The conditions appeared ripe for a good-old-fashioned tank in New York entering 2020–21. The Knicks held off on a spending spree in last year’s free agency, turning the keys over to Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle for what could have been another ugly year at Madison Square Garden. But the Knicks have been anything but cellar dwellers thus far.
New York advanced to 14–15 on the season with Monday’s win over the Hawks, good for sole possession of the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference. And the Knicks’ current pace looks relatively sustainable. Randle has been a revelation. RJ Barrett is making strides as a playmaker. Rookie Immanuel Quickley is already a fan favorite, and he could be a franchise anchor for years to come. After a near-decade of misery in The Mecca, perhaps the Knicks are beginning to turn the corner.
With optimism abound in New York, let’s dive into this week’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves
Anthony Edwards’s development in recent weeks is encouraging for the Timberwolves amid a slew of losses. The 2020 No. 1 pick has rebounded from an ugly start to average 18.4 points per game on 45% shooting in his last five contests, tallying three 20-point performances. Edwards’s athleticism is truly elite. He has a better field of vision as a passer and playmaker than many give him credit for, and his shooting efficiency should take a natural jump in the coming seasons. LaMelo Ball looks like the jewel of the rookie class thus far. But Edwards could close the gap if he refines the rougher edges of his game.
29. Detroit Pistons
Josh Jackson may be in the midst of a career revival as he finds minutes in Detroit’s rotation. The former No. 4 pick is averaging 18.1 points per game on 48.9% shooting in February, playing a key role as Detroit ripped off three wins in its last four contests. Jackson was jettisoned from Phoenix after just two seasons, and his brief stint in Memphis last season was one to forget. Perhaps he’s found a home in Detroit as the Pistons look to claw their way out of last in the Eastern Conference.
28. Washington Wizards
Davis Bertans quickly seized the mantle of “top offseason overpay” after receiving a five-year, $80 million deal from the Wizards last summer. Bertans limped out of the gate with a 32% mark from three in his first 15 games, and a two-week COVID-19 absence further derailed his 2020–21 season. Perhaps Monday night will mark a turning point. Bertans scored 18 points off the bench in a double-digit win over the Rockets, draining five of six threes in the process. There’s not much reason for optimism in the nation’s capital at the moment. Bertans’s effort on Monday provided a rare bright spot as Washington tries to right the ship.
27. Orlando Magic
Are we going to see even flashes of strong play from Mo Bamba before it’s too late? The No. 6 pick in the 2018 draft is averaging just 8.6 points per game this season, going just 4–14 from the field in his last three games. Bamba isn’t exactly a physical presence at the five. He’s not necessarily skilled enough to play the four. Gary Clark and Khem Birch are earning rotation minutes over Bamba at this point, which—all due respect to them—is quite the discouraging sign for the Texas product. Bamba’s size and range suggested he could be an impact NBA player after one year in Austin. Those projections have yet to come to fruition midway through Bamba’s third season.
26. Cleveland Cavaliers
Andre Drummond will be sidelined until the Cavaliers find a trade partner for the veteran center, though considering Drummond’s $28.8 million salary, that could be a difficult task for Koby Altman and company. The Raptors will have a hard time matching salaries. Ditto for the Nets. The Celtics have a massive trade exception that could help facilitate a deal, though it appears as though Danny Ainge is searching for a big with more offensive versatility. It’s not out of the question that we see Drummond relegated to the buyout market if Cleveland can’t find a suitor in the coming months.
25. Chicago Bulls
It’s likely Zach LaVine falls short of earning an All-Star nod, though we should take a moment to highlight his impressive 2020–21. LaVine is averaging a career-high 28.1 points and 5.3 assists per game this season, emerging as more of a true fulcrum than an out-of-system chucker. Only three players have scored more points in clutch situations this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only other player with at least 700 points to shoot over 50% from the field. LaVine has always been a tantalizing talent. He’s starting to realize his potential despite another subpar season in Chicago.
24. Sacramento Kings
Perhaps the Kings aren’t turning the corner after all. Sacramento followed a three-game-winning streak with a quartet of losses, sinking back to last in defensive rating in the process. The Kings’ frontcourt rotation is perilously thin. Buddy Hield’s efficiency has fallen off a cliff. De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton are the backcourt of the future, yet despite their respective strong seasons, this looks like another lost year in Sacramento.
