Coming into the 2019-20 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder were seemingly heading into a full rebuild. While they did acquire Chris Paul in exchange for Russell Westbrook, that move appeared to be a future-facing in that Oklahoma City received draft compensation to execute the trade. Beyond that, the Thunder received an unbelievable haul of draft assets in exchange for Paul George and the package was topped off by the addition of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
However, the Thunder had a quality nucleus of veterans remaining, leading to endless speculation that Oklahoma City would look to continue off-loading talent during this season. Then, the campaign began and the Thunder started winning.
Billy Donovan’s team has nine wins in its last 12 games and, during that run, the Thunder have been a top-12 team in the NBA on both ends of the floor. Oklahoma City’s +4.7 net rating, even in a small sample, paints a favorable picture and the Thunder are now above the .500 mark at 15-14 and firmly in the playoff discussion in the Western Conference. Some of that is due to disappointing performances elsewhere but, in short, the Thunder are deploying lineups that largely make sense and their better players are simply playing well.
Gilgeous-Alexander continues to look better and better, averaging 21.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game (on high-end efficiency) in the last nine games. He is flanked by an All-Star caliber contributor in Paul, even if his best days are behind him. The future Hall of Famer isn’t as prolific as he was in his prime, but Paul has a 61 percent true shooting and strong per-minute averages that remind the NBA world of just how good he is. Throw in a career-best season by Dennis Schroder (56 percent true shooting) and frontcourt competence from Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel, and you have a product that is legitimately appealing.
There are still questions about how much OKC wants to win now and they could easily make a move to send Adams and/or Danilo Gallinari elsewhere in the coming weeks. For now, though, the Thunder are playing like a legitimate playoff team and even the optimists (myself among them) didn’t quite foresee that as a likelihood.
Where do the Thunder land in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s find out.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (27-4, Last week — 2nd)
The Bucks started 2-2. Then, the Bucks won 25 out of 27 games. Milwaukee is an easy (and correct) choice at the top at Christmas arrives, and it will be exceptionally interesting to watch Giannis and company face a challenge in Philly.
2. Los Angeles Lakers (24-6, Last week — 1st)
As Christmas arrives, the Lakers have lost three in a row. Only one of those losses featured both Anthony Davis and LeBron James, though, and it was against the Bucks on the road. We’ll have to reevaluate if the Lakers lose to the Clippers on Wednesday but, until then, they land here.
3. Denver Nuggets (21-8, Last week — 5th)
The schedule has been a little bit friendly to the Nuggets, but Denver still has the longest winning streak in the NBA at seven games. The signature win for the team during that stretch is a 24-point blasting of the Lakers but, well, LeBron didn’t play in that game. That explains why the Nuggets are still behind the Lakers.
4. L.A. Clippers (22-10, Last week — 3rd)
It’s hard to rank the Clippers. If pressed for an answer on which teams are the most likely to win the title, L.A. would definitely be in the top three. In fact, the Clippers are 18-5 when Kawhi Leonard plays. They just don’t have the regular season profile to crash the top three this week.
5. Houston Rockets (21-9, Last week — 11th)
Houston has been up and down. Right now, it’s up. The Rockets have won four straight, including three on the road, and they face a (very) winnable matchup with the Warriors on Christmas. Also, it’s late December and James Harden is averaging 38.6 points per game. That’s a real and ridiculous stat.
6. Miami Heat (22-8, Last week — 7th)
The Heat have been dominant at home, compiling a 13-1 record and lifting their overall profile. There will be some skepticism about Miami until this version of the Heat can prove it in the playoffs, but we’re long past the point of wondering whether Erik Spoelstra’s team is good. They are.
7. Boston Celtics (20-7, Last week — 9th)
Tacko Fall conducted the Boston Pops on Monday night. Long live Tacko Fall. Oh, and the Celtics have won three straight as Christmas arrives.
8. Philadelphia 76ers (22-10, Last week — 4th)
The Sixers did what they were supposed to do in the last two games, beating the Wizards and Pistons by double-figures. It was the three-game losing streak before that which caused Philly to drop in the rankings.
9. Indiana Pacers (21-10, Last week — 6th)
Nate McMillan’s team did nothing wrong this week. This is more of a course correction. Indy did get blasted by Milwaukee but, uh, there is no shame in that. Otherwise, the Pacers are playing quite well and a 21-10 record without Victor Oladipo is wildly impressive.
10. Toronto Raptors (21-9, Last week — 10th)
The Raptors are operating with band-aids and braces at this point. Toronto is without three key contributors, headlined by Pascal Siakam, but they are still holding on. It will be interesting to see how they fare against Boston on Christmas, but that individual result shouldn’t change things all that much.
11. Utah Jazz (18-12, Last week — 12th)
The Jazz made a trade on Monday… before losing by a narrow margin in Miami. That result isn’t a bad one, though, and the Jazz won five straight prior to that. It is easier to believe in this team than it was a few days ago, even if Jordan Clarkson might be a curious fit.
