Wednesday, February 28 2024

The NBA’s In-Season Tournament has most fans excited — not all, ask Michael Holley — but the three teams at the top of this week’s NBA Power Rankings have all been eliminated from the dance. That’s the fun of a tournament, random things happen.

1. Minnesota Timberwolves (15-4, Last Week No. 2). If the vote were today, Rudy Gobert would win his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award, he looks to be a clear frontrunner. Minnesota has the best defense in the NBA (by a healthy 1.5 points per 100 possessions over the Celtics) and while the team has quality defenders on the perimeter it is Gobert who anchors the entire process (and has shown he can switch out on guards — he is moving better than he did last season). The Timberwolves have won four in a row, including one over the Thunder, and they got the previous couple without Anthony Edwards (hip contusion) but he is due back this week.

2. Boston Celtics (15-5, LW 1). While Boston is still the consensus best team in the East, the dramatic loss to Indiana in Monday’s In-Season Tournament quarterfinal highlighted a legitimate concern with the Celtics when looking ahead to the playoffs — their offense, particularly their crunch time offense, is simplistic. It’s one action followed by a Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown isolation, which works great when the team is hitting 3-pointers but they are one cold streak away from losing (which is part of what happened against the Pacers). They feel a little vulnerable, especially to good teams. Boston plays pretty good teams in the Knicks and Cavaliers this week.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder (13-6, LW 5). Is it time to start thinking about the Thunder as title contenders? They don’t have the scars from the playoffs to get most of us to buy in, but the statistical definition of an elite contender is a team that is top five in offense and defense and only one team in the league meets that criteria right now — OKC. If your counter is, “But a team needs an elite star to win it all,” Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is that guy and looks like a top-three MVP candidate. Last week SGA dropped 32 points (on 22 shots) against the league-leading Minnesota defense, then had 33 against the Lakers‘ top-10 D. It may only be December, but Friday night the Thunder close out their season series against the Warriors (OKC went 2-1 in the first three).

4. Milwaukee Bucks (15-6, LW 4). The Bucks are the betting favorite to win the In-Season Tournament now, having looked dominant in pulling away against the Knicks on Tuesday night (with all due respect to the underdog stories of the Pelicans and Pacers, you know the television executives want Bucks vs. Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. LeBron James). The Bucks deserve to be favorites because of their play in crunch time: Milwaukee is 9-3 in clutch games this season (within five points in the final five minutes) with a league-best +31.9 net rating in those minutes. That’s what Damian Lillard brings to the table. Next up for the Bucks is to face the Pacers at a weird 2 p.m. local time tip-off Thursday in Las Vegas.

5. Orlando Magic (14-6, LW 7). Orlando’s third-ranked defense gets a lot of credit for the team’s fast rise and recent nine-game win streak (which ended in Brooklyn when Orlando was on a back-to-back). However, don’t overlook the step forward Paolo Banchero has taken this season. The man who was the Rookie of the Year last season has become an improved playmaker and more efficient shooter — he’s hitting 44.3% from 3 — and an improved playmaker. The Magic’s offense is just middle of the pack in the league — largely because of the guard play — but Banchero was not only the best rookie but has taken one of the bigger steps forward in key ways as a sophomore.

6. Denver Nuggets (14-7, LW 9). Jamal Murray comes back from his hamstring issue and plays one game before tweaking his ankle and missing more time — yet the Nuggets have found their groove again and won four in a row before a loss in Sacramento (when the Nuggets were on a back-to-back). Murray is expected to return this week (maybe not Wednesday against the Clippers, though), but until he’s back that just means more MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic (29 points, 12.8 rebounds and 9.8 assists a game, he’s averaging a near triple-double). The Nuggets head out on the road for three of their next four.

7. Philadelphia 76ers (12-7, LW 3). Sometimes the best way to make an MVP case is to miss a couple of games — Joel Embiid was out sick against the Pelicans and Celtics and both those teams had no problem putting up more than 120 points against the Sixers. Embiid is scoring at close to the same level as his MVP campaign last season but his playmaking has noticeably improved (and his defense is still elite), it’s far too early to have a serious MVP conversation, but he has to be in the mix. The 76ers lucked out with the two games added when they missed the In-Season Tournament knockout rounds, they got an extra game against the Wizards, plus the up-and-down Hawks. Then they play the Wizards again. Those matchups should have Joel Embiid looking very healthy again.