23. Houston Rockets
The Rockets just don’t have a sufficient crop of scorers with Christian Wood out of the lineup. John Wall is more of a leading playmaker than a true scoring dynamo. Victor Oladipo can only take over the game in spurts. The pair of guards have only shared 121 minutes on the floor due to minor injuries and precautionary rest, and even when the two play together, Houston still sports an ugly 99.2 offensive rating. PJ Tucker’s scoring has fallen off a cliff. Danuel House and Jae’Sean Tate are secondary pieces. The Rockets acquitted themselves well in the James Harden trade, though they’re quickly learning just how tough life can be without perhaps the greatest scorer of his era.
22. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are striking a perfect balance in 2020–21 as they dive headfirst into a rebuild. Oklahoma City enters Tuesday night No. 14 in the Western Conference at 11–15, but Mark Daigneault’s squad is anything but a pushover. The Thunder defeated Milwaukee on Sunday. They took the Lakers to overtime twice the week before, and they nearly knocked off the Nuggets on Feb. 12. Oklahoma City has a true franchise anchor in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. They could have multiple lottery picks depending on the Heat’s finish. Sam Presti has done a masterful job of asset accumulation in recent seasons, setting the Thunder on a path to sustained success for much of the 2020s.
21. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks have lost seven of their last eight, adding further intrigue to the John Collins situation. Atlanta and Collins failed to come to an extension agreement before the season, but even with his free agency looming, it was likely Collins would stay in Atlanta through 2020–21 as the Hawks desperately pushed to end a three-year playoff drought. Atlanta now enters Tuesday at No. 11 in the East, with a difficult path to a top-six seed. Will the Hawks hold onto Collins even if they face a potential play-in elimination? Barring a quality first-round pick in return, that appears to be the most likely scenario.
20. Memphis Grizzlies
Jonas Valanciunas is in the midst of a strong scoring stretch, adding a 25-point night in Sunday’s win over the Kings. And the nine-year veteran flashed a major mean streak against Sacramento. Valanciunas responded to a taunt from Kings big man Chimezie Metu with a revenge slam of his own, placing his weight on Cory Joseph following the dunk. Was it the cleanest play in the world from Valanciunas? Not exactly. But his energy and aggression were palpable on Sunday night. Taylor Jenkins continues to get the most out of the talent on hand as the Grizzlies eye a playoff spot in a crowded Western Conference.
19. New Orleans Pelicans
Zion Williamson continues to look more like an unstoppable offensive force by the week. New Orleans’ young star made his first 10 shots in a 36-point effort against Dallas on Feb. 12, his best performance in an 11-game stretch in which he shot 64.6% (!) from the floor. Williamson is an absolute bully near the rim. His second jump is unmatched across the league. He’s even darting his way past the game’s more mobile forwards, using a sudden first step to burst his way to easy dunks and layups. New Orleans has lost three straight, with a trip to the postseason looking increasingly unlikely. But don’t blame Williamson. He’s scoring on any defender in sight, looking like a true No. 1 pick as he finds his footing in the NBA.
18. Toronto Raptors
Pascal Siakam is returning to his All-Star form after a shaky start to the 2020–21 season. Toronto’s fifth-year forward is averaging 24.6 points in his last nine games, tallying at least six assists in four of those contests. Siakam has long been a force in transition. His spin move in the half-court deserves its own patent. But it’s his progression as a playmaker that’s most important to Toronto’s long-term future. As the Kyle Lowry era potentially comes to an end after this season, Siakam will increasingly be counted on to run the show alongside Fred VanVleet.
17. Dallas Mavericks
Luka Doncic’s game-tying three-pointer rimmed out on Sunday night, ending his performance against Portland with 44 points on 14–20 shooting. The effort was another highlight in a career full of them for Doncic in his first three seasons. And the statistical résumé to date is downright jarring. Just six players over the last three seasons have scored more points. Only seven have tallied more assists. Doncic has more rebounds than Anthony Davis in the last two seasons, and he’s drained more threes than Bradley Beal and Paul George. It’s (obviously) incredibly early in what we hope to be a lengthy career. But if Doncic stays healthy, we could see him retire with the most impressive stats in league history.
