Basketball’s almost back, baby! Over the next three weeks, I’ll be ranking the 22 teams set to restart the NBA season, slotting them into tiers based on their chances of making a Finals run. We’ll go in reverse order, starting from the bottom and working our way to the top of the league.
This week, we’ll look at the teams on the playoff bubble. Next week, we’ll break down borderline Finals contenders, and then the following week we’ll analyze the favorites. For every team, I’m offering up one thought, trend, or X factor to watch out for during the three months of play. Let’s go!
The Sympathy Invitations?
22. Washington Wizards (24-40)
Bradley Beal and John Wall could return next season better than ever if Wall is healthy and if Beal continues his ascent as a star scorer. But Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard told me for my story and video on Beal and Wall that he wants to build a team that shares the ball. That means, despite Wall’s history as a ball-dominant player and Beal’s improvements, they shouldn’t handle all of the shot creation. With Beal, Wall, and Davis Bertans out for the restart, Washington’s player to watch is Troy Brown Jr. The second-year player has the body (6-foot-6, 215 pounds), the style (he’s a smart, jumbo-sized playmaker), and the unselfish mind-set to make any star’s life easier. “I model my game off guys with my body type,” Brown told me. “I’m watching guys like Shaun Livingston for the way he operates without shooting 3s; Khris Middleton, how he’s come from the G League to become an All-Star; Andre Iguodala being a star in his role and won Finals MVP with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on his team. Those are guys who I feel I can take something from their book.”
Livingston, Middleton, and Iguodala fit around stars on offense because they can run the offense at times. Brown already has the feel and passing vision that made him such an appealing choice for the Wizards with the 15th pick in 2018, but the same flaw that kept Brown out of the lottery—his shooting—is still a work in progress. It’s gotten better since he was an Oregon freshman, and he told me he’s working on mechanics, but he admits there’s still room to grow. “I gotta get more backspin on the basketball, and this year’s training is about shooting off the dribble in the pick-and-roll,” Brown said. “A lot of teams go under my screens, so if I can force them to go over screens by hitting 3s, it would help us a lot since teams will play behind us and open things up for everyone.”
Livingston, Middleton, and Iguodala all defend multiple positions, too. Brown can defend wings, but he needs to be better against speedy guards. He knows it, and told me he worked on his lateral quickness during the hiatus by doing workouts using resistance bands that the Wizards sent to each player. Head coach Scott Brooks recently praised Brown’s physical progress. In Orlando, we’ll see whether his work translates to the court. If it does, the future will suddenly look a whole lot brighter for Washington.
21. Brooklyn Nets (30-34)
Jamal Crawford is 40. In the last game he played, last season’s Suns regular-season finale, he dropped 51 points. Crawford’s buckets largely came in garbage time as Phoenix trailed Dallas, but it did follow a string of successful games for the three-time Sixth Man of the Year. He scored 27, 28, and 19 points in his three prior games. The problem is Crawford looked his age for the 60 games before that, averaging 6.4 points on 36 percent shooting while playing old-man defense. It took the Nets losing nearly their entire roster for Crawford to get a chance to play basketball again.
I can’t help but wonder whether Crawford could come back rejuvenated with the opportunity he’ll be provided with Brooklyn. What if he shows he still has the goods in games that matter? What if he ends up excelling next to Brooklyn’s talented young players like Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen? What if he adapts to his aging skills by taking on more of a playmaking focus and by limiting the shots he jacks up?
The following month will be an opportunity for most teams to fight for the postseason, and then try to advance to the second round. But for some teams like the Nets, it’s a time for player development. And for Crawford, it’s a time to prove he still has something to offer a contender once he hits free agency again this offseason. We’re about to find out whether this is the end for Crawford, or the start of his new beginning.
Are You Experienced Enough?
20. Phoenix Suns (26-39)
For my preseason power rankings, I argued that Devin Booker is the league’s most underrated player. At the time, Booker was seen as a ball hog. It was ludicrous. Booker needed to be a dominant on-ball presence during the 2018-19 season because the Suns had no one else to create shots. This season, Booker was praised by past critics for his progress, but the truth is his skills aren’t much better than they were before. It’s not like he installed a brand-new dribble package, or became an All-Defensive team candidate. Booker’s circumstances just changed. Namely, Ricky Rubio was signed to help run the offense and take some pressure off Booker.
