Jackson is a skilled 3-point shooter and rim-protector. Add a mean streak inside offensively, and the rookie could really take off.
The NBA has no chill — Most Valuable Player talk started the first week of the season. Now that we’re about halfway through the campaign we have seen enough games, we have enough data to start saying who is the frontrunner for the NBA’s end-of-season awards. Here is who we have at the halfway point of the season.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
This is basically a coin flip for me between Harden — who has been good all season on offense and has surged of late carrying the Rockets back up the standings — and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been more consistent on both ends of the court this season (and is by far the better defender of the two). Can Harden sustain this level of play long enough to win the award? I have Anthony Davis a clear third and then a host of players going for the final couple spots on the ballot: LeBron James, Paul George, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid, and others.
Dan Feldman: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
Anthony Davis nearly got the nod. James Harden is surging. LeBron James could get into the race if he gets healthy soon. But Antetokounmpo has been consistently excellent all season. The Bucks’ system is built for Antetokounmpo to shine, and he’s doing it.
Dane Delgado: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
If you use your head and check the statistics, you could come up with a couple other options outside of the Milwaukee Bucks superstar for MVP. James Harden immediately comes to mind. But if I am casting my vote here by who I think is going to win MVP, then Antetokounmpo is the clear-cut favorite. The NBA’s Most Valuable Player is as much about narrative as it is about on-court play, and Antetokounmpo is the man with the story and the stats to back it up. His per 100 rebounds, assists, and scoring are all on the rise, and he leads the league in defensive box plus/minus. I’m comfortable picking the guy from little ol’ Milwaukee any day.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
We knew coming into the draft last June Doncic was the most decorated European player ever entering the draft — he was the MVP of the second best league in the world — but some still questioned his athleticism and if his game would translate. GMs would rather miss on a player from Duke or Kentucky than Europe (less backlash). Well, the Mavs are Doncic team already and they are in the playoff mix in the West. Doncic isn’t just a ROY, he could be an All-Star. I would have Jaren Jackson Jr. second ahead of Deandre Ayton (Jackson getting it done on both ends for a team that, at least until the last couple of weeks, was in the playoff mix).
Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks)
Doncic is so skilled and so polished. He’s on another level from a typical rookie.
Dane Delgado: Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks)
The Rookie of the Year race seems like it will perpetually be a source of conflict between people who believe a rookie must be a first-year professional in the NBA alone. Folks got all riled up about Ben Simmons last season, and if I look into my crystal ball I can only assume people will be using Doncic’s prior experience as a professional in Europe as a means to disqualify him from the award stateside. While many other rookies are fun to watch, it’s clear that the Mavericks are already Doncic’s team. That sets him apart in and of itself, and I don’t see another choice.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Kurt Helin: Paul George (Oklahoma City Thunder)
This race is still wide open (I have a feeling Rudy Gobert will win it again in the end, he and the Jazz are starting to come on), but right now George had brought it nightly for the best defense in the NBA. He’s the best in the league at getting over picks and disrupting plays.
Dan Feldman: Paul George (Oklahoma City Thunder)
With the NBA’s scoring explosion, no pick here feels great. But George has been the NBA’s top perimeter defender, and his versatility has spearheaded the Thunder’s top-notch defense. I wouldn’t quibble with Rudy Gobert or Draymond Green selections, either. Even if both are below their previous defensive levels, they still might be better than everyone else.
Dane Delgado: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
The player who wins MVP doesn’t typically win Defensive Player of the Year. Not unless that player is named Michael Jordan or Hakeem Olajuwon, the only two guys who have done both in the same season. But Antetokounmpo is leading the league in defensive box plus/minus, and his length and athleticism are some of the reasons Milwaukee has the second-best defensive rating in the league. Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis could all be listed here instead, but with the expectations Antetokounmpo is carrying with him I’m going with the young Buck.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Kurt Helin: Mike Budenholzer (Milwaukee Bucks)
This is a crowded field — as it always is — but “Coach Bud” has put a modern system in place in Milwaukee (updating them from the Nirvana-era 1990s) and the team has thrived in it, the Bucks have the best net rating in the NBA. Doc Rivers, Dave Joerger, Mike Malone, Nick Nurse, Gregg Popovich, Billy Donovan, and a few others can stake a claim, too, but Budenholzer has had the most significant positive impact.
Dan Feldman: Dave Joerger (Sacramento Kings)
Mike Budenholzer came closest, but the Bucks’ front office positioned him for success (adding Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, stretch bigs who fit Budenholzer’s preferred scheme). Joerger has the Kings surprisingly competitive while overcoming Sacramento’s front office. That doesn’t reflect well on the Kings, but it makes Joerger’s coaching even more impressive.
