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Power Rankings: The NBA at the Halfway Point

Where all 30 teams stand heading into the 2020-21 season’s second half, plus the latest league scuttlebutt as the trade deadline draws near

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every three weeks this NBA season, I’m publishing power rankings with one thought, observation, or idea about each franchise. The order is a mix of big-picture potential and recent performance. In other words, the top team is the one opponents would least want to face right now. Anyway, here we go:

1. Brooklyn Nets | Previous Rank: 4

Bruce Brown defines positionless basketball.

Free idea for the NBA: League Pass Player Alerts to notify users when selected players enter the game. Many people would choose players like LeBron James, LaMelo Ball, or Steph Curry. I would pick Brown.

“Bruce is remarkable,” Nets head coach Steve Nash said recently. “He mostly played point guard last year, and now he’s what—playing our center?”

Brown, at 6-foot-4 and 202 pounds, played guard in his first two seasons with the Pistons and averaged four assists per game. Now he’s playing minutes at center on offense for Brooklyn, and doing all the things you typically see taller guys do: He crashes the offensive boards, stays ready for dump-off passes near the baseline, sets screens, rolls to the rim, and feasts inside.

When Kyrie Irving or James Harden run the pick-and-roll, Brown can shred defenses while diving to the rim with dunks or finesse finishes; he’s made 15 of his 21 shots when he rolls to the rim, per Synergy.

As a career 29.7 percent 3-point shooter, Brown’s jumper hinders his abilities as a perimeter facilitator. It’s also why he was a mid-second-round draft pick. But he’s always been a good passer with a knack for cutting and straight-line driving, and the Nets give him tasks that blend his strengths.

Brown looks like he’s Draymond Green when he screens, while Irving or Harden do the job of Steph Curry. This arrangement works because instead of plugging Brown into a position based on his size, the Nets have placed him into a role that suits his skills. The positional lines have blurred more in recent years. Brown is just the latest example.

2. Utah Jazz | PR: 6

Jazz fans should embrace the Rudy Gobert disrespect.

Gobert slander reached peak levels this past week. One day after he complained about the refs (and got fined) following a loss to the Sixers, he got selected last in the All-Star draft. This comes after years of Shaquille O’Neal hating on him on TNT, years of NBA Twitter poking fun at anyone who points out that Gobert leads the league in screen assists, years of Jazz fans feeling like their All-Star center doesn’t get the respect he deserves.

It’s a shame that Gobert’s style isn’t more respected. He never shoots 3s, but he’s a huge reason the Jazz lead the league in attempts. When Gobert rolls down the lane, defenses are forced to collapse inside to prevent a lob, which opens space for shooters. On defense, his mere presence around the rim causes opponents to think twice about dribbling into the paint; he guards all five players at once, not just one. Gobert does the dirty work, he plays hard on defense, and he’ll take a charge or risk getting put on a poster if it means he has a chance to alter the shot. And he does it all with an enthusiasm for the game that promotes a positive team mindset.

Here’s hoping Gobert starts to get the appreciation his game deserves, and that he gets a chance to face off against some of the players picked over him—and maybe even the players picking the teams—in the playoffs. Rivalries are the missing ingredient in the league today. Gobert and the Jazz seem ripe to create one with a league favorite.

3. Philadelphia 76ers | PR: 3

Do the Sixers need a half-court scoring boost?

The Sixers rank 14th in offensive rating this season, which is disappointing considering Joel Embiid is having the best scoring season of his career and Daryl Morey added a litany of shooters around Embiid and Ben Simmons. Half-court scoring woes have plagued Philadelphia in the past partially because of spacing issues caused by playing Philly’s two All-Stars together, but that hasn’t been the problem this season.

Sixers Lineup Combinations

Lineup Offensive Rating Percentile Minutes
Lineup Offensive Rating Percentile Minutes
Embiid and Simmons 103.4 90th 754
Just Embiid 98.1 61st 235
Just Simmons 85.3 17th 297
Neither 83.7 2nd 456
Source: Offensive rating via Cleaning the Glass. Minutes via PBP Stats.

The Sixers are dominating offensively in the half court when both Embiid and Simmons are on the court, and they’re solid when just Embiid is in. But the offense collapses when it’s just Simmons or neither.

