Welcome back to the MVP race, Joel Embiid. Philadelphia’s superstar center returned on April 3 to the Sixers’ lineup after a 10-game absence, and he’s quickly returned to form amid a dominant 2020–21 season.
Embiid dropped 27 points on the Thunder in a blowout on Saturday night. He then pulverized the Mavericks with 36 points in 26 minutes on Monday, showcasing his full offensive arsenal in the process. Nikola Jokić is an absolute delight in every sense, dropping dimes with precision never before seen by a big man. But when Embiid is right, he’s the most fun player to watch in the league. Let’s hope the pair of centers are healthy down the stretch as they jockey for MVP.
As Embiid returns to form, let’s dive into this week’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Orlando Magic
The Magic continue to slide down the Eastern Conference standings with five straight losses, though at least there’s been some promise shown from recent acquisition Wendell Carter Jr. Carter is averaging 13.5 points and 9.4 rebounds per game in nine appearances with Orlando, seizing a serious minutes void with Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic in new locations. Carter is a skilled big with some handle and nice vision, and he can even initiate the offense in a pinch. It was time for Orlando to hit the reset button at the trade deadline. Perhaps Carter can be a nice asset for its next era.
29. Houston Rockets
KJ Martin’s offensive development is still a work in progress, but the former second-round pick is showing flashes as a shot-blocking specialist and small-ball big for the Rockets. Martin can jump out of the gym, and he has the ability to upsize to the five despite standing 6 ' 6". We won’t deem Martin the next P.J. Tucker just yet, but he is a potential rotation piece in Houston for years to come. Hitting on the margins with a player like Martin is exactly what Houston needs for an effective rebuild.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves
D’Angelo Russell is back in Minnesota’s lineup after an extended absence, and he’s provided an immediate offensive boost with three games of at least 20 points. Russell has reestablished himself as the Timberwolves’ late-game initiator, and he runs an artful two-man dance with Karl-Anthony Towns. Can this Timberwolves team stop anyone? Not really. Even alarmingly so. But there is legitimate offensive upside with the Towns-Russell–Anthony Edwards trio as we take a look ahead toward 2021–22.
27. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons are a bit scrappier than your average cellar dweller in the Eastern Conference, a credit to head coach Dwane Casey. Detroit nearly knocked off the Clippers in a 131–124 loss in Los Angeles on Sunday, and there are pieces of interest on the wing and in the frontcourt. 2020 draft picks Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart look like keepers. Josh Jackson has found a home, and I’m not quite ready to give up on Sekou Doumbouya. Add in the right lottery pick, and perhaps a fringe playoff team can emerge.
26. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder trotted out the youngest starting five in NBA history on Saturday, with Darius Bazley’s return setting their starting lineup to an average age of 20 years, eight months and six days. Oklahoma City was summarily torched by the Sixers, but that’s no reason for condemnation. The Thunder are seeing true development even amid the losses, with youngsters Lu Dort, Moses Brown and the ever-watchable Aleksej Pokusevski showing flashes of promise each week. Add in a healthy Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and some lottery luck, and the youth movement could be sniffing the play-in tournament sooner than expected.
25. Cleveland Cavaliers
Isaac Okoro continues to look like a worthy investment for a rebuilding Cavaliers team. The Auburn product has already established himself as an impact defensive piece, and he’s tallied a trio of double-digit scoring performances over the last week. Cleveland should have enough firepower to keep up with opponents in the Sexland era. Okoro’s development as a two-way force could truly buoy this rebuild.
24. Washington Wizards
With or without Bradley Beal, Washington will need to see greater development from its recent lottery picks to make any sort of run in the Eastern Conference. So what’s the outlook for Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija as we approach the stretch run? The answer is complicated.
The Wizards’ last two lottery picks both sport a degree of offensive promise, and their skill set does fit in today’s NBA. But neither player has emerged as a true franchise cornerstone, and they aren’t exactly earning plenty of opportunities as Russell Westbrook and Beal run the show. This isn’t to excoriate Washington’s front office. It’s not easy to hit on a pair of No. 9 picks. But the Wizards are continuing down a perfect path to NBA purgatory. Barring a Beal trade or some serious lottery luck, we aren’t seeing a winner arrive in the nation’s capital anytime soon.
