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NBA Power Rankings: Is there a real threat out there to the Lakers?

NBC Sports logo NBC Sports 1/13/2021 Kurt Helin
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The NBA is being ravaged by the coronavirus — six games postponed since Sunday — and it is keeping teams from finding and maintaining their rhythm. Results are a little all over the map — unless you play the Lakers. They are on top for a reason, and LeBron is clowning the league.

 

a drawing of a face: Lakers small icon © Provided by NBC Sports Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (9-3 Last Week No. 1). Here’s the scary thing for the rest of the league: The Lakers haven’t come close to playing their best basketball yet. They have shown flashes, L.A. will put together a strong third or fourth quarter to take control of a game, but they are picking their spots right now (a very LeBron James regular season thing to do). Injuries have pushed Talen Horton-Tucker into the rotation and his play — particularly 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting against Houston – is going to force Frank Vogel to find him more regular minutes.

 

2. Bucks (7-4, LW 3). Milwaukee has the best offense in the NBA so far this season — 118.9 net rating — and while of course Giannis Antetokounmpo is a big part of that, it’s Khris Middleton having his best season that is a huge boost. He’s averaging a a career best 22.5 points per game while shooting 49.2% from three (67.8 true shooting percentage) with career best assist and rebound rates. Interesting tests coming up next week against Brooklyn and the L.A. Lakers.

 

3. Celtics (7-3, LW 8). They had won six of seven before the team was laid low by COVID-19 (three straight games postponed). Whenever the Celtics return to action, they could have Kemba Walker back in action, adding a third high-level playmaker to the offensive mix. Boston’s strong start is in part due to it being an incredible clutch team so far this season, with everyone making plays at the end of games — including Payton Pritchard.

 

4. Clippers (7-4, LW 6). Los Angeles is winning games, but there are causes for concern almost everywhere you look. The team’s defense remains bottom five in the league, mostly due to a dreadful bench unit on that end (actually, the bench has been bad on both ends). Lou Williams looks lost at points without Montrezl Harrell as a pick-and-roll partner (although he bounced back with 21 points against Chicago). Kawhi Leonard is getting to the rim less than ever (14.7% of his shots are in the restricted area, a career-low), and he is settling for more 10-22 foot jumpers, which he’s not hitting at the same rate as years past. All that will eventually catch up with Los Angeles if things don’t change.

 

5. Suns (7-4 LW 4). Phoenix is the latest team to be hit by the coronavirus, with their game against the Hawks postponed (the Suns played the Wizards, who have had players with the disease). Phoenix’s defense has started to slip a little the past couple of weeks and it has led to some ugly losses, one to Detroit and another to Washington. Yes, Devin Booker is the guy at the top of the scouting report on the Suns’ offense, but it’s the balance Chris Paul brings to the offense, with six players averaging double-digits a night in scoring — including Cameron Johnson and Dario Saric off the bench — that makes it difficult to slow down Phoenix.

 

6. 76ers (8-4 LW 2). It’s been a rough week in Philly with the coronavirus, but the league was right to fine the Sixers after their shorthanded loss to Denver — you can’t lobby the league to call the game off claiming COVID-19 issues, then throw guys who have not been on one injury report (Ben Simmons) onto the unable to play list just before the game and whine about not having enough players. Philadelphia had lost three in a row until Joel Embiid took over against Miami and got a win Tuesday (they face each other again in a couple of days).

 

7. Trail Blazers (6-4, LW 20). Winners of three in a row, who cares if it happened in a soft part of the schedule and took some CJ McCollum heroics to knock off Toronto? The Blazers are beating the teams they have to beat. One concern is the pairing of Enes Kanter and Carmelo Anthony off the bench and what that means for the Portland defense, but after Tuesday’s win coach Terry Stotts defended that choice saying, “The last four or five games they’ve been a net positive. There’s been a lot of conversation about that. I think Enes and Melo have played really well together the last five games.”

 

8. Pacers (7-4, LW 5). Myles Turner has talked openly about wanting to be Defensive Player of the Year, and while he may not get that hardware, this year he is putting up an eye-popping stat: Four blocked shots a game. Turner has 12 more blocked shots total this season than Rudy Gobert, who is second in the league. The Pacers’ defense is 4.1 points per 100 possessions better when Turner is on the court. All of that is going to get him noticed. Indiana’s loss to Sacramento Tuesday was the start of a five-game road trip through the West.

 

a drawing of a face: Jazz small icon © Provided by NBC Sports Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (7-4 LW 11). A few years back, Utah was a team that generated a lot of its offense with player and ball movement — they were a system team. Not any more. No team has assisted on fewer two-point shot attempts, and they are bottom-10 in three point assists (in particular corner threes). The ball isn’t moving the way it once did. Bojan Bogdanovic in particular is struggling, shooting 39.3% on twos this season. Sad to see Joe Ingles consecutive games streak end at 384.

