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Toronto Raptors

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto Raptors continue their surge towards the top

It's now December, the point of the season when teams have started to figure out rotations and identities.

Early surprises and disappointments have been given enough time to reveal whether they have true staying power or merely served as momentary mirages and blips on the proverbial radar that is the 2019-20 NBA regular season.

With one month left until the calendar flips to 2020, here are the biggest storylines to watch for each team in December as we put a bow on 2019.

10. Philadelphia 76ers

Last week's ranking: 5th

Record: 14-6

Last week: 3-1 (lost at Raptors, won vs Kings, won vs Knicks, won vs Pacers)

This week: vs Jazz, at Wizards, vs Cavaliers

Late-game execution.

It's a topic that feels like a broken record when talking Sixers and yet here we are a quarter of the way through the season and the 76ers rank just 27th in fourth-quarter offensive efficiency.

There's a reason that December is so crucial for uncovering whether or not this is an Achilles heel that the 76ers need to address within the season. Circle December 15 on your calendars - the date when players who signed as free agents this past summer become trade eligible. If there's a fundamental flaw with Philadelphia's roster construction, this is the month where it can begin to kick the tires on addressing any perceived shortcomings for a team many expected to contend for a championship this season.

9. Houston Rockets

Last week's ranking: 11th

Record: 13-6

Last week: 2-0 (won vs Heat, won vs Hawks)

This week: at Spurs, at Raptors, Suns

The uncertainty of Russell Westbrook.

A quarter of the way into the season and it's still unclear just how Westbrook fits in next to James Harden. There's an argument to be made that it's a pairing which can't be judged until the playoffs when Westbrook's ability to take the pressure off of Harden becomes a much larger necessity, especially as Harden begins to see more double and triple-teaming designed to take the ball out of his hands.

MORE: Harden erupts for 60 in demolition of Hawks

And yet... here's something worth monitoring.

So far this season, the Rockets are outscoring teams by 10.1 points per 100 possessions whenever they've shared the floor. Whenever Harden plays without Westbrook, that number actually jumps to +12.5.

But what about when Westbrook runs the show without Harden? In 156 minutes, Houston has been pummeled, getting outscored by 13.0 points per 100.

If Westbrook is A) not making lineups with Harden better or B) not keeping the Rockets competitive whenever Harden needs a breather, then that's a potential cause for concern.

8. Miami Heat

Last week's ranking: 9th

Record: 14-5

Last week: 3-1 (won vs Hornets, lost at Rockets, won vs Warriors, won at Nets)

This week: at Raptors, at Celtics, Wizards, Bulls

Contender or pretender?

Miami has a gaudy record in a way, last week serve as the perfect snapshot for its season thus far. Three wins against middling competition and a nine-point loss to the Rockets that was not as close as the final score might suggest.

So far this season, the Heat are 11-0 against teams currently under .500 and just 3-5 against teams with winning records.

There are plenty of tests in December including road games this week in Toronto and Boston. Also on the slate in December: a back-to-back against the Lakers and Mavericks, at the 76ers, home vs the Jazz and a back-to-back against the Pacers and 76ers.

We'll know far more about Miami's viability as a true contender after this month.

7. Denver Nuggets

Last week's ranking: 4th

Record: 13-4

Last week: 2-1 (won vs Suns, won vs Wizards, lost at Kings)

This week: Lakers, at Knicks, at Celtics, at Nets

Is Denver's D legit?

As it stands right now, the Denver Nuggets have the NBA's best defence.

That's right, a team anchored by Nikola Jokic is allowing just 101.9 points per 100 possessions. And they've even been a hair better with him on the floor than with him off the floor, surely a positive sign given the perceived weakness of their franchise center.

It's a testament to the steady progress made over the years after Denver finished 29th in 2016-17, 23rd in 2017-18 and 10th last season before this early rise to the top over the first six weeks of the season.

6. Dallas Mavericks

Last week's ranking: 5th

Record: 13-6

Last week: 3-1 (won at Rockets, lost vs Clippers, won at Suns, won at Lakers)

This week: at Pelicans, Timberwolves, Pelicans, Kings

Can the Mavs get Kristaps Porzingis going?

I think it's fair to say that Luka Doncic is no fluke and that he's here to stay as a legitimate MVP contender. After statement wins over the Rockets and Lakers, it's impossible to chalk up his early success as a product of feasting on lesser competition.

MORE: LeBron has plenty to say about Luka

For Doncic to stay in the actual MVP conversation, the Mavericks need to win at a high clip especially if the Bucks (RE: Giannis Antetokounmpo) and Lakers (RE: LeBron James) keep pumping out double-digit win streaks.

And for that to happen, they need to get Porzingis going. He's scored 25 or more points just twice and still has a penchant for drifting, such as the poor showing last week in Phoenix in which he went 0-8 from the field in 34 minutes with all eight attempts coming outside of the paint.

Porzingis has the potential to be a devastating partner in crime for Doncic.

5. Boston Celtics

Last week's ranking: 7th

Record: 14-5

Last week: 3-1 (won vs Kings, won vs Nets, lost at Nets, won at Knicks)

This week: Heat, Nuggets

Welcome back, Gordon Hayward... well, almost!

Though he hasn't played since November 9, Hayward is progressing nicely and is expected to return within his original four-to-six week recovery timeline.

Prior to sustaining an injury to his non-shooting hand, the 29-year-old forward was enjoying his best season since 2016-17 with the Utah Jazz when he made his first and only All-Star appearance. He should help bolster an offence that ranks 12th since that game on November 9 in which he was got hurt and played just 15 minutes.

