Post All-Star Break NBA Power Rankings – Who’s #1?

Aside from several early turbulent Covid19 related cancellations, the ongoing bigotry investigations within the Utah Jazz’s front office, and some toxic, franchise rejecting yet now in hindsight, innovative James Harden – and now Blake Griffin – trade negotiations bolstering the new NBA title favorites, Brooklyn Nets. The vast majority of the NBA’s strangest regular season to date has been a sterling example of making the best of an awful and unprecedented situation. 

A note, here, upfront, and a huge congratulations, no matter what is said by detractors (me) to the Portland Trail Blazers, Anfernee Simons, for winning what was perhaps the first outrageously boring NBA Slam Dunk Contest ever. But a win is a win is a win. Big Ups to Simmons!

The NBA Playoffs loom on the horizon. The second half of the regular season is underway. March Madness might even inspire some excellent regular season play from the league’s biggest stars. Injections, infusions of youth, exuberance, are nothing short of easy to pass along in hoops. And with that, let’s take this fresh burst of high octane energy into some power rankings. Onward, and upward!

TOP TIER

1. Brooklyn Nets: Wasn’t sure this team could stack the bench, roster, arsenal any deeper – and yet they have. Blake Griffin joined a team that was already 9-1 over their last 10 games. Griffin was criticized across the digital universe for playing halfheartedly, and at least to my eye, only giving about seventy-five percent effort night in, night out for the Pistons. There were ignominious statistics floating through NBA Twitter, and lukewarm TikToks revealed this hot button issue to me first before I dug deeper. All of the blurbs complained about Griffin’s effort – and in subtext, concluded he was deeply unhappy with Detroit’s lack of competitiveness – as I learned Griffin had let a full year and change elapse since his last in-game dunk. Then this week, I saw video footage of Griffin throwing down in practice with Brooklyn. And I said to my brother, “He pulled a Harden on all of us.”Griffin is more than fine. Those knees are solid enough. The Nets now carry a juggernaut of a roster that is easily the best in the Eastern Conference. Not only will Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Joe Harris continue to score early, often and post gaudy offensive numbers, but the James Harden evolution will continue as scheduled, planned, while now certifiable, PG whisperer, Nets HC, and former back to back NBA MVP and Phoenix Suns PG, Steve Nash guides the former Houston Rocket PG to new heights. KD’s squad may have lost the All-Star Game to Team LeBron. But at this stage, and if the Nets remain healthy going into the playoffs, I can reasonably foresee Brooklyn sweeping the Lakers (or someone else) in the NBA Finals. It all adds up too because KD, Kyrie, and Harden right now average 29, 27.2, 25.5 PPG to help the Nets lead the league in scoring with 121.1 PPG. They have the best overall FG percentage, 50. By far the best team right now – and it’s not even close. Give this squad a week, two weeks, they’ll most likely horizon everyone else in, and with every next, extra game the longer this phenomenal behemoth wins together.

2. Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell is not having a good time. The chip on this man’s shoulder is enormous. LeBron James made fun of his team during the King’s All-Star Team draft and more or less said when he was a kid he never played with the Utah Jazz in his video games. And then Jazz (the band?) frontman, Mitchell snapped back, to the sassy tune (jazz…sorry…can’t help it…) of, well, We could care less what this man thinks of us because we’re going to destroy everyone in the West during the playoffs. And you know what? Maybe Mitchell is right. Despite a couple of losses before the break, the Jazz were and are and may just be the most consistently excellent team not named Brooklyn. The Jazz have the best regular season record right now, 27-9. And the bench remains healthy and deep. Utah ranks third in team PPG, second in RPG, and are fourth in scoring defense. 

3. Phoenix Suns: Only once did the Suns look slipshod. After several Covid related cancellations, the Phoenix dropped four games out of five. Since then, lights out. Or – solar flares on? Yes. Now on this current and scorching trajectory – we all know it won’t happen this year, but within the next five years – we can reasonably foresee Suns, PG, Devin Booker with a true shot at an NBA MVP win. But the most pressing detail, or central question, to ask about Phoenix guards concerns may be one of the last in a series of excellent regular seasons for the National Basketball Players Association’s President. By the time we see the Suns in the Western Conference Finals (yes, this could absolutely happen) will we claim this the best Chris Paul-led professional basketball team ever? Or let’s revise that, the best Chris Paul-led team since the 2018 Houston Rockets. If you remember, this was the year Paul and James Harden and the Rockets were dominating the Golden State Warriors until Paul, on the verge of arriving in the Finals for the first time, and in the process of surpassing a super loaded Warriors team in the Western Conference Finals (when Houston was clearly the better team) injured his right hamstring, and therefore missed Game 7. Playoff history or a lack thereof is an odd monkey to have on a first-ballot NBA HOF’s back, and yet there it is for Paul. According to NBA.com, “In 15 seasons he’s been to the playoffs 11 times but just once to the conference finals.” The Suns rank 12th in team PPG, and thanks to Paul, fourth in team APG. But their most impressive team statistic outside the consistent strength shooting is the team defense. They rank third in the league, allowing 107.1 PPG. So to answer our convoluted question earlier, Yes.