8. New York Knicks (12-8, LW 8). New York has been one of the best fourth quarter teams in the NBA this season, with a +9.5 net rating in the final frame. They mostly do that with lockdown defense in the final frame (fourth-best fourth quarter defense in the league) and timely offense. The Knicks just grind teams down. The Knicks ground their way into the knockout round of the In-Season Tournament, but that earned them games against the top two teams in the East — the Bucks in the quarterfinals, and with a loss to them a meeting with the Celtics in Boston. Tough break.

9. Miami Heat (11-9, LW 12). Jimmy Butler summed up this season pretty well so far: “We stand right where we don’t want to be, which is very mediocre. Not good, not bad, just mediocre…. You talk about our offense, it’s been mediocre. You talk about our defense, it’s been mediocre.” For the record, the Heat rank 13th in the league in offense and 18th in defense (using Cleaning The Glass’ numbers), which is… well, pretty mediocre. One bright spot has been the play of Duncan Robinson — he is all the way back. It’s not just his shooting 44.7% from 3, he is handling the ball on pick-and-rolls and getting into the paint, and then making plays. It’s good to see for a guy the Heat couldn’t even trade a season ago.

10. Los Angeles Lakers (13-9, LW 15). “I mean, no disrespect to anybody else. He’s the best quarterback in the NBA. And that’s bar none.” That was Darvin Ham talking about LeBron James after LeBron scored or assisted on the Lakers first 19 points of the fourth quarter in their In-Season Tournament win over Phoenix on Tuesday. There are a lot of positives around the Lakers, starting with how much better their defense looks with Jarred Vanderbilt back next to Taurean Prince and Cam Reddish — that’s a lot of length and quality wing defenders for other teams to deal with. However, what was evident from the win was this team still goes as LeBron James goes, and if Los Angeles can get LeBron and Anthony Davis to the postseason healthy they are a threat.

11. Phoenix Suns (12-8, LW 6). It was a playoff-intensity game against the Lakers on Tuesday (the In-Season Tournament is having that effect), and the Suns’ loss points to some playoff concerns for Phoenix. In the fourth quarter the Lakers hunted matchups with Jusuf Nurkic and Grayson Allen and got the win doing so, and while Allen may not see crunch-time minutes when Bradley Beal returns (he’s ramping up and could return in the next 10 days or so) Nurkic is this team’s best center and it was a weak link (in crunch minutes for Portland last season Chauncey Billups would sometimes lean on Drew Eubanks over Nurkic). It’s hard to judge the Suns when we haven’t seen them whole yet, but defense at the five is a concern.

12. New Orleans Pelicans (12-10, LW 16). New Orleans is finally healthy and just how big a threat they are now showed in the win over the Kings to advance to Las Vegas and the semi-finals of the In-Season Tournament. Having Tre Murphy III and CJ McCollum healthy provides floor spacing that lets Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram go to work — Ingram dropped 30 on the Kings and now gets to face his former team the Lakers on a national stage with a trip to the tournament finals on the line. That spacing has opened things up for Zion inside as well as he continues to look more and more like his vintage self. Las Vegas will be like a home game for the Lakers, but the Pelicans just beat the Kings on the road and have a real chance to advance to the IST finals.

13. Indiana Pacers (11-8, LW 17). Tyrese Haliburton picked the perfect time for his first career triple-double — 26 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds — to help the Pacers pull away from the Celtics in front of a raucous home crowd. It can’t be overstated what a historic offensive season Haliburton is having so far, averaging 26.9 points and 11.9 assists while shooting 52.1% — there has never been a 25+, 10+ season with the player shooting better than 50% in NBA history, but Haliburton is on pace to do just that. Indiana and Milwaukee in an up-tempo shootout Thursday is going to be good television.

14. Sacramento Kings (11-8, LW 10). There are a lot of positives for the Kings, who made it to the knockout round of the In-Season Tournament and sit as the No. 6 seed in the West as of this writing. The question is are they really that good — the Kings have a -0.7 net rating, suggesting they should be 9-10 on the season. Sacramento won a lot of close games last season thanks to the clutch play of De’Aaron Fox, but in the end their record almost matched their expected win total based on net rating. Maybe we’ll learn more this week, but it’s a tough go with the Suns, Nets, and Clippers coming up.

