The Lakers are currently the favorite for the Western Conference crown, though they’re by no means unbeatable as we approach the season’s penultimate month. Who could challenge Los Angeles? The options are dicey. Both Denver and Utah have questions regarding their late-game scorers, while the Clippers battle bouts of inconsistency. Perhaps the Rockets are worth a closer look.
Houston has won seven of its last nine entering a matchup with the Knicks on Monday, and its small-ball experiment has worked wonders since jettisoning Clint Capela for Robert Covington. The former Timberwolves forward is wreaking havoc in passing lanes on a nightly basis. P.J. Tucker is an absolute brick on the low block. As Russell Westbrook and James Harden hit their stride, the Finals returning to Houston for the first time since 1995 doesn’t seem so far fetched.
As we roll into the season’s final stretch, let’s dive into The Crossover’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Warriors – Steph Curry appears on target for a March 1 return, and calls to shut down the two-time MVP for the season appear increasingly foolish. Golden State will be well served to see how its youngsters fare alongside Curry, especially new addition Andrew Wiggins. Besides, Curry suffered a hand injury, not exactly a knee or Achilles. The Warriors are in the Western Conference cellar, but it’ll be nice for Curry to perhaps gain some momentum heading into 2020-21.
29. Cavaliers – The John Beilein era (or, error) is over in Cleveland, granting the Cavaliers their wish after a disastrous half season. So what progress could we hope to see in the season’s final stretch? Improved guard play would certainly be encouraging. Darius Garland is finding his shooting stroke after a concerning start, and Collin Sexton is rounding into a solid young guard. Expectations are low, but Cleveland isn’t completely devoid of talent. With another high lottery pick on the way, perhaps the Cavaliers could find a shred of stability at some point in the 2020s.
28. Knicks – Speaking of youngsters, how’s the R.J. Barrett experiment going in New York? Not great. Barrett has the fifth-worst field goal percentage among the 106 players to attempt at least 500 shots this season, and the Duke product has made just one three in his last five games. Barrett isn’t solely to blame for his struggles. The Knicks remain in a constant state of dysfunction. But as the top two picks in the 2019 draft shine, Barrett has consistently struggled. New York’s bad luck has no sign of ending anytime soon.
27. Hawks – Trae Young’s defensive deficiencies leave the Hawks’ ultimate ceiling in question, but there’s no denying just how electric Young can be on the offensive end. He’s one of the game’s most inventive passers and a fearless shooter, making threes from the logo with ease. Young’s 50-point effort against the Heat on Thursday is far from his last.
26. Timberwolves – Karl-Anthony Towns’ wrist injury could lead to some good-old-fashioned tanking down the stretch in Minnesota. The Timberwolves currently hold the league’s third-worst record, and they have no shortage of youngsters to play in March and April. Let Towns take his time getting back. Another top three pick could land the Timberwolves an impact youngster or some enticing trade capital heading into a critical summer.
25. Hornets – Malik Monk is unlikely to become an impact starter at any point, though he could potentially be an effective instant offense piece on a contender at some point in the next decade. The Kentucky product is in the midst of an impressive stretch, averaging 17.8 points per game on 47% shooting since Jan. 20. After a disappointing two seasons, perhaps Monk is turning the corner.
24. Pistons – The Reggie Jackson experiment is over in Detroit, marking the latest failed acquisition as the Pistons flounder in a sea of mediocrity. Jackson and Andre Drummond are now gone. Blake Griffin is sliding into irrelevance. The Pistons have a smattering of young talent, but Detroit is still lightyears away from contention in the Eastern Conference. Hitting the reset button remains the most prudent move as we approach 2020-21.
23. Bulls – We’ll save any hard-hitting analysis for another week. Good to see Jim Boylen and Zach LaVine are doing well.
22. Kings – Forward Harry Giles is in the midst of an impressive February, finding his footing as a dynamic rim runner alongside De’Aaron Fox in Sacramento. Giles doesn’t lack pedigree. He was the No. 2 recruit in the nation in 2016 and a prized freshman at Duke before a slate of injuries. Giles will never live up to his high school expectations, but the potential for a valuable rotation player is still present.
21. Wizards – Let’s indulge in some optimism: are we so sure the Wizards won’t sneak into the playoffs? Washington has a legitimate All-Star in Bradley Beal, and their defense has trended toward respectability after Isaiah Thomas left the rotation. The Wiz are three games behind the Magic for the No. 7 seed. They’re 5.5 games behind the Kyrie Irving-less Nets. Don’t count out Beal and Co. just yet.