 

10. Mavericks (5-4, LW 13). Dallas has won three in a row and seems to be finding its stride on the offensive end — and now Kristaps Porzingis is back, too. Luka Doncic has missed the pick-and-pop threat that KP provides, and while there will be a minutes limit and rust early, this is a boost for Dallas. That said, the Mavs are very shorthanded now after being crushed by the coronavirus: Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell, and Josh Richardson are all out Wednesday and could miss more time beyond that.

 

11. Nets (6-6, LW 10). Brooklyn went three games without either Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving (who is still out and has caught the league office’s attention), and that’s when Caris LeVert stepped up. He averaged 31 points and nine rebounds a game in the three games both Durant and Irving missed. He was respectively efficient in those games as well. After this start to the season, Brooklyn may be willing to push more into the pot to get a James Harden trade done.

 

12. Hornets (6-5, LW 24). LaMelo Ball is rightfully grabbing headlines — he is now the youngest player in NBA history with a triple-double. Ball still has rookie moments, but he is farther along the development curve than most pundits expected (*raises hand*). Considering Devonte’ Graham struggles on offense, how much longer before LaMelo starts? What Graham brings that Ball doesn’t is strong defense — Charlotte’s Top-10 defense is a key reason for the team has had a run of wins the past couple of weeks.

 

13. Nuggets (5-6 LW 18). After stumbling out of the gate this season, the Nuggets won 5-of-6 against a soft part of the schedule to right the ship (that changed with Tuesday’s loss to Brooklyn). The biggest difference is the defense that could not buy a stop at the start of the season but has been top three in the league over the past seven games. Nikola Jokic is still averaging a triple-double for the season — 24.4 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 10.4 assists a game — and playing at an MVP level. Michael Porter Jr. was supposed to return last week but saw his quarantine time extended.

 

14. Warriors (6-5, LW 17). That the Warriors beat the Clippers when Stephen Curry went supernova is impressive, but that’s hard to sustain. More impressive was the win against Toronto when Curry shot 2-of-16 and the team still found a way. The Warriors have gone 6-3 since their nationally televised losses in the season’s first two games, and the return of Draymond Green as a floor general goes a long way to explaining the change (when he’s paired with Curry, the offense just flows).

 

15. Spurs (6-5, LW 19). Did you really think the Spurs were going to fade away? They are always competitive, and they have won four-of-five, including beating both Los Angeles teams. DeMar DeRozan is racking up a career-high seven assists a game in more of a playmaker role, plus he is taking and making more threes than we have seen from him in recent years (39.1% shooting from deep on 2.6 attempts a game). San Antonio has a stretch of games coming up against other teams they will be battling for playoff spots/seeds: Two against Houston, then Portland, Golden State, and Dallas.

 

16. Hawks (5-5 LW 7). Before bouncing back against shorthanded Philadelphia on Monday, Atlanta had lost four in a row and was dealing with internal tension: big man John Collins (in a contract year, so he wants to put up numbers) expressed frustration with an offense that always ran through Trae Young. Thing is, the Young-centric offense was working and the Hawks need it to be elite to help cover up a defense that is middle-of-the-pack on a good day.

 

17. Heat (4-5 LW 16). Miami was just starting to find its footing this season — by starting Kelly Olynyk, the offense took off that way — then the team was smacked hard by the coronavirus and had to play against the 76ers Tuesday without Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, or Goran Dragic. They showed real fight, taking the game to overtime, but it’s going to be tough to get wins without everyone on board. Miami still feels like a team that can be a threat at the top of the East, but they need to get healthy and everyone back on the court first.

 

a drawing of a face: Magic small icon © Provided by NBC Sports Magic small icon 18. Magic (6-5 LW 9). Losing Markelle Fultz for the season is a huge blow to their offense — he was one of the league leaders in drives per game, he was creating opportunities for himself and others (not at an elite level, but he has proven to be a solid rotation point guard). Now rookie Cole Anthony is thrust into a starting role he is not ready for — he is shooting 31.5% this season overall, 18.2% from three, and there were questions coming into the season if his athleticism would be enough at this level. Anthony is thrown into the fire now.

 

logo, company name: Thunder small icon © Provided by NBC Sports Thunder small icon 19. Thunder (5-5, LW 26). New coach Mark Daigneault has got the Thunder playing defense — 11th best net rating in the league so far — which is covering up for OKC’s third-worst offense in the league so far. That Thunder defense has been chasing opponents off the three-point arc (fourth fewest attempts against in the league) and is aided by teams shooting just 33.2% against them so far (that number likely goes up as the season goes along). The Thunder won 4-of-5 on the road but against a soft part of the schedule, that’s about to change, including playing the Lakers Wednesday.

 

20. Grizzlies (4-6, LW 27). This team has been a respectable 3-4 since Ja Morant went down, and the reason is they have the best defense in the NBA over those seven games (stats via Cleaning the Glass, so garbage time is removed). Give Taylor Jenkins and his crew credit for competing hard every night; they played the Lakers well in a couple of games (but lost both because, well, the Lakers) and then beat Brooklyn and Cleveland. Jenkins and the front office there are building a culture, they just need to get Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. healthy.

