Tennen’s NBA power rankings: Midseason report card

 

My first power rankings were brought to you on Thanksgiving. Following those were my NBA Christmas power rankings. Now I present to you my official midseason power rankings.

This is a point in time where we are a little (or a lot) more knowledgeable about who teams really are, or their true identities. In this edition of my power rankings, I lay out my regular 30-to-one format.

However, I give each team its own grade (A to E). A super talented team with a lower-than-expected grade would still likely be higher than an average team that’s exceeding expectations.

 

30. Knicks (11-31): Regardless of how much they disappoint their fan base year after year, the Knicks are probably never going to decline in home game attendance. The bad news for everyone surrounding the organization is that the upcoming free agent class is one of the least enticing it’s been in years. Look, there is a fine line between signing the likes of Kevin Durant and continuing on a crash course. It’s clear the Knicks aren’t simply going to attract free agents just by being in New York. Plus, they now have intrastate competition in the Nets. There are too many questions here to cover. The one to summarize it best though would be: what the heck is going on?

Grade: E

 

29. Warriors (9-34): Recall what got the Warriors this far, being champions in three of the last five years, in the first place. That would be building through the draft and, most importantly, nothing other than “patience” supplemented by superior scouting. Patience in this business means not rushing the process, but rather trusting the process and following through with a strict plan. Stephen Curry will be 32 years old at the start of next season and we can only hope he will provide us with the same MVP level of basketball we’ve seen the past seven years or so. D’Angelo Russell is a very good player but he’s also an asset who could give Golden State a worthy return.

Grade: D

 

28. Hawks (10-32): It’s been a rocky road for the Hawks this season as they have had to keep their head high through two separate ten-game losing streaks. To be fair, this likely wouldn’t have happened if not for John Collins missing 26 games. Collins wasn’t injured though and he’s picked back up right where he left off last season averaging 20.7 points and 11.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. The Hawks aren’t quite the worst defensive team in the league but they are below average and Trae Young often seems to garner much of the blame. Defense isn’t his strong suit but defense is also a team game. Therefore, others need to step up on that end.

Grade: D

 

27. Cavaliers (12-30): After a forgettable first month of his rookie season, fifth pick Darius Garland has elevated his play in a major way. The sharpshooting guard averages 15.7 points and 6.1 assists through nine games in the new year. Garland and second-year guard Collin Sexton both seem just as willing as one another to handle the ball but also play off the ball at times. The Cavs have been actively shopping Kevin Love but it’s hard for outsiders to gauge his actual market among general managers because he does not have the most team-friendly contract and he also has a significant amount of injury history.

Grade: C

 

26. Hornets (15-29): As long as he stays healthy for the majority of games remaining, sophomore standout Devonte Graham is on an island of his own in what some thought would be an entertaining race for Most Improved Player. Graham was virtually a complete non-factor in his rookie year and possibly gave former franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker some heated battles in practice. Terry Rozier was the Hornets’ prized free agent signing and somebody the team hoped would replace Walker. He and Graham have made that a combined effort though as both average in the 18-point-per-game ballpark.

Grade: B

 

25. Kings (15-26): Last season was an indication that the Kings were finally moving in the right direction with a promising young backcourt in De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield. Power forward Marvin Bagley figured to see an uptick in minutes this year but a foot injury has prevented that from happening as he’s averaging just 24 minutes per game in only 11 appearances. The Kings brought in some new veteran faces with Trevor Ariza and Cory Joseph added to the mix. It’s been center Richaun Holmes though that has been an eye-opener in Sacramento averaging career-highs of 66 percent shooting along with 13.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks.

Grade: D

 

24. Wizards (13-28): The Wizards are 8-15 when facing teams under .500 which proves they have fared relatively the same against stronger teams. There’s no single explanation for that but I can tell you they are a full-blown offensive-minded team and tend to turn on the jets when they need to; that would be when facing other high-powered offensive teams. Washington D.C. is point guard Ish Smith’s 11th stop in ten years and his fast-paced style of play fits the team’s offensive regime. All-Star Bradley Beal has risen his scoring (27.2) and assist (6.4) numbers for the second consecutive year as the front office is adamant that he’s part of its future plans.

