NBA Power Rankings Update: Fresh Faces

Behind Rudy Gobert and the NBA's best defense, the Utah Jazz are one of a handful of up-and-coming teams climbing the standings.

Don't look now, but some of the NBA's worst teams over the past few seasons have started showing signs of life.

Teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz have loaded up on talent, but not until recently have they seemed to have turned the corner and started looking like winning teams.

Other young squads have shown much improvement this year, too. The Los Angeles Lakers have 15 wins halfway through the season after totaling just 18 victories last year. Even the lowly Philadelphia 76ers are one of the Association's hottest teams, winning five of their last six games.

This week, we will take a closer look at five of the most notable teams over the past few weeks in the NBA.

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. Brooklyn Nets (nERD: 23.7, Record: 8-31, Last Week: 29)
29. Philadelphia 76ers (nERD: 28.0, Record: 12-25, Last Week: 30)

After years of residing in the basement, the 76ers have started to show signs of life recently. Just 15 days ago, Philly was 7-24, the worst record in the NBA. The whole team was a mess as they owned the worst net rating (-8.0) in the Association. After an embarrassing collapse on December 29th to the Utah Jazz, when they were outscored 30-9 in the fourth quarter, something clicked with the young squad.

The following night, they went on the road against the Denver Nuggets and scored a season-high 124 points and have been on a roll ever since. In their last six games, the 76ers are 5-1 as they have climbed out of the cellar and are on pace for their best season in four years. While the offense has improved a bit -- 104.5 points per game and a 102.5 offensive rating -- the real key has been their defense.

In their last five games, they have held four of their opponents to 97 or fewer points. Interestingly, since the start of the new year, the 76ers own the best defensive rating in the NBA at 95.9. The decision to bench Jahlil Okafor -- four straight DNPs -- has paid dividends down low as their rebounding percentage has gone up while they have given up the least amount of points in the paint (32.0) of any team in the NBA.

28. Los Angeles Lakers (nERD: 30.9, Record: 15-28, Last Week: 28)
27. Dallas Mavericks (nERD: 33.0, Record: 12-27, Last Week: 27)
26. Phoenix Suns (nERD: 35.0, Record: 12-27, Last Week: 26)
25. Orlando Magic (nERD: 37.7, Record: 17-24, Last Week: 25)
24. Sacramento Kings (nERD: 39.2, Record: 16-23, Last Week: 23)
23. Denver Nuggets (nERD: 40.8, Record: 15-23, Last Week: 23)
22. New York Knicks (nERD: 41.0, Record: 18-22, Last Week: 22)
21. Miami Heat (nERD: 41.8, Record: 11-30, Last Week: 18)
20. Portland Trail Blazers (nERD: 44.8, Record: 18-24, Last Week: 21)
19. New Orleans Pelicans (nERD: 45.1, Record: 16-24, Last Week: 19)
18. Minnesota Timberwolves (nERD: 45.8, Record: 14-26, Last Week: 20)

Another young team that seems to have finally gotten it is the Minnesota Timberwolves, particularly over the last week. In their last three games, the Wolves are a perfect 3-0, defeating two of the higher-scoring teams in the league, the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, in the process. They have limited their last three opponents to 94.3 points per game on 42.0% shooting, both top-five marks in the league. The defensive turnaround did not just start a week ago; it stretches back a month to December 13th.

On that day, the T-Wolves stormed back from a 21-point deficit against the Chicago Bulls to win 99-94. Their defensive rating since is 103.5, fifth-best in the NBA in that span. They have allowed only 99.3 points per game -- only the San Antonio Spurs and Jazz have allowed less. No coincidence the team is 8-8 the last month.

One of the best players in the league in the last month has been 21-year-old Karl-Anthony Towns. He has 15 double-doubles in the last month, just one short of the league lead for that stretch. Over the last three contests, he has taken his game to another level. Starting with a 34-point, 11-rebound performance against the Dallas Mavericks, Towns has averaged 28.7 points, 15.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 3.0 blocks per game while shooting 67.9% from the field over the last three.

