NBA Power Rankings Week 8: Memphis Takes The Next Step

On the day after Thanksgiving, the Atlanta Hawks thrashed the Memphis Grizzlies by a 32-point margin at FedEx Forum. That loss dropped Memphis below the .500 mark at 9-10 but, more importantly, star point guard Ja Morant suffered a leg injury during the contest that likely sent shivers down the spine of every individual affiliated with the Grizzlies organization. The shell-shock was almost visible for the Grizzlies when the injury occurred in the first half and, from that point forward, the game became secondary to Morant’s health status. Shortly thereafter, the Grizzlies received good news in that Morant’s knee issue was not season-ending, and something weird then happened with Memphis, as the team went on a run.

In the nine games following Morant’s injury, the Grizzlies are 8-1. That is impressive on its own, with the Grizzlies now maintaining the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, but Memphis is dominating the competition with a +19.6 (!) net rating in that nine-game sample. The Grizzlies own the No. 1 defensive rating (96.0) in the NBA since late November, and that lifted what was a dismal full-season mark into the top-20 overall. While the No. 20 defense isn’t going to be enough to thrust Memphis into title contention, the Grizzlies certainly found something with this stretch with wins over Dallas, Miami, Philadelphia, and the Los Angeles Lakers.

It remains to be seen as to how Morant will be reintegrated, as he remains the unquestioned centerpiece of the roster in Memphis. Bizarrely, the Grizzlies have dominated without Morant on the court for the full season, outscoring opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions, and Memphis has an ugly -7.3 net rating when Morant plays. There is certainly some small sample size noise in those numbers, but Tyus Jones is playing excellent basketball and, perhaps more importantly, Taylor Jenkins and his staff have “fixed” the defense, at least for now.

Part of the ascent can be attributed to the play of Jaren Jackson Jr., who is averaging 21.1 points and 1.9 blocked shots per game during this nine-game push. His development, along with stellar play from Jones, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, and others, has catapulted the Grizzlies to the place where they want to be. Memphis may not be the fourth-best team in the West at this juncture, but this has been an encouraging stretch, and if the Grizzlies can pair this defensive uptick with an already impressive offense, they become quite dangerous.

Where do the Grizzlies fall in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s take a glance.

1. Golden State Warriors (23-5, Last week — 1st)

The big news of Tuesday evening was Steph Curry breaking Ray Allen’s career three-point record, but the Warriors also won another basketball game. Golden State swept a road back-to-back in Indy and New York, holding on to the top spot as a result.

2. Phoenix Suns (22-5, Last week — 2nd)

The Suns aren’t quite the same without Devin Booker, but they are holding on. Deandre Ayton was brilliant in an overtime win over Portland on Tuesday, and that victory keeps Phoenix in the top two.

3. Utah Jazz (19-7, Last week — 4th)

Utah is absolutely rolling right now. The Jazz are on a seven-game winning streak and, while their net rating (+11.3) doesn’t fully match the win-loss record, it would be difficult to find a team playing better than Utah. Now, the Jazz come home for the next six games, and they have a chance to run it up.

4. Brooklyn Nets (20-8, Last week — 6th)

With only eight available players due to injuries and COVID protocols, the Nets managed to win an overtime game on Tuesday. Kevin Durant led the way with 34 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists in 48 (!) minutes, and Brooklyn just continues to get things done amid less than optimal circumstances.

5. Milwaukee Bucks (18-11, Last week — 3rd)

The Bucks, like many other teams, are running into COVID-related issues, and that context is key. Milwaukee is still 12-3 in the last 15 games, though, and they take a small hit only after a 2-2 mark in the last four games.

6. Memphis Grizzlies (17-11, Last week — 7th)

As discussed earlier, the Grizzlies are on fire, and the next four games are quite manageable. Memphis plays Portland with a rest advantage on Wednesday before taking on Sacramento, Portland (again), and Oklahoma City. That’s not a bad setup to keep the momentum rolling.

7. Cleveland Cavaliers (17-12, Last week — 16th)

The Cavs are 17-8 when Evan Mobley suits up this season. That is flat-out remarkable for a team missing Collin Sexton and relying heavily on newcomers, but Cleveland is playing extremely well and it’s not fake.

8. L.A. Clippers (16-12, Last week — 13rd)

Ty Lue’s team has a heck of a test coming with a road trip to Utah on Wednesday. That’ll provide more information to the basketball viewing public, but the Clippers are on a four-game winning streak that included a nice win over Phoenix this week.

9. Chicago Bulls (17-10, Last week — 5th)

We’re splitting the difference with Chicago this week. The Bulls had two games postponed due to overwhelming roster challenges and, while they were blitzed in the two previous contests, lack of player availability had a part in those results as well.

10. Miami Heat (16-12, Last week — 9th)

Things could be much worse in Miami if you remember that both Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are currently sidelined. The Heat aren’t playing overly well, but a lot of teams would be mauled without the top two players, and Miami is hanging around. At least for now.

11. Philadelphia 76ers (15-13, Last week — 10th)

Chatter around Ben Simmons is heating up again but, on the court, it is a familiar situation for the Sixers. Philadelphia is very good (12-5) when Joel Embiid plays and bad (3-8) when Embiid doesn’t. It’s really as simple as that right now, even in the midst of a complex situation.

12. Los Angeles Lakers (15-13, Last week — 11th)

Offensive fit and execution is usually at the forefront of discussions about the Lakers. However, Los Angeles won the 2020 title based on defense and, quietly, the Lakers are playing better on that end. Opponents are scoring only 1.06 points per possession in the last 11 games against Los Angeles, and the Lakers are 7-4 as a result.

