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 recent results and projected performance. In other words, the top team is the one opponents would least want to face right now. We’re now approaching the final stretch of the season, so let’s get going:
1. Los Angeles Clippers | PR: 11 ↑
Paul George is playing his best basketball.
“PG’s cool as a fan,” DeMarcus Cousins recently said. “We gotta stop the PG slander. It just won’t be accepted around me. He’s one of the most gifted players in this league and every chance I get, I’m gonna give him his flowers.” Let’s do the same. Despite dealing with a nagging toe injury for most of the season, George is averaging 24 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.4 assists, with a career-high 61.2 percent true shooting. He should be a near-unanimous selection on All-NBA ballots. That’s how great he’s been.
Before the season, George lamented how he was previously utilized like Ray Allen, running pindown screens without enough pick-and-rolls. While George did run a higher frequency of pick-and-rolls than ever under Doc last season, his usage is even higher with Ty Lue at head coach.
By George, I Think He’s Got It
|Pick-and-Roll Per Game
|Isolations Per Game
|Screens Per Game
|Pick-and-Roll Per Game
|Isolations Per Game
|Screens Per Game
George is the ball handler for about seven more pick-and-rolls per game than last season, he’s isolating slightly more, and he’s running through screens about the same amount. George wanted more touches in the flow of the offense, and he’s making the most of his opportunities.
The Clippers are scoring 1.1 points per pick-and-roll chance when George is the ball handler, which ranks second of the 87 players to log at least 500 pick-and-rolls this season. George’s teammate, Kawhi Leonard, ranks first, according to Second Spectrum. Los Angeles is a major Finals threat because of its superstar scoring duo (and a strong overall roster). But for George to keep this up, he’ll need to keep draining his 3s, which are fueling his efficiency.
George is hitting 42.6 percent of his total 3-pointers off the dribble. And it doesn’t matter the situation—pull-up in transition, isolation side-step, pick-and-roll step-back, wide open or hand in his face—George is making everything.
And though he may not fancy himself an off-ball shooter, he’s also one of the best shooters in the league off the catch.
George shoots 43.1 percent on 3s without taking a dribble. That’s excellent, and the Clippers put him into situations where he can capitalize. George has ran through 764 screens this season, the 17th most of all NBA players, according to Second Spectrum. He’s at his best using wide pins and down screens to score, ranking near the top in efficiency of all scorers. He’s versatile as a scorer, and a lot of the time he’s making plays for others out of these screens.
Though George averaged more points in 2018-19, this is the most complete season of his career. There really isn’t anything he can’t do on offense. George is gifted, indeed.
2. Brooklyn Nets | PR: 2
Do the Nets have a real shot at the no. 1 seed?
The fact that Brooklyn is even in the conversation to have the best record in the East is an accomplishment, considering the number of injuries it has faced. But when healthy, the Nets have the potential to have the greatest playoff offense in the history of basketball. Their versatile defense could also end up better than anyone is expecting. In a way, it feels like the Nets are toying with the regular season and yet they’ve still been a dominant force.
If there’s anything that could end up biting them in the playoffs, it’s a lack of continuity due to an abundance of absences. That’s why landing the 1-seed should be important.
Having easier opponents in the first two rounds would give Brooklyn necessary time to build chemistry leading up to final bosses in the East and West. And finishing atop the East would help it avoid Milwaukee and Philadelphia until the conference finals; with the 2-seed or 3-seed, the Nets likely have to get through both to make the NBA Finals.
One problem: The Nets are still missing James Harden and have the 13th-hardest schedule remaining in the league. Philadelphia has the easiest schedule, with only five games against opponents currently in the playoffs or play-in, and Milwaukee has the fifth easiest, as well as two games against Brooklyn. It won’t be easy for the Nets to maintain their positioning. But if they do, the path to the Finals will be much clearer.
3. Utah Jazz | PR: 1 ↓
Jordan Clarkson lost his grip on Sixth Man of the Year.
Clarkson started off this season scorching hot. He averaged 18.3 points on 59 percent true shooting until two months ago, when he hit a wall. Over 16 games since March 18, he’s scoring only 16.3 points per game on 49 percent true shooting. His efficiency has fallen off a cliff because he stopped hitting jumpers, making only 29.4 percent of his 3s. It’s important for Utah that Clarkson becomes more efficient, even if he doesn’t match his early season production. Averaging his career percentages would still provide a scoring spark off the bench that could swing a game and series.
