It seems as though we forgot about the Clippers for a brief stretch of 2019-20. Perhaps the absences from Los Angeles’ superstars has played a roll, or maybe it’s a simple case of Little Brother Syndrome. Regardless, any discussion of Finals contenders should have the Clippers mentioned in the first breath. Doc Rivers and Co. have won six of their last seven. Kawhi Leonard crushed the Heat in Miami on Friday, and he did the same to the Mavericks two nights prior. The Lakers have been dominant and the Bucks are cruising. The Clippers stand on the same plane through nearly 50 games.
As we head toward the All-Star break, let’s dive into The Crossover’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Warriors – The Warriors continue to hold down the cellar in the Western Conference, but D’Angelo Russell has been fantastic of late amid a string of losses. The Ohio State product is averaging 27.6 points per game on 44% from three in his last nine games, including a 37-point effort against Indiana on Friday. Russell’s potential departure from Golden State remains one of the deadline’s most interesting questions. The Timberwolves are effectively foaming out the mouth for the 23-year-old point guard. Don’t be so sure the Warriors will pull the trigger. They may be better off waiting until the summer for a blockbuster deal.
29. Hawks – Trae Young delivered one of the cooler Kobe Bryant tributes on Sunday, taking 24 shots while donning Bryant’s No. 8. Young is no Bryant (who is?) but he is one of the game’s best young guards. Good on him for paying tribute to a legend gone far too soon.
28. Knicks – I understand Mitchell Robinson is still relatively raw, and his foul issues are significant. But playing the 21-year-old just 22 minutes per game feels criminal. Taj Gibson is starting on most nights. Marcus Morris and Julius Randle monopolize minutes. I don’t get this. Let the youngsters play their hearts out. How else does New York expect to grow?
27. Cavaliers – Monday’s win over the Pistons snapped a seven-game losing streak, but the Cavaliers are challenging New York for the Most Dysfunctional Franchise award. John Beilein may be a one-and-done, neither Collin Sexton nor Darius Garland have been blue chippers, and the final remains of the 2016 title squad may be shipped off by early February. The lottery can’t come soon enough in Cleveland.
26. Wizards – The Wizards are likely lottery bound, and Bradley Beal’s frustration continues to build, specifically after the All-Star starters announcement.
“We know first hand whose good, we know first hand who’s an all-star,” Beal said. “We know first hand whose a bitch to deal with night in and night out. For the fans it’s just a popularity contest.”
Beal has a point regarding the problematic All-Star voting setup, but even solely player and coach selections would likely leave Beal out of the starters conversation. Consider this a case of misplaced anger.
25. Timberwolves – That’s ten straight losses for Minnesota, and the Timberwolves’ rotation looks thinner by the night. Perhaps a Robert Covington deal can net some assets, but the future remains relatively bleak in the crowded Western Conference. Keep an eye on Karl-Anthony Towns’ frustration as we head toward the summer.
24. Hornets – The outline of a quality rotational player is there with Malik Monk. The Kentucky product has 51 points in his last two games, showcasing his ability to be a microwave scorer off Charlotte’s bench. But Monk’s hot stretches have been few and far between this season. He’s shooting 26% from three in 2019-20, and he logged just 15 minutes in a three-game stretch from Jan. 12 to Jan. 15. Monk was electric in his lone season at Kentucky. That player still lurks somewhere behind the Monk we’ve seen at the professional level.
23. Pistons – Detroit can’t seem to string together extended stretches of quality play, and the Pistons inability to contain guard penetration remains a glaring weakness. Kyrie Irving cooked the Pistons for 45 points on Saturday, and Collin Sexton controlled the contest two nights later. Consider this another lost season in the Motor City.
22. Kings – De’Aaron Fox is generally a delight to watch, and delivered one of the season’s best highlights against the Timberwolves on Monday. Call it luck if you want, but this is masterful execution here by Fox late in the game. Not only is Fox a blur in transition, he’s one of the game’s headiest young guards.
21. Bulls – Zach LaVine draws plenty of (deserved) flack, but he has the skill-set of a leading man. He poured in 14 points in the fourth quarter against San Antonio on Monday, and he has at least 20 points in 15 straight games. Even a modicum of defensive effort could go a long way to flipping LaVine’s reputation.
20. Pelicans – The full strength Pelicans are a delight to watch, and not just because of Zion Williamson. The Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball backcourt is downright ferocious defensively, and Alvin Gentry’s squad plays at a thrilling pace. Circle Super Bowl Sunday on the NBA calendar as Zion and the Pelicans face the Rockets in a nationally-televised afternoon tilt.
19. Suns – Deandre Ayton continues to impress with his offensive efficiency, averaging over 19 points per game in his last seven contests. His defensive growth has been more encouraging. Ayton sports a stingy 105.7 defensive rating, nearly eight points better than his disastrous rookie season. Ayton is a superb offensive talent. Even passable defensive performance could pave the way to a future All-Star appearance.
18. Nets – For all the Kyrie Irving drama that surrounds the Barclays center, the Nets point guard still remains one of the game’s most electric scorers. He absolutely torched the Pistons on Saturday, dropping 45 points in a Brooklyn victory. Dismiss Irving at your peril if Kevin Durant returns healthy in 2020-21.
17. Spurs – Perhaps this is more statistical anomaly than anything, but the Spurs certainly have knack for playing in close games. They’ve played 10 straight games within single digits, though they’ve lost their last three, including a one-point loss to the Bulls on Monday. Gregg Popovich and Co. will have to turn the close-game tide quickly to stay in the Western Conference playoff race.