“We still don’t shoot enough 3s,” Embiid said last month. “We just gotta create for each other and if you’re wide open, let it fly. If you miss it, we got a couple of good offensive rebounders. And if you make it, good.” Shooting more 3s could help. The Sixers rank 28th in 3-point attempt frequency, per Cleaning the Glass. Seth Curry is making 44.8 percent of his attempts but tries only 4.5 per game; Tobias Harris sinks 40.2 percent but tries only 4.1. Getting knockdown shooters more attempts would make a ton of sense.

One problem, as my colleague Zach Kram recently explored, is a lack of perimeter shot creation. Kram and I both agree the Sixers should go all in pursuing Raptors guard Kyle Lowry if he becomes available. One of the keys to generating open 3s is creating rim penetration out of pick-and-rolls and isolations, but the Sixers rank 25th in pick-and-roll frequency and 24th in isolation frequency, per Synergy. Without a player attacking the paint downhill, the Sixers are often stuck passing the ball around the perimeter, which doesn’t create enough movement from the defense, which means they’re getting run off the line and driving into a crowded lane.

This is an issue worth monitoring, but not something to panic about. Embiid and Simmons will see their minutes rise in the postseason, which will minimize the time they’re both not on the court. Adding a playmaker, however, could make the Sixers the clear East favorites instead of just one of the many contenders.

4. Milwaukee Bucks | PR: 5

Giannis’s playmaking progress is understated.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 5.9 assists and 3.7 turnovers, a minimal difference compared to his past two seasons. But he’s made a big improvement as a playmaker since the 2019 playoffs, when the Raptors built a wall to contain him in transition. Giannis is doing a better job at drawing defenders with his scoring and then delivering a precise ball with velocity to his teammates.

Where he’s passing to has changed, too. At the halfway point of the season, 63 percent of his assists have been on 3s, per Synergy; last season, it was 55 percent. Giannis is looking to make more complex kickouts to find shooters, and it’s working.

5. Phoenix Suns | PR: 7

Dario Saric for Sixth Man of the Year

I wrote a feature story on the Suns last week, but one player I didn’t have the space to spend many words on was Saric, who should be on the radar as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Saric plays a pivotal role off Phoenix’s bench as a heady defender who can switch screens, and as a shooter and facilitator from the high post on offense who can even bring the ball up the court.

Saric is averaging 11.5 points with four rebounds and 1.3 assists in only 18.1 minutes per game—numbers that don’t at all do him justice. But he plays in important minutes with Deandre Ayton off the floor. The Suns are outscoring opponents by an incredible 23.5 points per 100 possessions when Saric is on the court.

Saric does the little things that lead to open shots for teammates or erase what an opponent wants to run. Jazz point guard Jordan Clarkson is the front-runner to win the Sixth Man award, but the 26-year-old Croatian belongs in the conversation. The Suns are contenders, and Saric is a big reason why.

6. Denver Nuggets | PR: 9

Is Jamal Murray on a hot streak or taking a leap?

Murray is in the middle of his hottest stretch of the season. In his past 12 games, he’s averaging 28.5 points on 47 percent from 3. It’s a small sample, and his shooting percentage will drop at some point, but Denver has decided to feed him shots: He was taking 15.4 shots per game prior to this run and 18.5 during it.

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone tweaked his rotation to put Murray on the floor for 2.1 more minutes each game, and nearly doubled his time playing without Nikola Jokic, from 5.7 minutes to nine. He’s using this additional solo time to destroy bench units, scoring 31.3 points per 36 minutes overall.

The Nuggets are 8-4 and have the NBA’s fifth-ranked offensive rating during this time. Murray showed how special the Nuggets can be in the bubble, and he’s doing it again now. Just imagine if he finally starts producing like this consistently.

7. Dallas Mavericks | PR: 18

Luka has Dallas back in the hunt.

Luka Doncic entered Mavericks training camp out of shape and struggled out of the gate by his All-NBA standards. He made only 26 percent of his 3s through his first 10 games. But since then he has drained 40 percent while averaging 29.1 points, nine assists, and 7.9 rebounds. He’s posting higher scoring efficiency and playing better defense than he did last season when he placed fourth in MVP voting. Now he’s back in the MVP race again as the Mavs have started to surge. Dallas has won nine of their past 11 games (Luka has played 10 of them) and entered the break in eighth place in the West, trailing the fourth-place Clippers by only four games.

8. Los Angeles Lakers | PR: 1

Andre Drummond to Los Angeles?