Even though Clarkson isn’t a front-runner for Sixth Man anymore, his teammate Joe Ingles should be. Ingles is averaging 12.3 points and 4.4 assists while shooting 48.8 percent from 3. This dude is a monster off the dribble. Ingles has done whatever the Jazz have needed, serving as an on-ball presence when necessary and primarily as a lethal shooter who can facilitate for his teammates. On some nights, he’s tasked with defending superstars and he does a competitive job of it.
Ingles has started 18 of 55 games, or 33 percent of his appearances up to this point, but there is precedent for winners having that many starts. In 2010-11, Lamar Odom was named Sixth Man of the Year and started 35 of 82 games, or 43 percent of his games played. It’s a crowded field for the award, but Ingles should be one of the leading candidates. The Jazz have dominated this regular season because of their best players: Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Mike Conley. But Utah’s depth will position them to make a potential Finals run.
4. Phoenix Suns | PR: 4
The Suns are battling.
Three weeks ago, the Suns were about to begin a difficult April with a loaded stretch of games against playoff opponents. Though Phoenix has lost two in a row, to the Celtics on Thursday and the Nets on Sunday, this month has been an overall success. The Suns have gone 9-4 with some great wins over Utah, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. They have three more games this week against the Knicks, Clippers, and Jazz.
“We’re trying to win it all,” Devin Booker recently told ESPN. The Suns lack experience across the roster. But they have the pieces to make a deep run. Chris Paul and Devin Booker both deserve All-NBA consideration, Deandre Ayton keeps improving, and the rest of the roster is loaded with talent across positions. Monty Williams is the front-runner for Coach of the Year, too. The Suns aren’t favorites, but they belong in the championship conversation.
5. Denver Nuggets | PR: 5
Nikola Jokic’s defense is underrated.
The MVP conversation is tiresome. Throughout the season, we’ve moved from one candidate to the next. Today isn’t the day to make the case for Jokic. I’m just acknowledging that Jokic is way better on defense than people are giving him credit for. No, he’s not a stopper. He’s not on Joel Embiid’s level. But he’s good. He is a genius on offense, and his big brain also helps him on defense.
Here are two clutch defensive plays by Jokic down the stretch of Denver’s recent win over Portland:
Jokic first slides back to protect against a potential lob to Norman Powell, then scurries back to defend against a potential Damian Lillard pull-up 3 before outmuscling Jusuf Nurkic to get into position to alter a layup attempt. All within a seven-second span. In the game’s final possession, he shut two windows of opportunities for Portland to win it:
After the jump ball, Jokic hustles back to cut off Robert Covington’s driving or passing angle before perfectly timing his jump to contest Powell’s floater.
Jokic is having one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history. He’s also a good defender.
6. Milwaukee Bucks | PR: 4 ↓
The Bucks are ramping up their switching.
Milwaukee just played its 60th game of the season on Sunday, a 111-104 loss to the Hawks. The Bucks aren’t racking up wins lately, which explains their drop in the power rankings. But they are using the regular season to experiment, and now they’re switching screens more than they have at any point during the Mike Budenholzer era. Splitting their season into three segments of 20 games reveals an intriguing trend:
Flipping the Switch
|Points Per Chance Allowed
|Points Per Chance Allowed
|First 20 Games
|Middle 20 Games
|Last 20 Games
The Bucks switched only 10 percent of screens over their first 20 games, but have more than doubled that rate over their last 20 games to 24 percent. Over the full season, this would be the eighth-most frequent rate of switching in the entire league. Milwaukee has also improved at getting stops with switches. In the last 20 games, they’ve allowed only 0.92 points per chance, which ranks 11th during this time frame and would rank eighth over the full season.
Expect to see more possessions like the one above come playoff time. Without Brook Lopez on the floor and Giannis Antetokounmpo still in the game, the Bucks become a swarming defense. In this clip, they switch multiple screens. Then, as soon as Deandre Ayton receives the ball on the roll, P.J. Tucker flies in to apply pressure before returning to Chris Paul to force him into a tough pull-up. More stops like that and the Bucks will go farther than they ever have before.
