The Celtics took a major step back last season after their run to the 2017 Eastern Conference finals, and no regression was more disappointing than that of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The pair of No. 3 picks struggled with shot selection (Tatum) and assertiveness (Brown) in a crowded rotation, falling from the spotlight amid a year of Kyrie Irving melodrama. Tatum and Brown appear to have turned the tide this season.
Both wings are averaging 20-plus points per game this season, and Boston’s attack is back to fitting Brad Stevens’ egalitarian approach. Tatum is on the fast track to an All-Star appearance. Brown is living up to his $115 million deal. The Celtics are back in contention for the East crown, even as a superstar acquisition eludes Danny Ainge. Boston’s homegrown talent should power the franchise in the next decade.
With a quarter of the season now in the books, let’s dive into this week’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Knicks – David Fizdale is the latest casualty in the Knicks’ century of misery, losing his job after just 104 games with the franchise. For those keeping track, Fizdale is the ninth Knicks’ coach to get canned since 2002-03, and the third in the last five seasons. It’s almost as if the problem at Madison Square Garden extends beyond whomever is roaming the sideline.
29. Warriors – Golden State’s defense has risen from historically awful to simply poor since the team’s 142-94 loss in Dallas, a credit to the culture instilled by Steve Kerr irrespective of roster talent. For Warriors fans searching for a silver lining, the mild defensive growth provides a slight point of pride through Golden State’s first 24 games.
28. Cavs – Let’s assess some Kevin Love trade destinations, shall we? Portland makes the most sensible fit as it seeks quality options at the four, even as Carmelo Anthony continues his strong play early in 2019-20. There isn’t a deep crop of options elsewhere. Does a Love for Gordon Hayward swap appeal to Cleveland? Love is a stylistic fit in Houston, though it’s hard to imagine the Rockets shipping 25-year-old Clint Capela. Perhaps a mystery team will emerge by February.
27. Hawks – Cam Reddish turned in his best performance as a pro on Dec. 4 with a 25-point effort against the Nets. Atlanta has fallen well short of expectations in 2019-20, and the playoffs appear out of reach, even in the East. The development of Reddish and De’Andre Hunter alongside Trae Young is now the Hawks’ primary motive in 2019-20.
26. Grizzlies – Jaren Jackson Jr. has found his groove after a shaky start to the season. The 2018 No. 3 pick is averaging 18.8 points per game in his last 10 outings, shooting 42% from three. Memphis appears to have a legitimate dynamic duo with Jackson and Ja Morant as the franchise enters the next decade.
25. Pelicans – The Pelicans continue to battle opponents, but they’ve lost eight straight entering Monday night. Let’s focus on a positive. Center Jaxson Hayes is in the midst of a quality season, joining Kenrich Williams as one of two Pelicans with a positive net rating. Hayes is an elite leaper and an impressive vertical spacer, and he’s finding his footing on the defensive end. New Orleans looks to have made a prudent selection with the No. 8 pick.
24. Hornets – How many assets would the Hornets need to attach to dump Nic Batum’s contract? The former Blazers’ wing is averaging a career-worst 3.5 points per game and shooting 27.3% from three this season, and while his low usage is in-part to blame, there are large stretches where Batum seems to disappear from the action entirely. Batum has a player option for $27 million in 2020-21. I have a feeling he’ll opt into the deal.
23. Wizards – The Wizards aren’t good (newsflash!) but they do play an entertaining brand of basketball. No team averages more assists per game, and three Washington players average over two threes per game. Good on Scott Brooks’ squad for moving the ball and letting it fly.
22. Bulls – Have we seen any progress in year three of Kris Dunn’s tenure with the Bulls? Not quite. There’s frankly been some worrisome regression. Dunn is making just 19.6% of triples, and his assist rate has tumbled nearly nine percent compared to last season. Coby White’s arrival looks to have spelled the end of Dunn’s time in Chicago.
21. Spurs – Now there’s the Lonnie Walker IV we’ve been waiting for. The second-year swingman erupted for a career-high 28 points against the Rockets on Dec. 3, including 19 points in the fourth quarter. Walker has the athletic profile to be an impactful three-and-D wing. Let’s hope Gregg Popovich gives him a longer leash as we turn to 2020.
20. Pistons – The Pistons could be sneaky buyers at the trade deadline if they can even sniff the eight seed around February. Detroit remains locked into Blake Griffin for the next three years, and the Pistons have been solid when Griffin and Derrick Rose share the floor. If they hold onto Andre Drummond, expect another piece to enter the fold in 2020.
19. Kings – De’Aaron Fox’s extended absence is partly to blame, but let’s please speed things up in Sacramento. The Kings have dropped from No. 5 in pace last season to No. 30 in 2019-20. This isn’t a team of defensive grinders by any stretch. Their best chance is to start running and let Buddy Hield jack up as many triples as his heart desires.
18. Blazers – The Blazers will have a tough time replacing Rodney Hood, who tore his Achilles on Friday after shooting 49.3% from three in 21 games. Portland was already thin on its front line before losing the 6’8” forward. Dealing for a scorer in the frontcourt is now increasingly paramount. Danilo Gallinari remains the most logical option.
