We’re less than two months away from the play-in tournament, and do we have any real idea who the MVP will be? Previous favorites Joel Embiid and LeBron James have both missed significant time. Neither Nikola Jokić nor Damian Lillard’s teams have matched his individual brilliance. James Harden logged nine brutal games with the Rockets before being shipped to Brooklyn and two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo could suffer from some serious voter fatigue. This is one of the deepest MVP races in NBA history, one that could come down to the final week.
We’ll save our official MVP picks for a later date. For now, let’s dive into this week’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves
Naz Reid continues to be an enjoyable piece for Minnesota and not just because of his “Big Jelly” nickname. Reid provides a varied, offensive skill set despite limited physical gifts, able to both bang inside and move out to the perimeter in pick-and-pop situations. Reid is better off the bounce than he’s given credit for, and he’s a quality passer for a second-year player. Consider Reid a solid rotation piece for Minnesota as they continue an ugly rebuild.
29. Detroit Pistons
The Killian Hayes pick could turn out to be a misfire in the 2020 draft, but Detroit’s two other first-round picks are flourishing in a difficult season. Washington product Isaiah Stewart provides significant defensive flexibility as a small-ball five, while former Villanova forward Saddiq Bey continues to be a relative marksman from beyond the arc at 38.6% from three. Neither player is a true franchise changer, though hitting on picks after the lottery is necessary for a functional rebuild.
28. Houston Rockets
The Rockets were widely bashed for their lack of return in the Victor Oladipo trade, though the criticism is a touch unfair considering the broader context. Oladipo effectively tanked his trade value with a disappointing stretch in Houston, and the Nets’ ascent in the East dampened the willingness for a crop of contenders to shed real assets. Houston could retain Kelly Olynyk as a quality frontcourt piece in 2021–22. It should swap Brooklyn’s first-round pick with Miami next season. This isn’t a haul by any means, but Oladipo isn’t exactly James Harden or anything close. We should let the Rockets play out their vision across a whole offseason before laying significant judgment on the Rafael Stone era.
27. Orlando Magic
Orlando hit the reset button in a major way before the trade deadline as it shipped out franchise anchors Nikola Vučević, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier in quick succession. The moves may lead to some truly ugly basketball down the stretch, but ultimately the Magic’s decision to change course is the smart play. Orlando recouped a pair of valuable picks (and young big man Wendell Carter Jr.) from the Bulls, and a top-three pick in a stacked 2021 draft is now much more likely as a tank begins in earnest. The now-departed veteran core sported a relatively low ceiling. Perhaps the next crop of youngsters can make Orlando more than an Eastern Conference also-ran.
26. Cleveland Cavaliers
Darius Garland continues to make strides in his second NBA season. The No. 5 pick in the 2019 draft is averaging 17.7 points and 6.3 assists per game in his last 15 contests, shooting an impressive 39.4% from three. Garland’s assist rate is up nearly 10% compared to his rookie year. He’s already formed a nice rapport with center Jarrett Allen. After a shaky rookie season, Cleveland's other young guard is starting to put it together.
25. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder’s decision to sit Al Horford for the rest of 2020–21 isn’t exactly a perplexing decision for either party. Oklahoma City now gets the chance to further examine its collection of young pieces, while Horford can both save miles on his NBA odometer and potentially explore a new location for the 2021–22 season. Horford is a consummate professional in every sense of the word. Let’s hope to see him back on a contender this time next season.
24. Washington Wizards
My goodness, Russell Westbrook. Washington’s point guard has found the fountain of youth over the last month, and he turned in a historic stat line in Monday’s win over the Pacers with 35 points, 21 assists and 14 rebounds. Westbrook certainly has his warts at this point in his career, but he remains a true floor general with one of the game’s top motors. Cherish Westbrook while you can. We may never see a player like him again.
23. Toronto Raptors
I’m not going to crush the Raptors for their decision to keep Kyle Lowry at the trade deadline. The Heat (sensibly) opted to acquire Victor Oladipo on the cheap rather than give up a piece of their young core for Lowry, and it seems as though Philadelphia took a similar stance. Toronto can now look to mount a playoff run this season, then either deal Lowry for a tasty trade exception or re-sign him and start this cycle once again. Dealing Lowry was unlikely to markedly change the future of the franchise. Why not see whether there’s one last playoff push in store?
22. Chicago Bulls
I view the Nikola Vučević trade as a worthwhile acquisition for both the Magic and Bulls. Orlando’s incentive is clear as it pivots to a new era, and despite a relatively high cost, acquiring Vučević seems almost necessary for the Bulls. Zach LaVine has established himself as a true leading man. Next year’s free-agent class isn’t exactly stacked, and there’s no real path for the Bulls to acquire a franchise-changing piece in the draft. This deal isn’t exactly changing the balance of power in the East, though if Chicago can escape the play-in tournament, the deal for Vučević will be a notable success.
