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Power Rankings: Can Anyone Catch the Lakers?

Kawhi Leonard looks better than ever. Joel Embiid is making a strong MVP case. And Donovan Mitchell’s Jazz now have the NBA’s best record. But can any of them topple the champs for the no. 1 spot?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

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

Kyle Kuzma is doing more with less.

Last Thursday, Draymond Green tweeted: “Kuz now play winning basketball. Amazing growth in that area.” Bingo! Kuzma is playing the best basketball of his career right now. Kuzma is scoring a career-low 10.1 points on 8.9 shots per game but posting a career-high effective field goal percentage. With less of an offensive burden, Kuzma is channeling his energy into the defensive end.

Plays like this are why Draymond recognized Kuzma’s impact beyond the box score. In the clip above, Kuzma switched on to Trae Young, then proceeded to mirror his every movement until Young had no choice but to pass the ball away, resulting in a turnover. All season long, he’s hustled as a help defender and rebounder. He has never been more consistent defensively. The Lakers have the no. 1 defensive rating this season because of the effort of guys like Kuzma.

2. Los Angeles Clippers | PR: 2

Kawhi Leonard makes a playmaking leap.

Leonard is an accomplished 29-year-old superstar, but he’s clearly not done getting better. He’s averaging his standard 26 points on elite scoring efficiency and tacking on a career-high 5.1 assists with only 1.8 turnovers.

Teammates aren’t simply hitting more shots off Leonard passes, nor is he possessing the ball or passing it more often. Leonard’s improvements are apparent; he knows that his scoring will generate open space for his teammates.

Timing is the key in the first clip above. As soon as Kevin Durant shades his way, Leonard delivers the ball. In the clips that follow, he manipulates defenders with head fakes and look-offs.

Kawhi’s playmaking progress has been steady, going back to his final full season with the Spurs, and now everything is beginning to click. With Leonard and costar Paul George playing some of the best basketball of their careers alongside a bolstered supporting cast, the Clippers should be considered serious threats to unseat the Lakers.

3. Philadelphia 76ers | PR: 7

Joel Embiid’s dribble-jumper is a threat.

One of the key trends to watch in Embiid’s MVP bid is his proficiency shooting off the dribble. Last season, he shot only 33 percent on dribble-jumpers. Through 19 games this season, he’s hitting 53.5 percent of his midrange jump shots off the dribble and 33.3 percent of his 3s, per NBA Advanced Stats. We’re working with a small sample of 111 shots, but Embiid looks more comfortable than ever utilizing crossovers and hesitations to get into smooth pull-ups.

I’m buying this progress. Last July, I reported that a Sixers source told me Embiid was working on his face-up game and his pull-up jumper. Embiid has a long track record of improvements. Shooting off the dribble was simply his next step.

4. Brooklyn Nets | PR: 3

Brooklyn searches for answers on defense.

Brooklyn has the 27th-ranked defensive rating this season. No team with a regular-season defense this bad has ever won a championship. I tend to think the Nets are better than their stats will ever indicate because when Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden stop coasting, they can all be good defenders. Durant is a switchable piece who can play small-ball 4 or 5. Irving locked in during Cleveland’s title run. Harden showed how tough he can be when he stonewalled Kawhi Leonard in a recent Nets win over the Clippers. All this is true, but the Nets do need reinforcements.

Most notably, Brooklyn needs either a traditional big, or another small-ball big to bring a modern flair. I took a scan through every team’s roster, and here are some names that stand out to me as possible targets.

  • Via buyout, there are two from the Cavaliers: Andre Drummond and JaVale McGee.
  • Via trade, there are more: Jonas Valanciunas, Gorgui Dieng, Justise Winslow, Thaddeus Young, P.J. Tucker, Larry Nance Jr., Khem Birch, and Mo Bamba.

To be clear, I’m not saying these players are available. It’s just obvious none of them are long-term keepers for any of their teams. They’re also in an affordable range for the Nets if Brooklyn uses Spencer Dinwiddie as a trade chip, plus some combination of second-round picks and a young player like Nic Claxton (though he’s someone I’d want to keep if I were the Nets). Dinwiddie, who suffered a torn ACL in late December, can be traded if the receiving team waives his physical. Dinwiddie has a $12.3 million player option for next season, but he’s only 27, and a team that acquires him would obtain an inside track to signing him to a new deal.

