Pascal Siakam made an astounding leap in 2018-19, rising from a rotational piece to the second-best player on a championship team. The late first-round pick in 2017 didn’t ride Kawhi Leonard’s coattails to the title. He powered Toronto through the regular season as an ultra-efficient wing scorer, then formed a dominant defensive duo as the Raptors survived battles against the Sixers and Bucks en route to the Finals. Siakam was awarded the Most Improved Player award, a worthy honor for the Cameroon native. And at his current pace, Siakam could go back-to-back in 2019-20.
No player has ever earned multiple Most Improved Player honors, let alone win the award in two consecutive seasons. But Siakam may be the one player to break the mold. He’s averaging 25.6 points per game this season after Sunday’s 130-110 thrashing of the Jazz, finishing the week with a 35-point effort, including 26 points in the first half. Siakam has risen from quality second fiddle to a bonafide top option, and Toronto no longer looks like a second-tier team in the Eastern Conference. The Finals are in play for the Raptors. So is an All-NBA selection for Siakam.
With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, let’s dive into this week’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Warriors – Golden State’s ownership effectively played the franchise out of 2021 free agency with Draymond Green’s four-year extension in August, and the decision may look imprudent sooner than later. Green’s shot deteriorates by the season–he’s shooting just 45% on two’s–and his footspeed is a step below his championship level. Green will turn 30 in March. Projecting his value at 33 is difficult.
29. Knicks – With Kevin Knox earning a DNP-CD on Nov. 29, let’s take stock of the 20-year-old forward. The numbers aren’t pretty. Of the 73 players to attempt at least 1,000 shots since 2018-19, Knox ranks: last in points, last in field goal percentage, last in assists, last in win shares. Not a pretty quartet. Knox is an alright three-point shooter, but he’s currently trending toward fringe rotational status in the NBA.
28. Hawks – Atlanta is a mess defensively by nearly any metric. The Hawks allow the third-most threes and the fifth-most offensive rebounds, leading to the league’s No. 29 defensive rating. This is to be expected when Trae Young and Jabari Parker share the floor, and such units are the ones that allow 60 points on 24 shots. James Harden absolutely shredded Atlanta on Saturday night.
27. Cavs – Not a lot of ball movement in Cleveland. The Warriors are racing toward a top-three pick, but at least they infuse some nice designs despite a depleted roster. The Cavs are more a collection of solo acts than a cohesive band. The Knicks are the only other team to not have a player averaging four assists per game, with Elfrid Payton averaging more assists than Cavs’ leader Darius Garland. Jordan Clarkson’s presence doesn’t help. Collin Sexton is talented, but not a traditional point guard. Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson aren’t quite offensive fulcrums. John Beilein has Cleveland competing, but the personnel isn’t there to succeed.
26. Grizzlies – Ja Morant should be able to fend off the competition for Rookie of the Year if he returns by Christmas. It was a fantastic start for the Murray State product, who has thrived with increased spacing in the NBA. Morant is absolutely electric. An All-Star career is likely on the way given good health, not a guarantee for the acrobatic guard.
25. Bulls – Chicago drafted Coby White with the No. 7 pick in the 2019 draft, but don’t dismiss the Bulls from the point guard market in the 2020 draft. White’s destiny appears to be that of a microwave scorer, one hovering near Sixth Man of the Year contention. This isn’t a knock on White, but his future role may not be as a starter in Chicago.
24. Pelicans – Any question over Brandon Ingram’s extension status has faded after New Orleans’ first 19 games. The Pelicans will likely fork over the max to Ingram, tabbing him as a franchise cornerstone next to Zion Williamson. Lonzo Ball’s future is more tenuous. An extension feels unlikely barring a career-best effort in his final 60 games of 2019-20. Ball could very well play out his deal before entering restricted free agency in 2020-21.
23. Hornets – In a wacky schedule quirk, three of Charlotte’s last four wins have come against the Pistons. Other than that, the Hornets are 1–10 in their last 11 non-Detroit games, with the lone win coming against the Knicks. Blake Griffin should roll through the Spectrum Center every night.