4. Philadelphia 76ers: They’re 24-12. They sit in front of the Nets right now. Joel Embiid is still a top-five candidate for the NBA MVP award this year. ESPN wrote, “Joel Embiid will be the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. The Sixers should be a top-two team in the East, so if Embiid can stay healthy, he’ll have a great chance at snagging his first MVP. If he does, he’ll be the first center to win it since Shaquille O’Neal 20 years ago.” Embiid’s recent superlative scoring, rebounding and defense, combined with the new media narratives that don’t paint him as a serious pain in the you know what (go back through the last few years of Embiid drama if you don’t believe me) all figure to give Philadelphia a great shot to go very, very far. And it’s not just MVP candidate Embiid performing at a career-best level either. ESPN recently dubbed Ben Simmons the most important player on this team going forward – because even Shaq required Kobe and Wade for rings the years he won the ship – when they wrote, “The most eye-popping display of this came against the Utah Jazz last month, in a game in which Embiid didn’t play and Simmons scored a career-high 42 points.” It’s all story arc, redemption story, and reputation rescue and come back story with the Sixers, too, because if one’s pandemic stifled and or hampered recent working memory isn’t too comprised, Doc Rivers was thoroughly disrespected, disparaged by Paul George, who was actually on the court shooting bricks, and who actually could have done something about it by not being able to hit the broad side of a barn, when the Clippers were trampled last year after Rivers led his stacked Los Angeles Clippers team to a 3-1 series lead against red hot Denver. Could we see a stacked Philly team take on a loaded Clippers team in the Finals to settle the beef between Rivers and George once and for all? Maybe. But then again, Simmons and Embiid might have the most pivotal influence on this squabble. Before the playoffs, the Sixers have huge games against the Lakers, Nuggets, and Nets, and these three should serve as excellent tests for this roster going forward. 

5. Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers are the best basketball team in Los Angeles. And yes, that means, better than the Lakers. This year, the Clippers will continue to play better than the other LA squad, even when and with a full-strength purple and gold bench and a healthy Anthony Davis, should he return. So there, I said it. And it’s true. Yes, the Clippers lost their last three games. And they went 3-5 in their last 8 before the break. But like the KD injury situation in Brooklyn, the Clippers have yet to play with a full-strength roster for any serious length of time. When Kawhi Leonard does in fact return, he’ll combine with the Paul George redemption story (he’s also digging for new ways to save his name nationwide after back to back years of NBA media gaffes – see Doc Rivers denigration & criticizing Dame’s near half-court dagger three for the Blazers playoff series win, saying, “That’s still a bad shot.” Right, Paul…expert shooter…) and the Clippers will almost certainly finish the regular season ranked second or third in the league in scoring. And I give them a good chance to finish second or maybe even first in scoring defense. But the true and real reason for all of this hype is that the Clippers have looked substantially better playing without last year’s NBA Sixth Man of the Year, Montrezl Harrell, than at any other time last season. 

SECOND TIER

6. Los Angeles Lakers: I would like to now predict and comment on the truly unthinkable, mostly because I know you know that I know it’s on everyone’s mind as the second half of the season begins. Because we’re all starting to worry about the excessive workload of the King. Oh, maybe not? Well, for the Lakers, it’s still the big looming zaftig question.  I predict LeBron James will fade fast as the Lakers barrel into maybe the fourth, fifth, or sixth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. This is more and more the truth if they continue playing without an entirely healthy roster. If I’m wrong, and then LeBron James wins the MVP on one good knee, one bum shoulder, one arthritic wrist, and one busted ankle, then I might be reasonably inclined to proclaim LeBron is now the greatest NBA player ever. Yes, better than Jordan. There, I said it. More of the unthinkable predicted and commented upon. Provocation is far too easy and too fun when I’m arguing alone in a room by myself. Right now, the Lakers have the second-best scoring defense and rank ninth in RPG, but they sit at a dreadful 21st in team scoring per game. 

