Consider this the mid-season NBA Power Rankings (we are taking next week off considering teams are not playing due to the All-Star break), and the Jazz have to be in the top slot. Is Brooklyn the team to beat in the East? They are winning now, their defense is improving, and after the break they get Kevin Durant back, so… yes. Probably.
1. Jazz (27-8, Last Week No. 2). Utah is back on top of the power rankings and has earned the right to be mentioned among the title contenders. However, the loss to Miami shows the challenge ahead of them in the second round of the playoffs and beyond: Late in the game, Jimmy Butler — a strong wing player who loves the midrange — got to his spots and hit shots. Utah’s defensive game plan is to force teams to take midrange jumpers, but what happens against a team that has players who thrive in that range? The Clippers and Lakers stars are very comfortable in the midrange.
2. Nets (23-13, LW 1). James Harden is playing at an MVP level since coming over from Brooklyn, averaging 25.3 points, 11.3 assists, and 8.7 rebounds a game for the Nets (he’s not going to win the award after his ugly exit from Houston, voters will remember that). Brooklyn is rumored to be looking to pick up a center via trade or buyout, but small ball may be a better call — the Nets starting four with Jeff Green at the five (instead of DeAndre Jordan) is +26.3 per 100 this season. That lineup may be what Steve Nash leans on to close games.
3. Suns (23-11 LW 3). Devin Booker and Chris Paul are both All-Stars this year (Booker named as Anthony Davis‘ replacement), and the last time the Suns had two All-Stars in the same season was 2010 (Nash and Stoudemire). CP3 and Booker have found a rhythm together in the last month; in their last 15 games together the Suns are +12 when those two share the court. Knocking off the Lakers on Tuesday night showed the nation how well all the role players fit around those two stars: Mikal Bridges, Dario Saric, Deandre Ayton, and Jae Crowder all played key roles in the win.
4. Lakers (24-12, LW 5). The Lakers have gone 3-5 without Anthony Davis, and losses to quality West teams — Utah and Phoenix — show how much they miss him on both ends. LeBron James has had to carry a heavy load this season. It’s a smart move by him and the franchise to sit him out of the back-to-back against the Kings (his first missed game this season) — the Lakers need a fresh LeBron in the second half, and they need to get his minutes down and find him some rest before the playoffs. Nobody is worried about the Lakers in the regular season.
5. Bucks (21-14, LW 7). Jrue Holiday is back and that’s a huge boost for the Bucks — they gave up a lot of depth to land him and need him o the court this season (the Bucks are 6.5 points per 100 possessions better with Holiday on the court). Milwaukee went 5-5 without him. Milwaukee had won five in a row before Tuesday’s loss to Denver, and the team’s play at the end Sunday to beat the Clippers was a very good sign — look at the ball movement in the clutch that led to the Giannis Antetokounmpo dagger dunk.
6. 76ers (23-12 LW 6). Philadelphia has won 5-of-7 with some quality victories in the mix — Toronto, Dallas, Indiana — and all of that has been built on a defense that has been best in the league over those seven games (and 5.5 per 100 better than their season average, via Cleaning the Glass). The offense and has stumbled some in there, Tobias Harris missed games and Joel Embiid missed midrange shots he’s been hitting all season, but the defense is the kind of foundation the team needs to contend the Bucks and Nets in the East.
7. Clippers (24-13, LW 4). The Clippers remain contenders near the top of the West, but they have been unimpressive in the clutch this season (as evidenced Sunday against the Bucks). Offensively, the Clippers hunt mismatches with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the final minutes, but they get out of their offensive flow to do it and the ball movement stops. The Clippers become predictable, and predictable is defendable. Los Angeles needs another point guard/playmaker. As much as the offense struggles in the clutch, the defense has been worse — near the worst in the league in those minutes — if that doesn’t change, the Clippers will be fishing early this season.
8. Nuggets (20-15 LW 8). As was evidenced when it put up 128 against Milwaukee Tuesday night, the Denver offense has found a groove. Nikola Jokic has been in an MVP-level groove all season, but Jamal Murray has started to join him after a slow start. The problem has been the other end of the floor, where the Nuggets are 19th in the league, and that has been a little worse of late (22nd in the league over the last eight heading into a strong effort against the Bucks). Denver has to get stops like it did against Milwaukee to be a threat to return to the conference finals.
9. Warriors (19-16, LW 11). Kelly Oubre Jr. has found a comfort level and a role that works for him of late (or, maybe it’s a mirage and his roller coaster of a season has climbed to the top for a while). He’s averaging more than 18 points a game and shooting better than 40% from three over his last 20 games. The Warriors offense has been better of late — not good, but better — and combined with a quality defense they are racking up enough wins that the Warriors could avoid the play-in games with a little luck. Good to see Stephen Curry back in the three-point shooting contest, especially going up against Booker.
