Are we destined for a Battle of Los Angeles this summer? The proposition is increasingly less of a guarantee by the week, though that’s not necessarily a credit to the depth of the Western Conference. Barring any blockbuster trade, one team is the clear impediment to the Staples Center battle: Utah
This isn’t the paper-tiger version of the Jazz we’ve seen in recent seasons. Quin Snyder’s squad has matched the franchise record through 25 games, sitting at 20–5 following a 122-108 win over the Celtics on Tuesday. The Jazz are the only team in the league in the top five of both offensive and defensive rating. They lead the league in threes per game. This is a deeper cast than in year’s past, and Donovan Mitchell’s development has been significant. Given a couple breaks, we could see Utah make a surprise run to the Finals in the coming months.
Let’s dive into this week’s power rankings, ranging from the joy in Utah to the (customary) frustration in Washington.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves
Ricky Rubio’s return to Minnesota hasn’t exactly gone as planned in 2020–21. The 10-year veteran is shooting a career-worst 35.1% from the field this season, and the Rubio-D’Angelo Russell pairing has been outscored by over 22 points per 100 possessions. Rubio isn’t exactly a floor raiser for a bad team at this point in his career. He requires a certain amount of talent around him to succeed. Amid another lost year in Minnesota, don’t be surprised to see Rubio on the trade block as March approaches.
29. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons found a real keeper when they selected center Isaiah Stewart with the No. 16 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Stewart hasn’t exactly lit up the scoreboard thus far, though he continues to show flashes of impressive defensive traits. Stewart is adept on the perimeter. He wins battles against bigs despite standing just 6’ 8”. The Washington product has quickly become a fan favorite in Detroit, and he could emerge as a franchise anchor for years to come.
28. Washington Wizards
Save for a thrilling comeback over the Nets, it’s been a dismal year in Washington by all accounts. Russell Westbrook is a shell of his former self, the defense is an absolute disaster and COVID-19 absences have wrecked Scott Brooks’s rotation. How is Bradley Beal handling things? Let’s do a brief check-in.
"We've gotta have some pride, man, some dog," Beal said following a loss to the Hornets on Sunday. "We've got no dog. We just kind of let teams just walk all over us and that s--- is frustrating.”
Yikes. Beal reportedly continues to resist a trade demand, but it is only February. We’ll see if the former No. 3 pick changes his tune as the March 25 deadline approaches.
27. Orlando Magic
Most analysis of the Magic is (rightfully) a bit doom and gloom, so let’s use this space to highlight Nikola Vucevic’s impressive season. The 10-year veteran is absolutely feasting this season, averaging a career-high 23.1 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. Vucevic leads the league in points as the roll man in pick-and-roll possessions. He’s averaging the same points per post-up as Anthony Davis, and he’s drained 42.3% of threes despite a significant spike in attempts. Vucevic is one of the league’s most talented scoring bigs. As Orlando sorts through an underwhelming frontcourt rotation, Vucevic is the lone standout with Jonathan Isaac out of commission.
26. Chicago Bulls
Lauri Markkanen could miss up to a month with a shoulder injury, adding further complication to Chicago’s trade-deadline plans. Markkanen will be a free agent this offseason, and it appears as though he and the Bulls were pretty far apart on extension talks ahead of 2020–21. The Finnish big man continues to be an intriguing offensive talent. But is he enough of a standout player to command anywhere near a nine-figure deal? I remain a bit skeptical. Markkanen’s future will be fascinating to watch both in March and free agency.
25. Oklahoma City Thunder
It’s unlikely we see Oklahoma City really sniff the postseason until at least 2022, but the Thunder are clearly on the right path as they develop a quality crop of young talent. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like a true franchise building block, while Lu Dort, Hamidou Diallo and Darius Bazley have all taken marked steps forward this season. Dort’s rise is especially notable. Oklahoma City’s ‘James Harden stopper’ in the 2020 playoffs continues to grow his offensive game, entering Wednesday averaging 11.7 points per game on a respectable 36.5% from three. If the Thunder can hit on a lottery pick or two in the coming seasons, we could see the next great era of Oklahoma City basketball arrive sooner than expected.