20. Suns – Don’t look now, but Deandre Ayton is putting on an offensive clinic of late. The Arizona product is averaging 21.1 points and 12.9 rebounds per game in his last 15 contests, and he’s shooting 54.5% from the field. Ayton has a silky touch around the foul line. He’s already an impact rim runner. Phoenix may not have landed a future MVP like Luka Doncic, but Ayton remains a potential All-Star in the 2020s.
19. Magic – Evan Fournier’s contract is up at the end of 2019-20, leaving quite the interesting dilemma for Orlando. Seeing Fournier bolt would remove nearly all of Orlando’s reliable guard scoring, though committing $20 million per year to a non-All-Star seems to be a perfect path to mediocrity. The Magic have boxed themselves in to a degree. Perhaps they would have been well served to explore the Fournier trade market before Feb. 6.
18. Spurs – Dejounte Murray doesn’t lack skill when driving to the rim or pulling up from beyond the arc (although in a limited sample), so why isn’t he more aggressive in the Spurs’ middling offense? The Washington product is too often comfortable serving as a secondary option, which is a shame as San Antonio looks to groom its new core. The last three games encapsulates the frustration with Murray. He combined for 48 points in a pair of games straddling the All-Star break, then scored a whopping zero points in Oklahoma City on Sunday. Shoot the ball, Dejounte. You’re too talented to take a backseat.
17. Nets – Kyrie Irving posted a career-high scoring average in his abbreviated stint with the Nets this season, but I wouldn’t exactly call 2019-20 a satisfying campaign. Irving made far more headlines for his mercurial spirit than his on-court performance, and he’s appeared to be in a state of discontent with his teammates for two straight seasons. The magnifying glass will be shining brightly on Irving next year as Kevin Durant returns to the floor. Perhaps a new co-star will reinvigorate Irving’s stalled career.
16. Pelicans – The list of players to average at least 22 points per game this season while shooting 55% or better from the field? Zion Williamson and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That’s it. That’s the list. Shout about sample size all you want. Williamson is an absolute dynamo and a future All-NBA talent given good health. His transition to the NBA is as smooth as anyone could have wished.
15. Trail Blazers – When searching for an answer for Portland’s slide in the Western Conference this season, a simple answer arises on the boards. The Blazers are No. 27 in defensive rebounding and just three spots better in rebounding percentage, consistently losing the boards battle on a given night. This shouldn’t be the case for a team with a mammoth center, but as is usually the case with Hassan Whiteside, his individual statistics far outpace his team impact. Jusuf Nurkic’s absence has been crushing after a run to last year’s Western Conference finals.
14. Grizzlies – Get well Jaren Jackson Jr., and let’s hope the emerging forward can be back for a first-round series against Anthony Davis and the Lakers. JJJ has been fantastic in his second season, banging home 40% of threes while averaging 16.9 points per game. Jackson projects to be an ideal modern five alongside Ja Morant. The Grizzlies have a real shot at becoming a Western Conference power after hitting the jackpot in back-to-back lotteries.
13. Pacers – Victor Oladipo is still far from his pre-injury form, and the Pacers need Malcolm Brogdon to play near his peak to win a playoff series. Brogdon hasn’t exactly delivered of late. The Virginia product is shooting just 41% from the field in his last 10 games and 22.7% from three. Indiana has a smattering of scoring options, but no true go-to option. The Pacers’ lack of an alpha dog could cost them in April.
12. Mavericks – I have no real problem with Dallas filing a protest of Saturday’s loss to the Hawks, as is the Mavericks’ right. But does Mark Cuban and Co. have a point? I’m not so convinced. Hawks forward John Collins still scored on a put-back layup after the incorrect goaltending call, leading to a classic ball-don’t-lie scenario. Cuban may win by the letter of the law, but in the spirit of the game, Dallas deserves to walk out of Atlanta with a loss.
11. Thunder – Adrian Wojnarowski said on Saturday that there is, “traction” to get Chris Paul on the 2020 Olympic team, and rightfully so. Not only would Paul be a valuable presence off the floor, he can also still control the action as an ideal Olympic point guard. Paul is cerebral as they come. He feasts on a shorter three-point line. Paul would certainly be a worthy asset to Team USA, and a third gold medal would help brandish his legacy as one of the greatest point guards in the game’s history.
