NBA Power Rankings: Lakers Get a New Challenger to the ThroneJanuary 11, 2021
NBA Power Rankings: Lakers Get a New Challenger to the Throne
It was a very tough week for the NBA dealing with the coronavirus. The Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics have several players in the COVID-19 protocols. The Sixers barely had enough players to play Saturday. The Miami Heat-Boston Celtics game was the second this season to be postponed. Several teams have key players that are out due to contact tracing as well. There is not much the NBA or the affected teams can do for the time being, as there is no plan to pause the season.
COVID-19 was not the only downer last week. Markelle Fultz and Thomas Bryant both tore their ACLs and are likely out for the season. Bogdan Bogdanovic suffered an avulsion fracture in his right knee and is expected to have a lengthy absence..
Now back to the court, the supposed bad rookie class had some great moments this week. Anthony Edwards put up big numbers, LaMelo Ball showed his passing acumen, and James Wiseman flashed his offensive skill set.
These power rankings take into account how the teams performed last week, strength of schedule, who they beat and whether they or their opponents were at full strength. Style points are also given out. Are teams just barely getting by, or are they winning convincingly?
30. Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week’s Ranking: 26
The Wolves held a seven-game losing streak going into Sunday, the longest in the NBA so far. That puts them at that bottom of the power rankings for the week. Minnesota snapped it with a win on the second night of the miniseries against the Spurs.
Ricky Rubio’s return to Minnesota has not resulted in quality on-court production. His scoring average has been cut in half from last season. He has not fully found his fit in the offense, getting fewer shots and not taking advantage of the shots he is getting.
On a positive note, Anthony Edwards has continued to impress in his rookie season. In their blowout loss to the Blazers, he scored a career-high 26 points. The Wolves also had a Karl-Anthony Towns sighting, who came back for the first game against the Spurs but sat out the second.
29. Detroit Pistons
Last Week’s Ranking: 30
The Pistons picked up their second win of the season in a thriller against the Suns. Jerami Grant led them in overtime to victory. He scored eight of his 31 points to close Phoenix out. Over the week, he averaged 28.5 points and 7.0 rebounds and shot 44.4 percent from three. Unfortunately for Detroit, that production was only able to produce the one win for the week and second for the whole season.
To make matters worse for the Pistons, they lost rookie Killian Hayes for an undetermined amount of time to a labral tear in his hip. It’s a big blow to their plans for his development, as he may be out for months.
The one good news on the rookie front for Detroit has been Saddiq Bey. He continued his solid play last week, averaging 12.8 points while connecting on 40.7 percent from three. Bey was the team’s second-leading scorer over the last four games.
28. Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week’s Ranking: 28
Despite several guys being out with injuries, the Grizzlies played tough last week. They nearly stole the second game in the Lakers miniseries and lost a close one to the Cavs who were without Darius Garland and Collin Sexton.
They did get a win over the depleted Nets to break their three-game losing streak.
Starting most games with such a talent deficit leaves little room for error for the Grizzlies. Tyus Jones has done his job as a playmaker, averaging 6.8 assists since Ja Morant has been out. Kyle Anderson has also increased his assist average to 4.3 in that span.
With no clear sign of when Morant or Jaren Jackson Jr. may return, Memphis cannot afford a dip in the production of Jones and Anderson.
27. Washington Wizards
Last Week’s Ranking: 22
Bradley Beal exploded for 60 points in their loss against the Sixers. As impressive as that was, he had only three points in the fourth quarter. Then they followed that up with another loss to the Celtics after Beal poured in 41. He had to miss their game against the Heat due to COVID protocols. But at 2-8, the Wizards cannot afford to keep wasting these scoring outbursts from Beal. If they do, it will not be long until the trade rumors start swirling again.
The Wizards have played five games with a three-point differential with three minutes left and have lost four of them. Their net rating in those situations is minus-48.5. Five of their 10 games have fallen into those clutch scenarios.
