NBA Power Rankings Update: The Mid-Season Grind

After a sluggish start, the Rockets have been coming on as of late. How high have they climbed in our rankings?

Two weeks into 2016, the NBA season is squarely in mid-season grind mode. Each team has nearly 40 games in the books, but there is still three months left until playoff time.

Now is the time of year the coaches of the contenders start managing starters' minutes to prepare them for the postseason. The losing organizations begin the search for hidden gems on their roster. The rest of the teams are fighting night in and night out, hoping to leave themselves in better playoff positioning come April. 

In this edition of the Power Rankings, we will take a look at a few teams who are charging towards the top of the standings and a few who are battling for more ping-pong balls in the lottery.

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: 12.5, Record: 4-36, Last Week: 30)
29. Los Angeles Lakers (nERD: 21.5, Record: 9-31, Last Week: 29)
28. Brooklyn Nets (nERD: 28.8, Record: 11-28 Last Week: 28)
27. Phoenix Suns (nERD: 32.0, Record: 13-27, Last Week: 26)
26. Milwaukee Bucks (nERD: 33.6, Record: 16-25, Last Week: 27)

Last season, the Bucks shocked the world with a 26-game jump from a miserable 15-win squad, to a .500 record and 6 seed in the Eastern Conference. The fact they did it without number two overall pick Jabari Parker for the most of the year, and they added a big name free agent in Greg Monroe, had Wisconsinites salivating at the Bucks' prospects this year. Talk about a disappointment.

While Milwaukee will not finish at the bottom of the barrel, like 2013-14, for all intents and purposes they have taken a massive step back this season. A top eight defense last year, in both points allowed and Defensive Rating, the Bucks have plummeted to 23rd in points allowed and a frustrating 29th in Defensive Rating.

Never known as a defensive stalwart, Monroe had the unenviable task of replacing an underrated defensive center in Zaza Pachulia. His 106 Defensive Rating combined with Giannis Antetokounmpo's 108.3 Defensive Rating have the Bucks on pace for 32 wins and a last-place finish in the Central.

25. New Orleans Pelicans (nERD: 35.6, Record: 11-26, Last Week: 25)
24. Denver Nuggets (nERD: 35.7, Record: 15-24, Last Week: 24)
23. Minnesota Timberwolves (nERD: 37.2, Record: 12-28, Last Week: 23)

Mired in an eight-game losing streak and losers of 12 of their last 13 games, the Timberwolves' hopes for this season have gone to the wayside. Since December 1, Minnesota has the worst record in the NBA at 4-19. They rank 26th in Offensive, Defensive, and Net Rating over the past six weeks. A far cry from their promising 8-8 start to the season.

Even with the recent cold streak, Minnesota can look to the future with a smile on their face due to their youthful core. The nucleus of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are becoming a potent 1-2 punch offensively and a force for years to come.

In recent weeks, Wiggins has taken a step forward as is doing all he can to get the Timberwolves victories with an average of 26.5 points per game in his last four contests. Towns has shined recently as well. Just this week, he notched his third double-double in five games and 18th of the year with 12 points and 16 rebounds in a loss to Houston. With the pair averaging 20.1 and 16.7 points since December 1, respectively, the outlook is promising for Minnesota, even if this year is another washout.

22. Sacramento Kings (nERD: 40.4, Record: 15-23, Last Week: 21)
21. Washington Wizards (nERD: 41.6, Record: 18-19, Last Week: 22)
20. Memphis Grizzlies (nERD: 42.3, Record: 21-19, Last Week: 20)
19. Portland Trail Blazers (nERD: 43.1, Record: 17-24, Last Week: 18)
18. New York Knicks (nERD: 44.2, Record: 20-21, Last Week: 19) 
17. Utah Jazz (nERD: 45.8, Record: 17-21, Last Week: 16) 
16. Houston Rockets (nERD: 46.0, Record: 21-19, Last Week: 17)

Since firing Kevin McHale, the Rockets have gone 17-12. Not overly impressive, but what stand out is that since November 18, when McHale was let go, Houston has averaged 105.3 points per game, good for fourth in the NBA. Before that, they were residing in the middle of the pack with only 100.8 per game. With guard James Harden sitting near the top of the scoring charts, as he always does, the offense as whole finally helping their star out by living up to the promise and potential we all expected.

Projected to be fourth in the West this season, the Rockets currently sit seventh and have needed their current five-game winning streak to climb to two games over .500 for the first time this season. The catalyst for their run has been the recent revival of Dwight Howard.

