May 21, 2024

The new year is just around the corner, and a fresh start means an opportunity for teams to reset, reevaluate and hunker down for the rest of the season.

While many teams have held steady through 2023, others are desperately looking to turn things around. The Golden State Warriors have been struggling to find their footing among two Draymond Green suspensions. And the Phoenix Suns have hit yet another roadblock with Bradley Beal out for two weeks.

On the other hand, the New York Knicks have hit their stride — led by Jalen Brunson, who had a career-high 50 points and made NBA history by being the first player to go 8-for-8 on 3-pointers in a half last Friday.

Ja Morant, after serving a 25-game suspension, made his season debut against the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night. The highly anticipated return did not disappoint, as Morant hit the winning shot and led the team with 34 points and 8 assists.

When will the Detroit Pistons break their disappointing losing streak? Did the Indiana Pacers hit their stride too early? And have James Harden and the LA Clippers found the perfect formula? We’re looking forward to how things shake out the rest of the holiday season.

Note: Throughout the regular season, our panel (Kendra Andrews, Tim Bontemps, Jamal Collier, Andrew Lopez, Tim MacMahon, Dave McMenamin and Ohm Youngmisuk) is ranking all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are playing the best basketball and which teams are looking most like title contenders.

Previous rankings: Post-Finals | Nov. 1 | Nov. 8 | Nov. 15 | Nov. 22 | Nov. 29 | Dec. 6 | Dec. 13

Jump to a team:

ATL | BOS | BKN | CHA | CHI | CLE
DAL | DEN | DET | GS | HOU | IND
LAC | LAL | MEM | MIA | MIL | MIN
NO | NY | OKC | ORL | PHI | PHX
POR | SAC | SA | TOR | UTAH | WAS

1. Boston Celtics
2023-24 record: 20-6

Boston’s thrilling matchup with Golden State — an overtime loss behind some truly absurd heroics from Stephen Curry on Tuesday night — served as another reminder of why the Celtics pursued Kristaps Porzingis last summer. Porzingis, who is out because of a calf injury, was brought in to provide an alternative way to attack defenses late in games. Without him Tuesday, Boston settled for a lot of jumpers — to the tune of 41 missed 3-pointers — though many of them, especially late, were clean looks that didn’t fall. That late-game subplot will bear watching when Porzingis is back on the court. — Bontemps


2. Minnesota Timberwolves
2023-24 record: 20-5

  • Previous ranking: 2

  • Next games: @ PHI (Dec. 20), vs. LAL (Dec. 21), @ SAC (Dec. 23), @ OKC (Dec. 26)

The Timberwolves are off to the best start through 25 games in franchise history. After securing a tough road win against Miami on Monday, the Wolves’ league-leading defense will be tested again this week with a matchup against the Sixers, who rank No. 2 in offense. Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards have been a dangerous combo, with Edwards leading the team in points (24.6) and steals (1.4) and Gobert leading in rebounds (12.2) and blocks (2.4). The Wolves will lean heavily on those two when they face the Lakers, Kings, Mavericks and Thunder to round out the year. — Collier


3. Milwaukee Bucks
2023-24 record: 20-7

Don’t look now, but Damian Lillard is heating up. Lillard, who had a slow start, said he has found his groove after scoring 30 points in back-to-back games over the weekend and reached a season-high 40 points against the Spurs on Tuesday. He has led the Bucks to five straight wins in which they’ve scored at least 125 points, and since the start of December, Lillard is averaging 26.3 points and 7.7 assists on 46.3% shooting (44.3% from 3). The Bucks wrap up their homestand Thursday against the Magic before heading to New York for a weeklong stay, which includes a Christmas Day matchup with the Knicks. — Collier


4. Philadelphia 76ers
2023-24 record: 18-8

Yes, Philadelphia saw its winning streak snapped at home Monday by the Chicago Bulls, but that doesn’t negate Joel Embiid’s absurd month. The reigning MVP is averaging 40 points, 13 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2 blocks per game in December, while shooting a ridiculous 60/39/92 from the field. He and the Sixers will be tested, though, and soon, beginning with a showdown with the West-leading Timberwolves on Wednesday and a Christmas Day matchup with Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat. — Bontemps