The Nets need to do what they can to maximize this season. For now, they get a slight bump down the rankings due to Durant’s absence and a lack of continuity. But that’s likely just temporary. The Nets can be better defensively, and the roster isn’t done being built yet.

5. Milwaukee Bucks | PR: 4

The Bucks can try on something new.

The Bucks had the NBA’s top-ranked regular-season defense the past two seasons, but they’ve dropped to eighth now one-third through 2020-21. The slip can be attributed to a number of different factors, including opponents getting better at beating the drop coverage Milwaukee uses, in which Brook Lopez sags into the paint and baits teams to shoot. D.J. Augustin and Bryn Forbes aren’t impactful perimeter defenders, and Bobby Portis can’t protect the rim as well as Robin Lopez could.

It’s unreasonable to expect Giannis Antetokounmpo to play a ton of center during the regular season—he’s done it for only 31 minutes so far this season—but I would love to see head coach Mike Budenholzer experiment with it more often in preparation for the playoffs, specifically using a four-man grouping of Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Donte DiVincenzo with an alternating fifth player. Torrey Craig has been the fifth man with those four players for only two minutes this season, but he could offer size and defensive versatility in that spot. Pat Connaughton has been plugged in for eight minutes and offers complementary offense. Forbes hasn’t played a single minute with them and could offer knockdown shooting.

Finding a better 3-and-D wing would be ideal. The problem is there aren’t many available, and those who are might be too expensive for the Bucks. Milwaukee can offer first-round pick swaps in 2021 and 2023, and second-round picks from 2022 through 2024, none of which hold much value considering the Bucks will win a ton of games.

Even if they don’t make an upgrade, the Bucks have the ability to switch far more screens defensively or even toggle into a more aggressive scheme. They have shown a willingness to change defensive schemes with more frequency than past seasons when Budenholzer’s rigidness got them into trouble. But Giannis at center could open up their own Death Lineup.

Middleton and Holiday could take on more shot creation in this type of configuration. The Bucks have one of the greatest offensive ratings ever right now, so no one is complaining about points. But Middleton attempts only 14.5 shots per game, 51st most in the NBA, despite averaging 52-47-93 shooting with a career-high 5.8 assists and only 2.3 turnovers. If the Bucks need to get even more out of Middleton, he can provide the juice.

6. Utah Jazz | PR: 10

The gauntlet is coming.

The Jazz are 19-5, the best record in the NBA, and they’re the only team in the league with a top-four offensive and defensive rating. Rudy Gobert is playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level again. Mike Conley is back to being Mike Conley. Donovan Mitchell keeps getting better. Jordan Clarkson would be my pick right now to win Sixth Man of the Year. The entire team is rotating defensively and whipping the ball around the floor like they’re telepathic. The Jazz are really good. That’s undeniable. But we’re about to find out whether they’re truly great.

Over the next two weeks, Utah will face the Celtics, Bucks, Heat, and Sixers at home, and then the Clippers twice on the road. After a game versus the Hornets in late February, they’ll host the Lakers to cap off a doozy of a stretch. This eight-game marathon won’t necessarily change the fact that the Jazz will be a formidable playoff opponent. It could, however, show they belong in the NBA Finals conversation.

7. Phoenix Suns | PR: 5

Depth wins.

On Sunday, the Celtics frequently pressured or trapped Chris Paul and Devin Booker to force the ball elsewhere. But the Suns won 100-91 thanks to Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson combining for 36 points. “If teams want to play junk defenses against me and Chris and get the ball out of our hands, [Bridges and Cam Johnson] can make them pay,” Booker said after the game. This is probably the play that was on Booker’s mind:

Boston trapped Booker, and then Bridges and Johnson took care of business. Bridges drove then passed the ball against Kemba Walker’s momentum, forcing a defensive rotation that gave Johnson time to unleash a 3. Plays like this one have the Suns firmly in the West playoffs, because this roster is deep with talent beyond Booker and CP3.

8. Boston Celtics | PR: 6

The Celtics are scoping out the trade market.