23. Sacramento Kings
The Kings’ play-in chances are dwindling with six losses in their last seven games as the NBA’s worst defensive rating fuels another lost season in Sacramento. Luke Walton’s squad sits in the bottom five of opponent rebound percentage and opponent turnover percentage, and no team allows more points in the paint. Sacramento’s backcourt is diminutive, and its frontcourt is unimposing. This doesn’t seem to be as much of a Walton issue as a roster construction one, with the Marvin Bagley selection standing out as the franchise’s greatest sin. De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton are thrilling to watch, though is this roster a playoff one by any stretch? The franchise’s lack of direction is evident as the Kings limp toward the finish line.
22. Toronto Raptors
I like Malachi Flynn’s chances to be a solid rotation player in the league for years to come. Toronto’s backup guard finished with a season-high 20 points against the Cavaliers on Saturday, and he’s established himself as a pesky defensive piece over the course of 2020–21. Flynn appears to be soaking up the tricks of the point-guard trade from Kyle Lowry, and if his shot can improve, he could become a mainstay in Toronto alongside Fred VanVleet. The former No. 29 pick looks to be another successful selection for Masai Ujiri.
21. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls made a major gamble at the trade deadline when they shipped out a pair of first-round picks and Wendell Carter Jr. in exchange for Nikola Vucevic. So how has Chicago fared since making the blockbuster move? The early returns aren’t necessarily encouraging. The Bulls are just 3–7 in 10 games with Vucevic, and while both he and Zach LaVine have turned in impressive solo performances, this is still a roster ill-equipped to compete. Even if the Bulls’ two stars continue to shine as offensive pieces, we could very well see Chicago regret making this move in the coming years.
20. New Orleans Pelicans
Perhaps it’s the market and perhaps it’s the losing, but Zion Williamson’s dominant sophomore season is somehow flying under the radar. The 2019 No. 1 pick is averaging 26.5 points per game on better than 60% from the field this season, a feat unmatched in NBA history. Williamson is scoring at the same clip as James Harden (1.02 points per possession) on isolation attempts. He’s averaging 1.06 points per possession as a pick-and-roll initiator. That clip leaps to 1.23 points per possession when Williamson is the roll man. No single defender can stop Williamson. Either send a double team or pray for a miss. A combination of youth and roster mismanagement has led to a disappointing season in New Orleans, but don’t blame Williamson. He’s in the midst of a historic offensive campaign in his second year.
19. Indiana Pacers
Doug McDermott seems primed for a bigger contract than many anticipate on the free-agent market this offseason. The former Creighton star continues to grow in his age-29 season, averaging career highs in points, minutes and shooting percentage in 2020-21. McDermott is a true three-point marksman. He sports some sneaky prowess off the bounce, and he’s big enough to guard fours in a pinch. Don’t be shocked if McDermott passes $10 million per year in free agency.
18. Golden State Warriors
James Wiseman’s rookie season is likely over after a torn meniscus, capping a year to forget in Golden State. The No. 2 pick never found a rhythm in Steve Kerr’s rotation, and he often looked out of place in the Warriors’ motion-heavy offense. A player as raw and athletically gifted as Wiseman is likely best suited to run a stream of pick-and-rolls to his heart's content, rising above the rim for lobs each possession. Unless the Warriors make a marked stylistic change in 2021–22, it’s fair to question whether Wiseman fits whatsoever in the franchise’s long-term plans. Perhaps Wiseman’s second season will come in a new uniform.
17. San Antonio Spurs
DeMar DeRozan’s All-NBA days are likely in the rearview mirror, but the veteran’s season in San Antonio still deserves recognition. DeRozan is averaging 21.2 points and a career-high 7.1 assists per game in 2020–21, and he’s been one of the league’s most productive late-game scorers. DeRozan has scored the seventh-most clutch points in the league this season. He sports a 1.22 points per possession mark on all isolation attempts. As the Spurs move toward a new era, a recent mainstay is keeping them afloat.
