NBA Power Rankings: The Blake Griffin Trade
Blake Griffin is officially a Piston while Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, and Tobias Harris are all – at least temporarily – Clippers. What does this mean for the balance of power in the East? Are the Clippers going full rebuild? Read on and find out!
- Golden State Warriors (40-10) (Last week’s ranking: 1) – Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on one team? Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on the other? It’s just like old times! Except, this will only be for one night only and in an exhibition game. Thanks to the new format of the NBA All-Star Game, players from both conferences were thrown into a pool and drafted by LeBron James and Curry, who were named captains. James drafted Durant with the first overall pick, and Curry selected his other two teammates as reserves. It should be fun to watch Durant play alongside Westbrook again and also compete against his current running mates, but back to reality, we go. The Warriors almost look unbeatable. They slept walked through an entire half in a game against the Knicks last week and still won by double-digits. For an encore, they took care of the Timberwolves with relative ease and held on for a wild victory against the Celtics over the weekend. Can anybody beat this team in a seven-game series? Stay tuned.
- Houston Rockets (35-13) (Last week’s ranking: 2) – Now that James Harden is back in the fold, the Rockets have returned to their winning ways. Friday night’s loss to the Pelicans was Houston’s first with James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela all in the lineup. They were previously 20-0 when all three players suited up at the same time. The Rockets, however, are not exempt from the injury bug that is plaguing many NBA teams at the moment. Trevor Ariza has been hampered by a hamstring injury and is expected to sit out until at least early February. It’s amazing that the Rockets are performing so well this season. Their starting lineup of Harden, Paul, Capela, Ariza and Ryan Anderson have played together in just 17 of a possible 48 games. The team is 16-1 when that quintet starts and plays together.
- Boston Celtics (36-15) (Last week’s ranking: 3) – The Celtics should be very encouraged with the way they played the Warriors. They withstood a magnificent performance from Steph Curry and had a chance to win the game at the end. Against a historically great team like the Warriors, that is quite an accomplishment for a Celtics team that is still without Gordon Hayward. Footage emerged of Hayward shooting jumpers over the weekend. If Hayward does come back before the end of the regular season, the rest of the Eastern Conference should be terrified that there could be another historically great team coming in the Celtics.
- Toronto Raptors (33-15) (Last week’s ranking: 4) – They are not flashy or getting headlines but one thing that the Raptors are doing is win. Toronto is now tied with the Celtics in the loss column and is only a game back overall. The Raptors have the best home record in the conference and the second-best overall. If they can secure home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs and assure themselves of only playing one of the Celtics and Cavaliers, they could give their playoff hopes a major boost. The rest of the conference still has some formidable foes but Cleveland and Boston are clearly a cut above. As much credit as the offense deserves for being tops in the East, the defense is also third amongst Eastern Conference playoff teams. If their offense takes a swoon during the playoffs, it could be the improved defense that keeps them in games.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (29-19) (Last week’s ranking: 5) – Speaking of defensive improvements, the Cavaliers did look better defensively with Tristan Thompson back in the lineup. Coach Ty Lue needs to hope it sticks because their defense could be the mitigating factor in their ability to return to the NBA finals and keep LeBron James. The Cavaliers might not need to win the championship to keep James in town but a second-round flameout might push him out the door. The current playoff seedings would see the Cavs go to Toronto in the second round but that could turn out to be the Celtics or the Wizards. Even their currently projected first-round opponent in the Milwaukee Bucks could give them problems. Can you imagine the firestorm if the Cavs lose in the first round? In reality, it is more likely that Golden State/Cleveland Part Four occurs in the finals this year but the Cavaliers face a much more difficult slate of opponents this year than in years past.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (32-21) (Last week’s ranking: 6) – You have to really think back a long time to think of the last time the Timberwolves were THIS good. They struggle a bit whenever Jimmy Butler doesn’t play (2-4 when he sits out), but overall they are a very good team. They also allow 17 fewer points per game when the All-Star swingman plays, an astonishing dip from when he doesn’t. That information alone is not enough to place Butler directly into the MVP conversation, but there’s no denying the fact that he’s one of the top-15 players in the NBA. The Timberwolves are currently in a stretch where they play five games in seven nights in five different cities, so if any team is looking ahead to the All-Star break, it’s definitely them.
