The 1 Fun Stat power rankings of the NBA's championship contenders

Believe it or not, we are nearing the season's midway point. What better time to power rank the NBA's championship contenders, using one fun statistic and some help from our friends for each of the teams ...


11. Philadelphia 76ers (23-12, 3rd in East)

1 Fun Stat: Of the league's 40 lineups that have played at least 100 minutes as a five-man unit, Philadelphia's most-used starting five — featuring Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, De'Anthony Melton and Nicolas Batum — owns the top net rating (+34) by more than 10 points per 100 possessions.

From the minds behind Yahoo Sports: Embiid plus Maxey plus shooters and movers gets us to a top-eight (or so) offense. Embiid plus a ton of options to blanket the perimeter gets us to a top-five(ish) defense. If that works, it keeps the Sixers around 50 wins and a threat to make a deep playoff run. If it doesn’t, [Daryl] Morey’s got more arrows in the quiver to try to fill whatever gap emerges over the next three months, whether it’s in the form of another high-volume shot creator or a top-flight stopper on the perimeter.

Maybe that’s not an optimal set of options; Morey certainly deserves some stick for the [James] Harden situation metastasizing to the point that this appears to be the best return he could get. But getting that return, and getting it now, allows the Sixers to exhale and move into a future built around guys who want to be there and appear to actively like playing with each other the way this team plays right now.

It also allows them to pour everything into Maxey, who’s gone from the 21st pick in the draft to QB1. He might not keep playing the position perfectly. But it’ll be a hell of a lot of fun to watch him try. ... more

— Dan Devine


10. Golden State Warriors (17-19, 11th in West)

1 Fun Stat: The Warriors have played at least five more clutch games (containing any five-point margin inside the last five minutes) than anyone else, and they are 14-14 with a +15 point differential over 90 minutes. That translates to a +2.9 net rating — not so bad, except in the clutch, where it is also average.

From the minds behind Yahoo Sports: We could very well see the Lakers, Warriors and Suns in the play-in tournament come April. For the Warriors, that would actually be a step up from where they sit now.

It used to be a given, when [Stephen] Curry went off, when [Kevin] Durant quietly and smoothly took over games, when [LeBron] James put his roar on the floor, it was a guaranteed W — no questions asked, regardless of team circumstance, injury or suspension, drama or coaching decisions.

Now, the conditions have to be much more perfect, and it’s no fault of theirs most of the time — the league has just taken these formulas, replaced the fear with verve, taken the shots and dusted themselves off to come back stronger in critical moments. ... It’s the circle of life, Simba. ... more

— Vincent Goodwill

9. Los Angeles Lakers (18-19, 10th in West)

1 Fun Stat: We know how bad the Detroit Pistons have been at 3-point shooting. It was the primary reason for their 28-game losing streak. They rank 29th in 3-point attempts and 28th in 3-point percentage, and a league-worst 28.1% of their points come from 3. Well, the Lakers (30th in 3PA, 25th in 3P%) only score 28.2% of their points from distance. If not for Anthony Davis' dominance in the paint, the Lakers might have a Pistons-level offense. It should be a crime not to surround LeBron James with better 3-point shooting.

From the minds behind Yahoo Sports: This, perhaps, is where LeBron's age shows most readily: In a West where youth is being served, with Anthony Edwards’ Timberwolves and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s Thunder vying to topple reigning champion Nikola Jokić’s Nuggets, his ongoing individual excellence isn’t enough to tip the scales in L.A.’s favor on a night-to-night basis. And the James-and-Davis combo, while still potent ... hasn’t been enough to overcome shaky perimeter shooting and a paucity of playmaking oomph from a guard core headlined by D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves.

That’s why you’ll continue to hear the Lakers associated with any playmaker who might hit the market — Zach LaVine, Dejounte Murray, whoever it might be. Whether those players, or any others who may become available, would put the Lakers over the top in a deep, tough conference, you’d expect [general manager] Rob Pelinka and the rest of L.A.’s braintrust to keep pounding the pavement, working the phones and looking for the kind of upgrade that could unlock another second-half run, just like February’s four-team blockbuster set the Lakers up for a conference finals run. ... more

— Dan Devine

8. Phoenix Suns (19-17, 9th in West)

1 Fun Stat: Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal are up to 88 minutes together. There are 1,610 three-man lineup combinations in the NBA that have logged more minutes. Yet, KD, Book and Beal's +34 point differential is better than the "Big Three" of the Lakers (-49 in 461 minutes) or Warriors (-21 in 276 minutes).