Grade: D

 

23. Timberwolves (15-26): Karl-Anthony Towns’ 15-game absence marks the longest of his five-year career as he has been known as an extremely durable big man. Andrew Wiggins (27.1 PPG in November) was generating a lot of buzz through the first 20 games or so but that has dwindled down since as the Timberwolves have been an afterthought in the midst of the Western Conference. Minnesota was rumored to have strong links to D’Angelo Russell in free agency and those rumors haven’t gone anywhere. The Wolves reportedly remain heavily invested in Russell’s trade market as they seem committed to trying to shake up the roster.

Grade: C

 

22. Pistons (15-27): The Pistons have dealt with the injury bug all season long. Reggie Jackson has appeared in only two games, Luke Kennard has missed 14 games and counting, and Blake Griffin just underwent potential season-ending surgery. Derrick Rose has been one of the team’s healthier players and he seriously looks like his old MVP-winning self in a handful of games. He is shooting remarkably well from the field at almost 50 percent (highest of his career) while also recording flashback numbers of 25.2 points per 36 minutes. Rose and rebounding machine Andre Drummond have kept the uncertainty-riddled Pistons afloat.

Grade: C

 

21. Suns (17-24): The Suns are unconvincingly hanging around in the race for eighth seed in the West. To be honest though, Golden State is the only team that is 100 percent not making the playoffs. Even with first overall pick in the 2018 draft Deandre Ayton missing more than 30 games, the Suns have showed enough finesse to have reasonable aspirations for breaking their long playoff drought. They have fared unusually better in away games yet crafty point guard Ricky Rubio has performed drastically better at home (39% 3PT compared to 27% 3PT on the road). Rubio appears to have found a new home in Phoenix.

Grade: B

 

20. Bulls (15-28): The Bulls’ season in a nutshell has been somewhat indescribable because of all the ups and downs they go through. Zach LaVine is proving to be one of the league’s more prolific scorers at 24.6 points per game. He is also shooting the three-ball with more accuracy at exactly 40 percent. Hear me out though: the Bulls have beat an over-.500 team only once and that was the Clippers without Kawhi Leonard or Lou Williams. In addition to that, the Bulls have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the Eastern Conference. A foot injury has sidelined Otto Porter since the beginning of November. The Bulls need an aggressive Porter once he returns.

Grade: C

 

19. Pelicans (16-26): The Pelicans’ record can’t speak for this but injuries to key players hasn’t stunted their growth in the least bit. Highly-anticipated generational athlete Zion Williamson is nearing an NBA debut. The Pelicans have also won four of six games without Jrue Holiday. Lonzo Ball, who’s averaging almost 37 minutes in 11 games starting on Christmas, seems to have finally broken out of his shell and hopefully will be able to keep in tip-top shape. Brandon Ingram (40.6% 3PT, 25.8 PTS) has been the lead story here though showcasing the Kevin Durant-esque scoring ability we heard about coming into the league in 2016.

Grade: C

 

18. Nets (18-22): Coach Kenny Atkinson has started Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie together in the three games since Irving returned from a shoulder injury that kept him out nearly two months. Dinwiddie (career-best 22.1 PTS, 6.5 AST) put the team on his back during that time and has slowly but surely gained notoriety as a legitimate All-Star candidate in the Eastern Conference. Dinwiddie has come a long way from being a second round pick to somebody that barely held a roster spot earlier in his career. Irving, however, clearly prefers being the primary ball-handler and that’s an area in which the two will have to make sacrifices.

Grade: C

 

17. Spurs (17-23): This is the first time in three whole decades we’ve said this but the Spurs have actually middled out as a mediocre team and nothing more. With DeMar DeRozan now being 30 years old and LaMarcus Aldridge definitively past his prime, this organization really needed its young guard duo in Dejounte Murray and Derrick White to pick up some of the slack. That hasn’t happened though as pretty much everyone outside of DeRozan has settled in as hot-and-cold role players. As long as DeRozan (7.7 estimated wins added) sticks around, seventh seed is very doable for a Spurs team with an average opponent winning percentage of about .500 in its remaining games.

Grade: C

 

16. Magic (20-22): Here’s a story line that probably didn’t come to your mind: if the Magic makes a significant trade this February, that would mark the third consecutive season of the team doing so. It was the Magic that took a chance on the 2017 draft’s first overall selection Markelle Fultz and all it had to give up was a top-20 protected pick for the upcoming draft. Now we skip ahead to 2020 and Fultz just recorded his second career triple-double (21 PTS, 11 REB, 10 AST) and he didn’t even suit up last season after being traded. Combo forward Jonathan Isaac is out indefinitely with a knee injury. However, he isn’t one of the players the team is looking to move on from.