15. Cleveland Cavaliers (11-9, LW 13). What needs to happen to spark the Cleveland offense? The Cavaliers have a top-10 defense behind Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen (as was expected), but their offense is 23rd in the league. Their starting five — Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Max Strus, Mobley and Allen — have a 111.5 net rating, which would be bottom 10 in the league, and it often gets worse when the bench gets involved. It’s not one thing, the Cavaliers don’t shoot the ball terribly well, don’t get to the free throw line that much, turn the ball over a little too often and are not strong on the offensive glass (they rank no higher than 18th in the NBA in any of those categories, via Cleaning the Glass). Donovan Mitchell is putting up numbers (27.1 points a game) but if the offense continues to struggle and the Cavaliers continue to look pedestrian, the rumors about the free agent to be will start to fly.

16. Brooklyn Nets (10-9, LW 19). The Nets have won 4-of-5 and done it with inspired play on both ends — a 125 offensive rating and a top-10 defense over that stretch gives them a +13.6 net rating over those five. The Nets have done that without Ben Simmons, who remains out (he got an epidural shot in his back and will miss a couple more weeks), but they did get Cam Thomas back and he walked in the door gunning again (46 points combined in his first two games). The Nets have six of their next seven on the road, where they are 3-4 this season.

17. Dallas Mavericks (11-8, LW 11). This ranking may be too low for Dallas, but it has a 0.1 net rating on the season, suggesting Luka Doncic and company are more of a .500 team than a No. 5 seed in the West. The Mavericks are capable of insane Luka-led runs, like the 30-0 run against the Thunder this week, but Dallas also lost that game and they are now 4-5 on the season against teams over .500 (they are 7-3 against teams below that mark). Dallas will get a chance to improve their ranking and that net rating with their next three games against teams below .500 (Utah, Portland, Memphis).

18. Los Angeles Clippers (9-10, LW 21). The Clippers’ win over the Warriors last Saturday was a good change of pace for this team — they won a clutch game. For most of the season Los Angeles has struggled in close games, going 3-8 in clutch games (within five points in the final five minutes) and having a net rating of -16.9 net rating in those minutes. Paul George‘s jumper broke that trend, and the Clippers have won 6-of-9 and may be moving in the right direction (it just doesn’t feel stable with them yet).

19. Houston Rockets (8-9, LW 14). At about a quarter of the way through the season and Ime Udoka has to be in the early mix for Coach of the Year. He has got the Rockets playing top-five defense, their point differential suggests this team should be more like 10-7, and they will be in the mix for at least the play-in. Alperen Şengün also would have to be in consideration for Most Improved Player with his fast start to the season, averaging 21 points and 9.2 rebounds a night, with the Rockets offense often flowing through him. What’s holding the Rockets back is they are 0-8 on the road this season, but only one of their next four is away from home (at Denver on Friday, a tough draw).

20. Golden State Warriors (9-11, LW 20). High on the list of things concerning about these Warriors is they can’t hold a lead. We saw that over the weekend against the Clippers, we saw it the week before against the Kings. The Warriors have a -6.6 net rating in the fourth quarter and have lost six games this season where they led heading into the fourth. Put more bluntly, what was one of the best closers and clutch teams in the league simply isn’t right now. Stephen Curry remains elite, but the man needs some help. Things don’t get easier this week with games at the Thunder and Suns.

21. Atlanta Hawks (9-10, LW 18). With Trae Young running the show and quality players around him like Dejounte Murray, one would think the Hawks would be a good clutch team. One would be wrong. Atlanta is 4-6 in clutch games this season (within five points in the final five minutes) with a -16 net rating. Combine that with the team’s 5-9 record against teams over .500 and the Hawks more like a play-in team than the top-six squad they expected to be. There is plenty of time to turn that around, but things will not get easier with their schedule the next couple of weeks, including the 76ers and Nuggets this week.

