Cleveland Slipping: DGS NBA Power Rankings
As the All-Star break approaches, which teams are primed for big moves and big runs in the second half? On the other hand, who should be getting ready for June’s draft? Read on and find out!
- Golden State Warriors (33-8) (Last week’s ranking: 1) – To no one’s surprise, Steph Curry came back and immediately lit up the Clippers. His massive scoring output just underscores how scary the Warriors are. They have three players who can almost single handedly win games for their team. At this point, the West looks like Golden State’s to lose as the Rockets and their competitors continue to settle back towards the middle. The remaining question will be how good and how focused on the regular season the Warriors will be after another injury scare. This team could win 70 games with its eyes closed but if no one in the Western Conference pushes them, will they take their feet off the gas?
- Houston Rockets (28-11) (Last week’s ranking: 2) – Injuries are finally catching up the Rockets who hit a snag with James Harden. The Rockets still have the luxury of having a Hall of Fame point guard behind him but losing five in a row and seven of nine was a wake-up call. They have rebounded since then but there is still a gap between the Warriors and Rockets and it will be interesting to see if GM Daryl Morey makes any more moves that increase the “risk profile” of the Rockets as he alluded to prior to the Chris Paul trade. Still, Rockets fans should be thrilled. The team’s point differential still has them a cut above anyone else in the Western Conference and their offensive rating is at near historic levels. Beating the Warriors was always going to take some luck but the Rockets look primed to put themselves in a position to get there.
- Boston Celtics (33-10) (Last week’s ranking: 3) – The Celtics are passing every test thrown their way, even without Gordon Hayward in the lineup. In the last week, they have blown out both the Cavaliers and Timberwolves at home before defeating a scrappy Nets team on the road. Give head coach Brad Stevens credit. He has them playing some of the best defense in the NBA despite the fact that he had to integrate so many new faces into the system during training camp. The Celtics will take their current six-game winning streak to London this week to take on the surging Sixers. They do not play another game in the United States until January 16. Here’s to hoping the extended rest and travel will not stall Boston’s momentum.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (26-14) (Last week’s ranking: 4) – Isaiah Thomas has looked good in his first week as a Cavalier until he was ejected for a vicious hit on Andrew Wiggins Monday night against Minnesota. A stunning loss to the Timberwolves shows that Cleveland still has a long way to go. They currently sit five and a half games back of Boston for the top seed in the East and three games behind a surging Raptors team for second place. The Cavs will face the Raptors on Thursday night, so the schedule does not get any easier for them. A rematch against the defending NBA champion Warriors also looms large on January. 15. They have their work cut out for them if they want the luxury of playing more games at Quicken Loans Arena during the playoffs.
- Toronto Raptors (28-10) (Last week’s ranking: 5) – How about the Raptors? At the beginning of the season, everyone was talking about the Celtics and Cavaliers being the class the East. Nobody was talking about The North. Well, the Raptors must have taken that personally because they currently sit in second place in the conference, only two and a half games back of the first-place Celtics. DeMar DeRozan is playing the best basketball of his career and should be in the MVP conversation. Kyle Lowry still has plenty left in the tank and Serge Ibaka is a defensive force. If they continued to get healthy contributions from their bench, the Raptors will be an extremely tough out come playoff time.
- San Antonio Spurs (28-14) (Last week’s ranking: 6) – Kawhi Leonard is out again. If it forces him to miss more time, it could be trouble for a Spurs team that is clinging to leads in the standings over Minnesota and Oklahoma City. While the Spurs have been successful playing 90’s basketball with Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, they need Leonard. Without him, they can essentially forget about any chance of even making it to the conference finals. The Rockets and possibly the Thunder and Timberwolves could overwhelm them with talent. The issue becomes even more pronounced if the Spurs slip in the standings and have to face being the road team in four out of the seven games to boot. Coach Gregg Popovich is smart to keep his eyes on the big picture but if the Spurs start losing games, how will he adjust?
