NBA Power Rankings with Season on Hold

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 16, 2020

NBA Power Rankings with Season on Hold

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    This week's NBA Power Rankings will be unusual. But with a pandemic impacting every corner of our lives—sports included—we're living in unusual times.

    The NBA suspended the season last Wednesday, and ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Sunday that the hiatus could last until mid-June.

    In an effort to preserve some normalcy, we'll take a crack at rankings with limited data. No team played more than two games since our last rankings dropped on March 9, so there's just not enough information to make significant moves up or down the list in most cases.

    We'll still consider recent play to the extent we can, mostly focusing on the last few weeks while factoring a team's full-season resume. As a reminder, record, advanced stats and health are all factors in our order.

    Stay safe, be smart, isolate and wash your hands.

30-26

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    30. Detroit Pistons (29)

    Christian Wood scored 32 points in Wednesday's 124-106 loss at Philadelphia, setting a career high for the third time in an eight-day span. More than any other Pistons player, the fourth-year forward has capitalized on the opportunities presented by injury (Blake Griffin) and frontcourt-clearing trades (Andre Drummond).

    On a sobering note, he also became the third player to test positive for COVID-19.

    In a dozen games as a starter, Wood is averaging 21.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists with a sterling 64.7 true shooting percentage. Who knows if the undrafted UNLV product can keep up those rates over a longer stretch, but it's eye-opening to note that only six players in the league are averaging at least 21 points per game on a true shooting mark above 60 percent. They're all All-Stars.

    Wood's production hasn't led to wins, though. Detroit is a league-worst 1-8 since the All-Star break.

            

    29. Chicago Bulls (30)

    Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. all got healthy before the season screeched to a halt, and those three have generally helped the Bulls produce solid numbers. Injuries to all three render that sample small (135 minutes of shared court time on the year), but Chicago has a plus-4.8 net rating when the trio is on the floor together.

    Between those three healing up and Coby White scoring in bunches, the Bulls have reasons for optimism.

    But with a 3-11 mark since Feb. 1 and a defense that has allowed a league-worst 41.7 percent of opponent field goals at the rim, the Bulls are stuck way down here.

            

    28. Minnesota Timberwolves (26)

    For a moment last Tuesday, it looked like the Wolves were about to hand the Rockets a fifth straight loss. Up by nine after one and holding an advantage as large as seven points late in the third quarter, Minnesota eventually lost its grip and fell 117-111.

    The Wolves have been abysmal on defense since the All-Star break, allowing an opponent effective field-goal percentage of 59.0. Fueled by far too many looks surrendered at the rim, that figure ranks second-to-last in the league.

    Minnesota's offense hasn't been quite as bad by comparison, ranking 20th since Feb. 1. That number would be a lot worse if Malik Beasley weren't lighting it up every night. His Timberwolves tenure is off to a terrific start, producing an average of 20.7 points per game on 42.6 percent shooting from long range.

            

    27. Golden State Warriors (25)

    Stephen Curry electrified the Warriors just once—in a 121-113 loss to the Raptors on March 5—before illness knocked him out of the Dubs' next two games. Then, the season's suspension put the whole league on ice.

    Considering the full year of data, this is probably too high a ranking for Golden State. It has four fewer wins than any other team and is last in net rating by a substantial margin. But if we're assuming Curry would be able to play in a game if one were on the schedule tomorrow, that has to juice the Warriors' ranking a bit.

    We got overly excited last week after watching Curry change everything about the Warriors. In the cold light of day, this feels like a more rational spot for them: not the worst but, even with Curry, a long way from the best.

         

    26. Atlanta Hawks (23)

    March was Trae Young's least efficient month of the season, but it was hard to believe that while watching him score 27 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter of Wednesday's 136-131 overtime loss to the Knicks. Even in a relative slump, there aren't many bucket-generators more explosive than the Hawks point guard.

    Young has had a few rough shooting nights since the break, but that makes Atlanta's No. 7 offensive rating in that span all the more meaningful. If the Hawks can keep finding ways to score that don't depend directly on Young's makes and assists, it'll serve their developing core well.

    Defense is still a lost cause, though. No team has surrendered more points off turnovers than the Hawks.

25-21

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    25. Cleveland Cavaliers (27)

    The Cavs have done things a little differently under new head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. Considering Cleveland's struggles under John Beilein, anything different was bound to be better.