16. New York Knicks
I don’t care who needs to be snubbed, Julius Randle deserves to be in the All-Star Game. New York’s forward is in the midst of a career season as the Knicks sit at No. 6 in the Eastern Conference, averaging 22.4 points, 11.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. Randle turned in perhaps his magnum opus on Monday. The Kentucky product torched the Hawks with 44 points and nine rebounds, draining seven threes in New York’s third straight win. Is Randle’s torrid start sustainable throughout 2020–21? Perhaps not. But why rain on the Knicks’ parade? Randle and company are exceeding expectations to a serious degree, standing as legitimate playoff contenders in the first year of the Tom Thibodeau era.
15. Miami Heat
Duncan Robinson’s three-point volume has taken a dip over the last 10 games, a natural result of increased defensive attention compared to his rookie season. Teams are sniffing out handoffs involving Robinson with significant urgency. Weakside defenders would rather allow a layup than leave the sharpshooting forward in the corner. Robinson’s sheer offensive gravity is pivotal for Miami, but Erik Spoelstra and company will need to get creative if they want to see a scoring outburst at some point in the coming weeks.
14. Charlotte Hornets
Gordon Hayward could be out of the lineup for a few games, giving head coach James Borrego a chance to ride Charlotte’s dynamic three-guard lineup. The trio of Devonte’ Graham, Terry Rozier and LaMelo Ball have outscored opponents by over 21 points per 100 possessions in limited minutes thus far, flashing complementary skill sets that could lead to long-term success. Ball’s talents frankly mesh with any player, and paired with scorers like Graham and Rozier, this could actually be a reliable lineup throughout 2020–21.
13. Indiana Pacers
T.J. McConnell tallied 12 assists in Indiana’s comeback win over the Hawks on Saturday, continuing an impressive season for the Pacers’ backup guard. McConnell leads all Indiana players in net rating and assist percentage, and units featuring McConnell and Malcolm Brogdon are outsourcing teams by 11 points per 100 possessions. Don’t let a lack of scoring prowess fool you. The former Process Sixers icon is a key backcourt piece in Indiana.
12. Boston Celtics
What exactly is plaguing the Celtics? Boston has lost four of five entering Tuesday’s matchup with the Nuggets, dropping games against Eastern Conference bottom-feeders Detroit and Washington in the process. The Celtics loafed through Sunday’s loss to the Wizards. Jayson Tatum is in the midst of an ugly shooting month. We shouldn’t exactly hit the panic button here, though there is a palpable lack of scoring punch from Brad Stevens’s squad. With a diminished Kemba Walker and a shaky bench rotation, it’s hard to see Boston making a Finals run without an impact addition.
11. Golden State Warriors
Oakland native Juan Toscano-Anderson has made the most of his increased role with the Warriors in recent nights. The second-year forward is a versatile defensive piece in a shorthanded Golden State rotation, and he’s shooting 51.8% from the field in February. Toscano-Anderson’s energy is infectious. He’s a heady passer, and his defensive instincts are better than his lack of experience would suggest. Let’s hope to see Toscano-Anderson earn a guaranteed contract with his hometown team in the coming weeks.
10. San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio has won five of its last six, and the youth movement has been on full display in recent nights. Dejounte Murray and Derrick White combined for 51 points in Sunday’s win over the Hornets, and the Spurs also drew double-digit scoring efforts from Lonnie Walker and Keldon Johnson. Drafting Tim Duncan in 1997 put the Spurs on a path to decades of dominance, but it was the nonlottery picks of Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker that kept the dynasty alive. We won’t give the Spurs another Larry O’Brien Trophy quite yet, though the recent late first rounders could spark a new playoff streak in San Antonio.
9. Portland Trail Blazers
Any Carmelo Anthony hot streak should be cherished at this point in his career, and we were treated to a string of them over the last week. Anthony has turned in four 20-point performances in his last six games, including a 24-point effort in a comeback win over the Sixers on Feb. 11. As the Blazers deal with C.J. McCollum’s absence, Anthony has become an integral piece. His latest career chapter continues to satisfy after shaky stints in Oklahoma City and Houston.
8. Denver Nuggets
Facu Campazzo turned in his best NBA performance to date in Sunday’s win over the Lakers, tallying 15 points and four assists in a blowout victory. And frankly, the stat line is almost immaterial. The more Facu the better as far as I’m concerned.
