So, a lot happened this week. Shoot, Thursday alone brought enough entertainment on and off the court to last for two weeks. Anthony Davis is still in New Orleans, but that isn’t going to stop LeBron from tampering through the All-Star draft. Rajon Rondo hit a game-winner in Boston. Marc Gasol was forced to finally leave Memphis. And Russell Westbrook and Joel Embiid will have to spend at least one day as teammates.
Pretty big day, right?
Now let’s try to unpack all that went down during the last week while focusing on some MVP candidates in this week’s Power Rankings.
30. Knicks | Last Week: 0-3 | Overall: 10-45 | Previous Ranking: 30
Are the Knicks perfecting tanking? They took one of the league’s top teams down to the wire at home and the best player on one of the league’s other top teams is pissed at the media because of rumors that he’s coming to New York to save the franchise. All we need is some more maturation from Dennis Smith Jr. and a frozen envelope and the Garden is going to be jumping next season. Who would have thought you could stimulate so much hope during a 16-game losing streak?
29. Suns | Last Week: 0-4 | Overall: 11-47 | Previous Ranking: 29
The Suns went from keeping it within 10 against the Rockets to getting trounced by the Jazz to having the Warriors on the ropes to being pushed around by the Kings in a seven-day span. As wild as that week is, I know a couple of you are reading this for any sort of real exploration into what’s going on in Phoenix. So let’s just enjoy this video of Kelly Oubre Jr.
28. Cavaliers | Last Week: 0-3 | Overall: 11-45 | Previous Ranking: 28
Marquese Chriss is finally free from the oppressive system that is the Houston Rockets depth chart. In 47 minutes with the Cavaliers he has produced 20 points and 11 rebounds. In 104 minutes with the Rockets he had 29 points and 28 rebounds. The irony in a man getting a chance at a brighter future by moving to a city where the sky is gray is not lost on me.
27. Bulls | Last Week: 1-2 | Overall: 13-43 | Previous Ranking: 27
Winning by nearly 20 in Brooklyn was a great way to start the Otto Porter era in Chicago.
Allowing Bobby Portis to get a double-double when the Wizards won in Chicago was a horrible way to avoid the surreal levels of petty Portis is going to exhibit since getting traded.
26. Hawks | Last Week: 1-3 | Overall: 18-38 | Previous Ranking: 24
After a great win to close out their seven-game road trip that they went 4-3 during, the Hawks came back to Atlanta just to take three straight L’s. They blew a lead against the Raptors and then fell behind big in the first quarter against the Hornets and Magic and failed to comeback. But despite these losses, don’t rule out the possibility of this squad taking out LeBron and the Lakers on Tuesday.
25. Pelicans | Last Week: 2-2 | Overall: 25-32 | Previous Ranking: 25
I would get booing Anthony Davis if Dell Demps wasn’t a “lousy general manager” who failed to build a better team around a generational talent. Those aren’t my words. That’s what David Stern had to say about him. You know David Stern, the former NBA commissioner who had to save Demps from botching the Chris Paul trade entirely. Good luck working out a deal with Danny Ainge.
And if that doesn’t work out, maybe Kenrich Williams will continue to provide some hope with more consistent minutes.
24. Grizzlies | Last Week: 2-1 | Overall: 23-34 | Previous Ranking: 26
Mike Conley is now Will Smith standing in an empty house—just thinking about what it was like when the Grizzlies knocked off the top-seeded Spurs in the first round in 2011 and then reached the conference finals by beating the top-seeded Thunder in 2013.
23. Wolves | Last Week: 0-3 | Overall: 25-30 | Previous Ranking: 18
On the road or not, the Timberwolves took three of the ugliest losses of the season at a time when they could have flipped the narrative on their entire season and leaped into the playoff picture. Instead they lost to the Grizzlies, Magic and Pelicans. And to make matters worse, that last loss in New Orleans came with Anthony Davis sitting out the entire fourth quarter, which Minnesota lost by three en route to losing the game 122-117. Now couldn’t be a worse time to see the Clippers as they appear to be punting on the postseason.
22. Heat | Last Week: 1-2 | Overall: 25-29 | Previous Ranking: 23
Dwyane Wade’s final West Coast swing got off to a great start thanks to Hassan Whiteside eating the Trail Blazers alive for 28 points on 11-for-12 shooting. Too bad a wretched 13-point fourth quarter against the Kings that included blowing an 11-point lead and allowing a 19-2 game-ending run made Wade’s last dance in Sacramento a forgettable one. Thankfully the universe wanted to give us something good so Josh Richardson went for a career high 37 points against the Warriors, which allowed for a great finish and another chance to watch Wade in clutch moments.
