The countdown to 2017 has been quickly replaced by another countdown in the NBA:
Harden's Houston Rockets have moved up to No. 3 in the latest edition of ESPN.com's weekly NBA Power Rankings in the wake of a 4-0 week, which was capped by The Beard's ridiculous 53-point, 17-assist, 16-rebound masterpiece against the New York Knicks.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, meanwhile, retained the top spot over the Golden State Warriors, thanks to a pass from the Committee (of One) on the Cavs' loss at Detroit last Monday because LeBron James was allowed to stay home for rest reasons. The L.A. Clippers, by contrast, have been shoved down to No. 15 because they can't seem to win a game when both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are out of the lineup.
Read on for the rest of our first 1-to-30 ladder of the new year. Many thanks, as always, go to ESPN Stats & Information and the Elias Sports Bureau -- with ESPN research ace running the point -- for all the helpful background data they provide to assist the Committee as we arrange things.
LeBron James awoke Friday on his 32nd birthday with 27,544 points, 7,289 rebounds and 7,057 assists in 1,015 regular-season games. Michael Jordan had amassed 21,541 points, 4,219 rebounds and 3,935 assists in 667 regular-season games as of his 32nd birthday. The better comparison, in terms of points scored, is where Kobe Bryant was at 32, since both he and LeBron turned pro straight out of high school, but Bron has the edge there as well (27,544 to 25,790). Wednesday's home win over Boston, meanwhile, hiked the Cavs to 24-2 overall (regular season and playoffs) when James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love all score at least 20 points.
There was a championship trip to the White House. And a historic 73rd victory. And a 72-12 record for the calendar year, which has been topped in league annals only once, when Chicago went 74-11 in 1996. So, yes, 2016 contained so much good for the Warriors beyond all the 3-1 memes ... on both sides of the historic acquisition of Kevin Durant in the summertime. There's a feeling out there in some corners that the new champions are in the Dubs' heads now, but we only have to wait until Martin Luther King Day in two weeks, when Cleveland goes to Oakland, to test out that theory again.
The Rockets are averaging a whopping 39.7 3-point attempts per game. The NBA's regular-season record, established by last season's Rockets, is 32.7 3s per game. That's good for a 21-percent increase that, if applied to the top scoring team in NBA history, would require somebody out there to average 153.6 PPG compared to the 1981-82 Denver Nuggets' 126.5 PPG. In the bigger picture -- with James Harden doing too many crazy things to stuff into this section - Houston just went 15-2 in December to solidify its status as a top-five team no one saw coming. Amid all the triple-double focus on Russell Westbrook, Harden had five of his own in December.
Only four teams in the league currently rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency: Golden State, Milwaukee, Utah and (presumably to no one's surprise) San Antonio. The Spurs' 12-2 record in December wasn't bad, either. Since we don't grade nearly as hard as Gregg Popovich does, it's thus mostly kudos from the Committee, given that the Spurs have already won five games this season in which they've trailed by 13 points or more and were unbeaten when leading after three quarters until Sunday night's OT loss in Atlanta in which Kawhi Leonard was unfortunate to miss at both the regulation and OT buzzers.
The Raptors are assured of no worse than a .500 mark on their six-game road trip entering Tuesday's finale at San Antonio thanks leadoff wins in Utah and Portland and Kyle Lowry's 41-point eruption at Staples Center. Along the way on the Raps' travels, DeMar DeRozan passed Chris Bosh (10,275 points) as the leading scorer in franchise history, putting DeRozan on a short list with Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James and Memphis' Mike Conley in terms of active NBA players who hold that distinction. Back to Lowry: He's up to 45.6 percent shooting from deep after starting the season as a career 36-percenter.
What a way to follow up an Eastern Conference Player of the Week effort. Isaiah Thomas responded by rumbling for 52 points in a win over Miami, including a 29-point fourth quarter, to join Paul Pierce, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Sam Jones as the only 50-point scorers in the Celtics' storied history. Those 29 points in the fourth, incidentally, add up to the most prolific quarter Boston has ever seen from one player. Click here, furthermore, for a wonderful summary from our own Chris Forsberg on Boston's 15 flights in December alone. The Celts are tied with the Blazers and Lakers at a league-leading 20 road games already.
