PBT’s Week 6 NBA Power Rankings: Celtics hold on to top spot, Timberwolves a close second
We are through the group stage of the inaugural NBA In Season Tournament and those games have certainly impacted this week’s NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings. That includes keeping the Boston Celtics on top (and three of the top four spots with teams from the East).
1. Boston Celtics (14-4, Last Week No. 1). They beat Milwaukee last Wednesday, confirming my belief that they are the best team in the NBA right now — and if the Bucks and Celtics meet again in May I like Boston’s chances. A lot. Milwaukee’s defense overall, and perimeter defense in particular, had no answer for the five-out Celtics offense with Kristaps Porzingis (who is out for the next week with a strained calf). While Milwaukee looked more clutch in that showdown (after Boston was in control and took its foot off the gas), the Celtics have a +19.2 net rating in the clutch and are 6-3 in those games. Fun game Friday night against the red hot 76ers and Joel Embiid.
2. Minnesota Timberwolves (13-4, LW 3). The Timberwolves’ lone loss in their last six games happened to be the one that knocked them out of the In Season Tournament (at home last Friday to the Kings), but it doesn’t change the early season trajectory of this team. In fact, the loss may have helped their overall record because the two games added when they didn’t make the final eight were against the struggling Spurs and Grizzlies. What gets overlooked in talking about the fast start for Minnesota is the steady hand of Mike Conley at the point — he doesn’t turn the ball over (just 14 times all season) and he has a ridiculous 63.8 true shooting percentage for the season. Conley is the glue holding this team together.
3. Philadelphia 76ers (12-5, LW 6). It’s on to the knockout stage of the In Season Tournament, where the 76ers will host the Knicks next Tuesday (that night is what Adam Silver dreamed of with this tournament, the big market New York vs. Philly game followed by Durant vs. LeBron in the nightcap). We’re starting to see the full shakeout from the Harden trade (at least until Daryl Morey makes another move at the deadline) but the best fit has been Nicolas Batum, who looks at home in Nick Nurse’s movement offense. Philadelphia rebounded from back-to-back losses by beating the red-hot Thunder on Saturday then thrashing LeBron and the Lakers on Monday, now they have a big showdown against the Celtics on Friday, plus Tuesday’s tournament game with a trip to Vegas on the line.
4. Milwaukee Bucks (13-5, LW 4). You can make a case for the Bucks: 8-1 in their last nine games, a team on to the quarterfinals of the In Season Tournament, a top 10 offense, and an improving defense, plus with Damian Lillard Milwaukee is 8-2 in clutch games with a league-best 39.7 net rating in those minutes. This is a quality team. However, the loss to Boston last Wednesday — where the Celtics were in firm control until they took their foot off the gas in the fourth — shows just how far this team still needs to go to reach the level Antetokounmpo wants. Close wins over the Wizards and Trail Blazers didn’t impress either. The perimeter defense remains a real concern, while Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are still figuring out their chemistry.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder (11-6, LW 2). Rookie Cason Wallace has been good enough that when Jalen Williams went down for three games Wallace was pushed into the starting lineup. His stats were worse in that role — fewer touches and chances as the fifth scoring option in that group — but he held his own and then thrived again when back in this bench role. Wallace isn’t putting up eye-popping counting stats like rookie teammate Chet Holmgren, but Dallas is averaging 7.5 points a game off the bench and has an insane 79.7 true shooting percentage as a bench player. The Thunder have dropped two in a row and the tests don’t get easier this week against the Lakers, Mavericks and Rockets.
6. Phoenix Suns (11-6, LW 11). Phoenix has played in 11 clutch games this season — within five points in the final five minutes — and that is tied for second most in the NBA, but the Suns are 6-5 in those games with a troubling -11.9 net rating in those minutes. However, like everything with Phoenix, it is different when Devin Booker is on the court — the Suns are 5-1 in games where Booker was healthy and playing in those clutch minutes. Booker is as clutch a player as there is in the league — just ask the Knicks. Booker and the Suns get another shot at the Lakers during the In Season Tournament quarterfinals on Tuesday. Win and they get to head to Las Vegas for the weekend.
