Nikola Jokic has pushed the Denver Nuggets both to the top of the West and also to the top of these NBA Power Rankings. Boston, Memphis and Brooklyn round out the top four in a close race.
1. Nuggets (27-13, Last week No. 2). Nikola Jokic is a lock to be an All-Star Game starter voted in by the fans, but if the Nuggets have the best record in the West, should they have two All-Stars in the game? That has led to a PR push of late to get Aaron Gordon in the game. Gordon will not get voted in as a starter by the fans/players/media, which means the coaches would have to pick him as a reserve. Good luck with that (despite a strong season from Gordon). Winners of 10-of-12, the Nuggets are in the midst of a homestand (9-of-10) and have gone 3-0 so far.
2. Celtics (29-12, LW 3). When the Celtics decide to flip the switch and are focused — as they were against Dallas last Thursday, or for much of the game against the Bulls Monday — they remind us what a title contending force this squad can be when it cares. Robert Williams III is back in the starting lineup, which also will help stabilize things. Thursday’s showdown with the Nets lost some luster because of the Kevin Durant injury, but that game still starts 6-of-7 on the road for Boston, we’ll see how focused they are through that stretch.
3. Grizzlies (27-13, LW 4). Ja Morant is set to return to the lineup Wednesday, not that they missed him too much the way Tyus Jones tore it up in his absence averaging 22.5 points and six assists a game in a starting role (in case you wondered why the franchise saw re-signing Jones last summer was a priority). Based on their point differential, the Grizzlies are headed for another 56-win season, which is pretty insane considering all the time their second- and third-best players (Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr.). As noted this week, JJJ may not lead the mid-season Defensive Player of the Year voting because of all his missed time, but he’s coming on fast and could be the guy to beat come the end-of-season voting.
4. Nets (27-13, LW 1). Kevin Durant will be out for weeks — the average for this injury is around three — and that’s going to put pressure on others to step up and knock down shots for one of the NBA’s pure jump-shooting teams (Brooklyn has taken 22.8% of its shots this season between 10-feet from the rim out to the arc, the third highest percentage in the league). Joe Harris, Seth Curry, expect to see more Patty Mills, all of them need to step up, but the real pressure will fall on Kyrie Irving. Is he up to the task? The good news for the Nets is that they enter a softer part of the schedule after Boston on Thursday with games against the Thunder, Spurs and Suns coming up.
5. 76ers (25-15, LW 5). The Sixers did well with a 2-1 record while Joel Embiid was out with a foot injury, but he returned against the Pistons and dropped 36 and 11. That blowout win meant Embiid got some rest and Doc Rivers got a long look at reserve big man Jaden Springer (who has bounced between the 76ers and the Delaware Blue Coats), and he saw a guy go 4-of-4 for 10 points. Maybe the Sixers have something there. Philadelphia has not traveled to the West all season but that changes starting Saturday in Utah as they head out on the road for five (including both Los Angeles teams).
6. Cavaliers (26-16, LW 7). Donovan Mitchell is rightfully drawing headlines — 46 points in his return to Utah, a 71-point game against the Bulls, and he looks to be a lock starting guard in the All-Star Game. But that’s not what has driven this team — they still have the second-ranked defense in the league (Memphis just passed them) and that’s why Jarrett Allen has to get consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. The Cavs are 1-2 on their current five-game road trip, with stops in Portland and Minnesota still ahead.
7. Pelicans (25-16, LW 6). Brandon Ingram said he hoped to return to the court during the team’s current road trip, but after Wednesday night he will have missed the first three games of the five-game trip and does not appear close to a return yet. Ingram has been out since Nov. 25 with a left big toe injury, and with Zion Williamson out right now (hamstring) the Pelicans could use the offense. The Pelicans have gone 2-2 in this stretch without their two best scorers, but things get tougher coming up with the Celtics, Cavaliers and Heat all within the next week.