- San Antonio Spurs (33-19) (Last week’s ranking: 7) – Gregg Popovich is always making decisions that benefit the team over anything else, and that showed once again with the insertion of Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup. In his past four starts, Murray has averaged 13.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. Sure, Tony Parker’s starting streak was sacrificed and the likely future Hall-of-Famer is now relegated to a bench role, but the Spurs are finding ways to win despite not having a healthy Kawhi Leonard at their disposal. As painful as it may have been tor Pop to bench one of his all-time favorite players to coach, he knew Murray would give the Spurs a much-needed jolt, and as always he was right. The Spurs are grinding out victories at an impressive clip, and I don’t foresee it stopping anytime soon.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (30-20) (Last week’s ranking: 8) – It sure is fun to cover the Thunder these days. Not only have they been playing great basketball for a while now, but Paul George has been officially named an All-Star after Pelicans star DeMarcus Cousins was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. It’s quite unfortunate that it took a gruesome injury to Cousins for George to make the All-Star team, but you can’t say that he doesn’t deserve to be there. The Thunder received a tough break over the weekend when it was announced that defensive stalwart Andre Roberson will likely miss the rest of the season with a ruptured left patellar tendon. I find it hard to believe they will win much in the playoffs without him. Russell Westbrook was posterized by Sixers star big man Joel Embiid on Sunday night, but he got the last laugh (as well as a hard stare down of Embiid) when the Thunder pulled out the victory.
- Washington Wizards (27-22) (Last week’s ranking: 9) – The Wizards had an opportunity in the past couple weeks to inch their way up the standings. All the teams ahead of them in the standings hovered around .500 over their last 10 games. Unfortunately, the Wizards 4-6 themselves and actually lost ground as the Heat surpassed them in the standings. John Wall has been a shell of himself to start this season and Washington is going to need him at full strength to beat any of the teams ahead of them. Wall has the third-best net rating on the team behind Otto Porter and (strangely) Ian Mahinmi. Porter has benefitted from playing most of his minutes with Wall and Bradley Beal. That impact underscores how important Wall is for this team even when he is not playing at 100 percent. With Wall at full speed, the Wizards are as dangerous as any team in the conference.
- Miami Heat (29-21) (Last week’s ranking: 10) – As the Celtics fall backward after an incredible start to the season, Coach Erik Spolestra deserves some Coach of the Year buzz for his work in Miami. The Heat play cohesively and with effort every night. Spolestra deserves a lot of credit for getting the most out of his team on offense. Defensively, the Heat are not as talent deficient and it shows in their rank as the second-best defense in the East behind Boston. Coach Spo simply maximizes talent as effectively as any coach not named Stevens or Popovich. The latest case has been Wayne Ellington. Ellington has become a go-to scorer at points in the game. His highlight reel expands as he drains more and more threes. One of the ways that Spolestra has weaponized Ellington is by cutting out the fluff. Ellington shoots over 80 percent of his shots from three now. He shoots it at over 40 percent beyond the arc, which makes him a more efficient scorer. His true shooting percentage is up at 60.7 percent, which puts him in the same ballpark as Chris Paul. By restructuring where Ellington gets his points in the offense, Spolestra has made him a more efficient and effective player.
- Milwaukee Bucks (27-22) (Last week’s ranking: 15) – The Bucks have not lost a game since firing Jason Kidd as coach. It would still be nice to see them upgrade to a bigger name (David Fizdale anyone?) but the word is that Joe Prunty will keep the job for the rest of the season. That continuity might be a good thing and will also ensure the Bucks do their full due diligence in the coaching search. Their decision could define the next decade for the franchise. This could be Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr or it could be Scott Brooks to Billy Donovan. Both franchises were in similar spots prior to coaching changes. In fact, most people would have considered the Thunder as the better spot. Ah, the difference a great coach makes. Now the Thunder languish in the middle of the conference and pray they can keep Paul George this offseason while the Warriors rampage over the league yet again. The Bucks need to make sure they make the right choice or they might watch Giannis Antetokounmpo leave just like Kevin Durant did in Oklahoma City.
- Indiana Pacers (28-23) (Last week’s ranking: 11) – Last week, the possibility of a trade for Kemba Walker was floated by Jason. What other moves could be in the works for the Pacers? Indiana seems uniquely positioned in the East among playoff teams. They are an unfinished sculpture. Unlike the 76ers or Celtics, they do not have the second or third superstar to pair with Victor Oladipo. In many ways, they more closely resemble the lottery teams towards the bottom of the conference. The Pacers are more like the Bulls or Knicks in the sense that they are in the precarious spot of being pretty good while also being young. That intoxicating combination can lead to good things (See: Golden State, Oklahoma City) or bad (See: Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers). They feel like a team punching above its weight, which could ultimately doom them. Could it actually make sense for them to sell at the deadline in the hopes of getting a good draft pick who could become the second star?
