Do we need to have a conversation about the Sixers? Philadelphia has lost seven of its last ten games, dropping its fourth straight on Jan. 3 in Houston. Joel Embiid and Co. were rolling for much of November and early December, but their lack of consistency has dropped them to fifth in the Eastern Conference entering Monday night. Al Horford remains out of place, and Philadelphia's rotation is concerningly thin as we approach February’s trade deadline. Brett Brown is frustrated. Solutions aren’t immediately evident. Philadelphia remains a Finals contender, though a first-round exit is currently in play. The gap between the Sixers’ ceiling and their floor may be the largest in the league as we roll into 2020.
With New Year’s Day in the rearview mirror, let’s dive into this week’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Hawks – Atlanta chasing Andre Drummond appears to be a sensible move, especially if the Hawks were committed to spending major money in July. Trading Drummond (and presumably re-signing him this summer) would deliver the Hawks the nine-figure asset it was likely poised to chase in a weak 2020 free-agent class. Drummond provides some desperately-needed rim protection, and he’s a genuine threat as a roll man next to Trae Young. Barring an outrageous price-tag, Drummond to Atlanta makes sense.
29. Warriors – Steve Kerr and the Warriors would be smart to give Draymond Green stretches of rest through the rest of 2019-20. The playoff miles are certainly evident on his tires, and a string of losses here and there can only help Golden State in the chase for the No. 1 pick. Green was spectacular on Christmas Day, and he notched a triple-double in San Antonio on New Year’s Eve. He’s played admirably of late, but some time off can’t hurt.
28. Cavaliers – Kevin Love’s frustration is warranted alongside two young guards in Cleveland, though it’s hard to see what Love thought he was getting into when he signed a four-year extension in July 2018. The Cavaliers haven’t been functional this century without LeBron James. The trend will likely continue with or without Love in Cleveland.
27. Knicks – Get to know Knicks interim head coach Mike Miller. The 55-year-old spent eight years as the head coach at Eastern Illinois State from 2005-12, worked as a G League assistant for three seasons and spent 2015-19 coaching the G League’s Westchester Knicks. Not exactly a glamorous resume. How has Miller performed thus far? Pretty darn well. He’s 6–8 with the Knicks, frankly impressive given the standards at MSG. Julius Randle and Marcus Morris are rolling, and New York is competent. Impressive stuff from Miller in his short stint.
26. Wizards – Isaiah Thomas deserved his suspension for walking into the stands. But getting thrown out for this bumping of referee Marat Kogut was absurd. It’s hard to watch the clip and find any malintent. Kogut has to be more patient there.
25. Kings – The Kings are, well, in a tailspin. They’ve lost nine of their last ten, allowing 41 points to the Pelicans in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s loss. Harrison Barnes cited a lack of maturity. Buddy Hield noted the “little mental mistakes.” The Luke Walton era is off to a less-than-sterling start.
24. Pistons – It may be time for the Pistons to pull the trigger on a Drummond trade. The dreams of an All-Star frontcourt is fading as Blake Griffin’s game erodes, and committing five more (expensive) years for Drummond doesn’t seem to be the answer. It may be painful, but tank time is quickly arriving in the Motor City.
23. Pelicans – Welcome back, Lonzo Ball! The former Lakers’ point guard is rolling with 74 points in his last three games, torching the Rockets on Nov. 29. Alvin Gentry’s fast-paced attack is suited for Ball, and the former No. 2 pick’s defensive prowess creates an imposing backcourt next to Jrue Holiday. Ball is shooting 41.5% from three in his last seven games. If his shot holds steady, the Pelicans could rise to respectability through the rest of 2019-20.
22. Timberwolves – Good on rookie Jarrett Culver for netting a career-high 21 points on Dec. 30, but it’s certainly been a difficult 2019-20 for the Texas Tech product. The No. 6 pick in the 2019 NBA draft is shooting 21.3% from three this season, and his 40.6% effective field goal percentage is the fourth-worst mark of the 211 players to log at least 500 minutes. Building next to Karl-Anthony Towns remains difficult in the Twin Cities.
21. Bulls – The following quote isn’t an indictment on Zach LaVine in any real respect, but does he watch the same league we do?
“I’m upset because I think we’re just as good as them,” LaVine said after the Bulls loss to the Celtics on Saturday. “We’re just not finishing the game off, and that’s what’s separating us from those top-tier teams. We’re not closing out games.”
There’s a bit more than late-game execution separating Boston and Chicago. The two franchises are effectively light years away, an unfortunate reality as we turn to the 2020s
20. Hornets – James Borrego singing “Don’t Stop Believing” in the Hornets huddle belongs in the Huddle Moments Hall of Fame. It’s no “1-2-3 Cancun” but Borrego’s rendition is a frontrunner for Bench Moment of the Year.
19. Spurs – Lonnie Walker IV logged his first career start against Milwaukee on Saturday, and while it wasn’t pretty (eight points on 12 shots), the more playing time for Walker the better. Ditto for Derrick White and Dejounte Murray. The Spurs need to find who will lead them into the next era sooner than later.
18. Grizzlies – The Grizzlies are on a roll with five wins in their last eight games, including a 140-114 blowout of the Clippers on Jan. 4. Morant was downright electric against Los Angeles. He scored 20 points on 7-10 from the field, adding nine assists in the victory. Put this one on Morant’s rookie reel.