Since December 30, D-12 has averaged 18.7 points and 13.2 rebounds per game while shooting 66 percent from the field. More impressive is that Howard has managed to average over 38 minutes per game too. If he can sustain his surge in performance, the Rockets will be a tough out come the postseason.

15. Orlando Magic (nERD: 48.3, Record: 20-18, Last Week: 15)
14. Dallas Mavericks (nERD: 51.7, Record: 22-18, Last Week: 14)
13. Chicago Bulls (nERD: 52.0, Record: 22-15, Last Week: 12)
12. Charlotte Hornets (nERD: 53.9, Record: 18-20, Last Week: 11)
11. Atlanta Hawks (nERD: 55.1, Record: 23-16, Last Week: 13)

The Hawks have been one of the challenging teams to figure out this season. After a 7-1 start, it looked like the Atlanta was going to repeat their surprising first place finish in 2014-15, but a 2-3 start to 2016 have the Hawks sitting fourth in the East.

After earning his first All-Star game appearance last season, Jeff Teague has not shown the same efficiency on either side of the ball this year. Slowed down by multiple injuries this year, the point guard is posting a Net Rating of -2 and -0.3 nERD Score. Since January 1, Teague is shooting only 40 percent from the field and is carrying a -9.2 average plus/minus in his last five games.

In the second half, the Hawks need a healthy Teague and for Kyle Korver to break out of his surprising season-long shooting slump if they are going to stay in the upper tier in the Eastern Conference.

10. Boston Celtics (nERD: 58.0, Record: 20-19, Last Week: 8)
9. Detroit Pistons (nERD: 58.0, Record: 21-17, Last Week: 10)
8. Indiana Pacers (nERD: 58.3, Record: 22-17, Last Week: 9)
7. Miami Heat (nERD: 59.1, Record: 22-17, Last Week: 6)
6. Toronto Raptors (nERD: 60.8, Record: 24-15, Last Week: 7)

This preseason, we pegged the Raptors as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. As we sit at nearly the halfway point of the season, the Raptors find themselves all alone behind the Cavs on pace for 50 wins, right where we thought they would be. As one of the hottest teams in the East, Toronto is 7-3 in their last 10 games with their only losses coming at the hands of fellow Eastern Conference elite, Cleveland and Chicago. Toronto has struggled against Chicago in particular as they are 0-7 in the last two years against the Bulls with their last win coming on New Year's Eve 2013.

Currently on a three-game winning streak, the Raptors have won by an average of 13 points. Highlighting how impressive their past week has been, Toronto has the allowed the fewest amount of points, 85.7, have the best Defensive Rating, 88.9, and third-best Net Rating of 13.1 since January 6. Buoyed by the career-best Defensive Rating of Kyle Lowry, Toronto has one of the top defenses in the NBA for the entire season -- a far cry a from last year when they ranked in the bottom third in both points allowed and Defensive Rating. 

This year's All-Star game is being held north of the border, and the Raptors have a great chance of having multiple participants for the first time since 2000-01 when Antonio Davis and Vince Carter were selected. Lowry with career-highs in points, rebounds, steals, and threes appears to be a shoo-in for the mid-season classic. DeMar DeRozan has a strong case as well with an average of 22.9 points per game ranking him 10th in the NBA.

5. Los Angeles Clippers (nERD: 67.2, Record: 25-13, Last Week: 5)
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (nERD: 68.1, Record: 27-9, Last Week: 4)
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (nERD: 72.7, Record: 28-12, Last Week: 3)

In the Western Conference, the Spurs and Warriors have separated themselves from the pack. While they battle out for the top seed, the Thunder are desperately fighting off the Clippers to maintain their place as the leader of the second-tier.

With an 8-2 record since Christmas, the Thunder have been torching the nets. Scoring points at an average of over 112 points per game, Kevin Durant and crew have scored in triple-digits in 16 of their last 17 games. In fact, their Offensive Rating of 110.9 since December 1 only trails the Spurs and Warriors. The stacked offense has been humming all year long, but when Kevin Durant has been absent, Oklahoma City struggles.

Besides the 3-4 record when KD is sitting, the offense stumbles to the tune of a 101.5 Offensive rating with Durant off the court. Compare that to an impressive 114.1 rating with him in action and you see just how crucial the soon-to-be-free-agent is to the Thunder's success. The test down the stretch will be how coach Billy Donovan handles the forward's minutes with it looking like a top-four finish is all but a certainty.

2. Golden State Warriors (nERD: 87.5, Record: 36-3, Last Week: 2)
1. San Antonio Spurs (nERD: 90.8, Record: 34-6, Last Week: 1)