7. Brooklyn Nets
Kyrie Irving has endorsed at least one dubious theory in recent years, but his assessment of Brooklyn’s backcourt on Saturday was notably accurate.
“I feel like [James Harden] been doing a great job of just managing the point guard role,” Irving said after a blowout win over the Warriors. “We established that maybe four days ago. I just looked at him and I said, ‘You’re the point guard, and I’m going to play shooting guard.’ That was as simple as that.”
Brooklyn should hope Irving heeds his own words in the postseason. The Nets are at their peak efficiency with Harden running the show, placing one of the great playmakers of his era with a pair of elite shotmakers. Harden is far from the points-chasing chucker many deride him as. He’s a true genius with the ball in his hands, able to leverage his gravity to create easy looks for his teammates. Clint Capela feasted on lobs with Harden running the show in Houston. A stream of stationary shooters posted career years. It could be scary hours indeed if Irving embraces his role as a secondary playmaker in the coming months.
6. Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee’s 125–124 loss in Phoenix last week pretty much encapsulated the Giannis Antetokounmpo experience in recent years. The two-time MVP bullied his way to 47 points and 11 rebounds against the Suns, bruising his way past Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and poor Frank Kaminsky for a stream of layups and dunks. But Antetokounmpo’s dominance ended in the final seconds. He clanked a jumper from the free throw line as time expired, missing a wide-open Khris Middleton in the process. It’s good to see Antetokounmpo have enough confidence in his jumper to attempt the game winner. But less than adequate efficiency outside the lane will continue to pose a major problem for Milwaukee, especially in the postseason.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons has played at an All-NBA level throughout Philadelphia’s recent road trip. The Sixers’ point forward tallied 23 points and 11 rebounds in a narrow loss to the Blazers on Feb. 11, hounding Damian Lillard as Portland’s star point guard finished just 6–21 from the field. Monday night featured Simmons at his offensive best. He finished the night with 42 points on 15–26 shooting, carrying the scoring load with Joel Embiid out of the lineup. Simmons is a peculiar talent to say the least. Yet his lack of a jumper is anything but an NBA death sentence. Simmons continues to grow more comfortable by the week, looking like a true long-term partner for Embiid in Philadelphia.
4. Phoenix Suns
The Suns enter Tuesday as winners of six straight, riding a dominant stretch from Devin Booker to sit No. 4 in the Western Conference. Booker scored 36 in a win over the Cavaliers on Feb. 8, and he then scored 36 again to beat the Sixers five days later. Booker had to adjust to a dampened playmaking load early in 2020–21, finding his role in the offense as Chris Paul domineered possessions. Though as the All-Star Game approaches, Booker is hitting his stride. One of the game’s premier scorers could shoot his way into the All-NBA conversation by the time the postseason arrives.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have received plenty of production from their pair of veteran point guards as of late. Patrick Beverley is pairing his usual dogged defense with a 43.6% mark from three, while Lou Williams has rebounded from a sluggish start with 22 points per game in his last six contests. Neither Williams nor Beverley is necessarily a true point guard. Each sports his own deficiencies. But when healthy, this is certainly a quality duo. Perhaps Los Angeles doesn’t need a point guard upgrade before the deadline after all.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokić may put up more impressive stat lines in 2020–21, but this feels like LeBron James’s award to lose as we approach the All-Star break. James has led the Lakers to a dominant 21–7 start in their title defense, leading the way with or without Anthony Davis on the floor. Previous LeBron teams have loafed through the regular season, punting on the No. 1 seed amid sluggish performances against the dregs of the league. This year is far different. James carried Los Angeles to a pair of overtime wins over the Thunder last week, draining clutch shots both at the end of regulation and in overtime. James’s heroics have marked some of the highlights of the season thus far. If the Lakers snag a top-two seed in the West, it’s hard to imagine voters denying him a fifth MVP.
1. Utah Jazz
Utah has three players up for All-Star consideration this season, including a pair of standout point guards. Yet on the right night, neither Donovan Mitchell nor Mike Conley is the best backcourt player in Salt Lake City. Jordan Clarkson went on one of his patented scoring binges in Monday’s win over the Sixers, scoring 40 points on 13–20 shooting. Clarkson can be near-unstoppable when he’s on a hot streak, draining triples and finishing over even the most imposing bigs. Perhaps Clarkson will flash his scoring brilliance for Utah in a key spot this postseason.