16. Charlotte Hornets
I still contend that Anthony Edwards’s detonation over Yuta Watanabe is the dunk of the year, but Miles Bridges’s slam on Sunday is quite the worthy candidate. Bridges seems to baptize one poor soul each month. LaMelo Ball was the game’s most exciting rookie prior to his season-ending injury. Add in some delightful commentary from play-by-play man Eric Collins, and Charlotte is one of the league’s most delightful watches.
15. New York Knicks
Immanuel Quickley has been in a bit of a funk since late March, but perhaps Friday’s win over the Grizzlies will put the rookie back on track. Quickley tallied 20 points in the overtime win on 7–12 shooting, fueling New York’s offense down the stretch. Quickley’s shooting efficiency is bound to waver in the coming weeks. Such is life for a young guard. But Quickley appears to have earned the trust of Tom Thibodeau, and he should continue to be relied upon as a late-game initiator alongside Julius Randle and the improving RJ Barrett. The Knicks may struggle to make selections in the lottery, but at least selecting Quickley at No. 25 is proving to be a prudent move.
14. Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis sports perhaps the deepest rotation in basketball as it continues to mine talent outside of the lottery, and TCU product Desmond Bane is the most recent shrewd selection. The No. 30 pick in the 2020 NBA draft continues to make a positive impact on both ends for the Grizzlies, emerging as a sturdy wing defender and an increasingly solid spacer. Both Bane and Xavier Tillman are productive pieces as rookies. Ja Morant continues to grow as a leading man. Jaren Jackson Jr. should return as a young cornerstone in 2021–22, adding yet another piece to a startlingly deep young core.
13. Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum has been on an absolute tear since the All-Star break, averaging 27.2 points per game in his last 17 contests with 49/40/91.5 shooting splits. And last week’s win over Minnesota marked a historic performance. Tatum finished with a career-high 53 points in a win over the Timberwolves, ending the games with six threes and a 16-–25 mark from the field. Tatum’s full arsenal was on display in the victory, with the turnaround jumpers and corner threes falling with absolute ease. Question Danny Ainge’s recent moves if you wish, but his foresight in selecting Tatum has made Boston a likely playoff mainstay for the next decade.
12. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks enter Tuesday with six wins in their last seven games, with free-agent Bogdan Bogdanovic fueling Atlanta’s hot stretch. Bogdanovic tallied 32 points in Sunday’s win over the Hornets, and he’s scored over 20 points in six of the last eight contests. Bogdanovic limped out of the gate after receiving a $72 million contract, and he struggled to find his place in the offense alongside Trae Young. But as Bogdanovic finds his groove, perhaps Atlanta is a sneaky contender to advance past the first round.
11. Miami Heat
Victor Oladipo showed flashes of his Indiana form in a brief stint with Miami, but it’s unclear just how much more he’ll play this season after injuring his knee against the Lakers last week. The timing of Oladipo’s injury is certainly inopportune considering his upcoming free agency. It remained in question whether anyone would bite on a nine-figure deal for Oladipo prior to his latest injury, and his options will now likely be limited this summer. Perhaps Oladipo’s best play is to sign a one-year deal this offseason before returning to the market after a (hopefully) full season in 2021–22.
10. Portland Trail Blazers
It’s hard to take the Blazers seriously as anything other than a Western Conference also-ran in 2020–21. Portland is 6–6 in its last 12 games, and it hasn’t beaten a winning team since March 25. There’s far too much Enes Kanter and Carmelo Anthony in the frontcourt. Anfernee Simons has yet to take the leap many hoped for. Damian Lillard’s crunch-time brilliance has kept the Blazers afloat thus far, though ultimately, there are severe limitations on the roster. In a crowded West, the Blazers appear poised for an early exit.
9. Dallas Mavericks
Luka Dončić continues to cruise toward another All-NBA selection, but Dallas’s backcourt isn’t exactly a one-man show. Read SI’s Chris Herring on Jalen Brunson, the Mavericks’ unsung star.