    Thanks in part to some supersized frontcourt groupings (Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. are plus-24 in 39 minutes since the break; Love, Nance and Andre Drummond are plus-28 in 30 minutes), Cleveland is 5-6 in its last 11 games.

    Add to that Collin Sexton's 25.5 points on 52.8 percent shooting since the break, and you've got a Cavs team climbing for the second week in a row.

         

    24. New York Knicks (24)

    If the Knicks play any more games this season, their top priority should be getting more minutes for RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson. Those are the Knicks' most important developmental pieces, and their time on the floor together has been productive since the All-Star break.

    New York has a plus-11.7 net rating (and a stunning 120.7 offensive rating) in the 117 minutes those two have shared since the start of the season's unofficial second half. Just as encouraging: Frank Ntilikina's 20 points and 10 assists in Tuesday's loss to Washington. The bar is not high, but that might have been the best game of Frankie Smokes' career.

    Wednesday's 136-131 overtime win against Atlanta, fueled by 33 points and 11 boards from Julius Randle, upped the Knicks' March record to 3-3.

             

    23. Washington Wizards (28)

    If the season resumes and Washington buckles down, it has a chance to avert historic ignominy. Its defensive rating, on pace to be the worst of all time for much of the year, is now only two-tenths of a point worse than Cleveland's.

    I like the Wizards' chances. They own the No. 13 defense in the league since Feb. 1, largely because they've done well limiting opponents' shot attempts at the rim and from deep.

    Washington beat New York 122-115 on Tuesday, getting 39 points from Bradley Beal and running its March record to a respectable 3-3. With an 8-9 mark over their last 17 contests, the Wizards probably didn't deserve last week's bottom-three positioning. Consider that rectified.

    Finally, we should all have someone in our lives who believes in us as much as Beal believes in Davis Bertans.

            

    22. Phoenix Suns (21)

    Phoenix's modest two-game winning streak came to an end with Tuesday's 121-105 loss to the Blazers, and though the playoffs are now out of the question, this has been far from a wasted year.

    The Suns are on pace to produce their best offensive rating since 2013-14 and highest this century if you exclude seasons involving Steve Nash. Might that say more about the rise of offense in general than anything else?

    Sure. But let's allow the Suns to have this one. It's been a rough few years.

           

    21. Charlotte Hornets (22)

    Despite the second-worst effective field-goal percentage and the third-worst defensive rebounding rate since the break, the Hornets are still 5-6 in their last 11 games. All year, Charlotte has shown a knack for eking out close wins, usually with sound defense and a well-timed offensive outburst from one of its guards.

    Terry Rozier's career-high 40 points wasn't quite enough to get past the Hawks in double OT Monday, but Devonte' Graham's 30 points (plus terrific team defense that held the Heat to 11 second-quarter points) got the job done in Wednesday's 109-98 win at Miami.

    At 23-42, Charlotte has the point differential of a 19-win team. The Hornets should feel lucky to rank this high.

20-16

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    20. San Antonio Spurs (20)

    According to FiveThirtyEight, the Spurs had just a 2 percent chance of extending their postseason streak to 23 consecutive seasons. That number might be even lower with uncertainty hanging over the season's resumption and duration.

    Already with 36 losses on the year, San Antonio's winning percentage (.429) is assured of its worst since 1996-97, a season that preceded the births of three players on the current roster. We're witnessing the end of an exceptionally long era.

    The death of San Antonio's playoff streak owes, ironically, to defense. The Spurs are 24th in points allowed per possession. They were 20th last year but ranked in the top four every year from 2012-13 to 2017-18.

            

    19. Portland Trail Blazers (18)

    The Blazers head into the suspension period losers of two of their last three and 3.5 games behind the eighth-seeded Grizzlies. But few teams stand to benefit more from postponed games than Portland.

    Jusuf Nurkic was on the cusp of returning just before the shutdown, and now he'll get even more time to get ready. The same goes for Zach Collins, out since late October following shoulder surgery. He was targeting a March return but can now rehab longer before slotting back into a key rotation role.

    Don't forget Damian Lillard, who'd only been back in action for four games after recovering from a groin strain. A little time off could benefit Portland's superstar as well.

            

    18. Orlando Magic (19)

    The Magic's post-break offensive surge is, appropriately, an illusion. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Magic have the league's fourth-best effective field-goal percentage since the All-Star Game. Based on their shot locations, they should rank 23rd.