Change Has Done Devin Booker Good
|minus-10 percentage points
Booker has run fewer pick-and-rolls and isolations, and has shot more off screens, handoffs, and spot-ups. He plays a more well-rounded style by showcasing the skills he had as a Kentucky freshman. With less responsibility as a shot creator, Booker has more energy and has used it to try harder defensively. Is Booker better? Yes. But he already put the work in for years to become this player, and only now has his role and situation changed to highlight his greatest strengths.
It’s too bad the Suns roster still needs a lot of work. They’re only 26-39, and long shots to qualify for the postseason play-in tournament. Deandre Ayton made massive strides this season as a defender, but the rest of the squad isn’t where they need to be. But at least they have something to play for, allowing us to see Booker in must-win games for the first time in his NBA career.
19. Orlando Magic (30-35)
Mo Bamba is swole now. Look at this dude:
“I’ve put on probably about 28 pounds since quarantine,” Bamba said recently. “We did the whole body testing when we got back in, and I’ve only added about 2.5 percent body fat. So, a lot of it is muscle.” This is a major development for the 2018 no. 6 pick. Bamba’s sheer size—7 feet with a 7-foot-10 wingspan—automatically makes him an intimidating paint presence who can deter opponents from dribbling inside. He’s made tangible defensive progress this season, too: Players shot 10.7 percent worse within 6 feet of the rim when Bamba is around than they normally do, per NBA Advanced Stats. Now, added strength could activate his immense defensive potential; he should be able to withstand contact, battle against bigs, and rebound better.
Bamba was rightfully criticized for his inconsistent motor and occasional lack of toughness in his first two seasons. But can we please learn to have patience with young players? Especially bigs, who normally take a long time to develop since there’s a huge physical learning curve to surviving in the NBA. Rudy Gobert played under 10 minutes per game as a 21-year-old rookie, got a bit better at age 22, and then became a full-time starter at 23 and hasn’t looked back since on his way to becoming one of the greatest defensive bigs in league history. Bamba just turned 22 in May, and the criticisms of him are eerily similar to what the Stifle Tower heard as a prospect and young player. Gobert and Bamba have bodies that few humans have ever had. Let’s see now whether Bamba’s game can grow to be more like his basketball doppelgänger.
17. Sacramento Kings (28-36)
De’Aaron Fox can be even better. He is scoring only 0.88 points per possession in the half court this season, which ranks in the league’s 31st percentile, according to Synergy Sports. That’s an identical number to what he posted last season, which is disappointing considering his massive rookie-to-sophomore-year leap. Fox’s value goes well beyond his half-court scoring, of course. He’s a feisty defender, a slick passer, and an increasingly effective player at drawing fouls, and he creates easy transition chances with his speed. But for a guard who’s supposed to have the ball in his hands a bunch, he needs to be more efficient scoring when the game slows down against elite defenses and in playoff situations.
The Kings have one of the easier schedules for the seeding games, per The Ringer’s Zach Kram, so they could have a lot of games with major implications in the coming month. An ankle sprain will likely sideline Fox for the rest of the ramp-up phase before the games begin. But if healthy, Fox’s performance will show where he is as a player and what he needs to get better at to become a true star capable of carrying the Kings.
The West’s Best 8-Seed Contenders
17. San Antonio Spurs (27-36)
San Antonio’s 22-year playoff streak is in jeopardy. At the least, they’ll finish under .500 for the first time since they tanked for Tim Duncan. Entering the season, I was hoping the Spurs would BLOW IT UP by dealing LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan so we could see more of San Antonio’s youth. It didn’t happen, but now Aldridge is out after undergoing shoulder surgery. Aldridge is San Antonio’s best player, but my goodness am I looking forward to seeing Jakob Poeltl play more. The Spurs are really freaking good with Poeltl; they outscored teams by 4.5 points per 100 possessions when Poeltl was on the floor without Aldridge, and they were outscored by 3.4 points per 100 possessions when Aldridge was on the floor without Poeltl.
These numbers don’t mean San Antonio is better without Aldridge—there are so many variables at play, such as the strength of opposing players on the court when Aldridge is on versus Poeltl. But Poeltl is a reliable, physical defender who blocks a lot of shots, and on offense, he’s a lower-usage player who scores off cuts, rolls, and rebounds. And he can pass. Look at the play below as he fakes a dribble handoff, drives the lane, and then lasers the ball to Patty Mills.