Grade: C

 

15. Grizzlies (20-22): Taylor Jenkins is Memphis’ fourth coach in seven years and we can only hope he’s here to stay. The grit n’ grind era is no more as the Grizzlies’ success is no longer predicated on getting defensive stops. That’s okay though because this is a team that nobody had competing for the playoffs. However, Jenkins has got excellent production out of both of his rookies, second pick Ja Morant and 21st pick Brandon Clarke. Morant (21.7 PTS, 8.4 AST per 36 minutes) has already established himself as a certified game-changer, shooting a highly impressive 49.4 percent as a point guard that’s well-balanced between creating for himself and creating for others.

Grade: A

 

14. Trail Blazers (18-25): For the fifth consecutive year, Damian Lillard is averaging at least 25 points while C.J. McCollum is averaging at least 20 points. You would think not much has changed. The unfortunate reality of it, however, is that a lot has changed in a short period time. Rip City rewarded its fans with a rare conference finals appearance last postseason. That was accomplished without center Jusuf Nurkic, who will have missed about a year once he returns in the next month or so. Rodney Hood was a key piece they added for last year’s playoff run and he now is out for the season. They brought in Carmelo Anthony and he’s been the solid veteran they need him to be but that only does so much.

Grade: C

 

13. Thunder (23-19): Oklahoma City is known as a bottom five market in the league and that should really be the case without Russell Westbrook. It turns out this team is not far off last year’s pace, when not Westbrook, but Paul George had an MVP-caliber season for OKC. 34-year-old Chris Paul might not have been asked to fill the shoes of Westbrook. That being said, he’s done so to a certain extent. We know he isn’t nearly the same athlete and doesn’t take command of the stat sheet like Westbrook. He’s operated in a different light being just fourth on the team in shot attempts (12.1 per game) behind Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder and Danilo Gallinari.

Grade: A

 

12. Pacers (27-15): Coach Nate McMillan and the rest of the team personnel have built a culture that’s become unbreakable. We can see that by the determination the Pacers show with their All-Star Victor Oladipo missing an extended amount of time. In addition to that, losing Bojan Bogdanovic, an integral part of last year’s success, was no easy task to move on without (despite Malcolm Brogdon). Domantas Sabonis was a ferocious sixth man last year and now he’s made even more of a name for himself as a starter that the offense runs through. Sabonis (55.6 2P%) is one of six players averaging 13 rebounds per game and he brings far more value than that as he’s also a lethal mid-range shooter.

Grade: A

 

11. 76ers (27-16): There are five teams in the East, including the Sixers, that are five games apart from each other from second to sixth seed. The Sixers are stiff competition at Wells Fargo Arena where they have gone 20-2 (the same as Milwaukee and worse than only Miami). That isn’t enough though to warrant a top 10 ranking, in my opinion at least. This is a team that most people expect to eventually separate itself from other teams, maybe not record-wise but in some unique way. Ben Simmons has been a household name ever since coming out of LSU in 2016. Without Joel Embiid the last five games, Simmons has averaged 18.8 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Can the two coexist?

Grade: B

 

10. Mavericks (27-15): I’ve been taking an “I need to see it to believe it” approach with the Mavs for basically the whole year. Well, I’ve seen it alright and I’ve seen a whole lot to be enthralled by. Luka Doncic (28.7 PTS, 9.7 REB, 9.0 AST) isn’t even 21 years old yet but his IQ  and awareness of the game are immeasurable. Without looking at the television ratings, it’s obvious that this is a team that’s kept people’s eyes glued to the screen. You look at someone like Doncic and see he’s not always beating guys with blazing speed off the dribble. His moves are just so fluid and he beats great defense with better offense. The Mavs are wisely being cautious with his running mate Kristaps Porzingis.

Grade: A

 

9. Rockets (26-14): We know the Rockets rely on a large portion of isolation ball and it’s hard to imagine that changing for the better or the worse. James Harden (first in NBA in value added at 439.3) and Russell Westbrook take more than 50 percent of the team’s shot attempts. On paper, that actually doesn’t seem like that much as one might perhaps think it was a greater percentage just by watching them play on a regular basis. It all adds up though because Harden’s one-on-one execution often creates glaring opportunities for his teammates. Last year, the Rockets attempted almost seven more threes than the next team and this year that’s dropped to just over three.