Shame it came in a losing effort.
21. Magic | Last Week: 3-1 | Overall: 25-32 | Previous Ranking: 22
Jonathan Isaac is not here for John Collins trying to dunk while he’s on the court. I am here for this big man battle continuing for years to come.
I’m also here for taking a shot on Markelle Fultz. If he works out, great. Maybe the Magic will have a dynamic point guard for the future to excite the crowd. If he still can’t get his shoulder together, it can’t be worse than the last six seasons have been.
20. Wizards | Last Week: 2-2 | Overall: 24-32 | Previous Ranking: 19
I’m at a loss for words when I think about John Wall’s situation. Part of me wants to laugh unnecessarily hard at the thought of the Wizards being tied to such a colossal contract for a player who will have missed 91 games over the last two seasons when this campaign concludes. His extension hasn’t even started yet! Another part of me is deeply saddened about a man not being able to continue doing the job he loves and has worked countless hours in order to have. When Wall goes Super Saiyan and transforms into “Gang Sign” John Wall, he becomes a player who can only be rivaled by “Untucked Kyrie”. Alass, we won’t see him again until 2020. But what truly leaves me dumbfounded is knowing Wall got 169 M’s in his future. The whole scenario stuns me speechless.
19. Hornets | Last Week: 1-2 | Overall: 27-28 | Previous Ranking: 15
Losing a pair of close games to open the week is a bit of a drag to say the least. But getting 30 assists and shooting above 50% for just the fourth time in the last 20 games is an encouraging way to end the week. The Hornets are 11th in the league in offensive rating despite hovering near the bottom third of the league in both of those categories. Maybe Saturday’s success will serve as a wake-up call for how they can make the offense flow even better to close out the season.
18. Pistons | Last Week: 3-0 | Overall: 25-29 | Previous Ranking: 21
Monday’s win over the Nuggets was a great team victory as seven players went for at least 11+. With two of the guys who were part of that group now gone (Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson), it will be interesting to see how minutes on the wing get distributed going forward as the Pistons look to hold onto the eight seed. If Luke Kennard and Wayne Ellington can make a difference as shooters, Detroit could pull away from Miami and Orlando down the stretch.
17. Lakers | Last Week: 1-2 | Overall: 28-28 | Previous Ranking: 14
LeBron is going to have to wait at least one postseason before he can team with Anthony Davis to try and take down the Warriors. This year, Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram will have to be enough to get the job done. Except “getting the job done” this season doesn’t mean making The Finals again in a quest for another ring. No, this year LeBron is going to be working to make the playoffs for a 14th straight season and trying to continue his run of always at least getting out of the first round.
This will mean he has to lead all those guys Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka had on the trading block. Even the one whose daddy thinks LeBron needs his son more than his son needs LeBron.
Maybe these young guys will take a clue from Kyrie Irving and just trust that James knows what he’s doing and try to follow him into April. Or maybe they can’t address their issues on defense and all those young players and coach Luke Walton will get stuck with the blame for forcing LeBron into the longest offseason of his career.
Either way, everybody is going to be talking about those surrounding pieces ad nauseam until they either get in the playoffs with LeBron or end up on a different team than LeBron.
When it comes to Walton, he needs to find out what lineups going forward are going to maximize this talent. I got a hard time believing Magic Johnson is about to get bullied into roster moves just because LeBron wants them. And when former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin says LeBron didn’t operate like that with him, it seems even more likely that LeBron isn’t going to be the pulling all the strings the way Pacers fans claimed he would.
But if players continue to perform in a way that leaves questions about what their ceiling really is or whether they can reach their full potential playing alongside LeBron, then it becomes more likely Magic thinks it’s worth moving them.
But before we get back to more speculation about roster moves, the Lakers have to finish this season. And if they want that to be more than 82-86 games, they need to make sure they get as high as seventh in the West to avoid the Warriors.
And that will be almost all about how great LeBron is on a nightly basis. He can’t address all the issues on his own, even if he does play the end of the regular season as if it were June and not March. But he can create an attitude for the Lakers as the season closes out that keeps them in the right mental place to make this postseason push.