    Unless you believe it's wise to trust in scorching mid-range accuracy or Terrence Ross' recent hot streak, Orlando's been lucky.

    There's no taking away from Markelle Fultz's work in March, though. He averaged 15.4 points and 6.4 assists on 58.5 percent true shooting, his most efficient month to date. He also outdueled Ja Morant in the fourth quarter of Orlando's 120-115 win over the Grizzlies on Tuesday.

    Per Josh Robbins of The Athletic: "The Magic are not yet his team, but he at least is setting the tone for a suddenly improved, faster-paced offense that benefits from his speed."

    Fultz's redemption story is a bright spot in a season that has had more than its share of dark moments.

            

    17. New Orleans Pelicans (14)

    The Pels are the first team we've hit that didn't play a single game in this rankings session. Their fall has more to do with teams below them playing well (or getting key bodies back) than anything else.

    So, with no games to judge, how about some lineup analysis?

    New Orleans' starting five is shredding opponents. The quintet of Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Derrick Favors owns a plus-26.3 net rating—by far the best figure of any fivesome with at least 230 minutes together this year. 

    Even if the playoffs likely remain out of reach, the Pels can look forward to that group building massive early leads every night next season (assuming Favors sticks around).

                 

    16. Sacramento Kings (13)

    Like the Pelicans, the Kings were inactive this past week.

    At 28-36, the Kings sit 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies—probably too far to make a playoff run, especially if the season is shortened following suspension of play. But Sacramento wouldn't be as close as it is to the postseason if not for De'Aaron Fox.

    The third-year guard is averaging 23.4 points per game on 60.3 percent true shooting since the break, and Fox's aggressiveness in attacking the basket produced 68 free-throw attempts in his last nine games. For reference, James Harden, perhaps the craftiest contact-initiator the league's ever seen, draws shooting fouls on 18.3 percent of his field-goal attempts.

    Fox is now at 18.2 percent, and he's years behind the 30-year-old Harden in learning tricks of the foul-drawing trade.

15-11

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    15. Brooklyn Nets (17)

    Brooklyn picked the right time to reel off three straight wins. If it hadn't, the Magic, 3-0 in their last three contests, would have overtaken it for the No. 7 spot in the East.

    The Nets are on the other side of the scoring-luck spectrum from Orlando. Instead of making a high percentage of bad shots, they're missing a high percentage of good ones. Based on their shot profile, the Nets should have the sixth-highest effective field-goal percentage since the break. Unfortunately for them, they're 27th in that stat.

    Tuesday's pre-suspension 104-102 road win over the Lakers was about as good of a tone-setter as any team could hope for.

           

    14. Memphis Grizzlies (12)

    Stretch-run reinforcements might have arrived last Thursday, as Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow were close to a return and a debut, respectively, against the Blazers. Those two should be ready to rock if and when the season resumes.

    Memphis' only game this week was a 120-115 loss to the Magic. Despite 27 points and 16 rebounds from Jonas Valanciunas, the Grizzlies couldn't overcome Terrence Ross' 18 fourth-quarter points.

    The Grizz are still 4-2 in their last six games, but that five-game slide after the break is too recent to forget. Memphis is 8-8 since Feb. 1, and offense has been the main culprit. Its 107.4 points per 100 possessions since Feb. 1 ranks 28th in the league.

    The Grizzlies have compensated by having the stingiest defense in the league during March.

           

    13. Indiana Pacers (15)

    The Pacers are 7-3 since the All-Star break, the best mark in the East over the last 10 games. That five of those wins came on the road shouldn't be a surprise, as Indiana is one of just four East teams with a winning record away from home. But the timing was critical.

    Joel Embiid's return makes the Sixers a more dangerous team, and Indy is in a virtual tie with them for the No. 5 seed. With the Heat stumbling, there's also a chance for Indiana to make a run at No. 4, which would mean home-court advantage in the first round of the postseason.

    Malcolm Brogdon now has more time to heal that torn left rectus femoris he suffered March 4, and a little rest will certainly do Victor Oladipo some good as he works back into form following a year on the shelf.

            

    12. Miami Heat (11)

    The Heat haven't had a problem getting up for their most important games. They're 9-3 against Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia and Indiana.

    But their last five losses came against Charlotte, New Orleans, Minnesota, Cleveland and Atlanta. The Pelicans are better than their current record, now that Zion's supercharging their starting five. But how do you look past stumbles against those other teams, particularly Charlotte at home last Wednesday?

