all about the reloaded Warriors. Armed with Kevin Durant, Golden State visits Ohio, where LeBron will play in his 10th successive Christmas Day showcase -- but only his fourth at home.
There should be plenty more for you to dig into within the rest of our 1-to-30 order. Many thanks, as always, go to ESPN Stats & Information and the Elias Sports Bureau -- with researcher Micah Adams running the point -- for providing such good background data to help your faithful Committee (of One) arrange things.
Four times already this season, Golden State has scored at least 135 points while recording at least 35 assists -- a feat we haven't seen since the 1990-91 season, when Boston did it six times and Portland did it five. No other team has recorded any such games this season. Tuesday night, then, will offer a contrast when Utah visits. The Jazz have allowed a league-low 95.4 points per game and are known for slowing the pace down better than anyone. The Dubs, though, have cracked triple digits in their past 10 meetings with Utah and are averaging a wild 123.2 points per game at home, which would put them in range of the all-time record (Denver's 129.8 PPG in 1981-82) if they maintained it over the course of a full season.
Coach Ty Lue's decision to leave LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love back in Cleveland when the Cavs visited Memphis generated more reaction than just about any other NBA story last week, but more attention should probably be paid to the overall job Lue is doing. While James inevitably gets most of the credit for the Cavs' ability to avoid a championship hangover, Lue is partly responsible for not only keeping Cleveland sharp but also nudging the Cavs toward a greater reliance on the 3 that might come in handy down the road. The loss of big man Chris Andersen, though, means a thin team now has two roster spots committed to players who can't contribute (Andersen and Mo Williams).
Houston, on a 10-game winning streak, has exceeded preseason expectations more than any other team on the map. James Harden & Co. are on a 62-win pace. So, while we applaud the passion of Rockets Twitter, we also have to share this counsel: Smell the roses. And enjoy the view. The selection of Russell Westbrook as First Trimester MVP is -- wait for it -- based on the First Trimester. It doesn't mean our April vote has been decided in December. It doesn't mean our MVP criteria have changed. We always vote for who we feel has assembled the best season based on a number of factors. After 27 (or so) games -- on this scorecard -- Westbrook has had the best season in the West. So far.
Tim Duncan's jersey has just been hoisted to the rafters. The jury's still out on LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol as a frontcourt partnership. And Tony Parker is averaging just 10.1 points per game. Put all of that together and it sounds like a recipe for standings slippage. The Spurs, though, still look like a reasonable facsimile of the Spurs at 22-5, fueled by that league-best 14-1 road record that only two other teams in history -- last season's Warriors and the 1971-72 Lakers -- can identify with. Like we said in our Coach of the First Trimester dispatch: The job being done by Gregg Popovich is being taken for granted yet again. Not by us, though. Not after we had the privilege of sitting down with Pop for a SportsCenter convo in Timmy's honor.
If November belonged to DeMar DeRozan, December has been Kyle Lowry's time. DeRozan's backcourt buddy is not just averaging 23.6 points per game this month -- he's shooting a crazy 55.8 percent from the field ... along with 58.7 percent from deep. The Raptors, meanwhile, find themselves at 0-6 against Cleveland, Golden State and (curiously) Sacramento, but a robust 19-2 against the rest of the league, despite Friday night's home loss to the Hawks. A big test is coming, though, with Toronto soon to begin a six-game road trip against Western Conference teams, starting with a rough opener at Utah. The Raptors are a very passable 11-9 on the road against the West since the start of the 2015-16 season to go with a 22-11 road mark against the East in that same span.
The Jazz have only five wins against .500-or-better teams, tied with Memphis for second fewest among the West's seven teams with winning records. But does that really diminish Utah's 18-10 start, given how many injuries Quin Snyder has had to coach through in the season's opening third? Another valid question: Did we get it wrong in our Defensive Player of the First Trimester assessment by picking Golden State's Draymond Green over Rudy Gobert? Memphis' Marc Gasol is another strong contender, frankly, given the Grizzlies' rise to the top of the defensive efficiency standings, but Tim MacMahon makes a compelling case for Gobert's work as rim protector/shot-changer, as well as his recent run against elite centers.
Not sure which factoid is harder to believe: That Memphis went 7-2 in the nine games it had to survive without Mike Conley and his broken back? Or that the Grizzlies and new coach David Fizdale have been forced to start six different players this season -- JaMychal Green, James Ennis, Andrew Harrison, Jarell Martin, Troy Daniels and Wade Baldwin -- who have spent recent time in the D-League? Or the fact that Conley missed only nine games with an injury that was supposed to shelve him six weeks? Conley, incidentally, has joined a rather exclusive and star-filled club as the new Grizz career leader in points, assists and steals -- which we expound upon here.
