Welcome to the fourth 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 (21-3)
2. Los Angeles Lakers (21-3)
It turns out all you really need is LeBron James and Anthony Davis. I am an idiot for thinking otherwise, at least during the regular season, when two of the handful of best players alive can stomp bad teams and create the sort of matchup problems for good teams that can take a playoff series to solve, if they ever do.
Kyle Kuzma is their only other double-digit scorer, and you forget he is on the floor for large stretches of his 23 minutes per game. JaVale McGee uses a lot of bad possessions, and it doesn’t seem to matter all that much. For all the memes, Alex Caruso can legitimately look like their third-best player at times. They are getting enough from Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo, who are currently shooting a combined 41 percent on almost 11 3-point attempts per game, to lift the offense to a top-five rating.
They make up for the inconsistent third scoring option by fielding either a third big (McGee or Dwight Howard) and/or third facilitator (Rondo) alongside James and Davis. They can get away with either, because it is nearly impossible to shrink the floor for the two superstars. Both can operate in crowds, bullying their way to the basket for one of three options: a bucket, a lob to another awaiting big or a kick-out to a wide-open shooter. (Even Rondo and Caldwell-Pope, who have been shaky shooters over the course of their careers, can knock down triples with time. Thirty five of their 46 made threes are of the wide-open variety.)
The biggest benefit has been the ability to play a third big. Not only can they just play above everyone at the rim offensively, they can protect it like no other defensively and dominate the glass on both ends. Danny Green, Avery Bradley (when healthy) and Caldwell-Pope (whose effort has been inspired by the arrival of his fellow Klutch clients) give the Lakers three more versatile defenders, which means opposing playmakers might have to beat an All-Defensive talent off the dribble and navigate help defense from James and/or Davis just to get to the rim, where Howard might be waiting on the back end. It is absolute nightmare stuff.
Orchestrating it all is LeBron, who is brilliant coordinating everything on the court. He pushes when necessary and pulls back if there is nothing two steps ahead. He is averaging a league-best 10.8 assists per game, which means someone is getting fed, even if he has to spread the wealth. On or off the ball, with defenses also paying an ungodly amount of attention to Davis, LeBron can almost always find a mismatch.
And if all else fails, the Lakers can just resort to a James-Davis pick-n-roll. It is not ideal for opponents. It will be worse if, say, Andre Iguodala gets bought out and sees the Lakers as his best shot for another title.
3. Los Angeles Clippers (18-7)
4. Boston Celtics (17-5)
5. Philadelphia 76ers (18-7)
6. Dallas Mavericks (16-7)
7. Miami Heat (18-6)
8. Toronto Raptors (16-7)
9. Denver Nuggets (14-8)
The Nuggets still have a ton of talent, but something about them looks soft. And not just Nikola Jokic’s physique. It is hard to quantify, but from careless passes to worse shot selection, their offense lacks the sort of urgency you might expect from a 54-win team returning everyone to the wide-open West, especially one that blew a Game 7 at home with a chance to reach last season’s conference finals on the line.
They own the league’s second-best net rating defensively, an improvement of almost six points per 100 possessions and eight spots in the rankings, but I’m not sure good teams are scared of many late-game one-on-one matchups, with the exceptions of an engaged Gary Harris Jr. and a 34-year-old Paul Millsap.
The Nuggets piled up some early wins at home, but their current road trip has sent them back to Earth a bit. They positioned themselves for home playoff series against both San Antonio and Portland last season, and should have won the series-deciding tilt in both of them, but they may not have that luxury this season. The Lakers and Clippers are pretty clearly the class of the conference, and the Nuggets have done little to separate themselves from the pack of four other playoff locks. They may have to play themselves into better shape, the way Jokic is. (Granted, he can still drop 30 without much effort, as he did against Boston.)
Do we have to wonder if these Nuggets peaked last season? They gave Jamal Murray a max extension that kicks in next year, and he has not taken the sort of leap you might have hoped for after the playoff run. He may reach another level, as could Michael Porter Jr. They are only 21 and 22 years old, respectively. Jokic has taken his foot off the pedal, too, but he has also yet to reach his 25th birthday. But Denver may take a hit this offseason. Millsap is a free agent, and Murray’s deal makes it hard to replace a star’s salary. A few of their best depth guys are also restricted free agents. This team is ripe for a trade, sooner rather than later.