- Portland Trail Blazers (27-22) (Last week’s ranking: 12) – The Trail Blazers are one of the teams likely to benefit from the DeMarcus Cousins’ season-ending injury. They currently sit less than five games behind the Spurs for the third seed in the Western Conference and two games ahead of being out of the playoff picture. The Blazers will also benefit from the blockbuster trade that sent Blake Griffin to the Pistons. Now, both the Pelicans and Clippers could both miss the playoffs, leaving a team like the Portland to cash in on the opportunity. They have significantly improved as a team over the past couple of weeks and now their postseason stock has gone up due to reasons beyond their control. Move over, Lob City. It’s now time for Rip City to solidify its position as a playoff team in the West.
- New Orleans Pelicans (27-22) (Last week’s ranking: 13) – In what amounted to be a terrible week for injuries in the NBA, the Pelicans may be the team most directly impacted. All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins suffered a ruptured left Achilles tendon and had to undergo season-ending surgery. It’s a devastating injury for both Cousins and the Pelicans, who were beginning to really click as a team. Cousins is slated to be a free agent after the season, so his injury could alter the organization’s long-term plans. Before the injury, Cousins became just the fifth player in the past 50 seasons to average 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game. Those are MVP-type numbers that will be very hard to replicate. Anthony Davis should be enough to get the Pelicans into the playoffs, but it would have been interesting to see what Davis and Cousins could accomplish as a duo. Instead, Cousins may have already played his last game in a Pelicans uniform.
- Philadelphia 76ers (24-23) (Last week’s ranking: 14) – The 76ers are starting to put some distance between themselves and the ninth-place team in the East. They are now three games up on the Pistons who are plummeting down to earth. Meanwhile, the Knicks are starting to become who we thought they were despite the excellent play of Kristaps Porzingis. Philadelphia in the playoffs would be phenomenal. Joel Embiid might cause a riot. Imagine Markelle Fultz trying to play in a playoff game if regular season basketball has him shook. If the Raptors get the top seed, we could also get Ben Simmons vs. Kyle Lowry part two. Joel Embiid alone is enough reason to root for this frisky Sixers team. While all the above-mentioned players deserve immense credit, do not lose sight of the great coaching job by Brett Brown. He has been superb in mixing and matching lineups. He staggers his stars as well as any coach in the league and has kept the team afloat despite getting nothing from their number one pick and injuries to a number of other key players, including Embiid.
- Denver Nuggets (26-24) (Last week’s ranking: 17) – The Nuggets are that team that nobody can quite read. They aren’t built to contend for a championship, but yet they continue to tread water out West. Jamal Murray has developed into an offensive force this season, solidifying himself as a candidate for the Most Improved Player award. Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee continue to carry Denver’s frontcourt in the absence of Paul Millsap. They may benefit from the fact that there are several teams in the West who are nowhere near contending for a playoff berth. For the first time in several years, there are five or six terrible teams in the conference. Factor in the trade the Clippers just made, and the Nuggets may get the eighth seed by default. The likely prize? A first-round date with the Warriors. Oh, joy!
- Los Angeles Clippers (25-24) (Last week’s ranking: 16) – The Clippers have decided to join the long list of NBA teams who have hit the reset button in recent years. On Monday evening, they decided to trade former franchise cornerstone Blake Griffin to the Pistons in exchange for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, a first-round and a second-round draft pick. This blockbuster trade is a clear indication that the Clippers are blowing it all up and starting over from scratch. Griffin was the guy who put the Clippers on the map. They were stuck in NBA purgatory before they drafted him back in 2009. He was also the reason why Chris Paul elected to be traded to the Clippers several years ago. I largely believe that a trade for All-Star center DeAndre Jordan is coming next, bringing the fascinating era of “Lob City” to a painful end. Expect the Clippers to also deal away shooting guard Lou Williams, who has played like an All-Star for much of this season.