Seven games left in 2016 for Russell Westbrook, who has 28 triple-doubles since Jan. 1. Which means he can still catch Oscar Robertson for the NBA's calendar-year-record of 34 in 1961. More importantly, Oklahoma City is 10-3 this season when Angry Russ triple-doubles and 6-8 when he doesn't. The Thunder, in other words, appear to need everything Westbrook is giving them despite the various critics who take issue with OKC's reliance on him. The opening third of the season, on this scorecard, belonged to Westbrook as much as anyone. But some help, perhaps, is on the way, with Westbrook's backup Cameron Payne (foot) nearing his season debut.
The Clippers were a shiny 14-2 and sporting the league's No. 2-ranked defense heading into Thanksgiving, allowing just 98 points per 100 possessions in those first 16 games. Since then? L.A. is 6-6 overall and down to 18th in the league in defensive efficiency in that same span, surrendering 106.7 points per 100 possessions. And there's worse news: Blake Griffin has a fresh issue with his right knee that will require minor surgery and sideline him until at least January. Chris Paul is having a turn-back-the-clock season, but little else is proceeding according to script for the Clips, who suddenly find themselves closer to the fifth spot in the West than the Warriors' perch atop the conference.
After a four-game absence due to a groin injury, Isaiah Thomas had a rather eventful week, scoring 26 points in his comeback game in a victory over Charlotte and adding a decisive 23 on Sunday night in Miami before his ejection for what was deemed an "unnecessary and excessive" elbow to the face of Justise Winslow. As for Avery Bradley, who was covered in our Most Improved Player of the First Trimester submission over the weekend, he's trying to become the most prolific 6-foot-2 rebounder in NBA history. Bradley leads the Celtics at 7.5 rebounds per game this season; Hall of Famer Jerry West is the only player in league history to be listed at 6-2 or shorter to average more rebounds per game (7.9 in 1961-62) over the course of a full season.
Tuesday night in Milwaukee is going to be fun. For starters, LeBron James needs only two points to move past Moses Malone for eighth place on the career scoring list. And in the bigger picture: It's the season's second installment of LeBron versus Giannis! The young Bucks, of course, unexpectedly won the season's first meeting. The aforementioned Giannis Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, currently leads his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. The last player to do that over the course of an entire season? Yup: LeBron with the 2008-09 Cavs. Only three other players have led their team in all five categories for an entire season: Minnesota's Kevin Garnett (2002-03), Chicago's Scottie Pippen (1994-95) and Boston's Dave Cowens (1977-78) are the others.
Atlanta figured to be an unlikely backdrop for the Hornets to right themselves, given the recent 1-10 struggles at Philips Arena for Kemba Walker & Co. entering Saturday night's divisional encounter with the Hawks. Charlotte lost the first four games of its five-game trip but managed to manufacture a second victory in two tries this season against the unraveling hosts to salvage something from its travels and maintain its status as the Southeast Division's only representative currently sporting a winning record. In a separate Hornets matter: Check in here for the latest praise for recent contract extension recipient Cody Zeller -- this time courtesy of our own Zach Lowe.
The Pacers won't want to admit this, but their defensive numbers have improved over the past four games with Monta Ellis (groin) unavailable through injury and Glenn Robinson IIII starting in his place, causing Pacer People to wonder whether Ellis is bound for a reserve role when he returns. Not sure, in the interim, how our man Micah Adams came up with this one, but we couldn't resist retelling this tale: Thursday night's home date against Boston is one of the six games this season when Indiana is scheduled to wear its Hickory High alternate jerseys. And in the spirit of that era, Adams says the Pacers have pulled off a league-low two alley-oop dunks this season (tied with Washington and Charlotte). The Celtics, for that matter, have lobbed their way to only three.
You can't take away those stirring wins over the Cavs and Spurs. But you also have to strain to remember them after what we saw from the Bulls last week, given how they were steamrolled by the Bucks in a home-and-home series dominated by Giannis Antetokounmpo ... with some understated damage from Chicago native Jabari Parker thrown in. Jimmy Butler certainly deserved at least the courtesy of a mention in my East MVP of the First Trimester entry -- my bad -- but the Bulls haven't merely regressed to the mean in terms of their suspect 3-point shooting. Chicago has to address the league's worst fourth-quarter offense in terms of points per game (22.9), field goal percentage (.375) and 3-point accuracy (.265). And soon.
