The crowd of skeptics regarding Brooklyn following the James Harden trade appears to be thinning out by the week, and rightly so.
The Nets dominated a slate of Western Conference contenders in a 5–0 road trip last week, capping their impressive run with a narrow win over Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers. Harden has been masterful since joining Brooklyn. Kyrie Irving is in the midst of a career-best stretch. DeAndre Jordan came to life on Sunday, and Bruce Brown continues to provide solid minutes in the starting lineup. This is the best the Nets have looked all year, and Kevin Durant hasn’t played in 10 days. If this defense plays near league average in the playoffs, it’s hard to see any Eastern Conference team knocking off Brooklyn’s Big Three.
Let’s dive into this week’s Power Rankings, featuring notes on all 30 teams.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves
I won’t pretend this is the most original take, but it remains disappointing that David Vanterpool didn’t even get a chance to lead the Timberwolves on an interim basis after Ryan Saunders’s dismissal. Vanterpool is one of the league’s most respected assistants. He logged nearly a decade in Portland, and he’s served as Minnesota’s defensive coordinator this season. Similar to Eric Bienemy in the NFL, this situation isn’t even about Vanterpool specifically. The lack of Black coaches in the NBA is a legitimate problem, one that requires structural reform from the league office.
29. Detroit Pistons
Dennis Smith Jr. could receive some significant playing time with Delon Wright out of the lineup, but the former lottery pick hasn’t exactly shined thus far on his third NBA team in four seasons. Smith went 0–7 from the field in Friday’s loss to Memphis, and he then logged just 15 minutes in Sunday’s loss to the Magic. Smith is an impressive athlete. He’s little more at this point in his career. Detroit is better served seeing what it has in rookie guard Saben Lee as the All-Star break approaches.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers
The wheels have fallen off in Cleveland, with the Cavaliers entering Tuesday night on a 10-game losing streak. Their bench was outscored 42–9 in Sunday’s loss to the Thunder, and the reinforcements outside of J.B. Bickerstaff’s starting five aren’t exactly imposing with Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr., Taurean Prince and Andre Drummond all out of the lineup. One silver lining? Center Jarrett Allen scored 26 points on 11–11 from the field on Sunday, adding 17 rebounds against Oklahoma City. There’s still some hope for this franchise considering the solid crop of young talent on hand. Allen should be a quality pick-and-roll partner alongside Darius Garland and Collin Sexton for years to come.
27. Sacramento Kings
Sacramento continues to slide down the Western Conference standings, losing seven straight after Sunday’s defeat against Giannis and the Bucks. And the usual stream of defensive woes continues to harm Luke Walton’s squad. There’s a startling lack of activity from Hassan Whiteside and Marvin Bagley III in the frontcourt. Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox create quite the diminutive backcourt duo. Harden and the Nets host the Kings on Tuesday, and Sacramento faces the Lakers and Blazers directly before the All-Star break. The slide could very well continue for Luke Walton’s squad barring a personnel change in the coming weeks.
26. Houston Rockets
The Rockets are likely to part ways with DeMarcus Cousins sooner than later, and the split isn’t exactly a shocker. Houston is minus-3.4 points per 100 possessions with Cousins on the floor this season, and his shooting efficiency has plummeted to a concerning degree. Cousins is a poor defensive big. He’s lost considerable mobility and lift. We shouldn’t pile on here considering Cousins’s arduous journey back from a torn ACL, but his days as an NBA contributor may be numbered.
25. Washington Wizards
The Wizards are creeping toward respectability after a truly dismal start, ripping off five straight wins entering Tuesday night. Perhaps Washington can continue to trend in the right direction in the coming weeks. Russell Westbrook is beginning to look more like his pre-bubble self after a 32-point performance against the Lakers, and Davis Bertans is beginning to find its shooting stroke. This is a relatively competitive roster when healthy. The No. 10 seed isn’t completely out of the question just yet for Westbrook & Co.
