The Sixers are far from the most aesthetically pleasing team in the NBA. As the league trends smaller and stresses the three-pointer, Philadelphia is an anachronism, harkening back to the league’s long lineage of bully ball. The Sixers’ lanes are clogged, and their late-game offense is stagnant. The Embiid-Simmons combo looks downright dysfunctional on the wrong night. Yet of late, the concerns over the Sixers’ roster construction have been more concerned with style than substance.
Philadelphia enters Monday night 13–3 since Nov. 17, ripping off wins over Toronto, Boston and Denver over the last week. The Sixers’ starting five is out-scoring teams by 13.8 points per 100 possessions, and rookie guard Matisse Thybulle is a defensive wrecking ball (more on him later). Perhaps we’ve overblown our concerns regarding Philadelphia as it eyes the Eastern Conference crown
With Christmas Day approaching, let’s dive into this week’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Warriors – Sunday marked the first day D’Angelo Russell can be traded from the Warriors, though we may not see Golden State rushing to move the former Nets’ point guard. Steve Kerr and Co. are likely better suited to wait until the offseason to assess the Russell market, especially given their likely top-five spot in the 2020 draft. Pairing Russell with Golden State’s first-round pick could yield a dynamic piece as the Warriors look to return to the Finals in June 2021.
29. Knicks – So what if New York lost in Denver to close the week? Back-to-back victories deserves at least a modicum of congratulations for the moribund franchise. The Knicks defeated Golden State in overtime on Dec. 11, then won another two-point game against the Kings on Dec. 13. Is there a parade being planned through the Canyon of Heroes?
28. Cavs – The John Beilein era is not exactly off to a good start in Cleveland. The Cavs have lost nine of their last ten. They rank No. 27 in defensive rating and No. 28 in assists. The losing has not come without some discontent. Tristan Thompson and Beilein got into a heated exchange on the sidelines on Dec. 12, and Kevin Love’s morale appears to drop by the week. Beilein may be a strong tactical coach, but his transition to the NBA has been anything but smooth.
27. Hawks – De’Andre Hunter is beginning to show signs of growth after a difficult start. The No. 4 pick in June’s draft is averaging 16.6 points per game in December, and he erupted for a career-high 28 points against the Heat on Dec. 10. Hunter’s defensive prowess made him a valuable commodity for Atlanta in the draft. His NBA ceiling will hinge on his development as a shooter.
26. Pelicans – New Orleans is in the midst of a lost season, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the impressive shooting leap made by Brandon Ingram. Not only is the Duke product shooting 40.7% from three compared to 33% last season, Ingram’s has raised his volume in a major way. He made 31 threes last year in 52 games. This season, Ingram has converted 50 triples in 22 games. Ingram’s trust in his shot has led to a potential Most Improved Player campaign.
25. Grizzlies – Welcome back, Ja Morant. Memphis enters Monday night winning three of its last four games, including a victory over the Suns that featured a thunderous slam from Morant in the fourth quarter. The Murray State product has the inside track for Rookie of the Year honors. He’ll clinch the award by February with more highlights like his dunk in Phoenix.
24. Wizards – Davis Bertans is making himself some major money as he approaches free agency in 2020. Washington owes Bertans just $7 million this season, and the Wizards have received a dead-eye marksman for the cheap price tag. Bertans is banging home 3.9 threes per game at 45.6%. He combined for 57 points in a two-game stretch last week. In a weak free agency class ahead, Bertans could receive a juicy payday.
23. Bulls – Nice design by head coach Jim Boylen to set up the Bulls’ game-winner against the Clippers on Saturday. Wendell Carter screens for Zach LaVine, then inbound passer Kris Dunn sets the second screen to stop Paul George in his tracks above the three-point line. LaVine got a nice look, then converted his second game-winner of the season. Props to Boylen.