Maybe losing at home to Orlando on the night John Wall scored 52 was the Wizards' rock bottom. They've won five in a row at home since and just handled the past week about as cleanly as possible, sweeping the visiting Hornets, Pistons and Clippers impressively ... with Bradley Beal clinching Sunday's capper and adding to the Clips' woes with his 41 points. November was a nightmare, but December has been much better now that the likes of Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre and Markieff Morris are starting to chip in. Six more games against conference foes to close out the calendar year, starting with this week's stops in Indiana, Chicago and Milwaukee, give the Wiz an ideal opportunity to take some real momentum into 2017.
Since we have made such an issue of the Knicks losing the bulk of Derrick Rose's highest-scoring games, it's only right to point out that they just lost the past three games of their swing through the West while Rose has been out of the lineup nursing a back injury. Calls to diminish the role of marquee free-agent signee Joakim Noah, meanwhile, only get louder as Noah's struggles continue. In related news: Kristaps Porzingis is up to three 30-point games now after none in his rookie season. And Carmelo Anthony will take a lifetime Dec. 25 scoring average of 34.3 points per game into New York's Christmas Day duel with the visiting Celtics.
We don't envy day-to-day beat writing; we actually said it on the set of The Jump as recently as Wednesday: Beat writers have it tough today, with all the platforms they have to serve. But if we did have to go back to the grind, we'd want to cover Stan Van Gundy, who just comes right out and says stuff that writes itself. Leave it to SVG himself to volunteer over the weekend that Pistons, now 3-5 since Reggie Jackson's return despite playing no one better than 15-13 Charlotte in that stretch, are "not in a good place right now." The culprit, according to the coach: "Our offensive frustration is hurting us at the defensive end."
Coach Mike Budenholzer got a brief respite from the Hawks' roller coaster Sunday, when the longtime former Spurs assistant coach made a brief detour to San Antonio for the Tim Duncan jersey retirement ceremony. A jarring return to the real world awaits Monday night in Oklahoma City against Russell Westbrook, with Atlanta still in the throes of a 4-12 nosedive. The Hawks actually responded to the debacle that was Orlando 131, Atlanta 120 about as well as they could, by winning their next game in Toronto, but the team continues to slide in the defensive efficiency standings (down to ninth) while looking less than harmonious at the other end.
How much satisfaction did it give the Nuggets to drub the visiting Knicks in a game Carmelo Anthony had declared a must-win for the New Yorkers? How much satisfaction did it give Kenneth Faried to lead the way for Denver with 25 points just days removed from a surprising DNP-CD in Washington and a mere eight-minute stint in Dallas? Those are the easy questions in the Rocky Mountains, where what they really want to know is whether coach Mike Malone has finally found something after moving both Wilson Chandler and Nikola Jokic into the starting lineup. The Nuggets scored a combined 259 points in wins over the Blazers and Knicks since the changes, but those eruptions came against two bottom-five defenses.
On the Damian Lillard scale, Portland has quickly slid from "we kind of suck right now" to "we have to play with some damn heart." I was on record coming into the season that I didn't think the Blazers should be automatically anointed as the fourth-best team in the NBA, as ESPN Forecast decreed, but I also certainly never expected the Blazers to be so porous defensively and slide to three games under .500 before we made it to Christmas. It makes you wonder what these struggles will do to the widely held assumption among rival teams that the Blazers would be active traders this season, because they certainly look more than one player away from taking the next step after last season's ride to the second round.
The Bismack Biyombo revenge game didn't work out so well; Orlando wound up losing at home by 30 to Biyombo's old friends from Toronto despite jumping out to an early 11-point lead. The Magic have actually been a fairly tough out on the road at 7-7 in an Eastern Conference that houses only four other teams (Cleveland, Toronto, Boston and Charlotte) with a record of .500 or better on their travels. At the Amway Center, however, Orlando has dropped seven of eight, with the manner of Sunday night's defeat to the Raps pretty much snuffing out any remaining glee from the completely unexpected 131 points coach Frank Vogel's team rang up in Atlanta to start the week.
The Heat picked up a couple of victories, and Hassan Whiteside threw in his fourth career 20-20 game. So last week seemingly wasn't the worst week on South Beach. Yet you suspect Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley will be focused on the big lead Boston ran up Sunday night on Miami's floor, as well as the ongoing Whiteside conundrum. For the third successive season, talk of the Heat defending better when their ace shot-blocker is off the floor only gets louder. Miami allowed 96.9 points per 100 possessions with Whiteside on the bench, compared with 106.5 points per 100 possessions with Whiteside on the floor, leading into the Celtics' visit.