7. Philadelphia 76ers | PR: 8 ↑
How often will defenses double Joel Embiid?
Embiid is a dominant force inside. He uses a post-up a league-leading 13.1 times per game, and the Sixers are scoring 1.1 points per chance on those plays, an elite number considering his volume. But results vary when he’s facing double instead of single coverage.
The Sixers score 1.16 points per chance when Embiid isn’t doubled and only 0.97 points per chance when he is. To be clear, this is better than past seasons as the chart below shows:
Joel Embiid vs. Post Doubles
|Points Per Chance
|Points Per Chance
The Sixers have more talented shooters now, and Embiid has improved too. He has a better Spidey sense for doubles and he delivers more accurate passes. He’s turning the ball over on only 10 percent of doubles, down from 17 percent over the past three seasons.
But he still frequently gets double-teamed. This season, he’s faced a league-leading 169 double teams on his post, according to Second Spectrum. The fact Philadelphia is scoring only 0.97 points per chance is alarming. It’s slightly above average and pales in comparison to what happens when Jokic and Giannis get doubled (both posting an elite 1.4 points per chance). At some point in the playoffs, opponents will likely ramp up the pressure even more. Teams are asking for trouble if they allow Embiid to pulverize single coverage. Doubles will be coming, and the Sixers will need their supporting cast to step up.
8. New York Knicks | PR: 10 ↑
RJ Barrett is showing flashes.
This season, Barrett is logging 18 drives per game, which is more than 90 percent of NBA players, according to Second Spectrum. Though he’s still slightly below average in scoring efficiency when attacking the basket, average is much better than his rookie season results:
Barrett grades higher across play types, as detailed in the chart above taken from the latest episode of The Void (with stats not including Saturday’s win over Toronto). This season, Barrett is doing a better job of mixing in change of pace, utilizing his off-hand, and using floaters. He is a long way from being a great interior scorer, but his progress is a sign that even better days are ahead.
9. Golden State Warriors | PR: 19 ↑
Stephen Curry, the self-creator.
Curry changed basketball with his 3-point shooting ability, but he’s always been much more than just a shooter. This season, he’s having one of the best seasons of his career attacking the basket.
A career-high 26 percent of Curry’s total shots are driving layups or floaters, according to Second Spectrum. He’s hitting 59 percent of those shots, which ranks 10th in the league of the 113 players to log at least 100 attempts. By comparison, Giannis Antetokounmpo ranks first at 67 percent (of course, many of his makes are dunks that are classified as “layups”).
Curry is on a tear in April, averaging 38.1 points and 47.2 percent from 3. But a large component of Curry’s greatness comes from what he does closer to the rim.
10. Dallas Mavericks | PR: 7 ↓
Dwight Powell is back.
Over the two seasons before this one, Luka Doncic ran more pick-and-rolls with Powell than any other teammate. Doncic and Powell hooked up for 1,090 pick-and-rolls, or 10.6 per game, according to Second Spectrum. Maxi Kleber was next closest (816), then DeAndre Jordan (786), and Kristaps Porzingis (705). But after suffering a ruptured Achilles in January 2020, Powell’s minutes and performance have been limited.
Powell hasn’t flown quite as high, or hung as long in the air, as he once did. It shows in the numbers: He shot 57 percent on attempts this season in the restricted area prior to March 21. But since then, he’s making 83 percent of his restricted area attempts, which is in line with the 78 percent he hit over the previous two seasons.
Over the past month-plus, the Mavericks have scored 1.6 points per chance when Doncic passes the ball to Powell in the pick-and-roll, according to Second Spectrum. Powell often makes athletic finishes, but as the clips above also show, he can also kick the ball out to teammates to force defenses into rotation. Luka is shining this season, but he should only be better now that his favorite rim-runner is looking more like himself.
11. Atlanta Hawks | PR: 14 ↑
What a turnaround.