22. Wizards – The Wizards are exciting to watch, but they’re clearly lottery bound thanks to one of the worst defenses this decade. Washington’s issues aren’t surprising given its personnel. Diminutive guards Isaiah Thomas and Ish Smith are averaging 24 minutes per game. Davis Bertans and Rui Hachimura have never been mistaken for defensive stoppers. At least Washington is taking the fun route down the East standings.
21. Spurs – We can decry the Spurs’ three-phobia all we want, but San Antonio can’t survive as both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge allow 115 points per 100 possessions. Teams feast in the paint against San Antonio. The Spurs rank last in forced turnovers. There’s no stress on the opponent against the Spurs’ defense, even as they defend the three well and limit offensive rebounds. It’s a collection of middling defenders, and Gregg Popovich and Co. are paying the price.
20. Pistons – Late-career Derrick Rose can be enjoying in spurts, and the 31-year-old has been effective off the bench in 2019-20. He’s shooting a career-best 50.3% from the field, and Rose’s three-point shot has rebounded from some ugly lows in 2016-17 and 2017-18. Like Blake Griffin, Rose isn’t his former self, yet he can still be an impressive player.
19. Kings – Buddy Hield’s sheer three-point volume is exciting to watch. Only two players have made more threes since 2018-19, and only three have tallied more attempts. Hield may have the NBA’s quickest trigger. His range appears to have no limits. His efficiency should see a boost when teams have to refocus on De’Aaron Fox.
18. Thunder – Oklahoma City’s February decisions will be fascinating. The Thunder are a competent squad with a crop of quality players, but with the lottery a near-guarantee, it may be time to acquire more assets. Chris Paul is the biggest trade target, though teams will inquire on Danilo Gallinari’s. Steven Adams’ value may not be significant on the open market. He’s the best bet to stick around any in potential purge.
17. Magic – Orlando is a rough watch from night-to-night, but Evan Fournier’s consistent scoring should be appreciated. He has the fourth-most points of any French player in NBA history, and he should finish his career second behind Tony Parker. Fournier is averaging a career-high 18.4 points per game in 2019-20 while shooting a career-high from three. The 27-year-old’s steady improvement is one of the better stories in Orlando’s lost decade.
16. Blazers – Good for Carmelo Anthony. 22.3 points per game in his last three outings and a trio of Portland victories. Some shooting regression is likely, but Anthony doesn’t look out of place as a quality rotational cog. Portland is receiving a facsimile to OKC Anthony, who was a useful regular-season player. The Blazers have been rewarded for their chance.
15. Suns – Regression has hit Phoenix with six losses in its last seven games, but let’s focus on the positives. Devin Booker made 128 threes in a row! Sure, it may be similar to his 70-point effort in Boston (ultimately a bit hallow) though the accomplishment is impressive nonetheless. Booker can let it fly whenever he wants.
14. Nets – Spencer Dinwiddie continues to play his best basketball without Kyrie Irving, including a 32-point, 11-assist performance in a win over Boston on Nov. 29. The Nets have Dinwiddie on a bargain with just $22 million owed over the next two seasons. But the Colorado product’s growth may remain stunted next to another ball-dominant guard.
13. Timberwolves – Jake Layman’s toe injury is a real bummer for Minnesota. He was a quality acquisition for the Timberwolves in the offseason, averaging career highs in points and minutes in 2019-20. Layman is a valuable wing cog in the Timberwolves’ second units. Youngsters Jarrett Culver and Keita Bates-Diop will have to pick up the slack in Layman’s absence.
12. Pacers – Domantas Sabonis is discovering his inner bully. Only seven players have taken more shots in the restricted area this season, and the 2016 first-rounder looked perfectly comfortable banging against Joel Embiid on Saturday. Myles Turner’s stretch allows the Pacers’ twin towers look to work, though it’s hard to imagine Indiana sporting a top-half offense without Sabonis’ brute strength.