Add losing Thomas Bryant for the season to a torn ACL to the list of problems in Washington.
26. Houston Rockets
Last Week’s Ranking: 19
The Rockets have a lot of talent but are further behind most teams after James Harden essentially missed training camp and then several players had to quarantine. Once they get more time together, they will climb in the rankings.
It does look good when it all clicks, like it did against Orlando on Friday night. Houston had 34 assists, led by Harden’s 13. Christian Wood got another double-double.
But the Rockets have yet to score a signature win this season. They have beaten up teams that are struggling like the Magic and Kings. This week they dropped games to the Mavs, Pacers and Lakers.
The one guy the Rockets need to get going is Eric Gordon. He has started the season slowly and is shooting just 28.3 percent from three for the season. Gordon becomes a valuable asset when he is knocking down shots. Houston is able to give Harden and John Wall more space to drive when he is on.
25. Toronto Raptors
Last Week’s Ranking: 18
Just as the Raptors offense began to show signs of life, their defense fell off. Their defensive rating last week plummeted to 118.6. The Raptors are stuck searching for answers sitting with just two wins.
Kyle Lowry struggled last week. The Raptors had a net rating swing of 13.2 when he was off the court. The game he missed was Toronto’s blowout win over Sacramento. Then the Lowry everyone loves and expects showed up against the Warriors. He scored 16 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, nearly leading a comeback win.
One positive trend to watch for is the development of Chris Boucher. He had a monster week, averaging 13.7 points and 6.0 rebounds and capped off the week with a six-block game against Golden State.
It has been a tough start for the Raptors, but the vultures should not be circling just yet. If they can stabilize their defense, they should be able to run off a few wins.
24. Chicago Bulls
Last Week’s Ranking: 23
The Bulls started their West Coast swing with a come-from-behind win in Portland. Then they dropped three games in a row to the Kings, Lakers and Clippers by an average of three points.
They did that with Lauri Markkanen sitting out due to health and safety protocols. Coby White went on a scoring spree, averaging 20 points last week. Zach LaVine created more for others, averaging 6.3 assists. And he finished the week by going off for 45 points against the Clippers.
Even though it has not translated to many wins just yet, Chicago is beginning to look like it is acclimating to coach Billy Donovan’s offensive system. The Bulls had an offensive rating of 119 last week.
23. New Orleans Pelicans
Last Week’s Ranking: 15
A winless week for the Pelicans is the reason for a big drop. They lost two heartbreakers against the Pacers and Thunder and then blew a big lead against the Hornets. They were up by as much as 18 in that game but were not able to sustain defensively.
Last week highlighted New Orleans’ struggles from three. The Pelicans fell to last in the NBA in three-point percentage. Another issue for them is turnovers.
The Pelicans commit 16.7 turnovers a night, which has led to 20.2 points for the other side. Besides taking away an opportunity for them offensively, they are putting their defense in bad situations.
Once New Orleans begins to value each possession and knock down threes at a higher clip, it will win more consistently.
22. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week’s Ranking: 24
Oklahoma City has the second-worst offensive rating in the NBA but the 11th-best defensive rating. Clearly the focus is on teaching the young kids to defend. It has resulted in them being 5-4, so why are the Thunder so low in the rankings?
Their wins have not been against any of the top teams. Their biggest win came against the Nets without Kyrie Irving and in Kevin Durant’s first game back from COVID protocols.
The youngsters played well for the Thunder last week. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 23.8 points, 6.8 assists and shot 45.0 percent from three. Hamidou Diallo put up 16.5 points. Darius Bazley averaged 11.3 points and 8.0 rebounds. Aleksej Pokusevski had a productive week as well.
Oklahoma City is at the start of the rebuilding and development stage. Early on, the Thunder have to feel encouraged by how these young kids have been developing.
