With the Warriors dynasty now comfortably in the rearview mirror, a new question has loomed over the NBA for much of the last two seasons: Who exactly is the best team in the league?
The Lakers didn’t earn their respect until the 2020 Finals after the Clippers and Bucks faded in the bubble. The Lakers entered 2020–21 as the prohibitive favorites, yet as we approach the All-Star break, it’s hard to declare LeBron & Co. undisputed favorites. A certain Big Three loom in Brooklyn. A potential MVP center is dominating in Philadelphia. The Lakers’ Staples Center rival remains a title contender, as does a regular-season juggernaut in Utah. There’s little telling what will happen across the league in the coming months, but the array of championship challengers is a healthy trend for the league. A second-straight Larry O’Brien Trophy is anything but guaranteed for the Lakers as the All-Star break approaches.
Let’s dive into this week’s power rankings as we sift through the title race with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves have dropped seven straight games, four of which came with Chris Finch manning the bench. And based on recent reports, there isn’t much reason for optimism in the Twin Cities. Take it from Ricky Rubio.
“We have to build good habits from day one, and I don’t think we are in the right way, to be honest,” Rubio said after a blowout loss to Phoenix on Sunday. “I can be here and be positive like we’re trying to be and it’s O.K. But we have the worst record in the league. We lost way too many games by 20-plus, and I don’t feel like this is building something. It’s hard.”
Yikes. Minnesota was a playoff longshot entering the season, yet we didn’t expect the Timberwolves to be so noncompetitive, especially before the All-Star break. Finch has an uphill climb ahead of him as his team searches for any semblance of identity moving forward.
29. Detroit Pistons
Detroit has lost six of its last seven entering Tuesday night, currently sitting last in the Eastern Conference at 9–25. Though despite the dismal season, there is some intriguing young talent on the roster. Jerami Grant is a worthy top option. Rookies Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart look to be bankable rotation pieces, and fellow rookie Saben Lee is showing some promise in limited minutes. Even former No. 4 pick Josh Jackson is showing progress, perhaps shedding the “bust” label in the process. It’s another tough year in Detroit, but don’t despair, Pistons fans. There is a path to respectability on the horizon.
28. Houston Rockets
The Rockets are in the midst of quite the spiral, losing their last 12 games ahead of James Harden’s homecoming on Wednesday night. So what’s exactly plaguing Stephen Silas’s squad at the moment? A dismal offense is the greatest culprit. Houston ranks last in offensive rating by a considerable margin in its last 12 contests. No team is shooting a worse percentage from three. Neither John Wall nor Victor Oladipo is an elite scorer in any sense, and with Christian Wood out of the lineup, the frontcourt lacks any semblance of firepower. A long rebuild will begin shortly, with an Oladipo trade possibly on the horizon in the next couple of weeks. Perhaps Cade Cunningham will join the roster a few months later.
27. Orlando Magic
We’re in the midst of another lost season in Orlando, but perhaps the long-term outlook for the franchise isn’t so bleak after all. Dynamic frontcourt piece Jonathan Isaac will join All-Star big man Nikola Vucevic next season as he returns from knee surgery, and Markelle Fultz will also look to log a full season after tearing his ACL. And perhaps a current rookie can make a significant impact in 2021–22. Auburn product Chuma Okeke continues to show growth as a rookie despite modest scoring numbers, making an impressive impact on the defensive end. Pair Okeke with Fultz and Isaac, and you have the outline of a potential top 10 defense.
26. Sacramento Kings
The Kings are effectively a dumpster fire defensively, sitting last in the league in defensive rating entering Tuesday night. De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield aren’t exactly the most imposing backcourt defenders, though the real culprits for Sacramento’s struggles reside in the frontcourt. Marvin Bagley III may hold the greatest share of culpability. The former No. 2 pick sports a 119.1 defensive rating this season, tallying a paltry 16 blocks in 32 games. While Bagley was never touted as an impact defender, his performance this season has been downright abhorrent. Perhaps a lack of effort is to blame. Perhaps Sacramento’s scheme hasn’t placed him in the right spot to succeed. Regardless, it’s been a truly brutal defensive season for Bagley and the Kings. The decision to bypass Luka Doncic looks worse by the week.
25. Washington Wizards
The Wizards enter Tuesday night with seven wins in their last nine games, climbing back into the Eastern Conference as Russell Westbrook rounds into form. But ultimately, it’s hard to see Washington as a play-in team considering the shortcomings of the roster. As we’ve seen in recent nights, even Beal’s brilliance can’t save this team. His frustration has quelled of late, but long term, is Beal’s future really in Washington? It’s hard to see that happening with this team as currently constructed.
24. Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland is still a year away from playoff contention, yet there should be optimism regarding next year’s roster. Collin Sexton is a major reason why. The former No. 8 pick continues to grow as a leading man in his third season, averaging a career-high 23.3 points per game on solid 48/39/80 shooting splits. Sexton is a blur in transition. He continues to show greater maturity in the pick-and-roll, looking increasingly patient as he snakes his way down the lane. Sexton and Darius Garland should make for a dynamic backcourt. Jarrett Allen and Larry Nance Jr. will patrol the paint. Perhaps 2022 can bring the Cavs their first non-LeBron playoff appearance since 1998.
23. Atlanta Hawks
It’s hard not to feel as though Lloyd Pierce got a bit of a raw deal on Monday as he was fired by the Hawks. Atlanta has disappointed in 2020–21 with a 14–20 start, but pinning that on Pierce’s coaching isn’t the right diagnosis. The Hawks have been hampered by a slate of injuries. Their free-agency signings haven’t made a significant impact, and No. 6 pick Onyeka Okongwu isn’t quite ready for the NBA. Ownership slapped a playoff-or-bust label on the Hawks for this season, placing Pierce on the hot seat before opening night. Firing him after a sluggish start is a reactionary move, one that is unlikely to help the franchise turn the corner either this season or next.
22. Oklahoma City Thunder
We shouldn’t necessarily be surprised by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s ascent as a leading man, though his 2020–21 season has been even better than what the most ardent SGA supporters expected. Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 23.2 points and 6.3 assists per game this season on 51/41/79 shooting splits, and he’s been on an absolute tear since returning from a four-game absence in mid-February. Gilgeous-Alexander scored 42 in a win over the Spurs on Feb. 24. He tallied 31 points and nine assists to beat the Cavaliers three nights prior. The former Clippers lottery pick shows terrific patience in the pick-and-roll, and he’s one of the game’s craftiest finishers around the rim. Building around Gilgeous-Alexander’s talent is order No. 1 for the Thunder brass in the coming seasons.
21. Chicago Bulls
Wendell Carter Jr. looks increasingly comfortable since returning to the lineup on Feb. 15, adding a pair of double doubles over the last week. The Duke product has been adept as a post presence in his third season, and his athleticism continues to pay dividends as he beats opposing bigs down the floor for easy dunks and layups. Carter has dealt with numerous injuries in his first three seasons, dampening the excitement surrounding the former No. 7 pick. But perhaps it's too soon to levy a judgment on Carter’s future. If he can stay on the floor, he should be an important offensive piece for years to come.
20. Indiana Pacers
Indiana continues to struggle with eight losses in its last 11 contests, and a lack of scoring punch continues to be evident with both Caris LeVert and TJ Warren sidelined. Myles Turner and Doug McDermott are more stationary shooters. Justin Holiday, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. McConnell are secondary pieces. Domantas Sabonis is a wizard in the lane, though a flood of post-ups will only take you so far in today’s NBA. Nate Bjorkgren has done a nice job thus far with a limited roster. Though like previous years, it’s hard to see the Pacers mounting a playoff run considering the talent on hand.
19. New Orleans Pelicans
Perhaps his upcoming free agency is a bit daunting for New Orleans, but I never quite understood the trade chatter surrounding Lonzo Ball. The former Lakers point guard is both a quality defensive presence and an elite transition passer, and his growth as a three-point shooter (39.3% this season) eliminates opponents’ ability to sag off him at will. Ball has terrific chemistry with Zion Williamson. He can coexist with Brandon Ingram. Ball’s availability on the trade market appears to be waning as we enter March. He’s likely New Orleans’s point guard for years to come.
18. Memphis Grizzlies
Welcome back, Justise Winslow. Memphis’s forward appeared in his first game in over a year on Feb. 20, and he turned in a 20-point effort in a win over the Rockets on Sunday. A stream of injuries has derailed Winslow’s career thus far, but the former Heat lottery pick is still brimming with potential (especially on the defensive end) as he approaches his 25th birthday. As the Grizzlies look to launch a new era of playoff success, a healthy Winslow on the wing could make a major difference.
17. Charlotte Hornets
Malik Monk is in the midst of a career-best stretch, averaging 20.8 points per game in his last five contests on 40.8% from three. And Sunday night provided perhaps the highlight of Monk’s NBA career. The Kentucky product punctuated his strong play with a game-winning layup to beat the Kings in the final seconds, bringing the Hornets within one game of .500 as they eye a return to the playoffs. Monk struggled to find his way in the league through his first three seasons. Perhaps he’s finally finding his role as a microwave scorer in year four.
16. New York Knicks
Can we start planning the Knicks’ parade down the Canyon of Heroes? New York enters Tuesday night as one of four Eastern Conference teams over .500, sitting at 18–17 with seven wins in its last 10 games. Julius Randle could flirt with an All-NBA campaign. RJ Barrett continues to grow as a secondary scorer and playmaker. There’s been some shooting luck in the Knicks’ hot start (opponents have made just 32.5% of threes this season) though that metric is just one factor in what’s been a true franchise turnaround. We’ll save the Finals talk for another time in the 2020s. But playing a competitive first-round series isn’t out of the question. That’s some serious progress for what has often been one of the worst franchises in sports over the last two decades.
