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NBA Power Rankings: Who Will Seize the Western Conference Crown? – Sports Illustrated

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We’ve seen plenty of talent exit the West in recent years, but the NBA’s varsity conference still looks as strong as ever as the 2021 postseason approaches. The Lakers remain the favorites even as they limp through the season without Anthony Davis and LeBron James, and if you look past the champs, plenty of legitimate contenders emerge. The Clippers may sport the West’s best roster. The Nuggets and Jazz are in the midst of their strongest seasons this century. Chris Paul is turning the Suns into a potential Finals threat and there are still dangerous pseudo-contenders in Dallas and Portland. The shuffling of seeds in the West will be one of the season’s most interesting subplots down the stretch.

We’ll take a deeper look at the Western Conference contenders at a later date. For now, let’s dive into this week’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.

30. Minnesota Timberwolves

It was nice to see Karl-Anthony Towns show some nasty in a 39-point performance against Joel Embiid and the 76ers on Saturday night. Towns’s offensive gifts are undeniable and, at his best, he’s perhaps the game’s most impressive offensive big man. But too often we see KAT float in and out of games, too willing to pick-and-pop his way through a given contest. Perhaps we should send Embiid to Minnesota every night to get the best out of Towns.

29. Detroit Pistons

The Pistons sit in the Eastern Conference cellar entering Tuesday night, with their most recent loss coming by 44 points against the Knicks. But let’s add a dose of positivity to these proceedings amid another lost year in Detroit. Rookie Killian Hayes is back, and so are his imaginative dimes. Let’s hope to see a healthy Hayes the rest of the season as Detroit looks to see some development from the No. 7 pick.

28. Houston Rockets

The Rockets were largely pilloried for their lack of return in the Victor Oladipo trade, though there could be one silver lining. Kelly Olynyk has been effective throughout his Houston tenure, finishing with 26 points in a loss against the Pelicans on Sunday. Olynyk’s skill set allows him to work comfortably alongside Christian Wood, and there’s a solid chance the Rockets retain him in free agency. Is Olynyk the type of blue-chip piece the Rockets were looking for in an Oladipo trade? Not exactly. But he could be an effective rotation piece in Houston for years to come.

27. Orlando Magic

The Utah-Denver back-to-back is always a difficult stretch for opposing teams, something the Magic learned in a major way over the weekend. Orlando suffered a 46-point defeat against the Jazz in Utah on Saturday, and Aaron Gordon exacted his revenge with 24 points in Denver to close the weekend on Sunday night. The Magic’s rotation is thinning by the week. The youth movement is on full display. Expect an extended tankathon through the season’s last couple of months.

26. Cleveland Cavaliers

Isaac Okoro isn’t exactly putting up sensational counting stats in his rookie season, but the Auburn product is making a marked defensive impact on a struggling Cavaliers team. He held Ben Simmons to just five points on April 1, and he drew the respect of Jimmy Butler after a strong defensive performance in Miami two nights later. Okoro is already carving out his niche in the NBA, which should lead to a long, productive career.

25. Washington Wizards

Washington lost its fourth straight in a defeat against the Raptors on Monday as it kicks off a six-game road trip. The Wizards will face Phoenix, Utah and Golden State on their trip out West, and by the time they return, they could lead only the Pistons in the Eastern Conference standings. The constant churn of Bradley Beal rumors is likely frustrating to the Washington faithful, but again, what exactly is Beal doing in a Wizards uniform? Perhaps this purposeless season will spur him to reevaluate his options this offseason.

24. Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City’s player development pipeline continues to be unrivaled across the league. The Thunder signed center Moses Brown to a multiyear contract on March 28, converting Brown’s two-way deal after an impressive 16-game stint at the NBA level. Brown has tallied three 20-point games and six double doubles since joining the Thunder, including a 21-point, 23-rebound effort against Boston. Like Lu Dort, Oklahoma City may have found another diamond in the rough with Brown.

