We’re just over halfway through the season, with the worst of the pandemic’s health and safety protocol-related effect seemingly over. So for this week’s Power Rankings, let’s take a look at one player from every team worth keeping an eye on, for better and worse, as the race to the postseason/lottery starts to pick up steam.
(Note: SI’s NBA staff is ranking every team from best to worst all season long, taking into account how each squad is currently playing.)
1. Phoenix Suns
Current record: 36-9
Previous ranking: 1
Player to watch: Deandre Ayton
Playing for a max contract, Ayton’s numbers are almost identical to last season. He’s a reliable double-double who physically dominates the paint on both ends. The way he’s used in Phoenix’s offense is a little different, though. Post-ups are down and, according to Synergy, the percentage of his possessions finished as a roll man are up 12.2%.
What’s most fascinating about Ayton’s situation is how the Suns don’t miss a beat when he’s out. They’re 13-3 in the 16 games he’s missed this season, with JaVale McGee, Frank Kaminsky, Bismack Biyombo and even Jalen Smith all, in their own way, showing how inessential Ayton is relative to the contract he wants. None of this is fair to Ayton, who’s excelled in a role that wouldn’t be so limited had he been drafted almost anywhere else. But the dynamic is what it is.
2. Golden State Warriors
Current record: 34-13
Previous ranking: 3
Player to watch: Klay Thompson
There isn’t anything too deep to say about Klay, who’s appeared in only a handful of games this season and spent most of his time getting as many shots up as he possibly can (Thompson’s 32.6 attempts per 100 possessions is more than basically everyone else). As someone eventually expected to log significant minutes on a title contender, he’s worth keeping an eye on over the next few weeks, for obvious reasons.
3. Miami Heat
Current record: 30-17
Previous ranking: 5
Player to watch: Tyler Herro
This is less about Herro and more about a potentially dangerous lineup the Heat have yet to really play that may be what they lean on when their back is against the wall: Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, Herro, PJ Tucker and Bam Adebayo. Spacing could be an issue but Herro is making 42.7% of his catch-and-shoot threes and Tucker leads the NBA in three-point percentage.
4. Memphis Grizzlies
Current record: 32-17
Previous ranking: 2
Player to watch: Dillon Brooks
The Grizzlies like to talk. They’re physical, brash and obsessed with believing nobody respects them. Next to Ja Morant, Brooks is the spiritual manifestation of these cultural pillars. And as well as they’ve played since he sprained his ankle, Brooks still leads the team in net point differential. The Grizzlies aren’t the peak version of themselves without him menacing everyone who isn’t on his side for 48 minutes.
5. Brooklyn Nets
Current record: 29-17
Previous ranking: 7
Player to watch: Nic Claxton
Not every contender is blessed with a young, tantalizing talent with upside who fills a present-day need. That’s where the Nets are with Claxton. Even with James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, Brooklyn’s best iteration won’t be known until Claxton finds his footing as their starting center.
He’s only 22 years old and too slender to bang against some of the best bigs in basketball, but his length and agility can create issues elsewhere, switching on the perimeter or pressuring a pick-and-roll.
Claxton has started only 14 games, and Brooklyn’s most intriguing five-man unit (Claxton, Irving, Harden, Durant and Joe Harris) probably won’t play its first second together this season until the playoffs (According to Cleaning the Glass, that group logged six possessions during the 2020-21 playoffs.) If it coalesces before then, though, we may see a version of the Nets that blows everybody else away.
6. Milwaukee Bucks
Current record: 30-19
Previous ranking: 6
Player to watch: Jrue Holiday
This man just won a championship and played an important part in some of the most iconic plays in recent NBA Finals history. And yet … he’s still barely ever talked about? Holiday deserves All-Star consideration! He’s making 42.9% of his spot-up threes. The Bucks are +260 when he’s on the court and -81 when he sits. There’s no sane guard in the NBA who isn’t overcome by relief when Holiday is out of Milwaukee’s starting five.
