Is there a truly dominant team in the NBA this season? The Lakers remain the league’s most likely juggernaut as we begin the march toward the Larry O’Brien Trophy, though outside of LeBron and Co., it’s hard to truly sift through the field of title contenders. Both Brooklyn and Milwaukee have struggled in spurts early on. It’s hard to trust the Clippers after their bubble collapse. Perhaps a dark horse emerges in the coming months, but finding a true heir to the Lakers’ crown could be a difficult task. The first two weeks haven't exactly helped sort the pretenders from the contenders in a crowded championship race.
So who is off to a hot start and who is faltering early? Check out The Crossover’s first power rankings of 2021 to find out.
30. Detroit Pistons
Blake Griffin’s start to 2020-21 provides reason for serious concern as Detroit faces a long winter of discontent. Griffin isn’t attacking the paint with any regularity in his 12th season, morphing into a glorified stretch big man and occasional secondary playmaker. The former Clippers’ star has yet to tally an offensive rebound in his first four games. He was dusted by Jayson Tatum down the stretch on Sunday. We noted the 'Free Blake Griffin' campaign to kick off this season’s power rankings last week. Though after Griffin’s slow start, it’s fair to question whether any relocation will revive his career.
29. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are sinking quickly in the Western Conference, and this offense should continue to struggle throughout 2020-21. If you’re looking for a dose of positivity, check out Darius Bazley’s recent play. The second-year forward scored 19 points and added 12 rebounds in a win over the Magic on Jan. 2, showing off his notable size and wingspan in the process. Bazley and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander both require a degree of seasoning (moreso for Bazley), though both provide impressive athleticism. They’re Oklahoma City’s two top assets as an arduous rebuild begins.
28. Charlotte Hornets
We got our first strong performance from LaMelo Ball on Dec. 30 as he torched the Mavericks with 22 points, eight rebounds and five assists in a blowout victory. Ball hasn’t been shy thus far early in his NBA career, already sporting elite vision and a supreme playmaking flair in significant minutes. The real question surrounds his jump shot. The percentages haven’t been perfect thus far, though Ball sports more confidence from beyond the arc than his older brother. We’re not asking for marksmanship with Ball. Even passable numbers from three will do. If his jumper can stabilize at the pro level, he could compete for All-Star teams at some point in the 2020s.
27. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies’ playoff hopes took a significant hit after Ja Morant’s scary ankle injury in Brooklyn, though to be frank, 2020-21 was always about the development of Memphis’ youngsters. The coming months should provide ample opportunity on that front. One name to keep an eye on: Desmond Bane. The rookie out of TCU is already earning significant rotation minutes, providing a solid shooting stroke as he competes for a spot in the starting lineup. Bane was undervalued coming into the draft, and he’s been a plus player early on despite shaky talent around him. Seeing which pieces in Memphis will stick is the franchise’s most important directive moving forward.
26. Minnesota Timberwolves
So how are things going in Minnesota thus far? The Timberwolves are 2–4 entering Tuesday night, sitting 26th in offense and last in defense. As for the tenor of the locker room, we’ll let Ricky Rubio take it from here (h/t The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski):
“When things are not going our way, everyone goes and plays selfish,” Rubio said. “You can put a lot of excuses. We young, blah, blah, blah. ...The last two games it’s been [ridiculously] bad. There’s no other words to put it. We gotta be better.”
Yikes. With Karl-Anthony Towns still out of the lineup, things could go from bad to worse in Minnesota in the coming weeks.
25. Sacramento Kings
The Kings have dropped three straight in relatively embarrassing fashion, with a second straight loss to Houston spurring a trade request from Marvin Bagley’s III’s father. This request doesn’t deserve any serious analysis, though it does raise an important question: just how good does a player need to be to merit a legitimate trade request?
Bagley entered Monday night averaging 11.8 points per game this season on 37.5 percent shooting. He’s never made an All-Star team, and despite some impressive offensive skills, he’s logged just 81 career games in over two seasons. What’s next? A trade demand from Nemanja Bjelica? Let’s see Bagley even flirt with an All-Star appearance before re-stating his request.