Grade: B

 

8. Celtics (27-13): Injuries, injuries, injuries. It’s a topic you can speak about for any team. This Celtics team has had a few short-term injuries here and there, but for the most part, has been relatively healthy. Gordon Hayward is not quite 30 years old and he’s come a surprisingly long way from his horrific season-opening leg injury in 2017. Hayward is shooting a career-best 51.6 percent and is attempting about four more shots than he did last year. I bring up injuries because the Celtics especially utilize a collective team effort with several players that can go off any given night.

Grade: B

 

7. Raptors (27-14): The Raptors won six of the 11 games that Pascal Siakam (39.0% 3PT, 24.2 PTS) missed. The defending champions are hungry for more. See the article I wrote on them earlier this month.

Grade: A

 

6. Clippers (29-13): The revitalized Clippers were perhaps a more popular pick than the Lakers to clinch first seed as well as the NBA finals. They have been a pleasant sight to see but have yet to go into full throttle with Patrick Beverley missing eight games, Kawhi Leonard missing 10 games, Paul George missing 16 games and Landry Shamet missing 17 games. Some say Beverley, George and Leonard is the strongest trio of defenders ever on one team and the Clippers rank just outside the top five in defensive efficiency despite missing those guys sporadically for significant periods of time. Note that their average opponent winning percentage is .485 in their remaining games.

Grade: B

 

5. Heat (29-12): Miami’s relevance has been well spelled out this season and it’s damn sure been no fluke. The Heat might have the deepest rotation in the league and All-Star Jimmy Butler has been the leader he was criticized for not being the last couple years. Erik Spoelstra has this squad attacking opponents from all angles but outside shooting has most notably been an area it’s thrived in with the league’s top shooting efficiency and second in three-point percentage. We knew about the Heat having a strong reputation for its valiant defensive effort. However, this is a well-oiled machine with guys like Bam Adebayo (15.9 PTS, 10.4 REB, 4.6 AST) coming into their own.

Grade: A

 

4. Nuggets (29-12): Nikola Jokic’s player efficiency rating (24.30) and usage rate (27.6) are both slightly down from last year. That shouldn’t mean anything whatsoever and it actually might be better as a whole because the Nuggets have proven they are just as effective without him orchestrating every single possession. As fantastic as he is as a distributor, Jokic is also important to account for when moving off the ball by setting screens and opening up the floor. Not too long ago, this was a team that simply needed to mature more with age but now they have learned how to finish close games with nine wins with a five point margin or less.

Grade: A

 

3. Jazz (28-13): The Jazz just ended a ten-game winning streak with an overtime loss in New Orleans. It has also only lost three games since losing at home to the Lakers at the beginning of December. All of this has been done without new point guard Mike Conley, who has yet to adapt to the system here in Utah. Rudy Gobert has become a constant every year. We know if he’s out there then he’s going to play the role of the bully as the man in the middle and it’s going to make opponents think twice about driving the lane. Donovan Mitchell (85.3 FT%, 46.0 FG%) is in his third year but already a staple of the franchise as he trails only Chris Paul with 91 total points in the clutch.

Grade: A

 

2. Lakers (33-8): If I’m going to be honest with you, I’ll say the name of the game for the rest of this season is to keep Anthony Davis as fresh as possible for the playoffs. This team has won over 80 percent of its games through exactly half of the season but I don’t necessarily think replicating that is its number one goal in these last 41 games. I’m sure some of it (or all of it) has to do with playing alongside LeBron James but Dwight Howard’s (career-high 72.3 FG%) presence down-low has worked wonders. He is just outside the top ten in rebounding rate. That’s something we already knew he would bring to the table but his overall impact has also been adequate.

Grade: A

 

1. Bucks (37-6): The resurgent Bucks are on pace to well surpass their 60-win total from last season but there’s no need to stress that. This year, they hope to be less, if at all, vulnerable when April comes around. You could make an argument for a very select few players being up there with Giannis Antetokounmpo (league-best 33.26 PER) in the MVP race but I wouldn’t be one to back you up on that. Greek Freak has another borderline star-caliber player in Khris Middleton but this is not a team to mistake for having a “big three” or anything like that. Every player on the roster shines in his own way and it all starts with Antetokounmpo’s unselfishness. Greek Freak for back-to-back MVP!

Grade: A

Blog at WordPress.com.