Less than two weeks remain in the first half of the NBA regular season, before the most openly reviled – by players and commentators – and fecklessly hyped – by the NBA’s front office – NBA All-Star Game in league history sputters to virtual, socially distanced and dangerously far travelled life in Atlanta the first weekend in March. (Might even be cancelled before tip-off. Remember, the NFL Pro Bowl was virtual?) All things considered, however, the odd doubling up of games due to travel restrictions, where teams have often lately fought through a one and one featured matchup against the same opponent – something like a lightning round European Champions League – has inadvertently provided a far more clear picture of an emphatically ushered in and renewed form of competitive league play; and thus turning the often criticized NBA regular season’s subpar entertainment into a competitive nightly slugfest. These teams know each other too well not to capitalize on fresh basketball I.Q. And so, this most recent week’s NBA power rankings are sure to shapeshift by this time again seven days from now. Comprised of nothing certain, with every team’s fate consisting of tectonic upheavals, mercurial ascents and woeful free falls galore. It’s time we launch into power ranking the top and the best of what we’ll no doubt recast, edit, modify and completely revamp very soon. Here are five in-depth looks at the best team’s story lines with many more up to the minute power rankings for the rest of the NBA’s three tiers. Onward!
TOP TIER TEAMS
1. Utah Jazz: Whoever out there tells you they saw this red hot Utah Jazz juggernaut of a team coming from before the first game is lying to you. Deceiving you, outright. I did not predict a team this strong. This phenomenal top spot is deserved, but remains tenuous at best. Before we dive into the math, it’s important to note that another alleged bigotry charge within the Utah Jazz organization has surfaced on ESPN recently. The Jazz have a tremendous social skills problem. Details are coming through as I write this, but it was almost amazing how a brand new young owner’s positive media presence, and his down to earth, preening sort of, “I can only be myself, man,” M.O. combined with, right now, by far the league’s best regular season record, 25-6, has allowed almost every NBA fan to completely forget the continued racist taunts Utah Jazz fans allegedly commit against every single visiting team. (There are fewer fans in the stands, so maybe the decline is not more than just limited opportunity.) Couple this problem with how it was none other than Jazz Center, Rudy Gobert’s woefully, tragicomically ironic mockery come back to haunt him, when right after a press conference last season Gobert – and one that inadvertently signaled the first foredooming instance of later the league wide play stoppage – aware of the news but non compassionate during the discussion amid one the early week’s of the nation’s now single worst and most lethal public health crisis – thought it was entertaining to whimsically touch, and make a spectacle of, transmitting a Covid19 infection, fake couching and fondling every single microphone set out (at least a dozen) on a table before answering media questions. And all of this just days before Gobert tested positive for Covid19, alongside a positive diagnosis for his Jazz locker buddy, and neighbor, NBA All-Star, Donovan Mitchell. So it’s not like – even though maybe it is true – that we’ve almost forgotten about the worst Utah Jazz related social butchering attempt at humor since a fan, sitting court-side, hurled racial epithets at Russell Westbrook and Westbrook had to be restrained before he became another rendition of the man formerly known as, Ronald William Artest Jr charging at, and punching a fan for lobbing a soda bottle onto the court. The point is the bigotry must be outright condemned in Utah. This is a culture problem in the organization. It must be solved immediately. Anyway, moving on, the Jazz fan in the Westbrook spat was banned for life following this outburst. And he now is most likely regretting every decision he’s ever made – the big, worst one in particular – because this Jazz team is also a monster. They’re loaded. Utah has allowed limited capacity at games, and this may in part explain why Utah recently finished their single best 20 game regular season stretch, going 19-1. It was the greatest Jazz run since the legendary John Stockton and Karl Malone era, finally, sort of ending in a loss to a loaded LA Clippers team, that dropped Utah to a still astounding 18-2 over their last 20 games. During their most recent 20 game stretch the Jazz have phenomenally knocked off the Lakers, Hornets, Clippers, Sixers, Bucks twice, Celtics, Mavericks twice, and a resurgent Warriors among other teams. Donovan Mitchell has led all scorers in 11 of these games. Mitchell was selected to the Western Conference All-Star team on the strength of 24.1 PPG, 4.6 RBG and 5.3 ASG. The Jazz as a whole, are very deep, and compared with the rest of the league, now rank third in scoring offense, second in rebounds, second in scoring defense. And they seem to have unlimited depth on the bench because the team has six players averaging double digits in scoring every night, Mitchell, Clarkson, Conley, Bogdanovich, Gobert and Ingles.
