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NBA Power Rankings: Clippers Find Groove in Marquee Matchups

With the first month of the NBA season now in the books, The Crossover dives into this week’s power rankings.

The Clippers had a bit of a disjointed start to 2019-20. Los Angeles enters Monday night with the league’s No. 10 offensive rating, and with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George each missing multiple games, much of the first season’s first month was spent with an incomplete picture of the Western Conference contender. Championship expectations remained, but the Lakers emerged as the premier story early in the battle of Los Angeles. That narrative flipped last week.

Leonard and George played together in a pair of national TV tilts, and the results were positively thrilling. Los Angeles eked out an overtime win over the Celtics on Nov. 20, then erased a six-point deficit in the final 90 seconds to defeat the Rockets two days later. Leonard and George are a pair of nightmare-inducing wing defenders. They both can be elite focal points of an offense. Our glimpse of their potential has been brief, but it’s certainly been spectacular. The Staples Center lights have a good chance to stay on through early June.

With the season’s first month now in the books, let’s dive into this week’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.

30. Warriors – Ky Bowman is a solid candidate to get his two-way contract converted to a guaranteed deal on the skeleton-crew Warriors. The undrafted guard from Boston College is making 42.5% of threes while running an offense that isn’t among the league’s worst without Steph Curry. There may be a silver lining for Golden State despite a disastrous 2019-20.

29. Knicks – The last time the Knicks won back-to-back games was Nov. 21 and Nov. 23 of 2018. That’s right, New York has not won consecutive games in over a year. Happy anniversary, Knicks fans.

28. Cavs – Collin Sexton doesn’t need to be Trae Young, but he needs to begin sharing the ball with at least some efficiency. Sexton is averaging 2.1 assists per game despite a 26.7% usage rate. Of the 72 guards to have a usage of at least 20%, Sexton ranks 63rd in assist percentage at 11.6%. Wings Tim Hardaway Jr and Rudy Gay create assists at a better rate. The Cavs’ bigs have been solid. Their young backcourt is holding them back.

27. Hawks – Atlanta has dropped six straight amid a brutal schedule, and the road doesn’t get any easier with three road games in four nights around Thanksgiving. Lloyd Pierce’s frustration with his team’s defensive performance will likely continue at Milwaukee and at Houston.

26. Pistons – I fear Blake Griffin’s late-career turn won’t be fully appreciated in future decades. The former King of Lob City lost his bounce and reinvented himself as an All-Star point-forward, running the show for Detroit amid a depressing supporting cast. Griffin averaged a career-high 24.5 points last year whole posting his best effective field goal percentage since 2013-14. Griffin made a major leap from three, canning more triples (189) than Brook Lopez, Kyrie Irving, Luka Doncic and Donovan Mitchell. Griffin played three straight games for Detroit on Nov. 15-22 before sitting out a loss to Milwaukee on Nov. 23. Let’s hope for a healthy season for the former No. 1 pick.

25. Grizzlies – The Grizzlies are the most entertaining lottery team in basketball. Their point guard is absolutely electric and fearless (be careful, Ja), while fellow top-five pick Jaren Jackson is blossoming into an impressive modern five. Most importantly, these jerseys may be the best in NBA history. That’s not hyperbole. They’re fantastic.

24. Hornets – Teams are punishing Charlotte on the glass, with the Hornets sitting last in the NBA in defensive rebounds. They’re a slight group up front, and Cody Zeller is the lone Hornet with more than 5.5 rebounds per game. The draft is six months away, but Charlotte could certainly use a player like James Wiseman.

23. Thunder – Chris Paul’s trade market should be fascinating, and don’t be surprised if there are multiple bidders come February. CP3 has quietly boosted his efficiency across the board compared to last season, and he appears more spry in spurts than he did in 2018-19. Perhaps the Bucks could bring Paul back to NBA Finals contention.

22. Bulls – Congratulations Zach LaVine! This space has on occasion been reserved for criticism of the 24-year-old, but Saturday’s miracle shot to beat the Hornets was among the best moments of the year. The Bulls are 6–11. They are not very good. They do remain interesting, a slight consolation.

21. Pelicans – Lonzo Ball’s shot is trending in the right direction, yet it remains secondary to his defensive impact next to Jrue Holiday. A healthy Ball could give New Orleans the best defensive backcourt in basketball. That would be a big boost to the league’s No. 25 defense.

20. Spurs – San Antonio is experiencing a disastrous defensive year, sitting at No. 27 in defensive rating entering Monday. A potential antidote: play Dejounte Murray and Derrick White together. The duo has logged just seven minutes together in 2019-20, while White and Bryn Forbes are minus-12.3 points per 100 possessions in 147 minutes. A lineup change could help kickstart a turnaround back to respectability.

19. Blazers – Three games, three losses and a 5/16 mark from three for Carmelo Anthony in Portland. The losses aren’t largely his fault, of course, but it’s hard imagining Anthony as a difference maker in Portland. 2019-20 has been a nightmare season at the Moda Center.

18. Wizards – The NBA’s leader in effective field goal percentage is none other than second-year big man Mo Wagner. Who saw that one coming? The former Lakers castoff is drilling shots from beyond the arc at a 51.5% clip, and he has a deft touch around the rim. Now for the cherry on top: Wagner leads the league in charges drawn. Wagner has been the definition of a winning player in 2019-20.

17. Magic – A favorable schedule could keep the Magic afloat while Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon both battle ankle injuries. Just one of their next seven games are against teams over .500, including matchups with the Pistons, Warriors, Wizards and Cavs. Jonathan Issac may be able to manage the load against the dregs of the East.