7. Orlando Magic (12-5, LW 12). Orlando has won seven in a row (with its next two games being at home against Washington, look for that streak to extend) in part because they are dominating the paint on both ends — they are top 10 in both points scored per game in the paint and fewest points given up in the paint. Orlando outscores is opponents by an average of eight points a game in the paint, the second-highest number in the league (Cleveland at 8.2 per game). The Magic have a top-five defense in part because they’ve got long defenders protecting the rim, but what gets overlooked is an offense where they relentlessly attack the rim and get buckets inside.
8. New York Knicks (10-7, LW 7). The Knicks are beating who they are supposed to beat: They are 8-0 this season against teams .500 or below, but are 2-7 against winning teams this season (stat via John Schuhmann of NBA.com). They are going to have to face an above .500 team in the 76ers as New York advanced to the quarterfinals of the In Season Tournament, but find a way to win that game Tuesday and the Knicks would head to Las Vegas for a couple of games in December. The one guy Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks know they can count on in those clutch tournament games is Jalen Brunson, who showed his big game mojo last week when had 24 in a big win against the Heat last week and then 35 in a close loss to the Suns.
9. Denver Nuggets (12-6, LW 5). The Nuggets have kept their heads above water going 6-5 in games with Jamal Murray out, with reports he is expected to return this week. The depth of this Nuggets team has been a question mark since training camp, but those players showed out in a road win against the Clippers on Monday, with former Clips Reggie Jackson (35 points, 13 assists) and DeAndre Jordan (21 points 13 rebounds) shredding the Los Angeles defense with five alley-oop dunks. Denver is 8-0 at home this season but just 4-6 on the road, with a string of three straight games away from the Ball Arena starting on Friday in Phoenix.
10. Sacramento Kings (10-6, LW 10). We’ve seen the reasons to believe in the Kings and the reasons to doubt them in the past week. For the reasons to doubt, there were the two losses to New Orleans where the Pelicans outscored the Kings in the restricted area 92-42 — the Kings don’t have enough rim protection (even if their 17th-ranked defense is better than a season ago). Then we saw the grit and scoring both in beating Minnesota on the road and then in a comeback against the Warriors Tuesday to secure a spot in the quarterfinals of the In Season Tournament — this team does not quit. And that game-winner from Malik Monk summed it up.
11. Dallas Mavericks (11-6, LW 9). What having Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving gives the Mavericks is the clutch gene — they is 7-1 in clutch games this season, with a +30.7 net rating (second best in the NBA behind Lillard’s Bucks). Dallas has needed those stars to step up and get wins in the clutch because the team’s 25th-ranked defense has it 3-5 in the non-clutch games. Specifically, the Mavericks’ paint defense is an issue, they surrender 56.5 points in the paint per game, third worst in the league. Good test coming up Saturday night against the Thunder.
12. Miami Heat (10-8, LW 8). Enough good things can’t be said about Jaime Jaquez Jr. and how the rookie has stepped up in recent weeks, not to mention his fit with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Jaquez is averaging 11.3 points a game this season and shooting 39.3% from 3, but that undersells what he does when you watch him play, he just fits in well with the Heat, their style of play and their culture. With Tyler Herro still out Miami has dropped three games in a row and things do not get easier this week with two games against the high-octane offense of the Indiana Pacers.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers (10-8, LW 13). One of the harder teams to figure out because they are hard to predict night to night: Are they ten team that beat the 76ers without Donovan Mitchell, or the team that lost to the Heat and Lakers, or the team that blew the Hawks out on Tuesday night (and almost made the quarterfinals of the In Season Tournament because of it). The questions may tie to a backcourt of Mitchell and Darius Garland that can be an offensive force getting downhill and attacking the rim but also is a defensive liability. Evan Mobley’s offensive game also hasn’t developed like the Cavaliers needed. They should look good with a couple winnable games this week against Portland and Detroit.
14. Houston Rockets (8-7, LW 20). The Rockets continue to show flashes of potential with their young roster and then, in their next steps, the pitfalls and challenges that come with youth. Maybe nowhere is that more evident than the fact that Houston is 8-1 at home this season but 0-6 on the road. When steady veterans Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks are on the court with breakout star Alperen Şengün the Rockets have a +15 net rating and that trio helps keep them winning games (Houston’s +4.7 net rating is that of a 10-5 team). The Rockets are on the road for three of their next four games, with two of them being in Denver.