22. Hornets – P.J. Washington’s finger injury is a true shame for the No. 13 pick in the 2019 draft. Washington has been perhaps Charlotte’s most promising piece in the first quarter of the season, averaging 12.3 points per game on 40.6% shooting from three. The Hornets have no shortage of lottery busts in prior seasons. Washington looks like a keeper.
21. Spurs – Gregg Popovich may need a nap. The Spurs enter Monday night’s contest in Houston following four straight overtime games (an NBA record), going 3–1 in the matchups. Logging the victories is certainly a welcome sign, though the extra minutes won’t exactly help San Antonio’s crop of veteran weapons.
20. Blazers – Portland’s defense is one of the West’s shakier units, and a pair of defensive metrics are particularly jarring. No team allows more free throws per game, and only two teams force fewer turnovers. There isn’t a standout defender on the roster. The Blazers are small on the perimeter and undisciplined down low. This is far from the personnel and performance Terry Stots envisioned through 26 games.
19. Thunder – Oklahoma City could go full fire sale before February’s trade deadline, but it would be a surprise to see Steven Adams shipped from the only team he’s ever known. Adams has evolved into an organizational pillar, and he’s young enough (somehow just 26) to remain a key cog when Oklahoma City is ready to return to a contending spot in the Western Conference. Add in $52 million owed over the next two seasons, and it’s hard to envision Adams suiting up somewhere else for the rest of 2019-20.
18. Timberwolves – It’s not hard to see why Robert Covington will be a valued piece on the trade market. The 6’7” swingman is a reliable three-point shooter and a strong defender, and he’s owed under $13 million in each of the next three seasons. Perhaps Covington could head to Golden State in a Russell swap. Houston and the Lakers could seek his services. The contender that (potentially) acquires Covington will land a key piece for a title run.
17. Pistons – Derrick Rose is a steep drop below his MVP days, but he can still take over games in short spurts. Rose did just that in Houston on Friday, burying three straight jumpers to seal Detroit’s upset win in the fourth quarter. Rose’s career has stabilized in the last two seasons, leading to a promising final chapter after the lows of 2017-18.
16. Kings – Luke Walton has done a strong job stabilizing the ship in Sacramento after an 0–5 start, with the Kings winning four of their last five games entering Monday night. Sacramento’s rotation is as deep as any Kings squad in recent memory, and De’Aaron Fox’s imminent return will do wonders for Sacramento’s pace and paint scoring. The franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2006 is firmly in play.
15. Suns – Devin Booker remains one of the league’s most impressive young scorers despite a flurry of criticism. Booker is currently averaging 25 points per game in 2019-20 while boasting 50-40-90 shooting splits. The other players to pull off that combo in NBA history? Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Larry Bird. Not exactly bad company for the 23-year-old.
14. Magic – Aaron Gordon’s reasonable contract will keep him as a commodity on the trade market, but his current play isn’t doing Orlando any favors. Gordon is shooting a paltry 43.5% from the field this season while dipping to just 14 points per game. The Magic’s potential return for Gordon dwindles as he struggles through the start if 2019-20.
13. Nets – Jarrett Allen’s ascendance in Brooklyn is a testament to incremental growth. Allen made a relative leap as a rim runner and defender last season, and he’s now increasingly comfortable converting shots outside of easy lobs and dump-off dunks. Allen has increased his touch since entering the league, growing at little flip shots outside the restricted area. Allen has seized the starting center role with a strong start to the year.
12. Jazz – Utah’s bench is struggling mightily this season, especially in the backcourt. Dante Exum struggles to earn significant minutes, and Emmanuel Mudiay remains a troubling option directly behind Mike Conley and Donavan Mitchell. Expect the Jazz to be active buyers in February, even if they only make a small move to improve their backcourt bench.
11. Pacers – It’s astounding Indiana received T.J. Warren for nothing but cap relief from Phoenix. The N.C. State product is shooting a cool 39.3% from three this season, and he trails only Domantas Sabonis in minutes played. Indiana’s rotation is among the deepest in the East, buttressed by the addition of T.J. Warren in the frontcourt alongside Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner.
