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NBA Power Rankings: Suns Vs. Warriors and What Every Team Should Be Thankful For – Sports Illustrated

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We have reached the quarter pole of the NBA season, the mystical 20-game threshold that lets us know—definitively and irrefutably!—that the bad teams really are this bad, the good teams really are this good, and the hopeless really are that hopeless. The sorting-out process has taken shape.

To be sure, things can still change in the 60 or so games to come. (Also, for what it’s worth, six teams had yet to hit the 20-game mark as of Sunday.) But 20 games is a solid sample size, and the proverbial measuring stick that coaches and GMs cite every season as the time to take stock: of what’s working and what isn’t, of who fits and who doesn’t and whether they’re heading for the playoffs or the lottery.

It’s safe to say the Warriors and Suns are legit contenders out West, that the Heat can challenge the Nets and Bucks in the East and that the Wizards and Bulls are truly good again. (Also, all those ridiculous MVP debates that began four weeks ago are now O.K. to have. You’re welcome.)

Herewith, your quarter-pole power rankings. And, in the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday, a note on what each team should be thankful for.

(Note: SI’s NBA staff is ranking every team from best to worst all season long, taking into account how each squad is currently playing.)

1. Golden State Warriors

Current record: 18–2

Previous ranking: 1

Thankful for Steph Curry, of course, and all the joy he brings. (But also, you know, all the points he brings.) The two-time MVP is making a serious bid for a third, averaging 28.4 points, 6.9 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game. If those numbers hold, Curry would become the oldest player (at 34) to average at least 28/6/5—and by a long shot. Larry Bird currently holds that distinction, going 29.9/6.1/9.3 in 1987–88, at age 31.

2. Phoenix Suns

Current record: 17–3

Previous ranking: 2

Thankful that great basketball can overcome horrific leadership. Suns owner Robert Sarver is under investigation for a variety of (allegedly) racist and sexist remarks, but that scandal is for now overshadowed by a 16-game winning streak, one shy of the franchise record. Ageless wonder Chris Paul (36) is leading the league in assists, at 10.1 per game, which would be his first season in double digits since 2015–16.

3. Brooklyn Nets

Current record: 14–6

Previous ranking: 3

Thankful for a soft November schedule that let them find their footing after a shaky 4–3 start in October. The Nets steadied themselves by beating up on the Pistons, Raptors, Magic (twice), Pelicans, Thunder, Cavaliers (twice) and the mercurial Hawks and Celtics. Kevin Durant and James Harden are 1–5 against the NBA’s top tier (.600 or better), having beaten the Wizards, but lost to the Bucks, Heat, Bulls, Warriors and Suns.

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4. Milwaukee Bucks

Current record: 13–8

Previous ranking: 9

Thankful for Giannis Antetokounmpo’s charming sense of wonder. Yes, the Greek Freak is assembling another MVP campaign (27 points, 11.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists), powering the Bucks back into the East’s top tier after a slow start to the season. Nothing surprising there. But how great is it that this fiercely intense superstar can then step to the mike and give a two-minute soliloquy on the joys of dipping Oreos in milk? Giannis can heal the world.

5. Utah Jazz

Current record: 13–7

Previous ranking: 4

Thankful for the Nuggets. O.K., so this isn’t some revelatory note, but it is still my favorite bit of Jazz trivia: Both Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert were originally Denver draft picks. Gobert was taken 27th by the Nuggets in 2013 and traded to Utah that same night, for Erick Green and cash. Mitchell was taken 13th by the Nuggets in 2017 and promptly traded to Utah for Tyler Lydon and Trey Lyles. So with two trades, the Nuggets essentially helped the Jazz build a perennial powerhouse. Of course, the Nuggets did pretty well for themselves along the way, drafting their own star tandem in Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray.

6. Miami Heat

Current record: 13–7

Previous ranking: 6

Thankful for Tyler Herro’s offseason weight-training regimen, or whatever he put in his Wheaties. After last season’s sophomore slump, Herro looks like a new player, a rising star and a potential Sixth Man of the Year. He’s averaging 21.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and shooting .398 from the arc—all career highs. The Heat bolstered their title chances with the celebrated pickups of Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker, but it’s Herro’s third-year leap that makes Miami a true threat.

7. Chicago Bulls

Current record: 13–8

Previous ranking: 5

Thankful for the generosity of the Spurs, Lakers and Pelicans. Where would the Bulls be without DeMar DeRozan (averaging a career-best 25.8 points), acquired from San Antonio in a deal that cost them just one role player (Thad Young) and some picks? Where would they be without defensive pit bull Alex Caruso, who they signed to a very reasonable four-year, $37 million deal that the Lakers refused to match? Where would they be without Lonzo Ball, who they acquired in a (possibly illegal) sign-and-trade deal with the Pelicans, on a four-year, $85 million deal that New Orleans balked at paying?