2. Brooklyn Nets: And almost overnight the Nets are 21-12. Right on cue, Stephen A. Smith has crowned a new king of the NBA this week. And it is James Harden. Since Harden’s unorthodox but in the end very successful trade demands (showing up for the regular season thirty five pounds overweight after partying without a mask during peak Covid19 case count spikes and visiting Atlanta to socialize as well) to in large part, escape the vacuum of success, common sense, and blithering lack of respect for professional athletes that is consistent throughout seemingly all Houston sports teams (Astros, extreme cases of money ball exploits plus the sign stealing cheating scandal, and lately the Texans are portrayed as an oblivious ownership group with no instinct for quality coaching – all part of the city’s sports problems, now that superstar JJ Watt has abandoned the city as well). And despite the outrageous media hellfire Harden suffered in his jump to the big apple, the Beard has performed an extreme and acrobatic positivity one-eighty not witnessed in the NBA since LeBron James resigned with the Cleveland Cavilers after winning multiple NBA championships in Miami before bringing a ‘ship to his hometown. James Harden and the Nets are, as of Thursday, winners of seven straight. And Kevin Durant is still out with a nagging hamstring injury. I watched all of their victory over the Suns in Phoenix last week. The win had nothing to do with the Big 3 of Harden, Durant and Kyrie Irving. And everything to do with the underrated but excellent supporting cast and depth that consists foremost of Eastern Washington high school basketball’s single greatest NBA star since – I don’t know when – Joe Harris. The reigning All- Star 3-point champion, against Phoenix, with Harden out, and resting, Joe Harris led the final charge, knocking down big consecutive shots in the fourth, before Harden went on a scoring tear, all combined, finally the Nets returned from the single largest deficit for a win this season, 24 points, ultimately prevailing, 128-124. The NBA just released the prime time television details of the second half of the regular season earlier this week. The Nets will have nine prime time appearances to match the nine given to LeBron James and the Lakers. For good reason too. The Nets are one half game back of the Atlantic Division lead, behind Philly. Right now, they lead the NBA in scoring, and are second in assists per game (see Harden’s evolution), with nowhere near the full strength of what they could have been playing with sometime soon. This recent superheated dominance will only grow stronger. (They’re my top choice to win it all this year.)
3. Los Angeles Clippers: Last season, right before the NBA resumed play in the Florida play-in and post season bubble, Paul George won the unofficial crown of the single worst self-appointed nickname of all time. And then “Pandemic P” would go on to flop and flounder and fail so hard in the bubble playoffs format, and play so unimaginably awful and miss so many shots, turn the ball over, and play lackluster defense so consistently down the stretch, while also throwing head coach Doc Rivers under the bus often enough to actually contribute in the legend, Rivers, being relieved of his duties entirely after seven mostly fortuitous years, immediately after LA blew a 3-1 playoff series lead to Denver prior to their surprising hot streak and conference finals run. But now Paul George is back, in better, veteran shape. We’ve almost all of us completely forgotten the myth that was not, “Pandemic P.” (No, we have not.) George is not quite the beast of his Pacers years, and yet he now still leads the team in FG percentage, 51.7. The Clippers are 23-10. Many of their games – many wins – have come without a full roster. Kawhi Leonard is still battling injuries now and again, leg contusion being the most recent, and yet he leads LA in scoring, with 27.1 PPG. The Clippers are right now in the league the fourth best in scoring and fifth best in scoring defense. Plus, they are one of the only teams to take down Utah.
4. Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid received glowing high praise from the NBA’s chief shaman of glittering hyperactivity and proselytizing, Stephen A. Smith, earlier this season – with talk of awarding the Center the MVP this year after the Sixers star’s red hot start though the first week. We might have come and gone way too soon, and we may need to revisit Embiid’s candidacy for the coveted award, because perhaps no single Embiid performance was better than when he stuffed a career high 50 points en route to a 112-105 victory over the Bulls last week. Embiid is the third best scoring player in the league right now, averaging 29.8 PPG to lead Philadelphia toward the Atlantic Division’s best record, 21-11. Despite recent losses to Toronto, Utah, Phoenix and Portland, the Sixers appear poised for much more success once they adjust for the second half of the season with Tobias Harris – 20.7 PPG and 7.7 RBG – and Ben Simmons – leads the team in FG percentage, 56.7 – both amidst career and legacy defining offensive production seasons to go with Embiid’s nightly double-double performances. Doc Rivers has rebounded wonderfully as new head coach too. The recent additions of Seth Curry and Danny Green give the Sixers an outside shooting threat – one not quite as good as the Nets’ Harden, Durant and Harris – that may pay major dividends if the Sixers can balance their attack and not rely on just one player carrying the team’s offense every night.
5. Phoenix Suns: Don’t look now! The hottest team in the NBA play-in and playoff Florida bubble (even though they won every game they played and still did not make it into the playoffs) has remained scorching through the first of half this regular season. At 20-11 and sitting third in the extra loaded Pacific Division behind the Clippers and Jazz, the Suns are almost good enough to receive the label, “guaranteed playoff team,” and are maybe, with their all new off-season acquisition of veteran Chris Paul, strong enough to slide into the Western Conference Finals; especially if the injury bug continues to dog the Lakers, Blazers and Clippers. But who knows? As of right now, Devin Booker has recently replaced injured Lakers star, Anthony Davis, on the Western Conference All-Star team. Booker and the Suns annihilated an injury depleted Portland by 32 recently (sorry, Blazers faithful – credit where credit is due?). In their last ten games, the Suns dropped a whopper against Brooklyn, yet they took down Boston, Milwaukee and Philly, who all overflow with talent, despite their own inconsistencies. Booker leads all scorers on the team with 25 PPG. That’s followed by Paul’s 16.7 PPG and Deandre Ayton’s 14 PPG and 11.8 RBG. Like the Jazz, the Suns have depth with seven total players averaging double digit point totals per game.
SECOND TIER TEAMS
6. Milwaukee Bucks: Time for two truths and a lie. This is an amazing basketball team. This is a mediocre basketball team. This Greek Freak led team will finally represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. On any given night it seems one of these things is false. Or maybe they’re all true and the lie was that I’d give you two truths and a lie. Even when they’re awful, the Bucks are still stacked with talent. Something is missing though (defense: they rank 16th in the league) – because it shouldn’t be this easy for this roster to lose 13 games.
7. Los Angeles Lakers: Anthony Davis was and is arguably the best player to accompany LeBron James to an NBA Championship. With that said, Davis’s absence is more explicitly detrimental with every next game the Lakers drop. LeBron is still a front runner for the NBA MVP award. But he’ll only win it with, ironically, MVP level contribution from Davis down the stretch.
8. Portland Trail Blazers: As of Thursday they’d dropped three games in a row. However, this team would sit in the top three of the league going into the playoffs if they could manage to play at full strength. The depth will return. And behind Lillard’s MVP quality play, and the very late in his career scoring resurgence of Carmelo Anthony, Portland absolutely has the tools in place – once they’re healthy – to make Charles Barkley resemble a basketball genius for betting $100,000 on the Blazers to win the Western Conference during TNT’s opening night coverage.