4. LA Clippers

Last week's ranking: 3rd

Record: 15-6

Last week: 3-1 (won at Mavericks, won at Grizzlies, lost at Spurs, won vs Wizards)

This week: Trail Blazers, at Bucks, at Wizards

Four "circle this date" games:'

  • December 6 at Milwaukee
  • December 11 at Toronto
  • December 19 vs Houston
  • Christmas rematch against the Lakers

The Clippers might not be first in the Power Rankings and it's in large part because they've rarely been at full strength. When push comes to shove, there's a reason the Clippers have the best odds to win the NBA title and it's because when at full strength, they will be a handful for anyone.

MORE: Updated odds to win 2020 NBA title

Their best five players are likely starters Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley along with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. That's a group that's played just 22 minutes together so far this season, but the one most likely to see the floor when it matters the most.

Those four "circle the date" games provide an opportunity for the Clippers to stake their claim that they are in fact THE team to beat regardless of overall record or final seeding.

3. Toronto Raptors

Last week's ranking: 8th

Record: 15-4

Last week: 4-0 (won vs 76ers, won vs Knicks, won at Magic, won vs Jazz)

This week: Heat, Rockets, at 76ers

Return of Kyle Lowry.

The defending champs haven't skipped a beat during the absence of Lowry who was in the midst of a career year prior to sustaining a fractured thumb against the Pelicans back on November 8. Prior to that game in New Orleans, Lowry was averaging 24.0 points per game on 48 percent shooting, both of which would have been the best of his career.

MORE: Should Fred VanVleet make the All-Star team?

With Lowry out, Fred VanVleet has done far more than simply fill in as was evident in Sunday's win over the Jazz in which he finished with 21 points, 11 assists and no turnovers while outplaying both Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley. Given the play of VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, Lowry's return means the Raptors could move forward with a trio of potential 2020 All-Stars.

And yes, that's a conversation VanVleet belongs in given he leads the NBA in minutes per game and is averaging over 18 points and 7 assists per game on a team on pace to win 60+ games.

2. LA Lakers

Last week's ranking: 1st

Record: 17-3

Last week: 3-1 (won at Spurs, won at Pelicans, won vs Wizards, lost vs Mavericks)

This week: at Nuggets, at Jazz, at Blazers, Timberwolves

Can the Lakers build a much-needed cushion?

It's hard to imagine a much better start for the Lakers who at 17-3 are off to the second-best start in franchise history trailing only the 1985-86 Lakers who started 18-2.

Coming up in December is a stretch in which they play eight of nine games on the road, the last of which is at Milwaukee. So far the Lakers have taken advantage of a relatively soft early schedule, crucial given the importance of keeping LeBron James and Anthony Davis healthy. If the Lakers can navigate that road-heavy stretch, there's a chance that even in the hyper-competitive West they'll be able to build up a large enough cushion that can ease off the gas pedal and place an emphasis on health ahead of what's expected to be an extended postseason push.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

Last week's ranking: 2nd

Record: 17-3

Last week: 4-0 (won vs Jazz, won vs Hawks, won at Cavaliers, won vs Hornets)

This week: Knicks, at Pistons, Clippers

Will the Bucks run away with the East?

They've already racked up 11 wins in a row to vault into the top spot and at 17-3, are on pace to make a run at 70 wins.

The scariest part? They have one of the NBA's easiest remaining schedules.

Of their 15 games in December, just five of them are against teams at or above .500 with four of them at home where the Bucks are 8-1. If Milwaukee gets through December relatively unscathed, there's a decent chance that by the end of the month the chatter about 70 wins will start to pick up.

Rest of the NBA

11. Indiana Pacers

I'll be honest... the game between the Pacers and 76ers over the weekend was a "winner gets the final top 10 spot" game. But given the focus on December storylines, we can't gloss over the team that might get a bigger boost than anyone in the next few weeks. All-Star Victor Oladipo has practiced on-and-off with Indiana's G-League team and appears on schedule for the projected December-to-January timeline. That the Pacers have been able to tread water and then some without Oladipo speaks volumes to their resiliency and brings them into the fold as an Eastern Conference spoiler to watch moving forward.

12. Utah Jazz

13. Minnesota Timberwolves

14. Brooklyn Nets

15. Portland Trail Blazers

Don't look now, but here come Carmelo Anthony's Blazers! OK so maybe it's not his team but there's no denying that after a questionable start, Anthony has provided a much-needed boost in Portland. They are leaning into his role as a power forward with the emphasis on power given that he currently ranks fourth in post-ups per game behind only Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis and LaMarcus Aldridge. Is it sustainable? We'll find out this month.

16. Phoenix Suns

17. Oklahoma City Thunder

18. Orlando Magic

19. Charlotte Hornets

20. Sacramento Kings

21. Detroit Pistons

22. San Antonio Spurs

23. Washington Wizards

24. Memphis Grizzlies

25. New Orleans Pelicans

Is there a more anticipated storyline in all of December than the debut of Zion Williamson? There's still no date, but the Pelicans have indicated that Williamson is on schedule with his rehab and original timeline of six to eight weeks which would have him set to return sometime in mid-December. Williamson's return can't come soon enough for a Pelicans squad that dropped five straight.

26. Cleveland Cavaliers

27. Chicago Bulls

28. Golden State Warriors

29. New York Knicks

30. Atlanta Hawks

From 19th to the cellar. Ouch.

Top-20 treatment last week was a result of perhaps giving the Hawks the benefit of the doubt and trusting that the young potential and talent would ultimately overcome their funk. That umm... hasn't been the case. The Hawks had a miserable week, going 0-4 while losing by an average of 17.3 points per game and have now lost 10 straight games with their last win coming all the way back to November 12.

Help is on the way in the form of John Collins who will return in December. But while missing Collins has certainly hurt, it's been the defensive end which has sounded most of the alarms as the Hawks have now given up 150 points twice and rank 29th in scoring defence.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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