24. New York Knicks
New York’s addition of Derrick Rose drew an expected dose of scorn, though I don’t think this is some sort of disaster waiting to happen. The Knicks could use another playmaker in the backcourt, and it’s unlikely Rose’s arrival will suddenly slash Immanuel Quickley’s minutes. Are the Knicks some lurking contender? No. But the new brain trust appears to be a relatively sensible group, one that understands the importance of developing its crop of young talent. Rose’s arrival could ultimately help Quickley’s development rather than hinder it.
23. Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland’s defense has taken a steep tumble compared to its impressive early-season numbers. The Cavaliers rank No. 27 in defensive rating over their last 10 games, allowing the fifth-most offensive rebounds per game. Things won’t get easier in the coming weeks. Turnover-forcing extraordinaire Larry Nance Jr. is expected to miss over a month due to a finger injury, leaving the Cavaliers to play a twin towers look with Andre Drummond and Jarrett Allen. The results haven’t been encouraging thus far. Until Nance returns, Cleveland’s defense is likely to struggle.
22. Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant has hit a bit of a slump in recent nights. The dynamic second-year guard is shooting just 32.1% from the field in his last four games, tallying a minus-90 in just over 143 minutes. Teams are sagging off Morant without any retribution. A slew of Memphis injuries has only heightened the attention on the young point guard. We aren’t hitting the panic button by any means, but Morant’s skid provides a lesson. Growth in the NBA isn’t always linear. We could see a couple more tough weeks for Morant as Memphis tries to steady the ship.
21. Houston Rockets
The short-handed Rockets were blitzed in a pair of losses over the last two nights, though that doesn’t paint the most accurate portrait of the franchise’s direction at the moment. Houston sports the NBA’s No. 2 defensive rating over the last 12 games, forming a formidable unit with multiple imposing guards and wings. Rookie Jae’Sean Tate sports legitimate All-Defense potential. David Nwaba and John Wall flash moments of elite defensive play. A new identity is forming in Houston after the James Harden trade, one that could define the franchise in the first years of Stephen Silas’s tenure.
20. Charlotte Hornets
Welcome to the starting lineup, LaMelo Ball. Charlotte’s dynamic rookie is averaging 17.2 points per game in his last five contests, including a 24-point, 10-assist performance against the Rockets on Monday night. Ball’s wizardly playmaking has been evident since his opening nights in the NBA. His recent hot-shooting stretch has elevated his game to another level. Ball’s percentages should steady toward league average (or better) in the coming seasons. His confidence at the moment is deeply encouraging. It’s likely we look back on Ball as the best player of his draft class in the coming seasons.
19. New Orleans Pelicans
Speaking of the Ball brothers, the ebbs and flows of Lonzo’s season continues to be fascinating. Ball has rebounded from a rough stretch with strong performances against Phoenix, Indiana and Memphis over the last week, canning 13 of 22 threes in the process. Ball’s performance is often a bellwether for the Pelicans, whose performance can depend on whether he can punish sagging opponents beyond the arc. Ball has been a consistent presence in trade rumors in recent weeks. If he continues his strong play through March, there’s a strong chance New Orleans plays out his contract before this summer’s free agency.
18. Dallas Mavericks
Monday’s win over Minnesota marked a bit of a statement game for Kristaps Porzingis. Dallas’ marquee big man scored 27 points with a quartet of threes, bullying his win to 13 rebounds and six blocks in the process. Porzingis is too often a complementary piece in Dallas for a player of his caliber. His touches can sometimes feel almost compulsory. When Luka Dončić sits, Porzingis should thrive as an offensive focal point. Let’s hope he doesn’t get lost in the shuffle as Dallas looks to climb back into the Western Conference playoff picture.
17. Miami Heat
Miami continues to claw its way back into the playoff race with four wins in its last six contests, though this team remains a ball-handler short if it wants to truly compete for a Finals berth. The tread on Goran Dragic’s tires are beginning to show. Avery Bradley hasn’t been healthy. Jimmy Butler is a reliable offensive initiator in key moments, and Bam Adebayo is an elite playmaker at his position. Yet there’s a palpable lack of urgency and imagination for long stretches. Perhaps Pat Riley can find the right piece to inject some offensive punch before the postseason.
16. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors are clawing back toward the top six of the Eastern Conference with eight wins in their last 13 contests. The relative hot streak has created a murky outlook for their roster in the coming weeks. There’s buzz surrounding Kyle Lowry’s availability at the deadline, though if Toronto continues to climb in the standings, it will be increasingly hard to deal the franchise legend. This isn’t a team devoid of talent. Lowry and Fred VanVleet can still be an elite tandem on the right night, and when healthy, the Siakam-Anunoby-Powell trio produces at an efficient clip. Perhaps this is the nostalgia talking, but I’d be inclined to keep the Lowry era rolling if I’m Masai Ujiri. Barring a shocking offer, making one more Finals run with the current roster is the most prudent path.
15. Sacramento Kings
Well here come the Kings. Sacramento has now won seven of its last nine following a loss to the Sixers on Tuesday, growing from defensive dumpster fire to frisky playoff contender. De’Aaron Fox in particular is on a roll, averaging 31 points per game in a four-game winning streak before Tuesday’s loss to Philadelphia. Read SI’s Michael Pina for more on Fox’s impressive play.
14. Atlanta Hawks
The John Collins trade talk may have been a bit premature over the last few month. Atlanta’s fourth-year forward has been an impressive two-way force this season, leading the Hawks in net rating and effective field goal percentage. The Hawks have the cap space to retain Collins in free agency if his market doesn’t get totally out of control, and when assessing the trade landscape, it’s hard to find a perfect suitor. It’s been a rocky last couple seasons for Collins’s relationship with the franchise. But perhaps things are moving in the right direction. The Wake Forest product could be catching lobs from Trae Young for multiple years down the road.
13. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are in the midst of a difficult stretch entering Wednesday night, dropping five of their last six ahead of a matchup with James Harden and the Nets. Defensive woes have cost Indiana of late. The Pacers are last in the NBA in second-chance points allowed. They’ve given up double-digit offensive rebounds in five straight games, including a season-high 16 against the Jazz on Sunday. The Pacers’ offense isn’t efficient enough to hemorrhage points on the offensive glass. They could slide out of the top-six in the East if the problem persists in the coming months.
12. Portland Trail Blazers
Rodney Hood’s minutes share is increasing as he works his way back from a torn Achilles, and his emergence could provide a major boost for the Blazers. Portland needs to fill both the playmaking and scoring void with C.J. McCollum out, and with limited options on the wing, Hood could be counted on to a sizable degree. Hood showed flashes of his former self with 15 and 16-point performances over the last week, a pair of wins that included a blowout of the 76ers in Philadelphia. Portland continues to battle in the Western Conference playing race, taking any help they can get outside of Damian Lillard’s nightly brilliance.
11. San Antonio Spurs
Dejounte Murray’s production is beginning to match his physical gifts. The fourth-year guard tallied 27 points and 10 rebounds in a win over the Warriors on Monday, adding eight (!) steals in the process. Murray is matching his All-Defense talent with an improving offensive arsenal, leaning on his mid-range game to augment his dynamism in transition. With DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge’s departures on the horizon, Murray is set to be the face of the franchise for years to come.
10. Golden State Warriors
I hesitate to put Steph Curry in the top tier of the MVP race considering the Warriors’ near-.500 record, though we should take a minute to marvel at his brilliance through 25 games. Curry is averaging 29.5 points per game with 48/43/94 shooting splits, and he’s been downright dominant of late. Curry turned in a 38-point effort against Boston on Feb. 2, then dropped 57 on the Mavericks four nights later. There’s no Splash Brother flanking Curry. Kevin Durant is a coast away. All eyes are on Curry each night, and it really doesn’t seem to matter. Appreciate the brilliance while you still have the chance.
9. Denver Nuggets
Michael Porter Jr.’s offensive talent is undeniable, though his recent struggles are growing increasingly frustrating for Denver. Porter is just 9-30 from the field in his last three games, and his shot selection in Denver’s loss to Milwaukee drew criticism from Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets’ offense is designed to be an egalitarian attack, one in which the ball darts around the floor until the right shot is found. Porter is failing to be a helpful cog in such a machine. Perhaps a new location is necessary to bring Porter from tantalizing talent to potential All-Star.
