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Mid-December NBA Power Rankings

Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire

We’re already somewhere around 30 percent done with the NBA regular season, which means taking stock of the league in our power rankings  is a lot easier than it was last month at this time.

So let’s take a look at how the 30 teams compare to each other at the moment. As you read, remember that my power rankings combine three different components: overall quality of play, recent quality of play and my personal expectations of where the team will end up.

1. San Antonio Spurs (21-5, No. 2 in Western Conference)

November ranking: 2

This pick isn’t as absurd as it might seem on the surface, especially since recent performance does carry quite a bit of weight here. And there’s basically nothing to criticize about what San Antonio has done as of late.

The Spurs may not pull out close games quite as well as the Golden State Warriors, plus their schedule has been easy, but they’ve been super dominant since the beginning of December, even taking the lead in point differential. Since the beginning of the month, they’ve accumulated an insane plus-24.8 net rating, compared to just plus-8.9 for Golden State.

And here’s a fun stat, courtesy of ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh:

Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and now LaMarcus Aldridge are playing at a super high level. Watch out.

2. Golden State Warriors (24-1, No. 1 in Western Conference)

November ranking: 1

Golden State has done a fantastic job in the past month (duh), losing only one game. And it happened to be on the final leg of a seven-game road trip, so we won’t penalize them too much for that.

But it is clear that some dents and dings to Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson have at least slightly hurt the team, even if Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are still the most important pieces. Earlier in the season, the Warriors frequently jumped out to huge leads by the beginning of the fourth quarter and then cruised to easy double-digit victories.

I’m nitpicking here, but recent contests have required more effort.

Unlike San Antonio, Golden State hasn’t put together many complete games as of late. If the Spurs and Warriors met in the playoffs both fully healthy, I would give the slight edge to the Warriors. However, the purpose of power rankings is to combine recent events with the big picture, and the Spurs have been just too good recently.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder (16-8, No. 3 in Western Conference)

November ranking: 8

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook might be the most devastating offensive duo in NBA history. Seriously, check their stats.

But it’s been the Thunder’s team defense that has made the difference in their current five-game winning streak. Opponents haven’t cracked triple digits in any of those contests or the loss that directly preceded it.

If one of OKC’s shooting guards gets going offensively, this team can enter the truly elite tier of the league only occupied by the Spurs and Warriors at the moment.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers (15-7, No. 1 in Eastern Conference)

November ranking: 3

Iman Shumpert is back! Cleveland’s eventual starting shooting guard played 25 minutes and scored 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting in his season debut, a blowout win over the Orlando Magic.

Now, we’re only days away from the return of Kyrie Irving. The Cavs are being cautious with their star point guard, as he’s had countless injury troubles in his career.

In the meantime, Cleveland is taking care of business. LeBron James is having a bounce-back season efficiency- and defense-wise, and Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Mo Williams and Matthew Dellavedova are providing enough help to keep the defending conference champs atop the East.

5. Toronto Raptors (16-10, No. 3 in Eastern Conference)

November ranking: 10

Uhh…will a fifth contender please step up?

Toronto, short two starters at the moment (DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas), is the next-best thing. Kyle Lowry is the darkhorse MVP candidate everybody is mysteriously overlooking, and DeMar DeRozan has been more efficient than usual.

But the fifth-best team in the NBA had an ugly loss in its last contest.

It just goes to show how interesting the race for No. 2 in the East will be, as well as how crowded the NBA’s middle class is.

6. Boston Celtics (14-10, No. 7 in Eastern Conference)

November ranking: 9

The Celtics have won five of their last seven games. The two losses were to the Spurs and Warriors, and they were only by a combined eight points.

So basically, Boston is on a seven-game winning streak.

Other than that, there’s nothing new — the Celtics have a bunch of solid players, Isaiah Thomas is scoring at an excellent clip and Brad Stevens is a genius.

7. Los Angeles Clippers (15-10, No. 4 in Western Conference)

November ranking: 7

The Clippers are the team everybody loves to hate, because of the personalities on their team and their propensity to choke in big moments.

Many were happy when they started 6-7, but an 8-2 surge has quieted their critics. It hasn’t been a dominant stretch by any means, but Los Angeles is playing defense closer to the way it should, considering its personnel. If Chris Paul kicks into high gear and the bench finds a way to work together (which won’t be easy), Los Angeles will be right there as a title contender at the end of the season.

8. Indiana Pacers (14-9, No. 5 in Eastern Conference)

November ranking: 13

The Pacers, who gave Toronto the aforementioned beatdown after falling behind by 21, are just extremely inconsistent. At the beginning of the month, they had three consecutive games allowing at least 122 points. Since then, their opponents have scored 83, 118 and 90, respectively.

On offense, Indiana needs more out of its starting backcourt. The Pacers are 4.0 points per 100 possessions better with George Hill on the bench and Monta Ellis has negative offensive win shares thus far.

Paul George has also been in a slump the past three games, so any extra offensive help would be welcomed.

9. Miami Heat (14-10, No. 7 in Eastern Conference)

November ranking: 4

I’m not 100 percent positive what it is, but there’s still something holding the Heat back from becoming the team it should be, based on all the very good players they have. Some possible explanations are poor shooting from the three-point line (31.5 percent for the team) and a lack of offensive chemistry (19.7 assists per game)

Then there’s this weird Hassan Whiteside stat: despite the fact that Whiteside is leading the NBA in blocks per game (4.0) and defensive rating (89.3), the Heat’s defense is 10.3 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the bench.

Wait, what?

10. Chicago Bulls (14-8, No. 2 in Eastern Conference)

November ranking: 5

Ah, the Bulls. At least some point every season, they lull us into the belief that they are a serious threat to win the East. And every year, injuries and inconsistency plague the team.

Chicago is No. 2 in its conference right now, but only sports a plus-1.4 point differential. One of the biggest issues with them is that Jimmy Butler is the team’s only legitimate two-way player. Until that changes (whether through a transaction or internal improvement), I really don’t see the Bulls as a threat to the Cavs in the East.

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