NBA Power Rankings: 76ers and Clippers soaring, Lakers and Suns tumbling

Today on The Whiteboard, we're updating our NBA Power Rankings with a look at how the Clippers and 76ers are separating themselves from the competition.

Dec 20, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) and guard
Dec 20, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) and guard / Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

. 76ers PR 12/21. 19-8. 93. . . 1. Last Rank: 3. .

The 76ers are 6-1 over the last two weeks, absolutely hammering opponents with a scoring margin of plus-24.3 points per 100 possessions. Between that and their double-digit blowout of the Timberwolves, they've taken over the top spot.

. 21-6. Last Rank: 4. . 2. . 18. . . Celtics PR 12/21

The Celtics have also been extremely hot over the past few weeks but they're not winning by nearly as much as the 76ers and they're still navigating nagging injury concerns for Kristaps Porzingis. They may well prove to be the best team in the league when it's all said and done but, for now, they're at No. 2.

Clippers PR 12/21. . . 17-10. Last Rank: 22. . 77. . . 3

The Clippers have made a dramatic turnaround, winning nine in a row and rediscovering their offensive mojo. James Harden has made the necessary adaptations and Russell Westbrook is playing well off the bench. Right now it's all working for the Clippers.

Nuggets PR 12/21. . . . 73. Last Rank: 1. . . 19-10. 4

The Nuggets have shown some cracks over the past few weeks, navigating injuries and dropping some winnable games. But they're still top-seven in efficiency at both ends of the floor and being led by Nikola Jokic, the best player in the world. They've fallen out of the No. 1 spot but they'll be just fine when it counts.

86. . . . . Last Rank: 2. . 5. Timberwolves PR 12/21. 20-6

The Timberwolves have taken a couple of tough losses recently but the foundation is still rock-solid. Rudy Gobert is once again playing like the best defensive player in the league, Karl-Anthony Towns is in striking distance of 50/40/90 and Anthony Edwards is establishing himself as one of the best two-way guards in the league. They'll have to prove it in the playoffs but they're as scary as any team in the West.

6. 89. . . . Bucks PR 12/21. . . 20-7. Last Rank: 6

The Milwaukee Bucks offense has been absolutely scorching over the last month, quietly matching the historic trajectory the Pacers were on earlier in the season. Their defense is still a mess but, as good as their offense is playing, even league-average defense would make them an inner-circle contender.

7. . Last Rank: 7. . 149. Thunder PR 12/21. . . . 17-8

The Thunder have come further and faster than almost anyone expected. Nearly a third of the way through the season they look like a contender thanks to an MVP-caliber season from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, an absurdly deep supporting cast and a defensive transformation spearheaded by Chet Holmgren. If they're able to land a star like Lauri Markkanen at the trade deadline, and it sounds like they're going to try, they could really pull it off.

. . 84. Kings 12/21 PR. Last Rank: 11. . 16-10. . . 8

Keegan Murray has rebounded from his rough start and this offense is firing on all cylinders again. They're probably a piece away from leaping into the top tier of teams in the league but they'll be major players at the NBA Trade Deadline and a scary playoff matchup for anyone in the West.

Last Rank: 18. 9. . Pelicans 12/21 PR. . . 16-12. . 69.

Their In-Season Tournament flop aside, the Pelicans have been playing much better — winners of seven of their last 10 games. The consistency of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram is still a concern but the supporting cast is really good and players like Herbert Jones, Trey Murphy III, Dyson Daniels and Jordan Hawkins continue to improve and assert themselves.

Knicks 12/21 PR. Last Rank: 16. . 27. . 16-11. . 10. .

Losing Mitchell Robinson for the rest of the season is a major blow for the Knicks but Julius Randle has really turned things around and they're continuing to scrap for wins. An R.J. Barrett resurgence (or trade) could energize them but for now they may need to settle for fighting to be the best of the rest in the East.

11. Cavs 12/21 PR. . 16-12. Last Rank: 21. . . . . 156

The Cavaliers are muddling, there's just no other way to put it. Injuries have taken their toll, their offseason signings haven't really worked out and now they're reportedly considering trading Jarrett Allen to try and land some help. Looming over it all is the shadow of Donovan Mitchell requesting a trade. It's not a great place to be.

16-10. . . . . . Last Rank: 17. Magic. 12. 38

The Magic defense is still swarming but their offensive inconsistency is putting a ceiling on them. If they're making jumpers, they can beay anyone. If their streaky shooters are off, they really struggle to score. It seems likely they'll look for an offensive upgrade at the deadline but for now they're closer to the middle of the East than the top.

. 13-12. . . Rockets 12/21 PR. Last Rank: 12. 13. . 169.

The Rockets have settled in as a middle-of-the-pack competitive team, which is not nothing considering how terrible they were last year. They're not going to really scare anyone in the Play-In Tournament or in a first-round series but they're developing their young players and building positive momentum.

13-14. . . 14. 41. Warriors 12/21 PR. Last Rank: 15. . .

The Warriors need Draymond Green (a somewhat controlled version of him) to be at their best but there are positive signs in his absence. Klay Thompson has shaken off his slump and Brandin Podziemski and Jonathan Kuminga are getting high-leverage minutes that should help them later in the year. The Warriors still have a long way to go but it feels like they're starting to turn the ship around.

15-13. . 15. 20. Last Rank: 13. . Lakers 12/21 PR. . .

