Once a season, Marc Stein provides a more detailed assessment of the N.B.A.’s 1-to-30 landscape than the standings do.
The funky basketball calendar in use this season has thrown everyone off in the N.B.A. That includes writers unaccustomed to covering a regular season broken into halves, with the All-Star Game and trade deadline in March and a postseason that doesn’t begin until mid-May.
Running my once-a-season N.B.A. Power Rankings in January made little sense this season, when opening night fell on Dec. 22. So we pushed our annual team-by-team progress report closer to playoff time — with the goal, as always, to present a more detailed assessment of the league’s 1-to-30 landscape than the standings do, measuring what is happening in the present against each team’s big-picture outlook.
The rash of injuries sustained by so many high-profile players, particularly on teams expected to compete for a championship, complicated evaluations for the Committee (of One), as it was named at its inception entering the 2002-3 season. Yet there was one clear choice for the committee: The Utah Jazz had to be ranked No. 1.
For all the valid questions about its playoff credentials, and how Donovan Mitchell will bounce back from a significant right ankle sprain, Utah has earned that status through its unerring solidity in a season that, because of the pandemic challenges, has made consistency such a scarce commodity.
Statistics were current through Saturday’s games.
1. Utah Jazz
Golden State’s Steve Kerr warned people in January that Utah was “where we were three or four years ago.” Utah has duly held the N.B.A.’s best record for more than 80 consecutive days since Feb. 2, and is the only team that ranks in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Jazz are optimistic Donovan Mitchell’s recent ankle injury was not as severe as it looked, but they also know they can’t truly hush skeptics until they perform in the playoffs more like Golden State.
2. Phoenix Suns
The Suns quickly progressed from last season’s darlings in the Walt Disney World bubble to a full-fledged fascination. They are rarely mentioned as a championship contender because the team, which hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade, is virtually bereft of postseason experience beyond Chris Paul and Jae Crowder. But after Paul landed in the backcourt alongside Devin Booker, Phoenix is a tidy 34-9 since its 8-8 start and has been healthier than any other team in our top 10.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers are the healthier of the two title contenders in Tinseltown — barely. Kawhi Leonard (foot) and Paul George (toe) have been in and out of the lineup, Serge Ibaka (back) has been sidelined since mid-March, and then there’s the team’s psyche. Even during a 17-3 surge, skepticism persists about how this group will respond to postseason adversity. Last summer’s second-round collapse against Denver in the bubble was that gnarly.
As if the Nets weren’t sufficiently fascinating with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, they traded for James Harden in January to lean into chasing a championship with little regard for defense. Yet recurring injury woes for Harden and Durant mean they will also be trying to win it all without continuity, as those two have played alongside Irving in only seven games. Some comfort for Nets fans: This team is 26-8 when only two of its three stars play.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons’s offensive struggles since the All-Star break are easier to stomach when Joel Embiid is mounting a serious push to win the Most Valuable Player Award. A 2-1 record this season against the Nets, good for the tiebreaker over them in the race for the East’s No. 1 seed, doesn’t hurt, either. The Sixers’ case to be labeled East favorites, however, is weakened by their own health concerns: Embiid has missed 19 games, Simmons 12.
6. Milwaukee Bucks
The Committee has said often that persuading Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign a five-year, $228 million contract extension was on par with winning a championship for the small-market Bucks. They likewise improved their chances of winning the actual championship by acquiring Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker to flank Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. The problem: Without the No. 1 seed that it earned the previous two seasons, Milwaukee might have to beat the Nets and Philadelphia just to reach the N.B.A. finals.
7. Denver Nuggets
One of the worst aspects of Jamal Murray’s tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee is that it didn’t just severely dent the Nuggets’ title hopes this season. Because the N.B.A. intends to return to its usual October-to-June schedule, Murray could miss most of next season, too. It’s such a dispiriting blow after the Nuggets, buoyed by Nikola Jokic’s ascension to M.V.P. favorite, had just made a go-for-it trade to acquire Orlando’s Aaron Gordon before losing Murray.
8. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers’ ceiling is simply too high with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the lineup to drop them out of the top 10. It has also been so long since we’ve seen the reigning champions’ twin pillars healthy that it’s hard, for the moment, to put them any higher. Not until Davis (who missed 30 games with Achilles’ tendon and calf issues) and James (out since March 20 with a high ankle sprain) show us they’ve truly healed.