21. Indiana Pacers
We’ll save the on-court analysis regarding the Pacers for another week. Instead, check out Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt on the education and activism of guard Malcolm Brogdon.
20. New Orleans Pelicans
It may have come a couple of months too late, but good on the Pelicans for unleashing Point Zion. New Orleans’s phenom forward is averaging 29.3 points per game on 65.7% (!) from the field in his last 20 contests, barreling his way to the rim with remarkable ease. Williamson looks like a more mobile Shaq in spurts as he bursts past any defender in his path. He’s a smart interior passer, and his handle is advanced for a player of his age and size. Williamson is every bit the player we hoped he’d be entering the NBA. Now it’s up to New Orleans to empower him ahead of a critical development period.
19. Sacramento Kings
De’Aaron Fox has been on an absolute tear in Sacramento’s five-game winning streak, combining for 147 points in his last four contests before Monday night on an outrageous 64% from the field. Fox added a game-winning assist as Harrison Barnes hit a buzzer beater to defeat the Cavs on Saturday night, with Fox showing off his quarterback skills honed from a childhood in Texas. Don’t look now, but Fox and the Kings are looming as a play-in contender as we approach the home stretch of the regular season.
18. Golden State Warriors
It’s been an uneven rookie year for James Wiseman, though drawing any grand conclusions from his 32-game sample is a bit presumptuous. Wiseman is a significant work in progress with undeniable athletic gifts, and he’s spent much of the season playing without a quality point guard. Getting a healthy Steph Curry down the stretch should allow us to get a clearer picture of Wiseman’s professional outlook ahead of 2021–22.
17. Boston Celtics
Perhaps Danny Ainge could have made a bigger swing with Boston’s massive trade exception, but it’s hard to criticize the addition of Evan Fournier at the trade deadline. Monday’s 0–10 debut notwithstanding, Fournier should be a valuable backcourt piece on a team bereft of scoring punch, especially considering Kemba Walker’s uneven season. I’m skeptical of Boston’s chance to advance out of the Eastern Conference, though adding Fournier could help the Celtics win a series or two in June.
16. New York Knicks
The Knicks have quite the interesting contract situation looming with Mitchell Robinson. The simplest route is to pick up his $1.8 million team option next season, allowing Robinson to enter unrestricted free agency after 2021–22. New York could also decline Robinson’s option, allowing him to enter restricted free agency this summer. Perhaps the Knicks should consider the latter option if they’re set on keeping Robinson long-term. Using restricted free agency all but guarantees he’ll remain a Knick as long as the team is willing to pay up, and considering Robinson’s fractured foot, perhaps he won’t totally break the bank, even in a weak class. We’ll see whether the Knicks’ brain trust is willing to get creative in the coming months as it considers its options with Robinson.
15. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks held firm on their demands for John Collins at the trade deadline, and rightfully so. Collins is a prodigious offensive force, and despite the nagging positional questions, it’s not as though employing Collins at the four will sink a team’s defense. Atlanta and Collins can (and should) work out a contract in the offseason after negotiations fell apart before the 2020–21 season. Fit be damned, giving up on a talent like Collins is no way to build a winning organization.
14. Memphis Grizzlies
Dillon Brooks’s volume doesn’t exactly make him the most enjoyable player to watch from an aesthetic standpoint; however, the Oregon product continues to be a valuable wing piece for a Memphis team lacking scoring punch. Brooks leads all Memphis rotation players in offensive rating in the last 10 games, and he’s tallied six performances of 20-plus-points in March. Would you want to shell out major dollars for Brooks on the open market? Not exactly. But for $23 million over the next two seasons, he’s a worthy investment as Ja Morant continues to ascend in the league’s hierarchy.
13. Miami Heat
Victor Oladipo got his wish when was traded to the Heat before the trade deadline. Can he now make the most of his extended audition? I have my doubts. Oladipo isn’t the same player he was at his Indiana peak, sporting a noticeable dip in his burst to the tin in each of the last two seasons. Oladipo is shooting 41.3% from the field in his last 84 games. His defensive impact has been relatively muted. Joining the Heat should rehabilitate his value to a degree, but I wouldn’t count on a nine-figure deal this summer.
12. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs have struggled as of late with five losses in their last six games, but at least we got some comic relief out of San Antonio this week. Get well soon, Lonnie Walker. Let’s hope you’re not out of the lineup for terribly long.
11. Charlotte Hornets
Turn on a Hornets game, and it’s hard to not focus your attention on Miles Bridges. Charlotte’s third-year forward plays with boundless energy on both ends, diving for 50-50 balls and rolling with a fury in two-person dances with Terry Rozier (and previously LaMelo Ball). Watch long enough and you’ll probably see Bridges rise above the rim for a ferocious dunk. The Hornets have been a League Pass darling in 2020–21, even with Ball sidelined. Bridges is a key reason why.