11. Jazz – Utah’s signing of Bojan Bogdanovic is proving to be one of the offseason’s best deals through November. The former Pacers wing is averaging 22.1 points per game, and he’s threatening to turn in the fifth 50-40-90 season this decade (congratulations, Meyers Leonard!). Utah hasn’t quite found its offensive groove, but Bogdanovic has been fantastic thus far.
10. Heat – Four players are averaging 10 rebounds and four assists per game in 2019-20. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic and Bam Adebayo. What a start for the third-year center. Adebayo is an offensive fulcrum and a defensive menace. Read more on his rise here.
9. 76ers – Philly has won seven of its last eight, though last week’s loss to the Raptors highlighted its offensive limitations given the personnel. Joel Embiid is catching the ball 25-feet from the basket. Ben Simmons spends late-game situations hovering around the rim. Al Horford is always a useful asset, but even he seems out of place amid Philadelphia’s dysfunction. Brett Brown has a problem on his hands, and the answer isn’t immediately clear.
8. Celtics – Jaylen Brown’s $107 million extension is looking prudent through Boston’s first 19 games. The Cal product is averaging 18.7 points per game while shooting a career-best 48.4% from the field, and Brown continues to flash All-Defense potential on the wing. Perhaps $28 million in 2023-24 won’t seem so steep after all.
7. Mavericks – This dude is 20? The NBA should be terrified. Dallas’ win over the Lakers on Sunday may be the most impressive victory of the season, solidifying the Mavericks’ case as a top-five team in the West. Luka Doncic may be the MVP through as we enter December.
6. Rockets – James Harden continues to make history after turning in a dominant offensive performance against the Hawks on Saturday. The Beard became the first player to score 60 points in fewer than 25 shots, and Klay Thompson is the only other player to score 60 in fewer than 32 minutes. Harden is still on pace to break the non-Wilt single-season scoring record. Only Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant have more 60-point games in NBA history. Sit back and enjoy the show.
5. Nuggets – Shoot the ball, Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets’ center went 3–11 from the field in Saturday’s 100-97 loss to the Kings, making just one of six attempts in the fourth quarter and overtime. Jokic is of course a passing savant, but his scoring threat unlocks the floor for Denver. Three of Denver’s four losses this season have come when Jokic attempts fewer than 12 shots. Denver’s offense leaps another level when he’s aggressive.
4. Raptors – Fred VanVleet’s rise as almost as jarring as Siakam’s, and the Wichita State product will cash in big time this summer. FVV is averaging 18.5 points per game in 2019-20. He’s shooting 38.2% from three while leading the league in minutes per game. In a thin class, could the undersized point guard earn a nine-figure deal? We’ve seen crazier splurges in the NBA’s silly season.
3. Clippers – We’ve seen 119 minutes of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard together this season entering Sunday night, a large enough sample to draw at least some conclusions. How has the duo fared thus far? Pretty darn well. The Clippers are outscoring opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions when the two share the floor, led by a 97.6 defensive rating. Scoring on the Clippers closing unit is a nightmare. Leonard and George are learning their two-man dance quite quickly. It’s been an ideal start in Los Angeles.
2. Bucks – Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t a good three-point shooter. In fact, he ranks 58th in three-point percentage out of the 62 players to attempt 90 threes this season. Does this matter? Not at all! Antetokounmpo is the most imposing physical force in the league. Even the threat of a jumper is a weapon. The volume is far more important than the percentages, and Antetokounmpo’s willingness to take 4.9 threes per game is perhaps the most encouraging sign of his MVP award defense. He’s been near perfect in Milwaukee’s 17–3 start.
1. Lakers – LeBron James went to the stump Anthony Davis’ Defensive Player of the Year campaign this week, and the three-time champion appears to have a worthy candidate. Davis leads the league in blocks and ranks third in defensive rating entering Sunday night. Only three players block shots at a higher rate. Davis is an absolute eraser near the tin, and his mobility allows Los Angeles’ double-big units to thrive with Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee next to Davis. James’ chosen running mate appears to be a perfect fit. A 70-win pace through 20 games is a pretty ideal start.