The Lakers are ahead of the Rockets and Warriors in the standings but trailing them in these rankings in part because of their recent struggles — 1-4 in their last five including losses to the Spurs and Bulls. It feels like they're barely keep their head above water and the longer they struggle the more likely it is they gamble on someone like Zach LaVine at the deadline, injecting more chaos.

16. . . Last Rank: 9. . . 100. . 14-12. Pacers 12/21 PR

The Pacers might have the best and most unpredictable offense in the league. They've also given up 130 or more points eight times already this season. Until they figure out something that works on defense they're trapped in the middle of the pack desperately trying to outrace everyone to 150.

17. . 110. . 16-12. Last Rank: 8. Heat 12/21 PR. . .

The Heat are ranked a head of the Pacers in the standings but behind them here, in large part because they don't have a single elite attribute to hang their hat on. They rank 14th in both offensive and defensive efficiency and seem like they'll once again have to really on outlier performances from Jimmy Butler and role players to make noise in the playoffs.

16-11. . 18. 79. Mavs 12/21 PR. . Last Rank: 5. . .

The Mavericks still have a top-six record in the West but their success looks more and more fragile. Luka Doncic has been otherwordly but playing nearly 40 minutes a game at nearly unheard of usage levels. The formula is working just enough but I'm not confident it's going to last.

Last Rank: 20. . 66. 19. . 14-13. . . Suns 12/21 PR.

Bradley Beal finally rejoined the lineup and immediately hurt himself again, likely out for weeks. Without him, this is a less talented and less deep version of the team that lost to the Nuggets in the second-round of the playoffs last year. And, at this point, it certainly seems like playing without him is going to be the norm.

. . . . 24. . 12-17. Last Rank: 23. 20. Bulls 12/21 PR

Zach LaVine is out of the lineup and the Bulls are finally showing signs of life — 4-3 in their last seven games with a plus-3.7 point differential per 100 possessions. They're still probably heading for a teardown but Coby White, Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Williams have legitimately improved and look like young pieces worth keeping around for a rebuild.

12-15. . 21. Hawks 12/21 PR. . Last Rank: 10. . . 125.

They're 4-8 since Jalen Johnson went down with an injury and they really miss his frontcourt defense and connective skillset on offense. Trae Young is finally hitting some shots but the Hawks don't actually seem to be better for it. He puts up huge numbers but it doesn't seem to influence the outcome for the Hawks as much as it should...

. . Last Rank: 19. . . . 81. Raptors 12/21 PR. 11-16. 22

Scottie Barnes is balling out but the Raptors still can't get on the right side of 0.500. There is too much talent on this roster for them to be this bad and every loss probably brings them closer and closer to a trade deadline fire sale.

Nets 12/21 PR. 147. 13-14. Last Rank: 14. . . 23. . .

Some of the good vibes have begun to dissipate in Brooklyn. Cam Thomas has come back to earth a bit, Ben Simmons is injured again and the defense has really struggled over the past two weeks. They're feisty and they play hard but they're often facing an talent disparity that's been too much to overcome.

Grizzlies 12/21 PR. . 211. . . . 7-19. Last Rank: 29. 24.

Ja Morant is back and that alone should be enough to move them up the rankings over the next few weeks. But they have an enormous hole to dig out of and they're still limited in the frontcourt with Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke out for the season.

Blazers PR 12/21. . Last Rank: 26. . 7-19. . 34. . 25.

Scoot Henderson is showing some signs of life, Anfernee Simons is playing well and it sounds like they're not going to trade Jerami Grant. They could creep up the rankings as the season goes along but they're nowhere close to ready for an actual playoff push.

Jazz PR 12/21. 26. Last Rank: 25. . . . . 118. . 10-18

The Jazz have a lot of youth on the roster and it's not a surprise they're near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. What is surprising is that they may be open to trading some of their veterans like Kelly Olynyk, Jordan Clarkson and even Lauri Markkanen, leaning into a longer-term rebuild.

. . 27. . . Spurs 12/21 PR. . 4-22. Last Rank: 24. 29

The Spurs finally got some separation from the Pistons at the bottom of the league standings but they still have a long way to go. Playing Tre Jones or looking for a real point guard at the deadline might really help scaffold the development of Victor Wembanyama and their other young players but right now they're hopefully learning by playing through their many, many mistakes.

. Last Rank: 30. . . 142. . Wizards 12/21 PR. . 4-22. 28

The Wizards are a hot mess but at least Bilal Coulibaly has been impressive — a rookie who was supposed to be a project actually being ready to contribute right away. The problem is they may need to try and clear Jordan Poole and Kyle Kuzma before they're ready to start building toward something positive.

. . Hornets 12/21 PR. . . . 29. 170. 7-19. Last Rank: 27

The Hornets have lost six of their last seven, getting outscored by an average of 17.5 points per 100 possessions. They're not quite at rock bottom but it's quickly approaching. Expect them to be big sellers at the trade deadline as they look for a reset.

. . 64. Last Rank: 28. . 30. Pistons 12/21 PR. . . 2-25

They're on track to finish with one of the worst records in NBA history but it's hard to reconcile that fact with the somewhat reasonable level of young talent on this roster. It's clear that the losing is in their heads now and Monty Williams' rotations certainly aren't doing them any favors. They desperately need a win, both to stave off ignominy and to just prove to themselves that they can.

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