21. New York Knicks
Last Week’s Ranking: 29
The Knicks were probably ranked too low last week. Going into Friday, they were riding a three-game winning streak with victories over the Pacers, Hawks and Jazz. But then they lost two straight to Oklahoma City and Denver. The Nuggets loss is defensible, but losing to a team that is rebuilding stopped the Knicks from an even bigger rise in the rankings here.
Tom Thibodeau’s imprint is all over this team. They play hard nightly and have a top-10 defensive rating. Now the offense needs a lot more work, as they are 28th in offensive rating in the NBA.
Julius Randle has been performing at an All-Star level through 10 games. He’s averaging 23.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 7.1 assists and powering the Knicks. Austin Rivers has provided a spark off the bench, averaging 11.8 points, with 6.2 of those points coming in the fourth quarter.
It is not just Randle and Rivers delivering for the Knicks. RJ Barrett has shown more flashes these 10 games than he did all of last season. Especially on the defensive end, where the Knicks had a defensive rating of 114.5 when he was on the floor last season. This year (on a small sample size) he’s improved to 104.9.
20. Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week’s Ranking: 25
The Cavaliers’ loss to the Bucks marked the end of a long six-game road trip during which they went 2-4. With Collin Sexton and Darius Garland missing time, the offense struggled, averaging just 92.7 points during the trip. The last time they broke 100 points was December 27.
Obviously the Cavs were going to struggle without their starting backcourt. They do not have the depth to make up for that loss. Andre Drummond has started the season with 10 straight double-doubles to keep them competitive in these games.
As a team Cleveland does a good job taking advantage of mistakes, leading the league in forcing turnovers and points off those turnovers. The Cavs have to keep that defensive pressure up because that is their best chance to score with the league’s worst offense.
They have a few winnable games this week, but only if they can get some of their guards back and get something going in their half-court offense.
19. Charlotte Hornets
Last Week’s Ranking: 21
The Hornets ended the week with a three-game winning streak. They got two wins over the Hawks and one over the Pelicans. They were able to get those wins despite Terry Rozier scoring just 16 points a game last week.
What is more important is LaMelo Ball found his groove. He averaged 14.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists and just 1.8 turnovers over the week. The Hornets had a net rating of 5.5 with Ball on the court in that span.
Ball also picked up his first career triple-double against the Hawks with a 22-point, 12-rebound, 11-assist night. The first of what will be many in his career.
18. Atlanta Hawks
Last Week’s Ranking: 12
After starting 4-1 the Hawks have gone 0-4, including blowing a 15-point lead to the Knicks last week. There is discord in the locker room, according to a report from Sam Amick and Chris Kirschner of The Athletic. John Collins shared his concerns with the team about Trae Young’s shot selection.
To make matters worse, the injuries are piling up. Danilo Gallinari has been out with a foot contusion, Rajon Rondo has played only two games, and Kris Dunn has yet to play for the Hawks. Then in their loss to Charlotte, Bogdan Bogdanovic left with an avulsion fracture and is expected to be out for a while.
These injuries are a huge blow to the Hawks. Gallinari provides more spacing with his shooting. Bogdanovic and Rondo take another playmaker away from Atlanta, which puts more pressure on Young to create everything.
The Hawks have a tough schedule this week. They need a win to get out of this funk.
17. Sacramento Kings
Last Week’s Ranking: 14
It is never good when the parents of players become part of a story. Marvin Bagley III’s dad took to Twitter to ask the Kings to trade his son. Then De’Aaron Fox’s father got involved with his own tweet. The off-court drama alone is enough to drop the Kings in the rankings, but the on-court play (1-5 in their last six games) contributed as well.
The Kings got blown out by 31 against the Warriors and lost to the Raptors by 21. Those loses were sandwiched by a close win against the Bulls in which Tyrese Haliburton returned to the lineup. Even his return has not helped the defense.
Before this week they were in the middle of the pack in defensive rating, but after giving up 137, 124, 144 and 125, they are nearly the worst in the NBA.