From the minds behind Yahoo Sports: Phoenix’s best chance of getting back to the Finals and mounting a serious challenge for the franchise’s first NBA championship depends on surviving Beal’s early-season absence without prematurely burning out KD or falling too far off the pace being set by the Timberwolves, Nuggets and Thunder at the top of the West. And the Suns’ best chance of that is Booker, now squarely in his prime and in full control of all he surveys in the Valley, playing like an MVP.

Maybe not the MVP; it’s early for that conversation, but it sure seems at the moment like it’s still Jokić, Joel Embiid and then everyone else. (Though Gilgeous-Alexander might have something to say about that.) But prior to this season, the list of guys who’ve averaged 27 points, eight assists and five rebounds per game with a true shooting percentage north of .600 was four names long: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, James Harden and Luka Dončić. That’s the company Book’s keeping right now, thanks to the dramatic level-up in the playmaking department that’s turned him into the best version of himself we’ve ever seen — and that, as it turned out, was, well, well worth the wait. ... more

— Dan Devine

7. Los Angeles Clippers (22-13, 4th in West)

1 Fun Stat: The Clippers create the league's fewest number of wide-open 3-point attempts per game at 14.5 — a key to unlocking offense. That's surprising, given James Harden's creation skills. They also take the most 3-point attempts per game inside the last four seconds of the shot clock — unsurprising, given Harden's style of play. It remains to be seen how that bend toward isolation basketball will translate in the playoffs.

From the minds behind Yahoo Sports: The sound bite reverberated across the NBA: “I’m not a system player. I am a system.”

When James Harden said that in his introductory news conference as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, it hit many ears as a statement borne of ego — a fading 34-year-old, coming off both another postseason meltdown and a messy summertime divorce from his longtime patron, trying to insist in spite of mounting evidence that he was still the sort of superstar whom teams should view as a centerpiece. (And maybe there was some of that.) Two wildly successful months later, though, it seems reasonable to give Harden the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe Harden’s not a solar system anymore: the sun around whom everything and everyone must orbit. For the Clippers, though — who have now won 13 of their last 15 games to jump into fourth place in the West, three games behind conference-leading Minnesota — he’s been a circulatory system. ... more

— Dan Devine


6. Miami Heat (19-14, 4th in East)

1 Fun Stat: According to the NBA's tracking data, no team is scoring more points per possession off screens than the Heat (1.18), thanks to Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. You would think they would run off screens more than 3.9% of the time (11th), even if the efficiency dips, to improve a middling offense.

From the minds behind Yahoo Sports: Wherever the help winds up coming from, what’s crystal clear is that as long as Jimmy [Butler], Bam [Adebayo] and [head coach Erik Spoelstra] are upright and operational come April, May and June, the Heat will remain confident that no weapon formed against them will prosper. If you don’t believe it, that’s fine. They believe more than enough on their own.

“This time, we’re going to win it,” Butler said on media day. “And then y’all going to say we got lucky.” ... more

— Dan Devine


5. Oklahoma City Thunder (23-11, 3rd in West)

1 Fun Stat: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is generating 1.07 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll, the second season in which he has reached that efficiency on at least eight such plays per game. Only one other player has hit those benchmarks multiple times in the tracking era: Damian Lillard. Solid company.

From the minds behind Yahoo Sports: The third team league personnel continue mentioning to watch for a potential [Lauri] Markkanen approach is Oklahoma City, [third] in the West with a trove of first-round picks.

The Thunder have so far been resistant to spend their draft capital and add to a burgeoning young playoff core, not wanting to rush past their breakfast and get to dinner before even thinking about lunch. But there is Davis Bertans’ $17 million salary to play with, plus OKC explored trading young guard Tre Mann prior to the season, sources said. Come February, opposing front offices will surely call Oklahoma City about the trade prospects of Josh Giddey as well, depending on the outcome of the NBA’s investigation regarding his alleged off-court relations. Before the social-media accusations that Giddey had an improper relationship with a minor, other front offices were beginning to pinpoint Giddey as a quiet trade possibility, this being his third season without improving into a viable 3-point shooter next to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Australian playmaker becomes extension-eligible this summer. ... more

— Jake Fischer

4. Minnesota Timberwolves (25-10, 1st in West)

1 Fun Stat: The difference between Minnesota's defensive rating (108.7) and Indiana's offensive rating (122.4) is the second-widest margin between the NBA's best defense and offense since Boston bettered that 13.7-point spread en route to a title in 2008. Only the 2016 Spurs' defense — the last breath of Tim Duncan's dynasty — registered a wider gap (15.3) from the league's top offense since the 3-point boon.