10. 76ers – Ben Simmons carried the Sixers with Joel Embiid out of the lineup for two weeks, and it may now be Embiid’s turn with Simmons battling a back injury. Embiid should be up to the challenge, at least in the coming week as the Sixers face a trio of Eastern Conference welterweights. The true test comes as the calendar turns to March. Philadelphia will kick off a four-game road trip on March 1, beginning with contests against the Lakers and Clippers. If Embiid can shine out West, the Sixers will be taken far more seriously as Finals contenders.
9. Heat – ESPN’s Dwyane Wade documentary was a nice way to cap the weekend, and the program illuminated just how rapid Wade’s rise was once he left Marquette. The Heat legend was an All-Star by his second season. He was a champion by year three. It’s jarring that Wade has been in our life for nearly two decades, though he’ll likely (and hopefully) be a fixture in the NBA for the next half century.
8. Jazz – It’s not unreasonable for Jordan Clarkson to earn crunch time minutes over Mike Conley at the moment. While the former Grizzlies point guard struggles to find his footing in Utah, Clarkson is absolutely thriving, averaging 16.4 points per game on 49% shooting since Jan. 1. Clarkson’s shot selection can be a bit of a mystery, and he’s a below-average defender. But few bench players can provide a similar boost of instant offense. If Utah’s offense struggles in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, don’t be surprised if Quin Snyder turns to Clarkson.
7. Rockets – Russell Westbrook has shaken off a rough start to his Houston tenure with two absolutely dominant months. The 2016-17 MVP is averaging 32.4 points and 7.4 assists since Jan. 1, and his stat sheet isn’t the only thing back to OKC standards. Westbrook has his swagger back, jawing with opponents both on and off the floor. Rudy Gobert was the latest victim in Westbrook’s revenge tour on Saturday. If both of Houston’s superstars shine at the same time, the Finals are certainly within reach.
6. Clippers – The Clippers continue to have arguably the most talented roster in the West, but it’s hard to trust a team with such bouts of inconsistency. This isn’t akin to Kawhi Leonard’s year with Toronto in 2018-19. The Raptors remained one of the league’s best teams even when Leonard sat. The Clippers, meanwhile, can’t find a rhythm even with Leonard in the lineup. Los Angeles hasn’t won more than four straight games since November. It remains questionable whether it can rip off 16 victories in April through June.
5. Nuggets – Does anyone know what happened to Gary Harris? The Michigan State product appeared to be a potential third cog in Denver as recently as 2017-18, when he averaged a career-high 17.5 points per game. Harris’ production has fallen off a cliff this season. He’s now sixth on the Nuggets in scoring, and his 39% mark from the field ranks 140th of the 152 players to attempt 400 shots this season. Harris’ $40 million remaining over the next two years is far from a bargain.
4. Celtics – In case there was any question, Jayson Tatum is going to be a serious problem for the Eastern Conference over the next decade. The third-year forward turned in one of his best career performances in Los Angeles on Sunday, dropping 41 points in a duel with LeBron James. Tatum was precocious as a rookie, disappointing last year and an All-Star this season. Is MVP competition on the docket for 2020-21?
3. Raptors – The Raptors have exited the All-Star break the same way they entered: obliterating every team in sight. Toronto defeated Phoenix by 17 on Feb. 21, then torched Indiana in a 127-81 win on Sunday. The East’s second tear remains seriously jumbled, but Toronto remains a legitimate title contender as we approach March 1.
2. Lakers – We have too small of a sample size to determine Anthony Davis’ playoff effectiveness, but there may be a touch of concern as Los Angeles seeks a return to the Finals. Davis is more of a middling post player than a true star. He struggled down the stretch against Boston on Sunday, both from the field and the free throw line. Perhaps a mammoth 40-point playoff effort will make this look foolish in the coming months. But for now, Davis’ lack of playoff chops is something to consider when handicapping the title race.
1. Bucks – Perhaps Giannis Antetokounmpo heard Joel Embiid’s claim as the best player in the world before the Bucks obliterated the Sixers on Saturday night. The reigning MVP poured in 31 points in 29 minutes, adding 17 rebounds and eight assists. Saturday wasn’t quite an outlier for Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak rips off these statlines regularly. Embiid may want to consider his words more carefully before facing the Bucks again.