12. Dallas Mavericks (19-10, Last week — 8th)
Dallas has alternated wins and losses in eight straight games. That isn’t ideal but, considering Luka Doncic still isn’t playing, it’s perfectly fine to simply tread water. Honestly, it’s been impressive to see how Rick Carlisle and company have fared in his absence.
13. Oklahoma City Thunder (15-14, Last week — 14th)
The Thunder are playing well and they have the chance to pick up more victories after Christmas. That’s the nature of playing against Memphis and Charlotte on a back-to-back.
14. Brooklyn Nets (16-13, Last week — 13th)
Kyrie (still) isn’t playing but the Nets are (still) in good shape. It’s a weird thing, but Brooklyn is just fine. They’ve won three of four as the holiday hiatus arrives.
15. San Antonio Spurs (12-17, Last week — 22nd)
It may not seem like much, but the Spurs are 6-6 in their last 12 games. If that proves to be real, San Antonio will be in the mix for most of the season. That says more about the state of the playoff race in the West than it does about the Spurs, but here we are.
16. Portland Trail Blazers (14-17, Last week — 17th)
Portland lost at home to New Orleans on Monday and that’s bad. I wouldn’t overreact to that result, though, with Damian Lillard going 0-of-10 from three in a way that you just never expect him to do. Before that, the Blazers won four in a row and seem to be trending in the right direction.
17. Orlando Magic (13-17, Last week — 15th)
If we’re being honest, the Magic simply aren’t very good if they are going to field the No. 12 defense in the NBA. Orlando needs to be elite on that end of the floor, and they aren’t right now.
18. Chicago Bulls (12-19, Last week — 24th)
This is kind of a dividing line this week, because it feels like the Bulls are too high. However, Chicago is 4-3 in the last seven games and, for the season, the Bulls are 17th in net rating. Isn’t that kind of insane?
19. Sacramento Kings (12-18, Last week — 16th)
A week ago, it felt like the Kings were arriving. Now, they’ve lost four in a row. Sacramento just has some things to figure out after working with an unsettled rotation for much of the season.
20. Cleveland Cavaliers (9-21, Last week — 28th)
The Cavs aren’t very good and that is common knowledge. Cleveland has still won three in a row and that matters under any circumstances. We’ll just point out that the wins came over the Hornets, Grizzlies and Hawks at home before moving on.
21. Charlotte Hornets (13-20, Last week — 18th)
Procedurally, we had to drop the Hornets below the Cavs after the aforementioned result from this week. Charlotte still has the better profile but, after a considerable upswing, the Hornets have dropped four of five.
22. Memphis Grizzlies (11-20, Last week — 20th)
When the Grizzlies are fun, they are really, really fun. Then, you watch them lose to the Spurs by 30 at home. That will make you remember how young (and inconsistent) this team actually is.
23. Washington Wizards (9-20, Last week — 23rd)
It’s almost weird that the Wizards didn’t drop this week, but the Pistons and Suns were just worse. Washington has lost seven of the last nine games, but the Wizards did knock off the Knicks at MSG on Monday. At some point, Scott Brooks’ team has to get a stop, though, and they remain the worst defensive team in the NBA by the numbers and the eye test.
24. Phoenix Suns (11-19, Last week — 19th)
Phoenix has dropped seven in a row. While there is only one “bad loss” during that run, the Suns need wins and they aren’t getting them anymore. As such, some of the early-season optimism seems to be fading… fast.
25. Detroit Pistons (11-20, Last week — 21st)
Suddenly, the Pistons are in serious trouble. There was a tacit belief that Detroit would bounce back to playoff contention at some point but, at the moment, FiveThirtyEight gives the Pistons only a 13 percent chance to make the postseason. Five straight losses will dampen any team’s hopes, especially when two of them came against the Wizards and Bulls at home.
26. Golden State Warriors (7-24, Last week — 29th)
The Warriors are still tied for the second-worst record in the league and that is a bizarre sentiment. Golden State enters Christmas after securing back-to-back wins, though, and they suddenly don’t seem so terrible with the way they are playing.
27. New Orleans Pelicans (8-23, Last week — 30th)
After losing 13 games in a row, the Pelicans have won two of three and all is right with the world. Okay, that is probably overstating it, but New Orleans is at least playing better. In fact, both victories came on the road. Huzzah.
28. New York Knicks (7-24, Last week — 26th)
Mike Miller’s team won a game this week, smashing the Hawks (we’ll get there momentarily) by a 23-point margin at MSG. Since then, New York has lost three in a row and normalcy is apparently back. This is a bad basketball team.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves (10-19, Last week — 25th)
Karl-Anthony Towns hasn’t played since Dec. 13 and the Wolves haven’t won a basketball game since Nov. 27. If that sounds bad, it’s because it is. Minnesota obviously isn’t this bad in the grand scheme, but there is a price to pay for 11 straight losses.
30. Atlanta Hawks (6-25, Last week — 27th)
John Collins is back and that should help the Hawks in a substantial way. Atlanta lost the first game with Collins, though, to the lowly Cavs and they’ve dropped eight straight (and 19 of 21) to “earn” this placement. To make things worse, they got run out of the gym by the Knicks. That simply can’t happen.