 

a drawing of a face: Pelicans small icon © Provided by NBC Sports Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (4-5, LW 14). New Orleans still has a top-five defense, but the offense costs them wins. The concern going into the season was the Pelicans didn’t have enough shooting and the fact they are a league-worst 32.2% from deep this season — on the ninth-fewest attempts per game — seems to bear that out. Having the third-highest turnover rate in the league doesn’t help. The Pelicans have dropped three in a row and things are not getting easier: They are heading out on a six-game West Coast road swing that starts with the two Los Angeles teams.

 

22. Rockets (3-6 LW 21). James Harden made it clear he wants out of Houston, and the sooner the better (Brooklyn could be the landing spot). John Wall fired back at Harden after the Rockets got their doors blown off by the Lakers for a second straight game: “When you have certain guys in the mix who don’t want to buy in, all as one, it’s going to be hard to do anything special, to do anything good as a basketball team… We can’t dwell down on it because it’s only been nine games. Come on man, you want to jump off a cliff after nine games?”

 

23. Knicks (5-6, LW 15). While Julius Randle and, of late, Austin Rivers have been grabbing the headlines in New York, second-year player R.J. Barrett has shown some improvement, particularly as part of the Knicks team defense. Barrett continues to be a very inefficient shooter — 16 points a game but a dreadful 43.3 true shooting percentage — although his rebounding and passing have improved some. Defensively, the Knicks have been 10 points per 100 possession better with Barrett on the court this season, and while there is a lot of noise in that stat, he has looked better on that end after being coach by Tom Thibodeau.

 

24. Cavaliers (5-7, LW 12). Cleveland has struggled as injuries have robbed them of their entire backcourt rotation of starters Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, and behind them Matthew Dellavedova or Dante Exum. Andre Drummond has been pushed into more of a playmaking role, and while that has been hit-and-miss, he has his highest assist rate of his career and is making plays (he found rookie Isaac Okoro on a cut to seal a recent win). Drummond’s defense in the paint is also the Cavs’ anchor, they have the second-best defense in the NBA.

 

25. Kings (5-6, LW 23). Buddy Hield got his wish during the offseason: A massive new contract (four years, $86 million) and his spot back in the starting rotation. He’s done nothing with it. Hield’s scoring is down, his three-point shooting is down (still 35,8%, but for his career he shoots over 40%), his 50.9 true shooting percentage is well below both the league average and what he did last season (56.6%), he’s a smaller part of the offense now, his assist rate has dropped, and the Kings have been 11.7 points per 100 possessions better when he is off the court this season.

 

26. Wizards (3-8 LW 25).Bradley Beal knows what’s wrong with the Wizards: “Honestly, I don’t know. I mean, I do know, it’s our defense. But I don’t know why it’s our defense. At this point, we can’t guard a parked car.” Beal is leading the league in scoring at 34.9 points per game, but when he sits the Wizards offense drops by more than 16 points per 100 possessions. That offense is going to take a hit with Thomas Bryant out for the season. It moves Robin Lopez into the starting rotation, which is not good for the offense but may help the defense some.

 

27. Raptors (2-8, LW 28). The Raptors are better than this ranking — Pascal Siakam had two shots at a game-winner this week, both just missed — but they are simply not winning games. Toronto’s offense is starting to click, but the defense is ranked 26th in the league over their last seven games — it’s a 180 from earlier in the season when the defense was elite but the offense was lost. The bottom line is they are struggling in close games and digging themselves a hole to start the season.

 

28. Bulls (4-7, LW 22). The Bulls have posed an interesting question as they swing through the West: How good can they be with an all-offense backcourt? Zach LaVine is averaging 27.7 points a game and has seen his assists tick up in recent weeks as he takes on more playmaking. Coby White is on a scoring spree of late, he had three games in a row with at least 21 points a night (until he ran into the Los Angeles teams, which showed him way down). The problem is that the White/LaVine backcourt is a defensive disaster that teams can prey on. Lauri Markkanen (when he gets healthy) is not going to solve that problem, and that leaves Wendell Carter Jr. trying to clean everything up. The Bulls have some long-term decisions to make.

29. Pistons (2-8 LW 29). The Pistons had bet on rookie Killian Hayes taking his lumps but growing this season, unfortunately one of those lumps is an injury that is going to cost the 6’5″ point guard out of France considerable time. He was struggling to find his way in the NBA early, the change of speed moves and midrange jumper Hayes relied on in France are tougher to make work in the NBA, and he struggled averaging 4.6 points a game on 27.7% shooting. Without getting on the court, that learning curve just gets longer.

 

30. Timberwolves (3-7, LW 30). Karl-Anthony Towns is back and none-to-soon — the Timberwolves were 0-6 with him out, having lost every game by an average of 20 points a night. Towns scored 25 with 13 boards in his return, but the Timberwolves lost that one anyway (they did get a split of a set with the Spurs the next night, without Towns). The difference in that win was having Josh Okogie healthy and back on defense, and D'Angelo Russell being more aggressive attacking the paint. Minnesota needs all of that now with Towns in the lineup.

NBA Power Rankings: Is there a real threat out there to the Lakers? originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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