Every three weeks this NBA season, I’m publishing power rankings with one thought, observation, or idea about each franchise. Let’s do it:
1. Los Angeles Lakers | Previous Rank: 1
Defensive concerns have been overblown.
We’re nearing one-quarter of the regular season being complete, and the Lakers currently rank first in defensive rating. LeBron James is busting his butt, and Anthony Davis remains a force. All those concerns about L.A.’s defense being worse this season were overblown, thanks in large part to the new guys around LeBron and AD.
Marc Gasol may not block quite as many shots as Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee, but he’s typically in the perfect position to alter a shot around the rim. Though Montrezl Harrell has had some poor moments, he’s still an energizer whose positive traits outweigh any negatives. Davis will play center when he needs to anyway; that’s when the Lakers are at their best. But the fact they’re clicking at such a high level following a 71-day offseason is still remarkable. The new bigs are filling in, Wesley Matthews is an upgrade at wing over Danny Green, and Dennis Schröder has been a disruptive force on the ball.
For more on the Lakers’ new additions, check out this episode of my new video series, The Void:
2. Los Angeles Clippers | PR: 2
The Clippers are making the extra pass.
Check out this play from the Clippers’ recent win over the Kings:
Ooooh, pretty. This is quintessential good-to-great basketball. Luke Kennard, Paul George, or Kawhi Leonard all could have shot. But this play captures the type of mentality the Clippers are playing with. Last season, they were too stagnant. Now, they’re utilizing more ball movement. Whether Paul George and the rest of the team can keep up their hot shooting remains to be seen, but the ball movement looks like it’s here to stay.
3. Brooklyn Nets | PR: 3
Will Steve Nash revive James Harden’s off-ball brilliance?
Harden dropped a triple-double in his Nets debut, scoring 32 points, handing out 14 assists, and grabbing 12 rebounds. Outrageous numbers, and he should only improve (he also had nine turnovers). We know what Harden is capable of in pick-and-rolls and isolations, which has sparked some discourse about there “not being enough ball” for him, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving.
But all three players have proved they can play with other stars at one point in their careers. We shouldn’t forget the role Harden played early in his career in Oklahoma City, when he came off the bench and frequently ran through a ton of screens and handoffs to get touches. Could we see him blend the new with the old in Brooklyn? We saw it once during his debut:
Harden inbounded, cut toward the baseline before coming back toward the ball for a handoff. Harden scored there, but he has other options: DeAndre Jordan for a lob, and Durant or Joe Harris for kickouts. Brooklyn is already thriving this season by putting its stars into motion; as chemistry develops in its new lineup, the Nets could become even more devastating.
4. Milwaukee Bucks | PR: 4
Jrue Holiday is putting the Bucks at ease.
Holiday is averaging only 15.2 points and five assists, which appears underwhelming on the surface considering the Bucks gave up three first-round picks and two first-round pick swaps for him. But the numbers don’t do Holiday justice. Watching the games, it’s clear that Holiday is better defensively and far superior offensively to Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe bricked countless jumpers late in the shot clock last season, but Holiday has already hit multiple timely buckets—including spot-up jumpers and turnaround jumpers from midrange.
I don’t have a statistic for this, but I get anxious when Bledsoe needs to make a decision with the ball. Holiday makes me calm. Bucks fans can trust him to make a smart, quick decision, whether it’s a pass or even a relocation to get himself open for a dump-off pass.
Milwaukee is scoring a blistering 117.8 points per 100 possessions, one of the all-time marks. I’m surprised we haven’t seen them utilize more pick-and-rolls with Holiday (or Khris Middleton) using Giannis Antetokounmpo as a screener. The Bucks couldn’t rely on Bledsoe or George Hill to thrive in those situations in the past, but Holiday and Middleton are capable. It’s the next piece of the puzzle they should install, because what works in the regular season doesn’t always work during a seven-game series. Milwaukee needs to add as many layers as it can before the playoffs.
5. Phoenix Suns | PR: 8
Chris Paul is passing the Suns up a level.
