Welcome to the seventh 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 (43-7)
2. Los Angeles Clippers (35-15)
3. Boston Celtics (34-15)
Where do Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown rank among the NBA’s top 25-and-under tandems?
Five other duos spring to mind: Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons; Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis; New Orleans’ Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram; Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray; and Memphis’ Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. (Sorry, but Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Trae Young and De’Aaron Fox are being held back by the other half of their equations.)
I imagine most people would take at least four of those five tandems over Tatum and Brown, if not all of them, assuming Embiid, Doncic, Williamson, Jokic and maybe even Morant have higher ceilings than either of the Celtics. They may be right. But there is something to be said for both the results and two-way abilities of Tatum and Brown, which may be greater than any duo on this list.
Embiid and Simmons have five All-Star selections between them, but they may be the worst fit of this bunch, and Tatum and Brown pantsed them 4-1 in their only playoff meeting two years ago. They were the two most productive players on a team that came within a few minutes of the 2018 Finals. The twosomes on the 76ers and Nuggets were that close to last year’s conference finals.
The Celtics are outscoring opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions in 863 minutes with Tatum and Brown on the floor, posting offensive (113.8) and defensive (103.4) ratings that would both rank second for teams in the NBA this season. The plus net ratings in comparable minutes for Jokic/Murray (8.9), Doncic/Porzingis (4.4), Morant/Jackson (2.0) and Embiid/Simmons (1.8) are all inferior. Since Zion’s recent return, he and Ingram are plus-7.3 per 100 possessions in 121 minutes.
The combined statistics for these tandems are all impressive:
Tatum/Brown (33.6 MPG): 42.1 PPG (56.9 TS%), 13.4 RPG, 5.2 APG, 3.7 BPG/SPG
Doncic/Porzingis (31.8 MPG): 46.6 PPG (56.4 TS%), 18.6 RPG, 10.1 APG, 3.8 BPG/SPG
Embiid/Simmons (33.9 MPG): 39.8 PPG (60.0 TS%), 19.9 RPG, 11.3 APG, 4.7 BPG/SPG
Jokic/Murray (32.0 MPG): 38.1 PPG (57.3 TS%), 14.1 RPG, 11.4 APG, 3.3 BPG/SPG
Williamson/Ingram (33.4 MPG): 44.7 PPG (59.8 TS%), 14.5 RPG, 6.3 APG, 2.6 BPG/SPG
Morant/Jackson (28.9 MPG): 34.9 PPG (58.4 TS%), 8.1 RPG, 8.5 APG, 3.6 BPG/SPG
Tatum and Brown are comparable to all the others, save for the assist numbers, which speaks to what makes them so underrated: They are so damn malleable. They fit within the flow of the game fluidly, doing what is asked of them. They are dangerous with or without the ball. They spot up and post up. They beat you in isolation or transition. They are threats to cut backdoor or curl off a screen. They can operate on either end of the pick-and-roll. They do need to work on their passing, but both have improved in that regard every season. And they can each defend all five positions.
With the exception of Williamson and Ingram, all the other tandems have a point guard-big man relationship that dominates the offense. Tatum and Brown are wings who complement each other and everyone seamlessly. They may not be racking up assists, but they also have the lowest combined usage rate (50.4 percent) of these duos by a fairly wide margin. They don’t commit turnovers or fouls. Essentially, they allow the Celtics to operate however they want on both ends.
My guess is most teams would still take the Doncic/Porzingis and Williamson/Ingram combinations, if only because Luka and Zion have the chance to be generational talents on their own, but there is no more balanced 25-and-under duo than Tatum and Brown, both in terms of skill set and position.
4. Los Angeles Lakers (38-11)
5. Toronto Raptors (36-14)
6. Denver Nuggets (35-16)
7. Miami Heat (34-15)
8. Utah Jazz (32-17)
9. Houston Rockets (32-18)
10. Dallas Mavericks (31-19)
11. Indiana Pacers (31-19)
I concocted one trade for each of the 10 teams I considered legit contenders, and I left the Pacers off the list, despite them owning a better record than the Sixers. The Pacers are well balanced, with nobody scoring more than 20 points per game and seven players averaging double digits — before Victor Oladipo ramps up his workload. This is the mark of a formidable regular-season team.
But is Indiana built for the playoffs? LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo have been at the helm of 15 of the past 20 conference finalists. Damian Lillard and Isaiah Thomas each led their teams to the third round with historic seasons. Occasionally, an East team navigated its way to the conference finals in weak seasons — the four All-Star 2015 Hawks, the DeMar DeRozan/Kyle Lowry 2016 Raptors and the 2018 Celtics.
The hope for the Pacers would be that Oladipo reaches peak form by the playoffs, giving them another All-Star alongside Domantas Sabonis. That is an awfully big ask for a guy whose knee injury just cost him an entire year. Malcolm Brogdon has at times played like a star, so maybe he can carry that burden, but this is no down year for the East. The Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Heat and 76ers all just put two players on the All-Star team, and three of them had a case for a third.
Superstars win titles, and you will notice something else about that list of conference finalists: They are all MVP-caliber perimeter playmakers. Sabonis, Indiana’s best player this season, is not that.