This late-December play against the Rockets, where he blows up three actions in a row, is hilarious and a perfect encapsulation of Holiday’s value:
7. Utah Jazz
Current record: 30-17
Previous ranking: 4
Player to watch: Rudy Gay
Gay’s season has been a tale of two positions. When the Jazz signed him there was hope he could be the small-ball five Utah didn’t have in last year’s playoffs. The bad news is, those lineups can't guard anybody, glaringly so on New Year’s Day in a home loss against the Draymond Green-less Warriors.
One week later, in a game against the Pacers that Rudy Gobert didn’t appear in, the Jazz tried Gay as their backup center and it was a disaster. Domantas Sabonis finished with 42 points on 22 shots.
However! The good news is that when Gay is at the four, Utah demolishes everything in sight.
8. Dallas Mavericks
Current record: 27-20
Previous ranking: 10
Player to watch: Jalen Brunson
The Mavericks are now a defensive-minded team, meaning most decisions they make on offense are done to make life on the other end a bit easier. That affects where and when shots come from, which tends to up their degree of difficulty. But it doesn’t entirely explain why Brunson and Luka Doncic have been so incompatible when Dallas has the ball. As mentioned in this story about their defense, the Mavs’ offensive rating when Brunson and Luka share the court is trending in the wrong direction. But on his own, Brunson is a crafty mid-range maestro whose field-goal percentage on drives is second only to Giannis Antetokounmpo among players who average at least 10 per game.
9. Cleveland Cavaliers
Current record: 28-19
Previous ranking: 9
Player to watch: Evan Mobley
Mobley is appointment viewing—Dr. J crossed with KG. His growth is evident on a weekly basis, with displays of sudden power and aerial feats that constantly have me writing, “He can do that?” in my notebook. By the time the playoffs roll around, there’s a good chance the intensity in that environment will need to prepare for him, as opposed to it being the other way around.
10. Chicago Bulls
Current record: 28-17
Previous ranking: 11
Player to watch: Ayo Dosunmu
Contextually, the type of season Dosunmu is having hardly ever happens: A rookie second-round pick playing big minutes, hitting over half his shots and guarding opposing stars for the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed. With Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso both out for the foreseeable future, the 6’ 5” Dosunmu will continue to play a critical role. It’s strange to wonder where Chicago would be without him, too. Nailing free agency is a huge reason for the Bulls’ turnaround: DeMar DeRozan, Alex Caruso and Ball were all strokes of genius. But picks like Dosunmu are ultimately what take front offices from good to great.
11. Philadelphia 76ers
Current record: 27-19
Previous ranking: 8
Player to watch: Joel Embiid
Let’s take a moment and appreciate how utterly ridiculous Embiid is in the clutch, where his usage rate is 43.4, his true shooting percentage is 62.6 and the Sixers are +29 with him on the floor. Here’s a stat for you: In crunchtime, Embiid has played one fewer minute than Anthony Davis but scored 47 more points! (Embiid’s 98 points in the clutch leads all players.)
To be so effective in tight spots as the lone superstar on his team, against defenses that know he’s the center of Philadelphia’s offensive strategy, is a testament to the breadth of Embiid’s offensive repertoire—how quick he attacks on duck-ins, how potent his face-up jumper can be, how dangerous he is in space. He shoots over and plows through double teams. If he keeps this up and the Sixers are able to somehow finish with a top-3 seed, the MVP might finally be Embiid’s to lose.
12. Boston Celtics
Current record: 24-24
Previous ranking: 16
Player to watch: Robert Williams
The Celtics are struggling. But when Williams is on the floor he’s the closest thing they have to an insurance policy, gobbling his teammates misses, snatching lobs out of the air, whacking layups off the backboard and throwing passes that dazzle from the top of the key. Williams keeps possessions alive that the opponent has otherwise worked hard enough to end and finishes Boston’s with violent finality.