From the minds behind Yahoo Sports: Their chance is now, for who knows how long. You can simply look at the mounting expenses of a mid-market roster, with Edwards and [Karl-Anthony] Towns both set to begin maximum extensions next season, along with [Jaden] McDaniels’ big payday from this fall — with an incoming ownership group unproven in how willing it’ll be to spend into the luxury tax and keep such a group together.

But maybe the more pressing element is the aging veterans who have served as necessary bookends for all of Minnesota’s young talent. [Mike] Conley will be an unrestricted free agent following this season, though there seems to be early optimism among league figures that a reunion might be in the works. Gobert’s deal, though, expires after the 2024-25 season, when he’ll be 32, and his effectiveness in each of these two seasons has so far been the true benchmark of whether Minnesota can contend. ... more

— Jake Fischer


3. Milwaukee Bucks (25-11, 2nd in East)

1 Fun Stat: After years of sacrificing 3-point defense to protect the rim, no Eastern Conference team is holding opponents further below their season averages from beyond the arc than the Bucks this season (-3.1%). Since the Sixers are the only team that contests fewer 3-point attempts per game than Milwaukee, per the tracking data, that may be worse news over a full season for a defense that rates 20th in the NBA.

From the minds behind Yahoo Sports: This is not about counting statistics. It is about the upgrade from [Jrue] Holiday to Lillard in Milwaukee vs. that of [Malcolm] Brogdon to Holiday in Boston, and what that means for what feels like their inevitable playoff showdown.

"If we're going to complete our goal of winning a championship, we're obviously going to have to meet up with them at some point," said [Brook] Lopez. "They're a very talented team with the same aspirations. As long as we take care of business, keep improving game in and game out, I'm sure we'll run into them, and we'll see what it's like then."

The mere presence of Lillard and [Giannis] Antetokounmpo — two all-time great players — means there is no team they cannot beat, but over a seven-game series, the margins matter, and Milwaukee's weakened perimeter defense against Boston's revamped five-out offense full of two-way players is an awfully wide one to close. ... more

— Ben Rohrbach

2. Denver Nuggets (26-12, 2nd in West)

1 Fun Stat: Nikola Jokic's 3-point shooting — down from 38.3% last season to 34.2% — is not his only dip in shooting efficiency. His numbers are down from the restricted area (74.5% to 67.5%), the paint (62.7% to 60.7%) and mid-range (52.3% to 49.3%), too. His true-shooting percentage (64.1) is closer to his career average (63.3). Turns out it was hard to post last year's league-leading 70.1 true-shooting percentage. (Only six people in NBA history have posted a number higher than 70%, none on more shot attempts than Jokic.)

From the minds behind Yahoo Sports: We do not discuss enough just how dominant the Denver Nuggets' championship run was last season.

The Nuggets played a single Game 6, never faced a Game 7 and lost once in the last two rounds, finishing the playoffs with a 16-4 record and 8.7 net rating, both of which would have led the NBA by a wide margin in the regular season, and three of the four losses were one-possession games inside the final 30 seconds.

Since the playoffs expanded to four rounds in 1984, only seven other championship cores have won 80% of their postseason games: Larry Bird's Boston Celtics (15-3, 1986), Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers (15-3, 1987), Isiah Thomas' Detroit Pistons (15-2, 1989), Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls (15-2, 1991; 15-3, 1996), Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs (15-2, 1999; 16-4, 2007), Shaquille O'Neal's Lakers (15-1, 2001) and Stephen Curry's Golden State Warriors (16-1, 2017). Detroit's two titles are the fewest among those squads.

So, yeah, the Nuggets could absolutely be a dynasty in the making. ... more

— Ben Rohrbach

1. Boston Celtics (28-7, 1st in East)

1 Fun Stat: The Celtics are the league's best rim protectors, holding opponents 5.3% lower than their season averages on field-goal attempts inside of 6 feet, an improvement from 1.2% last season, per NBA tracking data. They can thank Kristaps Porzingis, whose 7-foot-6 wingspan has scared rivals into shooting 13.3% worse around the rim, the best mark of any regular who challenges as many close shots as he does.

From the minds behind Yahoo Sports: One thing is for certain: Their best game is better than anyone’s best game so far this season. That hasn’t always been the case over the last six years, but it definitively feels that way now.

Their six best players blow everyone in the league away, with a barrage of 3-pointers, blocks and stops — and they do it in a flurry, in the blink of an eye. ... more

— Vincent Goodwill