No big, flowery introductions to our Power Rankings this week.
Throughout the season, Inside Sport will be bringing you our NBA Power Rankings. These are not necessarily ranking based on records. This is a purely subjective assessment of how a team is progressing, projected and playing.
All records are as of Thursday night Australian time.
30. Golden State (Steady)
(10-38) Last week: 0-2
Golden State made a trade this week sending D'Angelo Russell to the Timberwolves Willie Cauley-Stein to the Mavericks, as their Dwight Powell replacement. An earth shattering transaction, I'm sure you'll agree.
Despite all talk coming from the Warriors camp reiterating their desire to hold onto Russell, don't be shocked if the 23 year old Ohio State product gets moved. Minnesota are practically begging the Warriors to make a trade, so whilst it's not an out and out certainty, don't be shocked if D'Lo is gone by the trade deadline.
29. Atlanta Hawks (Steady)
(12-36 Record) Last week: 1-2
Putting aside my reservations about Trae Young being an All Star starter, you have to salute the young man. He's the Hawks first starter in the loge showcase since Dikembe Mutombo back in 1998. Young also put up perhaps the best Kobe Bryant tribute over the weekend, pouring in 45 points and 14 assists, shooting 6 of 11 from deep. And he did it wearing the #8 to start the ball game.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers (Steady)
(13-35) Last week: 1-3
We're on the home stretch of the 'Will Kevin Love be traded?' drama. Given that the championship winning veteran has been rather less than discreet about his wish to leave the Cavs, it's likely one of the fringe contenders or middling teams wanting to make a playoff push take the plunge.
On court, the Cavaliers broke their 7 game losing streak with victory in Detroit. The Cavs ball movement has improved; their defense has somehow regressed. Through the losing streak, Cleveland averaged 2.9 blocks per game. As a team. Their defense at the rim is league worst by a wide margin, and overall their defense only bests the Wizards, who may not actually be trying to play defense.
27. New York Knicks (Steady)
(13-36) Last week: 1-3
It's like we've stepped out of a time machine and it's 1973.
26. Washington Wizards (Steady)
(15-31) Last week: 1-2
The Wizards defense, as you most likely know, is a mess.
This week, they game up 150+ points in back to back games! To Atlanta and the Bucks who were resting Giannis! Sadly, this is the 4th time the sorry Wizards 'defense' has surrendered 150+ this season. They've held teams under 100 points on three occasions!
This team would have surrendered 100 points to Mike Fratello's old Cavs teams.
25. Detroit Pistons (Down 2)
(17-32) Last week: 0-4
A very poor week for the Pistons, losing all 4 games, with nary a true quality opponent in sight.
From here on in, this season should be all about assessment of the young talent for Detroit. To that end, they've quite openly explored trade scenarios for star centre Andre Drummond, and you would fully expect Detroit to move on from the resurgent Derrick Rose. Rose's ability to create offense out of thin air should see him land on a contender before the trade deadline expires. Given his relatively meagre $7.3 million salary and a contract that runs a season beyond this one, he should be a hot commodity. The Lakers would be mad not to find a way to bring him aboard.
24. Minnesota Timberwolves (Down 2)
(15-32) Last week: 0-3
Minnesota have now lost 10 straight games and we can officially pronounce the patient dead.
Even with Karl Anthony Town back in the fold, the team has struggled. Much of that has to do with defense – the team as a whole, but especially Towns individually. Since the start of December – so we're looking at a reasonable sample – the Wolves have a 121.7 defensive rating with Town on the floor, against 105.1 when he is out of the lineup. With defensive ace Robert Covington in seemingly every trade rumour, the Wolves defense could be about to get worse – Wizards level worse.
In the best Obi-Wan voice I can muster: Towns is not the superstar you seek.
23. Charlotte Hornets (Up 2)
(16-31) Last week: 1-1
SOUND THE MALIK MONK KLAXON!!!
The 3rd year guard out of Kentucky erupted this week, going off for 31 points in the Hornets loss to the Bucks in Paris. He's scoring 21.3 points over his last 3 contests. Is this a flash in the pan, or is Monk going to make himself a part of this promising young Hornets core? The team could do worse than to force feed him minutes to try and find out. Charlotte's win over the Knicks snapped an eight game skid. That bright start to the season seems so long ago.