24. Orlando Magic
Three players this season are averaging at least 23 points and 11 rebounds per game while shooting 40% from three. Two are MVP candidates. The other is Nikola Vucevic. Now this isn’t to say the Swiss center is anywhere close to Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokić as a player, but Vucevic’s dominant offensive season deserves some serious praise. Vucevic tallied 30 points and 16 boards in a win over the Warriors on Friday. He dropped 37 on Detroit on Sunday. Vucevic is good enough to be the anchor for a postseason team. It’s a shame his supporting cast is so poor.
23. Oklahoma City Thunder
Al Horford has seen a minor renaissance in Oklahoma City, looking more spry and athletic than he did in his final year with the 76ers. And as Horford shows flashes of his former self, perhaps it’s worth examining his trade market as the March 25 deadline approaches. Horford’s former team in Boston could certainly use a frontcourt upgrade, as could the surging Raptors. Will anyone actually bite on a Horford deal considering his hefty contract through 2022–23? Perhaps not. But expect Sam Presti to engage in at least some exploratory trade talks before the deadline.
22. Chicago Bulls
It remains in question whether Zach LaVine will in fact earn an All-Star nod on Tuesday night, but the Bulls guard is certainly a deserving candidate. LaVine ranks sixth in the NBA in scoring in 2020–21, posting 51/43/86 shooting splits along with a career-high in assists. No player has scored more clutch points this season. Only Joel Embiid sports a better shooting percentage among players averaging more than 28 points per game. LaVine’s scoring in previous seasons was little more than empty calories. That’s no longer the case. It may have taken longer than Chicago had hoped, but the Bulls should feel comfortable tabbing LaVine as their leading man in the coming seasons.
21. New Orleans Pelicans
New Orleans’s defense has been downright dismal for much of 2020–21, with the Pelicans entering Tuesday night at No. 29 in defensive rating. But perhaps Sunday’s win over the Celtics will mark a turning point. New Orleans limited Boston to just 36 points in the game’s final 23 minutes, holding Jayson Tatum & Co. to just 32% shooting in the process. This isn’t a team completely bereft of defensive talent. Lonzo Ball could challenge for an All-Defense honor during his career, and Josh Hart is another skilled defender in the backcourt. The play-in tournament is still a possibility if New Orleans can trend anywhere close to average defensively.
20. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks didn’t exactly veil their wishes to return to the playoffs ahead of 2020–21, and such a goal wasn’t out of the question entering Trae Young’s third season. But ownership’s push for relevance may have proved counterproductive. The Hawks shelled out big-money contracts to Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, the latter of which is looking a touch disastrous at the moment. Gallinari’s shooting numbers have taken a dive in his 12th season. His free throw rate continues to tumble. As extensions for De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter loom, committing major money to Gallinari appears increasingly shortsighted.
19. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies’ roster has the outline of a future playoff team, but it’s hard to see them reaching the postseason without growth from Ja Morant as a perimeter shooter. Memphis’s dynamic point guard is shooting a dismal 22% from three this season, including an 0–14 stretch in his last four games. Morant’s jumper isn’t necessarily broken. He still shoots with relative confidence. But the reigning Rookie of the Year will continue to face a stream of sagging defenses until he makes them pay from beyond the arc.
18. New York Knicks
RJ Barrett is in the midst of a solid stretch, averaging 19 points per game on 51.1% from the field in his last three contests. Yet despite the solid numbers, his minutes have dipped for much of February. Let’s hope Tom Thibodeau reverses course and lets Barrett play through any growing pains. The Duke product continues to be an imposing force around the rim, and he’s developing a greater feel as a pick-and-roll passer despite paltry assist totals. Is Barrett even near the same tier as Ja Morant or Zion Williamson? Not exactly. But the former No. 3 pick is still an emerging talent. With the right point guard alongside him, Barrett could thrive as a two-way wing for years to come.
17. Miami Heat
The Heat continue to sit outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture after a disappointing West Coast trip, but you can’t pin the blame on Jimmy Butler. Miami’s leading man has been relatively dominant since returning to the floor on Jan. 30, averaging 21 points, nine rebounds and 8.7 assists in his last 12 games. This isn’t a case of compiling, either. Butler is the true focal point of Miami’s attack, grinding out possessions alongside an often-hampered supporting cast. The Heat have taken a serious step back from their Finals heights last year. But I’m still not quite ready to rule them out in the Eastern Conference. With Butler leading the way, Miami is one opponent nobody wants to face in the postseason.