17. Thunder – Chris Paul’s OKC highlight reel won’t be long, but the Point God stealing a win over the Timberwolves on Dec. 6 was a near-perfect encapsulation of the nine-time All-Star. Few players in the game’s history are more competitive, and Paul may be the smartest player in the league. Never change CP3.
16. Magic – Markelle Fultz won’t ever live up to the No. 1 pick, but he’s having a nice career revival in Orlando. Fultz is averaging 14.5 points and 4.7 assists per game in his last 10 contests, shooting 52.1% from the field. He looks to have fended off D.J. Augustine for good as the Magic’s starting point guard.
15. Suns – Ricky Rubio still can’t quite shoot, but he’s been a driving factor in the Suns’ run toward respectability in 2019-20. He’s posted a plus-7.1 net rating in 17 games, and bench contributor Jevon Carter–a prior Power Rankings honoree–is the only Phoenix player with a better defensive rating. Perhaps the scuffling Jazz miss Rubio more than originally assumed.
14. Timberwolves – Jeff Teague’s production has dipped in recent years, though he remains a valuable piece after moving to Minnesota’s bench. Teague dropped 32 points and nine assists against Chris Paul and the Thunder on Dec. 6, busting a slump to close November and start December. Minnesota will need strong play from Teague to remain in the Western Conference playoff hunt.
13. Nets – Spencer Dinwiddie is a clear candidate for the league’s top bargains list. What will the Nets get for less than $12 million in each of the next two years? Currently a 20.5 points per game scorer, one who seems overqualified to be a second fiddle behind Kyrie Irving. There’s a bit of an uncomfortable tug-of-war between the two guards over control of Brooklyn’s offense, but if Kenny Atkinson can stagger them correctly, Dinwiddie could be a key factor in Brooklyn’s chase for the 2021 title.
12. Jazz – There’s a stagnation to the Jazz offense that’s puzzling in 2019-20. The Jazz are making 281 passes per game this season, 30 less than last year’s No. 5 mark. Their shot profile isn’t pretty, and Rudy Gobert isn’t cramming dunks at the same rate. Perhaps the adjustment to Mike Conley is taking longer than expected.
11. Pacers – Take a bow, Myles Turner. His block of Mitchell Robinson in the final seconds on Saturday was one of the year’s top defensive plays, continuing the strong season for the 2018-19 block champion. The Turner-Sabonis combo continues to thrive despite a potentially shaky fit.
10. Heat – Tyler Herro saved the Heat on Sunday with 11 points in overtime in a win over the Bulls. How is Miami churning out so much young talent? Read resident Heat scribe Rohan Nadkarni to find out.
9. Raptors – Ignore Marc Gasol’s plummeting counting stats. The Raptors outscore opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions with Big Spain on the floor, in large part due to Gasol’s 99.8 defensive rating. The Spanish center may be the smartest big in basketball. It would be stunning to see him shipped before February’s trade deadline.
8. 76ers – It seems as though we may have been too harsh on Ben Simmons. He hit his second three of the season on Saturday, and it seems as though the LSU product will continue to experiment from beyond the arc. Brett Brown is asking for one three-point attempt per game moving forward. Reaching the modest goal would go a long way to opening Philly’s offense.
7. Nuggets – Denver has jumped from No. 25 to No. 10 to No. 1 in defensive rating in each of the last three years. Mike Malone deserves props for his no-nonsense ethos, while GM Tim Connelly has compiled a quality crop of frontcourt defenders to surround Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets’ stout defense keeps them as contenders for the West crown even as Jokic struggles to find his footing in 2019-20.
6. Mavericks – Luka Doncic is in pretty good company. He set the post-merger record for the longest streak of 20-point, five-rebound, five-assist games on Saturday, pulling off the feat for 19 straight contests. The previous record holder: Michael Jordan. The 20-year-old star continues to break records on a weekly basis.
5. Rockets – Mike D’Antoni and the Rockets mine quality wings with ease. Danuel House has evolved from fringe NBA player to a nightly starter, and Ben McLemore is currently in the midst of a career revival with 22.5 points per game since Nov. 30. Credit to Houston’s quality crew of assistants. Playing alongside James Harden certainly can’t hurt.
4. Celtics – Let’s briefly move away from the X’s and O’s. Good for Marcus Smart. Fans have long gotten away with demeaning and obscene behavior, and it’s wrong to expect players to take a consistent slate of abuse from those in the stands. Let’s hope the NBA takes a more punitive stance toward troubling behavior from those in the crowd.
3. Clippers – Lou and Montrezl forever. Los Angeles’ merry two-man band is averaging 111.4 points per 100 possessions when they share the floor, bullying opponents with one of the league’s premier pick-and-roll duos. Both are undersized, neither are athletic marvels, and yet they’re near unstoppable when paired together. The Clippers’ cast beyond their two stars remains near the NBA’s best.
2. Lakers – Alex Caruso has gone from a meme to a very productive NBA player in less than 12 months. The Texas A&M product leads the Lakers with a 95.5 defensive rating, and he’s beginning to appear in the Lakers’ closing lineups. Oh, and Caruso can seriously throw it down. The good times keep coming in Los Angeles.
1. Bucks – The Bucks are 14–0 over the last month, with Giannis Antetokounmpo averaging 31.9 points and 12.5 rebounds per game on 56% shooting. Milwaukee is on track to run away with the No. 1 seed in the East. Antetokounmpo may do the same thing with the MVP.