22. Sacramento Kings (Up 1)
(17-30) Last week: 2-1
An interesting shake up in Sacramento this week, as coach Luke Walton moved Buddy Hield to the bench in favour of Bogdan Bogdanovic. The move has certainly brought the best out of Buddy Love, who has averaged 25.3 points on 54% shooting overall (52% from deep) in the last three games. For what it's worth Bogdanovic has hovered around his usual numbers. That begs the question: Is this the Kings putting Bogdan in the shop window?
21. Chicago Bulls (Steady)
(19-31) Last week: 2-2
Zach LaVine is often – rightly – depicted as a remorseless gunner. However this week he posted nine assists against Indiana, a couple of games after recording 8 dimes versus Cleveland. In addition to his undoubted scoring ability and fearless late game shot making, a play making LaVine could be a real leader for the young Bulls. That's of course assuming he ever actually tries on defense.
20. Brooklyn Nets (Steady)
(20-26) Last week: 2-2
Since Christmas, the Nets have suffered losing streaks of seven and five games. Despite that, they remain a full three games clear of Chicago for the final playoff spot in the East. Wouldn't it be nice to be in Brooklyn's world, where dramatic troughs in the team's form don't really have a consequence?
Kyrie Irving, for all his foibles, remains one of the best shot makers in the NBA. Next season, with Kevin Durant back, Irving should fall in to what he hopefully accepts is his NBA destiny: the #2 option on a contending team.
KYRIE IRVING HOW!? 😱 pic.twitter.com/wu0dS9VPLm— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 26, 2020
19. Phoenix Suns (Steady)
(20-27) Last week: 2-1
Phoenix haven't sent a representative to All Star Sunday since Steve Nash back in 2012. Devin Booker should break that unwanted streak. The 5th year guard is averaging 27.1 points and 6.4 assists a night, with an excellent 63.4% True Shooting percentage.
The Suns might soon have a 2nd All Star on their hands in DeAnde Ayton. The young big has improved dramatically on the defensive end, with a Defensive Rating a full 6 points better than his rookie campaign. He's been excellent in January with nightly averages of 18.7 points, 11.9 boards and 1.9 blocks.
18. Portland Trailblazers (Steady)
(21-27) Last week: 2-1
Last week, I mentioned that the biggest impediment the Blazers have in trying to tank, wears #0.
Damian Lillard has certainly done nothing to dispel those thoughts. As his team crumbles around him, Lillard continues to fight the good fight. He's averaging 33.1 points and 8.3 assists in January. Whilst there have been flourishes, such as the 61 points he hung on the Warriors last week or the 50 point, 13 assist masterclass against Indiana, his consistency has perhaps been even more impressive: Lillard has only scored below 30 points once since the turn of the year.
17. Orlando Magic (Down 2)
(21-27) Last week: 0-3
The Magic need a shake up.
They're almost Spursian in their ability to take care of the teams in the lower reaches of the standings, going 16-6 against teams with a sub .500 record. The maths geniuses out there will deduce that against better than .500 teams Orlando have a woeful 5-21 record. They're so mid-table it hurts.
So who to trade? The obvious answer seems to be the struggling – and perhaps just not that good – Aaron Gordon. He has a season after this one remaining on his $20 million per year contract. There are surely teams out there that think they can unlock something in him.
16. San Antonio Spurs (Down 2)
(21-26) Last week: 1-3
The Spurs are somewhat of an enigma. They took out the streaking Jazz in their last game, yet have lost to Chicago and Phoenix this week. They held of a charging Pelicans team in Zion's debut last week and defeated Miami, yet lost to Atlanta.
On the personnel front, DeMar DeRozan is both an outside chance of being an All Star, and seemingly expendable. LaMarcus Aldridge is either antiquated, or the Texan Splash Mountain, depending on the night. Whilst the Spurs are in the playoff hunt, don't expect them to make wholesale changes, but come season's end, we could see a raft of moves.
15. New Orleans Pelicans (Up 4)
(19-29) Last week: 2-1
Forget the games this week – although the win over Boston was very nice – and focus on the freight train that is Zion Williamson.