Dane Delgado: Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors)
As we have learned over the past couple of seasons, top NBA personalities don’t necessarily always love each other. In an era of infinite statistical analysis, the human side of basketball still remains a major factor. Yes, the Raptors were the best team in the Eastern Conference last season. And Nick Nurse was part of that success. But Nurse has had to incorporate Kawhi Leonard, who left the San Antonio Spurs under inauspicious circumstances, and a moody and oft-injured Kyle Lowry who doesn’t appear to be on good terms with the team’s GM. We just saw Jimmy Butler and Leonard become a major distraction for their respective former teams. That Nurse has been able to steer the Raptors’ ship atop the East yet again — and while replacing a player favorite coach in Dwane Casey, no less — is an impressive feat.
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR
This is a tight two-man race at the top for me, with Domantis Sabonis neck-and-neck with Harrell — fascinating because this award rarely goes to big men, mostly guards (the last big to win it was Lamar Odom in 2011, and he had a unique skill set). If you just watch a little of Harrell you think he’s a classic energy big — comes in off the bench and just outworks everyone — but the more you watch him (especially in person) you see the high IQ plays, and how he gets it done on both ends. Sabonis has been efficient picking teams apart all season. After those two a few guys are in the mix: Derrick Rose, Spencer Dinwiddie, Lou Williams, and Dennis Schroder.
The Pacers big excels at making shots all over the court. He’s so efficient on both interior finishes and jumpers. I still expect some regression to the mean, but Sabonis’ production so far rates slightly ahead of Montrezl Harrell’s.
Dane Delgado: Spencer Dinwiddie (Brooklyn Nets)
It’s hard not to pick the fledgling Brooklyn Nets point guard here. Dinwiddie is a crucial part of Brooklyn attack on offense, and provides in a bench role which doesn’t allow opposing defenses to let up. Teams need to gameplan for Dinwiddie by himself, which sort of points to why he is deserving of the Sixth Man of the Year award. Dinwiddie has made himself into a better 3-point shooter this season, and cut down on his mid-range jumpers. He’s still just 25 years old, so it’ll be interesting to see if he eventually forms into a more all-around type of player and full-time starter. For now, Dinwiddie is happy to tear up opposing secondary rotations on offense.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
He has become a crucial player for the team with the best record in the NBA. Siakam has improved seemingly across the board: His defense was always good, but this season he’s been a force on that end; his handles have improved by leaps and bound; and with those dribbling skills has come much-improved playmaking. Beyond that, he has a confidence now that he can make big plays in big moments for this team. I wouldn’t be shocked if at the end of the season Derrick Rose wins this award because his return to his best basketball since his MVP years is one of the best stories of the season.
Like most rookie point guards, Fox was quite bad last season. Now, he’s nearly a star, if not just outright a star. That’s not a normal second-year leap. Fox deserves recognition for his advancement.
This is a tough one to call just because you could pick guys like Jamal Murray or one of several Brooklyn Nets and come out looking okay. But the reality is that Portland Trail Blazers big man Jusuf Nurkic has quickly made himself into one of the best centers in the Western Conference, and part of the reason the Blazers have steadied themselves against a difficult winter schedule. Nurkic has changed how he plays on offense considerably, adding feel to his game where I just didn’t think it was possible. He has all but eliminated most of his bad habits, and that’s to say nothing of how he plays on defense. Nurkic is a shot-alterer, a defensive anti-gravity machine whose importance largely shows up on film but not in the box score. Portland should be struggling this season, especially with CJ McCollum not playing up to snuff, but Nurkic’s emergence is a big reason why they’re a Top 4 team in the West.
The discussion then turned toward the bench players and a perceived lack of enthusiasm from the unit, when Casspi became vocal in his defense, sources said. Temple and Casspi exchanged words and had a physical exchange before they were separated, according to those sources.
The Grizzlies are outscoring opponents by a robust 7.7 point per 48 minutes with their main starting lineup – Mike Conley, Temple, Kyle Anderson, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Marc Gasol. Otherwise, Memphis is getting outscored by 3.0 points per 48 minutes.
But starters generally perform better than reserves. This is normal.
Are the Grizzlies backups giving full effort? That’s tougher to say. There’s a fine line between someone not trying enough and just not being good enough.
Ultimately, Memphis is about where I expected – 18-19, playing well when Conley and Gasol share the court and struggling otherwise. It seems the bench could be getting scapegoated amid a tough stretch. The Grizzlies have lost three straight and eight of 10.
Winning will ease tension, and this team is good enough to break out of this slump. I’m just not sure it’s good enough to perform much better than it has over the entire season so far.