Late Saturday evening, I received a flurry of texts from multiple executives around the league who said the Celtics were up to something. What they’re up to is unclear, but league sources have long said Boston is searching for upgrades to bolster its wing and big man position.

Tristan Thompson became trade eligible this weekend, and with a $9.3 million salary, he could be a perfect fit for a deal. So could Daniel Theis, with his expiring $5 million contract. The Celtics have young players like Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith, in addition to all of their future first-round draft picks, which could position them to make a bid for a big fish such as Bradley Beal if he were to become available, or a role player like P.J. Tucker or Thaddeus Young.

The Celtics are a good team, but they feel incomplete. With both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown performing at an All-NBA level, Danny Ainge should be aggressive in increasing his team’s Finals odds.

9. Denver Nuggets | PR: 11

What’s wrong with Will Barton?

A couple of years ago, I was on a date with my girlfriend in Los Angeles at a low-lit pizza restaurant that had candles at every table. When we sat down, our table didn’t have one, which felt awkward, so we asked our server to bring one over. They did, but this flame soon began to fade and eventually went out. We didn’t do anything about it the second time. It felt whiny to ask for another candle. It ended up being a symbolic moment, because our relationship soon fizzled.

I was reminded of this date while watching the Nuggets—yeah, I’m weird—because it feels like Barton and Denver have lost the spark that carried them the past six years. Will the Thrill earned his nickname because of his ability to jump-start a sluggish offense. But Barton’s offensive role has dwindled because the roster has minimized the need for his instant offense. Nikola Jokic is a legitimate MVP candidate. Jamal Murray is a better player. Monte Morris is a more trustworthy playmaker. Even rookie R.J. Hampton, who earned 28 minutes on Saturday night, could see more playing time to get more experience.

The sad truth is that Denver doesn’t need Barton anymore. With a $14.7 million player option for next season, his deal will be up soon. The Nuggets are expected to be aggressive in pursuing opportunities to trade for a star, so it’d be surprising to see him finish that deal in Denver, let alone get extended. Maybe he will offer something to a new team. I hope he can. As I found out, moving on can be best for both sides of a relationship.

10. Golden State Warriors | PR: 9

Steph Curry is an MVP candidate.

There’s no clear favorite for MVP one-third into the season, which is unusual. All the same, why do I never hear Steph’s name being mentioned as a candidate?

Curry is tied for ninth in’s latest MVP ladder, and he isn’t even in the top 10 for’s MVP tracker. Yes, the Warriors are only 12-11, but the Nuggets are 12-10 and that hasn’t stopped anyone from calling Nikola Jokic the favorite. I honestly don’t get it; Curry is posting nearly identical numbers to his unanimous MVP season.

Steph’s Playing Like an MVP Again

Season Points Assists Shot Attempts True Shooting
Season Points Assists Shot Attempts True Shooting
2015-16 30.1 6.7 20.2 66.9%
2020-21 29.4 6.1 20.3 64.9%

The Warriors aren’t going to win 73 games this season. There won’t even be that many games to play. Klay Thompson is out all year. The goal in Golden State this year is figuring out what it wants to be moving forward. One thing the organization can know for sure is that Curry is the same player who had one of the greatest seasons in the history of sports. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr thinks Curry could actually be even better now.

“He’s never played better,” Kerr said on Saturday after Curry scored 57 points against the Mavs. “We’re talking about a two-time MVP, three-time champion. I’ve never seen him like this. He just looks so strong to me. He’s obviously always been an incredible shooter, but he looks stronger to me just getting by people, fending them off on drives to the rim, finish, and of course the shot-making. It’s almost unfathomable what he’s doing.”

11. Indiana Pacers | PR: 12

Indiana is going overboard on going over.

Following an 8-4 start to the season, the Pacers have won only four of 12 games with some common issues on the defensive end. As Caitlin Cooper of Indy Cornrows recently detailed, Indiana’s habit of overpressuring the opponent in situations it shouldn’t is leading to far too many easy looks.

