NBA Power Rankings Update: Rocketing Up

Houston has won eight straight games and now sits third in the Western Conference. How high have they climbed in our rankings?

Over the past two weeks, the Houston Rockets have been perfect. Starting with their thrilling, electrifying, sensational double-OT victory over the Golden State Warriors on December 1, they're the only team in the NBA to have not lost a game.

After finishing the 2015-16 season 41-41 and clinging on to the eight-seed in the Western Conference, James Harden and Co. find themselves tied for third and becoming a real threat to wreck the status quo and break up the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs stranglehold on the top two spots.

For this edition of the Power Rankings Update, we are going to take a closer look at the Rockets and three other teams who have been surging up the standings and one that has been falling fast this month.

Our power rankings here at numberFire are not subjective or influenced by the latest hype; we put our faith and trust in our algorithms. Each week, we’ll list all 30 teams in the Association from worst to best based on our nERD metric, which is a predictive measure to help define what the team's winning percentage ultimately will be.

30. Philadelphia 76ers (nERD: 23.0, Record: 6-19, Last Week: 30)
29. Brooklyn Nets (nERD: 24.6, Record: 7-17, Last Week: 29)
28. Los Angeles Lakers (nERD: 26.3, Record: 10-18, Last Week: 27)

After being one of the NBA's most pleasant surprises, the Los Angeles Lakers have fallen back down to Earth, losing eight straight. During their losing streak, they are allowing 114.6 points per game and own a 115.5 defensive rating.

They have also been thoroughly embarrassed, losing to the Sacramento Kings by 24, the Toronto Raptors by 33, and gave up 134 points in a 39-point demolishing by the Rockets.

The offense has not been much better, managing to score only 97 points in a loss to the worst defense in the league, the Brooklyn Nets. In the last eight games, they have committed the third-most turnovers while dishing out the least number of assists, rank 29th in field goal shooting and offensive rating with nothing going their way recently.

Injuries have played a big part, with two of their top four leading scorers sitting on the sidelines. D'Angelo Russell missed 12 games, while Nick Young had to sit out for 7 games.

In their absence, rookie Brandon Ingram has been thrown into the starting lineup and has been abysmal. In his seven starts, the second overall pick from last June has shot 32.5 percent from the floor and owns a -18.6 net rating.

27. Dallas Mavericks (nERD: 29.1, Record: 6-19, Last Week: 28)
26. Phoenix Suns (nERD: 36.0, Record: 8-18, Last Week: 26)
25. Denver Nuggets (nERD: 37.5, Record: 10-16, Last Week: 25)
24. Orlando Magic (nERD: 38.3, Record: 11-16, Last Week: 24)
23. Washington Wizards (nERD: 40.5, Record: 10-14, Last Week: 23)
22. New Orleans Pelicans (nERD: 41.0, Record: 9-18, Last Week: 19)
21. Minnesota Timberwolves (nERD: 41.1, Record: 7-18, Last Week: 17)
20. Sacramento Kings (nERD: 41.4, Record: 9-16, Last Week: 20)
19. New York Knicks (nERD: 42.2, Record: 14-12, Last Week: 21)

For a seven-game run from November 30-December 11, the New York Knicks were playing some of the most inspired ball in the Association, winning six games and firmly planting themselves back into the playoff conversation in the Eastern Conference. Maybe it was because the attention was taken off the team and firmly directed at some ridiculous comments made by team president Phil Jackson.

Whatever the reason, the "Super Team" in New York was hitting on all cylinders.

During the 12-day stretch, they ranked in the top-10 with an average of 108.1 points per game, a nearly 5.0-point jump from what the offense had been piling up. Their rebounding improved, ranking in the top-five of both total boards (47.7 per game) and offensive rebounds (12.6).

It also didn't hurt that, aside from the Cleveland Cavaliers, their other five opponents carry a combined record of 41-85.

You can't fault the Knicks for preying on the weak. All they are doing is dealing with what the schedule presents them. Against teams with a sub-.500 record, New York is 10-2. Now if they could do something about their struggles against the league's elite, they could be a team to reckon with in the East.

They are 4-10 against teams that own a .500 or better record, but in their seven games against teams with a .600 or better winning percentage they are 1-6.