The East remains a caste system — very good teams at the top, including the top three in this ranking and five of the top 10 — but after that it drops off a cliff. In the West the Warriors keep coasting and after that things are tight and hard to predict.
1. Bucks (26-10, last week No. 1). Giannis Antetokounmpo is shooting just 28.5% outside the restricted area this season, which sounds like a problem except nobody can stop him from getting to the rim — 59.4% of his shots come in the restricted area. Just ask Jon Leuer (see the clip below). The Bucks have the best net rating in the NBA and are on a four-game winning streak, the questions of their legitimacy will be answered in the postseason but the Bucks look like a contender. They’ve got an interesting test Saturday night against Toronto.
2. Pacers (25-12, LW 4). Guess which team has the second-best net rating in the NBA on the season? Yup, the Pacers. Indiana has won five in a row and in that stretch have had a ridiculously good offense (117.1 points per 100, better than the Harden-led Rockets) and a top-four defense. You can argue the Pacers have had their good start this season against an easier schedule (third softest in the NBA so far) but that’s about to change, starting with a five-game road trip through the East starting Friday night in Chicago.
3. Raptors (28-11, LW 2). The Raptors are 7-4 in their last 11, which is impressive considering they have been without either Kyle Lowry or Kawhi Leonard for each of those games. As much as they miss Lowry (the offense is 16 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court) the injury to Jonas Valanciunas has hurt the bench and the rebounding of the Raptors and cost them games of late. Thursday night Kawhi Leonard returns to San Antonio to take on the Spurs and fans there will not exactly greet him warmly after he forced his way out of town.
4. Warriors (25-13, LW 3). Golden State remains inconsistent, and the big question remains “when do we start to worry about that?” Steve Kerr should worry about it, although he wouldn’t say it publicly, but do we really think they are not just going to flip the switch? It’s too early to actually worry. It was good to see Klay Thompson break out of his shooting slump with a 32-point game against Portland, when told his right hand how much me missed it.
5. Nuggets (24-11, LW 5).. The Nuggets enter 2019 as the top seed in the West, which for a team that missed playoffs by one game each of the last two seasons is a big step forward. Nikola Jokic is playing at an All-NBA level as a center, but it’s Jamal Murray breaking out as a consistent scoring threat that has propelled the Nuggets to the top of the West. Denver is 2-2 in a stretch of 7-of-11 away from home. They got the win over the Knicks in spite of Mason Plume’s “help” on defense.
6. Rockets (21-15, LW 8). It’s hard to get your head around just how well James Harden has played the past few weeks. He’s had at least 35 points and five assists in eight straight games, breaking an NBA record held by Oscar Robertson. He has scored more than 400 points in a 10-game span, becoming the third player in the last 30 years to do that (Kobe and Jordan). Harden has hit at least five threes in seven straight games, the only other person to do that is Stephen Curry. Houston has won 10-of-11 and become a playoff team again because Harden has been transcendent.
7. Thunder (23-13, LW 9). While Paul George has put up the better numbers this season, Russell Westbrook still has 10 triple-doubles this season — that’s five straight years he’s had double digits in triple-doubles, only Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson have done that. Westbrook’s numbers, however, is not the best sign the Thunder may be the second best team in the West at the end of the season. Consider this from John Schuhmann of NBA.com: Only one of the Thunder’s 13 losses hasn’t been within 5 points in the last 5 minutes. Meaning they have been in every lost game but one, no other team has less than three of these “non-clutch” losses.
8. 76ers (24-14, LW 7). The NBA Draft can be as much about fit as talent. Philly’s Landry Shamet is the perfect example: Sure, the rookie out of Wichita State is talented, but more importantly is he is a shooter and the Sixers need that, so his role just continues to grow. The Sixers are 2-2 on a tough five-game road trip, the good news is after the trip they have six games in a row against teams below .500.
9. Spurs (21-17, LW 12). San Antonio went 11-5 in December with the best offense in the NBA, scoring 116.6 points per 100 possessions for the month. The Spurs defense was also top 10 in December. In recent games they have beaten the Nuggets (splitting a home-and-home), the Clippers, and the Celtics. Considering the massive roster turnover and injuries this team has had to overcome, it’s time to put Gregg Popovich in the Coach of the Year conversation. Again.
10. Celtics (21-15, LW 6). This is not encouraging: The Celtics went 3-3 through a tough stretch of games, and even in the wins they had to come from behind (five in OT vs. the Sixers and 19 to the Grizzlies). More concerning: In their last 10 games the Celtics defense has struggled, they are 20th in the NBA allowing 111,6 per 100 in that stretch (the offense is sixth best in the league in those 10, with Kyrie Irving taking charge and covering up some of the defensive mistakes).