22. Toronto Raptors (9-11, LW 22). There’s talent on the roster (that other teams covet), Scottie Barnes has cooled off from his hot start but still feels like he’s taken a step forward, yet the team is below .500 with a -1.8 net rating (via Cleaning the Glass). Who are the Raptors? Dennis Schroder made it sound like even they don’t know saying on Tuesday, “The next 20 games are going to show who we really are. The next 20 games are going to be really important to the team.” Those 20 games take the team through mid-January, and if this team is still hanging around .500 then the trade deadline is going to get very interesting.

23. Trail Blazers (6-13, LW 25). Scoot Henderson is still trying to find his way as a rookie. In the five games since he returned from injury he’s averaging 9.6 points per game on 34% shooting overall, plus 3.8 assists a game, all of it coming off the bench. The Timberwolves are close to getting Anfernee Simons back as well, meaning their young and athletic backcourt can begin to mold something together. Portland has played better of late, having won 3-of-5, and for the season they have the 12th ranked defense in the league. There are positives in a rebuilding season.

24. Charlotte Hornets (6-12, LW 24). Terry Rosier has stepped up, averaging 23.3 points a game in his last four, since a return from injury, including dropping 37 on the Nets in a Charlotte win (without LaMelo Ball). The Hornet also has gotten a boost from Miles Bridges, who is averaging 20.5 points a game since his return from suspension (what happens with him next summer as a free agent will be interesting to watch). None of that can cover up the Hornets’ defense, which is dead last in the league (121.4 defensive rating), which has to be making defense-first head coach Steve Clifford nauseous.

25. Chicago Bulls (7-14, LW 26). Zach Levine has missed the last two games (sore foot) and the Bulls have their first two-game winning streak of the season (over good teams in the Bucks and Pelicans). LaVine is expected to miss the next couple of games as well, and these look winnable against the Hornets and Spurs. Chicago could help its chances of winning by playing better in the first half, the Bulls have a league-worst -12.7 net rating in the first half of games, but that improves to +0.1 in the second half of games (essentially playing teams even, but that’s a lot better than the first 24 minutes).

26. Utah Jazz (7-13, LW 23). It’s tough to turn a slow start to the season around with Lauri Markkanen out, he’s already missed five games with a hamstring injury (he will be re-evaluated laster this week and could return soon after). There are teams wondering if the Jazz will make Markkanen available at the trade deadline. Jordan Clarkson also has been out the last couple of games, adding to the challenges. It’s not going to be easy to turn things around against the Mavericks, Clippers and Thunder this week.

27. Memphis Grizzlies (5-14, LW 28). Memphis had its first two-game winning streak last week, beating Utah and Dallas, and how much that matters depends on how you look at it. Grizzlies fans looking for a positive will note those were the first two games Derrick Rose started this season (and they lost when he was out the next game against Phoenix). The pessimist would point out those wins came when Utah was without Markkanen and Dallas was without Doncic. Ja Morant has six more games left in his suspension.

28. Washington Wizards (3-16, LW 27). Kyle Kuzma summed Washington’s season up well after a recent loss: “We can’t guard a stop sign. That’s kind of really what it boils down to. We let anybody get whatever they want on us. So, until we change that, then that’s probably going to be the result.” The Wizards have the 29th-ranked defense in the league, which leads to this record and ranking. Things do not get easier this week with two games against the 76ers.

29. San Antonio Spurs (3-16, LW 29). It’s easy to understand the idea that this season was about letting Victor Wembanyama see where he fits in the NBA and what he can do — have him bring the ball up, post up, face up, get out in transition, all of it. Let him explore, see what works. But all the losing in doing so is not good for the team culture. The Bulls have lost 14 straight and are two games away from tying the franchise record for longest losing streak. To snap that they have to beat the Timberwolves on Wednesday or the Bulls on Friday.

30. Detroit Pistons (2-18, LW 30). The last time Detroit won a game it was a few days before Halloween. The losing streak is up to 17 games, but the best chance to snap it for a while may come Wednesday night against the also-struggling Grizzlies (and it’s a Pistons home game). Bojan Bogdanovic returned on Saturday and that has led to Monty Williams shuffling lineups and throwing a lot of stuff against the wall to see what sticks. So far nothing, but the Pistons can’t keep losing forever. Right?

Source: Yahoo Sports

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