The Hawks are one of the stories of the season. Atlanta looked like a lost cause when Lloyd Pierce was dumped on March 1, but now have won 20 of 27 games under Nate McMillan. Until Trae Young turned his ankle last week, the team was finally getting healthy after a barrage of early-season injuries. With Young out, Bogdan Bogdanovic has continued to shine in his absence. McMillan deserves serious consideration for Coach of the Year, and when Young is healthy, this team looks like a legitimately tough playoff opponent. This progress is a serious accomplishment, no matter how the postseason goes.
Here’s the cherry on top: Onyeka Okongwu, a rookie center Atlanta drafted with the sixth pick, is looking worthy of the selection. He’s finishing well at the rim and flashing his versatile defensive potential. In recent weeks, he’s playing some of his best overall basketball. Okongwu is also flashing playmaking skills, just as he did last season as a USC freshman.
Short-roll playmaking is critical for a big man in today’s game, especially with a point guard like Young who can draw the defense beyond the 3-point line. Think about how Steph Curry has Draymond Green as an outlet when he gets trapped, whereas Damian Lillard has Enes Kanter, a limited passer. The Hawks hope Okongwu is a lot more like Green or other bigs who can make plays. The clip above is evidence he does have the ability to quickly process information on the floor and deliver a catchable ball.
In the clip above, Okongwu sets a screen and brings Lou Williams’s defender, Isaiah Thomas, along for a ride to the paint. As soon as Okongwu catches the ball inside, he feels the defense collapse to help and immediately delivers the ball out for an open 3. Solomon Hill misses, but the pass was spot-on. This vision shows up time and time again watching the rookie.
The Hawks still have a long way to go; Okongwu and their other young players still need to get better. But the pieces are coming together.
12. Boston Celtics | PR: 13 ↑
Playing the blame game.
Boston’s loss to Charlotte on Sunday was symbolic of the team’s issues all season long. A lack of focus, heart, and spirit was apparent right from the opening tip, and just minutes into the game Jayson Tatum lazily flicked a ball in the backcourt that Terry Rozier intercepted for a layup.
For a little while, it looked like the Celtics turned a corner. But losses like Sunday’s have happened far too frequently to make anyone believe in this team as a Finals sleeper.
Everyone deserves some blame. Danny Ainge could have built a better roster. Brad Stevens could make more adjustments to the system. But what’s easiest to observe is players making lackadaisical plays, not putting in a second effort, whining to referees instead of hustling back on defense, hanging their heads when things aren’t going well. Changing character usually starts with the team’s best players. As great as Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been statistically, the obvious area of improvement is leadership. Tatum is 23. Brown is 24. They’re young guys. In the years to come, the Celtics need them to mature and set a tone every single night
13. Miami Heat | PR: 7 ↓
Every game matters.
On Friday, Jimmy Butler told reporters the Heat are “consistently inconsistent.” The next night, Butler’s words were proven true as Miami built a 24-point lead over the Bulls that quickly evaporated into a two-point lead late in the fourth quarter. The Heat ended up winning by five, but their fans took another unwanted ride on a roller coaster.
It’s been up and down in Miami all season, which doesn’t inspire much confidence for the team to make it back to the Finals. Miami had a similarly rocky path to last year’s playoffs, but the competition in the East is just stiffer now.
The Heat can’t be ruled out, not when they have Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, plus a strong roster on paper and a great coach. But seeding is going to be critical, which is why Saturday’s game carried so much weight. Chicago, the current 11-seed, is fighting for a spot in the play-in tournament. Miami, the current 7-seed, is trying to escape the play-in by getting into the top six. The Heat are tied in record with the Celtics for the 6-seed, and they’re only two back from the Knicks for fourth. Every game is meaningful for Miami the rest of this season, so fans should prepare for more roller coaster rides.
14. Los Angeles Lakers | PR: 12 ↓
The Lakers are still the favorites.
Despite dropping two games against Dallas since Anthony Davis returned on Thursday, the Lakers are still in a great position to maintain a top-five seed with Orlando, Washington, and Sacramento coming up on the schedule and LeBron James possibly back by the end of the week.
The defense did its job without the stars. The Lakers went 7-9 without Davis and LeBron by maintaining an elite defense, putting up the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA during that span. They were 29th in offensive rating over the same period, and now LeBron will be returning to get experience with some new teammates in Andre Drummond and Ben McLemore. Though they’ll be short on time to build chemistry ahead of the playoffs, it shouldn’t take long considering their amount of high-IQ players. If LeBron and AD remain healthy, the Lakers are still the favorites.
