Welcome to the sixth installment of the 2019-20 Yahoo Sports NBA Power Rankings. I will highlight four teams that fascinate me on a biweekly basis, diving deeper on their success or lack thereof. This is where I remind you that these are subjective and everyone overvalues their favorite team. Feel free to forget everything I just said and get irrationally upset about your team being two spots too low in a ranking that has no bearing on the outcome of its next game.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (36-6)
2. Los Angeles Lakers (33-7)
3. Los Angeles Clippers (28-13)
4. Boston Celtics (27-11)
5. Utah Jazz (28-12)
6. Denver Nuggets (27-12)
7. Miami Heat (27-12)
8. Philadelphia 76ers (25-16)
For months now I have reminded myself that the Sixers will be fine come playoff time. Their long-armed defense can strangle anyone with Joel Embiid as its anchor, and they are unbeaten against the Bucks and Celtics, largely because Embiid is a nightmare offensive matchup for the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. They stand a game out of a home playoff seed and within striking distance of the No. 2 spot with half a season to play, and even if they remain behind the Heat, Raptors and Pacers in the standings, none of those teams should strike fear into them, even with homecourt advantage.
But there is no question that chemistry issues on and off the court have lowered their ceiling from their preseason position as the favorite to emerge from the East. A similar scenario sent Boston packing in the second round last year. The offense, now operating below league-average efficiency, is enough of a concern to wonder if the defense and Embiid’s dominance can carry them through three rounds. (To say nothing of the fact that Embiid has yet to prove he can shoulder the load of an entire postseason.)
After all his wheeling and dealing, Sixers general manager Elton Brand is right where his predecessor was two years ago, scouring the market to find shooters who can space the floor enough for Embiid and Ben Simmons to maximize an otherwise miscast partnership. Bryan Colangelo lucked out when the Atlanta Hawks bought out both Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli after the 2018 trade deadline.
According to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor and The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey, the list of names Brand is considering this time around includes Malik Beasley, Davis Bertans, Robert Covington, Langston Galloway, Jeff Green, Andre Iguodala, Luke Kennard, E’Twaun Moore and Glenn Robinson III. Add Marcus Morris to the list, a league source told Yahoo Sports. He has expressed interest in playing for his hometown 76ers in the past and is shooting 47 percent from deep for the Knicks this season.
All but Green, a free agent who was shooting 33 percent from distance before the Jazz waived him, would likely cost the Sixers some combination of Zhaire Smith and what few attractive draft picks they still have. With no salaries to match several of the mid-tier contracts on that list, a third team would be required in the process, too, unless Josh Richardson is on the table. Kennard is the only one on the list not working on an expiring contract and would likely cost Philadelphia the most in a trade as a result.
It all seems like a long way to go to optimize a team that owes its five starters a combined $132 million next season. All of Brand’s other moves have seemingly been made to expedite the championship timeline for Embiid and Simmons, so the Sixers might as well go the last mile at this trade deadline.
9. Houston Rockets (26-13)
10. Toronto Raptors (25-14)
11. Dallas Mavericks (25-15)
12. Indiana Pacers (25-15)
13. Oklahoma City Thunder (23-17)
14. San Antonio Spurs (17-21)
You did not think Gregg Popovich would go gentle into that good night, did you? Since the end of November, when his Spurs fell to second from the bottom in the West and were left for dead by those who somehow still have yet to learn never to bury them, Popovich’s charges are 11-8 — far from elite, but good enough to climb back into a conversation about a record 23rd straight playoff appearance.
Over the past month, DeMar DeRozan is averaging 24 points on blistering 58 percent shooting in the space provided by LaMarcus Aldridge’s improved floor spacing. Aldridge shot 36 percent on just two 3-point attempts per 100 possessions in his first 21 games. His attempts have tripled in the last 15 games, and he is converting them at a 42 percent clip. This is almost the entirety of the difference between what was a middling Spurs offense and what has been a top-six outfit since mid-December.
It helps when your All-Stars play like All-Stars. DeRozan, in particular, had been written off by most analytics analysts, fodder for a trade with the Orlando Magic that would have opened the door for a youth movement and closed the door on San Antonio’s playoff hopes. He would no doubt be better served with an accurate 3-point shot, and maybe a divorce is still the best long-term solution for the Spurs, but the 30-year-old has not missed the playoffs since before the first of his four All-Star appearances, averaging 52 wins over his previous six seasons. DeRozan and Popovich are survivors.