Too often, the Pacers apply ball pressure to non-shooters like Zion Williamson and Ben Simmons when they’re handling the ball on the perimeter, which only leads to drives like in the clips above. Sagging off would limit the odds a bulldozer with a Ferrari engine like Zion or Simmons can zoom toward the rim, forcing the defense into rotation.

In other instances, the Pacers will have their defender go over screens against non-shooters instead of sliding under. In the clip above, Malcolm Brogdon goes over the screen being set for Giannis Antetokounmpo, which gives him a runway toward the paint that rattles the defense and gives up a wide open shot to Brook Lopez.

There is no perfect solution when offenses are so potent. And as Cooper detailed, there are absolutely situations in which this game plan should be utilized. But for the Pacers to be taken seriously as a playoff threat, they have to start trying to do something different to beat the NBA’s best teams.

12. San Antonio Spurs | PR: 19

Are the Spurs better off without LaMarcus Aldridge?

Last Monday, I wrote about the development of San Antonio’s young players and DeMar DeRozan’s surprisingly analytics-happy game. One player I didn’t get into all that much was Aldridge, who head coach Gregg Popovich said will be “out for a while” with a hip injury. No one ever wants to see a player get hurt, and definitely not one who is 35 years old. But the Spurs are better off without the veteran.

The Spurs hemorrhage points when Aldridge shares the floor with DeRozan, allowing 120.4 points per 100 possessions this season, per NBA Advanced Stats. Without Aldridge, that number improves to 104.8 because center Jakob Poeltl, his replacement, is a far superior defender. Poeltl makes a limited offensive impact but his lower usage also means more possessions get funneled to DeRozan, who has become one of the league’s most efficient scorers.

DeRozan scored 30 points in each of the two games the Spurs played this past week without Aldridge. On the season, he’s averaging 20.5 points with a career-high true shooting percentage. Here’s the difference with and without Aldridge, per 36 minutes:

DeRozan, With and Without Aldridge

DeRozan stats With Aldridge Without Aldridge
DeRozan stats With Aldridge Without Aldridge
Points 18.6 25.6
Shot Attempts 11.8 18.2
Assists 6.5 7.7

For as long as Aldridge is out, DeRozan could be an under-the-radar target for daily fantasy lineups. And in the process, the Spurs will probably win more games.

13. Toronto Raptors | PR: 17

Yuta Watanabe deserves your attention.

Few things make me happier in life than good help defense. That’s why Watanabe, a third-year undrafted forward, is becoming one of my favorite players to watch.

My friend William Lou, of Yahoo Sports Canada, clearly shares my passion. He’ll only have more clips for his video as the season moves forward, because Nick Nurse is having a hard time keeping Watanabe off the floor despite his offensive limitations because of his off-ball impact and his ability to contain opposing wings in man-to-man situations.

It’s been a long and winding road to get to this point. Watanabe was born in Japan and came to the United States at age 18 to pursue basketball. After four years at George Washington University and two years spending the majority of his time in the G League, he’s making the most of his chance in the NBA. “Coming into this season, I was only on a training camp deal. So I never knew if I was going to get an opportunity like this,” Watanabe recently told reporters. “In training camp I worked hard every day, and I was able to show what I can do to the coaches, front office, and my teammates. I got the two-way, and now I’m getting my opportunities. I’m really proud of myself, and what I’m doing right now.”

14. Portland Trail Blazers | PR: 14

The little things make a big difference.

Nassir Little has missed three straight games with a knee injury, which is a shame because the last time we saw him play he dropped 30 points. It came in a 28-point loss to the Bucks, but the production was legit.

Little scored from everywhere. Pull-ups. Cuts. Catch-and-shoot 3s. Transition. This is the type of scorer North Carolina was hoping it’d get when Little committed as a top high school recruit. He’s also the scorer the Trail Blazers hoped for when he was selected 25th in 2019. One big game doesn’t mean a whole lot, but it shows he’s capable. At only 20 years old, could Little develop into a player who bolsters Portland’s Finals dreams?

The Trail Blazers have done a good job of getting playing time to young players like Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. in recent years. Little should be next when he’s available to play again. At 6-foot-5 with a long 7-foot-1 wingspan and a body-builder frame, Little also has the potential to become a highly versatile defender. The Blazers could use another 3-and-D player to support their stars. Little could help a lot.

