The sugar rush from the first week in Orlando appears to be fading to a significant degree as we approach the postseason. Some teams have already been eliminated from playoff contention, while a rash of rest-induced absences has begun to sweep the league. We’ve even seen some tanking in the Western Conference, making this week truly resemble the dregs of late March. But don’t fret. The playoffs will come soon enough, and the game’s top talents will be ready for one of the more fascinating postseasons in recent memory.
So where do things stand as we approach the play-in game(s)? Check out The Crossover’s latest crop of power rankings below.
22. Washington Wizards
How has the Wizards’ stint in Orlando gone? About as well as expected. Washington has lost six straight as it approaches its final two games, with each of its last two losses coming by double digits. The Wizards’ defense continues to be historically porous, and they’re generating turnovers at a rate that is sure to gray Scott Brooks’ hair. There’s hope for the franchise in the next decade. But little optimism was provided in the NBA restart.
21. Sacramento Kings
The Kings have now been eliminated from playoff contention for the 14th straight season, and the road won’t get much easier in the coming years against a stacked Western Conference. Sacramento is likely to lose Bogdan Bogdanovic in free agency, and the Kings’ frontcourt is still quite limited. A failure to reach the playoffs once again in 2020-21 will reflect far more on Sacramento’s front office than De’Aaron Fox.
20. New Orleans Pelicans
It was undoubtedly a rough stint in Orlando for Lonzo Ball, but that shouldn’t discount New Orleans’ faith in the UCLA product. Ball showed some serious chemistry with Zion Williamson in limited minutes this year, and he should be a dynamic piece in one of the NBA’s fastest offenses next season. Replicating his 37% mark from three in 2020-21 will go a long way toward New Orleans’ playoff hopes.
19. Brooklyn Nets
The Nets could very well make two poor coaching decisions within a year if they part ways with Jacque Vaughn before the 2020-21 season. Kenny Atkinson’s dismissal wasn’t shocking, but it certainly felt odd given the impressive program he’s built in Brooklyn. Vaughn has seriously overachieved with a depleted team in Orlando, and he could continue to build the Nets’ young core in the coming years. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving likely want someone with more experience, and that’s fair given their Finals aspirations. But sometimes the most conventional route isn’t the best one. Brooklyn could be well served to give Vaughn another look next season.
18. Orlando Magic
The Magic aren’t exactly the most thrilling team in the NBA bubble, so let’s use this space to highlight one of the league’s lesser-known players. Forward Gary Clark has shown flashes of two-way talent following a stint with the Rockets, and he scored a career-high 15 points in a loss to Boston on Sunday. Clark has solid stretch from beyond the arc, and he’s a lanky defender. Add another forward to the Magic’s never-ending collection of frontcourt players.
17. San Antonio Spurs
The never-say-die Spurs continue to stay alive in the Western Conference after knocking the Pelicans out of the playoff hunt on Sunday, and DeMar DeRozan deserves a large share of the credit. DeRozan has received plenty of criticism in recent years, and his scoring prowess feels underrated. The former Raptors guard scored 27 points on 10-16 shooting vs. New Orleans, and he dropped 30 against Philadelphia on Aug. 3. DeRozan’s days leading a winner are likely in the rearview mirror. But he should evolve into a valuable secondary scoring option for some team in the near future.
16. Phoenix Suns
The young Suns continue to roll in Orlando with six straight wins, and their young core has made a considerable leap since the last time we saw them. One unheralded contributor: Jevon Carter. The West Virginia product made a name for himself as a defensive menace in the Big 12, and he’s earned consistent minutes thanks to his prowess on that end with the Suns. Saturday featured a career offensive night for Carter. He scored 20 points on 7-10 shooting in a win over the Heat, and he banged home six threes. Carter should be another valuable piece alongside Devin Booker in the coming seasons.
15. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are teeming with young talent, and Grayson Allen can get lost in the shuffle in Memphis’ crowded rotation. But perhaps Allen is finding his footing as a valuable spacer. The Duke product is shooting 53.8% from three in Orlando, more than doubling his attempts compared to before the NBA restart. Taylor Jenkins has a plethora of options for his rotation, especially in the backcourt. Allen only adds to the choices at Jenkins’ disposal.
14. Portland Trail Blazers
Patrick Beverley and Paul George can chirp all they want but make no mistake: Damian Lillard is a certified superstar. The Blazers point guard is one of the most prolific three-point shooters in NBA history, and his ability in the clutch is matched by few, if any, players across the league. Lillard followed his struggles against Los Angeles with a 51-point night vs. Philadelphia, and frankly, the effort didn’t come as a major surprise. Lillard’s reputation as a true late-game killer is earned in every sense.
13. Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia’s stint in Orlando has mirrored the frustration that’s plagued the team throughout 2019-20. Ben Simmons is out for the year after undergoing knee surgery, and Joel Embiid is now battling a minor ankle injury. Philadelphia could face a first-round exit in 2020, but whether the Sixers bow out in the first or second round is almost inconsequential. This was supposed to be a pivotal year for the 76ers. Finals aspirations were legitimate. What’s really frustrating is the fact that we didn’t really learn much, if anything, about the potential of this dynamic duo in 2019-20. There’s no time to waste for Embiid, Simmons and (potentially) Brett Brown next year.