17. Washington Wizards (nERD: 46.5, Record: 19-19, Last Week: 17)
16. Indiana Pacers (nERD: 46.7, Record: 20-19, Last Week: 16)
15. Detroit Pistons (nERD: 46.8, Record: 18-24, Last Week: 13)
14. Chicago Bulls (nERD: 47.2, Record: 19-21, Last Week: 14)
13. Memphis Grizzlies (nERD: 51.1, Record: 25-17, Last Week: 12)
12. Atlanta Hawks (nERD: 51.9, Record: 22-17, Last Week: 15)

Since December 28th, no team has more wins in the NBA than the Atlanta Hawks. Winners of seven of their last eight, the Hawks have climbed from a sub-.500 record to fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Their defense in those last eight games has been at an elite level. Allowing only 97.0 points per game on 41.0% shooting, the Hawks own a 97.5 defensive rating, second-best in the league, during the last eight games.

While four of their opponents during their recent hot streak rank in the bottom 10 of points scored -- Mavericks, Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons and New Orleans Pelicans -- to the Hawks credit, they have shut all four down, allowing only 91.5 points per game to that quartet. Not all their wins have come against chaff -- on New Year's Day, coach Mike Budenholzer came out on top for the first time against his former boss, Gregg Popovich, and the Spurs.

In that game, two of the younger players on the Hawks shined. Tim Hardaway Jr., who is 24, posted a career-high 29 points while 22-year-old point guard Dennis Schroder recorded his fifth double-double of the year with 16 points and 10 assists. In the last eight games, Schroder is averaging 18.0 points and 6.1 assists per game while he owns the best defensive rating of any of Atlanta's starters.

11. Charlotte Hornets (nERD: 55.5, Record: 20-20, Last Week: 9)
10. Oklahoma City Thunder (nERD: 55.7, Record: 24-17, Last Week: 11)
9. Boston Celtics (nERD: 56.0 Record: 25-15, Last Week: 10)
8. Milwaukee Bucks (nERD: 58.8, Record: 20-18, Last Week: 8)

Winners of five of their last seven games, the Bucks are starting to make some noise in the Eastern Conference. They currently sit in fifth place and are only 1.5 games behind Atlanta for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. During their playoff appearance a couple of seasons ago, the Bucks were getting it done with defense. This time around, though, it has been their offense that is shining.

Since December 31st, Milwaukee owns the sixth-best offensive rating in the league (113.2) as they are making over 50% of their field goal attempts. They don't take a lot of threes -- only 20.2 attempts per game -- but are making them at a league-best 46.1% rate. Against the Miami Heat on Friday, they went 9 for 15 from three as they scored over 100 points for the fifth consecutive game.

The one-two scoring punch of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker -- both averaging over 22.0 points per game during the hot streak -- has keyed the offense. However, the insertion of Malcolm Brogdon into the starting lineup may be the final piece to the puzzle for coach Jason Kidd. The 24-year-old is averaging 14.4 points and 6.6 assists per game since December 31st. He also posted a triple-double and nailed the game-winning shot as the Bucks took down the Spurs, 109-107.

7. Cleveland Cavaliers (nERD: 64.1, Record: 29-10, Last Week: 5)
6. Utah Jazz (nERD: 64.6, Record: 25-16, Last Week: 7)

One of the few teams that has been slowly rising in the NBA over the past few years is the Jazz. Behind a young nucleus of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, and Rodney Hood, the Jazz have finally emerged from their cocoon and find themselves sitting fifth in the Western Conference. In their last 10 games, they are 7-3, and they are coming off what may be their most complete performance of the year in a 110-77 demolishing of the Pistons.

The offense was firing on all cylinders as Hayward, Hood, and George Hill all scored 20-plus points apiece as Utah shot 53.8% from the floor. The team sank 16 three-pointers in one of their best shooting displays of the season. The defensive wasn't half-bad either as the Pistons tied a season-low in points, making less than 40% of their shots from the field.

Tough defense has not been a stranger to the Jazz as they ranked eighth in the NBA with a 101.6 defensive rating last year. Through 41 games this season, though, the Jazz have claimed the top spot with a 100.9 mark. Leading the charge has been Gobert. He is posting career-highs with 12.2 rebounds and leads the NBA with 2.5 blocks per game and a 97.6 defensive rating.

5. Houston Rockets (nERD: 66.8, Record: 31-11, Last Week: 4)
4. Los Angeles Clippers (nERD: 67.5, Record: 27-14, Last Week: 6)
3. Toronto Raptors (nERD: 71.7, Record: 26-13, Last Week: 3)
2. San Antonio Spurs (nERD: 76.1, Record: 31-8, Last Week: 2)
1. Golden State Warriors (nERD: 81.5, Record: 34-6, Last Week: 1)