8. Bucks (26-14, LW 8). The Bucks have slid of late — 7-8 over their last 15 — and Monday’s win over the Knicks was the first game of four in a row and 7-of-10 on the road. That matters because, as noted by John Schumann of NBA.com, the Bucks on the road have a dreadful 104.1 offensive rating, 2.3 points per 100 possessions worse than any other team. Put another way, they score 10 more points per game at home compared to on the road. The Bucks defense (and that 9-0 start to the season) have saved them, but Milwaukee needs to get its offense in gear and pick up some road wins.
9. Mavericks (23-19, LW 9). Luka Doncic is up to nine triple-doubles this season to lead the league, and in games he doesn’t hit that mark, he still has crazy numbers — in the loss to the Clippers Tuesday Luka had 43-11-7. While one should be careful reading too much into any one regular season game, the Celtics’ decimation of the Mavericks last week was a clear indication of how far this team is away from a focused title contender — it’s more than simply getting a good No.2 option next to Doncic. The Mavs stay on the road this week facing LeBron and the Lakers on Thursday, then they head to Portland for a baseball-series two games up in the Pacific Northwest.
10. Kings (21-18, LW 10). Mike Brown’s impressive turnaround of the Kings this season started with him making their defense at least respectable. That has gone away of late, over the last 10 games the Kings have the second-worst defense in the league — and Brown called his team on it after the Lakers shot 61% against them. Defense or not the Kings are in a soft stretch of the schedule — their next two games are against the Rockets — where they can pad their record with some wins.
11. Knicks (22-19, LW 13). RJ Barrett has missed six games with a painful-sounding finger injury, which pushed Immanuel Quickley into the starting lineup — and it’s looked good. In those six games, Quickley has averaged 21.5 points and 4.3 assists a game while shooting 35.6% from 3, and the Knicks starting five (Jalen Brunson, Quickley, Quentin Grimes, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson) is +5.3 per 100. Quickley works well off the ball, a good thing around Brunson and Randle. It leads to this question for Tom Thibodeau: When Barrett is healthy enough to return, should he come off the bench as a high-scoring, shoot-first sixth man?
12. Pacers (23-18, LW 17). Rick Carlisle has to be in the mix in any mid-season Coach of the Year conversation, he has shaken things up and leaned into four-guard lineups (because the Pacers have a plethora of guards: Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield, Aaron Nesmith, Chris Duarte, TJ McConnell, Bennedict Mathurin, Andrew Nembhard), which has led to quick ball movement and a difficult to defend offense. It’s worked well enough to have the Pacers as the No.6 seed in the East as this is written, but a big game in keeping ahold of that comes up Wednesday night against the Knicks.
13. Heat (22-20, LW 15). Will the Heat make a move at the trade deadline? One might be tempted to say yes because this team needs depth/help at the four and because Pat Riley franchises have a long history of being aggressive with trades. However, this is a team up against the luxury tax and, while the Arison family has been willing to spend into the tax for a contender, is there a realistic trade out there that makes this team a contender? Not sure there is, nobody wants to take Duncan Robinson off Miami’s hands, and that could have them standing pat at the trade deadline.
14. Clippers (22-21, LW 12). Terance Mann has brought a boost whenever Tyronn Lue has given him a larger role this season, and as the Clippers try to find their footing mid-season it could mean we see a lot more of Mann at the point. He started the last two games, and that appears likely to continue. Mann brings a defensive energy this team needs, and it showed in the win Tuesday over Dallas where he had just 12 points on 12 shots, but was a team-best +24 because of his defensive energy. That win over the Mavericks snapped a six-game losing streak for the Clippers, but things do not get easier to close out this homestand with the Nuggets on Friday and the 76ers next Tuesday.
15. Suns (21-21, LW 14). Phoenix has gone 3-9 with Devin Booker out due to a hamstring injury, and it feels worse than that. The Suns are 6-15 since Dec. 1, there are rumblings of chemistry issues in the locker room, and the team has waited so long looking for the perfect Jae Crowder trade that the return on any deal gets worse by the day (teams are now trading for only half-a-season of Crowder). Which is why the win over the full-strength Warriors on a night Booker was joined on the bench by Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton and multiple other rotation players was such a boost. Booker remains out and picking more road wins will not be easy against the Nuggets and Grizzlies this week.