23. Sacramento Kings

Harrison Barnes continues to be one of the more underappreciated players in the league as he rolls through his ninth season. Barnes may never be an All-Star, yet he continues to be a steady cog for a Sacramento team in striking distance of a play-in tournament. Barnes’s size provides at least some defensive resistance for a struggling unit, and he’s a smart player off the bounce as well as a quality shooter. Without Barnes, it’s likely Sacramento would be firmly out of playoff contention by now

22. Chicago Bulls

I have confidence that Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević will be enough to propel the Bulls toward at least a play-in appearance or two, though to ascend any further, there needs to be greater production from the rest of Chicago’s core. That starts with Coby White. The second-year guard has struggled to find his footing as of late, shooting just 41% from the field and 32.5% from three in his last 20 games. It’s too early to give up on White’s potential, but the results through two seasons don’t necessarily suggest he’s a future building block.

21. New Orleans Pelicans

Lonzo Ball is going to command major money in the offseason, and the Pelicans may regret not coming to an extension agreement before the season. Ball is averaging a career-high 14.5 points per game this season as his three-point shooting continues to improve, and he trails only Kira Lewis among New Orleans rotation players in net rating. Ball is an effective complement to Zion Williamson. He can initiate offense without either of New Orleans’s frontcourt pieces on the floor. Letting Ball walk could add a major crack in David Griffin’s rebuilding plans.

20. Toronto Raptors

Gary Trent Jr. is already making a major impact in Toronto, tallying a 31-point effort against Oklahoma City before dropping 24 on the Warriors in a 53-point demolition on Friday. Trent fills a relatively similar role to Norman Powell when he was in Toronto, providing instant offense and credible spacing alongside Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. The Lowry rumors persisted throughout trade deadline day, yet Toronto ultimately held off. Perhaps the decision will prove prudent. Running it back with this core and a potential lottery talent could make for a stronger Eastern Conference contender than many realize.

19. Golden State Warriors

It’s time to set off the alarm bells in Golden State. The Warriors enter Tuesday night following three straight losses, including a 130–77 shellacking at the hands of the Raptors. Steve Kerr’s squad is scoring fewer than 98 points per 100 possessions with Curry off the floor. They are just 4–11 since the calendar turned to March. Klay Thompson’s return and a high lottery pick should bring this team back to the playoffs in 2021–22. But considering such a shaky roster at present, it’s fair to consider whether the Warriors’ Finals window is ultimately closed.

18. Indiana Pacers

Few teams in the league feel as ripe for an offseason shake-up as the Pacers. Indiana enters Tuesday sitting firmly in the play-in tournament, and a peek at the roster shows a group with a hard ceiling. There are five Pacers earning over $10 million next season, and there’s plenty of positional overlap with Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis as well as T.J. Warren and Caris LeVert. Don’t be shocked if Indiana jumps into the lottery by shedding a veteran piece in July.

17. Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets continue to tread water in the Eastern Conference playoff race, though it’s fair to question whether their slate of injuries will ultimately send them outside the top eight. Gordon Hayward is likely out for a month after suffering a sprained foot, exacerbating a playmaking shortage amid LaMelo Ball and Malik Monk’s absence. With the Martin twins and Brad Wanamaker increasingly relied upon, we could see offensive struggles emerge in the coming weeks.

16. San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs continued to slide down the Western Conference standings with a loss to the Cavaliers on Monday night, marking San Antonio’s eighth defeat in the last 10 games. Gregg Popovich’s squad has turned in a trio of concerning defensive performances as of late, allowing over 130 points to Atlanta and Indiana before Monday’s 126–101 loss against Cleveland. This is a Spurs team flush with young talent, and the future is bright after effective drafting in the mid-to-late portions of the first round. But the growing pains are evident as we approach the home stretch. It’s hard to imagine San Antonio climbing out of the play-in tournament amid its defensive woes.