11. Trail Blazers (22-16, LW 11). Portland has gone 4-3 in its last seven (including splitting a home-and-home with Golden State) despite it’s offense being the third worst in the NBA in that time. It seems everyone outside of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is struggling with their shot. What has saved the Blazers is a top 10 defense in that stretch, but they need to get the offense right during the upcoming five-game homestand (which starts with tough ones against the Thunder and red-hot Rockets).
12. Clippers (21-16, LW 14). Los Angeles has come back to earth some after their hot start, with their defense bottom four in the NBA over their last 10 games. The Clippers are struggling to consistently defend the pick-and-roll. The offense has been up and down as well, but the Clippers can count on one thing — getting to the free throw line. Los Angeles leads the NBA in free throw rate, and average a league best 29.2 free throws a night. That ability to attack and draw fouls has kept them in games.
13. Lakers (21-16, LW 10). The Lakers are 1-2 without LeBron James (no timetable on his return, but they are not going to rush him back from that groin injury) but the hope was some of the other Lakers would step up with LeBron out. Brandon Ingram did that against the Kings with his best game of the season — it wasn’t the 21 points and 7 rebounds that impressed as much as his quick decision making. Ingram has tended to stop the ball and survey too much, which doesn’t fit next to LeBron (who is allowed to do that, because he’s LeBron) but against the Kings Ingram was decisive. That’s the Ingram the Lakers need.
14. Kings (19-18, LW 13). The Kings remain a bottom 10 defensive team this season, and De’Aaron Fox thinks he knows why: “A lot of times we’re giving up straight line drives, myself included, and sometimes it’s just not finishing a possession. We get a good possession on defense, we get a good contest, and then we just give up a rebound. Whether it’s a guard or a big or whatever, we’re giving up rebounds — and that’s when it’s hard. You’ve got to scramble. You give up shots.”
15. Hornets (18-18, LW 16). While Charlotte hangs on to a playoff spot in the East, three things hold them back from climbing up the ladder. One is injuries and now Cody Zeller will miss time with a fractured hand. Second, is the often-discussed trouble in close games (they are 5-11 in games within three points in the last three minutes). Third, and less discussed, is the Hornets trouble away from home: the team is 14-7 at the Spectrum Center but 4-11 on the road. Which is trouble because starting Saturday in Denver is a six-game road trip against teams in the West.
16. Grizzlies (18-18, LW 17). Memphis’ starting lineup — Mike Conley, Garrett Temple, Kyle Anderson, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Marc Gasol — is the third most used five-man lineup in the NBA this season, having played 371 minutes across 34 games. The lineup works because it defends — teams score just 90.3 points per 100 possessions against that group. The Grizzlies don’t score a lot with that group, either, but so long as they keep defending like that they will win enough games to hang around the playoff chase.
17. Jazz (18-20, LW 15). Utah is back to playing elite defense. They have been best in the NBA in the last 10 games giving up just a point per possession (and it was below that mark before Kawhi Leonard torched them for 45 on Tuesday). The Jazz offense has been stagnate and pedestrian in those 10 games, but the Jazz are still +8.1 per 100 in the last 10 — and they have a 5-5 record. Utah has the point differential of a team that should be 21-17 this season, they have played the league’s toughest schedule, but they just need to string together some wins to get back in the middle of the playoff mix, and they can’t seem to do it.
18. Heat (17-18, LW 18). Forced to play point guard because Goran Dragic is out and they don’t have other options, Justise Winslow has stepped up to the challenge: He has averaged 17 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game through his last five, and is +15.8 per game in those. The problem is when he sits the Heat just come apart. Miami has stayed in the East playoff race (they are the 7 seed as I write this) because of a top-10 defense of late that has been a fascinating mix of zone and man-to-man where Hassan Whiteside protecting the rim has been featured.
19. Mavericks (17-20, LW 20). Did you know there are other players on the Mavericks not named Luka Doncic? One of them is Dennis Smith Jr., the second-year guard who has struggled at times to move to more of an off-ball role next to that rookie everyone is talking about. One question for the second half of this season in Dallas is if Smith can play with Doncic in that role, or if he should be traded (he’ll be available at the deadline but reportedly with a high price, the more likely move, if he’s traded, is in the summer).
20. Timberwolves (17-20, LW 21). There are a lot of positives of late in Minnesota — Karl-Anthony Towns has found his stride and is playing at an All-NBA level again in this last few, Derrick Rose’s resurgence is one of the best stories of the season — but the team is still 3-3 in is last six and just does not look like a playoff team in the deep West. Plus, Andrew Wiggins calling out the home fans doesn’t help. There’s a lot of speculation around the league about what moves the Timberwolves make in the offseason — there’s a sense Tom Thibodeau will be out as coach/GM, which may be why Fred Hoiberg doesn’t take the UCLA job — but nobody knows for sure. This team is better off without the disruptive Jimmy Butler around, but it’s not right, either.