- Minnesota Timberwolves (26-16) (Last week’s ranking: 7) – After losing to the Nets and Celtics, the Timberwolves turned in two of their best performances as they obliterated the Cavaliers and Pelicans. Both games were over at halftime. In the Cavs game, Coach Tom Thibodeau even kept some of his starters below 30 minutes! The two major factors in their success were the play of Tyus Jones in relief of Jeff Teague and the emergence of Gorgui Dieng. Jones simply fits better alongside the other starters. He is a good shooter but is content to set up his teammates rather than look for his own shot. That fits nicely next to three players that need shots to be effective. Meanwhile, Gorgui Dieng stepped in and played good minutes while stretching the floor. Coach Thibs has not played him much but he may have more minutes coming after his recent performances. Another item of note is that the Timberwolves have kept their last six opponents under 100 points. The Timberwolves think they have a chance to crash the Western Conference Finals and they may be right if the defense keeps playing like that.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (22-18) (Last week’s ranking: 8) – The ugly loss against Phoenix aside, the Thunder look like another team that is getting back on track. Paul George has been a lot more involved in the offense and it is translating into wins. While it was partially due to necessity, Billy Donovan has been experimenting with lineups. It has been nice to see Terrance Ferguson get minutes with the starters. Like the Timberwolves, the Thunder are much more suited to have role players play next to the stars in the starting lineup. Despite Carmelo Anthony’s reservations, it would be great to see Anthony head bench units but until then some experimentation could a be a great way for Donovan to find a few more playable lineups, which is essential given the Thunder’s relative lack of depth.
- Washington Wizards (23-17) (Last week’s ranking: 9) – If the strange, unknown odor is any indication of what the future will bring the Wizards, they are in big trouble. Ever since beating up on the Knicks back on January 3., the Wizards haven’t quite looked the same. They barely hung on for the win in Memphis on Friday before dropping a stinker to the Bucks in the second game of a back-to-back. Even with their latest setbacks, they find themselves in a comfortable spot within the Eastern Conference playoff race. They are just three and a half games back of the Cavaliers for the No. 3 seed, but a few more losses to teams they should beat could knock them closer to the bottom of the standings. Regardless of where they are in the standings, I firmly believe John Wall is the best point guard in the Eastern Conference by a slim margin over Kyrie Irving.
- Milwaukee Bucks (21-18) (Last week’s ranking: 10) – The Bucks went 2-2 in the last week, but the concerning thing here is that both of their losses were blowouts at the hands of the Raptors and Pacers. Thon Maker has been brilliant over his past few games, but the Bucks’ team defense has actually been worse with him on the floor. He is going to have to learn how to play better team defense and that would solve many of Milwaukee’s current defensive woes. With many Eastern Conference teams currently crammed together in the standings, the Bucks need defensive answers sooner, rather than later.
- Detroit Pistons (21-18) (Last week’s ranking: 10) – The Pistons have come back down to earth. Mostly because they do not have enough scoring to contend with the top teams in the East, as Monday night’s loss to the Pelicans indicated. With Reggie Jackson sidelined, the Pistons are going to need another scorer. If the Magic keep sliding in the standings, could a trade for Evan Fournier make sense for both teams? I’m not sure if Detroit has the necessary pieces to get a deal done, but adding Fournier to a lineup with Jackson, Andre Drummond and Tobias Harris would bolster the team’s playoff chances.
- Denver Nuggets (21-19) (Last week’s ranking: 12) – The advanced numbers are showing the divides in the Western Conference. There is a clear top-two, then the middle, and finally a number of teams fighting for the last three spots. The Nuggets are 1a of that group. They look playoff-bound but will likely function as road kill in the first round. However, the sixth seed has a dramatically better outlook than the seventh and eighth seeds who figure to run into Houston and buzzsaw known as the Golden State Warriors. The Nuggets hope to have Paul Millsap back after the All-Star break, which would bolster their chances. In his absence, Trey Lyles has stepped up. Unfortunately for Lyles, he might be remembered more for being the guy who cost the Nuggets Donovan Mitchell. For now, though, he is showing the reason the Nuggets traded for him in the first place. Lyles has been a per-minute monster in Denver. On that basis, he has been one of the most productive and efficient players in the league shooting over 50 percent from the field and over 45 percent from deep. The specter of a trade continues to loom over this team and the need for a shakeup is even more clear with the emergence of Lyles who only got his opportunity due to injury.
