With the Memphis Grizzlies scoring a major win over the L.A. Clippers this past week and a few teams, including the Oklahoma City Thunder, enduring an early-season losing streak, the top half of this week’s NBA Power Rankings have a fair amount of movement.
Every Friday afternoon, Basketball Insiders drops our weekly power rankings. How is your favorite team stacking up against the competition?
30. Philadelphia 76ers (Overall: 2-10, Last Week: 30)
Judging by the way the Timberwolves pummeled the Sixers on Thursday night, we’ll go ahead and guess that TNT is going to opt out of putting Philly on national TV. In all fairness, though, these guys scored a nice win over the Wizards on Wednesday, even without Joel Embiid.
29. New Orleans Pelicans (Overall: 2-10, Last Week: 29)
It certainly didn’t take long for Anthony Davis to miss a game. We’re hopeful that he’ll quickly recover from the ailing back and quad contusion that caused him to miss Wednesday’s 89-82 loss at the Magic. And we sure hope he manages to play at least 70 games this season.
28. Dallas Mavericks (Overall: 2-8, Last Week: 28)
The Mavs got Deron Williams back for Wednesday’s contest at the Celtics, but it wasn’t enough. After losing to the Knicks on Monday night, they’re just 1-3 on their five-game trip and can’t wait for Dirk Nowitzki to return. The bright side? Harrison Barnes and the 27.6 points per game he’s averaging over the last five.
27. Phoenix Suns (Overall: 3-9, Last Week: 23)
Brandon Knight dropped 32 off the bench on Wednesday night in Denver, but it wasn’t enough for a win. Meanwhile, the biggest bright spot for Phoenix these days is Devin Booker. The 20-year-old is averaging 20.4 points per game and remains our favorite for the Most Improved Player award.
26. Washington Wizards (Overall: 3-8, Last Week: 25)
The 119-112 win that the Wizards scored over the Knicks stopped a three-game skid that included a Wednesday night loss to the lowly Sixers. The good news is that Otto Porter is coming into his own, but until Bradley Beal can stay on the floor, this team will remain a cellar-dweller.
25. Miami Heat (Overall: 3-8, Last Week: 26)
The six-game losing streak ended with Thursday’s 96-73 win over the Bucks, but it was Hassan Whiteside’s 19-point, 25-rebound line against Dwight Howard’s Hawks that caught our attention this past week. The Heat lost, 90-93, but certainly not because of Whiteside.
24. Sacramento Kings (Overall: 4-8, Last Week: 20)
The good news is that the Kings have four more games left on their five-game home stand. The bad news? They’re hosting the Clippers, Raptors, Thunder and Rockets. The current three-game skid could easily reach seven.
23. Minnesota Timberwolves (Overall: 4-7, Last Week: 27)
It’s safe to say that Karl-Anthony Towns got the best of Joel Embiid in their head-to-head matchup on Thursday night. Towns had 25 and 10 and also gave us this. Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins scored 33.3 points per game over the past week.
22. Brooklyn Nets (Overall: 4-7, Last Week: 21)
The five-game road trip concludes with Friday’s visit to the Thunder and they’re 1-3. Sean Kilpatrick and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have each had their fair share of high moments, but without Jeremy Lin, the Nets will be hard-pressed to win consistently.
21. Denver Nuggets (Overall: 4-7, Last Week: 24)
We said something similar last week, but it merits mention: the Nuggets have nine players averaging at least 8.5 points per game, and they are being led by the capable Danilo Gallinari (17.1 points).
20. Orlando Magic (Overall: 5-7, Last Week: 22)
You couldn’t help but to feel good for Serge Ibaka, who sank the game winner to score a W at the Thunder on Sunday. Wednesday’s win followed Monday’s loss to the Pacers, so we’ll look at the glass as half-full and say the Magic won two of their last three (even if the Pelicans didn’t have Anthony Davis).
19. Milwaukee Bucks (Overall: 5-6, Last Week: 16)
After beginning the season 4-2, the Bucks have since gone just 1-4. We thought they had a legitimate shot of returning at the playoffs, but they’re still inconsistent. Khris Middleton looks pretty irreplaceable at the moment, though his absence isn’t the cause of all their problems.
18. New York Knicks (Overall: 5-7, Last Week: 18)
Just when the Knicks seem to turn a corner (as they did in Wednesday night’s fiery win over the Pistons), they play down to the competition. Derrick Rose was the lone bright spot in Thursday’s 119-112 loss to the Wizards, but the Knicks trailed by 25 and never seriously threatened.
17. Indiana Pacers (Overall: 6-6, Last Week: 17)
We were expecting the Pacers to be much better than a .500 team after 12 games, but we can’t be surprised considering they’re giving up about 107 points per game. The worst part? We can’t even feel too good about Wednesday’s win over the Cavs considering LeBron James didn’t play. But we do like that four starters scored double-figures.