A 34-point rout of Oklahoma City on the night Westbrook got ejected, followed by a 14-point win in Sacramento, has nudged the Grizzlies into the rare air of positive territory in the Average Point Margin game. As long as Marc Gasol's freshly sprained left ankle isn't serious, Memphis will gladly let Chandler Parsons ease his way back into rhythm, especially since Mike Conley is quickly starting to resemble Mike Conley again. The Grizz set a franchise record with 17 3-pointers in the Sacramento win and appear to have found a real bargain in summer signee Troy Daniels (13.5 PPG and 44.2 percent shooting from deep in December).
The final week of 2016 made the MVP duel between former teammates Westbrook and Harden even tastier. And here's how: While Harden was assembling what might just have been the most delicious single-game stat line in the history of fantasy hoops, Angry Russ uncorked the fastest triple-double of his career as the Thunder brought the calendar year to a close by improving to 21-13 ... which happens to equate to a 52-win pace. OKC's schedule is about to get seriously tougher, with 12 of its 15 games in January on the road, but Westbrook's MVP résumé looks infinitely better if these guys finish in the 50s win-wise.
Rudy Gobert is up to 19 straight games with at least 10 rebounds, tying him with Paul Millsap and one of my childhood faves -- Truck Robinson! -- for the longest such streak in franchise history. We are running out of words, though, to describe George Hill's luck after he returned from an absence of 13 games with a fine 21-point effort ... only to be forced into the league's concussion protocol after taking an elbow in the very next game from Phoenix's Alex Len. Something else to monitor: Joe Ingles just assembled a fine December, but Alec Burks is nearing his season debut, which could present a minutes dilemma for coach Quin Snyder.
Since his "Walker, Charlotte Ranger" All-Star campaign was unveiled, Kemba Walker became just the fourth player in Hornets history to crack the 7,000-point plateau -- joining Dell Curry, Larry Johnson and Gerald Wallace -- then assembled a 37-point, five-rebound, five-assist gem in a home loss to the mighty Cavs. That gave Walker seven career 35/5/5 games in his six seasons; there have only been 10 other such games in Hornets/Bobcats franchise history by players not named Kemba. Nicolas Batum, meanwhile, recently averaged 21.8 points, 8.3 assists and 7.5 rebounds over a four-game stretch after just a so-so start to his season.
It's been a while since we had good cause to uncork a vintage #EvenTheHawks reference, but the opening is there after Atlanta halted a run of 11 successive defeats to the Spurs with a stirring overtime triumph Sunday night over visiting San Antonio. So Mike Budenholzer finally has a W over his mentor Pop, on top of Atlanta's wins this season over the Cavaliers, Rockets and Raptors. The Hawks, though, aren't likely to get carried away with their recent 8-4 uptick. They're listening to trade offers for the mainstay likes of Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver because it's the smart thing to do with free agents-to-be on a team that no longer looks like 60-win material.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are threatening to become Milwaukee's first pair of 20 PPG scorers since Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson in 2001-02. You have to go all the way back to 1972-73 for the last time, before Giannis and Jabari, that the Bucks had a pair of 20 PPG scorers aged 25 or younger ... dating to the duo of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob Dandridge. There's understandable concern about Matthew Dellavedova's hamstring, but here's more youth to savor: Malcolm Brogdon, who just messed around and got his first career triple-double in (yet another) rout of the Bulls, is the NBA's hottest rookie not named Joel Embiid.
The Wizards' Christmas gift is their ongoing Eastern Conference membership. Sweeping a three-game homestand (Milwaukee, Indiana and Brooklyn) and posting an 11-5 record in December is all it takes in the East to erase the damage of Washington's 2-8 start and bump Scotty Brooks and his new team up to a heady No. 6 in the standings entering the new year. We'll soon see if last month's turnaround was pronounced enough to sell East coaches on sending John Wall or Bradley Beal to the All-Star Game. Trey Burke, meanwhile, just posted a 27-point game off the Wizards' much-maligned bench after totaling 22 points in his previous six outings.
Candor from a star player is a journalistic treasure, so it's been fascinating to listen to Paul George in this early season, speaking his mind on numerous occasions already about the Pacers' struggles to live up to the lofty preseason billing they received in so many corners. Yet it's also a touch sad to hear George openly lament the fact that he's had very little fun lately. He came into the 2016-17 talking about challenging for MVP honors. As recently as Thursday, on the eve of a home win over the Bulls, PG-13 was calling it "one of the most frustrating seasons I've been a part of." How nervous, Pacer People, does that make you?