Every minute Aldridge played was one minute that Poeltl didn’t, and the upcoming restricted free agent wasn’t happy about it. “I don’t know if that’s an optimal situation for me another year,” Poetl told the Austrian Press Agency in an interview that’s been translated. “I would be interested to look at at least a few other options and maybe find something that fits the concept better. … I’m going into my fifth year in the NBA. I’m not saying now that from the start I expected to play 30 minutes in the fifth year, but I expected progress every year.” Poeltl hasn’t seen that progress. He went from playing 18.6 minutes during his final season with the Raptors, before being traded in a deal for Kawhi Leonard, and he’s averaged 16.6 minutes in two seasons with San Antonio. If the Spurs don’t want to pay him, some other team will.
Poeltl’s situation is a theme for the entire roster. DeMar DeRozan took minutes from San Antonio’s young guards and wings like Lonnie Walker IV, Derrick White, and DeJounte Murray. Why are the Spurs holding on so tight to the past when they have the pieces to embrace the future? It’s time for change, and that change can begin in Disney.
16. Memphis Grizzlies (32-33)
Folks, this is a 6-foot-11 big man draining 3s off screens:
I could watch Jaren Jackson Jr. shoot all day. Even at age 20, in only his second season, Jackson is one of the NBA’s few bigs who can hit a lot of 3s (39.7 percent on 6.3 attempts per game) and block a lot of shots (2.1 blocks per 36 minutes). But Jackson has a missing piece in his game that’s holding him back from transitioning from “promising young player” to “great player.” He fouls way too much.
In both seasons in Memphis, Jackson has committed 5.2 fouls per 36 minutes, which is too high of a rate for any player to be more than just a shot blocker. Truly elite defenders limit their fouls—Anthony Davis, for example, has committed 2.4 fouls per game through his entire career. Inside the paint, Jackson is still figuring out when to go for a block and when to box out for a rebound. And on the perimeter, he ends up fouling because he’s often a beat late at reacting to the opponent.
Undoubtedly, Jackson is one of the Grizzlies’ best young players along with Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks, De’Anthony Melton, and the inevitable Rookie of the Year, Ja Morant. The Grizzlies have plenty of time for their young guys to reach their primes, but the seeding games will be a stress test for Jackson to show that he can stay on the floor in games that matter.
15. Portland Trail Blazers (29-37)
In the months before suffering a compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula in March 2019, Jusuf Nurkic was playing like one of the league’s best centers. In January, he even had a rare 5x5 game with 24 points, 23 rebounds, seven assists, five steals, and five blocks. But even when he wasn’t posting big numbers, Nurkic was integral to Portland’s success as an elite screener, savvy passer, bruising rebounder, and impactful defender. Nurkic’s value is reflected in the numbers:
Damian Lillard With and Without Jusuf Nurkic
|Lillard with Nurkic (2018-19 season)
|Lillard without Nurkic (2018-19 season)
|Lillard without Nurkic (2019-20 season)
The Trail Blazers were one of the league’s best teams last season when Damian Lillard shared the floor with Nurkic, and they were merely good without the center. They’ve missed Nurkic’s presence this entire season, as the defense has suffered and Lillard hasn’t had his best pick-and-roll partner. But now Nurkic is back, healthy, and ready to play. If Nurkic is anything like the player we last saw, then the Blazers will be considerable threats to steal the 8-seed from Memphis in a play-in tournament.
14. New Orleans Pelicans (28-36)
Zion Williamson is averaging historic numbers for a rookie: 23.6 points on 62.4 true shooting percentage with 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists in only 29.7 minutes per game. Zion can be way better, though. We only need to look at his preseason usage to know that. Before Zion injured his meniscus, Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry utilized sets to get Williamson the ball on the move, such as this:
Zion looks like a rocket firing out of a cannon as he sprints through the down screen toward the paint. In the next clip, he explodes:
But in Zion’s limited time in the regular season, the Pelicans didn’t run many of these actions. Zion became a post player, as 26 percent of his possessions came from the post, one of the highest marks in the league, according to Synergy Sports. It’s an odd choice considering Zion’s moves on the block are actually quite rudimentary and his greatest strength is what we had seen in preseason: getting the ball on the move, whether that’s off a designed cut or a roll to the rim after an on-ball screen.
“Zion has already shown he’s historically efficient offensively for his age, and that’s while playing in the post like a big man,” Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin told me earlier this month. “From that standpoint, I’m excited about where he could go.” So am I. So should everyone be. On a per-minute basis, Zion is already one of the best players in the league, and that’s without doing much of what he’s best at. Now that the Pelicans have had time to reevaluate and to reinstall sets during training camp, we might just get another taste of Zion’s true greatness.