It may be time to start building the Tom Thibodeau statue outside of Madison Square Garden. The Knicks are absolutely rolling as of late, entering Tuesday with six straight wins as they sit No. 6 in the Eastern Conference. Julius Randle is in the midst of an All-NBA campaign. RJ Barrett is improving by the week and even Nerlens Noel is in the midst of a career revival. The growth on display at MSG is a clear testament to Thibodeau, who built an immediate foundation of toughness and accountability. This may be the most fun Knicks team of the 21st century, an unthinkable sentence even one season to go. Thibodeau is to thank as New York eyes a return to the postseason.
As the Knicks continue to rise, let’s take a turn around the league with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Houston Rockets
The Rockets sit just ahead of the Timberwolves in the Western Conference cellar, but we could see Houston sport the NBA’s worst record by season’s end. Twelve of Houston’s final 14 games are against teams over .500, including two matchups against each of the Bucks, Jazz and Clippers. It’s been a difficult year for Stephen Silas & Co. after the James Harden trade. Don’t expect the losses to slow as the season comes to a close.
29. Orlando Magic
We’re in the midst of a pretty elite tank from the Magic. Orlando has lost eight of its last nine, including a home defeat against the Harden-less Rockets. Cole Anthony is leading the offense and Mo Bamba is earning minutes, with an ugly roster limping toward the finish line. This isn’t to pick on the players at hand, but it’s hard not to sympathize with Steve Clifford right now. Perhaps the Ping-Pong balls will make this all worth it in the coming months.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves have ebbed and flowed in concert with D’Angelo Russell’s play since his return on April 5, which isn’t exactly the healthiest sign for a rebuilding franchise. Minnesota did manage to snag wins over Sacramento and Chicago in early April, and it was competitive against Boston and Indiana. The wheels then quickly fell off against the league’s elite. Russell went 14–39 from the field in a trio of games against the Nets, Bucks and Clippers, posting a minus-40 in 67 minutes. Perhaps judging Russell against stiff competition is unfair, but the numbers don’t get better with an extended sample. The Timberwolves are outscored by 14.3 points per 100 possessions in Russell minutes this year. Perhaps he can be better deployed as a complementary piece alongside an improved roster next season.
27. Detroit Pistons
Saddiq Bey continues to improve as a postlottery rookie. The Villanova product is averaging 14.2 points per game in his first NBA season, and he’s one of six rookies in history to make at least two threes per game at more than 37% from deep. Bey and Isaiah Stewart have both shined as rookies, and No. 7 pick Killian Hayes continues to flash his passing brilliance. There’s a sneaky-good core developing here with another lottery pick arriving this summer.
26. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers still sit healthily outside the top 10 in the East following Monday’s loss to the Pistons, and this doesn’t sound like a team poised for a big playoff run anytime soon. Take it from Kevin Love.
“We knew what was in front of us,” Love said after a loss to the Bulls on Saturday. “I wouldn’t say we laid an egg, but I would say we didn’t come out and show what we were capable of across the board.”
“I want it to hurt like it f---ing hurts me right now. I want it to be painful for them because a lost opportunity like that, it should hurt.”
Perhaps I’m reading between the lines here a bit, but Love’s comments are indicative of a team still not ready to compete for a playoff spot. Perhaps another lottery pick and growth from a middling young core will help push the Cavs into the play-in next season.
25. Oklahoma City Thunder
Luguentz Dort is already the NBA’s best value contract at under $4 million over the next two years, and he’s evolving into much more than a bargain find in 2020–21. Dort dropped a career-high 42 points in a loss to the Jazz on April 13, and he followed that up with 26- and 29-point performances over the last week. Dort entered the season as an elite defensive wing. He’s now shooting a respectable 35.1% from three, and he’s a better secondary playmaker than one would think. Pair Dort and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with the right lottery pick, and we could have a playoff contender sooner than expected.
24. Sacramento Kings
The Kings pulled off a double-digit win over Luka Dončić and the Mavericks on Sunday, but their playoff hopes have taken a serious tumble in recent weeks. Luke Walton’s squad lost nine straight before beating Dallas, and it enters Tuesday sitting five back of the No. 10 spot in the West. This isn’t necessarily a roster ill-equipped to compete, but barring a miracle, 2020–21 will mark another of De’Aaron Fox’s career without a postseason appearance.
23. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors continue to cling to the play-in conversation in the Eastern Conference, and Gary Trent Jr. could be the reason Toronto extends its seven-year playoff streak in 2020–21. Trent has scored 20 points per game on 45/42/85 shooting splits in his last 10 games, including a 44-point eruption on April 10. Kyle Lowry has played in one game during April, and Fred VanVleet has been active just once since April 2. With most of the backcourt firepower missing, Trent has admirably filled the void.
22. Washington Wizards
Well, here come the Wizards. Washington has won five straight after a win over the Thunder on Monday night, and it now sits in a relative dead-heat with the Raptors and the Bulls for the No. 10 seed. The edges of this roster are ugly, and Russell Westbrook certainly has his flaws. But I’d hesitate to bet against Westbrook and Bradley Beal in the play-in tournament. Washington’s John-Wall-for-Westbrook swap looks like a worthwhile decision in retrospect.