12. Indiana Pacers
When exactly did T.J. Warren become an All-NBA player? It’s been an unreal stretch in Orlando for the N.C. State product, scoring 30-plus points in four of his first five contests. Warren torched the Sixers for 53 points. He outdueled LeBron James with a 39-point night. Indiana entered 2019-20 with an assumed ceiling, and even if Victor Oladipo stays, that fact will likely remain entering the next decade. A true leap from Warren could change the calculus.
11. Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell provided perhaps the highlight of the NBA restart Saturday as he saved the game against Denver numerous times in regulation before an overtime loss. Mitchell has been a household name since his first months in the league, yet he’s always felt a notch below the league’s top perimeter players. We should remain patient with Mitchell, who’s had the burden of leading a playoff team for three straight seasons. Saturday’s fourth quarter should give Utah fans confidence in Mitchell’s ability to bring Utah over the top sometime in the next decade.
10. Dallas Mavericks
I remain skeptical of the Mavericks’ chances against the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs, though we shouldn’t let a potentially-early exit take away from Luka Doncic’s outstanding performance in Orlando. Doncic dropped 40 against Phoenix on Aug. 2, and he logged just the 11th 30-20-10 game in NBA history two nights later. Saturday’s win over Milwaukee may have been Doncic’s masterpiece. He finished with 36 points and 19 assists in an overtime win over Milwaukee, adding some of the most impressive passes this season. The Mavericks don’t quite have the talent to challenge for the Western Conference crown in 2020. But the next 10 years could be the decade of Doncic.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder
Chris Paul is on a collision course to face his former team in round one, with another Rockets-Thunder playoff series likely on the horizon. How has Oklahoma City acquitted itself against James Harden and Co. this season? Pretty darn well. The Thunder have won two of three matchups vs. Houston, including a five-point win at the Toyota Center on Jan. 20. Oklahoma City’s trio of guards can at least battle Houston’s dynamic backcourt. Steven Adams can feast on the boards. The Thunder are unlikely to be Houston’s preferred opponent in the first round.
8. Miami Heat
Never change, Jimmy Butler. The Heat’s star has made plenty of enemies across his decade in the NBA, adding a beef with T.J. Warren in January. But Butler always seems to back up his bravado. He led the way as Miami shut down Warren and Indiana on Monday night, holding the breakout star of the NBA bubble to just 12 points on 5-14 shooting. Butler has fit in perfectly with the vaunted Heat culture. Sunday night was yet another example.
7. Denver Nuggets
We can salivate over Bol Bol and Michael Porter Jr. all we want, but Denver isn’t going anywhere without a strong performance from Jamal Murray. The Nuggets’ point guard hasn’t quite proven himself as a true No. 2 option, though Sunday’s win over the Jazz was a step in the right direction. Murray scored 23 points in his first game in the NBA bubble, and while he wasn’t exactly efficient, he delivered down the stretch. Murray will need to be a reliable scorer late in games if Denver wants to make noise in the Western Conference playoffs.
6. Boston Celtics
Boston’s 122-100 win over the Raptors on Aug. 7 was its most impressive performance in the NBA bubble, with the victory sparked by a smothering defense. The Celtics held Pascal Siakam to just 15 points on 15 shots, and the Raptors went 4-27 from deep in the first three quarters. Boston is undersized inside, and Kemba Walker can be hunted by opposing offenses. But the Celtics have the scheme and the long wings to make things work. It’s been largely smooth sailing thus far for the league’s No. 4 defense. Boston still lurks as a Finals contender.
5. Houston Rockets
James Harden’s shooting struggles before the COVID-19 suspension appear to have been more of a random blip than a sign of things to come. The three-time scoring champion has come out with a fury in Orlando, tallying 71 points in his last two games. Harden is beating double teams and punishing poor switches. He’s looking slim and quick, and his step-back is back to its familiar form. The Rockets are still a notch below the Los Angeles juggernauts. But they remain a dangerous opponent for any Western Conference team.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers are seriously limping into the postseason after giving up 129 points to the Skeleton Nets on Sunday, but should we really worry about Los Angeles’ postseason chances? I’ll pass on the panic. Leonard certainly looks to be in Finals MVP form following a 39-point night, and Montrezl Harrell should be ready to play in at least one seeding game. The Clippers have the deepest rotation in the West. They have two top-12 players. They remain firmly in the top tier of title contenders despite their recent lull.
3. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard in July 2019, leaving them without a true top option in the halfcourt. So how did Nick Nurse’s team adapt? By running like the wind. Toronto is averaging 1.16 points per transition possession this season, and no team generates more points via the fast break. Pascal Siakam has made a true leap as a playmaker, and he could potentially be up to the task if games slow down in the postseason. But Toronto shouldn’t shy away from its bread and butter. The Raptors’ pace could determine a playoff series in Orlando.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
Sluggish performances aren’t exactly reason for worry in Orlando, but injury concerns certainly are. LeBron James didn’t quite look like himself on Monday against Denver after battling a hamstring issue, grabbing just one rebound as he registered a team-worst minus-10 in 38 minutes. James was a complete machine in his first 15 seasons, appearing truly indestructible in both Cleveland and Miami. But the tread on his tires have shown in two seasons with the Lakers. Frank Vogel may be smart to shut James down before the postseason begins.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Eric Bledsoe has been maligned plenty in previous seasons, and rightly so after back-to-back playoff disappointments. But the Bucks point guard remains critical to their Finals hopes. Bledsoe is a fierce on-ball defender, and he adds a secondary playmaker unseen in Milwaukee outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Khris Middleton is the better player. He’s also largely a known entity. Bledsoe’s performance could once again swing Milwaukee’s season.