Visualize Chris Paul passing the ball. The odds are you’re seeing him run a pick-and-roll or dribble in the open floor before firing a dart toward his teammate. Maybe we should also see him inbounding the ball. Paul recently caught my eye with this assist:
It’s not as gorgeous as a lob dunk to Deandre Ayton or a kickout to Devin Booker, but points are points. Paul leans back, then telepathically passes open Cam Johnson with the bull’s-eye pass. Beautiful stuff.
Inbound passing is important. Defenders can be exploited for ball-watching, like Toronto’s Pascal Siakam is in this instance, and the accuracy of a pass can determine whether or not a shot is unleashed. With Paul, the Suns have a star who racks up big-time baskets and assists, but also makes plays that’ll never pop up on highlight reels.
6. Boston Celtics | PR: 9
Is Tacko Fall actually good?
If you search for anything on Google, a section turns up related questions called “People Also Ask.” When I searched for “Tacko Fall,” the first question I saw was: “Is tacko fall actually good?”
Well, people of the world, I have the answer: Yes, Tacko Fall is actually good. This season, Tacko has blocked Russell Westbrook, banked in a 3* (*actually a deep two because the tippy-toes of his size-22 feet were on the line), attacked a closeout to shake Earth with a dunk, and has just been an overall blast any time he graced the court. These highlights give me joy:
Tacko, who’s 7-foot-5 and 311 pounds, has a career 25.7 PER, ninth all-time among players to appear in at least 10 games—just behind Wilt Chamberlain and just ahead of Kevin Durant. Legendary stuff, folks.
What we have here is another Boban Marjanovic. Boban, who ranks sixth all-time in PER, carved out a career for himself by supersizing lineups and being a lovable teammate. Tacko has similar qualities, and his skill development since he left Central Florida bodes well for his ability to stick around as long as Boban has.
Players like Boban and Tacko make the NBA more fun to follow. Let’s enjoy them while they’re here. Fingers crossed they’ll share the floor together sometime soon.
7. Philadelphia 76ers | PR: 7
Should Daryl Morey keep shopping Ben Simmons?
The Sixers missed out on Harden. There’s no other way around it. Harden would have given them what they lack in a superstar perimeter shot-creator. But the price was undeniably high. League sources say the Rockets demanded Ben Simmons, Tyrese Maxey, and three first-round picks from the Sixers in return for Harden. You can’t blame Morey for refusing to go all in when there’s long-term risk in adding a 31-year-old who has only two guaranteed seasons left on his deal. There also could be other options available eventually from losing teams, such as Washington’s Bradley Beal or Chicago’s Zach LaVine.
However, Houston’s demand says something more about the value of Simmons around the league. And that could impact Philadelphia’s hopes of acquiring a player who can fill its void. Every team executive recognizes Simmons is one of the league’s best defenders and a dynamic open-floor playmaker. Perhaps in a different situation, he could fill a role resembling Giannis Antetokounmpo’s. But Simmons also has plenty of skeptics who see his inability to shoot as a fatal flaw.
If Washington is one team that values Simmons highly, then the Sixers should go hard for Beal, who at 27 is only nine months older than Joel Embiid. Beal can excel with or without the ball in his hands, so he’d be a perfect fit playing alongside Embiid, Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, and Shake Milton. His level of on-ball scoring talent could also solve the problems that have plagued the Sixers in postseason end-game situations.
The Sixers are 9-5 and Embiid is arguably the leader in the MVP race. Despite their early success, they should be aggressive, not complacent.
8. Dallas Mavericks | PR: 6
Dallas—and Luka Doncic—is figuring out how to defend.
The Mavericks rank fourth in defensive rating this season, and that’s despite Kristaps Porzingis playing only three games. Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell, and Willie Cauley-Stein have all done an admirable job protecting the paint. New additions like Josh Richardson and James Johnson have helped, too. Doncic also deserves credit for setting a tone with the best effort of his career. Doncic is fighting over screens, diving for loose balls, and rotating with more focus than ever before.
“He’s one of our best defenders at the end of games,” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle recently said. It’s the truth, which is a dramatic change from last season, when Doncic had plenty of lackadaisical moments on that end of the floor. Doncic and the Mavs came into training camp preaching defense and they’re walking the walk. If the Mavs start winning more games, Doncic’s improvements on defense should put him in the discussion to win his first MVP.
