NBA power rankings: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers stay hot
Giannis Antetokounmpo will likely snag his second MVP award in June, but is there any player you’d want in a playoff series over LeBron James? The King bullied Giannis and the Bucks in a 113-103 victory on Friday, then led the Lakers past the Clippers on Sunday. James remains the game’s ultimate chess piece, dictating every possession with ease. He’s a force in the post and a menace in transition. James is arguably the league’s best passer. His three-point range grows by the month. When the playoffs roll around, it’s best not to bet against the three-time Finals MVP. James will certainly be in good position to snag his fourth ring this summer.
With just over a month left in the regular season, let’s dive into The Crossover’s power rankings with notes on all 30 teams.
30. Warriors – What a delight it is to have Steph Curry back on the floor. The Warriors lost to the Raptors on March 5 in Curry’s return, and they could very well limp their way through the season’s final month. But watching Curry dart around screens and launch 30-footers is thrilling regardless of the personnel around him. Let’s hope to see at least one or two Curry eruptions before the end of the regular season.
29. Cavaliers – It’s been a largely encouraging 2019-20 for Collin Sexton despite the Cavaliers’ dysfunction, and the Alabama product has been heating up of late. Sexton is shooting 48.7% from the field since the calendar turned to 2020, and he’s topped 25 points six times in his last nine games. It looks like Cleveland hit on the pick it refused to trade in LeBron’s last season with the team.
28. Knicks – R.J. Barrett has battled bouts of serious inconsistency as a rookie, but the Duke product’s performance against the Rockets on March 2 deserves some serious props. Barrett tallied a career-high 27 points in a win over Houston, sealing the victory with a layup in the final seconds. Don’t throw in the towel on the Barrett era anytime soon. A potential All-Star still lingers amid a rough season in New York.
27. Timberwolves – We’ll continue to hold our judgement on whether the Timberwolves made a prudent move by acquiring D’Angelo Russell, but Malik Beasley has certainly been impressive since arriving in Minnesota. The former Nuggets swingman is averaging 22 points per game with the Timberwolves, shooting 49.5% from the field and 42.7% from three. Beasley is more of a complimentary piece than a building block, though that shouldn’t dampen our praise. The Florida State product should be a quality contributor for years to come.
26. Pistons – Christian Wood will certainly register as a rags-to-riches story in July. The forward will be a free agent this summer, one year after getting claimed by the Pistons off waivers. And how has Wood performed in his lone year with Detroit? Pretty darn well. The 24-year-old is averaging 20.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game since Feb. 1, and he’s combined for 59 points in his last two appearances. After trading away Andre Drummond, the Pistons may be inclined to pay up for Wood this summer.
25. Bulls – We’ll give Lauri Markkanen a partial pass for his 1-10 effort against the Pacers on Friday as the Finnish forward has logged just two games since returning from a pelvis injury on March 4. Still, Markkanen has taken a serious step back in year three, stunting the development of what was assumed to be one of East’s most promising young players. Markkanen’s shooting numbers have fallen across the board. He still needs to be more aggressive initiating offense. 2020-21 will be a crucial season for the former No. 7 pick.
24. Hawks – It’s hard to look more downtrodden than Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce after Atlanta’s 127-88 loss to the Grizzlies on March 2. Pierce pinned Atlanta’s blowout loss and a lack of defensive effort, an issue that has seemed to plague the Hawks throughout 2019-20. Atlanta ranks No. 28 in defensive rating. Only the Hornets rebound a lower percentage of opponents misses. Perhaps Clint Capela will change the narrative next season, but it’s very possible Piece receives a similar amount of headaches in 2020-21.
23. Wizards – Perhaps talk will prove cheap in the coming seasons, but good on Bradley Beal for stating his commitment to the Wizards. It’s been a frustrating last two seasons in Washington, but perhaps better days are ahead. Rui Hachimura has shown promise as a rookie, and another high draft pick should arrive in June. Beal and John Wall returning to the playoffs in 2020-21 would be a nice story.