If he can get everybody in the same place psychologically, order will be restored and the Lakers will go back to looking like they did before Bron got hurt. But if they can’t get there, chaos will ensue as we watch the Kings or Clippers in the playoffs.
And the only way to create more chaos than what would come if LeBron’s Lakers miss the playoffs is by bringing up where you think LeBron is in the MVP race on your Valentine’s Day date.
16. Mavericks | Last Week: 2-1 | Overall: 26-29 | Previous Ranking: 20
Forget the 30-point games, the clutch step backs, the triple doubles. All of it. This is why Luka Doncic is the runaway Rookie of the Year.
15. Spurs | Last Week: 0-4 | Overall: 32-26 | Previous Ranking: 10
With four consecutive losses, this is looking like the start to the worst Rodeo Road Trip in the history of ever. Especially considering the Spurs punted against the Warriors just to lose to the Trail Blazers and Jazz who they are sure to be battling for playoff positioning in April. The backend of this trip features the Grizzlies and Knicks, but San Antonio needs more than two wins over bad teams after last week.
14. Nets | Last Week: 1-2 | Overall: 29-28 | Previous Ranking: 13
With Caris LeVert already back on the court, I want to believe the Nets are about to rip off a run to make everybody think they could be brackbusters in the East that steal a first-round series and ruin one of the top-four squad’s title hopes. But then the lost to the Bulls by 19 at home. So I’m gonna have to wait a couple weeks before I start screaming from mountain tops about Boston not wanting to see Brooklyn in a seven-game series. But once I can start making that noise, just know I’m gonna be screaming screaming about this Nets squad.
13. Celtics | Last Week: 1-2 | Overall: 35-21 | Previous Ranking: 3
So Kyrie got banged up, but he’s only day-to-day. The fans are booing the team off the court at home. Marcus Morris hasn’t had fun “for a long time.” And in addition to blowing 46 points worth of leads to the Lakers and Clippers, Rajon Rondo and Doc Rivers got revenge in TD Garden.
Hopefully they can take care of the new look Sixers like they could the old look Sixers or this all might burst into flames Tuesday night.
12. Pacers | Last Week: 4-0 | Overall: 37-19 | Previous Ranking: 17
It’s legitimately a shame how the Pacers have been entirely written off despite still holding down the third spot in the East. Yes, I don’t think they are as a good a team as the Bucks, Raptors, 76ers and Celtics without Oladipo. But, they can play a factor in the playoffs still. If they can hold onto the three seed by some chance, or even at least maintain homecourt for the first round, they could still steal a series.
11. Clippers | Last Week: 2-1 | Overall: 31-26 | Previous Ranking: 16
The expectation is the Clippers are purposely trying to get themselves out of the playoffs so they can keep their 2019 first round pick instead of forfeiting it to the Celtics. Then, they have an extra asset to trade for Anthony Davis and the Celtics have one less. Good plan.
The problem is they didn’t tell Landry Shamet that was the objective when they traded for him and let go of their leading scorer Tobias Harris.
10. Kings | Last Week: 3-1 | Overall: 30-26 | Previous Ranking: 12
How sweet would it be if the Kings could finally snap their 12-season playoff drought and keep LeBron James’s Lakers out of the postseason? The fans had to have been thinking that while watching them go 5-1 during this six-game homestand. However, they need to seriously improve on that 11-15 road record to make that happen. They play 15 of their final 26 games away from Sacramento.
9. Trail Blazers | Last Week: 1-2 | Overall: 33-22 | Previous Ranking: 8
After nearly a week off, the Trail Blazers dropped two of three and now they get to see Oklahoma City on the second night of a road back-to-back. With the third-place Thunder and eighth-place Clippers both three games away from Portland in the standings, these next few weeks will be huge. Of the Blazers next seven games, six are on the road and six are against teams currently in the playoffs. The lone home game is against the Warriors, but the one non-playoff team is the Cavaliers.
If the Blazers are going to enter April with any sort of hope, they will almost certainly need home court for at least one series. Although we know how that worked out last season, starting off a series in Portland gives them a much better chance as they are 23-8 there compared to 10-14 everywhere else. And guess who gets to play 17 of their next 27 away from Portland.
If the Blazers are going to avoid the likely approaching drop in the standings, Damian Lillard needs to take things up another level. Tuesday against Miami, he turned in one of his worst games of the season matching his campaign-low with 13 points in a loss to the Heat. Next he went 0-for-7 from three against the Spurs, but the team was able to survive.