With Anthony Davis sidelined and Dennis Schröder missing a stretch due to COVID-19 protocols, the Lakers have slipped in the West standings. There’s no reason to panic, but the front office is looking for frontcourt depth.

League sources say they have interest in free agent DeMarcus Cousins, but Drummond is their preference if he gets bought out. Drummond has been benched while the Cavaliers seek a trade, but there’s doubt around the league that they’ll be able to find one due to his massive $28.8 million salary.

If Drummond does end up hitting the buyout market, consider the Lakers and Nets as the two favorites to add him.

9. Miami Heat | PR: 23

Aggressive Bam vs. Passive Bam

By the numbers, Bam Adebayo is having the best season of his life, averaging career highs of 19.2 points and 5.4 assists. But Miami fans are often left wanting more. Adebayo has spurts when he looks like he’s going through the motions offensively, delivering handoffs and passes to teammates rather than aggressively attacking the rim.

On March 2, a Heat loss to the Hawks in which Jimmy Butler was sidelined, Adebayo took only eight shots in 33 minutes. After the game, he said he needs to “be more aggressive,” which is precisely what he says after every loss when he gets questioned about his decisions on the floor.

Some Heat fans are fed up with Bam, but I’d recommend chilling out. I’m reminded of the frustration Nuggets fans felt a few years ago when Jokic had nights with fewer than 10 shot attempts. There’s a learning curve for a pass-first player to develop a score-first mindset.

As frustrating as it might be, it’s important to remember that Adebayo is still a great player given his significant obligations as a versatile defender, rebounder, screener, and facilitator. He’s also gotten better this season as a scorer by extending his shooting range. It may be only a matter of time until everything clicks for Adebayo. Just stay patient.

10. Los Angeles Clippers | PR: 2

Will Luke Kennard find his way?

The Clippers traded for Kennard before this season and handed him a four-year, $64 million extension. They hoped he’d be a flexible piece alongside their superstars, someone who could sometimes handle the ball and sometimes shoot off the catch. At 6-foot-5 and 24 years old, he’d also inject some height and youth into their smaller, aging backcourt. But Kennard has flopped. He’s averaging just 7.4 points and 1.7 assists in 20.1 minutes per game.

Clippers head coach Ty Lue has used Kennard in different roles, both as a starter and as a reserve, but nothing has worked. Lately, Kennard has even fallen out of the rotation in favor of Terance Mann and Reggie Jackson.

But considering how much the Clippers invested in him, it’s important to get some production out of him. With George out for a game on March 4, Kennard scored 14 points on eight shots and had four assists. Even though it came in a loss against the Wizards, the way he attacked off the catch and dished out no-look passes is exactly why the Clippers paid him. “I was more aggressive than I have been the last few times I’ve played. I just wanted to come in with energy,” Kennard said. “It’s a new team. I want to fit in. I want to be a good teammate. But talking to the coaches and even my teammates, they want me to just be me and be aggressive.”

The next few weeks are critical for Kennard and the Clippers as they evaluate their team and scope out the market for upgrades for a playmaking role. Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the Clippers have interest in acquiring Raptors guard Kyle Lowry. Matching salaries to pull off a deal for Lowry would be complicated, though it’s not impossible. There have been no rumblings of the Clippers pursuing Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan.

Kennard could be either a Clippers keeper or a trade sweetener since the front office has no first-round picks to deal and he is their best young player. No matter what’s to come for the Clippers, something needs to change. This team has blown too many leads because of stagnant stretches and blown defensive assignments. The struggles of a promising young player like Kennard are just a symptom of a larger unsolved issue.


11. New York Knicks | PR: 22

Mission halfway accomplished

Before the season, I ranked the Knicks 30th in my preseason power rankings. That was dumb. But I’m happy with what I wrote:

“Above all else, New York must prioritize changing its perception around the league as a laughing stock and become known as a potential destination. … New York can still build a brighter future by investing in development, building a culture, and simply competing hard. … It’s time for the Knicks to work hard to change who they are. If they manage it, soon enough being the Knicks won’t carry a negative connotation.”

Here we are at the halfway point, and the Knicks are 19-18 with a positive point-differential. They also have an All-Star in Julius Randle, a Coach of the Year candidate in Tom Thibodeau, a Rising Star member in RJ Barrett, a likely All-Rookie team player in Immanuel Quickley, and a bunch of happy fans.