22. Hornets – The Hornets are lottery bound once again, yet James Borrego continues to impress after his three-year graduate program in San Antonio. Charlotte’s youngsters are developing nicely, and Borrego dialed up a dynamic box-and-one to contain James Harden in a win over the Rockets on Saturday. Let’s hope Michael Jordan and Co. are patient with Charlotte’s development in 2020-21.
21. Spurs – Welcome to San Antonio, Luka Samanic. The No. 19 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft made his NBA debut on Friday, and while he went 0-4 from the field, Gregg Popovich would be prudent to give the young Croatian at least some cursory minutes over the next month. As the Spurs fade from playoff contention, the youngsters should continue to see increased playoff time.
20. Suns – My goodness, Aron Baynes. Phoenix’s center poured in 37 points in a win over the Blazers on March 6, adding 16 rebounds and nine (!) threes. We knew Baynes had some stretch from beyond the arc. But not like this. The Australian center will break the bank in free agency July.
19. Trail Blazers – It may be too little too late for Jusuf Nurkic to help guide the Blazers to the playoffs, though his presence will be greatly appreciated in place of Hassan Whiteside next season. Nurkic led Portland in net rating last season. He finished in the top 12 in blocks and rebounds per game last season. Adding a potential All-Star center is no small thing as Portland looks to reassert itself as a playoff stalwart.
18. Kings – This may not be the most popular take, but good for Alex Len for bringing some physicality to the young Kings. As the talented Kings search for some interior prowess amid its collection of impressive guards and wings, a true behemoth like Len could lend a helping hand. And it seems like Luke Walton also approves.
“I think that’s Alex’s second scuffle already, what you would call a fight in today’s NBA,” Walton said after the Kings beat the Blazers. “We love it. We don’t want any fights, we don’t want anyone to ever get hurt, but we need to play with an edge. The only way you play with an edge is to have guys with that in their makeup.”
17. Nets – Regardless of the circumstance of Kenny Atkinson’s departure from Brooklyn, it’s hard not to feel bad for the former Nets’ head coach. Atkinson grew the Nets from a laughingstock to a playoff team, earning a reputation as one of the game’s best player development coaches. Whoever snags Atkinson next (hello, Knicks?) will be receiving an impressive leader.
16. Magic – Aaron Gordon giveth and Aaron Gordon taketh away. There are some nights (like Sunday’s blowout in Houston) in which Gordon looks like an All-NBA talent, darting into the lane as one of the league’s premier transition forces. Yet those performances are too few and far between. Perhaps it’s a matter of circumstance, but it still feels as though Gordon has yet to reach his potential.
15. Pelicans – I think we can ditch whatever concern surrounded Jrue Holiday early in the season. The Pelicans point guard is averaging 18.6 points and 7.5 assists per game since returning from a seven-game absence in January, and Holiday is shooting 38.1% from three in his last 20 games. And Holiday is peaking at the right time, too. Holiday torched the Timberwolves for 37 points, nine rebounds and eight assists on Sunday, keeping the Pelicans alive in the Western Conference playoff race. New Orleans’ future appears brighter by the week.
14. Grizzlies – And now, an appreciation of Jonas Valanciunas, walking bucket. Sure, the former Raptors center can be a sieve defensively, and he plays like a relic of a bygone era. Whatever. Valanciunas’ package of post moves is a delight, and he unleashed plenty of shakes and dips in a 27-point, 17-rebound effort against the Hawks on March 7. Let Jonas eat.
13. Pacers – The Pacers just can’t quit Lance Stephenson. The former LeBron stopper (kidding!) is apparently coming back to Indianapolis, and the potential signing is a worthwhile move for a team that could use an extra backcourt body. The Pacers are hitting their stride at the right time. Perhaps Stephenson can add fuel to the simmering fire.
12. 76ers – Need a silver lining for Philadelphia? Perhaps Al Horford is finding his rhythm. The former Celtics big man has been a disappointment this season, but he posted an outrageous +41 against the Kings on March 5, then tallied a 22-point double-double against Golden State. The Sixers will need this version of Horford to stay alive past the first round of the Eastern Conference standings.