9. Golden State Warriors | PR: 14
Draymond Green is back defensively.
The Ringer’s J. Kyle Mann recently dropped a new video detailing what makes Draymond Green so special defensively, in case you forgot after a few consecutive down seasons for the former Defensive Player of the Year. In the video was this clip:
As Mann detailed, Green often doesn’t rotate until the moment the ball handler releases the pass to his intended target. OG Anunoby goes from thinking he has an open layup to meeting Green’s “long-ass arms” at the rim. Green gets no credit for a block or steal on this play, but he’s the reason Anunoby missed the layup.
Green has been a game changer for the Warriors. This season, their defensive rating when he’s on the floor (104.9) would rank second, while their rating when he’s off the floor (111.8) would rank 24th. Golden State is only 6-6, but Green makes everyone better. More wins should be on the horizon.
10. Utah Jazz | PR: 12
Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert have chemistry now.
Remember pre-hiatus last season when Conley looked like a total shell of his former self? Remember when Conley couldn’t seem to connect with Gobert? That’s a thing of the past. Conley and Gobert are now connecting on the regular.
Conley admitted it was a challenge for him to adapt to a rolling big after playing with a pick-and-pop big in Marc Gasol for many years. But now that they’re clicking, it’s resulting in some beautiful basketball.
11. Denver Nuggets | PR: 10
Should Denver make a huge move?
It got lost in the fast-moving news cycle, but ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that the Nuggets had discussions with the Rockets for Harden. My understanding is that those talks didn’t go very far, but it does indicate Denver is looking for upgrades to bolster its Finals odds.
Is there another move out there for the Nuggets? As discussed in the Sixers blurb above, Beal could eventually become available if the Wizards keep dropping games. Could Denver build an offer around Michael Porter Jr.? Another option might be Victor Oladipo, if Houston wanted to flip him. No matter the case, the Nuggets should be active in seeking upgrades. Nikola Jokic is having an MVP campaign, but he’s carrying a more massive load than any other season of his career. Jamal Murray has been as frustratingly inconsistent as he was pre-bubble, so finding a more consistent backcourt presence would go a long way in helping them both.
12. Indiana Pacers | PR: 15
A brand-new system is humming so far.
New head coach Nate Bjorkgren has overhauled Indiana’s offense. It’s a breath of fresh air. The Pacers utilize motion concepts and off-ball screening, and they’re running far more offense through Domantas Sabonis. So far this season, Sabonis is one of two players to log more than 100 touches per game (Nikola Jokic is the other), and those touches come in a variety of ways.
Indiana frequently runs this basic action with Malcolm Brogdon flipping the ball back to Sabonis, which can lead to an endless amount of plays. Sometimes, Sabonis will dribble to his left into a handoff just as he does in the clip above with Doug McDermott. With an unbalanced floor, no one is in position to help on Sabonis’s dive toward the rim for the layup. Other times, the Pacers will get tricky:
In this clip, Sabonis goes to his right for a handoff, but instead of screening and rolling, he runs through a back screen being set by (his now former teammate) Oladipo to get open for an easy drive to the cup.
The Pacers are 8-5 and rank 11th in offense. Sabonis is playing at an All-NBA level, and Bjorkgren’s offensive adjustments are one of the key reasons. He belongs firmly in the Coach of the Year conversation.
13. Miami Heat | PR: 5
An unexpected development from Tyler Herro.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much development from Tyler Herro this season. Miami had more time off from the hiatus in mid-March to the restart in late July than it did from the end of the NBA Finals to the start of the 2020-21 NBA season. I figured the leap we saw in July was the leap we would’ve normally seen in October, ahead of his second season. And the basic stats would suggest Herro hasn’t improved. He averaged 16 points and 3.7 assists with a 55.7 true shooting percentage in the playoffs. This season, points are slightly up (17.6), assists are up by a decimal (3.8), and scoring efficiency is exactly the same (55.7 true shooting).
