We’ve crossed the NBA’s first marquee date of the season with Christmas Day now in the rearview mirror, and do we have any idea who will win the 2020 Finals? The title chase is currently more wide open than any time this decade, with a slate of potential Finals representatives in each conference. Neither Los Angeles squad has seized a clear upper hand out West, and Houston and Denver remain championship contenders. The Bucks will run away with the No. 1 seed in the East, but will that necessarily correlate to playoff success? The skepticism toward Milwaukee is warranted. Perhaps Philadelphia finds its groove. Boston and Miami could make a marquee move. We have few answers nearly halfway through the season.
With New Year’s Day rapidly approaching, let’s dive into this week’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Hawks – Regardless of the severity of Trae Young’s ankle injury, it’s officially time to look toward 2020-21 in Atlanta. Who could the Hawks add in June’s draft? Shooting guard Anthony Edwards could bring size and athleticism to Atlanta’s backcourt, though James Wiseman may be a sensible pick to anchor the back line of the Hawks’ scuffling defense. Atlanta chose Young over Luka Doncic in 2018 (no slight to Young here), and the early returns on De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish are middling. The Hawks need to hit on their first-round pick in 2020.
29. Knicks – Perhaps New York’s win over Brooklyn last week is more of a mark of futility for the Nets, though the true joy of Knicks fans was palpable on Thursday. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant sulked in street clothes at the Barclays Center, while their supporting cast dragged its way to just eight made two-pointers. The Knicks’ win over the Mavericks in November was effectively the franchise’s Finals. Thursday’s win was still plenty sweet.
28. Warriors – Let’s keep this positive energy rolling. Golden State’s Christmas Day victory counted as just one game in the Western Conference standings, but it was nice for the Warriors to have a defining win of 2019-20. Draymond Green turned back the clock and Steve Kerr trapped James Harden with abandon, fueling the first marquee victory in the history of the Chase Center. The Warriors next playoff win won’t come until April 2021 at the earliest. In the meantime, Golden State should take pride in its undermanned victory.
27. Wizards – Bradley Beal sat out the Wizards’ loss against the Knicks on Saturday night, ending a streak of 194 consecutive games. Beal should be commended for his consistency. The Florida product has kept a woebegone franchise from embarrassment status in his prime years, and he’s shown up each night even as the league’s elite embrace a lightened load. Hopefully Beal can suit up for a contender sooner than later, perhaps in Washington if John Wall can replicate his previous form.
26. Cavs – Dumping Jordan Clarkson for Dante Exum (and a pair of second-round picks) is a worthwhile move for the Cavaliers, if only to generate more possessions for Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Can Exum revive his career in Cleveland? There’s a path to quality play. He should earn a bump in playing time compared to Utah, and Exum could pair well as a defensive specialist alongside Cleveland’s diminutive guards. The Australian will never live up to his No. 5 pick billing, though a move to the Cavs could lead to some career stability.
25. Pelicans – Jrue Holiday will be the subject of trade rumors through February, but there’s significant incentive to keep him in New Orleans if Zion Williamson plans to return to the floor. Bringing Williamson into a complete tank could hamper his development, especially alongside a slate of young players attempting to establish themselves in the league. If Zion is coming back, keeping Holiday and a baseline of competency could provide some momentum heading into next season.
24. Pistons – Blake Griffin’s rapid decline spells serious trouble for a franchise stuck in the mud. The former Lob City star is in the midst of a career-worst season across a variety of metrics, posting an abysmal 41.5% effective field goal percentage. 107 players have attempted at least 200 shots since Griffin’s season debut on Nov. 11. Only two have a worse percentage from the field. Detroit may be stuck with one of the league’s worst contracts through 2021-22.
23. Timberwolves – Talk about a decade of futility in the Twin Cities. The Timberwolves won just one playoff game in the 2010s, and they logged four seasons under 30 wins. Minnesota has risen to competent in the last two seasons, but the franchise still appears multiple steps behind the collection of Western Conference contenders. Let’s hope the organization can build a winner alongside Karl-Anthony Towns sooner than later.
22. Hornets – Charlotte is currently slated to remain in the dregs of the lottery, but at least Devonte’ Graham is providing some excitement for what many assumed would be a miserable season. Graham is a fearless shot taker, and his 80 made pull-up threes trail only Damian Lillard and Harden for the league lead. Graham added this last-second layup to his highlight reel on Saturday, one of many clutch buckets to come for the Kansas product.