21. Pistons (16-19, 19). Detroit has lost 5-of-6, but more concerning is who some of those losses are to: Atlanta, Orlando, and Charlotte. The biggest problem is the offense, which is scoring just 103.8 per 100 in its last 10 games, third worst in the NBA in that stretch. While Blake Griffin is doing all he can, this team lacks secondary playmakers or any other kind of consistent scoring options. Things don’t get easier now as Wednesday night in Memphis starts a run of seven straight games against the deeper Western Conference where wins will be harder to come by.
22. Nets (17-21, LW 22). The Nets are in the playoff picture in the East (the 9 seed, just half a game out of the playoffs) but have come back to earth a little with a couple straight losses on the road following the 9-of-10 win streak. They remain an offensive force that struggles to get stops consistently, which could be an issue as the Nets have a tough stretch of games coming up for the next couple of weeks (6-of-8 on the road starting Friday in Memphis).
23. Pelicans (17-21, LW 23). The Pelicans struggles to close out games are what is keeping them out of the playoffs (and is one of the biggest differences from last season). New Orleans is 5-11 in games within three points in the final three minutes, the same record as league-worst clutch team Charlotte (last season the Pelicans were 23-16 in those three point clutch games). Elfrid Payton’s return should be a boost to the Pelicans, giving them more depth at the guard spots.
24. Magic (16-20, LW 24). If Orlando is going to stay in playoff contention in the East — they are just half-a-game out of the eight seed as I write this — they need some more road wins in the next couple of weeks. The Magic are a respectable 6-9 away from home this season and play better defense (slowing the game down) for some reason, but Monday’s loss in Charlotte was the first of six in a row on the road. The other thing they could use? Another Evan Fournier game winner.
25. Hawks (11-25, LW 25). Don’t look now, but the Hawks have won 5-of-7 with improved play on both ends of the court. The Hawks have done it with offensive balance, plus Trae Young looking more comfortable both knocking know shots (50% from three on 3.6 attempts per game in his last five) plus dishing out more assists and looking more comfortable running the offense. Monday’s loss to the Pacers was the first of 6-of-7 on the road for the Hawks.
26. Wizards (14-23, LW 26). John Wall is out for the season having surgery on his heel, pain that can be (at least partially) to blame for his underwhelming start to the season. Now the question is what do the Wizards do next? The smart basketball answer would be to tank for a good pick (the best way for the capped out team to improve for next season) but will that happen with good talent still on the roster? Will the Wizards still be open to trading Markieff Morris, Otto Porter, or maybe even Bradley Beal (probably not Beal). It’s an unpredictable time in our nation’s capital.
27. Suns (9-29, LW 27). After showing some competitive fire for a stretch (remember the four-game winning streak?) the Suns have dropped 5-of-6, including all three at the start of a seven-game homestand. The Suns’ offense, led by Devin Booker — 26.4 points and 8.2 assists per game, shooting 40.7% from three in the last five — remains respectable, but they lose because they cannot get stops (allowing 117.5 per 100 in the last six, third worst defense in the NBA in that stretch).
28. Bulls (10-27, LW 28). Where has Jim Boyle made a difference as coach? Defense. Since he took over the Bulls are actually the seventh ranked defense in the league, giving up 106.4 per 100 (better than the Celtics or Raptors in that stretch). Of course, the offense is scoring less than a point per possession in that time, so the Bulls are not going to win a lot, but there has been improvement.
29. Knicks (9-29, LW 29). Everything looks miserable in New York right now, from a rainy New Year’s Eve in Time Square to the Knicks having lost eight in a row while Enes Kanter complains publicly about not starting. There have been some mild bright spots in the play of rookie Kevin Knox and young guard Emmanuel Mudiay, but this is what it’s like to watch a rebuilding team without its best player for a season due to injury. Stay the course, struggle and let the youth learn hard lessons, get a good draft pick and think about next season and beyond.
30. Cavaliers (8-29, LW 30). They have rolled the dice signing Patrick McCaw away from the Warriors, but because it’s a non-guaranteed contract it’s not that big a gamble. McCaw showed some promise his rookie season as a wing asked to play a role on a title team, but he wanted more run and responsibility and that wasn’t happening in Golden State. So, McCaw risked his career and now is in Cleveland with a lot to prove.
The Warriors don’t care enough about the regular season to string together a series of wins and grab the top spot. Meanwhile, the Bucks and Raptors keep winning and keep playing like they care, so they are on top.
