Nobody is catching the LeBron James and the Lakers so far this season, but Shaq is wrong about the Jazz, who have won nine in a row with a quality ensemble cast and elite defense (kind of like the 2004 Pistons, a team Shaq might be familiar with).
1. Lakers (14-4 Last Week No. 1). At points the Lakers seem to get a little bored and play with their food — blowing a 19-point lead to the Warriors, for example — but most of the time it doesn’t matter because their defense is better than the one that won them a title last season (2.1 per 100 possessions better, a significant amount). The other difference is the Lakers are more of a threat from three, shooting 38.9% as a team this season (fifth in the league), up from 34.9% last season. The Lakers have four games remaining on this road trip, but they are 10-0 on the road this season.
2. Jazz (13-4 LW 5). Winners of nine in a row, the Jazz have been elite on both ends of the court in this run. The biggest difference between this Jazz team and the one that lost to Denver in the playoffs? Point Guard Mike Conley is back to playing at a near All-Star level. Last season, as he struggled with injury and adjusting to a new team, he was not himself and was pretty pedestrian. Now, he’s putting up 16.4 points a game, shooting 42.2% from three, organizing the offense like a veteran, and giving the Jazz another quality perimeter defender. Donovan Mitchell is out Wednesday (and maybe longer) due to a concussion.
3. Clippers (13-5, LW 2). The Clippers’ win streak ended in Atlanta because they were without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George due to COVID-19 protocols, and L.A. is expected to be without the pair through the end of the week (they have a back-to-back against Miami and Orlando Thursday and Friday). One bright spot for the Clippers this season is the play of Nicolas Batum, who has dropped some weight and found a role in the starting five, scoring 10 points a game, shooting 45.3% from three, and keeping the ball moving on offense.
4. Bucks (10-6, LW 4). It’s not the losses to the Nets and Lakers recently that are concerning — teams evolve over the course of a season. Being a step behind those squads now doesn’t matter, it’s about where they are in June during the playoffs. What is concerning is the team’s three-point shooting let them down in those losses — they shot 30.3% in those games, shooting in big moments remains an ongoing concern in Milwaukee. It is also worth noting that Khris Middleton had the ball in the clutch against the Nets, not Giannis Antetokounmpo.
5. 76ers (12-6 LW 11). While Joel Embiid is rightfully getting a lot of attention — he is playing at an MVP level and dominated two games against the Celtics this past week — people are missing how well Tobias Harris is playing reunited with Doc Rivers. He’s averaging 19.8 points a game and is doing it very efficiently, shooting 45.8% from three (his 61.5 true shooting percentage is a career-best). Philly is +22.6 points per 100 possessions better with Harris on the court this season, and while there is a lot of noise in that stat, it speaks to how well he is playing so far. Great test against the Lakers Wednesday.
6. Celtics (10-6, LW 6). Boston’s 110.1 defensive rating this season (16th in the league) is the worst of the Brad Stevens era. That defense has been a little better the past couple of weeks (108.7, 10th best in the NBA over the Celtics’ last six games), but they had no answer for Joel Embiid in losing both games of a set to Philly. The Celtics have 6-of-7 coming up on the road, where they are 5-4 this season (and the one home game is the Lakers).
7. Nuggets (10-7 LW 12). Denver has finally found a groove, winning four in a row, including taking both games in a set from Phoenix (both in overtime). The key has been better defense, plus a more balanced offense not needing Nikola Jokic to carry everything (he is no longer averaging a triple-double for the season, he “only” is dishing out 9.3 assists a game). Michael Porter Jr. is back in the rotation and hit 10-of-18 shots on his way to a team-high 30 points, including six made threes, in a win against Dallas.
8. Nets (11-8, LW 3). The two recent losses to the red-hot Collin Sexton and the Cavaliers continue to highlight Brooklyn’s defensive issues — the Cavs had struggled on offense coming in then had a 124 offensive rating in those two games. That defense puts a lot of pressure on Brooklyn’s big three, but the win against the Bucks — with Kevin Durant draining the game-winner — shows the trio can handle it, and this team’s offense can still take it a long way.
KD's CLUTCH triple lifts the @BrooklynNets to victory! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/urvZJormd1
— NBA (@NBA) January 19, 2021
9. Pacers (10-7, LW 7). Good news, Domantas Sabonis’ knee injury turned out just to be a bruise, and he is day-to-day and will not miss much time. Malcolm Brogdon has been overlooked a little this season nationally and deserves a shout out. The offense fell on his shoulders (especially after Victor Oladipo was traded), and he has averaged 22.7 points and 7.2 assists a game as the primary shot creator. He is playing at an All-Star level and drained the game-winner to beat a frisky Orlando team in overtime.