17. Suns – Dario Saric is being buried in the Suns’ rotation, logging just 10 minutes in the last two games. Saric is in the final season of his four-year contract, and he could be an intriguing frontcourt option on the trade market. Perhaps Daryl Morey and the Rockets could make a call to Phoenix.
16. Trail Blazers – Carmelo Anthony has been efficient from three from Portland, but the Blazers still lag behind the top eight seeds in the West. They have their scuffling defense to blame. Portland has the NBA’s No. 28 defense since Dec. 1, and they rank No. 25 in defensive rebounding rate. Damian Lillard’s scoring binges are falling short in a stacked Western Conference
15. Nets – The Nets may be wise to shut Kyrie Irving down for the season and reset the roster with an eye toward the spring of 2021. Irving’s shoulder woes remain troublesome, and this team wasn’t advancing to even the conference finals without Durant. Brooklyn should proceed with caution as it manages its franchise point guard.
14. Magic – Get well soon, Jonathan Isaac. The third-year forward has made a serious leap this season, averaging a career-high 12 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. The defensive ace has boundless potential. Let’s hope we see him flash it sooner than later.
13. Thunder – What a sophomore season for Shai-Gilgeous Alexander. The Kentucky product is averaging 24.6 points per game in Oklahoma City’s five-game winning streak, and he’s made 22 of 31 clutch shots, per NBA data. The Thunder landed a potential future All-Star in the Paul George trade, kickstarting their rebuild after the Russell Westbrook era.
12. Pacers – Indiana has lost five of its last seven, and the injury bug continues to hit its backcourt as Malcolm Brogdon battles back soreness. Victor Oladipo can’t return soon enough.
11. 76ers – Joel Embiid is uniquely gifted, though his stamina remains a question that will loom over the playoffs. Rockets center Clint Capela exhausted Embiid on the fast break in Houston, limiting the Kansas product on both ends. The fluctuations in energy and effort will likely cost Embiid Defensive Player of the Year.
10. Raptors – Kyle Lowry remains one of the more underappreciated players of his era in Year 14. He’s sixth in assists and 12th in steals since entering the league in 2006-07, and the Villanova product is Toronto’s franchise leader in made threes. Lowry is still humming along at 33-years-old, averaging 21 points per game since Dec. 5. The Philly native could be a sneaky Hall-of-Fame candidate down the road.
9. Jazz – So this is the Jazz we’ve been expecting. Utah is cruising with 10 wins in its last 11 games, fueled in large part by Donavan Mitchell. The third-year guard is averaging 26.2 points and six assists since Dec. 11, and he’s seized point guard duties with Mike Conley out of the lineup. Point Mitchell may be the best route forward for Utah, creating a sticky situation in its backcourt.
8. Mavericks – Rick Carlisle has taken umbrage with the officiating of Luka Doncic, and the Mavericks head coach has a point. Doncic’s bull-in-a-china-shop style allows opponents to get away with a slate of grabs and bumps, leaving a quandary for officials similar to James Harden. We’ll see how long it takes for Doncic to earn the benefit of the doubt like other NBA superstars.
7. Nuggets – The myth of Michael Porter Jr. is beginning to give way to real results, and it’s downright thrilling to witness. MPJ dropped 25 on Indiana on 11-12 shooting on Jan. 2, showing his full arsenal of offensive talents. Porter is uniquely smooth on the perimeter given his 6’10” frame, and he’s explosive near the tin. Denver has landed a gem if Porter can stay healthy.
6. Heat – It’s a testament to Miami’s depth that the Heat remain near the top of the East despite Jimmy Butler’s scoring struggles. He’s shooting just 42% from the field (and a ghastly 27.8% from three) since Dec. 1, and he hasn’t made a triple in six straight games. Miami will need Butler to be respectable from beyond the arc to reach the Finals.
5. Rockets – Don’t look now, but James Harden is tracking to challenge both the all-time free throw and three-point single-season records. Harden is on pace for 406 triples if he plays 78 games, which would be four more than Steph Curry’s record in 2015-16. The Beard is currently just shy of Jerry West’s historic free-throw pace, though he’s currently in line to become the fifth player to ever make 800 free throws in a season. Harden continues to make a convincing case as the best scorer of the century.
4. Clippers – Montrezl Harrell called out the Clippers after their loss to Memphis, telling the media at the Staples Center “we’re not a great team.” How did the Louisville product respond against New York on Sunday? With 34 points off the bench. The Clippers are littered with winning players, and Harrell may be chief among them.
3. Celtics – Daniel Theis is far from the most skilled big man in the Eastern Conference, but he remains a valuable cog in Boston. The 27-year-old is a manic rebounder and sturdy rim protector, adding some edge to an undersized Celtics’ squad. Theis’ game-winning block on Trae Young on Jan. 3 was among the best moments of Boston’s season.
2. Lakers – Anthony Davis made another stride toward Defensive Player of the Year on Sunday, swatting eight Pistons shots while adding three steals in the Lakers’ home victory. Davis is the best two-way force LeBron James has ever played with, and the former No. 1 pick is meeting all expectations thus far. The Lakers’ gamble is paying off in a big way.
1. Bucks – Khris Middleton’s stability is invaluable in Milwaukee, and the Texas A&M product is fully earning his $178 million contract this season. Middleton is averaging 18.8 points per game on 40% from three, and he’s a crafty finisher around the rim. He provides a key slashing element to the Bucks outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo, making Middleton an impactful chess piece around a collection of shooters. Milwaukee will need Middleton to play at an All-Star level to win its first Finals since 1971.