10. Spurs (18-13, LW 10). LaMarcus Aldridge has come off the bench since his return from injury, and he had a strong 21-point game against the Pelicans (a Spurs win). He likely continues in that role considering the strong play of Jakob Poeltl at the five, and the fact San Antonio had a negative net rating with Aldridge in the starting lineup. The Spurs come out of the All-Star break with a tightly-packed schedule (because of the COVID postponements) and 6-of-7 on the road.
11. Trail Blazers (19-14, LW 9). The coach Terry Stotts update on CJ McCollum was not promising; it sounds as if he will be out until the end of March (at the earliest) recovering from his fractured foot. The offense clearly missed McCollum during the recent four-game losing streak, Damian Lillard continues to play at an amazingly high level but the role players around him started to miss shots (with Gary Trent Jr. struggling in particular). With Denver and Golden State surging, the Trail Blazers need to find some wins to avoid the play-in games.
12. Raptors (17-17, LW 12). COVID-19 protocols have hit the Raptors hard, postponing games, just as the team had dug out of its early-season hole and seemed headed in the right direction. Toronto comes out of the break with 5-of-7 on the road, but some very winnable games in there, the kind the Raptors need in the win column to avoid falling back to the play-in games in the East.
13. Mavericks (17-16, LW 14). Dallas has been outscored by 5.6 points per 100 possessions this season when Luka Doncic has been off the floor, although that has improved in recent weeks with reserve point guard Jalen Brunson picking up a lot of the slack. More interestingly, the Mavericks are +7.5 per 100 when Doncic and Brunson are paired this season — Brunson can both knock down catch-and-shoot threes and be a secondary shot creator when teams load up on Doncic. Rick Carlisle seems to be leaning on this combo more and more.
14. Celtics (18-17, LW 16). The Time Lord’s time has come in Boston — Robert Williams has played well of late and is earning more run. He had 13 points and 8 rebounds against the Clippers on Tuesday, and over his last 10 games he’s averaging more than 8 points a game on better than 70% shooting, with almost two blocks a game as well. Williams and Payton Pritchard are showing real chemistry off the bench during this three-game win streak. Good test against the Raptors on Thursday night.
15. Grizzlies (16-15 LW 18). Justise Winslow has looked more comfortable his last couple of games back after missing the first 25 games of the season; he looked particularly good putting up 20 points on the Rockets “defense.” The Grizzlies have won 5-of-8 and looked improved of late, and the key reason is the second-best defense in the NBA during that stretch, anchored by Jonas Valanciunas in the paint.
16. Knicks (18-18, LW 15). Leon Rose’s first year on the job as Knicks president couldn’t have gone much better: New York is .500, sitting as the five seed in the East, and they have the second-best defense in the NBA under Tom Thibodeau. The ultimate sign of success, the Knicks will be on national television a lot in the second half of the season. That said, the schedule gets much tougher after the All-Star break, and that Knicks defense had been aided by teams just missing open threes, that’s not likely to continue. The Knicks have been one of the best stories in the league and their fans should enjoy it, like the New York bench enjoyed this Derrick Rose buzzer-beater.
Snagged the lead right before half on this DRose buzzer beater 🔥 pic.twitter.com/yaRC9bdP7D
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) February 28, 2021
17. Heat (17-18 LW 19). Kendrick Nunn earned coming in second in ROY voting last season, but he struggled in the bubble and to start this season. Nunn found his footing again in February: 17.1 points per game, shooting 43.3% from three, and was +5.1 per 100 for the month. Also, I don’t buy the rumor Jimmy Butler turned down the spot to replace Durant in the All-Star Game — the league doesn’t give players a choice, if they did LeBron and others would ditch this year — but it’s a nice spin on Butler’s loyalty to the team and franchise.
18. Bulls (15-18, LW 17). Chicago’s defense was torched inside by Nikola Jokic (39 points) this week, but he is just the latest in a long line of big men hurting the Bulls inside this season. Wendell Carter Jr. works hard on the defensive end but has been thrown to the wolves against Embiid, Jokic, Anthony Davis, and more — he is learning some hard lessons. That doesn’t help a team trying to make a postseason push. Chicago sits tied for the nine seed in the East and needs a few more interior stops to keep a playoff or play-in slot in the East.
19. Pacers (15-18, LW 13). Indiana has stumbled of late, losing 5-of-6, and the problems have come on both sides of the ball — the Pacers are bottom 10 in offense and defense over the stretch. A lot of things have gone wrong, but the biggest issue may be the team’s struggles to get stops in the clutch, costing them close games as other teams get good look threes. Things do not get easier after the All-Star break, the Pacers have 6-of-7 on the road and face the Lakers, Suns, Nuggets, Nets, Bucks, and Heat (twice). Indy has to find wins in there or risk dropping way back in a tight East.