15. New York Knicks

This doesn’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things, but I appreciated Julius Randle and Reggie Bullock’s comments about facing Brooklyn’s Big Three before Monday night.

“We’ve got a big five,” Bullock told the media on Monday. Randle then chimed in, adding, “We got a big 15.”

The sentiment is indicative of New York’s culture in the first year of the Tom Thibodeau era, one in which a middling roster consistently appears better than the sum of its parts. Randle is in the midst of a career year. RJ Barrett is making significant strides. This Knicks team has shown up numerous times against the best in the East, and they could be a friskier playoff opponent than originally assumed. We can discuss New York’s ceiling another day. For now it’s worth celebrating the Knicks’ strides in year one of Thibodeau’s tenure.

14. Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies have won eight of their last 11 (with all three losses coming against the Jazz) entering Tuesday night, seeing a marked boost in their offensive output in recent weeks. De’Anthony Melton is playing a sizable role in the jump. The second-year guard has found his shooting stroke as of late, hitting over 51.4% of his threes since March 1. Melton is, of course, due for some regression, but even a passable mark from three will work given his athleticism on the wing. Memphis continues to churn out quality young players as it eyes a return to the postseason.

13. Atlanta Hawks

Clint Capela has been better than advertised in Atlanta, proving to be a true two-way force as Atlanta looks to avoid the play-in tournament in the Eastern Conference. Capela is averaging 16.6 points and 14.4 rebounds in his last 20 games. He’s shooting 61.4% from the field in that span, sporting a plus-8.3 net rating. Capela is a sturdy back-line anchor. He’s a better pick-and-roll partner for Trae Young. Atlanta’s predeadline trade last season continues to look like a prudent move.

12. Boston Celtics

Romeo Langford appeared in his first game of the season on April 1, following an absence due to a wrist injury and COVID-19, adding a quick defensive boost in a win over the Hornets. It’s been a rough Celtics tenure for the No. 14 pick in the 2019 draft, with under 400 minutes on his career odometer entering Thursday night. Danny Ainge whiffing on the Langford selection (for now) isn’t necessarily going to swing the franchise’s fortunes, but Boston’s struggles to capitalize on recent picks has been evident throughout 2020–21. The Celtics will continue to be a playoff team as long as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are on the roster. Yet it will take making the right moves on the margins to take this team back to Finals contention.

11. Miami Heat

Don’t look now, but Duncan Robinson is returning to form as the Heat gear up for the final stretch of the regular season. Miami’s sharpshooting forward has made 30 of his last 45 attempts from three dating back to March 25, getting hot in a hurry after a sluggish first half of the season. Robinson emerged as a dynamic offensive force last season, standing as one of the most gifted catch-and-shoot artists in recent memory. He’ll need to keep it up in order for Miami to be taken seriously as an Eastern Conference contender.

10. Portland Trail Blazers

Jusuf Nurkić is still on a minutes limit after returning from a wrist injury, marking the second straight year in which the Blazers have largely been without their key cog in the middle. Nurkić emerged as a true building block in 2017–18 and 2018–19, providing a true interior presence for an often diminutive rotation. Until Nurkić is back near 100%, it’s hard to consider the Blazers as anything other than a Western Conference also-ran.

9. Dallas Mavericks

Remember when we were worried about Luka Dončić? Dallas’s third-year phenom has fully shaken off an early-season shooting slump, and he’s truly found his gear after the All-Star break. Dončić is averaging 28.5 points and 8.3 assists since the second half began, shooting 51.8% from the field and 40% from three in the process. He and the Mavericks are rolling with five straight wins, looking like an increasingly dangerous opponent in the Western Conference playoffs.

