NBA Power Rankings: Field is set for season restart in Orlando
22 teams enter...
Nearly two months after suspending its season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 11, the NBA announced its return on June 3 — or at least, its plan to return.
That plan will involve 22 teams — 16 current playoff squads and the six teams within six games of their conference's eighth seed — assembling in Orlando, Fla. in a campus environment. According to reports, training camps will begin on June 30, players and staff will travel to Orlando on July 7, and the season is set to begin on July 30 and run through Oct. 13, at the latest. The 22 invited teams will complete an eight-game resolution to the regular season followed by a possible play-in series for each conference's No. 8 seed (if No. 9 ends within four games of No. 8) and a traditional, 16-team playoff. All on neutral ground and without fans.
Still amid the pandemic and widespread unrest over issues of social justice, the execution of the above plan will require an unprecedented logistical effort from the league and its principles. The hope at the end of it all is that the NBA will crown a legitimate 2020 champion while maintaining the safety of its players, staff and miscellaneous stakeholders.
So, from a basketball sense, how does each invited team stack up? Enclosed find a power ranking of all 22 clubs entering the Orlando campus, along with nuggets on where we left teams off when play was postponed.
22. Washington Wizards (24-40)
Frankly, along with Phoenix, it’s unclear what the Wizards bring to the Orlando experiment from a competitive standpoint. They’re the worst defensive team in the league, but do have some offensive firepower in the form of superstar scorer Bradley Beal (35.8 ppg, 5.7 apg; 47.8% FG, 40.8% 3P since Jan. 22) and microwave forward extraordinaire Davis Bertans.
But they entered the hiatus 4-6 in their last ten, and 5.5 games back of Magic. The Wiz will have to make up 1.5 of those games in just eight contests to have even an outside chance at a playoff berth.
21. Phoenix Suns (26-39)
Phoenix isn’t especially good at anything. They’re an average offense paired with an average defense. They have a lot of very young talent (picking in the lottery nine straight years will do that), and Devin Booker is a lot of fun to watch. For Suns fans, they’ll get to watch him for eight games, but nothing more.
20. Sacramento Kings (28-36)
The Kings have endured a tumultuous 2019-20 campaign that began with great promise. But they entered the hiatus on a high note, going 7-3 in their last 10, and in the midst of a generally solid stretch of play catalyzed by coach Luke Walton swapping Bogdan Bogdanovic for Buddy Hield in the starting lineup.
Especially if they get Marvin Bagley III, who’s played only 13 games this season, back from injury, they’re as capable of getting hot at the right time as any of the other fringe teams.
19. San Antonio Spurs (27-36)
It’s easy to write off the Spurs. They’re only playing in Orlando because of how mediocre the Grizzlies were. But Gregg Popovich, still arguably the NBA’s best coach, will have them ready for anything. Unfortunately, earning a spot in the play-in game is the best they can hope for. Losing LaMarcus Aldridge for the season after right shoulder surgery only slices those chances further.
18. Orlando Magic (30-35)
The Magic are still a stilted group — 10th in the NBA in defensive rating, but bottom-of-the-barrel on the offensive end with little outside of Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic in terms of consistent creation.
Jonathan Isaac bloomed as a defensive stalwart this season and Markelle Fultz’s resurgence is enough to tickle heartstrings, but — barring a monumental collapse that would allow the Wizards to overtake them — they’re a prototypical Eastern Conference eighth seed and a surefire first-round sweep at the hands of the Bucks.
17. Brooklyn Nets (30-34)
Kyrie Irving is still out and despite an extra five months, Kevin Durant won’t be walking through that door. Oh, and Jacque Vaughn coached just two games after replacing Kenny Atkinson before the league shutdown. There are a lot of hurdles for this team to overcome to finish the season beyond a first round exit.