Malcolm Brogdon buries the CLUTCH 👌 with 2.8 left to lift the @Pacers in OT! pic.twitter.com/hHQ1ZlevhU
— NBA (@NBA) January 23, 2021
10. Spurs (9-8, LW 8). After a rough start to the season, LaMarcus Aldridge seems to be finding his groove again, scoring at least 23 points a game in each of the last four Spurs’ contests. What’s changed? He’s knocking down his midrange shots again, especially from the top of the key and left elbow areas. Patty Mills and Rudy Gay continue to not get enough praise for their play off the bench in San Antonio this year. Big tests against Boston and Denver coming up this week.
11. Trail Blazers (9-7, LW 9). Portland has gone 1-2 so far with both CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic out of the lineup, and that win is only because a rested Damian Lillard went off for 39 against New York. The Blazers defense was bottom five in the league before Nurkic went down — it is 29th, second-worst in the league, now (using Cleaning the Glass stats) — and if the only way they can win games until he returns is Lillard going nuclear, Portland will start to slide down in the standings (and these rankings). Starting Thursday, the team is on the road for six straight.
12. Suns (8-7 LW 10). After that red-hot start, Phoenix has lost four of five as a couple of unexpected problems have started to catch up with them. One is that despite having Chris Paul and Devin Booker, the Suns are a below-average pick-and-roll team (20th in the league via Synergy Sports). The other is that they have struggled in clutch games, ones within three points in the final three minutes. Phoenix’s offense has not been good enough to cover for defensive lapses of late, and these Suns need it to.
13. Grizzlies (7-6, LW 13). They haven’t played a game since our last rankings due to coronavirus protocols, making it tough to move them up or down in the standings. When thinking about players who look ready for their first All-Star appearance this season, Ja Morant leaps to mind in the West — except he likely will not play enough games to sway voters, or the coaches who round out the roster. Morant has only played in five games this season (but has looked great in those games).
14. Warriors (9-8, LW 14). Steve Kerr finally adjusted the starting five — which had struggled — in a win over the hapless Timberwolves, moving Kevon Looney into the starting five and bringing rookie James Wiseman off the bench. That may be a smart move, taking some of the pressure off Wiseman as he tries to develop his game. Kelly Oubre‘s name is already popping up in trade rumors; expect that to continue through the deadline. Also, expect Stephen Curry to continue to play at an MVP level.
15. Hawks (9-8 LW 15). One of the real surprises this season is Atlanta having a top 10 defense (seventh in the league overall, fifth using Cleaning the Glass’ garbage time filter). A couple of players deserve credit for that. In the paint it’s Clint Capela, who is blocking 2.3 shots a game and grabbing 14.8 rebounds a game, shoring up real problems for the Hawks last season. The other is De'Andre Hunter, whose game made a leap this season on offense — he was a liability on that end last season — and his defense on the perimeter has been important for the Hawks. Cam Reddish also has played strong defense (but nagging injuries, including Achilles tightness, have limited his minutes).
16. Raptors (7-10, LW 18). Toronto has started to find a groove, wining 5-of-7 overall and earning splits of sets with two good teams, the Pacers and Heat. The biggest change is an improved defense, which is more than four points per 100 possessions better in that last seven than it was previously. It also helps that OG Anunoby is on a hot streak, and seems to be hitting every three he takes the past week. Good measuring stick game Wednesday against Milwaukee.
17. Mavericks (8-9, LW 16). Rick Carlisle talked about it this week: Dallas is trying to get Kristaps Porzingis the ball in the post more (six a game this season, nearly double last season). Not that he’s trying to make Shaq happy, but teams are guarding the 7’3″ Porzingis with smaller players because he tends to live on the perimeter; Dallas wants to punish teams inside for making that choice. Dallas is starting to get players healthy and back from COVID-19 protocols, and they need them with two games against the Jazz then two games against the Suns this week.
18. Cavaliers (8-9, LW 24). Taking two games from star-studded Brooklyn has Cleveland moving up in the rankings this week. As shown in one of those games, the Cavaliers have been one of the better clutch teams in the league this season behind Collin Sexton’s play. One question looming on the horizon: Where does Kevin Love fit in when he returns? With the strong play of Larry Nance Jr. this season and the additions of Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince, there are fewer front court minutes to go around in Cleveland.
19. Knicks (8-11, LW 17). The Knicks lost the last three games of their road trip — and come home to some tough games against the Cavaliers and Clippers — but there are still a lot of bright spots in Madison Square Garden right now. One of those is point guard Immanuel Quickley, who became the first Knicks rookie with more than 30 points and five made threes in a game off the bench. Also, RJ Barrett is finding his stroke from three, he has hit 8-of-18 (44.4%) over his last six games, not a high volume, but at least they are now going in.
20. Magic (8-10 LW 26). When Orlando made the playoffs the past couple of years, it was because the Magic could count on their defense to keep them in games — it was top 10 in the league the past two seasons. It’s 19th in the NBA this season, 16th over the past two weeks, and the return of Evan Fournier to the lineup is not going to solve that problem. As for bright spots, it may have been a week ago, but it was so impressive — watch Cole Anthony’s game-winner against Minnesota one more time.