9. Denver Nuggets: Can you imagine how talented a basketball player and superstar has to be, for us to proclaim, with no exaggeration, that while averaging 21 PPG, we can say that Jamal Murray has fallen off a cliff? Maybe it was unfair to expect the out of this world Steph Curry level deep threat night in, night out from Murray. His field goal percentage is still three points higher, at 47, than his career average. Nikola Jokic is averaging close to a triple double a game. The Nuggets could go deep, and you know what? Maybe I’m wrong about Murray, and he’s still as good as we thought he was during the bubble because he dropped 50 just one week ago, with 0 FT attempts too, in a win over Cleveland.
10. San Antonio Spurs: They lead the Southwest division with a 16-12 record. And that’s not saying too much considering the super packed Western Conference’s talent pool and the projected road through the playoffs. But DeMar Derozan is quietly playing excellent ball, leading the Spurs in PPG, APG and FG % – 19.8, 6.9, and 48.8
11. Golden State Warriors: The Warriors finally have a talented big man leading the front court in Wiseman, who gets better every game. And Stephen Curry’s return to elite, 30 PPG greatest shooter of all time, form, has been a delight for Bay Area fans that know nothing but misery watching the Los Angeles sports universe thrive this last calendar year.
12. Dallas Mavericks: Out of nowhere, NBA basement obscurity, here come the much improved Dallas Mavericks. Luka Doncic averages almost a triple double every game with 28.9 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 9.2 APG. There were rumblings of Doncic running away with the MVP award this season near the start of the year. He flopped, and so did the Mavs to a large extent, out of the gate. But a healthy Kristaps Porzingis seems to have cleared the way for the Mavs’ young star to bounce back gloriously.
13. Indiana Pacers: This is most definitely a playoff team. But that’s it. Or is it? The Pacers are sixth in the league in assists per game, but middling in scoring offense, fifteenth – then in scoring defense, fourteenth. Domantas Sabonis averages 11.7 boards a game. And Malcom Brogdon is good for 21.7 points a game.
14. Toronto Raptors: Much like the Dallas Mavericks, the Toronto Raptors flopped instantly at the start of the season. However, here they come now, much, much improved. In the last week they took two consecutive wins from the Bucks and found a way to beat Philly. That’s not just nothing, either, because Toronto’s leading scorer Pascal Siakam, 20.1 PPG will improve and put up bigger numbers as the year goes on.
15. Charlotte Hornets: I read something great on NBA Twitter recently. I’m paraphrasing, but the quote is, “If you’re over the age of 25, then Melo will only ever refer to Carmelo Anthony.” Subtext, “Not the new Melo.” However, all this bluster might change, and somewhat shift the generational name awareness line in LaMelo Ball’s direction. The new Melo is the best Ball brother. No question. The rookie averages major contributions in every major statistic every game: 14.8 PPG, 6 RBG, 6.1 APG. Charlotte actually leads the Southeast Division with a 15-16 record.
16. Miami Heat: The return of Jimmy Butler spelled the end of their run of woe to begin the year. But this is nowhere near the talented group that upset the Bucks en route to the NBA Finals during their wildly enthralling dominance in the Florida playoff bubble last year.
17. Boston Celtics: Wow. Hard to say, but this is a very bad basketball team. They should be one of the best in the league. Right now, no one is playing well for this wildly talented Boston side. They’re 15-17, and my brother’s personal pick for the Eastern Conference Champion might miss the playoffs entirely. Currently they sit ninth in the Eastern Conference, out of range, with no clear answers whatsoever. The Marcus Smart injury is the worst of the worst in their recent – and actually prolonged – abysmal run of woe.
18. Chicago Bulls: The Bulls are just…decent. And that’s it. Right now, they sit third in the Central Division at 15-16. That’s pretty good, actually. Zach LaVine scores 28 per game, good for sixth in the league. That’s pretty much great, actually. And their scoring offense is also sixth best in the NBA. Wow, alright, then, maybe they’re on the way up. I like their chances to make the playoffs, but not much else until they play better defense. They’re in the bottom third, giving up 115.1 PPG.