All of which makes what Indiana has been able to do that much more remarkable. Nate McMillan was my midseason pick for Coach of the Year for losing Oladipo and leading his team to an almost identical record to last season through 50 games. As an organization, the Pacers have made the playoffs in eight of the last nine seasons and 24 of the last 30. They draft well, develop well, rarely overpay anyone, sign the right players on the fringes, make smart trades and hire incredibly smart coaches.
The real shame of the NBA power structure is that an organization like Indiana cannot attract an elite talent on the open market. The biggest free-agent signings in team history include names like David West, Bojan Bogdanovic and now Brogdon. Likewise, a player’s willingness to sign has to factor into all their trades. It is practically impossible to win a title with that being the case, unless the next LeBron happens to grow up in Evansville, and that is a dark reality for smaller markets.
12. Philadelphia 76ers (31-20)
13. Oklahoma City Thunder (30-20)
14. Portland Trail Blazers (23-28)
15. Memphis Grizzlies (25-25)
16. San Antonio Spurs (22-28)
17. New Orleans Pelicans (20-31)
My god, Zion Williamson. After missing the first 44 games of his career with a knee injury, he still emerged as advertised. His freakish athleticism for his size (285 pounds!) overwhelmed his peers in high school and college. We wondered whether it would translate to the NBA. Wonder no more.
Williamson is averaging 26 points (on 55/44/59 shooting splits), 10.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per 36 minutes through his first seven games, and he has yet to find his stride. Have we mentioned he is 19 years old? The dude has 12 dunks through seven games, more than 87 percent of players have for the entire season. Few players Williamson’s size (6-foot-6) have more than he has already.
Williamson is shooting 61 percent on a league-high 11 shots per game in the restricted area, and his efficiency will only increase with game experience. Among players who post up four or more times per game, only Antetokounmpo has been more efficient on the block than Williamson’s small-sample-size 55.6 field-goal percentage. He is already among the game’s best offensive rebounders.
In limited minutes, the Pelicans are outscoring opponents by 24.9 points per 100 possessions when Williamson is manning the center position, according to Cleaning the Glass. They are a handful of points per 100 possessions better than the league’s best offense and defense in that sample size. Zion is going to be a small-ball god if he stays healthy. And if he rounds out his offensive game? The sky is the limit, and even then, we would probably have to wonder if he can elevate higher.
18. Brooklyn Nets (22-27)
19. Phoenix Suns (16-24)
20. Orlando Magic (22-28)
21. Sacramento Kings (19-31)
22. Chicago Bulls (19-33)
23. Detroit Pistons (18-34)
24. Washington Wizards (17-32)
25. Charlotte Hornets (16-35)
26. New York Knicks (15-36)
27. Atlanta Hawks (13-38)
28. Minnesota Timberwolves (15-34)
One side benefit of being in a small market: You also don’t get enough credit for being awful.
It is frankly astounding that a team with Karl-Anthony Towns — an All-NBA player thought to be a future face of the league just two years ago at age 23 — could be this bad. Minnesota is riding a 12-game losing streak, not long after snapping an 11-game losing streak, and Towns was around for the bulk of both. They have not won in 15 games with Towns in the lineup, since Nov. 27. They were 10-8 at the time. They are now 15-34, owners of the league’s sixth-worst record. Not good.
Part of that is on Towns. For someone with his size and athleticism, he has shown little development as a defender in his first five seasons. He has a hard time defending in space, whether in isolation or the pick-and-roll, but he does hold up fairly well as a rim protector in the post. The bigger question is how a team featuring a 6-foot-11 guy with 51/41/80 shooting splits on eight 3-point attempts per game could have the 24th-ranked offense in the league. It is inexcusable.
You can hang a lot of that on the $147 million they committed to Andrew Wiggins. The Wolves’ decline this season has mirrored Wiggins’ regression since a hot early start. It might also help if Minnesota employed a point guard other than Shabazz Napier or Jordan McLaughlin. The talent gap between Towns and the rest of the roster is wider than for any other star in the league. Even their promising recent first-round picks — Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie — have not produced.
Ryan Saunders, the 33-year-old son of Minnesota coaching legend Flip Saunders, breathed fresh air into an organization left floundering by Tom Thibodeau, and the hiring of former Houston Rockets assistant general manager Gersson Rosas was widely applauded around the league. We are still early in their tenures, but have yet to see on-court results differing from their predecessors.
Rosas did well to secure a pair of first-round picks for impending free agent Robert Covington. He also tried to solve multiple problems at once this week, reportedly tying two 2020 first-round picks to Wiggins in hopes of landing Warriors point guard D’Angelo Russell, the 2018 All-Star they whiffed on in free agency this past summer. That still was not enough. There is still time to strike a deal before Thursday’s trade deadline, and you can see why the Timberwolves are pursuing Russell so intently. He is a close friend to Towns and a step in the direction of avoiding a trade request.
Still, Russell does little to solve their defensive woes, and there will be much more work to be done. I cannot imagine Towns will wait much longer to see if the latest brass can do what nobody in Minnesota has been able to in 16 years — build a consistent winner. Towns could be incredible with the right team around him. It is just hard to see that ever happening on owner Glen Taylor’s Timberwolves.
29. Golden State Warriors (12-39)
30. Cleveland Cavaliers (13-38)
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