15. Los Angeles Lakers (10-8, LW 14). When the Lakers won the title back in the bubble, Anthony Davis knocking down midrange jumpers was a key part of their success. While there are stretches it feels like the Lakers are starting to find a groove, when they face the best in the league — like against the 76ers last week — Los Angeles needs bubble Davis, but he has taken just 25% of his shots from beyond 10 feet this season and is hitting 14.2% on midrange shots (outside the paint but inside the arc) and 30% on 3s. The Lakers need to ask Santa for more shooting and it would help if Davis could provide some of it. The Lakers also should ask for some better health as the injuries to their bench — Rui Hachimura, Jared Vanderbilt, Cam Reddish, Gabe Vincent — left them without enough physicality, which was evident in the loss to the 76ers Monday.
16. New Orleans Pelicans (9-9, LW 16). Zion Williamson is looking more and more like his explosive, vintage self each game — in his last five games he’s averaging 27 points a game on 60% shooting with 5.8 assists a night. Those are numbers much closer to his pre-injury self from last season. Add to that the return of CJ McCollum — maybe as soon as Wednesday, but in the next week for sure — and there is reason for optimism. Another reason is the play of rookie Jordan Hawkins, who has held his own as a starter with McCollum out but should thrive in a bench role and make the second unit for the Pelicans that much more of a threat. Zion’s improved play didn’t stop the Pelicans from dropping two straight games in Utah (and things don’t get easier Wednesday against Joel Embiid and the 76ers).
17. Indiana Pacers (9-7, LW 15). The Pacers are through to the quarterfinals of the In Season Tournament and that’s a good thing for fans outside the great state of Indiana — fans around the nation have not seen enough of this team’s high-octane offense and the All-NBA level play of Tyrese Haliburton to start the season. Haliburton’s improved pull-up jumper is a real threat now. It’s good news for the Pacers, although having to go up against the well-balanced Celtics in a knockout game is a rough draw. Indiana has two games in Miami before that and the Heat are never easy to beat or play against.
18. Atlanta Hawks (8-9, LW 18). The fractured wrist of Jalen Johnson — likely keeping him out around a month — is a real blow to Atlanta, he has been their best perimeter defender this season. His play on the wing giving them 14.1 points a game and shooting 42.5% from 3 also will be missed, the Hawks have struggled to fill that wing position for years and Johnson has taken control of that role. Atlanta is a bet the over team: Third in offense, 25th in defense and fourth in pace. Their games are entertaining but they have lost five of their last seven and now face the Bucks on Saturday.
19. Brooklyn Nets (9-8, LW 21). Maybe this ranking is too low for an above .500 team with a +1.9 net rating (via Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time). Mikel Bridges has played some of this best basketball of the season lately, averaging 24.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists a game while shooting 52.2% from 3 over his last five games. Even with all that and the return of Nic Clayton as a rim protector, it’s hard to find quality wins on their schedule — yes they beat the Heat last weekend, but on a night Miami rested Butler and Adebayo. Maybe Saturday’s game at home against the streaking Magic can change the vibe that this is a solid team but little more.
20. Golden State Warriors (8-10, LW 17). After the Warriors blew a 24-point lead in a loss to the Kings Tuesday — the Warriors worst loss of the season — that his team was not in a free fall. Maybe not, but they have lost eight of their last 10 games, are two games below .500, have a middle of the pack offense (13th) and defense (17th), and the starting five that was dominant for this team last season has a -8.7 net rating this season. Maybe Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins are playing a little better of late, but nothing about this team right now screams title threat. The Warriors have a home-and-home coming up against the Clippers in a battle of teams trying to right the ship after ugly losses.
21. Los Angeles Clippers (7-9, LW 19). Los Angeles had won 4-of-5, Russell Westbrook was on the bench and the starting five with Terance Mann was defending well and winning games, and James Harden was averaging 14.4 points and 6.4 assists a game. You could see the potential of a dangerous team starting to emerge. Then the Clippers got crushed by the Jokic-less Nuggets and all their flaws — a passive Harden, unsteady backline defense, too much isolation and not enough ball movement — came to the forefront and it’s hard to be positive about this team right now. The Clippers are a solid to good team, but that’s not enough for a group that just went all-in to land Harden. Hard decisions are coming.