8. Los Angeles Lakers
Ben McLemore fell out of Houston’s rotation before signing with the Lakers in 2020–21, but don’t be surprised if the Kansas product becomes a difference maker for Los Angeles in the postseason. McLemore is one of the game’s more reliable sharpshooters, and he thrived as a catch-and-shoot specialist last season alongside James Harden. It’s not difficult to imagine LeBron James whipping McLemore passes in the playoffs, potentially in a key moment of the conference finals or Finals. McLemore never lived up to the billing as a lottery pick, though his career highlight could very well be on the immediate horizon.
7. Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo has missed five straight games due to knee soreness, and the Bucks should take every precaution regarding Antetokounmpo’s return to the floor. Milwaukee has no real challenge for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, and there’s enough playmaking punch on the floor with Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton running the show. Is Antetokounmpo’s extended absence a cause for panic? Not quite. But taking a page out of the Nets’ playbook is the most prudent play for the Bucks as the postseason approaches. Home court in a second-round series is largely immaterial compared to the health of Milwaukee’s franchise anchor.
6. Denver Nuggets
We'll save the analysis on the Nuggets for another week. Get well soon, Jamal Murray. Let's hope to see Denver's dynamic guard return to the floor sooner than later.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
Matisse Thybulle can’t really shoot a lick, but the Sixers’ wing is one of the most disruptive defensive forces in the game. Thybulle leads the NBA with 2.6 steals per 36 minutes, and he also sports the most blocks per 36 minutes of any non-center. The Thybulle–Ben Simmons–Joel Embiid trio is shredding teams to the tune of plus-24.8 points per 100 possessions. Pair Thybulle with Danny Green and Tobias Harris, and Philadelphia still sports a plus-20 net rating. Thybulle is a dynamic defensive piece regardless of lineup, and he could be a key weapon against James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in the playoffs. Don’t be surprised if we see a major minutes uptick from Thybulle in the coming weeks.
4. Brooklyn Nets
James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant have logged just 186 minutes together this season, a laughably low number that may not see a major increase before the postseason begins. Will such limited reps together make a difference in the playoffs? I’m not buying the narrative. We’ve seen Brooklyn’s offense look perfectly efficient in the minutes with the Big 3 on the floor, and there was less an offensive tug-of-war than oversharing between the trio of stars. This isn’t similar to the LeBron-Wade situation we saw develop in 2010–11. The skill sets on display are more complementary than anything, and Harden in particular has proven to be adept at meshing with other co-stars. If Brooklyn falls in the postseason, its defensive limitations will be to blame. Don’t expect this offensive machine to stop humming anytime soon.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
The Playoff P jokes are warranted, and the postseason skepticism is fair, but it would be downright foolish to just dismiss the spectacular season we’re currently seeing from Paul George. The Clippers’ second star is shooting a blistering 43.8% from three this season, and he’s been dominant of late with a combined 101 points in his last three games. George is a knockdown shooter and a savvy playmaker. He can still unload on an opponent at the rim, and he’s a dynamic wing defender when he wants to be. George is everything you could want in a wing sans the playoff struggles. Perhaps this is the year he finally gets the monkey off of his back.
2. Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell has been the Jazz’s top option since the moment he arrived in Utah, though he’s truly arrived as an elite leading man in 2020–21 with a career-high 26.3 points per game. Mitchell’s proficiency from three has been a major cause behind his progression. He’s shooting 38.6% on all triples this year, and he’s been especially dynamic as a three-point shooter off the dribble. Only five players have hit more off-the-dribble threes this season, with Mitchell’s 36.3% mark on those shots outpacing James Harden and Damian Lillard. Mitchell’s ability to drive and finish at the rim has never been in question. It’s his efficiency from beyond the arc that’s fueling Utah’s dominant season.
1. Phoenix Suns
Chris Paul has been the tide that lifts all boats at each of his previous stops, and the pattern has continued in Phoenix as the Suns eye the Western Conference crown. And Paul turned back the clock once again in a narrow victory over the Jazz last week. He diced up Utah’s defense with 29 points and nine assists in the win, and he seemed to delight in attacking potential Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert down the stretch. I’ve been referring to the Suns as a fringe Finals contender all season. It’s time to take off the modifier. If Paul is healthy in June, this team could very well sprint to the Western Conference title.
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