16. Charlotte Hornets
Gordon Hayward is in a similar spot as Zach LaVine amid a crowded crop of All-Star contenders, and like LaVine, Hayward has a worthy candidacy. Charlotte’s big-money addition over the offseason has been better than advertised, averaging 21.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game on a career-high 43.2% from three. Hayward has fit in seamlessly with the Hornets’ young roster. He can thrive as a scoring wing when LaMelo Ball runs the show, and when Ball sits, Hayward is more than adept at seizing point guard responsibilities. After years of mismanagement, it looks like Charlotte hit the jackpot this offseason with the Hayward-Ball pairing.
15. Dallas Mavericks
Dallas has won five of its last six games, and the best is likely still to come for Luka Doncic & Co. The Mavericks have been decimated by COVID-19 absences and various injuries this season, with Dorian Finney-Smith, Kristaps Porzingis and Maxi Kleber all missing significant time. Doncic’s three-point shooting is trending in the right direction. The Josh Richardson addition has paid defensive dividends. Don’t assume this team is destined for the play-in tournament, even in the stacked Western Conference.
14. Indiana Pacers
Myles Turner has served as an impressive shot blocker and quality spacer for the Pacers this season, yet his biggest impact has come off the floor. Turner helped raise over $75,000 over the last week in a fundraising campaign to help his home state of Texas, bringing much-needed relief as the state handles the aftermath of a brutal winter storm. The former Longhorn deserves some serious praise as he (and others) lend a helping hand to those in need.
13. Boston Celtics
The Celtics are 7–12 since Kemba Walker returned to the lineup in mid-January, and their point guard continues to struggle as Boston trends toward mediocrity. Walker went just 5–21 from the field in Sunday’s disastrous loss to the Pelicans. He’s shooting just 37.1% from the field in his last 15 games, and his assist percentage is now at a career low. Boston can’t afford for Walker to continue struggling considering its depth issues.
12. San Antonio Spurs
Wednesday will mark San Antonio’s first game in over a week due to the COVID-19 protocols, but Gregg Popovich’s squad won’t be at full strength against Oklahoma City. The Spurs will have to manage a thinned rotation with Rudy Gay, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell and Derrick White sidelined, marking yet another 2020–21 contest littered with absences. The Spurs have largely been cruising thus far as they enter Wednesday night at 16–11. Navigating the four games before the All-Star break is likely their toughest challenge yet.
11. Golden State Warriors
James Wiseman could return to the lineup for Golden State on Tuesday as he looks to resume a promising rookie campaign. Wiseman has yet to make the impact LaMelo Ball has at the NBA level, though perhaps his stock could be on the rise in the coming weeks. Wiseman is an athletic marvel above the rim in the pick-and-roll, and his athleticism both protecting the paint and on an island is impressive. Wiseman still has a tendency to get lost on rotations. His jumper can charitably be described as nascent. But Draymond Green’s tutelage and Steph Curry’s gravity should help matters. Don’t be shocked if Wiseman is a key piece for Golden State in Round 1 of the playoffs.
10. Toronto Raptors
Don’t look now but here come the Raptors. Toronto has won seven of its last 10, climbing over .500 with Sunday’s victory over the Sixers. Norman Powell has been a major force behind the Raptors’ rise. The sixth-year guard is averaging 22 points per game since becoming a starter in late January, shooting 51.4% from the field and a blistering 46.2% from three. Perhaps Pascal Siakam isn’t a fully developed leading man, but he’s surrounded with plenty of scoring punch as Toronto lurks as an Eastern Conference contender.
9. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets don’t look anything near a conference finals team at the moment. Denver has dropped three of its last four, allowing 123 points against the Hawks on Sunday four days after a 130–128 loss to the Wizards. Michael Porter Jr. was benched in the fourth quarter against Atlanta. Jamal Murray appears increasingly frustrated. We won’t hit the panic button quite yet, though it seems like Denver is destined for a step back in 2020–21.