He’s shooting 74% from the floor and the Celtics are better on defense when he plays (especially when it comes to limiting fouls). For all the concern that pervades this team on a regular basis, when Williams is on the court with Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart, the Celtics are a juggernaut. Williams is a significant reason why.
But Boston needs more of it. More aggression, more minutes, more adventures with the ball in his hands. If or when they discover some consistency, Williams will be at the center of it.
13. Charlotte Hornets
Current record: 26-21
Previous ranking: 13
Player to watch: Miles Bridges
Bridges’s fourth season remains a shock. Of the 24 players averaging at least 20 points per game, he’s far and away the least expected. Leaguewide, Bridges also ranks second in total minutes on a rollercoaster ride of a basketball team that falls apart when he’s not on the floor and has a better net rating than the Nets when he plays. Only the Magic, Thunder and Pistons are less efficient than the Bridges-less Hornets.
Some of that’s because this dude is constantly putting pressure on the rim. Sometimes it’s diving to the basket after a ball screen. Other times it’s driving at a defender who never got the memo about Bridges’ cooled off three-point shot. He averages 6.5 shots in the restricted area per game, which is ninth-highest in the league. (Last year it was 3.6 per game.) People get embarrassed when Bridges rumbles through the paint.
14. Denver Nuggets
Current record: 24-21
Previous ranking: 14
Player to watch: Jamal Murray
We still don’t know when Murray will make his season debut, but his return from a torn ACL may swing the entire season. Murray’s explosiveness and stamina will be examined by eyes that understand how significant a return to norm will be for the Western Conference playoff picture and Denver’s viability as a true contender. Also, this dude has one of the most aesthetically pleasing skill sets in the sport. It’s been sorely missed.
15. Minnesota Timberwolves
Current record: 23-23
Previous ranking: 16
Player to watch: Anthony Edwards
Edwards is way ahead of schedule, already a star who’s added a stepback three to an explosive first step. Shots like this deserve their own novel.
16. Toronto Raptors
Current record: 22-22
Previous ranking: 12
Player to watch: Pascal Siakam
About two years ago Siakam was on the cusp of superstardom with a steep growth curve. Now, there’s zero All-Star buzz, with Siakam’s shot selection sliding in the wrong direction. Right now, only 46.1% of all his attempts come at the rim or behind the arc, putting Siakam 132nd out of 138 players who’ve logged at least 1,000 minutes. During the 2019-20 season—his first as a primary option and only time cracking All-NBA—that number was 67%!
Siakam’s per game numbers are still pretty good. His closeouts are fierce and frequent. He leads the Raptors (a playoff team) in usage rate; they’re good when he plays and struggle when he sits. But it feels like people are ignoring production just because it’s static. (Siakam has the seventh-most fan votes among frontcourt players in the Eastern Conference.) That’s not quite the case, though. Siakam is still developing. He had back-to-back 10-assist games against the Bucks and Heat last week, which doesn’t sound like a lot but is for Siakam, who had only two double-digit assist games in his entire career before this month.
17. Atlanta Hawks
Current record: 21-25
Previous ranking: 24
Player to watch: De’Andre Hunter
Hunter is someone the Hawks should very much consider committing to; the back half of this season will go a long way towards deciding exactly how much that commitment will cost.
Hunter has scored at least 20 points in four of the first seven games he’s played since returning from a wrist injury. He made a crucial contested runner in a big Martin Luther King Jr. Day win over the defending champions and is shooting 41.5% from three this season. But more important than his spot-up shots is everything he’s able to generate independently. Keep an eye on Hunter when he’s at the mid-post, rising up to let one go over a smaller defender or beating his man off the bounce and finishing at the cup (something he’s really struggled at this year).
This year almost all of his minutes have come with Trae Young also on the court. It’d be nice to see them staggered a bit, if for no other reason than to let Hunter up his usage and show how far he is from becoming a legitimate second option.