15. Houston Rockets | PR: 21

Eric Gordon, lockdown defender.

Gordon has been clamping opponents all season long. These two possessions against Damian Lillard have stuck in my mind:

Advanced defensive stats would have you believe Gordon is one of the worst defenders in the NBA this season. ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus ranks Gordon 410th in the entire league. But defensive data is limited compared to what the eyes can gather. Gordon ranks a couple of spots ahead of Ben Simmons, one of the best defenders in basketball, so I suppose that means Gordon is in great company.

16. Memphis Grizzlies | PR: 15

Dillon Brooks is building a brick house.

The Grizzlies are filled with quality young players, but Brooks hasn’t improved at all since his rookie season in 2017-18; in fact, he’s gotten worse. This season, Brooks is one of 49 players averaging more than 15 shot attempts per game. Too bad he ranks last in true shooting percentage, at only 45.8 percent.

Brooks takes shots that are often to his team’s detriment: Sometimes they are outside of the flow of the offense, or in situations when the best choice would be to get the ball back to Ja Morant. As the Grizzlies look to build out their roster, it’s hard to see Brooks fitting in unless he overhauls his game.

With all that said, it would be unfair to blame Brooks for the team’s three-game losing streak. Morant didn’t look the same this past week, and the sprained ankle that sidelined him for almost three weeks could be affecting his performance, especially his aggression late in games.

17. New Orleans Pelicans | PR: 16

Zion Williamson is evolving.

Pelicans head coach Stan Van Gundy has changed how he’s utilizing Zion. He’s now having him bring the ball up the court and run pick-and-rolls as a ball handler more than before. In the past six games, Williamson has been the pick-and-roll ball handler 4.5 times per game, more than double the 1.8 pick-and-rolls he averaged through the first 15 games, per Synergy Sports.

The Pelicans often have a smaller guy screen for him, and then that player pops for a 3-pointer. Williamson has a good feel for whether to deliver them the pass or attack the defense and force help toward the paint, which creates space for spot-up shooters. Zion’s playmaking numbers have risen accordingly; he averaged 1.9 assists and 2.5 turnovers through his first 15 games this season, but in the past six contests he’s averaging 4.8 assists and 2.6 turnovers.

“Zion is so physically overwhelming in the paint that people just think he’s a freak-of-nature power forward, and that’s all he is,” Pelicans front office boss David Griffin told me for a story on the Pelicans late last month. “But he played point guard basically his entire life before he got to Duke. His stepfather raised him with the ball in his hand to make decisions like a point guard. He measures himself by his ability to make people better. This isn’t a kid who grew up putting himself on the post, trying to learn the Dream Shake. This was the guy who wanted to be a facilitating playmaker with the ball in his hands facing the basket.”

Williamson is tapping in to the next level of his offensive potential, and he’s playing with better defensive effort than before. Van Gundy can be a difficult coach to play for, but so far Williamson is responding to what’s being asked of him. Don’t let the fact the Pelicans are only 10-12 fool you into thinking Williamson isn’t one of the game’s most special players.

18. Dallas Mavericks | PR: 8

The crowd is turning on Luka Doncic.

Is this the season Luka becomes a villain? Are we at that point already? ESPN’s Zach Lowe said last week on The Lowe Post that Luka constantly whines, a comment that became a topic on morning shows (and drew the ire of team owner Mark Cuban). Lowe is 100 percent correct that Doncic complains a lot, but I personally don’t mind it. I’d be whining too if I was averaging 28-9-9 in my third NBA season after winning titles at every other stage of my career, but my team is in 14th place in the conference. There’s a lot to complain about. The Mavs are last in 3-point percentage and Kristaps Porzingis looks like a shell of his former self. Defensive effort isn’t at the level it needs to be, from Luka included. Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and on Saturday, Dallas played its best overall game of the season, with Luka leading the way with 42 points in a win over the Warriors.

But during an epic game, this happened:

Gulp. A James Harden–esque drawn foul. Some fans and media on NBA Twitter ripped Luka and called him a flopper. I find that blame to be misplaced. Doncic, Harden, and every other player who uses these moves isn’t breaking any rules—and that’s the problem, as Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “I fault the league for basically gifting those calls to all our players. Our guys get them, too,” Kerr told reporters. “To me, it’s not a basketball play. If you jump 3 feet forward, I don’t think you deserve a foul when all you’re doing is looking for a foul.”