16. Warriors (20-21, LW 11). Stephen Curry returned from his shoulder injury and showed some rust, shooting 8-of-22 overall and 5-of-15 from 3 in a loss to the Suns. The Warriors kept their head above water without him, going 6-5. Curry was playing at an MVP level before the injury, averaging 30 points per game, shooting 43.2% from 3, and adding 6.8 assists and 6.6 rebounds. The Warriors have been 14.4 points per 100 possessions better when Curry is on the floor this season and will likely get back to that, once Curry shakes off the rust.
17. Jazz (21-23, LW 19). Good on the Jazz fans for the warm welcome Donovan Mitchell got in his return to Utah — for all the focus at times on concerns he had with politics in the state, he loved that city and its people. Also good on Jordan Clarkson for taking over the game late and getting Utah the win. That game against the Cavs was the first of 11-of-13 at home for Utah in the run-up to the All-Star Game next month — a game Lauri Markkanen should be part of. But he’s going to have to get a nod from the coaches to become a reserve.
18. Bulls (19-22, LW 22). The Bulls have slowed the pace and won 5-of-8 behind the seventh-ranked offense in the NBA over that stretch. Zach LaVine in particular has thrived, including a 41-point night against the 76ers and 36 against the Jazz. Chicago has won 8-of-12 and climbed back into the play-in mix in the East (it’s a start). DeMar DeRozan will miss at least one game with a strained quad but there is optimism the team’s leading scorer will not miss much time.
19. Timberwolves (20-21, LW 24). Minnesota has gone 10-10 since Karl-Anthony Towns went out with a strained calf, including a current four-game winning streak that started against the Nuggets. Anthony Edwards has started to find his groove again as a slasher and scorer, something he showed off dropping 32 on the Trail Blazers. KAT isn’t expected back for a couple more weeks so it’s going to take more Rudy Gobert 20-20 games (like he had against the Clippers) to help the team keep its head above water, but once he does get healthy the Timberwolves still have a lot of work to do to develop some chemistry and a style of play.
20. Trail Blazers (19-21, LW 16). Portland has lost four in a row and 7-of-9 to fall out of even the play-in in the West (11 seed) and below .500 for the first time this season. The Trail Blazers’ defense is actually third-best in the NBA over those nine games, but the offense has fallen so far (27th) they just can’t get wins. The next couple of weeks will determine where this Blazers team is headed this season and if they should pivot and become sellers at the trade deadline, and their schedule is brutal: Cavaliers, two against the Mavericks, Nuggets, 76ers. It’s make-or-break time in Portland — and they need to find their offense fast.
21. Lakers 19-22, LW 21). How optimistic is the Lakers’ front office about this roster? Likely a lot more so after a five-game winning streak (and 6-of-7) that has them just two games back of the Clippers as the No. 6 seed. Are the Lakers optimistic enough to shed one of their first-round picks at the trade deadline to make sure LeBron James makes the playoffs? Or, do they see themselves as the No.12 seed (where they currently sit in a tight West) and think it would be throwing good money after bad? Anthony Davis remains out and the Lakers have a couple of tough tests this week with Luka Doncic and the Mavericks then Joel Embiid and the 76ers (both at home for L.A.).
22. Raptors (18-23, LW 20). Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet are the top three players in the league in minutes averaged per game — all of them playing more than 37 minutes a night. That will wear guys down over time, but on a team that has battled injuries and struggled to find its footing, Nick Nurse feels he has no choice. If you’re looking for a bright spot with the Raptors, they have been the least lucky team in the league — they have the net rating of a 21-20 team — and they have one of the easiest remaining schedules. Things can flip for them.