16. Detroit Pistons (Overall: 6-6, Last Week: 14)
A four-game home stand begins on Saturday, and the Pistons hope that they can make as much good noise as their head coach has since the presidential election. We admire Stan Van Gundy’s courage and candor. It’s part of what makes him an effective head coach.
15. Boston Celtics (Overall: 6-5, Last Week: 19)
The Celts have underwhelmed thus far, but until Al Horford is good to go, they’ll probably struggle to beat some of the better teams. As long as Isaiah Thomas is playing brilliantly, though (he’s averaging 27.2 points per game), all hope isn’t lost.
14. Portland Trail Blazers (Overall: 7-6, Last Week: 12)
Thursday night’s 126-109 loss at the Rockets began a five-game road trip for the Blazers. Just one game over .500, they need to go 3-2, but what’ll make it tough is that all five games occur in seven nights. The saving grace? They’ll see the Pelicans, Nets and Knicks before finishing at the Cavs on Wednesday.
13. Utah Jazz (Overall: 7-6, Last Week: 11)
Despite back-to-back losses to the Grizz and Bulls, the Jazz have most of the league talking—in a good way. Aside from their impressive depth and Trey Lyles appearing to figure things out, their 93.2 points allowed per game is tops in the league. They are tied with the Blazers for the eighth-best record out West.
12. Memphis Grizzlies (Overall: 6-5, Last Week: 15)
The only thing better than the Grizz rolling into Staples Center and handing the Clips just their second loss of the season on Wednesday night was the fact that Marc Gasol hit four three-pointers, including the game-clincher. Mike Conley pulled his weight, too. Maybe there’s still juice left in the old legs, after all.
11. Chicago Bulls (Overall: 8-4, Last Week: 13)
The only thing better than a four-game win streak and winning the first two games of a six-game road trip would be that the Bulls will get to spend a few nights in Los Angeles, as they’ll battle the Clips and Lakers before heading to Denver. Thursday night’s 85-77 win over the Jazz showed they can grind out a tough W. Our faith is temporarily restored.
10. Houston Rockets (Overall: 7-5, Last Week: 07)
James Harden turned in his third triple-double of the season in Thursday’s 126-109 win over the Blazers. His 26, 12 and 14 were miraculous, but the Rockets have also been getting good production from Eric Gordon, who’s averaging 16 points per game. After going 2-2 the past week, things could be better, but could also be worse.
9. Los Angeles Lakers (Overall: 7-5, Last Week: 10)
The Lakers haven’t been two games over .500 since March 2013! D’Angelo Russell looks like a stud, Julius Randle is playing efficiently and Nick Young is playing solid man defense. Is Luke Walton our Coach of the Year so far? Maybe. And it’ll become “definitely” if they can win two of their four games over the next week. They’ve got the Spurs, Bulls, Thunder and Warriors.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder (Overall: 7-5, Last Week: 05)
The four-game losing streak ended in glorious fashion, as the Thunder toppled the visiting Rockets on Wednesday. Westbrook’s 30, seven and nine was great, but Victor Oladipo’s 29, 10 and five (on just 18 shot attempts) was more noteworthy. If he can produce like that, they’ll remain our favorites to win the division.
7. Charlotte Hornets (Overall: 7-3, Last Week: 09)
The back-to-back losses they endured over the past week are forgivable considering they came at the hands of the Raptors and Cavs. Even still, these guys are 4-1 on the road and rank fifth in defensive efficiency – hallmarks of a good team.
6. Toronto Raptors (Overall: 7-4, Last Week: 04)
We can’t be too mad about back-to-back losses when they come at the hands of the Cavs and Warriors, but if the Raptors come back after their upcoming five-game road trip with less than three wins, the Celtics and Knicks (yes, the Knicks!) may be breathing down their necks.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers (Overall: 9-2, Last Week: 02)
Wednesday’s game at the Pacers was the third game in four nights, so we can understand LeBron taking the night off. The Cavs are head and shoulders above every other team in the East, so the only concern we have is whether King James can continue to play about 77 games per season, even as he turns 32 years old next month.
4. San Antonio Spurs (Overall: 9-3, Last Week: 08)
In Wednesday’s 110-105 win over the Kings (their fourth straight), Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol combined for 65 points. Even better? These guys are allowing just about 97 points per game, which is third-best in the league. With three very winnable games over the next week, we’re expecting a few more Ws.
3. Atlanta Hawks (Overall: 9-2, Last Week: 06)
Winners of six straight, the Hawks had to make do without Dwight Howard on Wednesday night, but they managed to outlast the Bucks, anyway. The quad contusion doesn’t sound serious, but his 15 points, 12 rebounds and 23.54 PER will be sorely missed if he’s out long. Pun intended. The Clips and Cavs lost while the Hawks continue to surge.