Then came Sunday. And the Trail Blazers got to see just how much they bank on their main guard. After building and then surrendering a lead with Lillard playing poorly, the four-time All-Star exploded to put his squad in position to get an impressive road victory.
Then he went 0-for-4 in the fourth and had a turnover in the final two minutes when the game was tied, followed by two misses, including the potential game-winner.
The team’s woes on the road can’t be entirely attributed to Lillard, but since he has a lower offensive rating, higher defensive rating and worse true shooting percentage while also having a higher usage rate than at home, he needs to get some of the credit for this discrepancy.
If Lillard can correct his issues on the road, particularly with his three-point shooting (38.4% at home and only 34.4% on the road), the Trail Blazers might hold onto fourth. If not, it’s going to be a long way down the standings before another first-round playoff exit makes it all stop.
8. Rockets | Last Week: 2-1 | Overall: 32-23 | Previous Ranking: 9
There’s something to be said about Kobe Bryant having no faith that James Harden iso-ball will work in the playoffs. And after watching Harden go 4-for-12 in the second half while a lead as large as 26 points disappeared at home against the Thunder, Kobe’s words seem to ring a even louder. But it’s not the All-Star Break yet, so let’s enjoy this Wilt Chamberlain-esque stretch of 30-point games as much as possible while it’s happening and avoid spending too much time souring on something amazing just because it might not lead to a title. That’s what we did with Kobe’s 2005-06 season.
7. Nuggets | Last Week: 0-3 | Overall: 37-18 | Previous Ranking: 4
It can’t feel good to follow up a six-game winning streak with a three-game losing streak. Especially when it coincides with Gary Harris and Paul Millsap dealing with injury troubles. And with two games before the All-Star Break, now is not the time for the Nuggets to fall behind the Thunder into third in the West.
Which makes it the perfect time for Nikola Jokic to takeover. The 23-year-old Serbian has been the average basketball nerd’s favorite player for a couple years now, and on Sunday, he gets to make his All-Star debut. But this season is about more than making the leap from being an analytics geek’s wet dream to becoming a household name.
Despite missing out on the postseason last year, the Nuggets’ terrific start has created real playoff aspirations for this season. They might not have much experience there outside of Millsap, but after positioning themselves for a top two seed for most of the season, they can’t be satisfied with simply getting out of the lottery.
As we come up on the season’s final turn, it’s going to be Jokic that needs to lead the charge into the playoffs and set the tone for this team. He’s done it all season by using his elite playmaking skills to operate the offense from the high post. He pushes defenses to the brink with slick passes and then knocks them over the edge with his ability get tough buckets in the paint. He’s liable to finish through contact or just get a lock off when his defender was never ready.
However, there’s still two places for him to improve, that could make a world of difference later on. For starters, he can continue to improve on defense. From the start of the season through the end of December, Denver was seventh in defensive rating. Since, they’ve been 24th, and slide down to 15th in the league for the season. This isn’t all on Jokic, but with so many other teams using their center as their defensive rock, you need to see a little something more from the man in the middle as the ship continues to sink.
The other spot is beyond the arc. Jokic shot just short of 40% from three last season, but this year he’s barley above 30%. You’d hate to see a Draymond Green-like regression from three for Jokic, but if he doesn’t improve that percentage to close out this season, it could hamper his impact as a floor stretcher. Which could drastically change how teams defend him, particularly in the playoffs.
6. Jazz | Last Week: 2-0 | Overall: 32-24 | Previous Ranking: 11
With one of the easiest schedules in the league remaining, the Jazz are poised to chase down the Rockets and Trail Blazers in the standings. They might mess around and catch the Thunder and Nuggets too considering they have two games left against each. If they take at least one of their road games in Oakland or Oklahoma City this week, it will remove the taste of that blowout loss to the Rockets and maybe it will remind more people of what a threat this team can be in the postseason.
5. Raptors | Last Week: 3-0 | Overall: 41-16 | Previous Ranking: 7
If Pascal Siakam isn’t one of your five favorite players in this league right now, I don’t even know how you’re reading these Power Rankings right now. Because you literally must be missing eyeballs and a brain. In which case, you need serious medical attention and immediate access to this man’s game film from Thursday in Atlanta. I can only provide one.
And shoutout to Fred Van Vleet for also posting a career high with 30 points that same night.
With a win over the 76ers last week and the addition of Marc Gasol, I wanted to buy back in on the Raptors being one of the top two teams in the East. Unfortunately, two other squads had better trade acquisitions.
