The NBA standings are still tough to figure out, but some clear tiers are starting to form.
The East’s top five teams stand head and shoulders above everyone else in the conference. The next five are in a similar place and then the bottom five teams are all bad. In the West, the top three are close, the next five are tightly packed, the following six are just 2.5 games apart and then the Phoenix Suns occupy a tier by themselves at the bottom.
Let’s recap the Week 11 by noting some teams that are making big moves either up or down in the standings.
NBA Week 11 Risers
Milwaukee Bucks (27-10, No. 1 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 3-0)
The Bucks’ opponents in the past three games (the Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons and Brooklyn Nets) haven’t exactly been a murderer’s row and Milwaukee played all three games at home.
Milwaukee is learning to do what title contenders are supposed to do in games against non-title contenders: put the game out of reach early. The Bucks have led by an average of 22.7 points at halftime (!) in their last three contests and have been able to keep their starters’ minutes under control because of it. That will be huge for the team’s long-time energy level if it can keep beating non-contenders early on in games.
A key in the Bucks’ recent play, including their current five-game winning streak, is Khris Middleton busting out of his shooting slump. Milwaukee’s starting swingman boasts a shooting slash of 68.5/58.8/78.6 in his last four contests.
Also, you have to like Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer’s chances of winning Coach of the Year award right now.
Miami Heat (19-18, No. 6 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 3-1)
Similarly to the Bucks, we are not talking about a difficult schedule for the Heat in the past week, but a 3-1 record with an average point differential of plus-11.5 is impressive regardless of competition. Considering that Miami certainly isn’t considered part of the Eastern Conference elite and is without starting point guard Goran Dragic, that sort of stretch of play earns the squad a spot on the “risers” list.
Miami is sixth in the Eastern Conference, but it is looking very unlikely that it will earn an All-Star this year. That’s fine. Solid team defense can help make up for a lack of offensive firepower and that is what is happening for the Heat right now.
A key factor in the Heat’s solid play that has really extended back to mid-December is the emergence of Justise Winslow as a full-time point forward. The 22-year-old former Duke standout is showing that talk of him being a bust may be a bit premature. He is averaging 16.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals per game in his last six contests.
San Antonio Spurs (22-17, No. 7 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 3-1)
San Antonio’s 3-1 record in the past week is made more impressive by its schedule. The Spurs played three of league’s top six teams in net rating (Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors) as well as the 14th-ranked team (the Los Angeles Clippers). Their three wins came by a combined 38 points and their loss came down to the game’s final possession on the road against the Nuggets, who are 15-3 at home.
Four weeks ago, the Spurs were 14th in the West and most of their fans were hoping the team would just tank the rest of the season. Now, the squad is one of the hottest in the Western Conference and is just one game out of the No. 4 seed.
LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan is a respectable star duo, but the thing San Antonio has going for it, is its depth. The Spurs don’t give significant minutes to any bad players and their bench players mesh perfectly despite many of them having physical limitations compared to their peers.
NBA Week 11 Fallers
Toronto Raptors (28-12, No. 2 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 2-2)
The injury bug has hit the Raptors. Two valuable players, All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry and center Jonas Valanciunas, are currently out. Valanciunas is likely sidelined for at least three more weeks.
Lowry is averaging 9.8 assists per game, and his absence is exposing Toronto’s lack of a reliable facilitator aside from him. Kawhi Leonard is an amazing scorer, but he is just OK as a passer and his style of offense is a bit too ball-dominant at times. The Raptors’ offense just doesn’t flow as well when Lowry is out. Fred VanVleet is a great backup point guard, but he is not meant to play big minutes as a starter.
The Raptors’ road woes are also becoming an issue. They are 1-5 in their last six away games with a dreadful point differential of minus-14.2.
Memphis Grizzlies (18-20, No. 11 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 0-4)
Desperation seems to be setting in for the Grizzlies, who have lost four in a row and 15 of their last 21 games. Memphis traded for the Bulls’ Justin Holiday this week, sending away Wayne Selden Jr., Marshon Brooks and a couple of future second-round picks.
This was clearly a win-now move for the Grizzlies, who probably won’t do that much winning the rest of this season in a competitive Western Conference. Unfortunately, though, Memphis is kind of stuck, because its roster is very veteran-heavy and many of those veterans’ contracts are big and tough to trade.
The silver lining this season is very clear, though. No. 2 overall draft pick Jaren Jackson Jr. has been much better than expected in his rookie season. His offensive game is more polished than he showed in his lone season at Michigan State, and he is showing some amazing defensive flashes. Of course, his weak rebounding and propensity for fouling have been weak spots and a factor in the Grizzlies’ decline during the last several weeks.
Los Angeles Lakers (21-18, No. 8 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 1-3)
The Lakers’ home loss against the terrible New York Knicks on Friday was easily one of their worst games of the season. Los Angeles has also lost four of five games overall since winning on Christmas on the road over Golden State.
Sure, LeBron James’ groin injury is a major factor. He is supposedly going to be out for at least another week. The Lakers are also committing too many live-ball turnovers, failing to get back on defense, missing a lot of free throws and playing too much isolation offense. These are effort and strategy issues, not talent issues.
The last five games were supposed to be a key test for the Lakers’ youngsters without LeBron there to bail them out. So far, they have failed the test.