21. Kings – It’s been an ugly week in Sacramento. The Kings have lost seven straight, and Thursday’s defeat against the Timberwolves prompted Buddy Hield to cite “trust issues” between the players and coaching staff. Luke Walton’s squad weathered the storm after an 0–5 start to climb into the Western Conference playoff race. Sacramento’s current slide may be far more damaging.
20. Bulls – It may not be such a happy New Year for Chicago. The Bulls play 17 games in 31 days in January, including three back-to-backs. They face Utah and Boston to open the month, and Dallas, Philadelphia and Milwaukee also loom on the schedule. Jim Boylen’s squad may be closer to the bottom of the East than the No. 8 seed by Feb. 1.
19. Grizzlies – We may look back at Brandon Clarke as one of the steals of the 2019 Draft. Clark was selected with the No. 21 pick out of Gonzaga in June, and he’s quickly establishing himself as a valuable piece next to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. Clark is averaging 12.8 points per game while shooting 46.9% from three, fitting right in with Morant as one of the league’s top athletes. Clarke entered the NBA as a potential defensive ace, though one with offensive limitations. He’s followed through defensively, and Clarke’s offensive efficiency is downright startling. The Grizzlies could be one of the Western Conference’s most exciting squads in the next decade.
18. Suns – Saturday’s win over the Kings snapped Phoenix’s eight-game losing streak, ending a dismal defensive stretch for Devin Booker and Co. The Suns rank No. 27 in defensive rating since Dec. 11, and their scuffling transition defense is allowing the third-most points off turnovers in the league. Phoenix remains bereft of defensive talent, keeping Booker from sniffing playoff reps in his fifth season.
17. Spurs – Gregg Popovich bristled at questions regarding Lonnie Walker IV’s playing time on Saturday, though it’s certainly a fair inquiry from the San Antonio media. The second-year wing is perhaps the Spurs’ best athlete, and he’s shown flashes of brilliance in spurts this season. For a team outside of the title chase, Popovich is particularly stingy with minutes for Walker and the rest of San Antonio’s youngsters.
16. Magic – Orlando is among the most interesting trade deadline teams as February approaches. Aaron Gordon is a versatile wing on an affordable contract, and Evan Fournier could be dealt before he hits free agency. The market for Fournier could be relatively robust. The Frenchman is averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game on 42% shooting from three, shining in a contract year as he eyes a potential nine-figure deal. Orlando should be aggressive on the trade market if it’s not prepared to pay up for the 27-year-old guard.
15. Blazers – Carmelo Anthony has been solid with the Blazers through 17 games, averaging 16.2 points and 39.7% from three. But Thursday’s loss to the Jazz was undoubtedly frustrating. Damian Lillard led Portland with 34 points on the evening, only to see Portland’s pivotal last-minute possession go to Anthony. The 10-time All-Star isolated against former Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, then had his shot blocked as the Jazz regained possession. The worst of Anthony emerged late in Utah.
14. Nets – Caris LeVert should return to the floor in early January, and the Michigan product could provide a major scoring boost as Kyrie Irving nurses a shoulder injury. LeVert is averaging 16.8 points per game this season, and his offensive arsenal continues to expand by the season. LeVert will be critical to the Nets’ playoff push in 2020. He may be a key piece in a Finals run in 2021.
13. Thunder – Dennis Schroder’s December will go down as perhaps the best month of the 26-year-old’s career. Oklahoma City’s guard is averaging 22.5 points per game this month while making 41.1% of threes, handling backup point guard duties with aplomb behind Chris Paul. Schroder earns just $15 million next season, and his contract expires before the reloaded free-agent class of 2021. Schroder could provide a backcourt boost for a Finals contender.
12. Pacers – Nate McMillan deserves more consideration as one of the top coaches in the NBA. McMillan’s teams have finished over .500 in six of his last seven seasons before 2019-20, and this current Pacers’ squad is thriving at 21–12 despite the absence of Victor Oladipo. McMillan brings a level of competency regardless of his roster, and he places role players in an ideal situation to succeed. The Pacers may be more competitive in the Eastern Conference playoffs than many give them credit for.