16. New Orleans Pelicans (28-36)
Where to begin? With Zion Williamson finally in tow after an early season riddled with injuries, the Pelicans were one of the most exciting teams in the NBA down the stretch. Brandon Ingram’s emergence as a premiere bucket-getter, Jrue Holiday’s persistence as one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and well-cast role players around them make these guys capable of hanging with most anyone in a vacuum.
Almost the reverse Grizzlies, the Pels owned the easiest remaining schedule in the league before play paused. It’ll be an uphill battle to get into the play-in game, but with a team of this talent level, anything is possible.
15. Portland Trail Blazers (29-37)
To say the Blazers, sitting at 29-37, have had a disappointing season is a huge understatement; they’ll resume play with the ninth-best record in the West after making a trip to the Western Conference finals in 2019.
But there are signs of hope. Damian Lillard is having a career year on a team loaded with vets, and Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins could return from long-term injuries to bolster the frontcourt. Don’t be surprised if Porland sneaks into the No. 8 seed.
14. Memphis Grizzlies (32-33)
They’ve got the presumptive Rookie of the Year in Ja Morant, and the hiatus gave fellow wunderkins Jaren Jackson (left knee) and Brandon Clarke (right quad) time to rehab injuries that forced them to miss nine and eight games, respectively, leading into the hiatus.
Memphis enters Orlando firmly planted in the eighth seed in the West and leading Portland, New Orleans and Sacramento by 3.5 games. Before the pause, Basketball Reference rated the Grizzlies’ remaining slate the hardest in the NBA — throwing that and their competitors’ schedules into flux should only help them in their quest for a surprise playoff berth.
13. Indiana Pacers (39-26)
Victor Oladipo played in just 13 games before the league’s hiatus, and he’ll have a ton of rust to shake off if he hopes to return to the same player that averaged 23.1 points per game two seasons ago. The Pacers’ defense is undeniably solid, but their offense is ranked 27th in the league since Oladipo made his season debut on Jan. 29. They lack the scoring to make a run at the East.
12. Philadelphia 76ers (39-26)
A season that began with many picking them to represent the East in the Finals has played out peculiarly for the 76ers; Philly enters Orlando seeded sixth in the East with a generally mismatched roster and a wonky home (29-2), road (10-24) record disparity — luckily, every game going forward will be fan-less and on neutral ground.
Despite past foibles, this is a team that rates in the top five of the league defensively and boasts as much top-end talent as anyone contending. Four months off should get Ben Simmons back to speed after missing the eight games leading into the break with a back injury, and NBA fans of every distinction can get excited about the continuation of Shake Milton (16.5 ppg, 57.1% FG, 59.2% 3P post-All-Star with a 39-point outing vs. the Clippers) Mania come July.
11. Miami Heat (41-24)
Miami is sneaky good. We’re well aware of what Jimmy Butler is capable of, but Most Improved Player candidate Bam Adebayo and Simeon grad Kendrick Nunn are just as important to this team as Jimmy Buckets. Three of their five regular starters have three-or-less years in the league, which could hurt them in the Orlando bubble.
10. Dallas Mavericks (40-27)
A seismic leap from Luka Doncic (28.7 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 8.7 apg) catalyzed the Mavericks boasting the best single-season offensive rating in NBA history when play paused. Results were mixed leading into the break (4-4 in their last eight games), but the Doncic-Kristaps Porzingis pairing finally sparked after Porzingis’ return from a knee injury on Jan. 21.
The hiatus dulled the momentum of Porzingis (23 ppg, 11 rpg, 3.0 bpg post All-Star break) and Seth Curry (19.3 ppg, 59.3% FG, 53.7% 3P post All-Star), but gave Doncic time to replenish after juggling a laundry list of injuries — from wrist and thumb ailments to an illness he played through — after the calendar flipped to 2020. The Mavs march into Orlando one of the most explosive teams in the league with major upset potential depending on how the top of the West shuffles during the seeding games.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder (40-24)
Most of the league overlooked the Thunder in the preseason, and most of the league continues to overlook them despite their 40 wins. Chris Paul has the playoff experience and veteran presence to make sure they don’t lose focus during their time in Orlando. OKC may not have enough talent to win the West, but they’re sure to be a tough matchup for any team.