8. Charlotte Hornets

Current record: 13–9

Previous ranking: 11

Thankful for the Celtics. Yes, the revival of Charlotte basketball is being led by LaMelo Ball and his celestial passing. But where would the Hornets be without the largesse of the Celtics, who sent them Terry Rozier in 2019 (sign-and-trade for Kemba Walker) and Gordon Hayward in ’20 (for a second-round pick and a trade exception)? Rozier and Hayward are both starters, both averaging 17 points a game and helping fuel one of the NBA’s most entertaining offenses.

9. Washington Wizards

Current record: 13–7

Previous ranking: 7

Thankful for Rob Pelinka, or LeBron James, or whoever it was that made the final call to free the Wizards from Russell Westbrook’s suffocating contract … and provide an all-new supporting cast for Bradley Beal. The Wizards are enjoying their best season in years (eons?), thanks to the additions of ex-Lakers Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, as well as (ex-Net) Spencer Dinwiddie, who was also acquired in the Westbrook deal.

10. Atlanta Hawks

Current record: 11–10

Previous ranking: 12

Thankful for their depth. The Hawks have six players averaging double figures in scoring, and seven players averaging at least 9 points a game—a group that doesn’t even include Danilo Gallinari (7.9 points) and Lou Williams (6 points), either of whom can erupt on a given night. Though the Hawks revolve around Trae Young (26 points per game), five other Hawks have led them in scoring at least once in the first 21 games: Cam Reddish, John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Clint Capela.

11. Dallas Mavericks

Current record: 10–8

Previous ranking: 14

Thankful (knock on wood) for Kristaps (knock on wood) Porziņģis’s (knock on wood) relatively good (knock on wood) health so far this season. As great as Luka Dončić is, the Mavericks will not be a playoff power unless their other max-salaried player produces at an All-Star level and stays on the court. Porziņģis did miss five games with a back strain, but his knees are finally sound (knock on wood), and he’s been a force lately, averaging 22.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks over his last 10 games.

12. Los Angeles Clippers

Current record: 11–9

Previous ranking: 8

Thankful for Paul George, who might be the most underappreciated star in the league—and for that matter, of this entire era. PG is averaging a stout 25.9 points (sixth in the NBA), 7.5 rebounds and 5.2 assists, keeping the Clippers in the hunt while Kawhi Leonard rehabs a torn ACL. And George remains one of the best wing defenders in the league, a big reason why the Clippers rank second in defensive efficiency. 

13. Boston Celtics

Current record: 11–10

Previous ranking: 10

Thankful for Dennis Schröder—and the strangely cold free-agent market that let Boston sign him to a one-year, $5.9 million deal after the Lakers failed to re-sign him. Schröder is averaging 17.1 points, 4 rebounds and 4.9 assists and shooting nearly 90% from the foul line as a sixth man and occasional starter. He’s been one of the Celtics’ few bright spots in an uneven early season.

Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY Sports

14. Minnesota Timberwolves

Current record: 10–10

Previous ranking: 22

Thankful for lottery luck, and every last Anthony Edwards good-lord-did-he-really-just-do-that?! dunk—even the ones that don’t count. As poorly as the Wolves have been run for years, they still have some hope, thanks to the lottery balls that landed them Edwards (No. 1 in 2020) and Karl-Anthony Towns (No. 1 in ’15). Is it enough to avoid another lottery appearance next spring? That’s still an open question.

15. New York Knicks

Current record: 11–9

Previous ranking: 17

Thankful for Tom Thibodeau’s obsession with his former Bulls. Sure, we all joke about it, but seriously, where would the Knicks be without Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson’s contributions over the last year and a half? And where would the Knicks be this season without their stellar bench unit, which keeps bailing out the starters? 

16. Cleveland Cavaliers

Current record: 10–10

Previous ranking: 16

Thankful for Ricky Rubio, who at age 31 is somehow having a career-best year in scoring (14.6 points per game), while posting career highs in three-point attempts (5.9), makes (2.1) and accuracy (.356). Though the Cavs’ revival is mostly about the performance of rookie sensation Evan Mobley, and the steady progression of third-year guard Darius Garland, Rubio’s playmaking, defense and leadership have been a huge factor.

17. Portland Trail Blazers

Current record: 10–10

Previous ranking: 15

Thankful for Damian Lillard’s immense patience and grace. To review: The Blazers fired coach Terry Stotts, made a controversial hire in Chauncey Billups, failed to significantly improve the roster and now are investigating GM Neil Olshey over allegations of a hostile work environment. Nearly any other superstar in this era would have made a trade demand by now. But the 31-year-old Lillard keeps professing his love and loyalty to Portland.

18. Philadelphia 76ers

Current record: 10–10

Previous ranking: 18

Thankful for the coming reckoning. Oh, yes, a reckoning. Now that we’ve reached the quarter pole, all those GMs who promised their owners Big Results! are going to have their come-to-Jesus meetings and be forced to deal with the fallout of their lousy starts. Which means some desperate team might finally make the lavish trade offer for Ben Simmons that the Sixers have been awaiting. Plus, all the players who signed new deals this summer will be eligible to be traded as of Dec. 15. We’re officially on Simmons Trade Watch.