1. Bucks (23-10, last week No. 3). Milwaukee keeps racking up impressive wins, but it was their one loss that was interesting this week. Miami zoned off for stretches, cut off Giannis Antetokounmpo on the drive (as much as any team can), and made the Bucks beat them with jumpers — and the Bucks shot 9-of-43 from three. I expect we will see more of that philosophy going forward and into the playoffs (not the zone, but the idea of packing the paint). The Bucks — 34.8% from three as a team this season, 17th in the league — need to make teams pay for that strategy with jumpers. On Christmas Day, Giannis Antetokounmpo made his MVP case on national television (yes, it still counts if you do it against the Knicks).
2. Raptors (25-10, LW 4). Every Raptors’ fans’ Christmas list had “Kawhi Leonard signs long-term in Toronto” at the top of it. We’ll see if Santa makes a special July trip to Toronto. Rumors fly around the league constantly, but only Leonard really knows what Leonard is thinking, and he’s not talking. Right now, on the court, the Raptors are flat — 5-5 in their last 10 with a middle-of-the-pack net rating (+2.4) in that stretch. Injuries and road games have played into that. One bright spot for the Raptors this season is the play of Kawhi Leonard in the clutch: he is shooting 60% overall and 50% from three in the final five minutes of a game within five points. The Raptors needed that.
3. Warriors (23-12, LW 2). Every week I want to move Golden State into the top spot in these rankings — I still believe that, when they are focused, the Warriors will be clear and away the best team in the league — they go out and have a disinterested, clunker game like they did on Christmas. So there they are in third. Also, the “death lineup” — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green — has played just 37 minutes this season and is -5.6 per 100 in that limited run.
4. Pacers (22-12, LW 6). Indiana got a lot of praise for signing Tyreke Evans this past offseason, he was going to be the boost their bench needed. Nope. He has been a disappointment – 36.3 shooting percentage, 47 percent true shooting percentage (way below the league average), and a PER of 11 (down from 21.1 last season in Memphis). The Pacers are winning without Evans, but they could use him. Indiana continues through a soft part of the schedule this week, with two against the Hawks and one against the Pistons.
5. Nuggets (21-10, LW 1).. The Nuggets had a light stretch of the schedule — one game over seven days (an ugly loss to the Clippers) — at just the right time as three starters (Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, Will Barton) remain out with injuries. The Nuggets have struggled defensively on the road, giving up seven more points per game, and they are just 8-7 away from the Pepsi Center, and that loss to the Clippers was the start of 7-of-11 away from home.
6. Celtics (20-13, LW 5). The Christmas Day win over the Sixers seemed to establish the offensive pecking order for the Celtics — Kyrie Irving eats first, then everyone else. That sense of an offensive order is something Boston has lacked this season. Getting healthier (Al Horford and Marcus Morris back, but losing Aron Baynes to a broken hand) certainly helped them win a couple in a row. Now comes a real test on the road at Houston, Memphis, and San Antonio. But if Kyrie Irving can do this with Jimmy Butler draped on him, the Celtics are in a good place.
7. 76ers (22-13, LW 8). Philly lost in OT to the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season but their were positives to take away, including Joel Embiid dropping 34 and 14 in the game (he struggled in the playoffs last season against Al Horford). The Sixers have gone 3-4 in their last 7 (although their net rating of +4.2 in that stretch suggests it’s a fluke) and the loss in Boston was the first of five in a row on the road as they head West.
8. Rockets (18-15, LW 11). Chris Paul is out for a couple of weeks with a strained hamstring, and as Bobby Marks of ESPN noted this is the ninth time since 2012 CP3 has missed time with a hamstring injury. That’s concerning. Before this latest injury the Rockets were 0-5 with Paul out of the lineup this season but they have gone 2-0 without him this week including James Harden going off on Christmas Day.
Harden has scored at least 30 points in 7 straight games and is carrying the offense — and the Rockets back into the playoffs as the team has won 7-of-8.
9. Thunder (21-12, LW 7). When Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and Steven Adams share the court together this season, the Thunder outscore opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions. The fact that the Thunder’s overall net rating is five points lower than that on the season speaks to the lack of depth around that strong core. Talk about OKC with scouts/executives around the league and there is a split about how far they can go with this lineup in the playoffs — some think their defense will carry them to the Conference Finals, others think you can scheme for OKC’s scorers and they will be out early. Hopefully, they’re healthy in April so we can find out.