Nine consecutive wins have led to an unexpected top-10 berth for the Knicks, who finished in the bottom 10 in defensive rating for four successive seasons before Tom Thibodeau’s hiring as coach. With the relentless Thibodeau getting maximum effort from an unremarkable roster, the Knicks are ensconced as a top-five defensive team. Factor in the significant improvements made by the newly minted All-Star Julius Randle and, more recently, RJ Barrett, and you have the recipe for just the Knicks’ fourth winning season in the 21st century.
10. Boston Celtics
An 8-3 surge helped the Celtics shed their status as the most disappointing team in the league and rejoin the hunt for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Jayson Tatum has bounced back strongly from having Covid-19, though he said he has had to use an inhaler before games for the first time in his life. Also: Jaylen Brown continues to have a breakout season, Kemba Walker looks more like himself lately after persistent knee trouble and Danny Ainge, Boston’s under-fire team president, upgraded the roster with Evan Fournier and Jabari Parker, albeit after striking out on bigger targets.
11. Atlanta Hawks
Putting Nate McMillan in charge has made such a difference that he may actually snag some votes for the Coach of the Year Award without coaching the whole season. Since McMillan replaced Lloyd Pierce on March 1, Atlanta is 19-7, with a finally healthy Bogdan Bogdanovic (21.5 points per game in April) and Clint Capela (38 double-doubles this season) emerging as key contributors who prevent the opposition from loading up on Trae Young. Capela merits much more support than he’s getting to be named defensive player of the year.
12. Dallas Mavericks
The good news: The Mavericks have one of the league’s easiest remaining schedules, according to Tankathon. The troubling news: They appear to need the help, judging by disturbing home losses to the Knicks and the Kings right after Luka Doncic stole a game against the Grizzlies with a stunning 3-point fling at the buzzer. Despite Doncic’s usual dominance, Kristaps Porzingis has missed 20 of 59 games and Dallas squandered repeated opportunities to capitalize on Portland’s recent funk before finally swiping the West’s No. 6 seed.
13. Miami Heat
For all the understandable focus on the Lakers’ injury woes and the challenges posed by the shortest off-season in N.B.A. history, Miami has been coping with the same problems since losing to Los Angeles in last season’s finals. A steady stream of their own roster disruptions and struggles for various members of the Heat’s supporting cast might have already cost them the opportunity to seize the East’s up-for-grabs No. 4 seed now that teams around them are heating up.
14. Golden State Warriors
He tends to resist such compliments because he believes there’s always another gear to hit, but Stephen Curry is playing the most spectacular basketball of his life at age 33. He’s averaging 38.2 points per game in April and should get the short-handed Warriors to the play-in tournament, even though he is routinely enveloped by the thickest of defensive swarms with Klay Thompson still sidelined.
15. Memphis Grizzlies
In a loaded West, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the Grizzlies fail to match last season’s ninth-place finish. A defiant Ja Morant, helped by a resurgent Jonas Valanciunas and under-the-radar coaching savvy from Taylor Jenkins, has kept Memphis in the playoff hunt. Jaren Jackson Jr., widely regarded as Memphis’s second-best player before injuring his knee at the end of last season, only just returned to the lineup last week.
16. Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets are Knicks Southeast, meaning they’re the other feel-good story in the Eastern Conference — with much less fanfare compared with what’s happening in Gotham. After initial fears that he might miss the rest of the season, LaMelo Ball is nearing a return from a broken wrist that should cement him as the league’s rookie of the year. Gordon Hayward, when healthy, has lived up to his four-year, $120 million contract. And Coach James Borrego has held this team together through its numerous injuries.
17. Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers survived the extended injury absences of Jusuf Nurkic (10 weeks) and CJ McCollum (eight weeks), largely thanks to frequent offensive detonations from Damian Lillard. But a recent slide has put Portland at risk to land in the playoff play-in round — just like last season — after a lengthy stay in the West’s top six. Defenses are swarming Lillard with greater success as the season wears on, while Portland’s porous defense has dipped to a lowly 29th.
18. San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich, who turned 72 in January, is getting the most out of a team that wasn’t expected to do much — to no one’s surprise. DeMar DeRozan has expanded his game, as a playmaker and leader, to supplement San Antonio’s top-10 defense. No team, though, faced a more unenviable second-half schedule, with the Spurs required to play 40 games in 67 days after they were hit by a coronavirus outbreak in February.
19. Washington Wizards
Bradley Beal’s insistence on staying with Washington and delaying potential trade conversations until the off-season is making more and more sense. Russell Westbrook’s recent renaissance (13 triple-doubles in his past 15 games) and improved team defense have established surging Washington as a likely qualifier for a playoff play-in spot. None of that seemed plausible during the team’s 3-8 start and subsequent coronavirus woes.