19. Los Angeles Lakers

Current record: 11–11

Previous ranking: 19

Thankful for LeBron James’s enduring ability to absorb all the spotlight, all the pressure and all the criticism, regardless of circumstances. Wherever the Lakers land this season—whether the Finals or, uh, the lottery?—it will mostly be viewed through the LeBron prism. But their failures to date are about everyone else: Anthony Davis underperforming, Russell Westbrook struggling to fit in and a front office that made several bad bets in the offseason. But LeBron’s presence shields everyone else … for now.

20. Memphis Grizzlies

Current record: 10–10

Previous ranking: 20

Thankful for hidden gems and smart drafting. Three of the Grizzlies’ top five scorers were taken deep in the draft: Desmond Bane (30th in 2020), De’Anthony Melton (46th in ’18) and Dillon Brooks (45th in ’17). Those three are combining for 44 points a game, highlighted by Bane’s breakout sophomore performance: 15.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2 assists per game. (Also thankful for Ja Morant’s knee injury being relatively minor.)

21. Denver Nuggets

Current record: 9–10

Previous ranking: 13

Thankful that Nikola Jokić is a relatively chill superstar and still young enough, at 27, to exercise some patience while the Nuggets cope with some extreme misfortune. This team was poised for a Finals run last season before Jamal Murray tore his ACL. Now they’ve lost Michael Porter Jr., who is reportedly expected to miss the rest of the season due to back surgery, again imperiling their chances of a deep playoff run. Fortunately, they’re all young enough to recover and contend for years to come.

22. Indiana Pacers

Current record: 9–13

Previous ranking: 23

Thankful for Chris Duarte. The rookie guard, taken 13th overall, has been a seamless addition, a key scorer and a steady fill-in starter, averaging 13.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists while shooting 36% on three-pointers. The Pacers struggled early amid a flurry of injuries, but the 24-year-old Duarte has been a revelation.

23. Toronto Raptors

Current record: 9–12

Previous ranking: 21

Thankful to be home. The Raptors spent the entire 2020–21 season in Tampa due to COVID-19 restrictions in Canada, and clearly suffered for it, falling to 27–45 after going 53–19 the prior season. There were other factors, obviously, but effectively playing 72 road games was surely a drag on their collective spirit. Ironic twist: Though the Raptors are playing better so far this season, they’re just 2–7 in Toronto … and 7–5 on the road.

24. Sacramento Kings

Current record: 8–13

Previous ranking: 25

Thankful for the advent of the play-in tournament. No, the Kings do not appear to be making any progress. Again. Still. Yes, franchise star De’Aaron Fox looks like he’s regressed. No, they do not seem likely to end their playoff drought (15 years and counting). But as of Sunday the Kangz were just a game and a half out of 10th place, which means they could still make the play-in, which means they could still make the playoffs, which … oh, never mind.

25. San Antonio Spurs

Current record: 5–13

Previous ranking: 26

Thankful to Gregg Popovich for sticking it out another year. Seriously, who expected that Pop would still be coaching, seven years after the Spurs’ last title, five years after Tim Duncan’s retirement and three seasons after their last playoff appearance? With all due respect to Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson, Pop is still the most interesting part of the Spurs, and the only reason to still believe in them.

26. Oklahoma City Thunder

Current record: 6–13

Previous ranking: 24

Thankful for all those draft picks they still have coming. As bad as the present looks, the Thunder’s future should be bright, eventually, thanks to the 19 first-round picks and 17 second-rounders they’ve collected. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander already looks like a franchise cornerstone, and Lu Dort and Josh Giddey are keepers. Bet on this: At some point, GM Sam Presti will cash out a stack of those draft chips in a blockbuster trade.

27. Detroit Pistons

Current record: 4–16

Previous ranking: 27

Thankful for the Magic, who have basically been rebuilding since 2013 and yet are somehow less talented and less promising, ensuring that the Pistons can look respectable by comparison. Also, Cade Cunningham might just be talented enough to lift the Pistons out of their misery, and it still isn’t clear whether the Magic have anyone who can do the same.

28. New Orleans Pelicans

Current record: 5–17

Previous ranking: 29

Thankful for the national media’s big-market obsession, which has kept the spotlight away from New Orleans. Franchise savior Zion Williamson had secret offseason foot surgery, followed by a series of vague and/or misleading updates on his health, and has yet to play this season. The Pelicans are on their third coach in three years. Oh, and they’ve lost 17 of their first 22 games and are almost certain to miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year. Imagine what the coverage would be like if this franchise were in L.A. or New York.

29. Orlando Magic

Current record: 4–17

Previous ranking: 28

Thankful for the Rockets, whose total indifference to winning is momentarily keeping the Magic from being the NBA’s most hopeless franchise.

30. Houston Rockets

Current record: 3–16

Previous ranking: 30

Thankful the NBA doesn’t have a relegation system.

More NBA Coverage:
NBA Mock Draft: Banchero, Holmgren and Smith Lead
What’s Next for the Kings?
Chris Paul and the Suns Have Their Foot on the Gas
Inside the Strange John Wall Situation in Houston

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