24. Washington Wizards
Congrats to Washington (I guess) for winning two straight entering Tuesday, but this remains a largely disastrous group until further notice. Russell Westbrook is indulging his worst instincts. Thomas Bryant is an abysmal defensive big man. Bradley Beal’s previous frustration was certainly understandable, and it could be only a matter of time until that resurfaces in a major way. Perhaps James Harden won’t be the only star on the trade market come March.
23. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have stabilized after a truly disastrous start, winning three of their last four ahead of Tuesday’s matchup with Sacramento. And what should be a respectable offense has begun to find its footing. Zach LaVine scored 39 in a win against Dallas on Jan. 3. Otto Porter is averaging over 15 points per game on 41 percent from three, and Lauri Markkanen has gotten off to a similarly hot start from beyond the arc. Don’t bury Chicago in the chase for a play-in spot quite yet.
22. New York Knicks
When can we start building Tom Thibodeau’s statue outside Madison Square Garden? Thibs has led the Knicks to a 4–3 start after a win over Atlanta on Monday, somehow coaxing quality point guard play out of Elfrid Payton in the process. Julius Randle is lighting up the scoreboard. R.J. Barrett is beginning to live up to the billing as a top-three pick. We’ll tap the breaks on any playoff conversation for now, though the progress through two weeks isn’t a total mirage. Perhaps Thibodeau can be the one to lead the Knicks out of the dark ages as we kick off 2021.
21. San Antonio Spurs
A new young Spur appears to shine each night for San Antonio, with Keldon Johnson stealing the show on New Year’s Day. The Kentucky product tallied 26 points and 10 rebounds in a narrow loss to the Lakers, finishing with 22 points against Utah two nights later. Johnson isn’t exactly a franchise cornerstone at this point, but he’s of many valuable young pieces developing in San Antonio’s next era. Let’s hope to see Derrick White back sooner than later as the Spurs look to begin a new playoff streak.
20. Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland’s dynamic backcourt has drawn significant attention amid a hot start, and rightly so. But we shouldn’t dismiss the Cavaliers’ impressive defensive start to the season. J.B. Bickerstaff’s squad entered Monday night second in defensive rating and second-chance points, leading the league in steals in the process. This may be largely a product of sample size, though any reason for optimism in Cleveland deserves to be noted. If the Cavs can hover near the top-10 in defense, they could be a sneaky contender for the final play-in spot.
19. Toronto Raptors
Pascal Siakam’s bubble struggles have carried into 2020-21 as Toronto limps out of the gate. Siakam shot under 40 percent from the field in his first four games, and his early exit against the Sixers on Dec. 29 resulted in a one-game suspension from head coach Nick Nurse. We won’t panic over Siakam’s slow start just yet. Toronto should still be a playoff team, albeit one that could slide into the play-in tournament. But it’s fair to question this team’s ceiling with Siakam as the leading option. Charting Toronto’s path to its next Finals appearance is difficult considering the roster currently on hand for Masai Ujiri and Co.
18. Portland Trail Blazers
Robert Covington was a terrific addition for the Rockets in an abbreviated stint last season, though his production thus far in Portland leaves a lot to be desired. Covington is averaging a paltry six points per game, and his turnover generation has seen a significant dip compared to his small-ball heights in Houston. Covington isn’t a knock-down shooter by any stretch. Damian Lillard doesn’t generate wide-open triples quite like Harden. It’s been a tough adjustment thus far, and it’s worth considering whether Portland is the best fit for Covington moving forward.
17. Golden State Warriors
There are likely better scorers in the NBA at the moment, though there is truly no player more fun to watch than Steph Curry when he’s lighting up the scoreboard.
Curry’s 62-point explosion against the Blazers was the highlight of the season thus far. He blitzed Portland’s defense with his usual diet of rainbow threes, finishing the night with a flurry of transition triples. The win over Portland brought back memories of Curry’s game-winner over Oklahoma City as well as his 54-point night at Madison Square Garden. The latter career highlight may be the better comparison. That Golden State team won just 47 games en route to a second-round exit. The 2020-21 Warriors would be lucky to win a playoff series. The post-dynasty Warriors may continue to struggle, but let’s hope to see a few more brilliant nights from Curry in the coming months.