- Utah Jazz (21-28) (Last week’s ranking: 20) – Now that Utah’s main target, Avery Bradley has been traded to the Clippers, the Jazz have their sights set on Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic. If they are able to land him in a reasonable deal for both teams, the Jazz could play their way back into postseason contention. They currently sit just four and a half games behind the Nuggets for the eighth seed, so they are very much in contention with 33 games to go. The Jazz have had way too many injuries to core players this season for them to be considered one of the weaker teams in the NBA. Adding Mirotic to play alongside Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors (if he is not traded to Chicago) would give them a puncher’s chance to make some noise in the West during the second half of the season.
- Detroit Pistons (22-26) (Last week’s ranking: 18) – Blake Griffin is officially a Piston. Now the league will watch as Griffin and Andre Drummond try to coexist. This move was reminiscent of New Orleans’ gamble to pair their two star big men. While neither Drummond or Griffin are on the same level as DeMarcus Cousins or Anthony Davis, they are still legitimate NBA stars, when healthy. The problem that Detroit and Stan Van Gundy now face is putting talent around those two with the massive cap space they assume. Neither player is as good a shooter as Cousins although Griffin might be on the same level as Davis. There may be another move to make for Detroit to add some shooting around those two. A starting lineup that includes Ish Smith, Luke Kennard, and Reggie Bullock or Stanley Johnson is simply not going to get it done. Those are concerns for tomorrow. Today, rejoice Pistons fans.
- New York Knicks (22-28) (Last week’s ranking: 19) – Tim Hardaway is back. Trey Burke has arrived. Kristaps Porzingis wants to make the playoffs. It seems like the Knicks direction is simple but in the words of Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend! Burke and Hardaway help but the primary focus needs to be on developing New York’s younger talent like Frank Ntilikina. Making the playoffs would be a nice confidence boost but it will also mean the Knicks lose the opportunity to get a high draft pick who they can pair with their current core. Moreover, there is no guarantee they will make the playoffs even if they commit to doing so. They are a few games behind the eighth seed and do not have the same talent as the 76ers who sit in eighth currently. Every player wants to win. Porzingis’ desire to see the Knicks win now is nothing new and it is surely shared by Knicks fans everywhere. However, the Knicks need to keep an eye to the future and continue to build so they do not win today but also next season and the season after that. There are countless examples of players asking their teams to make win-now moves that hurt the team’s future only to watch that player leave when they do not win enough or as the consequences of those win-now moves start to appear. New York’s front office needs to stand firm and ensure they are building for tomorrow as well as today.
- Charlotte Hornets (20-29) (Last week’s ranking: 23) – Will Kemba Walker be a Hornet when the trade deadline passes and the dust settles? The smart money is on yes. Michael Jordan backed off from trading him in comments saying he would want an all-star and since then, news has been non-existent. Walker is a great point guard but not a franchise-changing one in the mold of a Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, or Stephen Curry. Subsequently, teams are going to be hesitant to part with too much. The bigger question might be what this has done to the relationship with Walker and the team. Walker is on a bargain contract and if he wants out, the Hornets could be in trouble. If teams around the league are not going to pay top dollar, the Hornets could lose him for pennies on the dollar. This is obviously the motivation behind trading him in the first place (along with removing some of their toxic salaries off the books). For now, nothing is happening in Charlotte or anywhere in the league but keep an eye on the Hornets as they could be the precursor to some other moves.
- Brooklyn Nets (18-32) (Last week’s ranking: 22) – The Nets have lost three in a row and the most intriguing part of the season might be their options at the trade deadline. They are clear sellers and could have pieces that interest contenders. DeMarre Carroll, Joe Harris, and other reclamation projects could yield long-term assets for the Nets. Will GM Sean Marks be willing to part with good veteran leadership in exchange for a few lottery tickets? D’Angelo Russell simply has not looked right since his return. He sat out against the Timberwolves Saturday as a precautionary measure. How long will it take for him to acclimate? Questions swirl in Brooklyn but many of the answers will wait until the trade deadline passes and even more for the offseason.
- Chicago Bulls (18-32) (Last week’s ranking: 21) – The Bulls have officially cooled and it makes them all the more interesting for the impending trade deadline. It is past time to trade Nikola Mirotic. He is a good player with only one more year on his deal. If they are not going to give him long-term money, then they need to get long-term assets before his value erodes. The Bulls need defense. The return of Zach LaVine coupled with the loss of Kris Dunn has exposed Chicago’s holes on defense. The midseason surge was admirable but this was a rebuilding year for the Bulls. It is time for them to refocus on the development of their young core.