15. Memphis Grizzlies | PR: 17 ↑
Welcome back, Jaren Jackson Jr.
It sure feels good to watch JJJ hoop again. It’s especially good when he’s setting a screen for Ja Morant:
Morant’s a magician. Watch the fluidity of his crossovers, the head and shoulder movement to sell the direction he’s going, the change of rhythm, and the footwork: He takes one long stride to scoot by Jusuf Nurkic and throw a wraparound pass to Jackson. That’s a tough catch, but JJJ cleanly grabs it and goes straight up, wasting no time to get the bucket.
The Grizzlies should only get better once Jonas Valanciunas returns from a concussion, which will make quite a frontcourt rotation. JJJ will be unleashed as a perimeter shooter. Xavier Tillman, a rookie who’s become one of the NBA’s steadiest rotation players, will move to a bench role with Brandon Clarke. These Grizzlies aren’t contenders, but they’re good. The years to come should bring Finals hopes.
16. Washington Wizards | PR: 24 ↑
The Wizards found a potent connection.
Daniel Gafford has played only 11 games with Washington, yet he already has a telepathic relationship with Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook has long had a feel for creating easy shots for his bigs, and Gafford has been a bouncy interior finisher since his college days at Arkansas. But it looks like these guys have been playing together for years. In those 11 games, Gafford has attempted 38 shots on passes received from Westbrook and shot 71 percent, according to Second Spectrum. The far majority of those passes come when Gafford is hanging around the dunker’s spot and calls for a lob, or gets himself open. But there’s still room to grow when Gafford screens for Westbrook in the pick-and-roll.
The Wizards score only 0.64 points per chance when Gafford screens for Westbrook, according to Second Spectrum. If they begin to click when running pick-and-roll, it’ll only further boost Washington’s half-court offense.
17. Toronto Raptors | PR: 15 ↓
Toronto’s frontcourt is bringing a new style.
The Raptors won a championship with a big, long frontcourt led by Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Both are gone, and the void has yet to be filled. Aron Baynes seemed like a savvy addition, but his poor shooting and fruitless defense left Toronto fans longing for something more. Two April additions might be the antidote for this season.
Khem Birch was signed via the buyout market, and G Leaguer Freddie Gillespie is in the middle of his second 10-day contract. Gillespie, who’s 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds, brings length, activity, and contagious energy to Toronto’s bench units. He’s also a wonderful singer and can be trusted to keep secrets. He and Birch are perfect complements. The Raptors are outscoring opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions when Birch is on the floor. It comes in only 184 minutes, but that’s an outstanding start considering he joined the team so late in the season.
Birch, much like Gillespie, brings effort on every possession. He’s always in the proper position to make a play on the ball, and he communicates. At 6-foot-9, he isn’t a defensive anchor. But he’s a glue guy, and the Raptors need more of that this season and moving forward.
18. San Antonio Spurs | PR: 23 ↑
Respect for Jakob Poeltl.
There’s really nothing flashy about Poeltl’s defense. He’s not especially quick or explosive. He doesn’t block a ton of shots (1.8 per game). He rarely ever switches, doing so on only 4 percent of on-ball screens, per Second Spectrum. But he relies on a high basketball IQ and positioning to impact offenses.
Big Plays on Defense
|Points Per Shot Allowed
|Shots Allowed Per Game
|Points Per Shot Allowed
|Shots Allowed Per Game
The chart above lists the players who’ve allowed the fewest points per shot scored on shots attempted in the paint when those players are the closest defender. Poeltl ranks third! San Antonio is holding on to its play-in tournament spot, and Poeltl and the team’s defense is a big reason why.
19. Portland Trail Blazers | PR: 9 ↓
The Trail Blazers are collapsing.
Portland has lost five games in a row and is 6-10 since acquiring Norman Powell on deadline day. On the season, the Blazers have the second-worst defensive rating—only the Kings rank worse. Portland has had plenty of memorable moments as it’s made seven consecutive playoff appearances, but today, I feel bad for Blazers fans. Expectations were high and the team has done nothing but underwhelm. Most of all, I feel bad for Damian Lillard. An all-time talent like him deserves better during a prime season of his career.