4. 76ers | Last Week: 2-1 | Overall: 36-20 | Previous Ranking: 6
Joel Embiid might not have been a fan of the All-Star trade, but I think he’s likely a big fan of Elton Brand’s moves.
There are a lot of new bodies in Philadelphia, but at the end of the day, the big fella is still the most important.
The key for Embiid going forward is going to be doing a smidge less. We all understand he has the ability to put up numbers like ‘01 Shaq. However, this team will hit its peak form by letting Ben Simmons run the show, push the pace and keep the ball moving to fully utilize Tobias and Jimmy and J.J. Similar to how he maximized the talents of Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli at the end of last season when the squad took a 17-game win streak into the postseason, with Embiid sidelined for most of it.
But if Embiid doesn’t dominate on the defensive end like he did against Denver, this thing isn’t going to work.
Embiid has gone on record saying he wants to be MVP, partially because he feels that’s what’s needed of him to help this team win a title. And I think if this team could rally to steal first in the East to get the inside track for a Finals run, Embiid will have done enough to deserve the award. But he’s going to have to earn Defensive Player of the Year in the process to complete The Process.
He’s got moves so smooth the most accurate comparison we can make is to a Hall of Famer nicknamed The Dream. Nevertheless, relying a bit less on Embiid post ups is the best way to escalate the execution of this experiment so the team is functioning at a championship level come April. If he can take a slight step back on one end, and become even more aggressive on the other, there’s a real shot he hoists the Larry O’Brien Trophy and the Bill Russell Award in June. He can’t go 4-for-17 on a night while Buckets only needs nine shots for 22 points and Redick goes for 34 after making his first six threes though.
Let the offense run through Ben, and the buckets will still come like they have been. And from there, the tweets and acceptance speeches will write themselves.
3. Thunder | Last Week: 3-0 | Overall: 36-19 | Previous Ranking: 5
If you remove the two repulsive shooting performances Russell Westbrook had against the Lakers (a combined 10-for-50), he is shooting right around 43% since the start of 2019. No, that’s not great by any stretch of the imagination. But it is plenty better than what Russ was doing in December. And as much as you may hate hearing about his triple doubles, remember that the team is 16-6 when he gets one (.727 winning percentage) compared to 20-13 when he doesn’t (.606 winning percentage). So keep that in mind as he looks to set the record for consecutive triple doubles—he’s currently tied with Wilt Chamberlain at nine—at home against rival Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers Monday.
2. Warriors | Last Week: 3-0 | Overall: 40-15 | Previous Ranking: 2
Remember those two months people pretended to be concerned that Klay Thompson was shooting poorly from three? No? Is it because seeing him shoot 50% on threes since the New Year and 18-for-30 in February has eliminated all thoughts of a Klay Thompson miss from your memory bank? Same.
1. Bucks | Last Week: 3-1 | Overall: 41-14 | Previous Ranking: 1
So, this Giannis guy just keeps getting better, huh? How much longer is he going to keep doing this?
For every general manager East of Milwaukee, the answer to that question is probably “too damn long.” For every spectator, that comes with pros and cons. For instance, fans in Brooklyn and Dallas got to see some pretty magical stuff this week.
The fans in Milwaukee also got a show when the Wizards came to town. And they got enjoy cheering for the winning team.
However, the Freaky Greek poster-making machine is moving into foreign territory as the season wanes on. Luckily, coach Mike Budenholzer has some experience with being on the top team in the conference.
Antetokounmpo will need to bank on his coach even more going forward and trust that he is the answer to elevating this team out of the first round. Yes, Giannis being the MVP going into the All-Star Break should mean that he alone is capable of finally winning a series in the East, especially with home-court advantage, but we’ve seen weirder things happen.
And when the team’s last game was a 20-point loss at home to the Magic without Giannis playing, it brings about just a little concern that maybe the wheels can fall of this bus easier than we currently think.
But then you see Giannis do something like shoot 12-for-19 while 15 boards, nine assists and three blocks. Or maybe he goes 17-for-21 and 3-for-3 from three-point range with three steals. Either way, he makes you think there’s no way in the world he can be stopped.
And if he truly can’t be stopped, then this might be the year he hits another level in the postseason. It likely won’t be by improving his biggest weakness in three-point shooting, but by doing all the other stuff he already did great even better.
He can leave the shooting to the rest of the team. And the rest of the team can leave everything else to him.