There was a thought that it might take a few weeks for Zion to acclimatise to NBA hoops, given his long layoff. That acclimatisation process took about 12 minutes of game time. Since his 4th quarter explosion against the Spurs, Zion has been very, very good. He's giving the Pellies 18 points and 8.3 rebounds a night, and is already displaying solid play making instincts. He isn't setting the tone on defense yet – what rookies truly do? – having only blocked a single shot in his 4 games so far. But what a block it was!
14. Memphis Grizzlies (Up 2)
(24-24) Last week: 4-0
The trade deadline dealings of the Grizzlies will be fascinating. Their perfect week has given them a 1.5 game lead over San Antonio for the 8th seed in the West. Ja Morant is already an elite closer, sitting behind only James Harden, Trae Young and Giannis Antetokounmpo in 4th quarter points. Jaren Jackson Jr, Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas have fallen into line as capable lieutenants.
Yet the Grizzlies have a decision to make. It looks increasingly like Andre Iguodala will be a buyout candidate, rather than traded. But Jae Crowder is a player capable of improving a raft of contenders, notably the Clippers, Mavericks and Rockets. Should they trade him, it signals that the playoffs are not a priority this season.
13. Dallas Mavericks (Steady 2)
(29-18) Last week: 2-2
The Mavericks addressed their sudden need for a rim running, speedy centre in acquiring Willie Cauley-Stein from the Warriors. Willie Trill has physical talent to burn, but has he been damaged beyond repair from the unfortunate fate of spending his developmental years with the Kings? If there is a coach who can turn the big man around, it's surely Rick Carlisle.
Dallas still has Courtney Lee's expiring $12 million contract, and an $11.8 million trade exception from last season's Harrison Barnes deal, so they might not be done tinkering, just yet.
12. Houston Rockets (Steady)
(29-18) Last week: 2-2
James Harden is in an almighty slump.
Look at these numbers:
Harden has fallen away across the board, except for one very important number: Usage.
The Beard, despite his vicious slump, isn't adapting his game. On a team with Russell Westbrook and the returned Eric Gordon (welcome to the season, EG) it would surely make sense for Harden to perhaps play off the ball a little, and let colleagues in better form take the wheel while he regains his mojo.
11. Indiana Pacers (Steady)
(31-17) Last week: 2-1
Victor Oladipo returned for the Pacers this week. Understandably, given he's spent a full 12 months away from an NBA floor, he looked rusty in his 20 minute cameo. His Pacers teammates have been superb in his absence, with the team a very solid 30-17 prior to his return. Malcolm Brogdon has fitted in seamlessly. Domantas Sabonis has emerged as a star. What the team was missing, however, was a closer. A shot maker that could bail them out of late game situations. Oladipo is that man.
Oladipo hit the deep three to force OT! 😮 pic.twitter.com/Q97SnDNmEn— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 30, 2020
10. Oklahoma City Thunder (Steady)
(29-20) Last week: 3-1
This Thunder team continue to defy pre-season expectations, and they're doing it in weird and wonderful ways.
From their insistence in starting a complete non-entity on the wing, with Terrance Ferguson and Darius Bazley following in the footsteps of Andre Roberson; to their weird yet utterly dominant three point guard lineups, the Thunder have far outperformed the most positive of prognostications.
So what to do at the deadline? Yes, this team is nice story and they'll almost certainly make the playoffs, but they are sitting on ticking time bombs in the health of Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari. Steven Adams is a prime candidate to age early given the beatings he's taken through his career. The notoriously hot and cold Dennis Schroder is running white hot.
Does Sam Presti ride the crest of the wave, or does he break down and sell his core for the seven remaining NBA 1st round picks of the 2020's that he doesn't already own?
9. Philadelphia 76ers (Steady)
(31-17) Last week: 2-1
Joel Embiid returned to the court against the Warriors this week, posting 24 points and 10 rebounds in only 26 minutes. It will be interesting to see what happens to Ben Simmons with JoJo back on deck. The Australian averaged 21.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.9 assists with Embiid out.
This is a team that could be anything. In their wins against the Bucks and Lakers, the Sixers were utterly dominant, winning by an aggregate 29 points. Yet they drop some absolute gimmes from time to time. If they can get into gear towards the end of the season, their ability to seemingly flip a switch will make them very dangerous.
8. Boston Celtics (Steady)
(31-15) Last week: 2-1
Boston's win in Miami this week, like last week's home victory against the Lakers, shows what the Boston team can do when fully operational. They are frighteningly thin, though, as evidenced by their loss to New Orleans with Jayson Tatum, and Enes Kanter sitting.