Kerr went on to say the NBA has done a good job of empowering skilled offensive players to shine with rule changes, such as hand-checking, but they need to control how scorers “deceive the refs” or jump forward and draw a foul. I agree completely. Many members of r/NBA do too. It’s on the league to make rule changes to limit behavior like this. And it’s on the Mavericks to build a good enough team to make Doncic stop whining.

19. Sacramento Kings | PR: 23

De’Aaron Fox, sharpshooter?

Shooting consistency has plagued Fox throughout his NBA career. This season, he’s showing signs of major progress by hitting 37 percent of his five 3-point attempts per game, up from 33 percent on three attempts per game in his first three seasons. It’s a small sample, so we’ll see how he sustains these numbers through a full season. But it’s hard not to be encouraged when he’s hitting stepbacks with confidence and fluidity.

Fox is making 61.5 percent of his stepback 3-pointers, a dramatic increase from 44 percent in the first three seasons of his career. Keeping this pace would bode well for Sacramento’s future.

20. Atlanta Hawks | PR: 22

Clint Capela deserves respect.

Capela is bringing it every night for the Hawks. This season, he’s averaging a league-leading 14.6 rebounds with 2.4 blocks (third in the NBA), and point guard Trae Young has rewarded him with countless scoring chances near the rim. Here are two good examples of what Capela does nightly:

In the first play, Capela jumps above the ground-bound Aron Baynes to snatch the ball, outlets to Young, and then sprints up the floor to get in position to score. In the second, he blocks a shot off an inbound pass, then gets himself available again for an easy bucket.

Simple stuff, but Capela’s dirty work is one of the big reasons the Hawks have turned their season around and now find themselves back in the East playoff picture with an 11-12 record and a positive net rating. Capela proves that even in a league in which bigs roam the perimeter, a throwback center can still make an impact.

21. Charlotte Hornets | PR: 20

Rookie check-in: LaMelo Ball.

Congratulations, Hornets fans. You got a good one in LaMelo. Maybe even a great one. Ball is only 19, but he has command over the entire game. The flow. The pace. The thrill. Ball blends flair with poise in a way that will make him a must-watch player for many years to come. Ball is for real.

If you have a moment, watch the highlights above. You’ll have fun watching him drop 34 points against the Jazz while he dazzles with eight assists and zero turnovers. That performance came in a loss, but it’s hard not to feel good about the big picture for the Hornets, even with their record at 10-13. Ball is improving every week and put up buckets on one of the NBA’s elite defenses in the third start of his career.

22. New York Knicks | PR: 24

What’s the plan?

On Sunday, the Knicks agreed to a trade with the Pistons to acquire Derrick Rose for Dennis Smith Jr. and a 2021 second-round pick.

I totally get that Tom Thibodeau wants to be reunited with Rose after coaching him in Chicago and Minnesota. But I worry that adding Rose will further limit playing time for Immanuel Quickley, a rookie who has played only 13 minutes in the two games following some of the best performances of his young career. It’s hard to argue with Thibodeau’s decision to limit Quickley’s time given that the Knicks won those two games and are greatly outperforming expectations with Elfrid Payton and Austin Rivers serving as backcourt fixtures. But the Knicks shouldn’t lose sight of investing in their future.

23. Miami Heat | PR: 13

The weak links make too many mistakes.

Simple actions too often cause Miami’s defense to discombobulate:

In the play above, the Wizards have Bradley Beal screen for Ish Smith, and then the Heat do everything wrong. Both Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Herro trail Smith and that leaves Davis Bertans so open that nobody even bothers to close out. Opponents are constantly picking on Miami’s weakest defenders, whether it’s Herro or Duncan Robinson on the perimeter or Olynyk at the big man position.