5. Denver Nuggets
2023-24 record: 18-10

  • Previous ranking: 6

  • Next games: @ TOR (Dec. 20), @ BKN (Dec. 22), @ CHA (Dec. 23), vs. GS (Dec. 25)

Nikola Jokic had a rare triple-single of eight points, nine rebounds and seven assists, but it could not have been more welcomed. Jokic and the starters sat the entire fourth quarter as the Nuggets routed the Mavs 130-104 on Monday. Denver has won four of its past five, and the health of its starting unit — Jamal Murray (hamstring and ankle) is finally back — is a big reason. Head coach Michael Malone has been searching for a consistent bench rotation to give his starters some rest, so he must have been encouraged to see four reserves scoring in double figures Monday. Denver’s next three games are on the road — and against sub-.500 teams — but the Nuggets are just 7-8 away from Ball Arena. — Youngmisuk


6. Oklahoma City Thunder
2023-24 record: 17-8

Rookie of the Year candidate Chet Holmgren, the anchor of the league’s sixth-ranked defense, has been on a remarkable run as a rim protector and ranks third in the league with 2.8 blocks per game. Holmgren has multiple blocks in all seven of the Thunder’s games this month. That includes eight- and seven-block outings in the Thunder’s past two games, making him the first rookie with at least seven blocks in consecutive games since Tim Duncan in 1997-98. — MacMahon


7. LA Clippers
2023-24 record: 16-10

  • Previous ranking: 13

  • Next games: @ DAL (Dec. 20), @ OKC (Dec. 21), vs. BOS (Dec. 23), vs. CHA (Dec. 26)

Paul George said it would take time for him, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and Russell Westbrook to “find the new you” in the Clippers’ revamped offense after the Harden trade. And since losing six straight shortly after the trade, it’s safe to say the Clippers have discovered their new identity. They’re the hottest team in basketball, on an eight-game winning streak and winners of 13 of 16 since the slide. The Clippers’ streak will be tested with a back-to-back at Dallas and Oklahoma City before returning home to host the Celtics. — Youngmisuk


8. Sacramento Kings
2023-24 record: 16-9

  • Previous ranking: 11

  • Next games: vs. BOS (Dec. 20), vs. PHX (Dec. 22), vs. MIN (Dec. 23), @ POR (Dec. 26)

Keegan Murray has come into his own this season. During his rookie campaign a season ago, he showed the potential, but this year he’s realizing it. He hit 12 3-pointers — a franchise record — against the Jazz on Saturday, and while he struggled with his shot early in the season, he excelled in every other area of his game. The Kings currently rank 14th on offense. With Murray’s shooting, assuming he maintains it, in combination with De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento could reach the offensive standards it set last season, when it had the league-best unit. — Andrews


9. Dallas Mavericks
2023-24 record: 16-10

  • Previous ranking: 10

  • Next games: vs. LAC (Dec. 20), @ HOU (Dec. 22), vs. SA (Dec. 23), @ PHX (Dec. 25)

Luka Doncic might be playing the best basketball of his career at a time the injury-ravaged Mavericks desperately need him. He has broken his own franchise record by scoring at least 30 points in 11 consecutive games. He averaged 35.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 10.4 assists in 39.5 minutes per game during that stretch, carrying a massive burden with several key Mavs dealing with injuries, including the right heel contusion that has sidelined co-star Kyrie Irving since Dec. 8. One member of the supporting cast who has stepped up: Dante Exum, who has averaged 16.1 points and 4.6 assists as a starter over the past seven games to help Dallas go 5-2. — MacMahon


10. Orlando Magic
2023-24 record: 16-9

  • Previous ranking: 7

  • Next games: vs. MIA (Dec. 20), @ MIL (Dec. 21), @ IND (Dec. 23), @ WAS (Dec. 26)