(I thought long and hard about putting Onyeka Okongwu here instead. He turned 21 last month and already looks like someone who’ll make (at least) a handful of All-Defensive teams.)
18. Los Angeles Lakers
Current record: 23-24
Previous ranking: 20
Player to watch: Anthony Davis
The Lakers had the worst offense in the NBA when Anthony Davis shared the floor with another big. Meanwhile, when Davis plays center with LeBron James and Russell Westbrook on the floor, they’ve boasted the best offense in the NBA. In conclusion: If AD plays even one minute beside Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan, the organization should be relegated.
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19. Washington Wizards
Current record: 23-24
Previous ranking: 19
Player to watch: Rui Hachimura
It’s been a lost third year for Hachimura, who recently returned to the court after a months-long mental health break. Jumpers haven’t been falling as he rediscovers his rhythm off Washington’s bench, surrounded by a bunch of new teammates, out of position way too often in a different system under a new head coach. But taking all that into consideration, Hachimura looks pretty good! He’s increasingly explosive and graceful, and the type of talent who can help right a once-promising Wizards season.
20. Los Angeles Clippers
Current record: 23-25
Previous ranking: 19
Player to watch: Nicolas Batum
It turns out Batum’s renaissance campaign with the Clippers wasn’t a fluke. He’s still shooting just over 40% from behind the three-point line, still filling gaps on defense that impact winning and still able to play four positions on both sides of the ball. Should Kawhi Leonard and Paul George somehow make it back to 100% before the season ends, Batum may become one of the most important swingmen in basketball.
21. New York Knicks
Current record: 23-24
Previous ranking: 20
Player to watch: Quentin Grimes
It’s too early to say if the Hawks made a mistake settling for a protected first and Kevin Knox when they traded Cam Reddish to the Knicks. But Grimes would’ve been an ideal short and long-term fit beside Trae Young, John Collins and De’Andre Hunter. He’s good. And if the Knicks end up making the playoffs, their rookie will help get them there.
22. Portland Trail Blazers
Current record: 20-26
Previous ranking: 26
Player to watch: Anfernee Simons
When I profiled Simons a couple summers ago, the hype surrounding his potential was strong and steeped in hyperbole (his trainer called him “a rough draft copy of” Klay Thompson and Damian Lillard. Everyone around Simons since he was young saw legitimate greatness in his dunk-contest-winning bounce and three-point-contest-worthy shot.
Now, in the middle of a nightmare Blazers season, he’s blooming. Simons’s scoring average is almost twice as high as it was last season. His two-point percentage is up almost 10% and, according to Synergy, among all players who’ve finished at least 150 possessions as a pick-and-roll ball handler, Simons ranks No. 1 in efficiency. The jump from intriguing talent to dependable star is never guaranteed, but if Simons played for the Knicks and wasn’t reserved, it’d be treated as a foregone conclusion. He’s still only 22!
23. Indiana Pacers
Current record: 17-30
Previous ranking: 26
Player to watch: Lance Stephenson
Since that magical 30-point homecoming on Jan. 5, Stephenson has shot 35% from the floor. No matter. Strum those strings, Lance. Strum them forever.
24. New Orleans Pelicans
Current record: 17-28
Previous ranking: 25
Player to watch: Herb Jones
Assuming defensive responsibility for the toughest cover every night, this rookie hardly ever looks overmatched and does not go away. The Pelicans have a positive net rating when he plays and are the worst team in the league when he sits. Jones is a keeper.
25. Sacramento Kings
Current record: 18-30
Previous ranking: 21
Player to watch: Tyrese Haliburton
Haliburton’s usage rate is mystifying. On his own team, at 17.5%, it’s currently below De’Aaron Fox, Terence Davis, Buddy Hield, Tristan Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Davion Mitchell, Marvin Bagley III and Chimezie Metu. Meanwhile, Haliburton is awesome, with a “Kyrie in Game 7”-esque sidestep three ball firmly in his repertoire and deceptive handles that keep opponents off balance when they’re trying to guard him in space.