The start of the season had promise, but it seems the Kings have returned to being the KANGZZZ on and off the court.
16. Denver Nuggets
Last Week’s Ranking: 11
The Nuggets are a better team than they have shown this season. Nikola Jokic is balling right now but is not getting the support he needs. He’s averaging a triple-double for the season and had 27.5 points per game last week.
Jamal Murray has been inconsistent this season. He scored 31 and 36 points to begin 2021 but has since had 13-, 21- and 14-point performances. Gary Harris is continuing his downward shooting trend.
To make matters worse, they will be without Michael Porter Jr. for at least another week for health and safety protocols. The last time he played for the Nuggets was December 29 when he scored 30 points against the Kings. It is just not easy for them to replace his production.
The Nuggets swept their series with the Wolves, lost a tough game in overtime to the Mavericks, were gifted a win against the short-handed 76ers and beat the Knicks to improve to 5-5 this season. This could be the start of a nice run if the rest of the supporting cast gets going.
15. Golden State Warriors
Last Week’s Ranking: 22
It is pretty clear how different the Warriors are when Draymond Green is available to play. He is able to unlock other players and, in particular, Stephen Curry. Green is averaging 6.0 assists. His command of the offense allows for the Warriors to take advantage when defenses overplay Curry running off screens.
Speaking of Curry, he is third in scoring (28.6) and after a slow start from deep is hitting on 36.8 percent from three. Defenses always have to be prepared for Nuclear Curry. He followed up his 62-point career high with a 30-point night against the Kings the following game. The Warriors are 5-0 when he gets 30 or more.
And still the most impressive game was the Warriors’ win against the Raptors. They were able to pull out the victory despite Curry going 2-of-16 from the field and 1-of-10 from three.
As teams will focus their defensive efforts against Curry, it will be on his teammates to pick up the slack. He can’t go nuclear every night.
14. Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week’s Ranking: 16
The Blazers could have climbed up the rankings if they did not blow a 20-point lead to the Bulls. They rebounded nicely with easy wins over the Wolves and Kings.
A good sign for Portland last week was Jusuf Nurkic’s play. His scoring and rebounding went up while he racked up 4.3 assists per game.
As a team the Blazers are sporting a top-five offense, but their 23rd-ranked defense is holding them back. Even though it was not top-notch opponents, the Blazers put up a defensive rating of 103.5 last week. It will take time, but they have plenty of defensive tools. Gary Trent Jr. and Derrick Jones Jr. are doing well as point-of-attack defenders with Robert Covington rotating on the weak side.
The Blazers would climb up the rankings if they find their defensive gear.
13. Dallas Mavericks
Last Week’s Ranking: 17
The Mavericks look like they are slowly rounding into form on the offensive end. Going 3-0 last week, they averaged 116.3 points with wins over the Rockets, Nuggets and Magic. For the week Dallas’ offensive rating was 115.9, nearly 10 points better than what it was heading into the week.
Dallas desperately needed that win against Denver. Both teams have high expectations and both have struggled out of the gates. Wins like these are important to have in the bank when the season comes to an end and seeding comes into play.
In the win over the Magic, the Mavs had three key rotation players out due to health and safety protocols, and they added another to the list on Sunday.
If Josh Richardson, Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith and Jalen Brunson are all out for an extended run, the Mavs will struggle to replace their production.
12. Utah Jazz
Last Week’s Ranking: 9
The Jazz are in the middle of a long road trip East. The week started off rather poorly with a blowout loss to the Kevin Durant-less Nets, and then they dropped a game to the Knicks. Utah rebounded nicely with a blowout win against the Bucks in which it hit 25 threes. A win like that just makes those losses more confusing.
Donovan Mitchell picked up his play last week, averaging 27.3 points on 44.8 percent shooting from the field. And though Mike Conley’s scoring dropped last week, he gave out 6.8 assists.
Even though the Jazz ended the week with two wins, losing to a Nets team without Durant and then the Knicks is going to lead to a drop in the rankings.
