Welcome to the 2019-20 season debut of the Yahoo Sports NBA Power Rankings. I will be highlighting four teams that fascinate me in each installment, 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 how a team can be two spots too low in a ranking that has no bearing on the outcome of their next game.
1. Los Angeles Clippers (3-1)
The next eight months could launch Kawhi Leonard’s legacy into a stratosphere that could further complicate the G.O.A.T. debate between Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Leonard’s championship run with the Toronto Raptors last season was that impressive. In dismantling a Golden State Warriors super-team led by Stephen Curry, he validated his own contribution to the San Antonio Spurs’ destruction of a Miami Heat super-team anchored by LeBron in 2014.
In between, Leonard was on the short list of candidates for best player alive, winning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year honors and finishing top-three in MVP voting twice. He looked poised to challenge the Warriors with Kevin Durant in the 2017 Western Conference finals before suffering an ankle injury that ended his season and any chance the Spurs had at an upset. That bled into the quadriceps tendinopathy that cost him all but nine games in 2017-18, and a career bound for superstardom seemed in jeopardy. Then, Leonard left no doubt he is the best player alive in June.
Now, imagine Leonard wins a third Finals MVP in seven seasons, beating LeBron’s Los Angeles Lakers to lead three different teams to titles, including the Raptors and Los Angeles Clippers, two franchises that had never even sniffed the Finals before. Is that more impressive than LeBron winning two titles in Miami and a third with the Cleveland Cavaliers? Twice going through LeBron at least established Leonard as his peer when healthy over a large stretch of their primes.
I am not about to argue that Leonard would belong in the conversation with LeBron and Jordan as one of the three greatest players to ever live. Their résumés are far more decorated at this point. But Leonard would complicate the debate if he were to join Kevin Durant in twice spoiling LeBron’s pursuit of six rings. Jordan never had a peer during his reign, which is the ultimate feather in his cap. You could argue that Jordan never had a threat as great as Leonard, but then what would that say about the Clippers superstar? It would vault him into all-time greatness at the age of 28.
2. Philadelphia 76ers (3-0)
3. Milwaukee Bucks (2-1)
4. Denver Nuggets (3-1)
5. Utah Jazz (3-1)
6. Los Angeles Lakers (3-1)
7. San Antonio Spurs (3-0)
8. Boston Celtics (2-1)
9. Toronto Raptors (3-1)
From the outside looking in, the Raptors are in an uncommon position. As the defending champions, they are a target for every contender left in their wake last season. But without Leonard they are also underdogs against the NBA’s elite, picked by most prognosticators to finish in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack and outside the title picture.
Only, they do not see it that way, not publicly anyway.
“We’re only underdogs to you guys and people outside the locker room,” Fred VanVleet told Yahoo Sports after a narrow loss to the Celtics on Friday. “To us, we’re NBA champions, and we go out there and play like it every night. Since I’ve been here, we’ve never been slept on by other teams. Maybe in the media or to the average person, but it feels like when we play everybody they give us their best shot. So, nothing’s changed there. We’re used to it.”
The championship run elevated the ceilings of Pascal Siakam and VanVleet, and how far they can continue to push against draft projections will go a long way in determining whether the Raptors defy expectations without Leonard. They are averaging a combined 45.5 points (on 41.7 percent 3-point shooting), 15.1 rebounds and 9.8 assists, outscoring opponents by 15.2 points per 100 possessions when sharing the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass.
“We’re just trying to build on it and be better each year, and I think that we both have improved each year since we’ve been in the league, and that hasn’t changed this summer,” added VanVleet, who joined the Raptors as an undrafted free agent the same summer Toronto drafted Siakam 28th overall. “Winning the championship may just have sped it up and put us in the limelight. Both of us continue to work each day and just try to be better than we were the day before.”
Add Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol, two stars on the tail end of their primes, along with the healthy return of OG Anunoby, and the Raptors can still roll out a well-balanced lineup capable of challenging anyone on any night. Whether they can do so against the East elite four times in a playoff series largely depends on whether Siakam continues his ascension toward a boundless ceiling. As it is, the 25-year-old is a bona fide All-Star and one of the game’s best young wings.