21. Indiana Pacers
Myles Turner is out indefinitely after undergoing toe surgery on Monday and it’s fair to question whether he’s played his final game in Indiana. The Pacers reportedly dangled Turner in its pursuit of Gordon Hayward this offseason, and the franchise feels ripe for a shake-up with a number of mid-sized contracts clogging the cap sheet. If Indiana wants to cut bait on its twin towers experiment, Turner is far more likely to be dealt than frontcourt mate Domantas Sabonis.
20. Chicago Bulls
Thaddeus Young isn’t exactly the flashiest name on the Bulls’ roster, but he remains an absolutely integral piece to the play-in contender. Young adds a dose of playmaking to the traditional three-and-D template, and he can upsize to guard larger forwards and small centers in a pinch. Young leads all Bulls rotation players in net rating. It’s hard to imagine Chicago nearing a play-in spot without him.
19. New Orleans Pelicans
Steven Adams’s contract could be a difficult one for the Pelicans to clear in the coming seasons. The former Thunder center is owed more than $17 million in each of the next two seasons, and he looks completely out of place in New Orleans alongside Zion Williamson. Pair Adams with a driving point guard like Westbrook, and perhaps there is value in his screening and rebounding. Though as Adams ages, his game looks increasingly anachronistic for today’s NBA.
18. San Antonio Spurs
It was never a perfect marriage between LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs, but the Texas native produced at quite the efficient clip in his first four seasons in the Lone Star State. Aldridge averaged an easy 20 points per game on 50.6% shooting from 2015–19, and he played in 302 of 328 possible regular-season games in that span. Aldridge was a model of consistency in an usually shaky stretch for the franchise, and had Kawhi Leonard not been stepped on in the 2017 West Finals, perhaps Aldridge would have a ring to his name by now. Best of luck to Aldridge in his retirement. In a borderline case, I’m willing to bet he sneaks into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
17. Charlotte Hornets
LaMelo Ball could return to the Hornets’ lineup within the next 10 days, and if he returns healthy, they have an outside shot at escaping the play-in tournament before the end of the regular season. Ball was anything but an empty-calorie point guard as a rookie, and lineups that paired Ball with either Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk posted healthy net ratings in legitimate minutes. Charlotte is a significant leap from contention, yet with Ball at the helm, the franchise is in as healthy a spot as anytime in recent memory.
16. Memphis Grizzlies
Jaren Jackson Jr. could return to the floor as early this week and his presence could be a major boon for the Grizzlies’ offense. Jackson is a perfect frontcourt complement to Jonas Valančiūnas, shooting 39.4% from three in 2019–20 on an impressive 6.5 attempts per game. Jackson’s funky form is more than passable beyond the arc, and he’s shown flashes of impressive rolling and shot-blocking ability. A healthy Jackson joining Memphis’s deep rotation boosts what only projects to be a difficult out in the play-in tournament.
15. Golden State Warriors
It’s been a tough stretch as of late for the Steph Curry detractors. The greatest point guard of the 21st century has been on an absolute tear since returning from a tailbone injury, averaging 40 points per game in his last 11 contests on just a tick under 50% from three. And Curry isn’t erupting against the dregs of the league, either. He scored 47 against Boston on Saturday night, and he followed the effort with 49 points in a win over Philadelphia on Monday. We’re learning just how great of a floor raiser Curry is in 2020–21 as he carries an ugly Golden State roster. The Warriors may be light-years away from the Finals this season, but Curry’s dominance remains the league’s most entertaining story as we approach the home stretch.
14. Miami Heat
We should be safe not to overreact to poor stretches from young players, though it’s hard not to be at least a touch concerned by Tyler Herro’s sophomore season. The Kentucky product is shooting just 40% from the field and 30% from three since the All-Star break, and he’s attempting a paltry 2.3 free throws per game this season. Herro currently looks to be more of a complementary piece than a true franchise anchor. Perhaps a hot moment in the bubble has inflated his value to many across the league.
13. New York Knicks
RJ Barrett may not be competing for All-NBA honors like Julius Randle, but he’s been increasingly impressive in his second season. Barrett is averaging 18.6 points per game in his last 20 contests, and his three-point shooting sits at a blistering 44.4% since Feb. 1. Barrett may never be the best player on a Finals contender, though he has all the makings of an effective second or third banana. Count Barrett as another player greatly benefiting from Tom Thibodeau’s arrival.
12. Portland Trail Blazers
Robert Covington remains a bit of a bellwether for the Blazers, and Portland’s recent struggles have coincided with a tough stretch for the eight-year veteran. Covington is 8–28 from three in his last seven games, a stretch in which the Blazers are just 2–5. Carmelo Anthony’s scoring totals are occasionally impressive, but Portland can’t survive without an effective Covington serving as a three-and-D asset on both ends.