- Portland Trail Blazers (21-18) (Last week’s ranking: 13) – Portland is the 1b to Denver’s 1a. They have somehow become a defensive team in spite of their top two players who are both offensive-minded. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have both seemed a bit off but mostly remain two of the best in the business on offense. The biggest issue for the Blazers is their depth. The reliance on Evan Turner has illustrated how poorly the bench has played for Portland. Interestingly, the players deeper on Portland’s bench has actually outperformed the bigger minute players like Turner. Could the answer for Coach Terry Stotts’ depth issues be to go even deeper into his bench?
- Indiana Pacers (21-19) (Last week’s ranking: 14) – I’m not exactly sure who the Pacers are. Nor am I sure they know exactly who they are. Indiana has been on a roller coaster ride through the first half of the season, bouncing in and out of a playoff spot. Right now, they are playing some great basketball with wins over the Bulls and Bucks this week. Joe Young and T.J. Leaf have played well recently, helping make Indiana’s bench even deeper. Their games this week are against the Heat, Cavaliers, Suns, and Jazz. With the way they are playing right now, anything less than a 3-1 record would be a disappointment.
- Miami Heat (22-17) (Last week’s ranking: 17) – Miami’s current four-game winning streak has vaulted them all the way up to the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference standings. A blowout loss to the Nets at home on December 29. seems to have awoken the Heat, who at the time was on the verge of being on the outside of the playoff picture. This week, the Heat hit the road for tough tests against the Raptors and Pacers before coming home to play the Bucks. They need to win at least two of their upcoming games in order to maintain their current seeding, being that only four games currently separate the 4-10 seeds in the East.
- New Orleans Pelicans (20-19) (Last week’s ranking: 15) – Anyone expecting much more than .500 basketball from the Pelicans is probably going to be disappointed. Their maddening inconsistency comes from their lack of talent on the perimeter. When their perimeter players play well, they are one of the toughest teams in the league. Unfortunately, that does not happen as often as Coach Alvin Gentry would like. Gentry continues to ride his starters. Four of his starters play over 32 minutes and three are over 35. Rajon Rondo is creeping up as well. Gentry could be playing a dangerous game on a team without much depth. If he loses one of those guys for an extended time, it could be the end of New Orleans’ playoff hunt and his tenure as coach.
- Philadelphia 76ers (19-19) (Last week’s ranking: 18) – Don’t look now, but the Sixers seemed to have figured things out and are back at .500 through 38 games. The Sixers delivered one of their signature victories of the young season when they beat the Spurs at home. They followed that up by demolishing the Pistons on Saturday night for their fourth-straight win. They are off until Thursday when they take on the Celtics in London. It will be a nice test for the Sixers, facing a team who could wind up as a playoff opponent come May. That’s not the only bit of good news. Rookie point guard and top overall draft selection Markelle Fultz played 5-on-5 during practice over the weekend and is inching closer to a return to action. The Sixers need Fultz in the lineup if they want to make any sort of noise come playoff time.
- New York Knicks (19-21) (Last week’s ranking: 16) – Road woes continue to plague the Knicks, who have fallen out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture thanks to their inability to win away from Madison Square Garden. They did manage to defeat the Mavericks on Sunday night for only their fourth road victory of the season. Frank Ntilikina seemed to have gotten the best of fellow rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. in their first professional match-up, finishing with seven points, seven assists, and five rebounds. Many Knicks fans and pundits did not agree with former team president Phil Jackson’s decision to draft Ntilikina over Smith, but the Knicks believe he is a better long-term fit for the organization. The teams will meet again in New York on March 13. Ntilkina will continue to come off the bench for now, as the Knicks have rewarded current starter Jarrett Jack with a guaranteed contract for the remainder of the season.
