Welcome to the third installment of the 2019-20 Yahoo Sports NBA Power Rankings. I will highlight four teams that fascinate me on a biweekly basis, diving deeper on their success or lack thereof. This is where I remind you that these are subjective and everyone overvalues their favorite team. Feel free to forget everything I just said and get irrationally upset about your team being two spots too low in a ranking that has no bearing on the outcome of its next game.
1. Los Angeles Clippers (13-5)
2. Los Angeles Lakers (15-2)
3. Boston Celtics (12-4)
4. Milwaukee Bucks (14-3)
Superstar partnerships are all the rage, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is going it alone. Fine by him. The 24-year-old reigning MVP’s game continues to evolve. (How is it possible Giannis only turns 25 next week?) His averages of 31.1 points, 13.9 rebounds and 6.4 assists are all career highs by a sizable margin, and his three-point shot is up to 30 percent on almost five attempts per game, enough to make his 10 nightly trips to the rim that much easier. Did I mention he shoots 78 percent in the restricted area?
What is most impressive is Antetokounmpo’s footwork. On top of everything else — the size, the skill, the speed, the stride, the strength, the spirit and the astonishing athleticism — he gets one step on his defender and takes another through two more as if he were directing them in stop motion animation. He is as unstoppable a downhill force as there is, and he is not even fully weaponized yet. Bump that jumper up a few notches, and he is the real-life version of a build-a-player with every attribute set to 99.
When I say Antetokounmpo is going it alone, I don’t mean the Bucks are without talent. They just lack anyone else who strikes fear into a team when push comes to shove. Khris Middleton comes as close as they got, and his absence has only reinforced the issue. Eric Bledsoe is maybe the most talented player who nobody fears. Brook Lopez is not shooting anywhere close to what he did from distance last year, and Milwaukee doesn’t use him for much else. Wesley Matthews is fine, albeit well past his prime.
I like some of the young wings they bring off the bench, especially Pat Connaughton. Donte DiVincenzo has shown flashes. D.J. Wilson seems to have fallen out of coach Mike Budenholzer’s favor after making strides last season. They just really miss Malcolm Brogdon, who reminds them how much every time he takes the court for the Indiana Pacers. Without another star, the Bucks need as many plus players as possible to balance the floor, and I am not sure they have enough to get Giannis where he wants to go.
Yet, the Bucks are atop the Eastern Conference, winners of eight in a row and 12 of their last 13. They have benefited from a light schedule, made lighter by the absence of Rudy Gobert on Monday, when Milwaukee needed a 50-14-6 line from Antetokounmpo to squeeze out a four-point win at home against the Utah Jazz. Giannis is carrying a monumental load offensively, and he has the defense still operating at a top-five level after leading the league last season, but they just look softer around the edges.
So, when I say this is fine by Antetokounmpo, I mean this season. He is capable of carrying the Bucks to extraordinary heights, and he will be the best player in every East playoff series. But — and I know we harp on this — how long will he want to bear that burden alone in the duo era? Barring their ability to turn one or more of those less fearsome supporting actors into another leading man, the Bucks will ask everything of Giannis through the end of his current contract. The good news is he may give it to them.
5. Denver Nuggets (13-3)
6. Utah Jazz (11-6)
7. Toronto Raptors (12-4)
8. Philadelphia 76ers (11-6)
9. Dallas Mavericks (11-6)
10. Houston Rockets (11-6)
As long as we are comparing superstars to video-game characters, we might as well celebrate James Harden as a cheat code. He uses every glitch in the modern game to his benefit. Harden is attempting 14 three-pointers and 14 free throws per game, and the rest of his ridiculous 37.9 points per game come once he has frozen his defender with a series of dizzying crossovers and opened up a portal to the rim.
This is historic stuff, and Harden has a way of making it look easy. He also has a way of feeding into the criticism of his approach. He recently said that nobody has ever been double-teamed the way he has upon setting up the offense, a ridiculous claim that was somewhat taken out of context, but one more complaint to throw on a pile that also includes blaming the media for falling just short of an MVP repeat.
I get that it can be frustrating to feel like your greatness is not being properly recognized, but he is also throwing chum to those who feel that his style of play sucks excitement out of the game and has yet to translate to the playoffs. That is probably unfair, too, but not everyone sees the game as Harden does.
Also, you are going to get double-teamed when you are awesome.
Houston’s halfcourt offense is built around Harden breaking dudes down off the dribble. If he is doubled, his outlet is Russell Westbrook, arguably the most electric player you could imagine attacking a 4-on-3 advantage from the top of the key. This is a dream scenario for Houston: Westbrook runs, Harden guns.
Only, opposing defenses are far more comfortable making Westbrook beat them, because he continues to be a model of inefficiency. His true shooting percentage has dipped below 50 percent for the first time since he became an All-Star, and he is still attempting 20 shots per game. His usage rate has stayed at superstar levels, but Harden’s excellence turns him into more of a role player. With Eric Gordon nursing a knee injury, Houston has increasingly relied on Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore and Thabo Sefolosha on the wings, and that also makes defenses more comfortable doubling Harden and packing the paint.