11. Jazz – Welcome back to the Finals race, Utah. The Jazz awoke from their now-annual early-season slumber on Dec. 7, winning eight of their last 10 after a middling 12–10 start. Donavan Mitchell has five 30-point games since Dec. 11, and recent extension recipient Joe Ingles is back to his sharpshooting ways after a miserable start. Don’t write off the Jazz as a Finals contender just yet.
10. Raptors – Masai Ujiri’s time in Toronto will largely be remembered for his heist of Kawhi Leonard, but the general manager’s true legacy lies in the Raptors’ player development. Toronto pulled off an upset over Boston on Saturday despite the absence of Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol, mining production from the likes of Chris Boucher, Oshae Brissett and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Toronto is able to turn fringe players into reliable assets, building a sustainable stable of talent even without an MVP candidate. Ujiri’s formula has created one of the league’s most stable franchises this decade.
9. Mavericks – Luke Doncic has absolutely bullied the Warriors in a pair of matchups this season. The Slovenian superstar has scored 66 points in 55 minutes against Golden State, notching a triple-double in each contest. Doncic vs. the Splash Brothers will be one of the league’s marquee matchups given good health in 2020-21.
8. Rockets – Eric Gordon’s return to the court on Sunday may be one of the biggest roster upgrades for a contender ahead of February’s trade deadline. Gordon had been sidelined since Nov. 13, and Houston’s offense struggled in spurts to beat opponents’ traps of Harden with Gordon out of commission. Gordon should be a key in punishing the creative scheme. He can launch triples well beyond 25 feet, and the Indiana product is a sneaky finisher off the bounce. Don’t be surprised if the Rockets contend for the league’s best offense with Gordon back in the fold.
7. 76ers – All due respect to Kawhi Leonard, but Joel Embiid had the best Christmas Day performance in the five-game slate. Philadelphia’s center poured in 31 points and tallied 11 boards, and his defensive performance swung the contest. Embiid was a brick wall against Giannis Antetokounmpo drives, holding the reigning MVP to 18 points on 27 shots. Embiid’s Defensive Player of the Year campaign kicked off in earnest as the 76ers cruised on Christmas.
6. Nuggets – Michael Porter Jr. scored a career-high 19 points against the Kings on Sunday, displaying the offensive arsenal that has led to such lofty expectations for the No. 14 pick in the 2018 NBA draft. Porter is another piece in the Nuggets’ deep pool of talented assets, and a potential anchor of a blockbuster move if Denver wants to chase the 2020 title.
5. Celtics – Now that Marcus Smart is back in the Celtics’ lineup, can we please institute a healthy dose of Smart at center? Boston’s frontcourt is far from imposing, and the 6’3” guard is an absolute bulldog in the paint. Smart is allowing just 0.59 points per post-up this season, the fifth-best mark among the 83 players with at least 20 defensive possessions. If the center market isn’t fruitful in February, Brad Stevens should get creative with his best defender come playoff time.
4. Heat – Is Duncan Robinson the best shooter in basketball? Is it necessarily close? Robinson is banging home 3.3 threes per game at a 46.5% clip in 2019-10, and he’s shooting 95% from the free throw line. Robinson has made three-plus triples in 20 games this season, trailing only Harden, Graham, Hield and J.J. Reddick for the league lead. The second-year forward is earning himself some major minutes in Erik Spoelstra’s rotation, and a 50-40-90 season is well within reach.
3. Clippers – Paul George could be in line for some rest in the coming weeks. The former Pacers and Thunder star admitted on Saturday he’s been “shying away from contact” this season, and his reticence to attack has led to a string of poor shooting performances. George is shooting 31.8% in his last four games. A night off may help get him on track.
2. Lakers – The holy grail of replay misapplication arrived on Christmas as the Lakers’ potential final possession was awarded to the Clippers on a foolish review ruling. Patrick Beverley’s deflection on LeBron James technically hit The King’s finger last, but that was only evident upon a significantly-slowed replay. The league office needs to reconsider its review protocols before a playoff game ends in controversial fashion.
1. Bucks – Happy New Year to Giannis and the Bucks, who have eight straight games against teams under .500 beginning on Monday night. Milwaukee is currently 29–5 this season, four games ahead of second-place Miami for the top seed in the East. The Bucks could run away with home court by the end of January.