- Los Angeles Clippers (18-21) (Last week’s ranking: 19) – The Clippers continue to struggle against good teams. They are now 4-11 against teams above .500. Injuries are to blame for some of that but it also has to do with a porous defense. Their offense is actually 11th in the league, which is incredibly impressive given their losses. Their defense is only 18th and will only slip further as their next 10 games contain a few of the best offenses in the league. The good news is that they are mostly back healthy and are still within striking distance of the playoffs. It will be interesting to see how they approach the trade deadline and if they choose to blow it up or stay the course.
- Utah Jazz (16-24) (Last week’s ranking: 20) – The Jazz are now 3-13 in their last 16 games. They are dangerously close to falling out of playoff contention before the all-star break. One player that is not to blame is rookie Donovan Mitchell who is gaining steam as a legitimate rookie of the year candidate. Mitchell is leading the team in scoring and has pulled his shooting numbers up to respectable levels, including over 35 percent from three. It is good that he has because he is the only legitimate offensive weapon that Coach Quin Snyder has. There will be decisions to make soon as the Jazz slip further and further down the standings. Is it worth bringing back Gobert if the playoffs are out of reach?
- Brooklyn Nets (15-25) (Last week’s ranking: 21) – Multiple league sources confirm that injured point guard D’Angelo Russell is practicing with the Long Island Nets of the G-League this week, which means that the young star is inching closer to a return. That’s good news for the Nets, who followed two nice wins with back-to-back tough losses to the Celtics and Raptors. Two of the top teams in the East defeated the Nets by a total of three points. The Nets are a tough, scrappy bunch, but they simply do not have enough pure talent to hang with the league’s best teams just yet. The one thing the Nets cannot be faulted for is their effort. They come to play every single night
- Chicago Bulls (14-27) (Last week’s ranking: 22) – There are two ways to look at the Bulls’ recent 1-5 stretch. The first is that the Bulls lost five games and are reverting back to the team they were to start the season. The other is to look past the result and see that four of the five losses were close games and all five losses were to projected playoff teams. With the Bulls’ season officially half over, it is going to be tough to get themselves back into the playoff race but the signs of improvement are encouraging. Coach Fred Hoiberg deserves a lot of credit and Bulls fans should have a lot of hope for the future. The important thing for the front office is to keep their eyes on the ultimate goal. The wins are nice but the team still lacks talent in a number of places. No one outside of Lauri Markkanen should be untradeable. If Nikola Mirotic can fetch young players and/or first round picks, they have to look at trades. Meanwhile, it is critical to see what they have in Zach LaVine before giving him a new contract. It should be an exciting rest of the season for the Bulls.
- Charlotte Hornets (15-23) (Last week’s ranking: 23) – The Hornets are kind of stuck in NBA purgatory right now. They are just as close to the eighth seed in the East as they are to last place. After beating the Kings and Lakers on the road to start off 2018, the Hornets return home to face some more Western Conference foes, with the Mavericks, Jazz, and Thunder all coming into town this week. With the exception of the Thunder, the Hornets have several winnable games against teams that are currently way under .500. They have to start winning some games. I know that sounds cliche’, but the Kemba Walker trade rumor whispers will only intensify if they continue to lose.
- Phoenix Suns (16-26) (Last week’s ranking: 24) – Dragan Bender lit up the Thunder on Monday night to help carry the Suns to a win. Unfortunately, that game has been an outlier for Bender who has struggled to generate much of anything on the season. Marquese Chriss and Bender have both hit a wall in their development and look overmatched. It is getting tougher and tougher to see either one becoming a regular starter on a good team, let alone an all-star. They are both still young but both are flammable defensive players who get lost far too often. Bender seems to grasp his role but also is overmatched by it at this stage. Phoenix needs to get more from their young players and time is running out.