New York is one of the feel-good stories of the season. Perception is already shifting, as they’ve seen the biggest increase in nationally televised games in the second half of the schedule (six, after having just one prior to the All-Star break). Closing the season strong, even if they end up missing the playoffs, would help the Knicks’ pitch to a star looking for a new home in the 2021 offseason.

12. Boston Celtics | PR: 8

Jayson Tatum still has room to grow.

Watch this shot by Tatum:

The key to elevating off balance and then twisting your body midair before unleashing a shot to ice the game is exquisite footwork. Tatum’s got it, which is why the just-turned 23-year-old Celtics All-Star has the potential to be great.

But he’s not that level of player all the time just yet. Tatum ranks in only the 28th percentile for isolation scoring efficiency, per Synergy. Last season, he was in the 76th percentile. The dramatic decline is largely due to his ability to hit shots off the dribble. After taking three or more dribbles, Tatum has slipped from 47 percent to 43 percent on pull-up 2s, and from 44 percent to only 33 percent on 3s. The latter number in particular needs to rise.

Boston has some holes on its roster that need filling, and they’ve got a traded-player exception worth over $20 million to help do it. But not all solutions need to come externally. The Celtics have a star in Tatum, but he’s still in the process of getting better.

13. San Antonio Spurs | PR: 12

There’s another Luka in Texas.

Luka Samanic, drafted 19th by the Spurs in 2019, has averaged seven points on 35.3 percent from 3 and 5.6 rebounds in his last five games before the break. The 6-foot-10 Croatian underwhelmed early in his career until this recent stretch, but his development could play a major role for the Spurs moving forward. San Antonio is loaded with young guards and wings, but it lacks younger bigs aside from Jakob Poeltl, who is an effective interior player without perimeter skills.

Enter Samanic, who can handle the ball in the open court, attack a closeout, or make acrobatic attempts in the paint. Samanic is earning regular minutes only because the Spurs are dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, so the true challenge will be sustaining his performance when touches are less frequent and minutes aren’t promised. But the 21-year-old’s offensive development is encouraging nonetheless.

During this five-game run, Samanic is also displaying versatile defense after two years of working on his fundamentals to stay in a stance and improve his lateral quickness.

The first clip above shows Samanic defending Randle full court, nearly knocking the ball away, keeping him out of the paint, and then heavily contesting a 3. Samanic has done a good job against bigs like Randle, and the Spurs have also trusted him to switch onto some quicker guards like Irving, Harden, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The longer Samanic keeps this up, the clearer it’ll be that the Spurs have a good Luka of their own.

14. Portland Trail Blazers | PR: 14

Looks like you can play Kanter.

Enes Kanter has filled in nicely in the 23 games since center Jusuf Nurkic was sidelined by a broken wrist in mid-January, averaging 12.9 points and 13.4 rebounds while playing high-effort defense as a starter. One of his best moments of the season came in the closing moments of Portland’s final win over the first half of the season. Trailing Sacramento 108-105 late in the fourth, Kanter played a huge role in four straight defensive stops.

Kanter has long been criticized for his defense, and many years ago ex-Thunder head coach Billy Donovan was caught on the sidelines saying, “Can’t play Kanter.” In some situations, that’s true. But Kanter always tries as hard as he can.

Unselfishness runs through Kanter’s veins, and he brings the same mentality on offense. On a team full of scorers and shooters, he is the immovable object who gives Damian Lillard space to author brilliant moments; he’s the bruiser inside creating second chances on the boards. Kanter has his flaws, but he epitomizes what it means to be a team player. The depleted Trail Blazers are finding out that can lead to a lot of regular-season wins.

15. Golden State Warriors | PR: 10

Should the Warriors add Victor Oladipo?

League sources say the Warriors have interest in acquiring Rockets guard Victor Oladipo. The former Pacer has been up and down in his second season following a major knee injury, averaging 20 points on only 39.9 percent from the field. Golden State would not have the cap space to pursue him this summer, so the time to pounce would be now. Houston can’t demand too much in a deal given Oladipo has underwhelmed and will become an unrestricted free agent. Plus, Golden State wouldn’t have a whole lot to offer. Because of picks owed elsewhere, the Warriors are able to deal up to just two first-round picks: one from 2021 (via Minnesota) or 2022, and one from 2026 or 2027.

