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15. Minnesota Timberwolves (18)
Minnesota is enjoying the post-Jimmy Butler era just fine, and Robert Covington has loads to do with it.
He led the Wolves, who’ve won four straight, in scoring against the Cavs on Monday and Spurs on Wednesday, and his defensive impact (along with a much more engaged Karl-Anthony Towns) is the reason Minnesota has been the second-best defensive team in the league since the Nov. 12 trade.
Minnesota was 29th on that end before Covington showed up.
In the Wolves’ 111-96 win over Chicago on Saturday, Covington played 35 minutes, fouled out and shot a ghastly 1-of-18 from the field. He was a plus-11 in that game.
Minnesota has transformed, thanks to its new defensive difference-maker.
14. Dallas Mavericks (16)
Dallas has won seven of its last eight against against a schedule populated by several of the league’s contenders; OKC, Golden State, Boston and Houston have all dropped games to the surging Mavs over the last two weeks.
Luka Doncic added to his season-long highlight reel with deep step-backs, eye-opening dunks and a quarter-closing bomb from the logo against the Rockets on Wednesday, but we shouldn’t overlook J.J. Barea’s impact on Dallas’ success. The Mavs’ net rating leaps from minus-5.2 without Barea on the court to plus-12.8 with him.
By that measure, Barea is a superstar. Please take that sentence out of context and run with it.
13. Memphis Grizzlies (5)
Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff told ESPN.com’s Tim MacMahon: “We want to bring people to the mud and see how comfortable they are in that type of fight.”
That evocative explanation of the Grizzlies’ approach is an early front-runner for quote of the year, but it rings a little hollow after a 0-3 week in which Memphis’ stellar defense surrendered 113.9 points per 100 possessions.
Marc Gasol scored 27 points in all three defeats, and Mike Conley’s rare foul-out with 2:51 remaining against the Clippers last Friday triggered a 13-5 L.A. run that forced overtime and led to a loss. Those two remain Memphis’ foundation, but Jaren Jackson Jr. still matters most to the franchise’s future. Against the Knicks on Sunday, he registered seven blocks and four made threes. That’s happened just two other times since 1983-84.
We got carried away with the Grizzlies last week. Consider this a course correction.
12. Houston Rockets (4)
After four straight defeats defined by matador defense and minimal effort on the glass, the Rockets are 28th in defensive rating.
With that little stopping power, it hardly matters if you’ve got two of the top DIY offensive players around…which the Rockets do in Harden and Chris Paul. Those two lead their positions (as defined by Cleaning the Glass) in percentage of field goals made without the benefit of an assist.
If Harden or Paul scores, chances are they did it on their own. And if someone else on Houston scores, chances are Harden or Paul set it up.
Harden’s 54-point, 13-assist performance in a loss against Washington on Monday produced 86 total points. There have been just three higher totals in league history, two of which belong to Harden, per Micah Adams of NBA.com.
This past week’s showing reintroduced anxiety into the minds of Rockets fans (and a certain producer of power rankings) who felt Houston was out of the woods. Yes, three of the four losses came by single digits on the road. And yes, Paul’s hamstring has sidelined him since Nov. 23. But there’s no place in the top 10 for a team that defends like this.
11. Indiana Pacers (7)
A sore knee has held Victor Oladipo out of action for the Pacers’ last six games, and even though the team has held surprisingly steady in his absence (2-2 this week), it feels like a disservice to 2017-18’s MIP to say the Pacers are worthy of a top-10 spot without their best player.
In a 109-104 win over the Suns on Tuesday, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis had double-doubles in the same game for the first time. Bojan Bogdanovic is your league leader in three-point percentage, and Doug McDermott has shown up after a season of standing around and doing little in Nate McMillan’s ho-hum offense.
Everyone’s chipping in as best they can, but it’s hard to make a case for Indy as a top-10 team without Oladipo.