23. Hawks (19-21, LW 23). If you’re looking for a reason to be hopeful in Atlanta: Each of the last two seasons the Hawks have gone on a run in the second half of the season to make a playoff push (27-11 in 2021 and 26-14 last season). Do they have another run like that in them? Can they start it without Clint Capela, who will play his 12th straight game Wednesday due to a right calf strain (this is why Derick Favors got a 10-day contract). It doesn’t feel like this team has that same kind of run in it, not with the chemistry issues on this squad, but never say never. If that run is going to start this week it will come against tough competition: Bucks, Pacers, Raptors, Heat, Mavericks, Knicks.
24. Thunder (18-23, LW 25). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is deserving and should be an All-Star this season, but he’s going to have to get a hand from the coaches and get voted in a reserve (Curry and Doncic are locked in as the starters with the fan vote). While the world outside OKC may think of this as a tanking team, they are just 1.5 games out of the play-in and have a chance if they make a run. That will be tough to do this week, where Tuesday’s loss in Miami was the first game of 6-of-7 on the road, with some tough East teams coming in the 76ers and Nets.
25. Wizards (17-24, LW 18). It’s tough for Washington to make a playoff push with Bradley Beal out dealing with a hamstring injury (he will be re-evaluated later this week). Without their star wing the Wizards have dropped three straight. Also with Beal in and out of the lineup and not really under consideration, will Washington have a player in the All-Star Game? Probably not, but Kyle Kuzma is their best bet if anyone is going to get a nod from the coaches.
26. Magic 15-26, LW 26). After missing two years with a knee injury, Jonathan Isaac will play a couple of games for the Magic’s G-League affiliate (the Lakeland Magic) as part of his work to get back on an NBA floor. It’s a positive sign in a long-running saga, but he’s getting closer (the pre-injury version of Isaac would be a great fit on the floor next to Paolo Banchero as a finisher on offense and an elite defender on the other end, but he’s got a lot to prove to show he can get back to that point). Orlando has gone 2-1 to open a five-game road trip that now heads to Utah and Denver.
27. Spurs (13-28, LW 27). Devin Vassell had been impressive this season — 19.4 points per game, shooting 40.4% from 3 — which is why it sucks he will be out indefinitely after undergoing an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee. Give the Spurs credit for showing some grit, they were without starters Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl (and Vassell) against the Celtics and still nearly pulled off the upset. The Spurs have dropped 5-of-6 and have a couple of tough games ahead this week against the Grizzlies and Warriors.
28. Pistons (11-33, LW 28). All the talk around the Pistons is about a potential Bojan Bogdanovic trade — he could well be the best player moved at the deadline. The Pistons are demanding an unprotected first-round pick (as well as salary to match) and are letting teams know the price is not coming down, but those teams see that as a bluff and are waiting out the Pistons and expect the price to come down. It will go like this right up until the deadline. The Pistons have lost 5-of-7 but now have 10-of-12 at home and the chance to rack up a few wins.
29. Hornets (11-31, LW 29). One of the more surprising things in the NBA this season is the Raptors inability to shoot the rock — they are shooting 51.5% on twos (third worst in the league) this season and 33% on 3-pointers (also third worst in the NBA) — they have better shooters than this on the roster. Fred VanVleet is shooting 32.8% from 3 (on 8.7 attempts a game), while Scottie Barnes has dropped off to 28.8% this season. Shooting is a key reason the Raptors have disappointed this season, but they have won a couple straight and have winnable games next against the Hornets and Hawks (before going out on the road for most of the rest of the month.
30. Rockets (10-30, LW 30). They have dropped seven games in a row and 12-of-13, and now they head out on the road for 5-of-6. This season was never about wins for the Rockets (a good thing), but about progress so that next season — after they add another high draft pick plus maybe a free agent — they can focus on winning. Have we seen that kind of development out of the Rockets’ young stars? I don’t know that we have. What do know is KJ Martin is in for the Dunk Contest All-Star Weekend — that is a deserving invite.