A few teams that have been hot most of the season — Chicago and Golden State, for example — have stumbled of late. That opened the door for the Grizzlies’ rise last week, and this week the red-hot Heat are up to No.3 in our NBA Power Rankings.
1. Suns (34-9, Last Week No. 2). One way to define contender is top 10 in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, and by that measure there are a few teams in the mix (Bucks, Heat, Grizzlies, using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers). The corollary to that is a team in the top five on both ends is a title favorite, and right now only one team meets that mark — Phoenix. The Suns would love to see if they can pick up another rotation player at the trade deadline using Dario Saric‘s contract (he is out so far this season after tearing his ACL in the Finals), but there is no pressure to get a deal done. This team is deep and balanced and does not need anything except a little health luck to make another Finals run.
2. Grizzlies (31-15, LW 1). Ja Morant and the Showtime Grizzlies offense — they are the league’s most entertaining team — grab all the headlines, but the recent run of wins has been built on defense. In their last 15 games, they have the third-best defense in the league, which has fueled the 12-3 record. It has been a surprising turn because back in November the Grizzlies had the third worst defense in the league, but in January they have been 8.4 points per 100 possessions better. Jaren Jackson Jr. making a leap on that end as a paint protector has been at the heart of the improvement.
3. Heat (28-16, LW 7). Bam Adebayo is back in the lineup, as is Jimmy Butler, and that should concern everyone else in the East because this team kept winning without those two and now add the All-Stars back into the mix. The downside is with Adebayo and Dewayne Dedmon in the rotation, we may not see as much Omer Yurtseven. What came out of all the injuries and COVID with Miami is a stronger and deeper bench, making this team even more formidable come the playoffs because Erik Spoelstra will have options. The Heat have 5-of-6 coming up at home.
4. Warriors (31-12, LW 3). How can a team trail the Bucks by 39 at the half one night come back and be up 31 at the half on the Bulls the next night? That has been the inconsistent Warriors of late, and surprisingly the issue has been the offense — their 108.1 offensive rating the last 15 games is 25th in the league over that time (the defense was still top 10, but that will change with Draymond Green out a couple of weeks, at least). The good news is the Warriors have a chance to right the ship with seven in a row at home.
5. Jazz (29-15, LW 4). Talk of turbulence between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert always seems to surface when this team struggles, but it’s usually nothing that a few wins will not cure. The bigger issue in Utah may be the play of Jordan Clarkson, who sent from scoring 111.6 points per 100 shot attempts a season ago to 103.8 this season. Looked at another couple of ways, his 3-point shooting is down to 31.7%, he’s shooting under 40% overall, and his true shooting percentage of 51.4 is well below league average. Clarkson is a microwave scorer who doesn’t bring much defense or other elite skills to the table; if he’s not scoring much, it will be hard for Quin Snyder to keep playing him this many minutes (25.9 a game).
6. 76ers (25-18, LW 6). Philadelphia has won 9-of-11 and surged within a game of the No. 4 seed in the East and hosting a playoff round. The 76ers have the fourth-ranked offense and fifth-ranked defense in the league over that stretch, and Joel Embiid is playing like an MVP. However, Embiid’s biggest move of the past week may have been coming out and saying this team can win as is, trying to take pressure off GM Daryl Morey to pull off a Ben Simmons trade before the deadline. Morey still should — the East feels wide open this season in a way it may not in the future, don’t waste a year of Embiid’s prime — but Embiid tried to say it’s okay if Morey holds his cards a little longer.
7. Bucks (27-19, LW 8). The Bucks are 2-4 in their last six without Jrue Holiday, who is out with an ankle issue, and on the season they are 4-9 when he is out. For the season, the Bucks outscore opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions when Holiday is on the court but have a -4.6 net rating when he sits. Make no mistake, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the team’s best player — and my mid-season MVP pick — but Holiday is the most important and they need him back. Milwaukee has 6-of-7 at home.
8. Cavaliers (27-18, LW 11). It took a little while for Cleveland to find its footing again after Ricky Rubio went down, but the Cavs have won five in a row — including over the Jazz and Nets — and have been top 10 in the league in that stretch. Will the Cavaliers have an All-Star when the game comes to Cleveland next month? That falls in the hands of the East coaches, because no Cav is going to get the nod as an East starter but it’s possible Jarrett Allen could get the call as a reserve big man. Evan Mobley certainly will get a chance to play in the rookie/sophomore game.
9. Mavericks (25-19, LW 10). Dallas has won 9-of-10. While it’s no coincidence that streak is tied to Luka Doncic’s return — in his last five games he is averaging 22.6 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 8.8 assists a game — the more impressive thing during this stretch has been the Mavericks’ defense. The Mavericks have the best defense in the NBA over the last 10 games, giving up less than a point per possession in that stretch (98 defensive rating). Dallas made a change at backup center this week, waiving Willie Cauley-Stein and replacing him with Marquese Chriss.