I'm as down on the West as I can remember -- click to the standings and check out the "battle" for the eighth spot in the conference as we speak if you're curious why -- but it's still stunning to see the Clippers all the way down at No. 7 in the West on this Rankings Monday. Yet that's what happens when Chris Paul joins Blake Griffin on the shelf; L.A. is 0-5 this season when its two main men are sidelined after going 1-3 in the same situation last season. The Clips are actually 33-15 over the last two seasons, including the playoffs, when Blake is out but CP3 is in uniform to save the day. Coping without both is a different matter entirely.
After all that (alleged) positivity that the Knicks carried into Christmas, they've slumped to four straight defeats since the holiday to dip below .500 and, just like that, dropped out of the East's top eight. Team D continues to be the primary culprit, with New York mired at No. 25 in the league's defensive efficiency standings on this Rankings Monday after the shredding James Harden imposed on Carmelo Anthony & Co. in the waning hours of 2016. Alert: We're only five days away from Porzingis vs. The Greek Freak in Milwaukee on Friday night!
How will the Kings handle prosperity? It's a valid question yet again for the team sporting the league's second-longest playoff drought (10 seasons and counting). It was just last week in this cyberspace we were lauding Sacramento for taking the lead in the wide-open, uh, "race" for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. Since then? The Kings barely squeaked by Philadelphia at home, wasted a fine opportunity to snag a road win in Portland against the Damian Lillard-less Blazers and suffered a 14-point home L to Memphis. A seven-game homestand awaits from Jan. 4-18 ... but they had better capitalize on it with an eight-game road trip to follow from Jan. 20-31.
On the day after Christmas, reeling Detroit received a gift from Tyronn Lue, who graciously (but somewhat expectedly) made LeBron James take a night off in the wake of The King's exertions in the Cavaliers' stirring holiday win over Golden State. The surprise for the Pistons is that more gifts came New Year's Day, when a rash of injuries forced Miami to shelve Goran Dragic (back), Dion Waiters (groin), Justise Winslow (shoulder), Josh McRoberts (foot) and Hassan Whiteside (eye), setting up a desperate Stan Van Gundy to claim a much-needed road win after Detroit closed out the calendar year on a 1-8 nosedive.
19. Denver Nuggets
2016-17 record: 14-19
Previous ranking: 19
We're officially worried for the Nuggets. For starters, Denver just surrendered 124 points in a home loss to 8-24 Philadelphia, which represents the wildest offensive showing from the Sixers in the Mile High City since they rang up 133 points there with a championship team way back in February 1983. And now more defensive woe looms Monday night, when the Nuggets have to visit Golden State with Stephen Curry rather due to break out. Curry made only 51 3-pointers in December, shooting an uncharacteristically mortal 37.8 percent from deep, but he hit seven triples when the Nuggets lost by 24 at home to the Warriors on Nov. 10.
Remember when the Blazers demolished Golden State in a 137-105 laugher last February in the first game for the Warriors coming out of the All-Star break? The Warriors have won the ensuing four regular-season meetings between the teams by an average of 27.3 points while leading for every minute of the second half in all four encounters. The Committee sees these as pertinent numbers because Portland's next game is a visit Wednesday to Oakland in an ESPN showdown. The good news: Portland is coming off its first two-win week since Nov. 28-Dec. 4 despite playing without Damian Lillard (ankle) for the past four games. Viva C.J. McCollum!
What could possibly overshadow the first buzzer-beater of Jimmy Butler's career? Try a fresh round of Rajon Rondo drama and an increasingly toasty seat on the bench for second-year coach Fred Hoiberg. We've catalogued the mounting pressure on Hoiberg here, but we await more clarity on what happens next with Rondo, who isn't ruling out the possibility of pushing for a trade or even a buyout if he continues to sit. As our pal K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune noted, December 2016 began with a Rondo triple-double in a win over the Cavs ... and ended with Rondo collecting a DNP-CD in a heavy home loss to Milwaukee.
The Pelicans have quietly won five of their last six games. They're actually 14-13 since the 0-8 nightmare ... and a promising 12-8 when Jrue Holiday is in uniform. You figure that the Pels can live with going 4-1 on a homestand that both Alvin Gentry and Anthony Davis had proclaimed to be crucial in terms of keeping this season alive, since six of the next seven games will be roadies. The Brow, if you're keeping track, is up to a league-leading 14 games with at least 20 points and 15 boards. He'll also soon be getting some interesting frontcourt help with New Orleans poised to sign Donatas Motiejunas in a potential bargain-bin find.