However, it’s impressive those numbers are so comparable when his usual jumpers haven’t fallen for him so far this season. Herro is shooting only 30.2 percent from 3, way down from 38 percent during his rookie regular season and playoffs. Eventually, shots will fall. So how’s he doing it in the meantime? Just look inside the arc.
Herro is shooting 59.6 percent on drives to the rim this season, up from 47.1 percent during the playoffs and 46.7 percent last regular season. Every stat is a small sample at this point, but this improvement shows up in watching the film. Herro is showcasing even softer touch and more command over the tricky finishes he uses to score against lengthy defenders.
After his freshman season at Kentucky, I noted that he had a “sluggish first step” and “lacks explosiveness” but he displayed “potential as a crafty interior finisher.” Herro shot only 49 percent on shots around the rim at Kentucky, according to Synergy, because he often tried but missed these crafty layups. Now he’s hitting him regularly. This is progress.
Not all young players get better. Many stagnate. Some get worse. Herro flashed star potential in the playoffs, and now he’s improving on a weakness. Once his jumpers start falling like they usually do, more star-like moments should follow.
14. Portland Trail Blazers | PR: 17
Entering a winnable stretch without Jusuf Nurkic.
Losing Nurkic to a wrist injury for at least the next eight weeks is devastating, but the Trail Blazers are fortunately about to enter a lighter portion of their schedule over the next month. For now, we’ll see Enes Kanter start at center. In Portland’s win Saturday over Atlanta, Kanter even logged five blocks. Here was his brilliant reaction after the game with Blazers courtside reporter Brooke Olzendam:
“I got five blocks? … Good for me!” Incredible. Kanter might be unplayable in some playoff matchups, but he makes for good content.
It could be useful for the Blazers to learn how to play without Nurk. We have already seen Robert Covington play some 5, much like he did in Houston. The results have been mixed, but Covington’s best defensive position is as a 4 or 5 so he can be a nuisance rotating off the ball. Portland needs Nurkic back and in good condition in time for the playoffs, but the Blazers can use this time to grow other areas of their game.
15. Memphis Grizzlies | PR: 18
Mr. Tillman, it’s good to see you again.
Seerat Sohi recently published an outstanding feature on Yahoo Sports that examines how Green paved the way for shorter, doughier players who can defend to find roles in the league. Grizzlies rookie Xavier Tillman Sr., who attended Michigan State just like Draymond, was one of the players featured. “Many people only care about buckets, but for a guy who could bring back entertainment through defense like your Dennis Rodmans and Tony Allens and Patrick Beverleys,” he told Sohi, “it’s cool that he brought some hype to it.”
One day after the story dropped, Tillman did this in the closing minute of a Grizzlies win over the Sixers:
Tillman begins this possession on Dwight Howard, then switches on to Tobias Harris and steers him out of bounds. Such a tremendous effort, and it should only be the beginning of more moments like it. Tillman is strong, nimble, and long enough to switch onto anyone. Offensively, only his jump shot needs to improve because he’s already a good decision-maker, talented passer, and bone-brushing screener. As Sohi wrote, “You don’t mimic Green simply by sharing his dimensions.”
16. New Orleans Pelicans | PR: 16
Roster changes are desperately needed in N.O.
The Pelicans have a spacing problem:
Brandon Ingram has the ball in the corner, but the paint is packed because he’s surrounded by two non-shooters (Zion Williamson and Steven Adams), and two non-threats from 3 (Eric Bledsoe and Lonzo Ball). This is a problem that needs serious solving for Ingram and Williamson to reach their potential as a duo.
To make matters worse, both Bledsoe and Ball aren’t qualified to run the offense. The Pelicans don’t have another answer on the roster for that role, unless Stan Van Gundy feels Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis Jr. are ready to contribute. Last week, Alexander-Walker displayed major on-ball flashes, scoring 37 points against the Clippers. New Orleans may not be as ready to win as many had hoped this season, but potential lies within the roster.
17. Toronto Raptors | PR: 13
The Aron Baynes Fan Club is losing members in Toronto.