10. Lakers (20-14, LW 10). It was a little jarring to see LeBron James leave the game with an injury on Christmas Day — the league may never have had a more durable superstar (and few have prioritized injury prevention and care like he has). Fortunately, the MRI came back clean and LeBron likely only misses a few games. The Lakers shot well from three against the Warriors (39.4%), a welcome change from the previous four games when Los Angeles struggled from deep and went 1-3. The Lakers are not loaded with shooters but they need to hit enough threes to keep the defense honest.
11. Trail Blazers (19-15, LW 9). Portland struggled to stop Utah from scoring on Christmas — and the Jazz do not have the most dynamic offense in the league — but that speaks to one of Portland’s problems of late. In their last 13 games, the Blazers have allowed 112.1 points per 100, which is fifth worst in the league. The offense, especially with the bench struggling, cannot make up for that. A tough stretch of six games coming up for the Trail Blazers, starting Thursday with a home-and-home against the Warriors.
12. Spurs (18-16, LW 12). Go ahead and say the Spurs take too many midrangers if you want, they have won 7-of-9 and in that stretch have the best offense in the NBA scoring 120.3 points per 100 possessions. Their role players have stepped up as snipers and the Spurs are hitting threes at a 47.1% clip in their last nine (but taking the second fewest in the league, 23.1 per game, in that stretch). This was a team a few weeks ago three games below .500 and looking like they would fade from the playoff picture, now the Spurs are ninth in the West just half-a-game out of the playoffs.
13. Kings (18-15, LW 13). The dynamic play of De’Aaron Fox this season has overshadowed his backcourt teammate — Buddy Hield has been a sniper and scoring machine this season, averaging 20.4 points a night (leading the Kings), taking 45.6% of his shots from three and hitting 44% of them (and those aren’t corner threes either, he likes to be above the break). Hield has thrived in transition ant the pace the Kings are playing, often running to the arc and getting a clean look at a three. He has found his role in the NBA and is thriving in it.
14. Clippers (19-14, LW 16). A couple of wins last week against other teams in the playoff chase — Dallas and Denver — may be signs that Los Angeles has stabilized the ship after rough patch. Still, in their last 10 games the Clippers have allowed 116.6 points per 100 possessions, the second worst defense in the NBA over that stretch (sandwiched between the Knicks and Cavaliers, not exactly great company). A challenging week — Kings, Lakers, Spurs, 76ers — will give us a sense of if things have improved or not.
151. Jazz (17-18, LW 21). A quality win on Christmas Day over Portland was the latest sign Utah has found it’s defense again — in its last seven games it has allowed less than a point per possession (95.5), best in the NBA. The offense is still bottom 10 over that stretch but looked good against Portland on a big national stage — if Donovan Mitchell and the offense can just be average to good while the defense locks teams down, the Jazz will be poised to go on a run and get back in the playoff picture.
16. Hornets (16-16, LW 17). Charlotte is treading water (5-6 in their last 11) mostly because Kemba Walker continues to struggle — 19.8 points per game his last 10 but shooting 37.4% overall and 29.5% from three (his pull-up three is one of his biggest weapons). The Hornets were pretty average through a soft, home-heavy part of the schedule the past couple of weeks, they did not bank wins, and that could come back to bite them later in the season.
17. Grizzlies (17-16, LW 15). The Grizzlies starting five — Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Garrett Temple, Kyle Anderson, and Jaren Jackson Jr. — is the third most heavily used lineup in the NBA at 326 minutes, and they are +11.2 per 100. After that, the lack of depth on this roster catches up with Memphis. After going 1-3 on a recent road trip the Grizzlies have 4-of-5 at home, with some winnable games, starting with Cleveland Wednesday.
18. Heat (16-16, LW 24). Winners of five in a row and 9-of-11, a streak due to a top four defense in the league in that time (the offense is bottom 10 in that stretch). That’s not likely to improve with Goran Dragic out for a couple of months, coach Eric Spoelstra has said Justise Winslow will be the point (really a point forward) for the team in his absence. The good news for Miami as it fights to keep a playoff spot is it has 7-of-9 at home coming up.
19. Pistons (15-16, 18). This ranking feels almost too high for a team that has lost 9-of-11 and is in danger of falling out of the playoffs entirely. The problem during this stretch is on offense, where the Blake Griffin led team is scoring 101.7 per 100 in their last 11, third worst in the NBA. The main issue is their biggest concern all season: This is just not a good shooting squad. They have a dreadful team true shooting percentage of 51.8 in the last 11 games, worst in the NBA. The Pistons also have turned the ball over more of late, which doesn’t help matters.