One reason the Magic have found success this season: the development of Jalen Suggs. During his first two seasons, the 2021 first-round pick struggled, shooting a combined 38.7% from the field and 27.1% from 3, including a 21.4% mark from deep on 4.1 attempts per game his rookie season. Now, Suggs is averaging 12.5 points while shooting 46.7% overall and 38.2% from 3 on 4.4 attempts per night. Suggs is also tied for third in the league in steals per game (1.7) and has been a big part of the reason the Magic’s defense ranks in the top five this season. — Lopez


11. New Orleans Pelicans
2023-24 record: 16-12

While the Pelicans’ big three of Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum have played big roles in New Orleans getting back on track after its in-season tournament semifinal disappointment, center Jonas Valanciunas averaged 19.2 points and 14.6 rebounds over the past five games, shooting 63.2%. New Orleans is 10-5 this season when Valanciunas has a double-double. With those four healthy, the Pelicans, seventh in the West, could begin an expeditious climb as they close out the year with a set of road games. — Lopez


12. New York Knicks
2023-24 record: 15-11

The loss of Mitchell Robinson (left ankle) hurts the Knicks, but Isaiah Hartenstein stepped in to show why he’s considered one of the NBA’s best backup centers with a tremendous performance Monday in Los Angeles against Anthony Davis and the Lakers, grabbing 17 rebounds in 39 minutes. With Jericho Sims now also injured for New York, Hartenstein’s role will only grow in importance as the Knicks try to stay in the mix in the ultra-competitive East playoff picture. — Bontemps


13. Los Angeles Lakers
2023-24 record: 15-12

  • Previous ranking: 8

  • Next games: @ CHI (Dec. 20), @ MIN (Dec. 21), @ OKC (Dec. 23), vs. BOS (Dec. 25)

“We want to finish out December the right way,” LeBron James said after a loss to New York on Monday that dropped the Lakers to 1-3 since their in-season tourney title. Easier said than done. Five of the Lakers’ seven games left in 2023 are on the road, and their opponents this month have a combined record of 91-64 (.587). And two of those away games are against the Timberwolves, the No. 1 team in the West. — McMenamin


14. Miami Heat
2023-24 record: 15-12

While Monday’s four-point loss to the Timberwolves wasn’t the result the Heat were looking for, the game held a much larger meaning: It marked the return of a healthy Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro. Adebayo had missed seven games because of a left hip contusion, while Herro hadn’t played since Nov. 8 because of a right ankle sprain. In their absence, Jimmy Butler led the team in scoring, averaging 21.5 points per game. With those three healthy, this team will have a chance to make a strong push in the Eastern Conference standings. — Lopez


15. Phoenix Suns
2023-24 record: 14-13

Not since James Harden teamed up with Mike D’Antoni has the sport seen a transformation from scorer to playmaker quite so rapid as what’s happening with Devin Booker and Frank Vogel. Booker’s eight assists in a win over Washington on Sunday marked the ninth time he has had eight or more assists in 17 games this season. With Bradley Beal out at least two weeks because of a right ankle sprain, Booker will bear even more responsibility again. He’s currently tied for second in the league in points per game (28.1) and tied for first in assists (8.3). — McMenamin


16. Houston Rockets
2023-24 record: 13-11

  • Previous ranking: 19

  • Next games : vs. ATL (Dec. 20), vs. DAL (Dec. 22), @ NO (Dec. 23), vs. IND (Dec. 26)

The Rockets have gone from one of the league’s worst defenses to one of the best. Houston ranks third in the league in defensive efficiency (109.4) after ranking 29th (118.6) last season. Coach Ime Udoka and small forward Dillon Brooks, the All-Defensive selection signed in free agency, get much of the credit. A significant share should also go to reserve forward Tari Eason, who leads the team in blocks per game (1.0). The Rockets allow only 97.3 points per 100 possessions with Eason on the floor, compared to 113.3 without him. — MacMahon


17. Indiana Pacers
2023-24 record: 13-12

  • Previous ranking: 9

  • Next games: vs. CHA (Dec. 20), @ MEM (Dec. 21), vs. ORL (Dec. 23), @ HOU (Dec. 26)