So much for the notion that Minnesota's second-half comeback in Chicago to "win one for Thibs" was going to represent a massive turning point. It happened again to the Wolves on Saturday -- it being another agonizing one-possession defeat -- to drop Karl-Anthony Towns to 0-2 for his career when he assembles a 40-point, 15-rebound game. New Orleans' Anthony Davis has three of them himself this season, but Towns and The Brow are a combined 1-4 in those games. It must be said, though, that the Wolves' schedule hasn't been terribly helpful; Minnesota finally gets to face three sub-.500 teams this week after just one so far this month (14-15 Detroit).
The Mavs are tied with Brooklyn in sporting the league's worst road record at 1-12, but injuries aren't the only alibi. Dallas has played a league-high 19 games thus far against teams with winning records in what the ESPN continues to rank as the league's toughest schedule so far. Undrafted Dorian Finney-Smith, meanwhile, continues to be the Mavs' biggest bright spot not named Harrison Barnes. After an early rough patch with his shot, Finney-Smith has shot 17-for-37 from 3-point range in December and scored a career-high 17 points in Sunday's win over Sacramento, raising hopes in Big D that he can develop into a legit 3-and-D swingman on a bargain deal.
On Dec. 7, Sacramento posted a 31-point win in Dallas that it hoped would serve as the springboard for a climb back to respectability. Eleven days later, Dallas just throttled the visiting Kings in the rematch to make it two losses in Texas for Sacramento by a combined 50 points -- when adding in Houston's 132-98 rout -- to sandwich a four-point win Friday night in Memphis that should count for a little extra, given how good the Grizzlies have been in close games all season. This team, mind you, needs a lot more than bonus points at this stage to generate some positivity. Unsavory off-court headlines are frankly stacking up a lot faster than the wins these days.
After Joel Embiid's career-best 33 points in Sunday night's win over Brooklyn, Philadelphia actually now sports a winning record (4-3) when he scores at least 20 points. The Sixers are 1-10, by contrast, when Embiid is held under 20 -- and 2-7 when he doesn't play. Tuesday night in Philly, Embiid lines up against New Orleans' Anthony Davis for the second time this season, and he is putting up per-36 numbers (27.2 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.7 blocks) on par with The Brow's per-36 numbers (28.4 points, 10.5 boards, 2.7 blocks). The other big story with the Sixers, of course, is Nerlens Noel, who's suddenly out of Brett Brown's rotation after airing some more of his frustration and is more available than ever via trade.
Since the Pelicans' initial 4-0 burst after the return of Jrue Holiday, they've managed only a 3-10 mark, with two of those wins coming against the Lakers and Suns. But Tyreke Evans (albeit on a minutes restriction) is back in the lineup now, too, while Buddy Hield is starting to gradually look more comfortable with the NBA game. It's also worth diverting our statistical focus on Anthony Davis' ridiculous numbers for a change to acknowledge that unheralded Tim Frazier -- named MVP and Rookie of the Year in the D-League in 2014-15 -- is the only current player in the NBA not named James Harden who has managed to increase his assist average by more than 4 dimes since last season.
The problem with that 10-10 start that got everyone in Lakerland so excited is that it got everyone in Lakerland too excited. Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle are making progress; Larry Nance has flashed some hints of promise; and rookie coach Luke Walton is getting more out of Lou Williams and Nick Young than anyone imagined coming into the season. D'Angelo Russell, meanwhile, has been slowed by a knee issue but looks as if he has taken a real step when he's healthy. The reality, though, is that these Lakers don't have a clear-cut star yet and thus still face a long road back to the level this franchise is used to. No one wants to hear it, but plenty of patience is still required.
Not the greatest advertisement for the Suns' D that Russell Westbrook just became only the sixth player in history to record a 50-point game and a 20-assist game in the same season ... with both of those outbursts coming against Phoenix. (The other five players to do so, in case you're curious: Deron Williams, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Nate Archibald, Wilt Chamberlain and The Big O.) This latest Russ outburst knocked Eric Bledsoe's recent spree of 30-point games and Tyson Chandler's resurgence out of the headlines, but Suns veteran sage Jared Dudley is nonetheless insisting that the media give P.J. Tucker some legit All-Defensive Team consideration.
Christmas can't come soon enough for the Nets, who just lost winnable road games in Orlando and Philadelphia and now must prepare to play the Raptors in Toronto, Golden State at home and the Cavaliers in Cleveland before Santa Claus gets here. We don't have much to offer in the way of consolation, either, since league rules would appear to preclude Brooklyn from jumping back in to make another run at Donatas Motiejunas, even though Houston has cut all ties with the Lithuanian big man and made him an unrestricted free agent. One (ongoing) bright spot: Sean Kilpatrick leads all undrafted players in scoring at 16.0 PPG, just ahead of Dallas' Wesley Matthews (15.8 PPG).