Golden State’s interest in Oladipo signals the front office’s intentions to find another ball handler. Curry and Draymond remain excellent offensive engines, but the Warriors are missing the next Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston. Could Oladipo fill that role? Though his scoring efficiency is down now, he would receive better looks when surrounded by better talent. He can also still generate shots for others off the dribble and play hard-nosed defense. The Warriors need more wing depth and another ball handler, and Oladipo should be one of the players they’re at least thinking about.

16. Toronto Raptors | PR: 13

Teams are eyeing Lowry … and another Raptor.

Everyone around the league is focusing on whether Toronto will trade Kyle Lowry to a playmaking-needy contender ahead of the March 25 deadline, which happens to be Lowry’s 35th birthday. Lowry has been with the Raptors since he was 26, and he’s been through it all with the franchise. Trading him would hurt. But he’s older, will be an unrestricted free agent, and has higher odds of winning a title elsewhere. The Raptors need to have an eye toward the future with their younger core, headlined by Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby.

With a potentially dry trade and buyout market, teams are also keeping a close eye on the G League bubble for players to target. One name that’s been mentioned to me in several conversations is Alize Johnson, who starts for the Raptors 905, which is 12-3 and riding an eight-game winning streak heading into the bubble playoffs.

Johnson is a 6-foot-7 wing who was drafted 50th in 2018 by the Pacers and has played in only 31 NBA games. He’s a full-throttle rebounder and defender with the versatility to defend both quicker and stronger players, meaning he could play on the wing alongside a true big or in the frontcourt in switch-heavy lineups. On offense, the 24-year-old is averaging 16.6 points and 4.2 assists while posting career highs in scoring efficiency and assist-turnover ratio.

A league source says in addition to the Raptors, the Magic, Rockets, Spurs, and Suns have also expressed interest in signing Johnson.

17. Charlotte Hornets | PR: 21

Malik Monk is fun.

From January 30—when the Hornets beat the Bucks—until the break, Monk averaged 16.9 points on 43.6 percent from 3. And he’s scored at least 20 points six times, headlined by a 36-point game against the Heat and 29 points against the Suns. Hopefully Monk doesn’t cool off after the break because this dude is such a blast to watch.

I’m betting this is for real. He’s operating with previously unseen comfort dribbling the ball to generate perimeter looks for himself, and he’s finally splashing spot-up 3s like he did at every level prior to the NBA.

Monk is also playing the best defense of his life by staying active and engaged off-ball. Against the Suns, he had multiple great moments denying the ball to Devin Booker, and virtually every night, he makes an off-ball rotation that stagnates an offense. At only 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he’s sometimes overmatched physically, but he’s playing at a quality level defensively and his hot shooting nights more than make up for it. Expect more to come.

18. Memphis Grizzlies | PR: 16

Will the Grizzlies make a move?

Jaren Jackson Jr. is due back on the court at some point in the second half this season, which is exciting news for a young, competitive Grizzlies team. But his return will also make for an even more crowded frontcourt, which has teams around the league believing Memphis will make a deal to better balance the roster or gain a future asset.

Multiple front office executives cited center Gorgui Dieng as the name to watch. Dieng is 31 and will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, but he’s a solid two-way big who can hit spot-up 3s, make smart plays with the pass, and grind on defense.

Dieng makes $17.3 million, which could be a tough number to match. But with a limited trade market, any team looking for a big may not have better options unless they hold out hope for a buyout candidate.

19. New Orleans Pelicans | PR: 17

Lonzo Ball is finally making pull-up jumpers.

What a journey from Lonzo. He once had a slingshot release and could only hit jumpers stepping back toward his left. This season he’s become a reliable shooter with a normal-looking shot. He’s posting career highs by making 33.8 percent of his 3s taken off the dribble and 38.9 percent of pull-up 2s, per NBA Advanced Stats. Lonzo looks more comfortable than ever from the perimeter:

Ball is also hitting 40.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s—a tick up from 38.9 percent last season. If he keeps up this shooting efficiency, perhaps more driving lanes will open for him to become a more impactful scorer in the paint.

Trade talks involving Ball have fizzled for now, league sources say. Ball has been at times the Pelicans’ best defender, and he’s certainly their best playmaker in the backcourt. But New Orleans needs to consider the type of contract Ball will demand this offseason in restricted free agency, and whether giving it to him would limit future possibilities. Trading the 23-year-old will remain a possibility, especially since the Pelicans are expected to be active ahead of the trade deadline. Executives say they could be buyers or sellers, depending on what direction the trade winds blow.