Team building isn’t easy. The Blazers have been good enough to at least make the playoffs in the loaded West. But looking at the team now, the Blazers need more players who can get on-ball stops and a rim protector who’s feared by opponents. Players who can set strong screens and make plays off the dribble are hard to find, but the Blazers haven’t been able to find one who can serve as an outlet for Dame when he gets trapped in the pick-and-roll. Head coach Terry Stotts also needs to be better at tweaking the offensive system on the fly. Fans understandably point the finger at coaching, but serious change across the roster is needed.
20. New Orleans Pelicans | PR: 18 ↓
The Lonzo Ball question mark.
Julius Randle came to mind Saturday night, as he often does these days. Two seasons ago, when Randle was 24, he averaged 21.4 points for the Pelicans but it never felt like his production helped the team win. He took a lot of unwarranted shots, didn’t pass enough, and wasn’t a consistently impactful defender. Oh, how times have changed. No one should ever blame the Pelicans for letting Randle walk, especially with Zion Williamson incoming.
The Pelicans are in a similar position now with Lonzo Ball, who’s having a strong season. He’s averaging 14.1 points on 38.2 percent from 3 with 5.6 assists. He looks more comfortable off the dribble than ever. And at times, he’s been the team’s most active defender. And yet, despite Zion having a historic second season and Brandon Ingram matching last season’s All-Star numbers, the Pelicans are having an underwhelming season and are on the outside looking in for the play-in tournament.
It’s kind of hard to rationalize paying Ball in the ballpark of $20 million annually in restricted free agency this summer, which would limit cap flexibility in the years to come. It’s not a perfect fit. Ball is still a streaky shooter and he’s not a lockdown defender. With Williamson emerging as a dominant force on the ball, Ball’s playmaking ability is also limited. There are better fits for him, too.
But where else can the Pelicans find a 23-year-old playmaker who provides a spark like Lonzo? As Randle has proven, it’s hard to know what’s right.
21. Charlotte Hornets | PR: 16 ↓
A deeper look at a viral star.
You’ve probably watched Miles Bridges dunk highlights multiple times this season. He’s done some pretty incredible things to defenders (especially Clint Capela). But the best part of his season has been his development as an all-around player. At just 23 years old, Bridges is shooting a career-high 40.7 percent from 3 and 85.1 percent from the line. He’ll need to sustain those numbers moving forward, but becoming a greater shooting threat has activated his ability to attack closeouts for buckets or kickouts.
This pass is nasty on so many different levels. First, he blows by Julius Randle. Then he has the strength and levitation ability to absorb contact from Nerlens Noel and still manage to throw a dart out to Devonte’ Graham for a 3-pointer. Bridges has displayed this type of passing vision throughout the season, leading to a career-high 2.1 assists per game.
Bridges is also an effective and versatile defender on the ball:
He has displayed good footwork all season, sliding laterally to contain opposing scorers. But he’s arguably even better off the ball:
Bridges flies out of nowhere to stop an open layup attempt in the clip above. Even when he doesn’t block the shot, he makes an impact by being attentive away from the action. You might know his name because of his dunks, but it’s everything else that’ll have him thriving in the NBA for a decade-plus.
22. Cleveland Cavaliers | PR: 28 ↑
Darius Garland is turning the corner.
Garland is developing nicely for the Cavaliers in the second season of his career, averaging 17.8 points on 41.1 percent from 3 with six assists. At just 21 years old, he looks the part of an offensive engine who’s only beginning to tap into his shot-creation gifts. He makes gorgeous passes from all areas of the court, and he can stretch defenses with his shot.
Cleveland head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said last week he wants the team to attempt at least 30 3-pointers per night and for Garland to take eight to 10 of them. Garland is averaging only 4.9 per game this season, so that’d be quite a dramatic rise, but it’s likely in the best interest of his development. The Cavs are likely too far out to make a push for the play-in tournament, and they’re unlikely to gain or lose much ground in the lottery standings. So this is experimentation time. Feed Garland. Find out what happens.
23. Chicago Bulls | PR: 21 ↓
There’s always next season.