𝘾 🥶 𝙇 𝟑
𝙒 🌎 𝙍 𝙇 𝘿@The_ColeAnthony | #MagicTogether pic.twitter.com/gZlMVJzJkP
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) January 21, 2021
21. Heat (6-10 LW 22). It’s been hard for Miami to gain any traction with Jimmy Butler, Avery Bradley, and Tyler Herro all out for a couple of weeks. Butler remains on the sidelines going into Wednesday against Denver, with Bradley and Herro questionable for the game as of this writing. The only two Heat players to appear in every game so far are Duncan Robinson and Precious Achiuwa. On the bright side, Kendrick Nunn seemed to shake off his sophomore slump last week and looked more like the rookie version of himself.
22. Hornets (7-10, LW 19). Charlotte has one big thing going for it as it tries to earn a spot at the play-in games in the East: It is one of the best clutch teams in the league. In games within five points within the last five minutes, they outscore opponents by more than 50 points per 100 possessions. Which is insane, but they did it again this last week when Gordon Hayward hit a driving game winner.
Gordon Hayward (39 PTS, 13 in the 4th Q) hits the GAME-WINNING @hornets layup with 0.7 left! pic.twitter.com/nUzTqUjs64
— NBA (@NBA) January 25, 2021
23. Bulls (7-10, LW 21). Losing Wendell Carter Jr. for the next month (at least) is a real blow. He is Chicago’s best pick-setter and a favorite of Zach LaVine and Coby White, and on defense he was their best rim protector. Don’t be surprised if Billy Donovan leans on more Thaddeus Young at center, that has worked for the Bulls. There are other reasons to feel positive in Chicago — LaVine’s improved playmaking, Lauri Markkanen starting to look more comfortable back on the court, Denzel Valentine being solid — but losses to the Lakers and Celtics slowed any momentum. Two game set coming up next week with New York will be a good measuring stick.
24. Rockets (7-9 LW 25). Just a sign of how different things are in Houston this season: The Rockets are taking 7.8 fewer threes per game than last season (and their offensive rating is down 4.7 points per 100, although a lot of factors go into that number). Undrafted two-way player Mason Jones has taken advantage of his expanded role since the Harden trade, having scored in double-digits in 3 of the last 5 games, including having 24 against the Spurs when he hit six three-pointers.
25. Thunder (7-9, LW 20). Watching Shai Gilgeous-Alexander play in person is a reminder of just how smooth, how smart, and how creative his game is — or ask Portland, as his 24 points led to an upset of the Blazers on Monday. Even with stellar play from SGA, the Thunder have the worst offense in the NBA this season and that has not paired well with their recent penchant for falling behind by 20 or more points. The Thunder have lost 6-of-8.
26. Pelicans (5-10, LW 23). They have dropped 8-of-9, picking up their only win against the defenseless Kings. What is holding them back? The defense remains bottom five in the league despite Stan Van Gundy’s effort, and they hit the second fewest number of threes a game in the league right now — shooting remains an issue. J.J. Redick is shooting 30% from three. It’s not a surprise that Redick and Lonzo Ball‘s names are coming up in trade rumors, but both are free agents after this season (Ball is restricted), which limits what teams will give up for them.
27. Kings (6-10, LW 27). Sacramento got a win over the Kings and some time off to rest (thanks to games against Memphis being postponed), all things it needed as it’s about to take its league-worst defense out on the road for four games. While there have been bright spots in the backcourt with De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton (the steal of the draft so far), Marvin Bagley III’s play is concerning. Luke Walton gives him every chance, but his inefficient 13.3 points and 8 rebounds a game, combined with defensive lapses, have not been pretty. The new Sacramento front office does not have the same emotional investment in Bagley as the one who drafted him.
28. Pistons (4-13 LW 29). A lot of pundits balked when Detroit inked Jerami Grant to a three-year, $60 million deal for a guy who had not been an elite offensive option before (*raises hand*). The Pistons nailed this, he has been everything they thought this season. He is averaging 24.3 points a game with a 57.7 true shooting percentage (about the league average), while carrying more of an offense than he ever has before. He’s playing at an All-Star level and is the big bright spot for the Pistons this season. Detroit has 6-of-7 on the road coming up (and the home game is the Lakers).
29. Timberwolves (4-12, LW 30). The Timberwolves having a bottom-five defense in the league was expected this season, but the offense was supposed to cover a lot of that up. Instead, it is bottom five in the league as well. A lot of it is simply all-world offensive player Karl-Anthony Towns has played in just four games due to a wrist injury then COVID-19, but the struggles of this team highlight the shortcomings of the roster built around Towns. Things don’t get easier with 8-of-11 coming up on the road for Minnesota.
30. Wizards (3-10 LW 28). Washington is back on the court and Bradley Beal scored 33 against John Wall and the Rockets — Beal has scored at least 25 points in every game he has played this season. His 34.4 points a game continues to lead the league in scoring. Yet it is not nearly enough on a team with a bottom-five defense. Beal and Russell Westbrook have not gotten on the same page yet. Meanwhile, the sharks — GMs from other teams — continue to circle the Wizards thinking about how they can pick Beal off.