16. Houston Rockets
Welcome back, John Wall! The former All-Star point guard hasn’t missed a beat after a grueling Achilles tear rehab, averaging 21.3 points and 6.3 assists per game through Monday night. Wall dropped 22 on Sacramento in his season opener, then finished with 28 points and six assists in a win two nights later. Wall’s defensive performance has been the most encouraging sign. He hounded De’Aaron Fox on Jan. 2, flashing his All-Defense form from a half-decade ago. Wall won’t put up counting stats quite like Russell Westbrook, but he’s a more functional fit. The Rockets should feel comfortable with their offseason point-guard swap.
15. Atlanta Hawks
Trae Young is off to another dominant scoring start, and there’s reason to believe he’ll continue to contend for the scoring title once again in 2020-21. Young is getting to the free-throw line at an astounding rate for a player his size, and he’s learning to fling his body into defenders like a young Chris Paul. The Steph Curry comparison has always been flawed on a couple levels, though that’s not necessarily a criticism. Young is off to an All-NBA start, thriving as his own unique talent.
14. Orlando Magic
Cole Anthony has struggled as a shooter early in his NBA career, but he’s made a positive impact out of the gate outside of his shaky percentages. The North Carolina product is a plus defender who rebounds well for a point guard, and he brings a well-developed feel as a half-court playmaker. Anthony’s skill-set (and deficiencies) mirror Markelle Fultz to a degree, and while both players are projects, they represent a pair of valuable pieces as we head into 2021.
13. New Orleans Pelicans
Stan Van Gundy has brought a true defensive identity to the Pelicans in the first month of his New Orleans tenure. Zion Williamson and Co. are downright stingy thus far, sporting the NBA’s No. 4 defensive rating. Only Miami allows fewer paint points per game. The Kings are the lone team with a better defensive rebounding percentage. Steven Adams provides a necessary defensive backbone, and Zion Williamson is a freak athlete, albeit an imperfect rotational defender in Year Two. We can worry about New Orleans’ long-term ceiling with this group at a later date. With regards to 2020-21, sporting a top-5 defense is the Pelicans’ true path to the playoffs.
12. Denver Nuggets
Facundo Campazzo struggled through his first five NBA games, but the Real Madrid import found his footing on Jan. 3 in a win over Minnesota. Campazzo canned five threes in the victory, and more importantly, he flashed the passing brilliance that made him an intriguing offensive addition for Denver. Campazzo’s jumper will ebb-and-flow. He’s a touch undersized. But why start 2021 on such a negative note? Let’s hope to see more Campazzo dimes in the coming weeks as he adjusts to life in the NBA.
11. Dallas Mavericks
No need to worry about Luka Doncic. Dallas’ third-year phenom shook off an early shooting slump in a major way against the Rockets on Monday night, tallying 33 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists in a double-digit win. Doncic controlled every facet of the action for Dallas. He lasered passes to open shooters from all conceivable angles. If Doncic can start to find his groove, Dallas should climb into the top-six in the West sooner than later.
10. Indiana Pacers
Victor Oladipo has put up solid scoring totals early in the season, but Malcolm Brogdon has been Indiana’s most effective guard in 2020-21. The former Bucks floor general is averaging over 20 points per game while flirting with a 50-40-90 season, playing impressive defense to boot. Oladipo will score plenty as he ratchets up the volume in a contract drive. Though at this point, it’s clear who is the real future of Indiana’s backcourt.
9. Boston Celtics
40-point nights from Jayson Tatum will certainly help, but Boston should be worried about its scoring punch outside of its two star wings. Kemba Walker’s timetable for a return remains murky. There’s a lot riding on Semi Ojeleye and rookie Payton Pritchard. Boston will likely post a top-five defense, and considering Jaylen Brown’s recent brilliance, it’s hard to consider Boston outside the top-seven in the East. But simple playoff appearances won’t cut it at this point. As currently constructed, do the Celtics really have what it takes to compete with Brooklyn and Milwaukee?