11. Dallas Mavericks
Perhaps the Mavericks should be as worried about their current performance as they are with the upcoming play-in tournament. Dallas is limping through April with five losses in their last seven games, with a Luka Dončić miracle saving the contest on April 14. It’s hard to know what version of Kristaps Porziņģis is arriving each night. Josh Richardson hasn’t been a perfect Seth Curry replacement. This is still a roster at least one year away from true contention in the Western Conference as the playoffs approach.
10. Atlanta Hawks
Clint Capela continues to be one of the more undervalued players in the league. Atlanta’s center is leading the league with 14.5 rebounds per game, and he leads all Hawks with a plus-6.9 net rating. Capela tallied 25 points and 24 rebounds in Atlanta’s win over the Pacers on Sunday, and he’s been dominant in the Hawks’ 8–2 start to April. Squint hard enough and Capela’s two-person game with Trae Young looks similar to the big man’s rapport with James Harden. Perhaps Capela will anchor a playoff stalwart in Atlanta as he did in Houston in the coming seasons.
9. Boston Celtics
The Celtics have looked better as of late after a serious midseason swoon, but I still have a hard time considering them a true contender in the Eastern Conference. There are still issues with the back half of this rotation—with plenty of reliance on Payton Pritchard and Grant Williams—and which Kemba Walker will show up in the postseason remains a mystery. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are true stars who should anchor a postseason mainstay for years to come. But as for the Eastern Conference crown in 2021, consider Boston a long shot.
8. Denver Nuggets
I don’t get any MVP argument that doesn’t start and end with Nikola Jokić. The Nuggets superstar center entered Monday night averaging 26 points, 11 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game, and he added to his dominant statistical campaign with a casual 47-point effort on Monday night. Jokić is the clear leader of a Finals contender. He’s perhaps the game’s most brilliant playmaker, and he’s played in all 57 of Denver’s games this season. Pairing such excellence and durability makes him the clear choice considering the lengthy absences for Joel Embiid and LeBron James.
7. Los Angeles Lakers
Andre Drummond has been a solid plug-and-play piece for the Lakers as they tread water without Anthony Davis or LeBron James. Drummond scored 27 points in a win over the Jazz on Saturday, and he tallied 20 against Brooklyn one week prior. Drummond sports a healthy plus-3.5 net rating over the last 10 games. He’s an active rim-runner and despite his bouts of inattention, he’s still a presence at the rim. Drummond appears to have been a worthwhile flier for Rob Pelinka & Co.
6. Milwaukee Bucks
P.J. Tucker’s role with the Bucks in the postseason will be fascinating to watch. The best version of Tucker could be a wonderful finishing piece for them, one who could reliably knock down corner jumpers while guarding the opposing team’s best player. But perhaps Father Time is catching up to Tucker sooner than expected. He’s seen a marked dip in scoring and shooting percentage this season, and he’s been hampered by injury throughout 2020–21. Tucker stood as the NBA’s iron man throughout his Houston tenure. A new location may not be enough to turn back the clock.
5. Brooklyn Nets
Joe Harris should prove to be a relative bargain for the Nets at under $20 million in each of the next three seasons. He is a perfect complement to Brooklyn’s collection of high-usage stars, serving as a true marksman for perhaps the most electric offense in league history. Harris is a terrific cutter and a steady playmaker. He’s not a total defensive liability, a bonus for a player of his shooting acumen. As the Nets continue to play a game of rotating absences, Harris has been an indispensable cog.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Paul George could very well add a sixth All-NBA honor as he continues a dominant final stretch of the season. George is averaging 27.8 points per game in his last 10 contests on 48/46/90 shooting splits, tallying five 30-plus-point performances since April 5. The Clippers outscore opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions when George and Kawhi Leonard play together. If both are healthy in the postseason, the Clippers could fairly be considered the Western Conference favorite.
3. Utah Jazz
Joe Ingles is a perfect complementary piece in Utah’s balanced attack. The veteran swingman sports a plus-11.9 net rating this season with 52/49/87 shooting splits, adding an impressive playmaking boost as a drive-and-kick specialist off the bounce. Ingles is a reliable offensive weapon, and he’s not afraid to mix it up with the likes of Paul George or any other star. He shouldn’t be forgotten as a defining player of this era in Jazz history.
2. Phoenix Suns
Chris Paul deserves significant credit for the Suns’ turnaround in 2020–21, though we shouldn’t gloss over Devin Booker’s contribution. Phoenix scores a gaudy 117.8 points per 100 possessions when Booker is on the floor, and Dario Šarić is the only teammate with a better net rating. Booker is a pure midrange shooter and an evolving playmaker. He has no reticence taking the reins in late-game possessions. There’s far more to Booker’s game than the gaudy scoring averages we’ve seen him put up in recent seasons.
1. Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers were the victims of more Steph Curry magic on Monday night, but I’m not worried one bit about this team as Finals contenders. Philadelphia defeated the Clippers and the Nets over the last week, and Joel Embiid is still playing at an MVP level despite missing much of March with a knee injury. Doc Rivers has been a steadying force. Tobias Harris is in the midst of a terrific season. The Sixers remain a top-tier championship contender if they hit their stride over the summer.