20. Chicago Bulls | PR: 25

Will there be a run on Bulls players?

Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas is telling teams that Thaddeus Young isn’t available for trade, according to multiple league sources. Executives wonder whether Karnisovas is just posturing to gain leverage since Young is highly sought after, but he does help facilitate development for their youth.

Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, Coby White, and others are playing some of their best basketball while sharing the court with Young. Even though he’s 32, he’ll retain value moving forward with only $6 million of the $14.2 million on his contract for next season guaranteed. It may cost a pretty penny to get the playmaking veteran moving forward.

Teams are also eyeing Otto Porter Jr., who’s played only 45 games with the Bulls since being acquired from the Wizards in 2019 because of ongoing back issues. Chicago could just let his contract run out before he hits the market this offseason, but executives believe a buyout could occur. League sources say one team with interest in Porter is the Warriors.

21. Indiana Pacers | PR: 11

Sending good wishes to Caris LeVert.

LeVert underwent surgery in January to treat a renal cell carcinoma of his left kidney after a physical following his trade from the Nets to the Pacers flagged the cancer. It’s fortunate it was caught so early. LeVert is supposed to return to the court soon for the Pacers. Whenever that day comes, I’ll be thinking about everything that led to the moment.

LeVert was 15 when his father died in 2010 of heart failure, and his mom has multiple sclerosis. LeVert himself suffered multiple foot injuries that required surgery in college. He’s been through a ton of adversity in his life long before his latest surgery to remove a small mass on his kidney. And yet he’s grown through it all to find success doing what he loves.

I hope LeVert keeps getting better, and I hope young Pacers fans are inspired by his journey and the example he sets off the court (he also has a foundation called 22 Initiative that offers guidance to high school students struggling with academics or personal problems) and on the court (as a team-first player who will immediately bolster Indiana’s rotation).

The Pacers are 8-15 since trading Oladipo. But they’ll be much better once LeVert returns. That’ll be a good day.

22. Washington Wizards | PR: 27

Rui Hachimura has flashed elite defensive upside.

The Wizards are 8-3 over their last 11 games and it’s largely due to their defense. They’re holding teams to 109.8 points per 100 possessions, which would tie for 10th over the full season. Hachimura has been one of the big reasons why. This season, Hachiumura has shown the potential to be a lockdown defender by manning up the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant. Hachimura is 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan; the dude is huge, and yet he’s more than held his own when he’s switched onto guards.

Hachimura’s defense was a concern entering the 2019 draft largely because of his stiff lateral quickness and his poor awareness. After all, he was inexperienced; he didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was 14. But he had the tools and the drive. He earned a reputation as a hard worker in three years at Gonzaga by improving on all of his weaknesses to become a first-team All-American. Hachimura remains raw offensively, but his rapid defensive progress is encouraging. It may only take time and patience for the rest of his game to blossom.

23. Atlanta Hawks | PR: 20

What will Bogdan Bogdanovic bring to the table?

We’re about to find out what the Hawks can get out of Bogdanovic after signing him to a four-year, $72 million contract this offseason. He was out since January 9 after suffering an avulsion fracture in his right knee and returned this month.

Entering the season, I had hoped the additions of a few secondary playmakers would mean we’d see Atlanta use Trae Young more off the ball. But injuries have happened, and Young has possessed the ball just as much this season as he did last season, per NBA Advanced Stats. This is no knock against Young: The Hawks have even a middling offensive rating because of his efforts. They’d otherwise be at the bottom of the barrel because no one else on this roster can run the show.

Bogdanovic can change that equation if he’s allowed to. He’s a score-first player with a knack for clutch moments, but he’s also unselfish and smart. You’ll rarely see him commit a silly mistake; in his career, he’s averaging 3.4 assists to only 1.6 turnovers. Bogdanovic showed the ability to run the offense with the Kings.

Now’s the time to give Bogdanovic those on-ball reps and develop that area of Young’s game. By doing so, Atlanta will be able to blend Young’s pick-and-roll and iso-heavy style with the type of motion concepts only possible with multiple ball handlers. Only then will we see the ideal version of Young and the Hawks.

24. Oklahoma City Thunder | PR: 26

Get to know Kenny Hustle.