15. Boston Celtics
A late-February win over the Wizards won’t exactly vault Boston back into Finals contention, but we shouldn’t discount Jayson Tatum’s late-game heroics on Sunday night. The Celtics were in danger of losing four of their last five as they hosted the Wizards, and with a difficult stretch ahead before the All-Star break, dropping a game against a hapless Washington squad would have only exacerbated the concern in Boston. But with the game on the line, Tatum showed why he is a true superstar in the making. The Duke product is one of the league's best difficult shotmakers. He’s an increasingly physical presence around the rim. If Boston can somehow smooth the edges of its roster, Tatum and Jaylen Brown could fuel a run through the Eastern Conference.
14. Toronto Raptors
Fred VanVleet has been a steady cog in Toronto amid a shaky 2020–21 season, living up to his $85 million contract as Nick Nurse’s squad eyes an eighth straight playoff appearance. VanVleet is more than capable of running the show with Kyle Lowry sidelined. He’s a dogged defender and an increasingly dangerous three-point shooter. The Wichita State product doesn’t exactly sport the physical profile of a franchise anchor, but VanVleet is just that. His malleability on both ends is a true gift for Nurse, allowing Toronto to stay afloat despite a relatively middling rotation.
13. San Antonio Spurs
LaMarcus Aldridge’s production has continued to decline this season, with shaky shooting numbers contributing to a negative net rating in his first 18 games. But perhaps San Antonio’s extended COVID-19 layoff provided a springboard for the rest of 2020–21. Aldridge was shifted to the bench when the Spurs returned to action on Feb. 24, and he provided a critical 21 points as a reserve in a narrow win over the Pelicans three days later. Aldridge is nowhere close to an All-Star talent at this point in his career, but perhaps he can feast against second units moving forward.
12. Golden State Warriors
James Wiseman returned to the floor on Feb. 23 after a three-week absence, and the early returns for the No. 2 pick have been encouraging. Wiseman notched a trio of double-digit scoring performances in his first three games, providing significant vertical spacing for Steph Curry and Draymond Green. Wiseman is a bit of a raw prospect on both ends of the floor. He’s not quite a shooting threat nor an adept passer. But the physical tools are undeniable. Even amid a playoff chase, Golden State is best served letting Wiseman play through any growing pains.
11. Miami Heat
Rookie big man Precious Achiuwa was hit with a dreaded DNP-CD on Friday night, but he bounced back in a major way in Miami’s double-digit win over the Hawks on Sunday. Achiuwa finished the night with 14 points and seven rebounds in just 12 minutes, adding a block and steal amid a standout defensive performance. Achiuwa’s growth isn’t linear (as is the case for, well, all rookies). His offensive production will oscillate by the night. But Achiuwa’s effort and energy make him a valuable member of Miami’s rotation. It seems as though Friday’s benching struck a chord, helping grow the newest disciple of #HeatCulture.
10. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks have clawed back over .500 with an 8–2 stretch since Feb. 3, playing their best basketball of the season as the All-Star break approaches. Dallas is finally getting healthy after a wave of COVID-19 and injury absences, seeing a real boost from Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber’s return to the lineup. And one other Luka Doncic sidekick has made a marked impact.
Point guard Jalen Brunson has been a key contributor in Dallas this season, averaging 12.8 points per game with a 61.2% effective field goal percentage. Brunson is often the smallest player on the floor, listed charitably at 6' 1". But he’s been an increasingly powerful offensive presence, shooting over 50% on midrange jumpers and just a shade under 75% at the rim. Brunson is a crafty finisher. He attacks closeouts in a decisive manner, and he’s a creative passer in traffic. Doncic is always the engine in Dallas, yet Brunson has become an indispensable cog.
9. Denver Nuggets
There’s a relative unease in Denver this season, with a shaky supporting cast and middling defense making the Nuggets look more like a Western Conference also-ran than a legitimate Finals contender. Will Barton and Gary Harris continue to struggle offensively. Michael Porter Jr.’s energy and effort oscillate by the night. Thursday night marked perhaps the nadir of Denver’s season, with three Nuggets fanning to the three-point line instead of sprinting toward the rim during a fast break in the final seconds. A February loss to Washington isn’t exactly panic-inducing, but it illustrated the general lack of cohesion on Denver’s roster. Let’s hope Mike Malone can get this team on the right track as Nikola Jokić continues to play the best basketball of his career.