16. Kings – Bogdan Bogdanovic is making a smart bet on himself. He declined $51 million across four years in October, and he should make more on the open market in July. The 6’6” swingman is a reliable marksman, and he’s dishing a career-best 6.2 assists per game. His skillset will be coveted on the open market.

15. Nets – Why so shy Jarrett Allen? The Texas product attempted 45 threes last season, and he vowed to become at least somewhat of a three-point shooter in 2019-20. Yet Allen is just 0-1 from three on the year, eschewing even the idea of tip-toeing behind the line. We have a month until the calendar turns to 2020. Let’s start experimenting sooner than later.

14. Timberwolves – Sorry Kristaps, Giannis and Embiid, the NBA’s truest unicorn is Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s not quite close either. Towns is on pace for 743 three-point attempts this season, the seventh-most in NBA history. It’s not just the volume that’s impressive. Towns is banging home 44.9% of attempts. The 6’11” center could still have one of the greatest shooting seasons in NBA history even with some regression.

13. Suns – The Suns are full of pleasant stories this season, including rotational guard Jevon Carter. For those unfamiliar, the 6’1” guard was a two-time Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year at West Virginia before being drafted with the last pick in the 2018 draft. Carter was traded to Phoenix attached to Kyle Korver in a salary-cap dump, and he’s now shining in limited minutes with the Suns. Opponents score just 97.1 points per 100 possessions with Carter on the floor, the best mark of any Phoenix player. He’s carved out a nice role in Monty Williams’ squad.

12. Pacers – The Pacers have weathered the storm amid a slew of injuries, sitting at 9–6 as Malcolm Brogdon returns on Monday vs. Memphis. Their twin towers lineup continues to thrive, with Myles Turner shooting a scorching 43.8% from three. Turner and Domantas Sabonis won’t be broken up anytime soon if Indiana holds as a solid playoff team in the East.

11. Jazz – Donavan Mitchell is having a steady third season as he averages career highs in points and three-point percentage. The most encouraging sign? His free-throw frequency. Mitchell is 10th in free throws after finishing 29th last season, getting to the line 5.8 times per game. Easy points will go a long way to rising Utah’s rating into the top half of the league.

10. Heat – Most teams mine three-point shooting from veterans as their youngsters struggle to adjust to the NBA line. Not Miami. Second-year forward Duncan Robinson leads the team in triples, and rookies Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro rank third and fourth. The young trio is efficient, too, combining to make 39% of three-point attempts. That’s a path to winning basketball with Jimmy Butler as your star.

9. Mavericks – Is Luka Doncic the leader in the MVP race? He entered Sunday fourth in points, second in assists, first in PER and first in win shares, then outdueled James Harden in Houston with 41 points and 10 assists. Dallas is on a 56-win pace, a 23-win improvement from last year. Even sniffing 50 wins could give Doncic the game’s highest honor at 20-years-old.

8. 76ers – There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about Philadelphia’s shortcomings, but the Sixers’ starting five is still dominant. They’re outscoring opponents by 29.4 points per 100 possessions entering Monday, posting an absurd 88.8 defensive rating. This is a defensive unit nobody wants to see in the postseason.

7. Rockets – The Rockets have hit a rough patch, losing three straight after Sunday’s defeat to Doncic and the Mavericks. Opposing teams are beginning to trap James Harden on nearly every possession, and Houston doesn’t have the personnel to punish defenses when rolling downhill. Eric Gordon will alleviate the problem when he returns around Christmas. Russell Westbrook shooting even 30% from three couldn’t hurt.

6. Raptors – Fred VanVleet isn’t shooting well, but he’s still positioned to earn a quality free-agent offer in 2020. He’s a defensive bulldog and an increasingly adept pick-and-roll ball handler, and only Damian Lillard averages more minutes per game. Toronto should feel comfortable tabbing VanVleet as its point guard of the future.

5. Celtics – It feels odd saying a team is more fun to watch without Kyrie Irving, but Boston is a delight in 2019-20 compared to last year’s slog. Jayson Tatum is creeping toward his 2018 conference finals self, and Jaylen Brown is cutting with fervor. Gordon Hayward’s return will only increase the ball movement within Brad Stevens’ intricate sets.

4. Nuggets – Paul Millsap has been Denver’s catalyst in its 12–3 start to the season. The 34-year-old leads Denver in net rating, and opponents score just 95.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Millsap is a quality spacer and a terrific passer. When healthy, he’s an ideal second big next to Nikola Jokic.

3. Clippers – There are 14 players to have at least six 40-point games since 2017-18. The first 13 are a list of the NBA’s elite, all of whom who have previously signed max-level contracts. No. 14 on the list? Lou Williams, who will earn $8 million in 2019-20. The Clippers don’t have a third star in a traditional sense, but on a given night, Williams can be as good as any scorer in the league.

2. Bucks – Milwaukee is cruising at 13–3, and their sharpshooting center hasn’t even played all that well. Brook Lopez is shooting just 30% from three in 2019-20 while posting his worst effective field goal percentage since 2010-11. An effective Lopez makes Milwaukee a near unsolvable puzzle, demanding coverage of all four shooters as Giannis Antetokounmpo pierces the lane. It’s a testament to Giannis’ talent that the Bucks are dominant without Malcolm Brogdon and a strong effort from Lopez.

1. Lakers – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is perhaps the most maligned role player in the league, but the Rich Paul client has filled his role beautifully in 2019-20. KCP is shooting 41.9% from three, and he’s drawn lead guard assignments in Avery Bradley’s absence. The Lakers’ need their three-and-D wings to perform well to win the West. Caldwell-Pope is off to a good start.