10. Nets (27-16, LW 9). When Kevin Durant is off the court, Brooklyn has essentially been a .500 team this season (+0.1 net rating). Now they have Kyrie Irving next to James Harden for road games, but when those two are on the court without Durant, the Nets have just a +1.8 net rating. The Nets will need more out of those lineups between now and the All-Star break because Durant is likely out until around that time with a knee sprain. The Cavaliers have 11 of their next 14 on the road, which means a lot of Irving and a lot of chances for Harden and Irving to show they can carry the team without KD.
11. Bulls (27-15, LW 5). It’s maybe too low to have the top-seeded team in the East outside the top 10, but they have dropped 4 in a row against quality opponents (including the Nets) and 5-of-6. The reason for the slump? Chicago has the worst defense in the NBA over those six games, with a 120.6 defensive rating. Part of the issue is they have been without Zach LaVine (knee), Lonzo Ball (knee), and Alex Caruso (health and safety) for some of those games, but this is concerning thinking ahead to playoff matchups and how teams can target weak links on the defensive end. There are players on the Bulls other teams are circling for those matchups.
12. Nuggets (22-20, LW 12). Denver made a good second trade with Bol Bol (who is undergoing foot surgery), getting Bryn Forbes in the three-team deal. Forbes fills a glaring need for backcourt shooting around Nikola Jokic, and while Forbes’ role will shrink in the postseason (because he’s not a great defender) he is exactly what this team needs to make sure it secures a top six seed and avoids the play-in. Denver is 2-1 so far midway through its six-game homestand (before heading out on the road for six).
13. Hornets (24-20, LW 13). Oh, the inconsistency of youth: Charlotte beat Milwaukee in both games of a two-game set, then beat Philadelphia, only to take foot off the gas on offense and fall to the Magic. Charlotte heads into the trade deadline looking for more paint and rim protection, which is why their reported interest in Myles Turner makes sense. They need someone who can clean up others’ defensive mistakes and improve this 26th ranked defense.
14. Celtics (23-21, LW 16). Dennis Schroder is high on my “he’s definitely going to get traded” list, mostly because the Celtics will have a hard time bringing him back next season (they are limited in what they can offer, and another team will come in with more). Boston has won 5-of-6, the kind of stretch that gives fans hope they could climb out of the play-in spots and into the top six in the East if they keep it up. It’s just, so far this season “consistency” is not a word in the Boston dictionary.
15. Raptors (21-20, LW 14). Will Fred VanVleet make his first All-Star Game? It will be in the hands of the coaches picking the reserves, but he has been good enough this season, picking up the leadership baton from Kyle Lowry. VanVleet averages 21.9 points and 6.7 assists a game this season, while shooting 40.7% from 3. He makes my list of All-Star reserves, but it’s the East coaches who ultimately make that call. Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby have played better the past few weeks.
16. Wizards (23-21, LW 18). Midway through the season and Washington is still trying to figure out rotations that work. That hasn’t been easy because when Spencer Dinwiddie and Bradley Beal share the floor, the Wizards have a -4.1 net rating. Add in coach Wes Unseld Jr. looking for the right mix at center between the defensive Daniel Gafford, the offensive Thomas Bryant, and the ball of energy that is Montrezl Harrell, and things just feel unsettled and unfinished in Washington. But when it comes together, they look good.
17. Timberwolves (21-22, LW 19). Karl-Anthony Towns will be on the bubble for making the All-Star team as a reserve, but he’s earned it in my book averaging 24.5 points and 9.2 rebounds a game, and putting the Timberwolves on pace to make the play-in at least and likely the playoffs (they sit as the seven seed, at the top of the play-in, as of today). The biggest surprise so far has been the play of Jarred Vanderbilt, who has been a fantastic defender and role player for the team.
18. Lakers (22-22, LW 15). Frank Vogel is on the hot seat. Again. The question is not are the Lakers’ problems his fault — largely, no, this falls squarely on front office decisions (ones LeBron James and Anthony Davis pushed for in the case of Russell Westbrook) — the question is who are they going to bring in that’s better? There is no magical trade or easy fix for the Lakers, if they are going to make a second-half run it’s going to have to come from internal improvement and shooting. And just better defensive effort every night.
#LakerNation I apologize and I promise we’ll be better! 👑💜💛
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 17, 2022
19. Knicks (22-22, LW 20). Good pickup getting Cam Reddish from Atlanta; once his ankle gets healthy he will bring solid defense on the wing, a little shooting, and add depth to what already has been a strong second unit led by Derrick Rose (when he’s healthy). The Knicks get a look at Reddish on the wing and can decide if they want to pay him going forward (he is extension eligible this summer, or New York can wait and let him go to restricted free agency in 2023). The Knicks’ schedule gets tougher starting next Monday, with 8-of-10 on the road.