8. Los Angeles Lakers

I think it’s misguided to assume the Lakers’ seed in the West is completely immaterial. Los Angeles’s roster isn’t exactly a juggernaut even as the defending champions, and Anthony Davis may only get a couple of weeks under his belt before the postseason begins. The Clippers appear better suited for an extended playoff run compared to last season, and these are the best Nuggets and Jazz teams in recent memory. If the Lakers have to face that three-team gantlet, a Finals appearance is no guarantee.

7. Los Angeles Clippers

Rajon Rondo didn’t exactly have a major impact in his Clippers debut on Sunday, and he was frankly a nonfactor in his abbreviated Atlanta stint this season. But I’m still of the opinion that Rondo will make a legitimate difference for Los Angeles come playoff time. Rondo can be the late-game initiator the Clippers so desperately need, and his defensive brilliance will likely pay dividends as a series progresses. Judging Rondo in a regular season when he’s less than engaged ignores an obvious truth. When the lights are brightest, you want Rondo on your side.

6. Denver Nuggets

The Aaron Gordon addition continues to pay major dividends for Denver as it enters Tuesday with five straight wins. Michael Porter Jr. has been a major beneficiary of Gordon’s arrival. Denver’s young forward is seeing a flood of open shots alongside Gordon in the frontcourt, able to drill corner threes to his heart’s content alongside a wealth of playmaking options. Gordon has been the missing piece Denver was looking for. The Nuggets’ Finals chances look more credible by the week.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

It’s hard to criticize the Bucks for extending Jrue Holiday in a $160 million deal on Monday. Perhaps the price tag is ultimately a bit rich, but an extension of this nature felt like a fait accompli after Milwaukee dealt a trio of draft picks to New Orleans in the offseason. The Bucks sport a plus-10.7 net rating with Holiday on the floor. He’s an elite defender and he adds an important playmaking boost late in games. Even as a postpeak player, Holiday should prove to be a worthy investment for Milwaukee.

4. Philadelphia 76ers

Tobias Harris may deserve some All-NBA consideration as he continues an impressive 2020–21. Harris fueled the Sixers offensively in Joel Embiid’s absence, and he enters Tuesday night averaging a career-high 20.8 points per game with just a tick under 50/40/90 shooting splits. Harris is far from a stationary shooter. He’s a quality secondary playmaker, and he’s emerged as an effective, late-game option. Perhaps it will be Harris’s emergence that puts the Sixers over the top in the Eastern Conference this summer.

3. Phoenix Suns

We had a pretty good idea of Mikal Bridges’ defensive potential as he entered the league out of Michigan State in 2018. Yet even the biggest Bridges believers didn’t exactly project this level of offensive efficiency. Bridges is averaging 13.3 points per game on 53/40/82 shooting splits this season, and he sports a career-best 116.3 offensive rating. Bridges continues to grow as a three-point shooter. He plays above the rim with ease, and he’s a better playmaker than he gets credit for. Even after Chris Paul departs, Bridges, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton should serve as quality franchise anchors through the 2020s.

2. Brooklyn Nets

Despite all the talk about LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin, Jeff Green has actually been Brooklyn’s most effective veteran big in recent weeks. Green tallied his third straight 20-plus point game in Monday’s narrow win over the Knicks, sealing the contest late with a pair of clutch free throws. Green is as versatile an offensive big as you’ll find, able to stretch beyond the arc and make plays off the bounce. Green has an effective rapport with James Harden, and he could very well log some closing minutes for Brooklyn in the postseason. After a wandering career Green is shining in his best situation yet.

1. Utah Jazz

Don’t let Joe Ingles’ rags-to-riches story fool you: Utah’s veteran forward is an integral part of the Jazz attack, providing an effective boost of versatility alongside max players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. The Aussie forward is an expert initiator off the bounce, and he continues to be a marksman from beyond the arc. Ingles always appears a step ahead of the defense. He pings the ball to open shooters with ease, and he plays with a swagger uncharacteristic of a balding man in his 30s. If Utah finally breaks through and reaches the Finals, Ingles will be a major reason why. 

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