10. Houston Rockets (15-8)
11. Indiana Pacers (15-9)
12. Utah Jazz (13-11)
13. Brooklyn Nets (13-10)
14. Oklahoma City Thunder (11-12)
15. Orlando Magic (11-12)
16. Phoenix Suns (11-12)
17. Minnesota Timberwolves (10-13)
18. San Antonio Spurs (9-14)
19. Portland Trail Blazers (10-15)
The Rodney Hood Achilles rupture could be the death knell for a string of six straight playoff bids that peaked with a spot in the Western Conference finals last season. The Blazers were already down Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, both months from returning from major leg and shoulder injuries, respectively.
The addition of Carmelo Anthony is a stopgap. He looks a little quicker and slightly better adjusted to Portland’s defensive schemes than he did immediately upon returning from his yearlong hiatus, and he can get hot on occasion, which is better than what Mario Hezonja was providing. More often than not, though, Melo is an inefficient offensive player and a detriment on defense. He is shooting 41 percent on 15 field-goal attempts per game, and you worry that they will have to rely more heavily on him in Hood’s absence.
The defense is a disaster, which means they need 50-plus points a night from Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum just to compete, and even then they can’t count on the rest of the rotation to deliver consistently. If the Nuggets are ripe for a trade, the Blazers are fast approaching their expiration date. Kevin Love, the five-time All-Star and Oregon native, makes all the sense in the world. Would Portland trade Anfernee Simons and draft picks for the 31-year-old? Would Cleveland take Nassir Little instead? Or ask for it all?
Something’s gotta give here, unless Portland is willing to let a prime Lillard season slip away.
20. Sacramento Kings (10-13)
21. Charlotte Hornets (10-16)
22. Detroit Pistons (10-14)
23. Chicago Bulls (8-17)
Serious question: Is Tomas Satoransky the Bulls’ best player? You’re going to say it’s Zach LaVine, who was among the unlikeliest players to join Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry as the only other guy to make 13 three-pointers in a game. (His 13-for-17 effort against Charlotte raised his 3-point percentage from a league average 35.9 percent to almost 40 percent.) And you may be right: LaVine’s 20 points per game might make him a borderline All-Star in this Eastern Conference. But I get the feeling he just shoots more. It is encouraging, however, that some of LaVine’s midrange shots have become 3-point tries this season.
You can make the same “Who deserves the ball more?” argument about Wendell Carter and Lauri Markkanen. That’s kind of the point with this team. I don’t know who is supposed to fill what role, I’m not sure Jim Boylen does, either, and the players are the worse for wear. The injury absence of Otto Porter Jr. hasn’t helped define a pecking order, although he too is a natural third option on a team full of them.
In 62 minutes of crunch time this season, eight different guys have played at least 17 minutes. LaVine, naturally, has played all 62 minutes and takes the bulk of the shots. He and Markkanen have attempted 64 of Chicago’s 98 shots down the stretch of close games. They have made 33 percent of them. The rest of the team is shooting 44 percent, including Satoransky and Carter, who have attempted 11 shots in 95 combined clutch minutes. The Bulls are 5-11 when the score is within five points in the final five minutes, which is a sign that they are good enough to play teams close and not equipped to close them out.
This season is one big feeling-out phase. You have to like a lot of the talent on this team. Carter, Markkanen and Coby White are all recent top-10 picks with room to grow. (Kris Dunn is, too, but I don’t know, man.) LaVine and Porter are 25 and 26 years old, respectively. Satoransky is 28 with not a whole lot of NBA wear on his tires. I’ve always liked Ryan Arcidiacono’s effort, and I like what I’ve seen from second-round pick Daniel Gafford as an energetic big off the bench. Thaddeus Young is the only one on the roster over age 30.
It can be difficult growing a young team together without the benefit of veterans to guide them, as the Bulls have discovered. They make a lot of bad in-game decisions. Despite employing coaches Fred Hoiberg and Jim Boylen, two player-development types with opposing styles, we have seen little growth from all the young players they have acquired since trading Jimmy Butler and embracing a rebuild in 2017. Markkanen has regressed and looks hesitant, whether because his shot isn’t falling or he doesn’t know if he’s the one who should be shooting. I’m not sure Chicago has an alpha dog on the roster outside of LaVine, and I don’t think he’s the alpha dog you want if you are trying to improve collectively and get back to the playoffs.
24. Washington Wizards (7-16)
25. Memphis Grizzlies (7-16)
26. New Orleans Pelicans (6-18)
27. Atlanta Hawks (6-18)
28. Golden State Warriors (5-20)
29. Cleveland Cavaliers (5-18)
30. New York Knicks (4-20)
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