The Heat have dealt with COVID-19 absences on top of the shortest offseason in history. But other teams are dealing with their own respective issues and haven’t severely underwhelmed like Miami. The Heat are 9-14 with the NBA’s 23rd-ranked net rating. Defensive breakdowns are happening nightly, and the offense is struggling to generate consistent quality looks. It’s becoming difficult to feel things will be any different unless Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler carry them, or the front office makes a significant acquisition.

24. Cleveland Cavaliers | PR: 18

The wheels are coming off in Cleveland.

After an 8-7 start with two epic wins over the Nets, the Cavaliers have since dropped seven of nine games, with their only wins coming against the Pistons and Timberwolves, who have the two of the three worst records in the NBA.

Cleveland now has the worst offensive rating and 25th-ranked defensive rating. Now executives around the league wonder if a fire sale will begin. There are two veterans teams are eyeing:

  • Andre Drummond is the biggest name. Drummond will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason and had an extremely limited trade market one year ago when the Pistons dealt him to Cleveland. The Raptors are among the teams interested in Drummond now, league sources say.
  • Larry Nance Jr. is Cleveland’s best defender, but will be out for the next four to six weeks due to a broken finger. If the Cavs chose to shop Nance, they could receive a significant return for him because of Nance’s ability to fit into a wide number of offensive roles and defend multiple positions.

Beyond Drummond and Nance, teams will monitor JaVale McGee’s availability. Kevin Love will need to prove he can stay healthy before anyone would trade for him and the $60.2 million remaining on his contract after this season.

25. Chicago Bulls | PR: 26

Rookie check-in: Patrick Williams.

The Bulls surprised some fans on draft night by selecting Williams, who came off the bench last season with Florida State. But so far, Williams is looking worthy of the no. 4 selection with solid two-way play at only 19 years old. His ability to shoot off the dribble is his most impressive skill.

Of the 153 players to score at least 25 total points off pull-up jumpers this season, Williams ranks 14th in efficiency, per NBA Advanced Stats. Most of those dribble-jumpers have come from midrange: He’s attempted only six 3s off the dribble, and he’s made half of his 48 midrange tries.

It’s fun for Bulls fans to imagine how their rookie will look if he extends his shooting range and these deep 2s become 3s. Soon, Williams could become a scorer that concerns opponents.

26. Oklahoma City Thunder | PR: 27

Leading the league in player development.

Mark Daigneault was a player development specialist under Billy Donovan for 10 years—four seasons with the University of Florida, five seasons as a G League head coach, and one as an assistant coach with Oklahoma City. As the Thunder’s head coach, Daigneault is still developing young players.

The Thunder won’t be a playoff team, but they are getting better. Just look at their youth. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks fantastic, averaging 22 points, six assists, and five rebounds with excellent efficiency. And Lu Dort is becoming more than a defensive stopper now that he’s being empowered to do more offensively, a development I covered last week on The Void.

Then there’s Hamidou Diallo, a 22-year-old wing who entered the NBA as an extremely raw prospect following one season at Kentucky. Diallo made a name for himself by winning the dunk contest in 2019, but he often frustrated Thunder fans in games, especially during the playoffs. But the errors of youngsters should be forgiven if they make progress. He certainly has worked hard to improve on his flaws. On defense, he’s been locked in. Offensively, he’s taking quality shots and is passing the ball with better precision and purpose than ever before. Last week, SGA missed a game and Diallo stepped in to finish with an impressive 10 assists.

Diallo still needs to work on plenty of his skills, especially his shooting. But he’s come a long way from last season, and looks the part of a player who could stick around for a long time if he keeps getting better.

The win-loss column doesn’t matter all that much in OKC. What counts is the progress of their rising stars like Gilgeous-Alexander and their potential second-round steals like Dort and Diallo. If player development was a statistic, the Thunder would be near the top of the league.

27. Washington Wizards | PR: 28

What’s wrong with Davis Bertans?

The Wizards signed Bertans to a five-year, $80 million contract this offseason because he’s one of the league’s most lethal 3-point shooters, connecting on 40 percent for his career. Big problem: He’s hitting only 33 percent of his attempts in the first season of his megadeal. Without a jumper, Bertans is a liability. He’s 6-foot-10, but he doesn’t add value as a shot creator or rebounder, and he’s certainly no defensive stopper. So, what happened to the Latvian Laser?