20. Toronto Raptors
A list of teams most disrupted by the coronavirus must include Washington, Miami, Boston, Memphis and Dallas — and it must be topped by Toronto. The Raptors have spent this entire season in Tampa, Fla., with several players and coaches sidelined by health and safety protocols, and appear increasingly unlikely to avoid a trip to the draft lottery just two years removed from a championship run.
21. Indiana Pacers
Few teams illustrate the wacky nature of this pandemic season and a leaguewide erosion of home-court advantage better than the Pacers. They are an unsightly 11-17 at home, yet have clung to a spot in the East’s top 10 with a 17-14 road record. The challenge now is hanging on for three more weeks to advance to the play-in round after losing the imposing Myles Turner, who leads the league in blocked shots, to a toe injury. The All-Star forward Domantas Sabonis (back) is also ailing.
22. New Orleans Pelicans
In Year 2, Zion Williamson made his first All-Star Game, established himself as a ridiculously efficient offensive force and more than met the lofty expectations he generated coming out of Duke. Trouble is, for all the damage Williamson does inside overpowering opponents and shooting 61.8 percent from the field, New Orleans is fading out of contention for the West’s final play-in spot. Stan Van Gundy’s hiring as coach hasn’t had the desired impact.
23. Chicago Bulls
Bulls fans eager to see a big swing from the new front-office regime led by Arturas Karnisovas finally got one at the trade deadline when Chicago acquired the All-Star center Nikola Vucevic to team with Zach LaVine. Ending the fans’ wait for a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016-17, when the Bulls still had Jimmy Butler, is proving to be trickier. Even with the productive Vucevic, Chicago is a shaky 6-11 since the trade and facing questions about the timing it chose to make a win-now trade.
24. Sacramento Kings
Two nine-game losing streaks have overshadowed the productive play De’Aaron Fox has delivered since signing a $163 million contract extension in November, setting up the Kings to miss the playoffs for a hard-to-believe 15th consecutive season. More than half of that depressing drought will belong to Vivek Ranadive, who is in his eighth season as the Kings’ owner.
25. Oklahoma City Thunder
You have to go back to the Thunder’s maiden season in Oklahoma City in 2007-8 for the last time they had a losing streak as long as their current 13-gamer. Check back in July, after the draft lottery, if you wish to see the Thunder thriving, since they are clearly (and understandably) prioritizing draft position these days. They have amassed 18 first-round picks, 17 second-rounders and the right to swap four more first-rounders in the next seven drafts — all part of a long-range plan like no other.
26. Detroit Pistons
Jerami Grant has played so well in his first season as a Piston that teams were trying to persuade Troy Weaver, Detroit’s new general manager, to immediately trade him. Some of Weaver’s roster choices have been questioned, but promise from the rookies Saddiq Bey (one Eastern Conference Player of the Week Award already to his credit) and Isaiah Stewart (17.3 points and 13.3 rebounds per game in one recent three-game stretch), on top of Grant’s progress, have long-suffering Pistons fans feeling cautiously optimistic.
27. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves’ new coach, Chris Finch, who worked in Denver as Nikola Jokic was rising to prominence, is trying to similarly expand Karl-Anthony Towns’s game. Towns and his good friend D’Angelo Russell are finally both healthy, Anthony Edwards is a constant presence in highlight reels and Alex Rodriguez (yes, that A-Rod) is trying to buy the team. There’s a lot going on, but sadly nothing to make you forget that this will be Minnesota’s 16th playoff miss in 17 seasons.
28. Orlando Magic
At this early stage, Orlando has reason to feel hopeful about its decision in March to trade away the long-tenured threesome of Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier. More telling grades will depend on how Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz recover from their serious knee injuries, but Wendell Carter Jr., acquired from Chicago in the Vucevic trade, is off to a promising start.
29. Cleveland Cavaliers
In early February, with the Cavaliers at 10-11, Collin Sexton wrote a piece for The Players’ Tribune titled “Back on the Map.” The team promptly lost its next 10 games and has spent the last two months mired in losing and an injury crunch. Kevin Love, one of the last remaining links to Cleveland’s glory days, has averaged 13.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in April, but remains difficult to trade with two years and $60.2 million left on his contract.
30. Houston Rockets
After waiting 20 years to get his first head coaching job, Stephen Silas has endured the longest of rookie seasons. James Harden’s holdout, Russell Westbrook’s trade to Washington, six roller-coaster weeks coaching Harden, Harden’s trade to the Nets — and all of that followed by copious amounts of losing, injuries and scrutiny. The indignity of it all: Houston loses its top draft pick to Oklahoma City if it falls outside the top four of the draft lottery.