8. Portland Trail Blazers
I’ll side with Luka Doncic regarding Damian Lillard’s omission from the list of All-Star starters. Lillard has catapulted himself into the MVP discussion with a torrid stretch of late, averaging 31.9 points and 9.1 assists per game in his last 11 contests prior to Monday night. Lillard is the NBA’s preeminent closer. He’s among the most prolific three-point shooters in league history. Let’s give Lillard the respect he deserves as he carries Portland during C.J. McCollum’s absence.
7. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks’ depth looks increasingly shaky by the week, and their problems are exacerbated without Jrue Holiday’s steady hand at point guard. Bobby Portis and DJ Augustin are sharing a jarring share of playmaking duties for a supposed title contender, and Brook Lopez continues to look diminished compared to his impressive 2018–19 season. Perhaps Holiday will return and Milwaukee will sprint to the No. 1 seed. But that doesn’t necessarily portend playoff success. The Bucks still feel at least one piece away from being considered the favorite in the Eastern Conference.
6. Phoenix Suns
Is it time to consider Phoenix as a contender for the Western Conference crown? The Suns have defeated the Celtics, 76ers and Blazers in February, blowing Portland out of the gym on Monday night. Chris Paul continues to be a true maestro, and the cast of young talent flanking Paul and Devin Booker continues to impress. Both Los Angeles squads and Utah are still better bets to win the West at the moment. But none of the aforementioned trio is a lock to advance past the Suns in a series. Phoenix’s resurgence after a dormant decade marks one of the best stories of the season.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
Joel Embiid said he was “unguardable” following his 50-point outburst against the Bulls over the weekend, and frankly, Philadelphia’s center may be right. Embiid is averaging a career-high 30.3 points per game on absurd 53/39/85 shooting splits, dominating nearly every defensive coverage in sight. Embiid is shooting 53% on midrange jumpers. He’s averaging 1.09 points per post-up possession. In a competitive MVP race, Embiid should be considered the current favorite.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers’ offense has looked clogged in matchups as of late, a natural consequence of Anthony Davis and Dennis Schroder’s absences from the lineup. Los Angeles shot just under 25% on catch-and-shoot threes in the five games before Monday night, with Saturday’s win over the Heat featuring a 13–45 mark from three. The Lakers are just fine long-term as they look to repeat. But we’ll likely see this group slog it out offensively until the All-Star break.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Paul George’s health come playoff time is of peak importance to the Clippers, though it was still frustrating to see him sit out the final three minutes against the Nets on Sunday night. George tallied 34 points in his first 32 minutes, and his 12 points in the fourth quarter set the stage for a thrilling finish at Staples Center. But in the final possessions, a minutes restriction kept him on the bench. After last year’s bubble meltdown, wouldn’t it be beneficial for George to log as many crunch-time possessions as possible? Los Angeles’s decision with George on Sunday remains perplexing.
2. Brooklyn Nets
James Harden is in the midst of another otherworldly stretch, averaging 31.8 points and 10.8 assists in the final four games of Brooklyn’s West Coast road trip. Harden poured 37 points on the Clippers on Sunday night, and he carried the Nets to a comeback win in Phoenix with a dominant fourth quarter earlier in the week. Harden is on pace to bookend three straight scoring titles with a pair of assist titles, a feat (of course) never before achieved in league history. Harden is among the most talented offensive forces of all time. It’s time we recognize him as such.
1. Utah Jazz
Utah just keeps humming along, winning 21 of its last 23 as it grows its lead over the rest of the Western Conference. The Jazz blitzed Charlotte from deep on Monday night, draining 28 threes in a 132–110 win over the Hornets. Utah’s three-headed monster in the backcourt is thriving. Rudy Gobert remains an All-NBA force. The Jazz were written off as a title contender entering 2020–21 after their bubble disappointment and superstar spat. Their growth and subsequent dominance are a testament to the program built by Quin Snyder in recent years.