20. Clippers (22-23, LW 17). Paul George is out at least another two weeks, and Los Angeles is 5-8 without both George and Kawhi Leonard (who has not played all season as he recovers from a torn ACL). The Clippers are a respectable 16th in defense in those games, but they are 27th in offense. Nicolas Batum‘s return has helped on the offensive end (he had 32 the other day) but Los Angeles is going to need more out of Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris to keep their head above water through this stretch.
21. Trail Blazers (18-25, LW 23). There is some buzz around the league that interim general manager Joe Cronin could keep the job on a permanent basis, ownership did let him make some lower-level basketball operations hires. At the deadline, don’t just think of Portland as sellers, this is no fire sale, they are looking for a star player to ultimately pair with Damian Lillard and make a push with the face of the franchise (even if that is next season). One name to watch is Jerami Grant out of Detroit.
22. Hawks (18-25 LW 21). De'Andre Hunter is back in the rotation following his wrist injury, and it’s not a coincidence the Cam Reddish trade came along with Hunter’s return. That trade was a big bet on Hunter as the 3&D wing of the future in Atlanta, and he can bet that guy if he just stays healthy. If the Hawks are going to turn this season around and make a run, it needs to start during this stretch with 8-of-9 at home, and so far they are 1-1 in that homestand.
23. Pelicans (16-28, LW 25). The Pelicans are 8-7 in their last 15 (and 15-15 in their last 30), in large part due to a starting lineup — Devonte’ Graham, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Herbert Jones, and Jonas Valanciunas — that has a +10 net rating. It’s a lineup that is not elite on offense or defense, but rather is just good on both ends. New Orleans still sits 2.5 games out of even the play-in because of that 1-12 start, but a Zion-less Pelicans in the postseason is far from out of the question.
24. Kings (18-28, LW 26). Despite having a solid center in the paint in Rasual Butler — who is back from COVID protocols — the Kings give up the most points in the league, an average of 52.7 a game. That speaks heavily to perimeter defenders unable to stay in front of their man , with rookie Davion Mitchell maybe being the best at it. Despite their record and struggles, the Kings are 1.5 games out of the last play-in spot, to get it they need to keep their heads above water on the coming’s stretch of 6-of-7 on the road, and facing contenders like the Bucks and Warriors.
25. Pacers (15-29, LW 22). Myles Turner’s foot injury — they say he will be re-evaluated in two weeks, but the expectation around the league is he is out until after the All-Star break — puts a kink in plans to trade the center. There is still interest, but teams are going to be hesitant until they know more about this stress reaction (big men with foot injuries are red flags). That makes Caris LeVert the most likely Pacer to be traded before the deadline, although Sacramento and others are making a push for a Sabonis deal (the price for him would be much higher, the Kings are throwing in De'Aaron Fox, but does that interest the Pacers?
26. Spurs (16-28, LW 24). The wheels have come off the Spurs’ wagon the past few weeks, with the team going 2-10 in its last 12. While the 22nd ranked defense during that stretch isn’t good, the 28th ranked offense has been the bigger issue. On the bright side, Zach Collins is working in the G-League and appears close to healthy and a return to San Antonio, providing some scoring they could use (and a little defense in the paint.
27. Rockets (13-32, LW 29). Houston has fallen to the worst defense in the NBA on the season, a 114.6 defensive rating. If the question becomes is the the halfcourt defense or the transition defense that is the problem, the answer is yes. The Rockets are 26th in the league in halfcourt defense and 30th in transition defense. The issue has large been the bench defense, the current starting five — Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., Eric Gordon, Jae’Sean Tate and Christian Wood — have a 108.1 defensive rating, which would be 11th in the league as a team average.
28. Pistons (10-32, LW 27). Detroit is 5-5 in January despite having the worst net rating in the NBA over those 10 games, -10.5. When the Pistons lose lately, they lose big. No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham continues to find his footing, in his last five games he is averaging 16.8 points a game, shooting 44% from 3, plus 4.8 assists a night. His turnovers are still a little high (3.6 per game) and he’s still a work in progress, but the potential that made him a top pick is shining through.
29. Thunder (14-29, LW 28). You may not hear OKC’s name come up in a trade as a direct partner — although you can bet they are getting calls about Luguentz Dort and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — but as the only team with significant cap space, you can be sure the Thunder will be involved in a trade. Everyone around the league knows the toll, it’s going to require a first-round pick, but OKC will take on your bad contract to make a trade work.
30. Magic 8-37, LW 30). Orlando isn’t winning a lot of games, but they have proven to be surprisingly competitive against teams over .500, picking up six of their eight wins that way. Maybe it’s the big teams taking the little guys lightly, but credit the Magic for showing up and playing hard. Also, expect them to be involved in some trade talks, Terrence Ross and Gary Harris may not move the needle much but they can provide depth and quality play to a playoff-bound team. Starting Friday, the Magic have five in a row at home.