    The good news is none of those doormats will be there to trip the Heat up in the postseason. It's nonetheless concerning that Miami's performance is subject to such lulls.

            

    11. Utah Jazz (10)

    Mike Conley isn't the problem in Utah anymore.

    He's averaging 16.5 points and 4.9 assists with a 45.8/44.4/83.3 shooting split since Feb. 1. The Jazz are just 9-7 with a negative net rating in that stretch, but they've outscored opponents with Conley on the floor. He put up 13 points and seven assists, posting a plus-seven in Utah's 101-92 loss to the Raptors last Monday.

    As has been the case for a while, defense is the Jazz's main shortcoming.

    They rank 23rd in points allowed per possession since the break, and their longtime anchor on that end, Rudy Gobert, became the first NBA player to test positive for COVID-19 (teammate Donovan Mitchell was the second). It's bizarre to think that one of the top interior defenders of our time will now have that very strange entry in the second paragraph of his career retrospective. 

10. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 16

    Joel Embiid slugged the Pistons for 30 points and 14 rebounds Wednesday and producing a 124-106 win in his first action since Feb. 26. The Sixers also sustained the hot shooting that defined much of Embiid's absence, hitting 14 of their 33 attempts from deep in the rout.

    Ben Simmons' return is still a ways off. He won't be reevaluated again until early April, according to The Athletic and Stadium's Shams Charania. But as will be the case for several players working their way back from injury, the suspension could be a blessing in disguise.

    Embiid makes all the difference for the Sixers. Now that he's back, it's time to plop Philadelphia back into the top 10.

9. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 8

    Denver's defense still hasn't made it back from the All-Star break. Since the February hiatus, the Nuggets are allowing 113.7 points per 100 possessions, a serious decline from their pre-break figure of 108.0.

    Paul Millsap, whose on-court net rating is higher than that of any other Nuggets regular, looked especially frisky in the early going of Wednesday's 113-97 loss to the Mavs. He scored a dozen points in the first quarter, snatched a cross-court pass from Luka Doncic and kept Denver close as Dallas reeled off seven treys in the period.

    Unfortunately for the Nuggets, Millsap failed to log a bucket for the rest of the game, and the Mavericks outscored them by 12 points over the final three quarters.

    Nikola Jokic is Denver's best player, but there's no denying Millsap's impact. The more involved the veteran forward is, the better the Nuggets tend to play.

8. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 7

    In a development that should surprise no one, the Rockets have had a hard time on the glass with their shrunken lineup. They're last in the league in rebound percentage since officially scrapping centers on Jan. 31.

    Even their 117-111 win over the Wolves on Tuesday, which snapped a four-game losing streak, saw them lose on the glass by a margin of 41-33. 

    Though it might also seem sensible to worry about the physical toll of Houston's constant switching and short rotation, the numbers indicate little in the way of in-game fatigue. The Rockets have been outscored by an average of 1.6 points per first half since going small, but they're plus-4.7 points in second halves.

    Just 1-4 in their last five games, the Rockets will emerge from the season suspension with plenty to prove.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 9

    Oklahoma City's work in the clutch is laudable, but that 29-13 record in games that feature close-and-late situations unfairly overshadows another key factor in the team's surprising season: dominance on the road.

    The Thunder didn't play this past week, but they closed out the previous ranking session with three straight wins at Detroit, New York and Boston. On the year, OKC is 20-11 on the road. Only the Lakers, Bucks and Raptors have better winning percentages away from home.

    One issue to note as we hit pause on the year: Oklahoma City's wildly effective trio of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder (plus-28.6 net rating on the court together for the season) actually hurt the Thunder in March. The 14-minute sample may be too tiny to mean much, but those three posted a negative net rating for the month.

    Will a three-guard look work as effectively in the postseason? OKC now has some downtime to ponder that one.

6. Dallas Mavericks

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    Last Week: 6

    Playing the second night of a back-to-back and doing it without Kristaps Porzingis or Seth Curry, the Mavs still took down the Nuggets on Wednesday. The 113-97 win came courtesy of Boban Marjanovic's career night.

    The hulking fan fave scored 31 points and hauled in 17 boards, feasting on the offensive glass and working into deep position against a Nuggets defense that couldn't be bothered to body him up until it was too late.