8. Utah Jazz (41-23)
The Jazz flipped a lethargic 13-11 start to the season with a mid-December to mid-January stretch in which they won 19 of 21 games against a soft spot in their schedule. The principles — Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert — continue to do their thing, while recent additions proved hit (Jordan Clarkson, Bojan Bogdanovic) and miss (Mike Conley).
Stringent defensively and versatile offensively, the Jazz certainly profile as a tough out. But without Bogdanovic — who will miss the rest of the season with a wrist injury — they’ll be stretched thin in the frontcourt against towering competition atop the West.
7. Houston Rockets (40-24)
The Rockets’ postseason struggles are well-known, and we don’t need to recount seven straight years of failing to get out of the West. Still, there is always hope with an offense that can put up points as quickly as they can — Houston is second in the NBA in scoring and offensive rating, and the James Harden-Russell Westbrook backcourt really gelled after the team committed fully to small-ball, flipped Clint Capela and snagged Robert Covington at the deadline.
If they can significantly improve on their 16th-rated defense, the Rockets could be a sleeper pick for a Finals berth.
6. Boston Celtics (43-21)
The Celtics didn’t miss a beat after losing Kyrie Irving and Al Horford in the summer of 2019. Bolstered by the addition of Kemba Walker, leaps from Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, resurgence of Gordon Hayward and surprise contributions of Daniel Theis, they currently inhabit the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
The hiatus did save them from a modest slump (2-4 in their last six), and should allow Walker to fully rest up a left knee injury that had nagged him since the All-Star break. This is an uber-talented, versatile and well-coached team — fifth in net rating and with three 20-point scorers — but a dearth of bench firepower and size could come back to bite them against the likes of Toronto, Milwaukee or even Philadelphia (their current first-round matchup).
5. Denver Nuggets (43-22)
Steady feels the apt word for the Nuggets this season. But they endured a turbulent period entering the hiatus, going just 5-5 in their last 10, trading a quality win over the Raptors for head-scratching losses to the likes of Golden State and Cleveland along the way. After the Cavs defeat, coach Mike Malone bemoaned a team lacking identity.
They’ll need to find one come postseason time. In tow, they have a bonafide superstar (and a skinny one at that) in Nikola Jokic, a good secondary scoring option in Jamal Murray and solid — if not elite — offensive and defensive metrics. Still, checkered interior defense, a paltry free throw rate and unproven supplementary pieces call into question Denver’s ability to contend with the cream of the Western Conference’s crop.
4. Toronto Raptors (46-18)
... But the Raptors are still the reigning champs. They have the veteran leadership to make sure that everyone stays focused amid what will be the most unusual postseason in NBA history. Pascal Siakam is doing his best Kawhi impression and they have the second-best defense in the league. Don’t count this team out.
3. Los Angeles Clippers (44-20)
The Clippers may not get the attention that their Staples Center roommates get, but the long hiatus may benefit them more than the Lakers. Since Paul George made his season debut on Nov. 14, 2019, Doc Rivers’ squad has the NBA’s second-rated offense and second-best net rating. At full strength, there’s no one in the league better.
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2. Los Angeles Lakers (49-14)
The Lakers entered the pause on a tear, winning 10 of their final 12 games with back-to-back-to-back-to-back victories over the Pelicans, 76ers, Bucks and Clippers embedded in that stretch.
They boast a top four offense, top three defense and two perennial MVP candidates in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Playoff experience dots their roster. Entering the Orlando experiment, Banner 17 feels well within reach.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (53-12)
The best record in the NBA. The highest scoring offense. The top rated defense. Oh, and the reigning MVP who is in prime position to win the award in back-to-back years.
Don’t hand the Lakers the title just yet. Giannis Antetokoumpo and the Bucks are the clear favorite.