19. New York Knicks: Dead last in the Atlantic Division with a record of 15-17. But that’s good for a fourth place tie with the Celtics. Despite this, Knicks fans finally have something worth watching, Julius Randle. The power forward drops 23.3 PPG and snags 11 RPG. And the former seventh overall pick just received his first ever All-Star selection. This is the best regular season of his career. He dropped 44 against Atlanta about ten days ago.
20. Memphis Grizzlies: Memphis is nothing special, not right now, at least. They’re 13-14 and third in the Southwest division. Unfortunately, they also played the dunce, the loser, in a Phoenix franchise record setting performance, where the Suns knocked down 24 threes. Yikes. If Ja Morant can light it up down the stretch, and improve on his right now 19.7 PPG then, and only then, are the Grizzlies approaching playoff contention.
21. New Orleans Pelicans: Very young, inconsistent, sloppy and bad at defense, the future still looks extremely bright for these baby sea birds. Zion Williamson’s knees might not last another five years. But this year, the super springy paradoxically high flying tank of a star player just made the Western Conference All-Star Team. And it’s well deserved, Zion has 25.2 PPG on 62% shooting from the floor. (62!!!)
22. Atlanta Hawks: Trae Young is the only NBA player to average at least 27 PPG with 9 APG and then not make an NBA All-Star team. With Young, and Clint Capela, this Atlanta team might soon become great. But they need to attract some superstar, somehow, some sort of fix, a new weapon because right now, the formula is not working. They won’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs with the roster the way it is.
23. Orlando Magic: Nikola Vucevic is the only fun part of this team for the casual NBA fan. But do catch one of his games if possible. Vucevic is clever, crafty. And right now he also averages a double-double per game: 23.9 PPG and 11.7 RPG. Good enough for an All-Star selection.
24. Houston Rockets: Nothing good happening here since their winning streak, post Harden trade, early on when they triumphed for six straight games. They recently waived a severely frustrated – not quite James Harden level but still very much disgruntled – DeMarcus Cousins. Look for the hobbled superstar to sign cheap somewhere, and come off a contender’s bench. My best bet is the Lakers, with Anthony Davis still fighting through injury.
25. Oklahoma City Thunder: They rank 27th in scoring offense, and are tied for 16th in scoring defense. So it’s not a fun time to play for a franchise that should now be returned to its rightful owner, Seattle, even though it’s quixotic for me to suggest something like this. Odd, too, ironic as well, “quixotic” is the best way to describe OKC’s shot at the playoffs. Poetic justice has no expiration date when spite’s involved.
26. Washington Wizards: Russell Westbrook is nowhere near the elite scoring talent Bradley Beal. Beal drops 32.7 PPG. Seems too, like Russ going the way of Blake Griffin, eventually, at least, because knees in this league don’t last forever when the star scores the majority of their points crashing in through lane and powerfully throwing down every next bucket from above the rim. And Westbrook is also a notoriously poor shooter – getting worse. But none of this matters as much as the fact that the Wizards still don’t have enough to make it to the playoffs. Good luck in the draft?
27. Cleveland Cavilers: The highlight of their entire regular season came during their back-to-back victories over Brooklyn. And that’s it.
28. Sacramento Kings: At what point do the Kings admit they don’t know what they’re doing, and blow up the whole thing? I can’t say. They’ve lost eight in a row. De’Aaron Fox is the only thing saving the Kings from even more agony, averaging 22.5 PPG. Might lose him to free agency if they’re not careful, and wise enough to surround Fox with help though. On defense, especially, where the (not) Kings rank last.
29. Detroit Pistons: NBA fans nationwide are destroying fallen superstar Blake Griffin on NBA Twitter especially – who is now sitting out all games until the Pistons can trade him for something, if anything – because it’s been over a full year since Griffin has dunked in a game.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves: One glorious and monstrous posterizing dunk from Anthony Edwards wasn’t enough to salvage an already bad night and a blowout loss where Edwards was also 3-14 shooting from the floor. This week, the Wolves fired head coach, Ryan Saunders.