10. Raptors – Stay classy, Canada. The Raptors displayed true class as Kawhi Leonard returned to Toronto on Wednesday, providing a beautiful tribute video and loud ovation pregame. The Raptors are a first-class organization, and their treatment of Leonard could help entice free agents to head north of the border in coming seasons.
9. Heat – The Bam Adebayo train is rolling ahead at full steam (some of us bought our tickets early), and the Kentucky product delivered perhaps his best performance as a pro on Saturday. Adebayo finished Miami’s win in Dallas with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, including a thunderous dunk to take the lead in overtime. Adebayo’s versatility is striking for a player at his size. The Heat received an absolute steal with the No. 14 pick in the 2017 draft.
8. Nuggets – Denver made a sensible gamble shelling out $54 million over four years for Will Barton in July 2018. The 2012 second-round pick hasn’t just held steady since assuming full-time starting duties this season. Barton is in the midst of a legitimate leap. His shooting efficiency has risen across all metrics, and opponents are scoring just 98.8 points per 100 possessions with Barton on the floor. Barton has been critical in keeping Denver near the top of the West despite Nikola Jokic’s relative struggles.
7. Rockets – 109 points in two games is just absurd. It’s hard justifying single coverage on James Harden at this point, especially when he gets out to a hot start in the first quarter. Beilein and Steve Clifford suffered the consequences of not doubling on Wednesday and Friday. Dwayne Casey and the Pistons threw extra bodies on Saturday and reaped the rewards. The rest of the league would be smart to follow Casey’s lead.
6. Mavericks – Luke Doncic’s injury is a bummer as Dallas prepares to face a slate of Eastern Conference contenders, though more J.J. Barea minutes could help soften the blow. Barea remains a delightful jitterbug in Year 14, and he nearly carried the Mavericks to victory against Miami on Saturday. Let’s hope Rick Carlisle doles out more minutes for Barea moving forward.
5. Celtics – Boston’s size issues inside were on full display last week. Sabonis patrolled the paint with little resistance in the Pacers’ win on Wednesday, then Joel Embiid erupted for 38 points at TD Garden on Saturday. Boston’s collection of contracts don’t make for an easy trade, but perhaps Tristan Thompson’s expiring deal could be appealing for the Celtics’ stretch run.
4. 76ers – Thybulle is making a serious case for All-Rookie honors despite averaging just five points per game. He’s tallying nearly three steals per 36 minutes paired with 1.5 blocks, standing as the best rookie defender in recent memory. Thybulle’s turnovers aren’t due to reckless gambling. The Washington product is a technician, and a damn skilled one at that. He chooses the right passing lanes to dart through. Rotations into the lane are disciplined and determined. Philadelphia can sport perhaps East’s best defensive lineup even without Thybulle. The rookie raises the Sixers’ defensive ceiling to potentially historic levels.
3. Clippers – The Clippers were already a terrifying playoff matchup before Saturday night, and Los Angeles’ collection of talent grew in the return of guard Landry Shamet. The 22-year-old returned to the floor in Chicago after missing a month with an ankle injury, and Shamet rounds out an impressive backcourt alongside Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. The rich get richer at the Staples Center.
2. Lakers – Danny Green has fully lived up to expectations in his first year with the Lakers. The two-time champion is canning nearly two threes per game at 37.7%, and Los Angeles is outscoring teams by 10.2 points per 100 possessions with Green on the floor. Green’s three-point prowess is common knowledge, but his defensive proficiency should be noted. Green is big enough to cover larger wings, and he’s also comfortable chasing small guards around the perimeter. Green’s versatility has been crucial to Los Angeles’ hot start.
1. Bucks – Circle your calendars for Thursday night. The Bucks have won 18 straight, and the Luka-less Mavericks come to Milwaukee on Monday night. Who will the Bucks have to beat to make it 20 wins in a row? None other than LeBron and the Lakers. Thursday’s battle is the premier game of the pre-Christmas NBA calendar.