NBA Power Rankings: Ranking the NBA’s best at the end of 2013

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NBA Power Rankings (Dec. 30-Jan. 12)

(All stats through Friday’s games)

(Last week’s rank and change are in parentheses)

Dec 27, 2013; Sacramento, CA, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) walks to the key for a Sacramento Kings free throw during overtime at Sleep Train Arena. The Sacramento Kings defeated the Miami Heat 108-103 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

1. Indiana Pacers (1, NC):  A league-leading defense (89.4 ppg allowed) and the return of Danny Granger – even if in a limited capacity – keep the East’s best team atop the rankings.

2. Portland Trailblazers (3, +1):  Portland is tied with OKC for the best record in the NBA and their thrilling 116-112 OT win over the Clips proves they are here to stay.  Some questions remain whether or not they’re “built for the playoffs”, but that’s just something we’ll have to revisit in April.

3. Miami Heat (5, +2):  The Heat have their second-best player (Dwyane Wade) sitting out nearly 1 out of every 3 games, and yet they continue to win.  Thus is the life in the Eastern Conference.  Oh, by the way, LeBron James is shooting 59.2 percent from the field, good for 4th in the league.  He and Wade are the only non-PF/Cs in the top 19 in field goal percentage.

4. San Antonio Spurs (2, -2):  I’ll say this time and time again: Gregg Popovich is an evil genius.  He always knows the right combinations to use on the court – and even off the court.  Last year he incurred a fine for not sending his top players on the road to play in a primetime game vs. the Heat on TNT Thursday.  The Spurs lost that game, but only by 5 points.  Last week Coach Pop was at it again, sitting Duncan, Parker and Ginobili for a road game vs. the Warriors in Oakland.  This time the Spurs were victorious, pulling out a 104-102 win.  As long as those three stars stay rested, there’s no reason why the Spurs can’t return to the NBA Finals.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder (4, -1):  The Thunder received a tough break when it was learned that All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook had to undergo yet another procedure on his troublesome knee.  Rushing back the last time may have prevented his knee from fully healing, so expect Westbrook, and the team, to use more caution this time around.  Reggie Jackson will take over the ball handling duties for now (30 minutes in Friday’s game), but Kevin Durant is going to have to shoulder most of the load (34 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists in 40 minutes).

6. Houston Rockets (7, +1):  The Rockets had been alternating wins and losses since beating Orlando on December 8th, but their win over Memphis on Thursday not only gave them back-to-back wins for just the second time all month, but the nature of the win could give them the spark they need to go on a hot streak.  Down 8 at the half, James Harden made 9 of his franchise record-tying 22 free throws in the 4th quarter to cap their come-from-behind win.

7. Golden State Warriors (9, +2):  Led by Stephen Curry’s triple-double, the Warriors matched a season-high four-game win streak in Friday’s blowout win over the Suns, and with the Mavericks loss, they moved into 7th place in the West.  The Warriors have been playing solid ball on the defensive end and it was on display this week, allowing just 88.3 points per game in wins over the Lakers, Nuggets, Clippers and Suns.

8. Los Angeles Clippers (6, -2):  Blake Griffin has gotten a lot of flak for his “soft play”, but changed many peoples’ minds when he was kicked out of the Clippers’ Christmas Day game with the Warriors.  Of course those peoples’ minds were only changed for about 10 hours, which is when the NBA rescinded the technical that had been given to him.  The Clips remain a solid team, especially with Chris Paul at the helm, but like the Blazers, they may lack some toughness inside, and that could be a hindrance in the playoffs.

9. Dallas Mavericks (10, +1):  Dirk Nowitzki has been nothing short of spectacular during his 16-year NBA career.  On Monday, he moved past Alex English, and into sole possession of 13th place on the all-time scoring list with 25,656 points, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down.  Over his last five games the former MVP is averaging 23.8 points (52.8 FG%) and 6.4 rebounds while shooting 90.9 percent (20-for-22) from the line.

10. Phoenix Suns (14, +4):  I’ve avoided putting Phoenix higher up in my rankings all season, but I can’t hold back anymore – they’ve simply earned it.  They have won 8 of their last 10 games and have somehow managed to put together a 17-11 season.  Eventually I expect them to cool down (they just aren’t this good), but Suns’ fans can enjoy the ride while it lasts.