8. Miami Heat
It looks as though Pat Riley has struck gold once again in the draft with the selection of Precious Achiuwa. Miami’s rookie forward has made an early impact as a rotational big man through his first five games, bringing a much-needed dose of athleticism and speed in minutes with Bam Adebayo on the bench. Both Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard have limped out of the gate. Moe Harkless appears to be at the bottom of Erik Spoelstra’s rotation. As the Heat search for answers in the frontcourt, don’t be surprised if Achiuwa emerges as Miami’s primary big man behind Adebayo.
7. Phoenix Suns
Don’t let Chris Paul’s dampened scoring fool you. The Point God has been the tide that lifts all boats in Phoenix early on, creating a flurry of open looks and easy buckets for the entire roster. Cameron Johnson and Mikal Bridges continue to thrive in contributing roles. Dario Saric has found his Philly form. This Phoenix roster is for real, and with Paul at the helm, this could be a top-five team in the West.
6. Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn has dropped four of five since its blistering start to the season, and the Nets’ potential defensive issues have already reared their head. There’s a clear lack of plus defenders both in the backcourt and on the wing, and the predilection for small-ball (paired with DeAndre Jordan’s waning athleticism) has created significant stretches without legitimate rim protection. These issues could prove ancillary in April and May. Brooklyn still has the pieces and picks to make an impact addition in the coming months. But as currently constituted, the Nets’ defensive shortcomings will likely keep them from chasing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
5. Utah Jazz
We saw Mike Conley grow more comfortable with the Jazz in the bubble, and he’s continued to find his Memphis form early in 2020-21. Conley dropped 33 on the Clippers in a New Year’s Day win, and his scoring has jumped to over 20 points per game on 45.8 percent from three. Even with some shooting regression, Conley should continue to be a valuable backcourt piece alongside Donovan Mitchell. Add in Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson, and Utah has the firepower to compete with any Western Conference team on a given night.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Is this the best Joel Embiid has ever looked? Philadelphia’s star center is destroying teams on both ends of the floor early in 2020-21, averaging 25 points and 12.6 rebounds per game prior to Monday’s win over Charlotte. A refined roster with ample spacing has helped Embiid thus far, though it isn’t only circumstance dictating his early success. Embiid appears to be in the best shape of his career. He’s consistently active and engaged on the defensive end. If we see this version of Embiid throughout the season, Philadelphia could very well post the best record in the Eastern Conference.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee’s underlying metrics suggest we shouldn’t be concerned by a 4–3 start. The Bucks entered Monday night leading the league in offensive rating, and they’ve absolutely torched teams from behind the arc with three games of 20-plus triples. Bryn Forbes should continue to be a valuable perimeter weapon. Both Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton have gotten off to hot starts. Milwaukee bet big on Jrue Holiday with an offseason mini-blockbuster, and his presence has already paid dividends. But improvement from the back half of Mike Budenholzer’s rotation could be what ultimately vaults Milwaukee to the Finals in 2021.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
We’ll have plenty of time this season to sing the praises of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Today, let’s turn our attention to Nic Batum, who is having a quiet career revival in his first season with the Clippers. Batum is averaging nearly 29 minutes per game for Los Angeles this season, averaging 8.7 points per game on 45.8 percent from three. Batum is an asset on both ends of the floor. He’s thriving as the Clippers’ third true wing alongside a deep backcourt rotation. With the shadow of his disastrous Charlotte contract now lifted, perhaps Batum can re-write his career story with a championship in Los Angeles.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers lack of a secondary ball-handler stood out as a major impediment ahead of their title run last season, with many questioning whether there was any legitimate playmaking alongside LeBron James. Rajon Rondo helped quiet those questions with a standout postseason, while additional playmaking came from a certain 7’0” behemoth. Anthony Davis initiated plenty of possessions when James headed to the bench in the bubble, either working into post-ups from outside the arc or taking big men off the dribble from just outside the foul line. Davis continues to grow in that area in 2020-21.
Davis’s handle isn’t just functional for a big man. It’s downright sensational. Davis can cross over guards and blow past wings. He changes direction with the fluidity of a far smaller player, and he’s improving at navigating through a sea of arms. Davis deserves the unicorn designation in every sense of the word. Few players in league history can match his vast offensive arsenal.