2. Golden State Warriors (Overall: 9-2, Last Week: 03)
Klay Thompson has scored 15 points or less in five of their first 11 games and is only hitting 31 percent of his shots from distance, but the Dubs seem to be figuring things out. The four-game trip got off to a good start with Wednesday’s 127-121 win at the Raptors. Winners of five straight, they are somehow flying under the radar.
1. Los Angeles Clippers (Overall: 10-2, Last Week: 01)
The Clips might be the top defensive team in the league, but they had major trouble guarding the three in Wednesday night’s home loss to the Grizz, who shot 15-for-26 from distance. They showed poise down the stretch, even if they still complain too much about the officiating. The Hawks are nipping at their heels, but the top defense and best record help them retain their status as the Association’s top dog.
What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 4
What did we learn about the Eastern Conference this week? Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
It’s not even a month into the NBA season, but the 2020-21 Eastern Conference has already looked super competitive, with 14 teams within six games of each other. There’s bound to be some separation in the coming weeks, don’t expect any team to go down easy.
But which have paced the East? Who’s flopped? Let’s take a look.
The New Look Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the newly acquired James Harden recently played their first game together against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The back-and-forth game ended in a double-overtime, 147-135 Nets loss. The three of them had plenty of time on the court together and divvied up the scoring; Durant scored 38 points on 25 shots in 50 minutes; Irving 37 points on 28 shots in 37 minutes; and Harden 21 points on 14 shots in 51 minutes.
But, outside of the box score, what did we learn about this team from their first performance?
You never want to jump to conclusions, but it’s easy to see that their offense could be dominant. When those three were on the court together, Harden served as the de facto point guard while Irving and Durant took their turns in isolation situations. Of course, in such an iso-based offense, there wasn’t much player movement beyond the trio, but they are so good at taking their own man off the dribble they can always get a good shot. What should make them even harder to guard is the fact that they’re all prolific three-point shooters; two can space at the three point line, while the other can use that extra space to either score themselves or collapse the defense and kick it outside.
Of course, there’s some work to be done. Harden and Irving combined for nine of the team’s 16 turnovers, while each of the three took their fair share of shots maybe just a bit too early in the shot clock. Defensively, Brooklyn is a major work-in-progress. Their closing lineup of Harden, Durant, Irving, Jeff Green and Joe Harris would appear to be solid but doesn’t offer much in terms of switchability and consistent rim protection. Beyond that, there isn’t much to be excited about.
Depth could also be an issue. They recently added Norvel Pelle to compete with two-way rookie Reggie Perry for backup center minutes. The team may have to look into an addition on the wing, too; while they currently roster Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the three are young and, so far this season, have proven inconsistent at best. A veteran that could provide some bench stability should be the priority.
Kendrick Nunn is Emerging for the Miami HEAT
In recent days, Kendrick Nunn has played his best basketball in nearly a year.
The 2020 Rookie of the Year runner-up, Nunn struggled in the Orlando Bubble last season as he saw a continually diminished role in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals. He started this season on a similar note, as he averaged only 5.5 points and played in just six of the HEAT’s first 12 games.
But, with Jimmy Butler and other key players dealing with injury, Nunn has seen a resurgence. In Miami’s last six games, not only has he played heavy minutes, but Nunn has flourished to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shot 37.8 percent from three and 50 percent from the floor.
Of course, there’s the question of the competition. Nunn’s success has come against the Nets aforementioned suspect defense, as well as the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily to start the year. Still, the spark he’s shown should help him maintain a role going forward, even after Butler and the rest return to the court.
If he can maintain hold down a role, or at least a bit of that spark, Nunn could prove a massive boon for Miami, whose offense has been pretty mediocre in the early going.
The Indiana Pacers Injury Woes
Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers’ 2020-21 season has seen a terrific start. Through 12 games, Indiana is 8-4 and have played a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball.
That said, they’ve had to deal with a lot on the injury front. After they netted Caris LeVert in the four-team blockbuster that sent Harden to Brooklyn, a mass was found on one of LeVert’s kidneys and he has since been ruled out indefinitely.
Myles Turner, meanwhile, just returned from a two-game absence due to an avulsion fracture in his right hand. In his absence, the Pacers’ defense just didn’t look the same, giving up 129 and 124 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The team started the season without Jeremy Lamb and has since lost T.J. Warren to a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for most of the season as well.
No team can lose two starters and expect to continue playing at the same level. If they can’t get healthy, expect it to play a major role in their standing and playoff position at the end of the season.
It will be interesting to watch the East over the next month to see which teams can separate themselves. Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.
Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player
Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.
The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.
But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.
Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112 – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.
Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.
What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.
First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.
But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.
However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.
It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.
While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.
It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.
So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.
Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.
“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”
But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.
Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?
Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.
But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.
The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in 2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!
Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.
It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.
The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.
NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans
Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.
Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.
But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.
In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.
Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.
Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.
That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.
So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.
When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?
That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.
Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.
While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.
He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.
That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.
The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.
In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.
The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.
Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.
Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.