The Bulls have sorely underwhelmed with a 6-11 record since acquiring Nikola Vucevic at the trade deadline. Now Zach LaVine is out due to health and safety protocols, which squanders their playoff chances. Chicago’s future upside will be dependent on the progress of Patrick Williams and moves to come this offseason, so it’s not worth overanalyzing the current roster. Bulls fans should relax. Enjoy the losses and the lottery odds. The pieces will change at some point.
24. Indiana Pacers | PR: 20 ↓
Oshae Brissett is worthy of your attention.
It’s been a disappointing and injury-riddled season for the Pacers, but one of their nice stories in recent weeks is the play of Brissett. All you have to know about Brissett is Ted Lasso would adore him. Any coach would. Brissett brings constant energy:
Keep your eyes on the yellow jersey closest to the rim. That’s Brissett. He helps inside to prevent a pass for a layup, then teleports back to the 3-point line to run a shooter off the line. The opponent takes a side-dribble for a 3, and Brissett swats it away. This is why the Pacers signed him to two 10-day contracts and then a full NBA contract.
In his first game after inking the deal, he scored 23 points. On the season, he’s hitting 42 percent of his 3s—up from sub-30 percent going back to college. To receive regular minutes in the NBA long term, Brissett will need to maintain a good shooting percentage. But the key to getting chances is effort, and he’ll always have that going for him.
25. Minnesota Timberwolves | PR: 25
Jaden McDaniels is an elite defender.
The following clip is the type of play you’d expect a veteran to make:
As Ricky Rubio gets switched on to Rudy Gobert, McDaniels can be seen immediately calling for a switch. This is so McDaniels, who’s 6-foot-9, can switch on to Gobert. It’s not often you see this quick recognition from a rookie. He’s had a number of impressive individual moments on a team that’s struggled to get stops this season. He’s always aware and engaged. McDaniels and Rubio do switch, but then Utah runs another pick-and-roll, which puts McDaniels on to Jordan Clarkson, a leading candidate to win Sixth Man of the Year. But McDaniels is excellent on the ball and proceeds to mirror his every movement, swallowing him as he drives and forcing a brick.
Time and time again, McDaniels made plays just like this in Minnesota’s surprising win over Utah on Saturday night. Though the Timberwolves still have one of the NBA’s worst records, the pieces are beginning to come together. Karl-Anthony Towns looks more comfortable defending on the wing, which he’s done more frequently in recent months. Anthony Edwards is blossoming. And McDaniels, rookie or not, is a stout defender. The fit with D’Angelo Russell is a bit awkward, but this young core deserves time to mesh.
26. Detroit Pistons | PR: 26
Welcome back, Killian Hayes.
It was genuinely shocking how often people dubbed Hayes a bust seven games into his career—all of which he played hurt. There have been countless times when eventual All-Stars or even quality rotation players have struggled to begin their careers for weeks, even years.
Hayes returned from a torn right labrum on April 3, and he’s still struggling to score and is shooting 39.4 percent from the field. But development is never linear, and considering his raw handle and jumper, it may take longer for him to reach his upside. But Hayes still flashes potential. He’s hitting nearly 90 percent of his free throws and displays soft touch on floaters, just like he did overseas, which bodes well for his jumper. He’s also made spectacular passes off the dribble and defended at a high level for a rookie. At 6-foot-5, Hayes displays versatility on the ball, and he’s an intelligent off-ball presence who’s a nuisance in the passing lanes.
Hayes doesn’t turn 20 until July. How good he becomes will depend on his investment in his game. Does he practice the right things? Will he work hard on his body? Can he dedicate himself to his craft? These are the variables. If he checks off those boxes, better ballhandling, shooting, and scoring will come. There’s already a foundation built on passing and defending. Let’s be patient and see what happens.
27. Sacramento Kings | PR: 22 ↓
De’Aaron Fox will be out for 10 to 14 days because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Hopefully Fox and the people around him are all healthy. From a pure basketball standpoint, Sacramento could benefit from some time without its best player.