11. Mavericks – Are we sure Luka Doncic isn’t Benjamin Button? The Mavericks’ superstar plays with a wisdom beyond his years, always seeming to make the right play in crunch time. Dallas’ win over the Pelicans on March 5 was yet another example. Doncic torched New Orleans down the stretch, sealing the victory with trio of fantastic plays in the final minute. Doncic’s first taste of the playoffs will come this season. His first MVP isn’t that far away.
10. Thunder – Chris Paul and the Thunder continue to be among the season’s best stories. Oklahoma City exits the weekend now No. 5 in the Western Conference, defeating the Celtics in Boston on Sunday behind 28 points and seven assists from CP3. The Thunder obviously aren’t title contenders, but make no mistake: nobody wants to face OKC in April.
9. Heat – I don’t think we’re fully appreciating Duncan Robinson’s superb 2019-20. The second-year forward is shooting 44.9% from three this season, and he’s on pace to become the third player in NBA history to hit 300-plus threes in a season. The other two members of the 300 club? James Harden and Steph Curry. Not exactly bad company for Robinson.
8. Jazz – The Jazz are in the midst of a strong stretch, winning their last five games after defeating the Pistons on Saturday. And perhaps the Jazz are beginning to find their defensive stride. They held the Celtics to 94 points on March 6, and their defense held firm down the stretch in Detroit. Quin Snyder’s squad still feels one playmaker short of Finals contention. But Utah is creeping back toward the elite defense we expected entering 2019-20.
7. Nuggets – Is there a more confusing contender than the Nuggets. Denver blew out Toronto on March 1, then dropped games against the Warriors and Cavaliers last week. It’s not quite effort that’s plaguing the Nuggets, but there is an evident malaise as we roll through March. Perhaps Nikola Jokic will assert himself throughout the postseason, but it’s hard to see the Nuggets sustaining strong play for three rounds to reach the Finals.
6. Rockets – Um, can someone check on the Rockets? Houston is in absolute free fall since winning in Boston to close February, losing four straight after a blowout defeat against the Magic on Sunday. The Rockets effort is seriously lacking. James Harden is in the midst of a dismal shooting slump. Houston’s claim as a true Western Conference contender looks increasingly dubious.
5. Celtics – What exactly was Kemba Walker thinking on the Celtics’ penultimate possession against the Thunder on Sunday? Walker received an inbounds pass and immediately began dribbling back toward his own basket, and he then turned right into a double team from Dennis Schroder. The Celtics are just 5–5 in their last ten, and Walker’s blunder marked their second straight loss. A matchup with the Bucks next week will provide a major test as we approach the postseason.
4. Raptors – Norman Powell continues to shine since returning from a hand injury, ripping off five straight 20-point performances. The addition of Powell gives Nick Nurse another active body in his impressively-deep rotation, especially on the wing. As the Raptors eye the Eastern Conference crown, their depth may be their best asset.
3. Clippers – The Clippers couldn’t contain LeBron James and the Lakers on Sunday, but they should be encouraged by Paul George’s performance. Kawhi Leonard’s sidekick tallied 31 points on 16 shots at the Staples Center, continuing to find his rhythm amid a shaky 2019-20. The Clippers will be far more formidable for James and Co. if George is at the peak of his powers in May.
2. Lakers – It’s hard to receive significant praise when coaching a LeBron James team, but Frank Vogel should be lauded for his effort in year one in Los Angeles. The Lakers have revitalized a slew of careers in 2019-20, turning Avery Bradley, Dwight Howard and Avery Bradley into quality rotation players. Managing egos is difficult with any NBA team. Vogel has been masterful guiding the Lakers’ collection of big-name players.
1. Bucks – We spent plenty of time atop this column praising LeBron James, but let’s not go overboard with the MVP race. Giannis Antetokounmpo remains a sizable favorite with a month to play, and rightfully so. The Bucks will likely finish 2019-20 with the league’s best records. Antetokounmpo is averaging nearly a point per minute. Giannis will take home his second straight MVP in June as long as he doesn’t miss significant time due to his knee injury.