Kenrich Williams, a 26-year-old undrafted free agent from the 2018 class, is becoming one of my favorite bench players in the league. He plays 18.9 minutes per game for the Thunder and is shooting a career-high 42 percent from 3. If he can maintain a 3-point percentage in the mid-to-high 30s, he’ll be in the NBA for a decade. And if he can keep shooting around 40 percent, he’s going to make tens of millions before he retires.

That’s because Williams has already solved the defensive end of the floor. At 6-foot-6 with a strong frame, he’s able to battle against stronger-bodied wings and forwards. But he’s also capable of containing quicker guards. The Thunder use him all over the floor; of players to log at least 500 minutes, Williams ranks as the NBA’s 24th most versatile defender, per BBall-Index.com’s versatility metric. At TCU, he earned the nickname “Kenny Hustle.” It’s easy to understand why.

25. Orlando Magic | PR: 29

Will the Magic pull the plug?

The Magic have some tough decisions to make in the coming weeks. They’re 13-23, second-worst record in the East, with the league’s third-worst net rating. Ranking them 25th might be generous, but that’s because they have some good players on their team that front offices want.

The Heat, Spurs, Celtics, and Hornets have all expressed significant interest in acquiring All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, league sources say. Vucevic, 30, is averaging 24.6 points and 3.7 assists while hitting 41.2 percent of his 3s and grabbing 11.6 rebounds per game. Front office executives around the league are skeptical that the Magic will end up pulling the trigger on a deal, though, given that Vucevic has two more seasons left on his contract; if they do, the price would be high.

The Magic are also receiving calls on two veterans in the backcourt, Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier. League sources say the Hornets are among teams to express interest in Fournier, while the Nuggets have inquired about Ross. Orlando will have options. It’s just a matter of whether teams pay up.

26. Sacramento Kings | PR: 19

Will the Kings blow it up?

The Kings are losers of 10 of their last 12 games but trail Memphis for the 10th seed for the final play-in tournament spot by only four games. With one half of the season to go, should Sacramento go for it?

No. Please no. Don’t. The Kings should tank. Best-cast scenario, Sacramento grabs a play-in tournament spot with a memorable run, moves on to the playoffs, and then competes hard in some first-round games before losing in four or five. Realistically, the Kings get smacked and end up with a mid-first-round pick. But if they bottom out, they would get higher lottery odds in a strong class featuring multiple possible stars, and a better chance of creating good memories for the next decade.

The Kings hit a home run in selecting Tyrese Haliburton with the 12th pick in 2020. There’s nothing stopping them from landing another good player in that range in 2021. It’s a good draft! But this class has franchise-changing talents up top like Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, a jumbo-sized playmaker who could fit wonderfully next to Haliburton and De’Aaron Fox, or USC’s Evan Mobley, a big man with versatile skills suited for the modern game.

The Kings should detonate and move Harrison Barnes and Nemanja Bjelica to one of the teams interested in them. It’s been widely reported that the Celtics have interest in Barnes, and the Bucks, Celtics, Heat, Sixers, and Warriors have all expressed interest in Bjelica, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported last week. Blow it up, Kings.

27. Detroit Pistons | PR: 28

Hopefully the Pistons learned their lesson.

After the Pistons traded for Blake Griffin in 2018, I called it a “desperation move.” As reported at the time, Stan Van Gundy was under pressure from Detroit ownership to make the playoffs. SVG made the deal as an attempt to save his job, but the organizational pressure just ended up screwing the entire franchise.

You could understand their reasoning: Griffin was a Hollywood star who could give the team a big name to market one year after opening a brand new arena. But Griffin, with his potential albatross contract and scary injury history, was a clear risk. Ultimately, Detroit ended up with all of the bad and none of the good, as their new arena was empty long before the pandemic.

With Troy Weaver now in charge, I hope team owner Tom Gores and his advisors are more patient with the new regime.

28. Minnesota Timberwolves | PR: 30

Will a new coach mean a new system?

The All-Star break could serve as an opportunity for new Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch to install his big-man-centric system. Finch was with the Nuggets when they installed a Jokic-driven offense, and he was with the Pelicans when they ran a two-big offense featuring Anthony Davis and a pre-injury DeMarcus Cousins. What type of impact could Finch have on Karl-Anthony Towns?