The Kings have the seventh-best lottery odds, which would come with a 32 percent to land in the top four. But they’re dangerously close to hurting their chances. Sacramento is only three games ahead of the Wizards, who have the 11th-best odds, which would give Washington only a 9.4 percent chance at landing a top-four pick. Getting better odds is unlikely for the Kings since Cleveland is up by three games and Oklahoma City is by four games, but maintaining positioning is crucial.
Sacramento has promise on the roster—namely, rookie Tyrese Haliburton—but Fox needs a costar. The 2021 draft has potential franchise-changers and Sacramento should be doing what it can to maximize chances of getting one of them. A play-in spot would be pointless and end up only hurting the team in the long run.
28. Houston Rockets | PR: 29 ↑
What’s next for Christian Wood?
Wood was a Most Improved Player front-runner before a midseason ankle injury sidelined him for six weeks. Since returning in mid-March, he’s averaging comparable numbers, but his scoring efficiency has plummeted from 63.4 percent true shooting to 56.7 percent. The decline is partially due to a lower 3-point percentage, but it’s also a drop in scoring chances at the rim.
Only 36 percent of Wood’s shot attempts are coming at the rim since returning in March, compared to 43 percent prior. The primary cause is fairly obvious: James Harden is gone.
The Passers Feeding Christian Wood
|Total Shots Per Game
|Total Shots Per Game
|Kevin Porter Jr.
Wood attempted nearly half of his shots at the rim when receiving a pass from Harden, compared to 30 percent or lower from other teammates. Harden’s deep shooting ability and his pinpoint playmaking enabled Wood to roll hard to the rim. But with John Wall and other more limited perimeter players, Wood is asked to pop for 3-pointers.
Without a shot creator who can effectively shoot off the bounce, Wood’s value as a pick-and-roll threat unfortunately diminishes. Shooting 3s is an important part of his game, but finishing inside is his best skill. Wood recently told reporters he plans to work on his playmaking and his body this offseason, which are important next steps for his development. But to reach his full potential, the Rockets need to find him a new pick-and-roll partner.
29. Oklahoma City Thunder | PR: 30 ↑
OKC has a chance to be really, really big.
Oklahoma City is tanking hard, having lost 13 consecutive games. Good for them. With some lottery luck, Sam Presti will have an opportunity to add a star and build a massive team.
The two best players in the class are Cade Cunningham, a 6-foot-8 playmaker, and Evan Mobley, a mobile 7-footer. Landing one of them would allow the Thunder to someday utilize lineups in which Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (6-foot-6) would be the smallest player on the court.
Let’s say Mobley is the pick. SGA plays point. Aleksej Pokusevski (7 feet), Darius Bazley (6-foot-8), and Kenrich Williams (6-foot-7) are the wings. That’d be a lineup loaded with skilled tall dudes, which could create major matchup advantages for Oklahoma City. Even the team’s other guards, Theo Maledon (6-foot-4) and wing Lu Dort (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), have size and strength. There’s no telling how all of these youngsters will develop, but Presti must be drooling about the possibilities.
30. Orlando Magic | PR: 27 ↓
Steve Clifford isn’t happy.
“We’re playing younger guys in games that for the standings aren’t meaningful. But they need to be meaningful to us and they weren’t tonight. We had guys out there worrying about numbers who actually on the stat sheet look OK and were terrible. Terrible. Not bad, terrible,” Magic head coach Steve Clifford said Thursday after the Magic got roasted 135-100 by the Pelicans. “This whole thing is about getting better and making progress, and not about a guy that made one exciting play and was awful the rest of the game. There were a bunch of those guys out there tonight.”
Oof. Clifford’s not wrong here. Players took selfish shots, didn’t hustle, missed box-outs, and played with piss-poor effort all night. It’s the norm now in Orlando, which has lost 11 of its past 12 games. Discipline and decision-making are problems across the team, but that’s why this stretch of games, no matter how much Clifford hates it, is important.
Patience can lead to good results, which the Magic are receiving from Wendell Carter Jr. after the former lottery pick struggled in Chicago. These young Magic players need reps, both as individuals and as a collective unit. Mo Bamba hasn’t played much in two years. Chuma Okeke, Cole Anthony, and R.J. Hampton are all rookies. Hampton barely got minutes until the Magic acquired him. It takes time for players to figure it out, and that’s what Orlando can give them, even if it means losing games and more angry postgame press conferences.