16. Magic – The Magic are still devoid of a franchise anchor in a traditional sense, but their nine-figure deal for Nikola Vucevic looks more sensible by the month. Vucevic is averaging 20 points and 11.6 rebounds per game in January, and his three-point percentage has held steady despite increased volume. Orlando has a logjam of frontcourt players, and their maneuvers through July will be fascinating. Don’t expect to see Vucevic leave anytime soon.
15. Trail Blazers – Seriously, Damian Lillard? 158 points in three games, including a 61-point and 50-point effort at the Moda Center. The Blazers were in free fall for much of the season, but they’ve rallied in January to creep toward the eighth seed. A playoff appearance could give Lillard some down-ballot MVP votes by season’s end.
14. Grizzlies – Memphis has won seven of its last nine, and the Grizzlies offense has been quite impressive of late. Ja Morant and Co. are No. 5 in offensive rating in January. They’ve scored 120 points in seven of their last 12 games. The prospect of this young team in the playoffs is thrilling. Let’s see if Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. can hold up across 82 games.
13. Thunder – The Thunder have exceeded expectations to a significant degree this season, largely thanks to its crunch-time chops. OKC leads the league in clutch net rating, per NBA data, and Chris Paul leads all players in clutch points. Fellow point guard Shai-Gilgeous Alexander is 24-36 from the field in the clutch. Danilo Gallinari also ranks in the top 10 in clutch points. There must be something in the water near Chesapeake Energy Arena.
12. Pacers – Victor Oladipo will return to the Pacers’ lineup on Wednesday, and his Pacers teammates have impressively held down the fort in his absence. The best news for Oladipo? He won’t have to carry an undue offensive burden in his return. Domantas Sabonis is a worthy fulcrum, and Nate McMillan is wringing the most out of T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb. Oladipo will only improve one of the East’s deepest rotations in February. By April, he could be back to leading Indiana through a hard-fought playoff series.
11. 76ers – Ben Simmons has been dominant since Joel Embiid exited the lineup, averaging 21.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game. The Sixers have won five of their last six, and Simmons crushed the Lakers with a 28-point, eight-assist performance on Saturday. Simmons is an MVP talent on the right night. That’s what makes his shortcomings so frustrating.
10. Mavericks – We should briefly reflect on Dwight Powell’s terrific 2019-20 after a season-ending Achilles injury. Dallas’ center averaged career highs in field goal percentage and rebounds in 2019-20, but the simple statistics obscures his outsized impact. Powell leads all Mavericks with at least 300 minutes in net rating. He and Doncic outscored opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions when they shared the floor. Powell’s injury is a serious blow to the Mavericks. We’ll see if Willie Cauley-Stein can mitigate the loss.
9. Rockets – Eric Gordon got his chance to run the show with James Harden and Eric Gordon out of the lineup on Monday, and the Indiana product certainly delivered. Gordon poured in a career-high 50 points on 22 shots, ending a serious slump for Houston as they faced the streaking Jazz. Gordon’s effort gave the Rockets perhaps their best win of 2019-20 as they try to regain their rhythm before the All-Star break.
8. Heat – Welcome back, Dion Waiters. It remains a question how much he’ll play in Erik Spoelstra’s rotation this season, but it’s certainly nice to see one of the game’s most entertaining shot makers back on the floor. Perhaps Waiters can find some stability after a rocky 2019.
7. Raptors – The Raptors have ripped off seven straight wins, finishing the week with a close win in San Antonio on Sunday. Pascal Siakam played like an MVP against former teammate DeMar DeRozan, pouring in 35 points with five threes. Siakam is no Kawhi Leonard, but he can be a superstar facsimile on the right night. Toronto will remain a worrisome matchup for every Eastern Conference team in the postseason.
6. Nuggets – I think we can couch the talk regarding Nikola Jokic’s slow start. The Joker is averaging 24.6 points per game in his last 11 contests, including a 19-point triple-double against Houston on Sunday. Jokic moves in slow motion. He appears more at home in a Cinnabon line than an NBA floor. There are few, if any, more exciting big men in the league. Never change, Nikola.
5. Jazz – The Jazz are absolutely rolling through January , winning 14 of their last 16 as they rocket up the Western Conference standings. Rudy Gobert has been the catalyst in their rise. He is currently one of three players this century to average 15 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks per game in a season, and the French Rejection ranks fourth in the league in win shares. The Jazz remain the best bet outside of Los Angeles to win the Western Conference.
4. Celtics – I’m increasingly convinced Kemba Walker is the Celtics’ All-Star if they’re limited to just one. People have stressed Walker’s jovial nature compared to Kyrie Irving, and the UConn product is now scoring like Irving of late. Walker poured in 37 in a win over Orlando on Friday, then dropped 35 on the Pelicans. Walker has been a steadying presence in Boston after a stressful 2018-19. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are thriving in their new environment.
3. Clippers – We can manufacture crises in the Staples Center all we want: the Clippers are just fine as long as Kawhi Leonard is in commission. The two-time Finals MVP cooked the Heat with a 33-point triple double on Thursday, further cementing his status as the game’s best closer. An 82-game season is a slog. Chemistry ebbs and flows. Leonard can receive all the preferential treatment he wants if he continues to come up clutch in the postseason.
2. Lakers – We’ll save the Lakers analysis for next week. Rest in Peace, Kobe. A legend in every sense of the word.
1. Bucks – Not only is Giannis Antetokounmpo cruising through 2019-20, so is the entire Bucks roster. Antetokounmpo leads Milwaukee at just 30.7 minutes per game. No other player is over 30. Milwaukee is racing to the No. 1 seed without a sweat, primed for a full-strength postseason. Mike Budenholzer has been masterful managing his rotation in 2019-20.