Haliburton doesn’t isolate often, but when he does, good things happen.
26. San Antonio Spurs
Current record: 17-30
Previous ranking: 22
Player to watch: Dejounte Murray
The Spurs have given Murray the keys and he’s responded by having a season that, after factoring in all the ways he changes games with his defense, is better than James Harden’s. No, his three-point shot isn’t much better than it was when he first entered the league, but Murray has seen his field goal percentage at the rim climb 10% from what it was two years ago—according to Cleaning the Glass he’s in the 84th percentile.
Murray is a nightly triple-double threat (only Nikola Jokić has more) who ranks fourth in assists and first in steals. He’s grabbing more rebounds than LeBron James and, as a throwback caretaker of his team’s offensive rhythm, cradles a low turnover rate that hasn’t gone up despite all the additional responsibility Gregg Popovich has piled onto his plate since DeMar DeRozan left. Beyond those numbers, Murray just sort of gets where he wants to go. He creates just enough space for himself against most defenders, especially in the paint, where that high, fading release is tough to bother.
In NBA history, the only players to average at least 19 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and two steals per game for an entire season are Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. Murray is on pace to join them.
27. Houston Rockets
Current record: 14-33
Previous ranking: 28
Player to watch: Eric Gordon
Gordon is 33 years old and enjoying what might be the best season of his fantastic, albeit perennially overlooked, career. Behind the arc, he’s drilling 42.7% of his pull ups and (the following is not a misprint) 45.8% of his catch-and-shoot tries, leveraging that threat to attack downhill as if it were 2012.
28. Oklahoma City Thunder
Current record: 14-32
Previous ranking: 27
Player to watch: Darius Bazley
When he was a 19-year-old rookie, Bazley had the bones of a young Lamar Odom. He was this tall, smooth lefty who could handle the ball, run the floor and play with a confidence that belied an intriguing future. That type of comparison is … not happening anymore. It’s season three and Bazley is among the worst rotation players in the NBA. He averages 1.4 turnovers to 1.2 assists per game and shoots 39.4% from the field (his exact same field-goal percentage as a rookie). Aside from hopeful development as a shot blocker (where he averages more rejections per 100 possessions than Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jarrett Allen and Matisse Thybulle) there’s little to get excited about for an athlete who could be further along than he is.
29. Detroit Pistons
Current record: 11-35
Previous ranking: 29
Player to watch: Killian Hayes
It’s early, but as the seventh overall pick two years ago, Killian Hayes has been a massive disappointment—especially when you consider that the class’s leader in win shares, Tyrese Haliburton (more on him later), was taken five picks later. Hayes’s PER is 8.0. He is shooting 34.3% from the floor, rarely gets to the rim and has yet to score over 13 points in any game this season. This isn’t the type of explosion you want to see from someone who projected as a lead ball-handler entering the NBA:
When he shares the floor with Cade Cunningham, the Pistons score 102.5 points per 100 possessions, which is atrocious. When Hayes is on the floor without Cunningham, their offensive rating free falls to 86.0. Again, it’s early. But if Hayes doesn’t show signs of improvement over the next few months his time in Detroit may be over sooner than later. Guards who start this slow rarely figure it out.
30. Orlando Magic
Current record: 9-39
Previous ranking: 30
Player to watch: Wendell Carter Jr.
Carter’s sharp migration away from the basket has been a little jarring. His three-point rate is just shy of five times what it was as a Bull, and it’s unclear sometimes who those shots actually serve. Carter isn’t feared out there and is instead forced to take them because Orlando’s lineup probably has another center big (like Mo Bamba) in it.
The Magic are at the bottom of a rebuild, trying their best to accumulate as much young talent as they can. But as they finish out this season and then enter next year with Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz presumably back in the fold, they might want to consider how pieces actually fit, who complements who and what roles allow individuals to develop skills they actually have.
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