There’s a Twitter account called @BaynesFanClub that started during the 2018-19 season, when Aron Baynes was with the Celtics, and then it was passed to Suns fans last season. The account took off because of good content like this:
It’s too late to be scared pic.twitter.com/s9ijaPsv5y— Unofficial tAronto Baynes Fan Club (@BaynesFanClub) January 4, 2020
Too bad Baynes has been awful with Toronto, and now the Raptors supporters who run the account need to resort to making up stats to keep things interesting.
Aron Baynes tonight— Unofficial tAronto Baynes Fan Club (@BaynesFanClub) January 15, 2021
⚡️ 2 points
⚡️ 1 charge drawn
⚡️ 1 steal
⚡️ 1 huddle recalibration
⚡️ 1 game clinching lightning strike pic.twitter.com/JrmeVFeL1T
“Huddle recalibration” should be a stat! Effective play there by Baynes!
It really is too bad, though. Baynes doesn’t impact the game the same way Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol can. Neither does his backup, Alex Len. Even if the Raptors go with a small-ball center in Chris Boucher, who I outlined in my last power rankings, they’re prone to getting beat up on the boards.
This season isn’t totally lost for Toronto. There are still strong pieces on the roster. But addressing the center position will be key to turning things around.
18. Cleveland Cavaliers | PR: 26
An appreciation of Larry Nance Jr.
Nance began his career with the Lakers as an explosive but undersized center. Now, the 6-foot-7 forward is surrounded by giants and is being forced to adapt to becoming a wing. For the first time in his career, Nance hasn’t played a single minute at center, and he’s producing better than ever before. It all starts on defense for Nance, as he serves as a Swiss Army knife for Cleveland’s second-ranked defense.
Nance is large enough to defend jumbo-sized players like Ben Simmons and Julius Randle, but he’ll also switch against guards. Few players are more locked in off the ball, as he always seems to find himself in the passing lanes; he even leads the league in steals (31) and deflections (62).
On the other end, Nance is averaging 10.5 points, including shooting 42.9 percent from 3, and 3.8 assists—all career highs. I get too much enjoyment watching him pass:
These assists are juicy. He has an eye for seeing passing windows that many players don’t, and he always puts the ball on target, whether it’s a transition feed, a kickout, or an entry pass. Cleveland should consider Nance a keeper, and any contender would be wise to chase him hard.
19. San Antonio Spurs | PR: 22
Devin Vassell is a long-armed menace.
Vassell, the Spurs’ rookie wing, always seems to find himself in the perfect defensive position to make a play. Watch some of these slick steals:
A feel for rotations, an eye for seeing plays develop, and extremely long arms put Vassell in position to cause problems in the passing lanes. It shows up in the numbers, too. Per Stathead: Of wings to log at least 100 minutes this season, Vassell ranks second in steal percentage, behind only Matisse Thybulle from the Sixers.
But despite Thybulle’s defensive brilliance, his lack of offensive production has caused him to have a dwindling role. So Vassell’s offensive development also must start soon. So far this season, he’s shooting only 38 percent from the floor on 4.4 shots per game. But Vassell has far more talent as a ball handler and passer than Thybulle, and a better history of success as a shooter. It should only be a matter of time until Vassell is a two-way presence.
20. Charlotte Hornets | PR: 25
Devonte’ Graham is struggling to adjust.
Graham is shooting 32 percent from 3 this season, which is plummeting his offensive value. There are few players who are more reliant on their jumper to score. Since he entered the NBA in 2018-19, 58 percent of his made shots have come from behind the arc, more than all but eight players who have made at least 250 3s during that time frame. The player who ranks just ahead of Graham is Patty Mills, the longtime Spurs sixth man who’s excelled alongside plenty of stars throughout his career.
For Graham to sustain success in his career, he’ll need to be more like Mills by producing without receiving significant touches. Last season, Graham possessed the ball for 8.2 minutes per game. This season, it’s down to 5.2, which is largely due to the presence of Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball. It’s on Graham to get into a rhythm playing with them. If not, the Hornets will need to find a new spark plug scoring guard.
21. Houston Rockets | PR: 11
Will the Rockets blow it up?