The Pacers have dropped four consecutive games and are in danger of falling below .500 despite having the best offense in the NBA at 121.9 points per 100 possessions. It seems the Pacers’ defensive woes are starting to catch up with them. The Pacers are tied at the bottom of the NBA in defense, giving up 121.4 points per 100 possessions. They lost Monday for the fifth time in a game in which they scored more than 125 points — tied with the Wizards for most in the league. — Collier


18. Cleveland Cavaliers
2023-24 record: 15-12

The Cavs’ starting lineup received a crushing 1-2 punch last week. Point guard Darius Garland will be out at least a month after fracturing his jaw during a collision with Boston center Kristaps Porzingis, and big man Evan Mobley will be sidelined six to eight weeks after undergoing surgery on his left knee. Cleveland responded, though, with two straight wins against Atlanta and Houston. But the Ewing Theory was supposed to cover only one marquee absence. It wasn’t called the Ewing and Starks Theory. — McMenamin


19. Golden State Warriors
2023-24 record: 13-14

For nearly a decade, the Warriors have relied on their stable veteran core, full of future Hall of Famers, to navigate their way out of a funk. Right now, they’re leaning on a group of players in their early 20s: Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and Trayce Jackson-Davis. That they’re doing so raises some questions about how successful this team can be when Draymond Green is repeatedly getting suspended, Andrew Wiggins is relegated to the bench and Kevon Looney has been a nonfactor. Klay Thompson seems to be returning to form, but each of the Warriors’ past 13 games has been determined by single digits — they’ve played a league-high 23 clutch time games — and they can’t seem to hold a lead. — Andrews


20. Brooklyn Nets
2023-24 record: 13-13

  • Previous ranking: 18

  • Next games: vs. NY (Dec. 20), vs. DEN (Dec. 22), vs. DET (Dec. 23), @ DET (Dec. 26)

Brooklyn returns to New York to face its crosstown rival Wednesday sitting at .500 on the season. The Nets are still waiting for Ben Simmons to get back on the court, and it remains unclear whether there is more upside for this group than what it has already shown. Brooklyn is slightly above average offensively (11th), slightly below average defensively (21st) and still figuring out what it has in Cam Thomas, who leads the team in scoring (24 points per game). The Nets’ hope will be that Simmons can return, that Nic Claxton can stay on the court and that their defensive rating can jump, landing them in the top six in the East. — Bontemps


21. Atlanta Hawks
2023-24 record: 11-15

  • Previous ranking: 21

  • Next games: @ HOU (Dec. 20), @ MIA (Dec. 22), vs. MEM (Dec. 23), @ CHI (Dec. 26)

Atlanta snapped a five-game losing streak with a win at Toronto on Friday only to drop a game at Cleveland the next night. In a 130-124 win against the Pistons on Monday, the Hawks allowed Detroit to score a season-high 124 points. It was the 15th time this season the Hawks’ 27th-ranked defense allowed at least 120 points, the fifth most in the NBA. But Atlanta’s fourth-ranked offense has bailed it out in multiple instances — the Hawks have five wins when allowing 120 or more points, and only Milwaukee (nine), Indiana (six) and Sacramento (six) have more. — Lopez


22. Toronto Raptors
2023-24 record: 11-15

Toronto remains tied with Atlanta for the final play-in spot in the Eastern Conference but is in danger of losing sight of the teams above it. Games against the defending champion Nuggets and red-hot 76ers this week won’t help matters, but a soft schedule after, featuring games against Utah, Washington and Detroit, should give the Raptors a chance to at least maintain their position heading into the new year — if they can take advantage. — Bontemps


23. Chicago Bulls
2023-24 record: 11-17

  • Previous ranking: 22

  • Next games: vs. LAL (Dec. 20), vs. SA (Dec. 21), vs. CLE (Dec. 23), vs. ATL (Dec. 26)

Chicago finished a tough road trip in Miami and Philadelphia 2-1 and has won six of its past nine games despite playing without guard Zach LaVine, who has been sidelined by left foot inflammation. A big reason? Coby White, who is averaging 25.4 points on 49.7% shooting (48% from 3 on 9.4 attempts) during that span, leading the Bulls to a 12th-ranked offense and an average of 119.1 points per 100 possessions. — Collier