18. Indiana Pacers (nERD: 43.2, Record: 13-14, Last Week: 22)
17. Portland Trail Blazers (nERD: 45.3, Record: 13-15, Last Week: 18)
16. Atlanta Hawks (nERD: 45.9, Record: 12-13, Last Week: 16)
15. Miami Heat (nERD: 46.8, Record: 9-7, Last Week: 14)
14. Memphis Grizzlies (nERD: 48.9, Record: 18-9, Last Week: 15)

When Mike Conley went down with a back injury on November 28, the Memphis Grizzlies were probably thinking about how they'd seen this movie before. However, unlike last year -- when they went 3-14 over the final month without their point guard -- the Grizzlies have surged.

In December, Memphis is 7-1 with their lone defeat being a seven-point road loss to the Eastern Conference-leading Cavaliers. While the rest of the competition may not have been the greatest -- four games coming against teams 22nd or worse in our power rankings and a home game against the Big Three-less Cavs -- they did pull off a big win by demolishing the Warriors by 21.

How have they done it? Defense, defense, defense. In their last eight games, the Grizzlies own the best defensive rating in the NBA at 94.2.

They are stifling offenses, causing 16.3 turnovers per game and limiting them to shooting 40.4 percent from the field. They held back two of the top-four scoring teams in the league, Portland Trail Blazers (86 points) and Golden State (89 points), to over 20 points less than their season averages.

13. Oklahoma City Thunder (nERD: 50.8, Record: 15-11, Last Week: 13)
12. Milwaukee Bucks (nERD: 54.1, Record: 12-12, Last Week: 11)
11. Boston Celtics (nERD: 54.8 Record: 13-12, Last Week: 12)
10. Chicago Bulls (nERD: 55.8, Record: 13-12, Last Week: 10)
9. Detroit Pistons (nERD: 58.7, Record: 14-13, Last Week: 9)
8. Charlotte Hornets (nERD: 60.0, Record: 14-12, Last Week: 7)
7. Houston Rockets (nERD: 67.3, Record: 19-7, Last Week: 8)

During their eight-game winning streak, the Rockets have scored the most points in the Association, with an average of 120.8 points per game. While they aren't taking the most shots or playing at the fastest pace, the reason the Houston has been racking up the points is three-point shooting.

Their 39.9 long distance attempts per game in December is eight more than the second place Philadelphia 76ers. To put that into perspective, the NBA team record for most three-point attempts per game, for an entire season, is 32.7. In their classic win over the Warriors, the two teams combined for 88 attempts from three, the most ever in an NBA game.

While the offense has gotten the most attention, the Rockets' defense has tightened up the screws. For the first five weeks of the season, Houston owned the third-worst defensive rating (107.5) and were 27th with opponents owning a 52.4 percent effective field goal percentage.

Once the calendar flipped from December, it has been a different story.

Instead of being fourth-worst, they are now fourth-best with an opposing effective field goal percentage of 48.0 percent. Their defensive rating is 99.1 gives them the third-best defense in the NBA over their past eight games.

As my good buddy Brett Oswalt perfectly explained earlier this week, the return of defensive stopper Patrick Beverley has paid big dividends. Since he rejoined the lineup a month ago, the team is 13-2.

6. San Antonio Spurs (nERD: 67.4, Record: 21-5, Last Week: 6)
5. Utah Jazz (nERD: 68.9, Record: 16-10, Last Week: 4)
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (nERD: 70.6, Record: 18-6, Last Week: 5)
3. Toronto Raptors (nERD: 78.2, Record: 19-7, Last Week: 3)

Winners of 10 of their last 11 games, the Raptors have taken things to the next level in December. They started the month off with an amazing back-to-back set where they defeated the Lakers and Atlanta Hawks by a combined 77 points.

In four of seven games this month, they scored 122 or more points. While doing that, they've held opponents to 100 or less points four times, winning their six games by an average of 21.5 points.

Ranking in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating this month, the Raptors are averaging 117.6 points per game and top the NBA with a 122.3 offensive rating. Keyed by their lights out shooting, the Raps have made 49.2 percent of shots from the floor in December, including 44.2 percent from three, both tops in the NBA.

They are also leading the league with an 84.6 percent success rate from the line.

While early-season standout DeMar DeRozan has taken a step back in the field by making only 45.8 percent of his shots in December, he has been unconscious from the free-throw line lately.

A career 82.5 percent shooter entering this season, DeRozan has been the best in the NBA in the last seven games by draining 93.5 percent of his 62 attempts. That's the highest accuracy for anyone taking 50-plus shots from the charity stripe.

2. Los Angeles Clippers (nERD: 79.0, Record: 19-7, Last Week: 2)
1. Golden State Warriors (nERD: 82.0, Record: 23-4, Last Week: 1)