20. Mavericks (15-17, LW 14). Losers of six in a row, the Mavs have yet to win a game with Dirk Nowitzki in the lineup, which is both a concern and not the sendoff the future Hall of Famer deserves. That said, Nowitzki isn’t himself playing 8 minutes a game, averaging 2.2 points a night, and when you see him in person and how he struggles to move well, it’s just hard to watch for such a great player. Everyone is distracted from the Nowitzki issue because Luka Doncic is doing this:
21. Timberwolves (15-18, LW 19). We keep waiting for teams to fall out of the playoff chase in the West, Minnesota may be that team. The Timberwolves currently sit 13th in the West, three games out of the playoffs, they are 4-6 in their last 10 with a top-10 offense but a bottom-five defense. Which is a big disappointment for a team we thought was on the rise in the West back at the start of this calendar year. Minnesota is 1-1 so far in a stretch of 6-of-7 on the road.
22. Nets (16-19, LW 22). Winners of 8-of-9 the Nets find themselves as the nine seed in the East just a couple games out of the playoffs. Which is a testament to the culture being built in Brooklyn. They have done it with a top-five offense carrying a bottom-10 defense during that stretch, not ideal but it is working. The Nets now have a home-and-home coming up against the Hornets, one of the teams they are chasing.
23. Pelicans (15-19, LW 20). Losers of four in a row, and that can’t be blamed on the well-coordinated media blitz of leaks/comments by LeBron James and his camp trying to sway Anthony Davis to come to Hollywood. Is that kind of move by LeBron’s team fair? Whoever told you the NBA was fair? The fact that New Orleans had to answer questions is not that big a deal — if answering questions is disrupting your franchise the problem isn’t the questions — and the questions about how this team was built around Davis over the past seven years are legitimate.
24. Magic (14-18, LW 23). The Magic are 2-6 in their last eight, and those wins were ugly affairs in Mexico City. The problem is the offense, which was a concern going into the season but has cratered of late scoring less than a point per possession in this stretch. Aaron Gordon looked like a rejuvenated player living up to his new contract early in the season, but in the last five is averaging 11.2 points per game on 32.7 percent shooting (although he is hitting 38.9 percent from three). The Magic need to find a way to rack up some wins at home in the next few days because on New Year’s Eve they start a six-game road trip.
25. Hawks (9-23, LW 29). Atlanta is on a three-game winning streak and got those last two on the road in New York and Detroit. They’ve done it with a balanced attack and some good games from their veterans Vince Carter and Jeremy Lin, plus some solid defense. Expect the Kent Bazemore trade rumors to start to ramp up after the first of the season, although matching his $18.1 million salary for this season (with a player option for $19.3 next season he will certainly pick up) makes it tough to find a home for him.
26. Wizards (13-21, LW 25). Among the plethora of problems facing the Wizards, they have not had Otto Porter for the last seven games (and it will be eight) due to a knee issue. Porter himself has not been a game-changer this season, they just traded for Trevor Ariza, but the Wizards gave up some depth in that trade to get the veteran wing and that lack of depth is exposed with Porter out. Washington has a stretch of games where they could get some wins — at the Pistons, then hosting the Bulls, Hornets, and Hawks — but whether Washington will care or play hard enough to win those games remains to be seen.
27. Suns (8-26, LW 26). It feels like Deandre Ayton is getting a bit overlooked this season. Yes, his defense is terrible right now and he is reliant on someone setting him up (72.6 percent of his two-point shots are assisted), but the rookie is averaging 16.3 points and 10.6 rebounds a game. He has a lot of offensive skill and as the Suns put a better team around him Ayton can be a cornerstone. The brief high of the four-game winning streak came crashing own with losses to the Wizards and Nets, leaving the Suns 2-2 on their current road trip.
28. Bulls (9-25, LW 30). It’s hard to rebuild when guys can’t stay healthy: Since Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine joined the Bulls the team has had 114 regular-season games, but those three have played together in just 14 of them (and less than 5% of the available minutes in that time). Right now both LaVine and Bobby Portis are out with sprained ankles. That said, the Bulls have won a couple in a row against other teams down here at the bottom of the rankings, giving them a little boost out of the power ranking cellar.
29. Knicks (9-26, LW 28). The Kristaps Porzingis update saying he will be re-evaluated in February is a good sign. Ideally the Knicks would like to get KP a few games at the end of the season, just to jumpstart his offseason workouts (and let any potential free agents know he will be there in 2019-20). The Knicks are of five in a row — including the Bucks on national television on Christmas Day — and New York is about to head out on a six-game road trip.
30. Cavaliers (8-26, LW 27). The only questions left about this season in Cleveland is can they get anything of value in trades for J.R. Smith or anyone else on the roster. Cleveland would be happy to find a taker for Kevin Love, but with him stepping into a massive extension and missing time due to a toe injury there’s no chance he’s traded before the summer, and even then it seems unlikely.