    Luka Doncic's hands, which are basically national treasures because of the passes they make, are in danger. He was already dealing with a nagging left thumb injury before banging his right hand on the rim during the signature highlight of Wednesday's win.

    He'll have plenty of time to heal those magnificent mitts now.

5. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 5

    Boston clinched a playoff spot with Tuesday's 114-111 win over the Pacers, becoming the third East team to secure its berth.

    Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 30 points against Indy, and the rising star also chipped in with a season-high-tying four steals. Much has been made of Tatum's offensive leap, but don't overlook his strides on the other end. He's one of just six players averaging at least 23 points and 1.4 steals this season.

    The Celtics hit the layoff three games behind Toronto in the loss column, but they're the only East team with top-five rankings in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 4

    Toronto crushed Utah on the glass 53-34 in last Monday's 101-92 road win, an out-of-character effort for a Raptors team whose board work this year stands out as its greatest weakness.

    Toronto is 25th in defensive rebound percentage, one slot ahead of the diminutive Rockets.

    The Raps have shuttled bodies on and off the injury report all year, spending significant stretches without Marc Gasol, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, each of whom has missed at least 11 games this season. Gasol leads the group with 28 nights in street clothes.

    Powell, on an absolute tear lately, went down in the first quarter of Monday's win with a sprained ankle.

    The break will do Toronto some good. Even if Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green aren't on the team anymore, the rest of the rotation played into June last year. Those extra playoff games come with a physical cost. Now, with a month off, Toronto can heal up instead of pay up.

3. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 3

    The Bucks aren't the same on either end without Giannis Antetokounmpo disruptively snaking his arms into passing lanes, contesting shots from unreasonable distances and scoring at point-blank range on the ensuing possession.

    Milwaukee surrendered 140 points to the Suns in Antetokounmpo's first game on the shelf with a knee sprain and managed to tally just 95 points in last Monday's 109-95 loss to the Nuggets.

    To be fair, the Bucks were having a hard time scoring before losing Giannis. They're 12-5 since Feb. 1 but are just 25th in offensive efficiency during that span. Antetokounmpo missed only four of those games, which should concern Milwaukee.

    Is this a case of a team with a considerable lead in the conference letting off the gas? Or, as we saw in last year's playoffs, has the league started getting more serious about shutting down an offense that, while effective, is short on backup options or counters?

    The Bucks had better come out of this hiatus with a plan to put some points on the board. With the playoffs looming and title hopes at stake, now's not the time to grind the gears on offense.

2. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 2

    The Clippers recovered from their March 8 loss to the Lakers with a breezy blowout victory over the Warriors on Tuesday, cruising to a 131-107 win in San Francisco. Four reserves scored in double figures, and Kawhi Leonard barely broke a sweat while scoring 23 points in 25 laid-back minutes.

    Though key deadline acquisition Marcus Morris Sr. has been a disaster offensively (38.6 percent shooting from the field; 28.3 percent from deep), his heft and mobility still make a major impact on defense. When he shares the floor with Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers have three enormous wings who can all hang with guards and muscle up against all but the heftiest bigs down low.

    In 195 minutes together, the Morris-George-Leonard trio has a plus-14.1 net rating and is holding opponents to just 101.8 points per 100 possessions.

    Though picking out the Clippers' weaknesses is a challenge, Lou Williams' exploitability on D got plenty of coverage this past week. Hard as it may be to believe, L.A.'s depth is so great that it might not even need his scoring anymore. The Clips may not care if they have to bench Williams when opponents target him in the playoffs.

    They've got plenty of other ways to get buckets.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last Week: 1

    The Lakers are doing it with defense.

    Only the Bucks have been stouter on that end over the last six weeks.

    Yes, L.A. slipped against the Nets in its only game this past week, falling 104-102 despite some sequences of hustle you wouldn't expect to see from a team running away with the West's top seed. But those wins over the Bucks and Clippers (March 6 and 8, respectively) are still too recent to move the Lakers out of the top spot.

    Plus, LeBron James and Co. have dealt with top-flight opponents more effectively than almost anyone. They're 13-8 against teams that rank in the top 10 in point differential, the best such mark in the league.

    Fourth in offense and third in defense on the year, the Lakers are 23-7 since Jan. 1 (tied with Milwaukee and Toronto for the best winning percentage in 2020) and have everything you'd want in a resume for a No. 1-ranked team.

             

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Wednesday, March 11.