7. Milwaukee Bucks: Still the single greatest and most prolific fantasy basketball player right now; and maybe also the most athletic big man since Wilt Chamberlain; and according to ESPN he’s rostered in one hundred percent of fantasy basketball leagues, and recently he went an astounding, and perfect 16-16 to win for his side and take home the MVP award at the NBA All-Star Game, Giannis Antetokounmpo is not nearly as much fun to watch play as he was last year. This is a ludicrous thing to say, I’m aware, but it’s true nonetheless. In my unofficial NBA MVP award rankings, he sits outside the top 5. The Bucks frontman is averaging 29 PPG and 11.7 RPG. And Milwaukee is at the top of the Central Division. But I can reasonably foresee this team losing a seven-game set to at least four or five other teams in the East. Nets, Sixers, a retooled Celtics, a back to their former glory, Heat and the Hornets, in the first round, potentially. Who knows? Maybe I’m just as jaded as James Harden was when he criticized Giannis, and more or less said, the Greek Freak was only great on the court because he was seven feet tall. I don’t know, 16-16 at the All-Star Game is pretty freakish no matter how tall you are.

8. Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers have the eighth-best record in the league and they’re playing with about twenty-five percent of the strength they could wield once this wildly deep team returns to full capacity, and more importantly, harmony. The scoring rhythms will come back just as soon as the Blazers see the returns and the resumption of excellence from CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. This, combined with Carmelo Anthony’s unimaginable rejuvenation, and you know who proving he clearly has no ceiling, will give the Blazers a great shot at scoring point totals out of this world. I can see them running at and snatching, taking, claiming the Western Conference crown. Until they’re at full strength, it’s all about Damian Lillard, who, as we now know – and if you saw the All-Star Game – may require and actually see an overabundance of double teams and close defense that begins from just behind and then continues from half-court, because, well, he hits shots from there too. 

BONUS: Ranking the rest of the league using one key statistic.

9. Denver Nuggets: Jamal Murray has scored at least 22 points in 12 straight games.

10. San Antonio Spurs: DeMar DeRozan leads the team in PPG, ASP, and FG % with 20.3, 7.3, and 49.

11. Miami Heat: They lead the Southeast Division with a record of 18-18.

12. Dallas Mavericks: After losing a shootout and thriller to Portland, the Mavericks won 5 of 6 before the All-Star break.

13. Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry won this year’s 3-point shot contest. It was his second.

14. Boston Celtics: Boston ranks 20th in team scoring, 111.7 per game.

15. Charlotte Hornets: Not a fact, yet, an opinion, but LaMelo Ball will win this year’s NBA Rookie of the Year Award.

16. New York Knicks: All-Star Julius Randle leads the team in PPG, ASP, and FG % with 23.2, 5.5, and 48.3.

17. Memphis Grizzlies: They rank third in team assists per game, with 27.1.

18. Toronto Raptors: Still with what looks like a shot at the playoffs, Toronto, with a 17-19 record, is last in the Atlantic Division right now.

19. Indiana Pacers: Domantas Sabonis won the Skills Challenge before playing in the All-Star Game shortly thereafter.

20. Chicago Bulls: Zach LaVine has averaged 30 PPG over his last 10 games. 

21. Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal leads the NBA in scoring, averaging 32.5 PPG.

22. New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson, 20, was recently named among 15 total players, to be part of Team USA’s prospective roster that will – should pandemic numbers and conditions continue to improve – travel to Japan for the, one full year delayed, Tokyo Summer Olympics.

23. Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks just hired former Portland Trail Blazers head coach, Nate McMillan, to lead the team for the rest of the season. 

24. Oklahoma City Thunder: They rank 27th in team scoring, 105.9 PPG.

25. Cleveland Cavaliers: They rank 30th in team scoring, 104.6 PPG.

26. Sacramento Kings: They rank 8th in team scoring, 114.7 PPG.

27. Orlando Magic: They’re 4th in the league in team rebounding, with 46.4 RPG.

28. Houston Rockets: They lost 13 straight games before the All-Star break.

29. Detroit Pistons: Jerami Grant is their leading scorer, and he averages 23.4 PPG which is good enough for 23rd in the league.

30. Minnesota Timberwolves: They’ve lost 9 games in a row, which is more than they have in total wins this season, 7.

About Jackson Pappin 34 Articles
Jackson Pappin is a freelance writer. A 2018 WSU Edward R. Murrow College of Communication alumni, he writes fiction, journalism, columns, essays and poetry. His work has been published in Anastamos, The Oregonian, The Spokesman Review, The Seattle P.I. Reader Blogs, The Daily Evergreen, The Central Circuit, LandEscapes and at the Spectra Art Gallery. His writing is available at https://jacksonpappin.blogspot.com

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