People around the league wonder what Rockets general manager Rafael Stone will do next following the Harden blockbuster. As I reported last week, Victor Oladipo, an impending free agent, has eyes for Miami. Could the Heat, or another team looking to contend—such as the Nuggets or Celtics—try to acquire him? And how about P.J. Tucker? Numerous teams have already inquired about the stout versatile defender, and league sources say Houston is currently demanding three second-round draft picks for the upcoming unrestricted free agent.
“What’s super exciting about [the Harden deal] is it gives us flexibility,” Stone told reporters on Sunday. “In the NBA, picks, especially high picks, are the best currency. Everybody likes them. Everybody values them.” Perhaps, before the March 25 trade deadline, Houston will have even more of them to play around with in the years to come.
22. Atlanta Hawks | PR: 19
It’s time for Trae Young to step up.
Plays like this one sum up the issues in Atlanta:
Kevin Huerter loses control of the ball, squandering an opportunity to score himself or dish it to Young. But Young himself also needs to do a better job of getting a quality shot. Why, exactly, is he dribbling for eight seconds then settling for a contested 3-pointer with 12 seconds left on the shot clock? Sure, he had Derrick Favors on a switch but there was plenty of time to reset the offense and call a play. But that’s just how it’s been this season for Young—there’s no one else to create shots for him, and he’s determined to chuck his way through his struggles.
The Hawks are dealing with key injuries to Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari—the two players they acquired to help Young carry the offensive load. But in their absence, Young needs to do a better job of elevating the play of his teammates. Too often he’s settling for jumpers by chucking up deep shots early in the clock. It’s a bad Steph Curry impression when Young should instead be learning from Curry’s brilliance off the ball—the way he gives up the rock then moves, the way he makes the extra pass, the way he takes those tough shots at the right moment.
Young is still developing, but right now, his choices are heavily contributing to the struggles of a banged-up team with no chemistry. Changing Atlanta’s fortunes needs to start with Young, because no one likes to play with a ball hog when the team is losing games, especially when that same player is a liability on defense.
23. Sacramento Kings | PR: 24
Richaun Holmes is at the center of Sacto’s success.
Every other Wednesday this season, I’m hosting a podcast called Ringer NBA University with Jonathan Tjarks and J. Kyle Mann that will focus on the league’s youngest players and the draft. It’s perfect for Kings fans! Last week, we discussed Tyrese Haliburton before getting into the team’s ups and downs this season. Tjarks brought up a stat that really highlights the importance of Holmes that’s worth sharing here:
This season, when Holmes shares the court with at least one of Haliburton and De’Aaron Fox, the Kings outscore opponents by 1.4 points per 100 possessions. Without Holmes, that number dives to minus-23.7, according to PBP Stats.
Yeah, yeah. Small sample size. Whatever. But the differential speaks to Holmes’s presence as an energetic defender and rebounder who’s dominant rolling to the rim.
Whether Fox, Haliburton, or someone else is handling the rock, it sure helps to have a target like Holmes who can leap for lobs or dribble into his own finish. According to Synergy, Holmes has scored on 21 of 25 attempts rolling to the rim. That’s lethal. If only the Kings had more support behind him at the big man position.
24. New York Knicks | PR: 30
New York’s priorities are changing Quickley.
“I’ve been on bad teams before, this is not one.” The Knicks lost five straight games after Austin Rivers made that statement until Sunday’s 30-point win over the Celtics. New York is dropping more games, but player development matters most this season.
Immanuel Quickley is a bright spot for the Knicks. If Quickley is scoring, like he did on Sunday by dropping 17 points against the Celtics, he resembles a long-term building block in New York. And he brings contagious energy off the bench even when his shot isn’t falling.
25. Orlando Magic | PR: 23
Cole Anthony is struggling.
Markelle Fultz tearing his ACL earlier this month opened the door for Anthony, the Magic’s first-round pick, to receive more minutes than expected. So far, it’s not going well. Anthony is shooting 33.3 percent from the floor and 20.5 percent from 3. His decision-making and shot selection have been shoddy. And at only 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, teams are going at him on the defensive end. This is a lost season with the Magic. Anthony coming along as the season wears on would go a long way to making everyone feel better about Orlando’s future. For now, it’s bleak.