11. San Antonio Spurs
Last Week’s Ranking: 20
There are a few things guaranteed in life: death, taxes and the Spurs being competitive. Last week they did something very few teams have been able to do over the past few years, and that's sweep their L.A. trip. Then San Antonio split its miniseries with Minnesota to go 3-1 for the week. That warrants a climb in the rankings.
The Spurs got big performances all week. They got 27 points from Patty Mills against the Clippers, 28 points from LaMarcus Aldridge versus the Lakers and then a 38-point performance from DeMar DeRozan in an overtime win in game one of their miniseries against the Wolves.
The Spurs don't take a lot of threes, but they make a lot of them. They are fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 39.2 percent. But their makes from deep open everything else up for them offensively.
10. Miami Heat
Last Week’s Ranking: 8
Miami’s offense has stalled out this season. Tyler Herro has not adjusted well to his new starting point guard role, and it is showing in many ways. He’s shooting 28.6 percent from three this season.
Herro’s problems are not just on the offensive end, as he is hurting the team defensively as well. The Heat have a minus-3.8 net rating when he is on the floor and a plus-8.2 when he is off. That is a big swing.
The Heat have a similar issue when Bam Adebayo is on the floor. They have a negative net rating when he is on and a positive when he is off. It is a 3.9-point swing.
This is not a call to bench either player, but it is a sign that the Heat will need their two young stars to play better on both ends to get back to the team they were in the bubble.
9. Orlando Magic
Last Week’s Ranking: 13
It was a tough week for the Magic. They swept their miniseries against the Cavs but lost Markelle Fultz for the season with a torn ACL. They will miss his ability to get paint penetration. His drives led to opportunities for everyone else. Now coach Steve Clifford will have to turn to rookie Cole Anthony to make up for Fultz’s 14.1 drives per game.
Anthony has given Orlando quality minutes this season as a backup. He is averaging 9.2 points, 3.3 assists and just 1.5 turnovers in 23.3 minutes a game. The issue is, he is shooting just 31.6 percent from the field.
It might be a short visit for the Magic in the top 10 if Anthony cannot make up for Fultz’s production. Up until this point they earned their spot based on their entire body of work.
8. Brooklyn Nets
Last Week’s Ranking: 5
The week started with the news that the Nets were going to be without Kevin Durant due to health and safety protocols. That did not stop them from crushing the Jazz with Kyrie Irving going off. He dropped 29 points in 29 minutes of action. Then without Irving, they proceeded to blow out the Sixers.
Caris LeVert returned to form by scoring 27.5 points and dishing out 6.8 assists. In addition to LeVert, Jarrett Allen outplayed both Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid. For the week, he averaged 15.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.3 blocks.
The Nets got Durant back on Sunday from the COVID protocols, but it did not help as they dropped a game against the Thunder. Defense was the primary issue, as they gave up 129 points to one of the worst offenses in the league.
7. Indiana Pacers
Last Week’s Ranking: 10
The often overlooked Indiana Pacers have been balling. They have quietly amassed a 6-3 record with wins over the Celtics, Rockets and Pelicans. The Pacers have a top-six offensive rating and net rating. They have been a tough team to play for years, but this year they have a better offensive scheme, which gives them much more bite.
Domantas Sabonis is playing at an All-Star level, averaging 21.6 points, 12.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists. Malcolm Brogdon is leading the team in scoring (23.4), assists (7.2) and three-point percentage (47.5 percent). Victor Oladipo is beginning to show flashes of his old self, evident with his poster of Mikal Bridges on Saturday night.
The next week will serve as a real test for the Pacers as they head out West for a five-game, seven-day road trip.