Fred Katz from The Athletic recently compared his shots this season to a random sampling of 250 shots last season to find out how he was missing shots. Katz found that Bertans missed short on 51 percent of his misses last season compared to 83 percent this season. That’s a dramatic difference. Players who miss short usually have issues aiming (not an issue for him), are tired, or lack conditioning. It’s probably the last two, since, as Katz pointed out, Bertans showed up to training camp late because of visa issues and admitted to being out of shape.

Bertans needs to return to his prior levels soon. The Wizards are 5-15 with the league’s 29th-ranked defensive rating. Their defense isn’t getting better any time soon, so Washington’s offense will need to step up.

28. Detroit Pistons | PR: 30

Rookie check-in: Isaiah Stewart.

I love watching Stewart play. He brings constant effort. He races up the floor in transition. He dives for loose balls and leaps like he’s on a trampoline to compete for rebounds and blocked shots. Stewart doesn’t rack up counting stats, but his presence is felt in the game. It’ll be interesting to monitor how his offensive role changes under head coach Dwane Casey. With Detroit, Stewart isn’t being asked to do a whole lot more than traditional big man things, but he flashed the ability to hit jumpers as a Washington freshman. Stewart will add new dimensions to his game if he can capitalize on his potential from downtown.

29. Orlando Magic | PR: 25

Free Mo Bamba.

Teams can help young players improve in two primary ways. One, by working with the player on the practice court and in the film room, where coaches and veterans can help guide their training. Teams like the Spurs and Raptors have excelled in that area for many years, but those two franchises and others also utilize the second method to help young players: playing time, whether it’s in the G League or in the NBA. This is the area in which Orlando isn’t nurturing Bamba’s development.

Bamba finds himself in the Big Red Dog house of Magic head coach Steve Clifford, appearing in only nine games while receiving the far majority of his minutes in garbage time. In a recent interview with The Athletic, Clifford said Bamba is riding the bench because center is the team’s “best position by far,” with Nikola Vucevic and Khem Birch routinely playing ahead of Bamba. Clifford prioritizes playing veterans, not an inexperienced big who hasn’t impacted winning. But in Clifford’s own words, Birch is one of their “best five or six players right now.” Birch is a rock-solid center who could be in a regular-season rotation for many teams. But if he’s one of your top players, your team is gonna lose a lot. Indeed, the Magic are 9-15 with the second-worst net rating in the league. Which begs the question of why Birch is playing ahead of a player the Magic drafted sixth in 2018.

This is a sign of nasty dysfunction. If Bamba is gonna end up a bust, let’s see it on the court. Bamba is perceived as a low-effort player, but when he’s been provided opportunities this season, I’ve seen him consistently hustle. The past two seasons, he often looked clunky and underdeveloped. But this season, he’s looked more fluid than ever on both ends of the court.

On Saturday, Bamba had his best game against the Bulls. Clifford’s primary rotation trailed by 31 points entering the fourth quarter. Then Bamba played the entire final frame. His size was a deterrent around the rim on multiple Zach LaVine drives and on three other blocks. He hustled for rebounds and on transition chances. He scored 14 points by finishing lobs, attacking a closeout, and hitting jumpers. Bamba looked like a player who could help the Magic, or another team, win more games.

30. Minnesota Timberwolves | PR: 29

There’s a bright spot amid the losing.

The absence of Karl-Anthony Towns has given Naz Reid, an undrafted free agent big man, the time to prove he deserves a role in his second season. Reid is a bucket from all over. He’s hitting 40 percent of his 3s and has been so good from the perimeter that Minnesota has begun calling plays for him. He can use his dribble to finish on rolls to the rim and his size advantage from the post when smaller players switch on to him.

Defense was a key concern after Reid’s lone season at LSU. Reid is a limited athlete who stands at only 6-foot-9. Effort was never an issue for him in college though, just how he moved on the court. Reid still needs work, but he moves better laterally than he did before, which has made him serviceable in pick-and-roll defense and help situations.

The Wolves need KAT healthy and for D’Angelo Russell to start focusing on playing defense instead of leaving shooters open to start winning games. But it’s always nice when undrafted players turn into quality rotation players.