20. Pelicans (15-19, LW 21). If you like shootouts, find the Pelicans on League Pass and grab the popcorn. New Orleans had the best offense in the NBA in the month of February, a 123.2 offensive rating (via Cleaning the Glass). Zion Williamson averaged 20 points a game in the paint in February — he is the best interior scorer in the league. However, the Pelicans had the 29th ranked defense in February, so the team went 7-8 for the month. Look for the Pelicans to be sellers at the trade deadline.
21. Hornets (16-18, LW 20). Charlotte has gone 2-3 on a tough six-game road trip (it ends Wednesday in Minnesota), and while there have been dramatic wins it has been held back by a 29th-ranked defense over the past six games (a net rating five points worse than the Hornets season average). One of those road wins was maybe the most dramatic of the season, coming from eight points down in the final minute thanks to Terry Rozier getting buckets and this Malik Monk game-winner.
22. Wizards (13-20 LW 22). The blown lead against Boston Sunday (up five with :45 left) was a punch to the gut, but remember it was the third game in four nights for Washington, and that showed at the end of the game. Washington has still won 7-of-10 and the team is just two games back of the play-in games. Russell Westbrook now owns the single-season triple double record for the Wizards with 10 this season (passing Darrell Walker back in 1990).
23. Cavaliers (14-21, LW 29). Cleveland is a roller coaster — they lose 10 in a row, then bounce back and win four in a row including beating Philadelphia. While Collin Sexton is having some monster games (39 points against the Rockets) it’s the defense that is the barometer for this team — Cleveland is 11th in the league in defense over its last six games. They get stops, they win. Expect the Andre Drummond trade rumors to pick up after the All-Star break (and maybe a few Kevin Love ones as well, although finding a trade for either is a bit of a long shot).
24. Hawks (15-20 LW 23). Fair or not, Lloyd Pierce is out as Atlanta coach and Nate McMillan is in as the interim. McMillan holds guys accountable on defense and makes sure the effort is there on that end, one of the two things Atlanta needs to get into the playoff mix (getting healthy is the other). How good the Hawks defense can be until De’Andre Hunter returns and gets back into shape is up for debate, but the team’s effort on that end of the floor looked better in McMillan’s debut against Miami (although the Heat also missed a lot of good looks in that one).
25. Thunder (14-20, LW 25). Oklahoma City is the second “luckiest” team in the NBA — they have the net rating of an 11-23 team, but they have been surprisingly good in the clutch (9-8 in games within five points in the final five minutes) and that has the Thunder record looking more respectable than many expected. The other reason they look good: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is impressive. Just ask the Spurs, he dropped 42 on them.
26. Kings (13-21, LW 28). A win in Detroit — with plenty of help from the Pistons — has given the Kings their one win in the last 11 games. Their come-from-ahead loss to the Hornets Sunday (leading by 8 with less than a minute to go) may have been the most brutal loss of the year. Sacramento continues to have the worst defense in the NBA (119.5 defensive rating) and is on pace to have the worst defense of all time. Luke Walton’s seat is getting warmer and warmer, and that’s bad news for clipboards in the Sacramento area.
27. Magic (13-22 LW 24). Nikola Vucevic will be in Atlanta as an NBA All-Star and participating in the Skills Challenge, while the Magic front office will be huddled discussing being sellers at the trade deadline (there is interest around the league in Evan Fournier, among others). Orlando came into the season thinking playoffs but has been ravaged by injuries and now sits as the 14 seed in the East (just three-games out of the play-in spots, but that ground would be hard for this roster to make up.
28. Pistons (9-25 LW 27). Isaiah Stewart is fast becoming a bright spot in an otherwise dark season in Detroit. Drafted No. 16 out of Washington last year by Portland, he was sent to Detroit in the Robert Covington trade. When he has been on the court this season, opposing teams are 8.7 points per 100 possessions worse, plus Stewart has found a comfortable offensive role (5.3 points a game but shooting 54.1% overall, plus grabbing 5.8 rebounds a night). Stewart is looking like he could be part of the future in Detroit.
29. Rockets (11-22 LW 26). When you have spent years building an offensive structure and identity around one player, and that player leaves, things fall apart. Houston has lost 12 in a row, and while they got a strong haul of draft picks back in the James Harden trade that doesn’t help the short-term pain. Look for the Rockets to be sellers at the trade deadline, there’s a lot of interest in P.J. Tucker, and the Rockets would be open to finding Victor Oladipo a new home but the market for him is not as intense (he’s a free agent after this season intent on testing those waters).
30. Timberwolves (7-28, LW 30). Chris Finch is 0-4 as the new head coach, the team has lost eight in a row, and Malik Beasley is suspended for 12 games, until March 27 (he pled guilty to felony gun charges), removing 20 points a game from the lineup. It’s a rough time in Minnesota, but we knew before Ryan Saunders was fired and Finch hired (in an awkward transition) that the Timberwolves’ problems went beyond the coach and into health and roster construction. Fixing things is going to take time (and just getting D’Angelo Russell and Towns healthy at the same time).