13. Boston Celtics (14-14, Last week — 12th)

After a 1-4 road trip to the west coast, the Celtics bounced back with a nice home win over Milwaukee. Boston will now have three days off before a nationally televised matchup against Steph Curry and company, and that will be a keen measuring stick.

14. Houston Rockets (9-18, Last week — 25th)

Okay, this is kind of a gimmick, but Houston is playing great. The Rockets are 8-2 in the last ten games, scoring 118.7 points per 100 possessions, and Houston had an incredible comeback win in Atlanta on Monday. Adding to it, Houston’s losses came to Memphis and Milwaukee, and both came by single digits. No, the Rockets aren’t the No. 14 team in the NBA, but the middle is a mess right now, and they are rewarded for this extremely improbable run of success.

15. Denver Nuggets (14-13, Last week — 19th)

Nikola Jokic just won’t let Denver fade. He is averaging 26.5 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game and, on a per-minute basis, Jokic is a real MVP candidate, even in a world that includes Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. That’s how good he’s been, and the Nuggets are hanging around.

16. Dallas Mavericks (14-13, Last week — 23rd)

It hasn’t been pretty, at all, but the Mavericks are 3-1 in the last four. Luka Doncic won’t play against the Lakers on Wednesday, taking some of the luster away from that contest, but Dallas is at least displaying signs of life in his absence.

17. Charlotte Hornets (15-14, Last week — 15th)

We’re grading on a curve for Charlotte due to extensive issues with the health and safety protocols. Of course, the Hornets are no longer alone in that, but Charlotte’s profile has taken a hit as a result. We’ll learn more about the Hornets in the coming days, but Charlotte is 2-6 in the last eight games.

18. San Antonio Spurs (10-16, Last week — 24th)

San Antonio is red-hot, winning six of the last nine games. It hasn’t been cheap either, with the Spurs posting a +6.6 net rating in that run. The full-season numbers are not ideal, but the Spurs deserve some credit for the recent surge.

19. Toronto Raptors (13-15, Last week — 23rd)

Toronto came very close to picking up a fifth win in six games on Tuesday before narrowly falling to the Nets in overtime. The Raptors will now have until Saturday before returning to action as a result of a Thursday postponement, and Nick Nurse’s goal will be to keep the positive mojo flowing. The Raptors have been pretty fun lately.

20. Atlanta Hawks (13-14, Last week — 8th)

The 2021-22 season has been a roller coaster for the Hawks. They started slow, got hot, and now have cratered again. Atlanta is on a five-game home losing streak, and the Hawks held second-half leads in each of those five defeats. Things crested with a brutal loss to the Rockets on Monday in which the Hawks blew a 17-point lead after halftime. Atlanta’s metrics look fine, but they are in the wilderness as mid-December arrives.

21. Indiana Pacers (12-17, Last week — 22nd)

Indiana’s three-game winning streak ended on Monday, but the loss came by only two points to the Warriors. The Pacers are vastly underperforming their point differential, with Indiana out-scoring its opponents for the full season, but it remains tough to figure out this team. That will only get tougher as the Pacers weigh trade options.

22. Washington Wizards (15-13, Last week — 17th)

Washington’s 10-3 start seems like a lifetime ago. The Wizards are 5-10 with a bottom-five net rating since then, and No. 21 is too high for Washington if you simply view them through the lens of the past 15 games.

23. Minnesota Timberwolves (12-15, Last week — 18th)

The Wolves recently dropped five in a row, including three straight at home. That quells some of the upward momentum Minnesota had going, but they did bounce back with a good road win over Portland on Monday. That avoided a further drop.

24. New York Knicks (12-16, Last week — 14th)

It’s getting gross for the Knicks. New York has dropped seven of eight and the Knicks are giving up more than 1.17 points per possession during that time. That largely coincides with the removal of Kemba Walker from the rotation, which was designed in part to help the defense, and the buttons being smashed by Tom Thibodeau aren’t working.

25. Sacramento Kings (11-17, Last week — 21st)

The Kings started 5-4. They are not 5-4 anymore. Since Nov. 6, Sacramento is 6-13 with a bottom-four net rating (-5.9) in the NBA. As usual, the defense is the main issue, with Sacramento giving up more than 114 points per 100 possessions in those 19 games.

26. New Orleans Pelicans (8-21, Last week — 27th)

Since reaching a hideous low point at 3-16, the Pelicans have been respectable at 5-5. Most of that is the offense finding itself, and Brandon Ingram is averaging 27 points, six assists and six rebounds per game in the last seven.

27. Portland Trail Blazers (11-17, Last week — 26th)

The Blazers are 1-9 in the last 10 games. You can’t really spin that, especially after six straight losses. To put it plainly, Portland has to be elite on offense to carry what is a bad defense, and it isn’t happening at the moment.

28. Oklahoma City Thunder (8-18, Last week — 28th)

Oklahoma City has been much better than many expected, and the Thunder are 2-2 in the last four games. Still, there isn’t that much to be excited about in terms of metrics, and OKC is only 3-12 in the last 15 games. It’s a wonder they aren’t in the bottom two.

29. Orlando Magic (5-23, Last week — 29th)

The team in the basement has the worst record, but Orlando continues to have the worst statistical profile. Not only do the Magic have the worst net rating, but Orlando is in the bottom three in both offense and defense. Injuries can only explain so much of how brutal Orlando has been.

30. Detroit Pistons (4-22, Last week — 30th)

The Pistons haven’t won a basketball game since Nov. 17. After a postponement on Tuesday, Detroit has only one more chance, on the road against Indiana on Thursday, to avoid an entire month of losing. It’s ugly, and Jerami Grant is going to miss several weeks with a thumb issue.