15. Memphis Grizzlies (19-22)
16. Portland Trail Blazers (17-24)
17. Brooklyn Nets (18-21)
18. Orlando Magic (19-21)
19. Phoenix Suns (16-24)
20. Minnesota Timberwolves (15-24)
21. Charlotte Hornets (15-28)
22. Sacramento Kings (15-25)
23. New Orleans Pelicans (15-26)
24. Chicago Bulls (14-27)
There is a lot of Zach LaVine All-Star buzz and not of the dunk contest variety. Still only 24 years old, his career-high 24.5 points per game are fifth-best in the East behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, Trae Young, Bradley Beal and Pascal Siakam. His career-best 39.5 3-point shooting is third behind Davis Bertans and Kemba Walker among players in his conference who attempt 7.5 triples per game.
Beal, Walker, Antetokounmpo, Siakam, Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler should all be East locks. Ben Simmons probably belongs on that list, and the Bucks and Celtics both warrant a second star, too (if Boston does not get both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to the game). Kyrie Irving might get a starting spot, if his peers give him as much love as the fans currently are. That leaves maybe two open spots, with Trae Young, Domantas Sabonis and Bam Adebayo as LaVine’s most popular competitors.
Full disclosure: I never thought LaVine would be this effective offensively, and I certainly never thought he would be an All-Star candidate. He is electric in the open court and can rise over anyone to get his shot, two things I probably should have seen coming from a freak athlete. He and Young are the most exciting options to fill the last couple of East spots, and LaVine gets a boost playing for the host Bulls.
I can’t say it enough Zach LaVine is a problem. I can’t wait to watch him over the next few years blossom.
— DWade (@DwyaneWade) January 11, 2020
Here’s the thing, though: He is playing losing basketball. He is too often reckless on offense and worse on defense. Chicago’s defense is never better than when LaVine is on the bench, improving by 10 points per 100 possessions, but the offense takes a similar dive. LaVine is among the league’s 10-best fourth-quarter scorers this season, averaging 6.7 points on 42/41/87 splits in the final frame, but he has the worst defensive rating (120 points allowed per 100 possessions) of anyone who has played at least 80 clutch minutes. As a result, the Bulls are 8-17 when within five points in the final five minutes.
This is Bulls coach Jim Boylen’s conundrum. He has benched LaVine for his poor defense, but the miscommunications, gambles and failure to fight over screens persist. In the end, LaVine gives back much of what he gets. Young is a similar riddle, only Atlanta’s offense takes a bigger dive when he sits.
I think LaVine gets a bunch of All-Star buzz from his highlight-reel performances and whatever name recognition comes with twice winning the dunk contest, but what separates him from, say, Devonte’ Graham, Fred VanVleet or Malcolm Brogdon? All of them make their teammates better and give you more defensively. A nod for any of them is a commentary on how shallow the East pool has become.
25. Washington Wizards (13-26)
26. Detroit Pistons (14-27)
27. New York Knicks (11-30)
28. Cleveland Cavaliers (12-29)
29. Atlanta Hawks (9-32)
30. Golden State Warriors (9-33)
Stephen Curry is shooting the lights out again, yet remains a couple weeks away from the next evaluation on his broken left hand. This has raised some discussion about whether he should even come back to a team that is fighting for a top-five draft pick. Curry should do whatever he wants, because he is a two-time MVP and three-time champion who has earned the right to play the game whenever and however he wants. The NBA calendar sure could use a midseason injection of Curry.
But there is a big difference between what Curry wants and what is best for the Warriors.
There is some question as to whether Curry’s return would raise Golden State’s ceiling all that much for the remainder of the season. The Warriors looked just as lost in the few games they played before Curry’s injury, but there is no doubt one of the game’s most dynamic players of his generation would do wonders for an offense that ranks dead last in offensive rating (102.7 points per 100 possessions).
Even in a Western Conference where a five-game win streak lifted the Grizzlies from 12th to eighth place, the Warriors are six games back from a pack that is three games back from a playoff spot. Closing that gap and leapfrogging seven teams in two months is too tall an order, even for Curry. (Although, it would be fun to see them sneak in, with speculation of a Klay Thompson return swirling.)
The question is whether the Warriors would catch the handful of East teams between them and the Pelicans — and whoever else might tank their way into the top of the lottery conversation. The odds of securing a top-four pick drop below 50 percent if you do not finish with a bottom-three record, and that is a big deal in a draft that has long been considered to be a handful of players deep at the top.
The Warriors could benefit some from a Curry return. They need to explore his potential partnership with D’Angelo Russell before considering a trade of their second All-Star point guard this summer, although Thompson’s absence is a wrinkle that could prolong any chemistry experiment into next season. What little value Golden State gains from testing Curry’s fit with the few players who have emerged in his stead is mitigated by the talent or trade-asset upgrade that comes with futility.
The Warriors may not be able to convince Curry to sit out the remainder of the season, but it would not be surprising to see something similar to what happened with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers last season. LeBron came back from his groin injury, only to eventually shut it down when all hope was lost on the season. Once Golden State reaches the point of no return, which could come sooner than later, the benefits of boosting next year’s prospects may ultimately persuade Curry to sit.
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