10. Dallas Mavericks
Dallas isn’t necessarily a defensive juggernaut by any stretch, entering Tuesday night at No. 23 in defensive rating. And with no real pathway to jumping into the top half on that end, why not try to just outscore the competition? The Mavericks added sharpshooters JJ Redick and Nicolò
Melli before the trade deadline, adding another dose of shooting to a roster well-stocked with quality perimeter pieces. Will the predeadline move bring the Mavs to the top of the West? Probably not. But I’ll be pleased with a few 130–128 battles in the postseason.
9. Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers’ defensive deficiencies will keep them from seizing for the Western Conference crown, but this is a team nobody wants to face in the postseason. Damian Lillard is likely the game’s greatest closer, and the addition of Norman Powell gives the Blazers a high-octane trio of guards. Pairing Lillard, Powell and CJ McCollum with Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkić creates quite the potent starting five. Carmelo Anthony remains an impressive scorer off the bench. We could very well see a true championship contender exit the playoffs early at the hands of Lillard and the Blazers.
8. Denver Nuggets
The addition of Aaron Gordon provided the Nuggets with an immediate boost on Sunday, with the former Magic forward finishing the night with 13 points and a plus-17 net rating in 21 minutes. And Gordon should continue to be a valuable piece moving forward. He adds some necessary verve off the bounce alongside Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić, and his presence should allow Denver to switch defensively with greater effectiveness. Gordon was miscast throughout seven seasons in Orlando. In Denver, he could truly shine.
7. Milwaukee Bucks
Speaking of the MVP race, are we sure Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t have a strong case? Milwaukee’s point forward remains perhaps the best defender in basketball, and he's posting numbers nearing prime Shaq in the process. The Bucks are creeping up on the best record in the East. They rank No. 2 in net rating. If Milwaukee finishes the season as the East’s top seed, perhaps a third straight MVP could be in store.
6. Los Angeles Lakers
The Andre Drummond criticism has gone a notch too far in recent weeks before the Lakers acquired the two-time All-Star. Drummond isn’t exactly the second coming of Bill Russell, though considering his expected role in Los Angeles, he should be able to provide legitimate value. Drummond’s presence should help stem the tide without LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the regular season; and in the playoffs, he can become a bruiser à la Dwight Howard in the NBA bubble. Drummond is still near his athletic peak. He’s a competent (if unspectacular) roller, and he’s mobile enough to stay on the floor against most opposing offenses. The underselling of the Drummond addition remains puzzling.
5. Phoenix Suns
Torrey Craig could be a valuable addition for Phoenix in the 2021 postseason. The former Nuggets and Bucks guard provides legitimate size on the wing, adding some flexibility over Cameron Payne and Abdel Nader. There are some clear shooting shortcomings with Craig, though pair him with Chris Paul and Devin Booker, and those issues are likely to be less magnified. Are the Suns the winner of the deadline for acquiring Craig? Not really. Though he could prove to be a prudent, under-the-radar addition in the coming months.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Dwight Howard’s NBA legacy is secure after winning the Finals with Los Angeles last season, but it’s hard not to see his last week as a fitting encapsulation of his career. The mercurial Howard tallied a pair of ejections in back-to-back games, exiting a Sixers lineup desperately lacking at center with Joel Embiid out of commission. LeBron and the Lakers were able to keep Howard in check and get the best out of the veteran center in 2019–20. Will the Sixers be able to do the same? That’s anything but a guarantee.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
It’s been a disappointing first season in Los Angeles for Luke Kennard, but perhaps the former Pistons wing is finding his groove as we approach the season’s final months. Kennard scored 20 points in a win over the Hawks on March 22, and he finished with 21 points in Monday’s blowout win over the Bucks. The Clippers are hitting their stride with six straight wins. Their rotation is starting to take shape. This is looking more like a real championship contender by the week.
2. Brooklyn Nets
Toss aside a shameful nine games in Houston, and James Harden could very well be the MVP favorite. The Beard entered Monday night averaging 26 points, 11.4 assists and 8.9 rebounds per game in his Brooklyn tenure, and he then shredded Minnesota with a 38-point, 11-rebound, 13-assist performance. Those who watched Harden each night in Houston became accustomed to his brilliance, appreciating the skill of a true generational talent. That talent is becoming increasingly recognized and it could lead to a second MVP for Harden by season’s end.
1. Utah Jazz
Mike Conley’s terrific season is going a bit under the radar as the Jazz cruise through the regular season. Conley is averaging 16.1 points per game while shooting 41.7% from three, and his advanced metrics are even more impressive. Conley is tallying nearly three assists for every turnover. He sits No. 3 in the NBA in defensive rating and No. 1 in net rating. Conley has found his Memphis form in 2020–21, helping fuel a dominant year in Utah.