The past week might have been the most frustrating week of the Wolves' season, which obviously is saying something. To offset eye-catching home triumphs over Atlanta and Milwaukee, Minnesota suffered two more agonizing losses, wasting Karl-Anthony Towns' first career triple-double to fall by a deuce in Denver and then squandering a 14-point lead at home over the Damian Lillard-less Blazers to fall to 9-11 games in games in which the Wolves manufacture a double-digit lead. Only seven teams in the league, ESPN research ace Micah Adams says, have amassed more double-digit leads than Minnesota's 20 to date this season.
Seven players out there actually sank more 3-pointers than Curry did in December. And Dallas' Wesley Matthews was unexpectedly one of them, joining Eric Gordon, Kyle Lowry, James Harden, Ryan Anderson, Klay Thompson and Zach LaVine. Harrison Barnes, meanwhile, is now up to nine 25-point games -- after just three in his first four pro seasons -- having scored exactly 25 in his return Friday night to Oracle Arena. No one in Dallas, though, is getting too excited yet. The Mavs are 4-4 since falling a season-high 14 games under .500 at 6-20, but it takes a lot more than that to get noticed in Big D when the Cowboys are 13-3.
Frank Vogel's second return to Indianapolis as a visiting coach (Sunday's 117-104 setback to the Pacers) didn't work out much better than the first (Orlando scored only 69 points in an 18-point loss there Nov. 14). Yet perhaps we should be complimenting Vogel, because most of the metrics frankly suggest that the Magic should be farther down the standings than they actually are, whether it's the fact that they rank 25th in net rating at minus-5.0 (which is computed by adding up Orlando's offensive and defensive efficiency ratings) or simply by looking at average point margin (10-25 Miami is at minus-3.5 compared to the 15-20 Magic's minus-4.5).
It's easy to forget that it was almost exactly a year ago that the Suns lost Eric Bledsoe to season-ending knee surgery. Twelve months on, Bledsoe is playing some of the best ball of his life, most recently with his third 20-and-10 game of the season to nudge Phoenix to an unexpected win over the Raptors. And before you try to downgrade the W by pointing out that the Raps were on the second night of a back-to-back, don't forget the host Suns had played on the road the night before. Rookie guard Tyler Ulis, meanwhile, has moved ahead of Brandon Knight in Earl Watson's rotation, signaling Knight's availability to the league via trade with even greater volume.
Why do we end up writing so frequently about Goran Dragic's future ... even when Dragic is openly lobbying to stay in South Beach? Answer: Miami just became the first team on the NBA map to ring up 25 losses this season thanks to a 1-8 funk in which its only victory came at home against a Lakers team that just won only twice in December itself. There's every chance that the blow-it-up calls are only going to get louder from here given that the battered Heat, forced to play without six regulars in losing their 2017 opener at home to the struggling Pistons, are about to hit the road for six straight games, five of them against West opposition.
In 80 minutes this season with both Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor on the floor, Philadelphia has been outscored by 21.5 points per 100 possessions. In Embiid's 467 minutes this season without Okafor at his side, Philadelphia actually (albeit narrowly) sports a positive overall efficiency per 100 possessions at plus-0.5. But because we already knew those two had issues as a tag team, let's dig into something fresh: Does Embiid have an actual All-Star case in the East despite the fact he's only averaging 24.8 minutes per game due to his well-chronicled PT restrictions? He really might.
As if a 2-14 December wasn't enough suffering for the young Lakers, they marked the first day of a new calendar year by surrendering 20 points in the fourth quarter to a scorching Kyle Lowry to send L.A. tumbling into the league's basement in terms of defensive efficiency. The Blazers have been parked at No. 30 in DE for the longest time, but that's the Lakers' domain now at 110.2 points allowed per 100 possessions. It would appear that we were way wrong to presume that the Lakers' first-round pick -- protected only 1-to-3 in the upcoming draft -- is for sure headed to Philadelphia in June. The Lakers might well keep it at this rate.
The Nets were back to their typically defense-less selves in their final game of 2016, absorbing a 23-point thumping in Washington, but last week easily could have been a two-win week for the team that co-shares the league's worst record. Brooklyn first registered a surprising 120-118 home win over Charlotte when Randy Foye became the first Net other Joe Johnson to sink a game-winning bucket at the buzzer since Devin Harris in February 2009. (Johnson, now in Utah, had accounted for the Nets' previous five buzzer-beaters.) The Nets then took a seven-point lead into the final three minutes at Chicago before they got Jimmy Butler-ed.