Towns’s Touches

Time Frame Elbow Post
Time Frame Elbow Post
Before Finch 2.5 8.5
After Finch 4.6 8.8

Towns has seen a bump in elbow touches since Finch was hired, which might just be a small sample but could hopefully be an indicator of what’s to come. Towns gets a healthy diet of post touches but hasn’t been utilized nearly as frequently on the elbow as offensive hubs like Jokic (9.5 touches), Domantas Sabonis (7.0), and Thaddeus Young (6.6), which is the league’s top three, per NBA Advanced Stats.

Towns doesn’t have a playmaking reputation like them, yet he can do this with the pass:

Finch should put Towns in more situations where he can distribute not just from the low post but the elbow area, and even above the arc. Towns is a talented ball handler and one of the most deadly shooters in the league, regardless of position. The Timberwolves should push the limits with Towns and explore every dimension of his offense. They need to get everything they can out of him to make the playoffs in the coming years.

29. Cleveland Cavaliers | PR: 24

Is a Nance trade looming?

On Friday, Larry Nance Jr. tweeted this:

Sorry, Larry. The next morning, Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor reported the Cavaliers are receiving more trade calls about Nance than any other player on the roster. Interested teams include the Celtics, Heat, Mavericks, Pelicans, Sixers, and Timberwolves, although the Cavaliers are telling everyone Nance isn’t available. I can confirm Fedor’s report: A ton of teams want Nance, and at least one team has offered multiple late first-round picks, but Cleveland still isn’t budging.

Hopefully Nance can take the talks as a compliment. He’s a high-end defender who’s capable of sticking to shooters racing through screens, manning up against go-to scorers, and bodying with bigs. Versatility is key to success, and he brings those same traits offensively. He’s averaging 9.3 points on 38 percent from 3 and 3.2 assists to only 1.5 turnovers. The Cavs may not be winning many games, but Nance has superb winning qualities.

A player like Nance could excel on any team, which is why the Cavs aren’t slobbering over these offers. Nance is 28, and he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2023, when he’ll be 30. But having a veteran presence on a young team helps create structure that can nurture player development. He’s also expressed a desire to stay in Cleveland, a rarity for NBA players. Giving Nance up for a few spins in the draft probably isn’t worth it.

With that said, there’s always a price. Cleveland needs to find a true no. 1 star if it hopes to compete for championships again. Perhaps that player will come through the draft. The 2021 class has a number of them. The 2022 draft might, too. But that player could also come through future trades. Right now, New Orleans and Oklahoma City are leaders in Trade Asset Power Rankings. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, have only their own firsts. Adding picks to the cupboard would give Cleveland more trade ammunition if the opportunity became available to land a star.

This is the challenge in team-building. Nance is obviously an important building block in the short term, and possibly the long term. But he could also be the piece that leads to winning ways in the future. The Cavaliers are right to hold on tight. But how far will teams go? The title race is wide open, and Nance is the type of player who can increase championship odds. If I were an NBA general manager of a team with contending hopes, I’d go far enough to get him.

30. Houston Rockets | PR: 15

The Rockets should aim for rock bottom.

The Rockets are riding a 13-game losing streak since Christian Wood got injured on February 4. Wood will return soon, but this team is sinking and they have more incentive to bottom out than any team in the NBA. The Rockets will keep their 2021 first-round pick if it lands in the top four; otherwise they’ll send it to Oklahoma City (or Miami) because of the 2019 Russell Westbrook–for–Chris Paul trade. If Houston ends up keeping its pick, the obligation will be extinguished. Losing the pick would be disastrous.

As of today, the Rockets have the third-worst record in the league and therefore a 52.1 percent chance of landing a top-four pick in the lottery. Their chances won’t increase by having a worse position in the standings now that the teams with the three worst records share the same odds, but there is still some incentive to be worst, since four teams would need to leapfrog ahead in the lottery for them to drop out of the top four.

Houston should tank hard. The franchise’s priority should be to embark on a rebuild with a youth movement. Aside from Wood and Jae’Sean Tate, both 25, the Rockets don’t have any young players who are keepers. Justin Patton, Rodions Kurucs, or Kevin Porter Jr. could play themselves into that status. But this team needs a youth injection, and they have the veterans to find it.

As widely reported, the Rockets have received calls from a wide number of teams for Oladipo, Eric Gordon, and P.J. Tucker. Multiple league sources expect wing Sterling Brown to also garner interest. Regardless of who does and doesn’t get dealt, losing games should be Houston’s priority before starting a proper rebuild this offseason.