22. Toronto Raptors (8-10, LW 22). If you just looked at the scores it would be easy to say “Look at all the points the Raptors put up against the Pacers and Bulls” but those are two of the bottom 10 defenses in the league and teams Toronto could run on. The biggest concern with Toronto remains shooting, they are getting just 31% of their points from the 3-point line, bottom 10 in the league numbers. On the bright side, the Raptors are moving the ball, getting 67% of their buckets on assisted baskets, the third highest percentage in the league. Tough schedule ahead this week with the Suns and Knicks on the docket.
23. Utah Jazz (6-11, LW 24). There are some disappointed Jazz fans out there with this record, but this was never going to be a linear rebuild. While Lauri Markkanen grabbed the headlines a year ago (and his numbers this season are close to a year ago), that team got off to a fast start thanks to Mike Conley running the point, the defense of Jarred Vanderbilt and the shooting of Malik Beasley, and all three of those players are gone. The good news out of this season is the play of Keyonte George at the point, he looks like the future at the one in Utah.
24. Charlotte Hornets (5-11, LW 25). LaMelo Ball is out for an extended period of time with a sprained ankle (as of this writing we don’t have details beyond that, but it looked nasty when it happened) and that is bad for everyone involved. It sucks for the Hornets and their fans because it feels like any chance of Charlotte making a push to fight for a play-in slot is dead now, the hole to climb out of when he returns will be too deep. It also sucks for Ball himself on multiple levels, including the fact that if he made an All-NBA team his contract extension could have been worth much more under the Rose Rule (it was a long shot he’d make All-NBA, but he was playing the best basketball of his career to start the season and at least looked like an All-Star).
25. Trail Blazers (5-12, LW 28). Scoot Henderson returned from injury and the Trail Blazers have won 2-of-3 and while that is not all because of him, the eye test says they look a lot better with Scoot running the show. Jerami Grant continues to play well, averaging 23.4 points a game this season and shooting 42.6% from 3 — don’t be surprised if his name pops up in trade rumors closer to the February trade deadline. Portland is in the middle of a six-game road trip that continues with stops in Cleveland, Utah and Los Angeles (Clippers).
26. Chicago Bulls (5-14, LW 23). With a core three of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Bulls lead the league with 44.2% of their field goals made coming unassisted. This is a team of isolation scorers. The Bulls have dropped eight of nine, frustrations are on the rise and VP of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas had to come out and say “We see what everyone is seeing and are just as frustrated.” The rebuild is coming fast, the question is will Karnisovas get to oversee it?
27. Washington Wizards (3-14, LW 27). The Wizards picked up a win this week — thanks Pistons — and in that game we saw the ball move thanks to Kyle Kuzma looking more pass first than usual. Throw in the underrated passing of Tyus Jones — a good player seemingly stuck on an unserious team (and a free agent after this season) — and there is the potential for an offense that moves the ball, moves off the ball and creates shots. That’s the silver lining. While I don’t want to just pile on Jordan Poole this season, he makes plays that make it hard not to — and moments like this sum up the Wizards season.
28. Memphis Grizzlies (3-13, LW 26). Ja Morant has eight games left on his suspension, but considering where this team is in the standings and where they need to get to in the West, his return may not be enough to lift this team even to the play-in games. What maybe is the most frustrating part of a disappointing season is the Grizzlies 29th ranked offense — they were obviously going to struggle some on that end without Morant, but Desmond Bane, Marcus Smart and company were expected to keep the Grizzlies’ head above water. That hasn’t happened. Memphis hosts Utah on Wednesday then heads out on the road for games at Dallas and Phoenix.
29. San Antonio Spurs (3-14, LW 29). Nikola Jokic had nothing but praise for Victor Wembanyama after going up against him: “He is 19 years old. He is not getting scared of getting tired. He’s playing hard… He doesn’t take it for granted. He’s making mistakes, which is normal…. The guy is guarding everybody on the floor. He can literally guard one through five. And I think that’s a good thing for him, just to learn every possible spot on the floor. Just experience-wise.” The Spurs have lost 12 in a row.
30. Detroit Pistons (2-15, LW 30). It’s never too early for some teams and fan bases to start looking ahead to next June NBA Draft, and for the Pistons they have got to get some shooting in the door. For four straight drafts they have brought in ball handlers but it has left the team with horrific shooting and floor spacing, which makes it harder to evaluate just how good Cade Cunningham really might be. The Pistons have dropped 13 straight games, but they still have a better net rating this season than the Spurs, Hornets and Grizzlies. Detroit just can’t get a win.