8. Brooklyn Nets
Jeff Green has reprised his role as a small-ball center in Brooklyn to impressive results through 26 games. Green enters Wednesday averaging 9.2 points per game on 43.3% from three, and he's dangerous off bounce for a player of his size. Green earned a reputation early in his career as a mercurial personality, one who wasn’t exactly the most bankable option night-to-night. He’s been downright steady in Brooklyn, helping solidify a frontcourt rotation that’s largely been in disarray in 2020–21.
7. Boston Celtics
The Celtics have a hefty trade exception ready to be deployed before the trade deadline, and Danny Ainge is all-but-guaranteed to use it ahead of the 2021 playoffs. But where exactly will Ainge look to upgrade his roster? There are a few intriguing options. Ainge could eye a top-end center like Andre Drummond, though it’s likely he pursues a player with more positional flexibility. P.J. Tucker and Tim Hardaway Jr. are wing options that won’t cost significant pick capital. Harrison Barnes could be a nice addition, though he is owed $38 million over the next two seasons after 2020–21. The Celtics as currently constituted feel a piece short of true Finals contention. That could change in a hurry if Ainge can find an impact acquisition before the trade deadline.
6. Phoenix Suns
Mikal Bridges’s breakout continues to be one of the more delightful subplots of the 2020–21 season. Phoenix’s third-year forward has jumped to 14.4 points per game this season, and he tallied 22 points in a win over the Cavaliers on Monday. Bridges is a true two-way force. He often guards the opponent’s best player, and his offensive profile seems to grow by the week. Bridges is a menace in transition. His mid-range game continues to impress. After a decade of incompetence, the Suns appear to be on a sustainable path. Bridges is a major reason why.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
Is it possible for a $190 million to be underrated? Khris Middleton is making a pretty worthwhile case. Milwaukee’s forward has been one of the league’s steadiest producers since 2019, averaging 20.9 points per game over the last two seasons with Curry-esque 50/42/92 shooting splits. Middleton nearly posted a triple-double in a 29-point effort against the Nuggets on Monday, looking like a partner-in-crime alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo rather than a sidekick. Antetokounmpo’s decision to extend his contract was a show of faith regarding Milwaukee’s supporting cast. Middleton has rewarded that faith with ease thus far in 2020–21.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers could use a backcourt shakeup before the postseason. Patrick Beverley has been hampered by knee trouble this season, and the Lou Williams-Reggie Jackson combination isn’t exactly scaring opponents in the postseason. Los Angeles struggles in the NBA bubble can in part be attributed to their point guard play, and despite some offseason tinkering to the roster, their backcourt still feels a piece short. Expect the Clippers to be active at the deadline, with Kyle Lowry standing as the most intriguing piece potentially on the market.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers offense occasionally enters what I’d call the clogged-toilet zone, but it’s hard to quibble too much at the roster construction when you consider Philadelphia’s dominant defense. Ben Simmons leads the NBA in deflections. Matisse Thybulle has the most steals and deflections of any player per-36 minutes. The Sixers are long on the wing and sturdy up front. Their rotation is 11 deep. Warts and all, Philadelphia has a real claim as the Eastern Conference favorite.
2. Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell was downright masterful down the stretch of Utah’s win over Boston on Tuesday. Mitchell finished the night with 36 points and nine assists, and he scored or assisted on each of the Jazz’s final 18 points down the stretch. Mitchell sports the mentality of a true superstar. He’s everything you want as a franchise anchor from a personality and leadership standpoint. Is he talented enough to lead a team to a Finals berth? Time will tell. 2021 marks the best chance of his career to date.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are cruising in their title defense largely thanks to the brilliance of LeBron James, but we shouldn’t discount James’s impressive supporting cast. Dennis Schroder has fit right in as a secondary ball-handler. Kyle Kuzma continues to make strides on the defensive end. Talen Horton-Tucker is now a quality rotation piece, one who could earn a significant payday this summer. The Lakers didn’t stand pat after winning the 2020 Finals. They reformed their roster, arming James with an array of complementary pieces. Rob Pelinka once again deserves credit as Los Angeles eyes back-to-back titles.