6. Phoenix Suns
Last Week’s Ranking: 7
Phoenix has hit the ground running, going 7-3 in its first 10 games. Everything is clicking on both ends of the court, giving the Suns a top-five net rating. Mikal Bridges stood out last week. Over three games, he averaged 17.7 points on a 48.6 field-goal percentage while defending at a high level.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Suns have the second-best effective field-goal percentage in the NBA. They are connecting at all three levels: sixth in shots at the rim, first in the mid-range and eighth from three. One area that they will need to improve upon is their free-throw attempts. With Devin Booker and Chris Paul, they should rank higher than 29th in attempts.
The Suns are for real, but how real is still yet to be determined. It will be a few weeks until they play another top-tier opponent, so until then they should continue piling up wins.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
The number of Sixers in the health and safety protocols has put the team in a very difficult position. Philadelphia only suited up eight players in its loss to Denver. That was the NBA’s minimum requirement needed to play the game.
Before all the COVID-related absences, the Sixers lost their chance at the No. 1 spot in this week’s rankings. As good as they have been, their blowout loss to the Brooklyn Nets, who were without both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, had to push them down a bit.
With that said, the Sixers are a top-five team. Danny Green came on strong last week. He shot 46.4 percent from three to bring his percentage up to 37.7 percent for the season.
A 7-3 record with a 4.1 net rating is a great start for the Sixers. Hopefully they can get back to relatively full strength soon.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week’s Ranking: 6
Not the best end to the week for the Bucks. They handled their business by sweeping the Pistons miniseries and beating the Cavs. Their lone loss was against a Jazz team that caught fire from three. The bigger issue is Giannis Antetokounmpo back spasms forced him to miss the game against the Cavs. It is a good thing Khris Middleton has been killing it this season.
After just 10 games, Middleton is making a run at joining the 50/50/90 club. He’s shooting 55.6 percent from the field, 50.9 from three and 96.8 percent from the line. On top of all this, he’s leading Milwaukee in assists with 5.9 a game.
Milwaukee’s record is not as gaudy as it was last year, but the Bucks are still dominant. They are the only team in the NBA with a double-digit net rating. As long as Antetokounmpo’s back spasms do not turn into a long-term problem, the Bucks will be just fine.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
Even though they finished 2-2, it felt like a pretty negative week for the Clippers. They lost to the Spurs to start the week but required a furious comeback to get back into the game. Then they blew a 22-point lead to the Warriors and lost by 10. The ability to maintain a lead haunted them last season, and they have yet to correct that.
For a change of pace, the Clippers decided to go down early against the Bulls before pulling out a crunch-time win. A good sign for L.A. was Lou Williams coming off the bench with 21 points after just recording three and six points in two games against the Warriors.
Getting points in the paint has been really hard to come by for the Clips, as they are averaging just 39.3 points there. Some of that is a product of playing more spread out with more shooting bigs in the lineup.
For the goals the Clippers have, that is not going to get it done.
2. Boston Celtics
Last Week’s Ranking: 4
On the court, the Celtics are rolling. They have a four-game winning streak. Boston has played six clutch games (games with a three-point differential with three minutes or less left), the most of any team in the NBA this season. The C’s came away with four victories in those games, including this week’s putback game-winner from Payton Pritchard.
The bad news is that most of their frontcourt is in the health and safety protocols. Then on Saturday it was announced that Jayson Tatum will be in quarantine for the next 10 to 14 days.
The Celtics got good news when it was announced Kemba Walker had been cleared for practice. There was no timetable for when he might return for a game, but it is a step in the right direction.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
The Lakers have yet to play their best basketball or even come close to it. At this point they are just playing with their food. Frank Vogel is willing to live with a few losses here and there like the one against the Spurs. The reason why? They are second in net rating, fourth in offensive rating and third in defensive rating
L.A. is very selective right now with its effort and urgency. The Grizzlies and Bulls played the Lakers down to the wire. But when they played the Rockets, it was clear they came to play from the jump. They put up 65 points and held Houston to 46 points in the first half.
The urgency is not there yet, but L.A. stayed No. 1 because the teams below them have not done enough to take the throne.