- Dallas Mavericks (13-28) (Last week’s ranking: 25) – We are approaching a fork in the road moment for the Mavericks and owner Mark Cuban. The season is all but over for Dallas. Cuban has a lot of tough decisions to make, starting with franchise cornerstone Dirk Nowitzki and coach/magician Rick Carlisle. Does Nowitzki want to continue to stick around and is his presence actually beneficial? Carlisle is even tougher. He is a coach who wants to win on a team facing a full rebuild. Playing veterans over young players is fine when chasing wins but can Carlisle learn to adapt in a way to help grow the younger players? He has shown signs but Cuban will have a decision to make on the future of his franchise and the clock is ticking.
- Sacramento Kings (13-26) (Last week’s ranking: 27) – The Kings are another team that could use a makeover. Sacramento should explore the trade market for Zach Randolph with his value likely near its peak. There should be a few playoff contenders looking for the extra boost or the veteran leadership he can provide. Vince Carter has shown flashes too although perhaps not enough to warrant another team taking on his contract. George Hill might be the toughest of the veterans to move but the Kings have to explore all their options. None of their rookies have shown an upside comparable to Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons, or Jayson Tatum but they could thrive as they acclimate and get extra minutes. Sacramento knows they are a few years away from contention so they need to be creative in terms of trades and lineups. Willie Cauley-Stein and Buddy Hield have both shown what they can do in stretches. As more of the young players get minutes, the Kings can get a better idea of who fits into their long-term plans.
- Memphis Grizzlies (12-27) (Last week’s ranking: 26) – Forgive me for the optimism but it seems to me that the Grizzlies continue to remain at the top of the stealth tanking mountain. They are one Marc Gasol hamstring pull and Tyreke Evans trade away from being in real competition to get the number one pick. Evans could potentially yield a first round pick that could replenish the team’s depth. Meanwhile, a high draft pick would give Memphis options. On the one hand, they could flip it to a disappointing team like the Clippers for one of their players. On the other, they could use it themselves and hope that the timelines will overlap enough for that player to propel them to immediate success. The cap situation is messy, particularly with Chandler Parsons’ complete inability to stay healthy but there is hope in Memphis.
- Orlando Magic (12-28) (Last week’s ranking: 28) – Things are continuing to get worse for the Magic. They have lost four-straight and are only a game and a half ahead of the Hawks for the worst record in the East. It’s not entirely their fault, though, as the roster has been besieged by injuries. Nikola Vucevic has been out since December 23. With a fractured left hand and will most likely be sidelined until late February. Out of all of their rotation players, only Bismack Biyombo and Jonathon Simmons have played in more than 35 games this season. The good news is that Aaron Gordon appears to be healthy, but he cannot do it alone. Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier need to step up if the Magic want to remain away from the Eastern Conference cellar.
- Los Angeles Lakers (12-27) (Last week’s ranking: 29) – There is trouble in Laker land. Meetings, critical quotes, and lots of losses are all mounting. With the Lakers losing their pick this year, it could be disastrous for them if they watch their hated rival in Boston use their pick to pluck the final piece to cement a dynasty. While Kyle Kuzma should brighten any Lakers fan’s day, he is slowly becoming one of the lone bright spots. Is Brandon Ingram in witness protection? He has been inconspicuous as the Lakers continue to lose, which does not bode well for his future in the league. There are still many nights when he seems overwhelmed by the speed and strength of the players across from him. He shot 41.6 and 31.6 percent from the field and three, respectively in December. He is off to a hot start in the new year. He will need to sustain it if the Lakers hope to fight their way back to respectability.
- Atlanta Hawks (10-30) (Last week’s ranking: 30) – The state of Georgia is having a tough time. The Bulldogs lose the national title and the Hawks lose… well, just about every game. While they had a nice stretch to end December, the Hawks are clearly in the driver’s seat to secure the number one pick. John Collins and Dennis Schroder are becoming the only reasons to tune in. For Hawks fans, spend some time with the family and watch lots of college basketball highlights as you fantasize about which one of the players would look best in a Hawks uniform.
Biggest Mover: Miami Heat (2)
Biggest Flop: New York Knicks (2)