- Los Angeles Lakers (19-30) (Last week’s ranking: 26) – After seeing their Staples Center co-habitants deal away their franchise player on Monday, they have to make a move of their own, right? They are the Lakers! They can’t stand there and let the Clippers start a rebuild without launching a full-fledged rebuild of their own. Okay, all jokes aside, the Lakers started their rebuild long before the Clippers decided to blow it all up. The question remains about how active the Lakers should be before the trade deadline. They have a couple of nice pieces to build around in Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, but they also have young players and expiring assets that can be packaged for a superstar if they choose to go that route. I think the Lakers are better off standing pat at the trade deadline, holding on to their assets and seeing if they can finally land a big free agent on the open market this summer.
- Memphis Grizzlies (18-31) (Last week’s ranking: 27) – The Grizzlies are another team who would be better off selling some of their veteran players before the trade deadline. Tyreke Evans is one name that comes to mind almost immediately. He has played well enough this season to make contending teams believe that he will help them in a playoff series. I don’t think he’s worth a first-round draft pick, but teams could offer a combination of young players and second-round picks to the Grizzlies in order to land Evans. Another name to watch is former All-Star center, Marc Gasol. He is undoubtedly loyal to the city of Memphis as well as the organization, but it may be good for him to chase a ring with a contending team during the latter stage of his illustrious NBA career.
- Dallas Mavericks (16-35) (Last week’s ranking: 25) – After showing some life in late December and early January, the Mavericks have not played very well at all. They have lost four-straight games and have only won once since January 10. All that can be said right now is, Dirk Nowitzki deserves better than this. I don’t think he would want to be traded next week, but the Mavericks should at least perform their due diligence and ask him if he would like to be dealt to a contender for one last crack at a second ring. The good news for the Mavs is that they have three winnable games this week against the Suns, Kings, and Clippers. If they win two of those, they can feel a little bit better about themselves heading into the week of the trade deadline.
- Phoenix Suns (17-34) (Last week’s ranking: 24) – It has not been a pretty season for the Suns, who are on a five-game losing streak and are going nowhere fast. They have been passed in the standings by both the Lakers and Grizzlies, which only aides their chances of nabbing a high lottery pick. They did, however, set an NBA record when they hit a three-point shot during the first quarter of Monday’s loss to the Grizzlies. It was their 1,109th consecutive game making at least one three-point field goal, which became the longest such streak in NBA history. The last time the Suns went an entire game without making a three-point show was on March 27, 2004. This is an admirable accomplishment for the organization that has not had much to cheer about in recent years.
- Atlanta Hawks (15-35) (Last week’s ranking: 28) – Atlanta deserves credit for giving playing time to their young guns. They still have a few too many veterans getting minutes but Coach Mike Budenholzer has let guys like undrafted player Isaiah Taylor get some run. The 76ers and Rockets were both able to uncover gems by practicing this strategy. Chandler Parsons and Robert Covington were both players who might not play given their draft status. Likewise, current Hawk Kent Bazemore turned a small opportunity into a big contract. For smart teams, those players can become valuable trade chips. Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn is showing just how valuable an overlooked player on a good contract can be.
- Sacramento Kings (15-34) (Last week’s ranking: 29) – What was Vince Carter thinking when he signed a contract with the Kings this past summer? The now 41-year-old is on his last legs in the NBA and is wasting his last chance to latch on with a title contender. I think it would be so much fun to watch him come off the bench for the Warriors, Rockets or Celtics. Vinsanity deserves a real shot at a championship, but I don’t think he is a candidate to be traded next week. If anything, the Kings could offer the chance to buy him out of his contract so that he can make one last postseason run with a contending team. The player most likely to be dealt next week is point guard George Hill. The Cavaliers are taking a long look at Hill, who could prove to be a valuable player off the bench for them.
- Orlando Magic (14-34) (Last week’s ranking: 30) – It has been a disappointing year for the Magic. The release of Adreian Payne is a cherry on the sundae. To look on the bright side, Aaron Gordon is a foundational piece even if he might not be a superstar. The Magic have some of the framework. Now, they need to find their coach of the future and get perimeter talent who can shoot and defend. That is a lot easier said than done but this year’s draft class should have a few players who can fit what they need. Given the Magic’s previous luck with the lottery, Orlando fans can get excited that they might finally get the superstar to replace Dwight Howard.
Biggest Mover: Milwaukee Bucks (4)
Biggest Flop: Phoenix Suns (3)