26. Chicago Bulls | PR: 28
Is Zach LaVine a sleeper trade target?
We know LaVine can score. He’s averaging 26.9 points per game and can get pretty much wherever he wants on the court. The dude’s a certified bucket. But his scoring development has been wasted on the dumpster fire teams he’s been stuck on his entire career. I’ve been critical of LaVine for his flaws as a defender and passer. But this season, he’s improved in those areas by showing more effort on defense and willingness to create for his teammates. It’s to the point that I’m intrigued by what he could offer in a winning situation.
LaVine will become a free agent in 2022, and he’s on an extremely team-friendly deal worth under $20 million annually until then. For all the focus that was on Harden, and will be on Beal, what about LaVine? There are no untouchables in Chicago. For any team looking to make a splash acquisition, LaVine is the target no one is talking about but should be.
27. Oklahoma City Thunder | PR: 29
Buy Lu Dort’s shot.
Even though the Thunder are 6-6, they have the league’s third-worst net rating. They aren’t good. But Luguentz Dort is. We’re witnessing a player go from “defender capable of bothering James Harden” to “legitimately good player.” The big difference this season is Dort is hitting 43.1 percent of his 3s. I’m buying the current improvement because it’s clear he’s put in work.
Dort’s jumper was rigid last season, especially as he brought the ball up from his waistline into his release. It’s smoother now.
I feel confident Dort will be able to keep shooting at an above-average rate—not just because of his revised form but because of his success from the free throw line, where he’s shot nearly 80 percent from the line in his NBA career.
OKC may not win many games the rest of the season, but Dort is one of many quality players on the roster. This group will compete.
28. Washington Wizards | PR: 21
The Wizards’ season is on hold.
The Wizards haven’t played since January 11 following four straight postponements. General manager Tommy Sheppard said nine players are sidelined due to the league’s health and safety protocol, and six of them have tested positive for COVID-19. “It is just an unfortunate set of circumstances. If you follow our track really going back to when we played Chicago [Dec. 29 and 31], almost every team we’ve played, a player tested positive,” Sheppard said during a recent media call. “The NBA has been pointing to this period for quite some time that this was going to be very difficult. And they weren’t kidding.”
Hopefully everyone with the Wizards is able to return to good health. I look forward to seeing them again after they won their most recent game, a 128-107 victory over the Suns. Their defense was much improved with Robin Lopez at center instead of Thomas Bryant, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. And Davis Bertans finally started to hit his 3s. With Bradley Beal playing at an All-NBA level, there’s still potential for Washington to start stringing together some wins. Let’s just hope the Wizards are playing again soon.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves | PR: 20
Pain. Pain. Pain.
This isn’t how Minnesota season’s was supposed to go: 3-8 with the worst net rating in the NBA. I generally try to lean positive with these power ranking write-ups, but what good is there in Minnesota? D’Angelo Russell isn’t elevating the play of his teammates. Anthony Edwards is scoring inefficiently. Jarrett Culver still can’t shoot 3s. Karl-Anthony Towns has played only four games and now has COVID-19. All of it just straight-up sucks. At this point, we can only hope for a happier ending. Towns deserves it more than anyone after the year of loss he’s been through.
30. Detroit Pistons | PR: 27
Blake Griffin looks done.
Three years ago, after the Pistons traded for Blake Griffin, I wrote: “It might be only a matter of time until Griffin looks more like prime David Lee than prime Blake Griffin.” We’re sadly past that point now. Griffin’s athleticism has fallen off a cliff: He hasn’t logged a single dunk this season, shoots over half of his shots from 3, and is hitting only 39.3 percent of his total attempts.
The Ringer’s Zach Kram did a nice job of detailing Griffin’s evolving game, and made the point that teams have also begun targeting him on defense. It’s sad to watch, really. If it wasn’t for Griffin’s history of major injuries, you’d expect him to age gracefully because of his playmaking talent. At least the Pistons have Jerami Grant, but it’s a shame the NBA already lost the Blake Griffin we used to know.