“Obviously, with Kawhi gone, we all felt like there were opportunities there, and I think everyone is ready to take that step collectively as a team,” Siakam told Yahoo Sports. “Whenever they call your name, you’ve just got to be ready.”
10. Houston Rockets (2-1)
11. Portland Trail Blazers (2-2)
12. Dallas Mavericks (3-1)
13. Golden State Warriors (1-2)
14. Minnesota Timberwolves (3-0)
15. Miami Heat (3-1)
16. Brooklyn Nets (1-2)
17. Phoenix Suns (2-2)
Is it possible the Suns and Sacramento Kings swapped identities over the summer? Through four games, Phoenix has looked every bit the upstart League Pass darling that Sacramento was last season, complete with a young core that dominated their Kings counterparts and has given the West’s best teams fits. Their victory over the Clippers is the season’s biggest surprise so far, especially without the services of Ricky Rubio and suspended center Deandre Ayton.
The question is whether this is merely a hungry team catching a few coasting contenders by surprise before they are taken seriously, or if this is actually sustainable. There is hope these Suns could continue to be a problem, at least as one less walkover in the West, which is more than I gave them credit for in our too-early offseason report card in July. Questions remain about whether the moves new Suns general manager James Jones made over the summer are in the best interest of a long-term rebuild, but emerging from the NBA basement may mitigate some of the asset losses.
A team with no serviceable point guard to speak of last season now appears to have two in Rubio and Jevon Carter, and that ideally frees Devin Booker from feeling he has to carry the offense alone. Fellow new additions Dario Saric, Aron Baynes and Frank Kaminsky, along with Kelly Oubre’s 20 points per game, have filled out an actual NBA rotation in Phoenix. There is always the chance that everyone outside Booker falls back to Earth, but the biggest offseason addition has been coach Monty Williams, who has the Suns playing inspired defense in the early going. I would like to see them maintain that until at least Christmas, the way the Kings did last season, before moving them higher on this list.
18. Atlanta Hawks (2-2)
19. Orlando Magic (1-2)
20. Oklahoma City Thunder (1-3)
21. Detroit Pistons (2-2)
22. Washington Wizards (1-2)
23. New Orleans Pelicans (0-4)
That the Pelicans are still winless is a testament to the league’s depth of talent. They are good, I think, and will cause trouble when (if?) they get a fully healthy Zion Williamson in the fold. Brandon Ingram looks like he is realizing his considerable potential, scoring 27.3 points per game from every level on 50/50/73 shooting splits. Fellow former Lakers Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart have similarly stepped out from behind LeBron’s shadow. Ball’s shooting form, in particular, has improved considerably, and he is starting to see the results (36.7 percent on 7.5 3-point attempts per game).
Anthony Davis may be out, and famed former Suns trainer Aaron Nelson may be in, but New Orleans still cannot escape the injury bug. Jrue Holiday has missed the last two games with a knee sprain after underwhelming in his first two games. He is invaluable, both as an All-Defensive guard and an All-Star-caliber playmaker alongside Ball.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry wants to play at a blinding speed, and Holiday and Williamson possess the combination of athleticism and versatility that can help hold that pace on both sides of the ball. Instead, they are getting torched on the defensive end as Gentry relies on the less athletic Jahlil Okafor and Nicolo Melli to fill center minutes that Williamson might otherwise play in uber-exciting small-ball lineups. If they can get healthy, the Pelicans could be among the biggest movers in these power rankings, but Davis knows best that the “if” in this sentence is carrying a lot of weight.
The wounded young Pelicans still took the Toronto Raptors to overtime on their ring ceremony night, played to the final minute against a Dallas Mavericks squad that looks awfully dangerous and lost a one-possession game on the road to the Houston Rockets. Their lone lopsided loss came against a thirsty Warriors team when the Pels were also without their best center option, Derrick Favors, who sat with knee soreness. There is nowhere but up from here for New Orleans.
24. Sacramento Kings (0-4)
25. New York Knicks (1-3)
26. Chicago Bulls (1-3)
27. Memphis Grizzlies (1-3)
28. Cleveland Cavaliers (1-2)
29. Indiana Pacers (0-3)
30. Charlotte Hornets (1-3)
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