Speaking of Kanter, he looms as the most likely to be moved should GM Danny Ainge live up to his trader reputation. Kanter has shown flashes with the C's, and combined with his strong play in Portland last season and a relative pittance of a contract ($4.8m), he is the obvious chip to throw in. What about Daniel Theis?, I hear you ask. He's just straight out better than Kanter. His passing, shooting and defensive versatility make him far more valuable to the Celtics than Kanter is.
7. Miami Heat (Down 1)
(32-15) Last week: 1-2
After missing the first 44 games of the season with injuries, suspensions, and...shall we say, other issues, Dion Waiters made his season debut against the Clippers. He proceeded to do the most Dion Waiters thing he could: score 14 points in 18 minutes.
Waiters resurrection could be a blessing for the Heat, in so much as proving that he is living and breathing, and might actually be tradable. For a team reportedly looking to make changes around the fringes of the roster, Waiters's $12 million deal, which runs through next season, might be palatable for some desperate organisation.
6. Utah Jazz (Down 2)
(32-15) Last week: 1-2
A little of the lustre came off the Jazz this week, going down to the Spurs without LaMarcus Aldridge after losing to a Rockets side missing both Harden and Westbrook.
A very concerning sign for the Jazz is the recent regression in Joe Ingles. Mike Conley's return hasn't seen Ingles return to his early season 6th man role, yet over his past six contests, Jinglin' Joe is averaging a mere 7 points on 37.5% from the floor and a worrying 26.9% from deep. He's still contributing with 7 assists and 4 rebounds, but he's there primarily for his shooting. If that fades, perhaps a spot on the 2nd unit beckons.
5. Denver Nuggets (Steady)
(32-15) Last week: 2-1
Nikola Jokic is all the way back, people.
Over the past 6 weeks, Big Honey has put his slow start behind him, averaging 22.3 points, 10.1 boards and 6.8 assists. Importantly, his shooting percentages have increased dramatically. Perhaps most crucially, his free throw rate has skyrocketed, indicating that Jokic is again getting to the bucket, rather that settling for jumpers. In January alone he's averaging 6.7 attempts from the charity stripe against 2.2 back in November.
4. Toronto Raptors (Up 3)
(33-14) Last week: 3-0
Lo and behold, the Raptors get their full team back on the court and they reel off an eight game winning streak. With their next three games against Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago, there's no reason that streak can't be extended further.
Toronto will be an interesting watch as the trade deadline approaches. GM Masai Ujiri famously swings for the fences and with his team perhaps unexpectedly still in contention, it wouldn't be beyond Ujiri to take one more swing. But who to trade? Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are all on big money expiring deals. Lowry is a certainty to stay, so that leaves the two bigs. Personally, I think it's unlikely either are moved, although they're the most obvious candidates, should Ujiri choose to take the plunge.
3. Los Angeles Lakers (Steady)
(36-10) Last week: 1-1
Their record this week doesn't really matter.
This week, we mourn for Laker Nation.
2. Los Angeles Clippers (Steady)
(31-14) Last week: 3-1
The Clippers are without a doubt an incredibly deep roster, but like most NBA teams, they'll only go as far as their superstars can carry them. With Paul George out with a hamstring injury since early January, the Clips have gone a comfortable 7-2 (one of the losses came without Kawhi Leonard). That has been on the back of a monster run from Kawhi. Check out his last 8 games: 35 points, 7.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2.5 steals, a block, and 2.9 three pointers at 38.9%. That is insane, and we haven't even broached his defense. Kawhi is showing flashes of the 2016 era destroyer of worlds as an on ball defender.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (Steady)
(41-6) Last week: 2-0
Ho-hum....another long winning streak for the league leading Bucks – this one currently stretches to nine straight victories.
Per 100 possessions, the Bucks score 114.2 points, which is good for 2nd in the NBA. At the other end of the floor, they concede only 102 points per contest, by far the league's best. The difference between Milwaukee and 2nd place Toronto is the same as the difference between Toronto and Chicago - in 9th. All this dominance, combined with a deep roster, has allowed Mike Budenholzer to expertly managed his rotations. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only Buck to play over 30 minutes a night, at a mere 30.7. That comes in at 68th in the NBA.