24. Utah Jazz
2023-24 record: 10-17

  • Previous ranking: 25

  • Next games: @ CLE (Dec. 20), @ DET (Dec. 21), @ TOR (Dec. 23), @ SA (Dec. 26)

Guard Collin Sexton, who is among the Jazz players who could generate significant interest leading up to the February trade deadline, has scored at least 20 points in five straight games. He has averaged 25.6 points and 4.0 assists while shooting 53% from the floor during that stretch. That includes Sexton’s first four starts of the season with Jordan Clarkson (hamstring) and Keyonte George (foot) sidelined. Sexton has taken advantage of his opportunities, scoring at least 26 points in each of those starts, helping the Jazz win three of their past four games. — MacMahon


25. Charlotte Hornets
2023-24 record: 7-18

As if the Hornets could afford to lose any more players, Miles Bridges was denied entrance into Canada because of his past legal issues as the team traveled to Toronto on Monday. With the Hornets already without LaMelo Ball (ankle) and Mark Williams (back), Gordon Hayward was also out because of illness. One positive: more opportunities for Charlotte’s No. 2 overall pick, Brandon Miller, who has scored in double figures in 11 straight games and is averaging 14.8 points and 37.8% shooting from 3 in 32.2 minutes per game. The continued development of Miller will be imperative for the Hornets as they wait for Ball to return. — Youngmisuk


26. Memphis Grizzlies
2023-24 record: 7-19

The Grizzlies are hopeful that Marcus Smart, who has been out since Nov. 14 because of a sprained left foot, will be ready to return this week. When he does, Memphis will likely start three guards, with Smart joining Ja Morant and Desmond Bane in the lineup, but the Grizzlies have struggled to find a starting small forward since Dillon Brooks’ free agency departure. Vince Williams Jr. has been the best option so far, outplaying recent first-round picks Ziaire Williams, David Roddy and Jake LaRavia. Morants highly anticipated season debut was highlighted by a winning shot over the Pelicans. He was 12-for-24 and finished with 34 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists. — MacMahon


27. Portland Trail Blazers
2023-24 record: 7-19

The Blazers are finally healthy, but they’ve still lost seven games in a row, the second-longest active losing streak in the league (sorry, Pistons). And they’ve been haunted by their defense, which has dropped from No. 10 to No. 19 since November. The silver lining? Their offense has started to improve. Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons are both averaging over 20 points per game, and Scoot Henderson had a career-high 23 points against Utah last week. — Andrews


28. San Antonio Spurs
2023-24 record: 4-22

Victor Wembanyama’s move to the center spot in the starting lineup has opened space for the Spurs’ offense — and even more eyes. In five starts at center, Wembanyama, who missed Tuesday’s game at Milwaukee because of right ankle soreness, is averaging 19.2 points, 15.8 rebounds, 4.2 blocks and 3.6 assists while shooting 45.1% overall and 34.8% from 3 — all improvements from his first 19 games when he started at power forward. — Lopez


29. Washington Wizards
2023-24 record: 4-22

Jordan Poole has created several viral moments this season, and it’s not even 2024 yet. But the Wizards shooting guard might be turning the corner as he nears his much-anticipated return to Golden State on Friday. Poole had two of his better shooting nights over the past three games, making 12 of 18 shots and scoring 30 points to go with eight assists in a win over Indiana and shooting 10-of-18, including eight 3-pointers, for 28 points in a loss at Sacramento. While he did have a 5-for-17 night in the middle of those two games, Poole has a chance to build some momentum going into Christmas, especially with all eyes on him in his return to San Francisco. — Youngmisuk


30. Detroit Pistons
2023-24 record: 2-25

Detroit can’t seem to stop the bleeding. Most recently topped by a loss to the Hawks on Monday, the Pistons’ losing streak is now at 24 games despite a career-high 43 points from Cade Cunningham. The Sixers hold the record for most consecutive losses in a single season (26) and longest losing streak overall (28), and the Pistons are well within reach of both. — Collier

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