This puts an incredible onus on Harden, who has proven equal to the task, at least offensively. It is just one more glitch to figure out, and we can be sure he will let us know whenever he finds the cheat code.
11. Miami Heat (12-4)
12. Indiana Pacers (10-6)
13. Brooklyn Nets (9-8)
14. Phoenix Suns (8-8)
15. Minnesota Timberwolves (9-8)
16. Orlando Magic (6-10)
17. Sacramento Kings (7-9)
18. Oklahoma City Thunder (6-10)
19. San Antonio Spurs (6-12)
Never say die to the Spurs, but they look as close to mortal as we have seen them since they tanked for Tim Duncan. It still looks like Gregg Popovich’s brand of basketball, only everyone seems a step slower.
They are playing faster overall, thanks to Dejounte Murray’s propensity for pushing the ball, but all too often their offense comes to a crawl, with LaMarcus Aldridge backing defenders down in the high post, drawing a second defender and passing for another midrange shot. The ball just looks like it has less zip, and maybe that contrast between young and old on this team is made more stark by their record.
Aldridge is still a midrange monster, as is DeMar DeRozan, but San Antonio’s already slim margin for error relying on jump shooters in the three-point era is razor-thin when everything else is not as sharp.
Aldridge’s defense has slipped. DeRozan has regressed as a playmaker after averaging a career-high 6.2 assists last season. Murray’s effort is there, but his timing has not returned since the ACL surgery, and he is not having the breakout season many expected. Nor is Derrick White, who has been slowed by a bruised glute and has not looked the same since struggling with Team USA at the FIBA World Cup. Rudy Gay is still doing Rudy Gay things, but he plays older than his 33 years. Jakob Poeltl is nothing special. And the downgrade from Davis Bertans to would-be Marcus Morris to Trey Lyles is palpable.
There is reason for optimism, even beyond the fact that Popovich has never missed the playoffs in any full season as head coach. Opponents are shooting at a blistering pace at the rim (65.8 percent), in the midrange (44.8 percent) and above the break (38.1 percent) against a Spurs defense designed to force bad shots. Meanwhile, a Spurs team that has prided itself on creating open shots is not making them. Movement towards the mean on both ends might help them get on the right side of the margin again.
20. New Orleans Pelicans (6-11)
21. Portland Trail Blazers (6-12)
22. Washington Wizards (5-10)
23. Chicago Bulls (6-12)
24. Cleveland Cavaliers (5-12)
25. Memphis Grizzlies (5-11)
I found it notable that The Athletic’s John Hollinger, who in September left his post as vice president of basketball operations of the Grizzlies after seven seasons, wrote in his always informative notebook this week, “In Memphis, the Grizzlies aren’t trying to win this year and have the scoring margin to prove it.”
That may be true in one sense. The Grizz finally embraced a rebuild after saying goodbye to the last vestiges of the Grit ‘n’ Grind era, trading Marc Gasol to Toronto at the deadline and Mike Conley to Utah at the draft. Those two may have helped Memphis win more games this season, but at 34 and 32 years old, respectively, they were no longer going to help the Grizzlies win enough to justify their salaries.
But those who remain are very much still grinding. The Grizzlies are already reaping the benefits of two brutal campaigns. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant are incredible consolation prizes for missing out on the opportunity to take Luka Doncic and/or Zion Williamson. And they leveraged one of the picks they got in return for Conley into Brandon Clarke, who looks to be a third worthy building block. Also, throw 2017 second-round find Dillon Brooks into that mix as a young 3-and D wing who gives great effort. (I also like what I’ve seen in spurts from Marko Guduric, a 24-year-old undrafted free agent out of Serbia.)
Jackson and Clarke both have solid instincts and touch from the basket to the arc. That frontcourt of the future is an ideal complement to Morant, a dynamic point guard who attacks with fearless aggression, almost to a fault. His ceiling, with some added bulk, is something like Russell Westbrook with range.
For a team with little chance of luring top free agents, the Grizzlies have done well to surround that core with crafty and hardworking veterans who are willing mentors. They added Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder in the Gasol and Conley deals, and signed Kyle Anderson in 2018. In addition to still being helpful players, they all bring experience from well-run franchises in Toronto, Boston and San Antonio.
Which brings us to Taylor Jenkins, the first-year head coach who built his reputation in player development at the helm of the Spurs’ G League outfit, the Austin Toros, before serving as an assistant under Mike Budenholzer for the past seven years in Atlanta and Milwaukee. Jenkins is raising this roster in a proven system with lots of movement on offense and sharp rotations defensively. The losses may still pile up while Morant and company grow into their NBA primes, but it has not been for a lack of effort.
26. Charlotte Hornets (6-12)
27. Detroit Pistons (6-11)
28. Atlanta Hawks (4-13)
29. New York Knicks (4-13)
30. Golden State Warriors (3-15)
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