8. Portland Trail Blazers
Carmelo Anthony doesn’t have anything to prove at this point in his career, yet it’s still a delight to see him light up the scoreboard in Portland. Anthony’s Oklahoma City tenure ended with a thud. He was dismissed after an ugly 10-game stint in Houston. The future Hall of Famer has now found a true home in Portland. He entered Monday night averaging 13.1 points per game on 37.8% from three, providing crucial secondary scoring with C.J. McCollum out of the lineup. Anthony even got the best of the other ‘Melo on Monday, tallying 29 points in a win over LaMelo Ball and the Hornets. Who knows how long Anthony will keep playing? Perhaps 2020–21 is his swan song. I selfishly hope not. The NBA is a better place with Anthony raining jumpers all over the league.
7. Milwaukee Bucks
It’s only the first week of March, but Sunday’s win over the Clippers could mark a crucial moment in the Bucks’ season. Giannis Antetokounmpo & Co. scored the final nine points in a narrow win over the Clippers, with Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton out-dueling Kawhi Leonard and Paul George down the stretch. Our questions surrounding Giannis and the Bucks down the stretch will continue until they break through to the Finals. Yet perhaps we’re being a touch impatient. 2021 could be the year we see Antetokounmpo rewrite the narrative regarding his postseason woes.
6. Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons could challenge for an All-NBA spot of his own as teammate Joel Embiid continues to stay atop the MVP discussion. Simmons is averaging 21 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game since the calendar turned to February, shooting a blistering 62.1% from the field. The LSU product remains an otherworldly defensive talent, and his offensive game is taking notable strides despite the continued lack of a jump shot. One major area of improvement: the post. Simmons is averaging 1.13 points per post-up possession this season, a better mark than Embiid, Jokić or LeBron James. Credit to Simmons for expanding his offensive arsenal as Philadelphia looks to make the most out of its dynamic young duo.
5. Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker has been on an absolute tear of late, averaging 30 points per game in his last 11 contests on 54/41/85 shooting splits. The hot stretch provides us an opportunity to examine just how prolific Booker has been since entering the NBA in 2015. Booker has the ninth-most points of any player in the last five seasons. Only 15 players in NBA history have scored more points before turning 25, and only four players (Shaquille O’Neal, Bob McAdoo, Adrian Dantley and Michael Jordan) have done so while playing in fewer than 400 games. Booker is one of the game’s most prestigious scorers. At risk of projecting too far into the future, we very well could see him challenge for a top 25 spot on the all-time scoring list by the time his career comes to a close.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers’ offense struggled down the stretch against Milwaukee on Sunday, continuing a troubling trend for the potential Finals contender. Los Angeles is minus-22 in 38 clutch minutes this season, shooting under 36% from the field in that span. And Sunday provided a continuation of the Clippers’ late-game difficulties. They slowed the pace to a crawl in the final minutes, failing to initiate any semblance of offense until the shot clock ticked toward 10 seconds. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are two of the most talented isolation scorers in the league, yet relying on switches against Antetokounmpo and Middleton isn’t exactly a winning formula. Perhaps a point-guard upgrade can add some structure to Los Angeles’s late-game attack before the postseason.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
Dennis Schröder’s return to the lineup over the weekend was crucial to the Lakers despite his middling shooting numbers. Los Angeles desperately missed a secondary playmaker with Schröder out of the lineup, with its offense devolving into a diet of standstill threes and clock-draining LeBron isolations. Schröder adds an entirely different element. He increases Los Angeles’s pace and attacks the rim with a fury, creating a flood of open looks for the Lakers’ supporting cast. Los Angeles’s offense sputtered without Schröder and Anthony Davis on the floor. Even without Davis, we should still see quality offensive production as LeBron and Schröder run the show.
2. Brooklyn Nets
SI's Robin Lundberg posed an interesting question last week before Brooklyn notched its eighth-straight win: Has James Harden been the best player in basketball since joining the Nets? The metrics support such a theory.
The Nets are 16–6 with Harden in the lineup. They’re scoring an outrageous 122.7 points per 100 possessions with Harden and Kyrie Irving on the floor, with a slight uptick in scoring when Harden is paired with Kevin Durant. And it’s not just Harden’s gaudy numbers (including 11.3 assists per game) that make him so valuable. He’s reconstructed Brooklyn’s offense on the fly, with his emergence as a lead playmaker creating plenty of scoring opportunities for Irving. DeAndre Jordan is receiving a flood of lobs. Joe Harris and Landry Shamet are feasting from beyond the arc. Harden is Brooklyn’s engine, making the transition to a new team with relative ease.
1. Utah Jazz
Royce O’Neale’s scoring impact remains relatively muted, yet he remains an indispensable piece in Utah’s rotation. O’Neale is a quality spot-up shooter at 41.4% from three on solid volume, and more importantly, he’s often tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best wing player. Expect to see O’Neale shadowing the likes of Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James in the postseason. If he holds his own, we could very well see Utah advance to its first Finals of the 21st century.