As we round the halfway point of the season, with most teams having more than 40 games under their belts, we’re getting to the part of the year where it’s realistic to start looking at the postseason picture, talking about which teams and players might be active at the trade deadline, and which players will be heading to Charlotte in mid-February for the 2019 NBA All-Star game. So without further ado, here are the NBA Mid-Season Power Rankings.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (Last Month: 4th) – Talk about the rich getting richer: not only do the Milwaukee Bucks have the single-most dominant player in the NBA today in Giannis Antetokounmpo (who’s averaging 25.5 points, 12.1 rebounds, and 6 assists since December 1st), but they just moved past the Toronto Raptors for first place in the Eastern Conference as they ride their three-game winning streak. As good as Antetokounmpo might be, he’s certainly got help. Khris Middleton is earning legitimate All-Star consideration (rightfully so), and even Malcolm Brogdon — usually considered to be more of a defensive presence — is averaging 16.3 points per game since Christmas day.
2. Toronto Raptors (Last Month: 3rd) — Since December 26th, Kawhi Leonard is averaging 29.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, going for more than 30 points in six of Toronto’s last ten games and winning the Eastern Conference Player of the Week this past week. Kyle Lowry and Danny Green are both among the top of the list of NBA players in plus/minus this season. Pascal Siakam is ranked ninth in All-Star voting among forwards in the Eastern Conference. If it weren’t for the Raptors dropping games against San Antonio and Boston over the last two weeks, and needing to squeak out a few wins against teams like Atlanta and Washington, the Toronto Raptors would’ve probably been in the #1 spot this month.
3. Golden State Warriors (Last Month: 2nd) — Prior to smoking the Denver Nuggets (in Denver) on Tuesday evening, things had been eerily quiet out of the San Francisco Bay Area, as the defending champions have flown almost entirely under the radar as of late. Even Stephen Curry’s start to 2019, in which he’s averaged 33.4 points, 7 assists, and 5.2 rebounds per game, shooting 50% from the field and 44.2% from three, has barely been mentioned even in passing among the national headlines. In most other years, the Golden State Warriors being outside the top three teams in the NBA concerning winning percentage would’ve dominated the news cycle, but we all know that they’re just floating through the proverbial dog days of the NBA season before they crank up the engine come springtime.
4. Denver Nuggets (Last Month: 1st) – Despite sitting atop the Western Conference standings for much of the latter part of 2018 (and the very early part of 2019), the Denver Nuggets were rudely reminded that there’s still a pecking order in the West, when the Golden State Warriors came to town on Tuesday and dropped 142 points on the Nuggets (the most points Denver had allowed this season), en route to handing Denver a 31-point loss. Said defeat included a 51-point first quarter scoring binge by Golden State, which was the most points ever scored (and/or allowed) in NBA history. That took a little bit of shine off Denver’s 14-6 record since the start of December, before the game against Golden State.
5. Indiana Pacers (Last Month: 5th) – After keeping the team that won 48 games last season mostly intact (save for a few additions to the bench), halfway through this season, the Indiana Pacers are on pace to win somewhere in the neighborhood of 55 games. The one major caveat to such a projection? The Pacers have played the easiest schedule in the NBA to date, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI). And despite their cupcake schedule, the Pacers rank 15th in the NBA in offensive efficiency and 25th in pace. They’ve assembled a roster that’s as deep as any in the East, with a rotation that can legitimately say it’s 10-player deep. But their ability to win games as a team, without having a true superstar player (outside of maybe Victor Oladipo) bears watching.
6. Houston Rockets (Last Month: 15th) — No matter what type of hyperbolic term or description you use to describe James Harden’s recent scoring binge, it still feels like you’d be selling him short. The fact that for the past six-and-a-half weeks, Harden is averaging 39 points, 8.3 assists and 6.9 points per game is damn near unfathomable. Over the past 18 games, Harden has scored 50 points three different times and averages 42.2 points per game. In four of those games, he’s recorded triple-doubles while also pouring in 40 points. We’re getting to the point that the stuff he’s doing right now is literally unprecedented.
7. Oklahoma City Thunder (Last Month: 7th) – A funny thing happened along the way to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s current third-place standing in the Western Conference: forward Paul George, the surprise re-signing of the 2018 offseason, suddenly transformed into one of the 10 best players in the NBA this year, and might’ve wrested away the title of “team MVP” away from Russell Westbrook. Since the start of December, George is averaging 30 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.2 steals per game while shooting 47% from the field and 41.3% from behind the three-point line. It’s gotten to the point where if the NBA’s All-Star voting restricted people from choosing only two forwards (instead of three “front-court” players), you could have a rousing debate as to whether George deserves such a spot over guys like Kevin Durant and/or Anthony Davis.
8. San Antonio Spurs (Last Month: 19th) — It was only six weeks ago that the San Antonio Spurs were stumbling through an ugly 5-11 stretch between November 4th and December 4th, which included four different pairs of back-to-back losses, and had them at a season-worst three games under .500. But we should’ve all known better than to bet against Gregg Popovich. Since December 5th, the Spurs have gone 13-6, and are only a game behind the Southwest Division-leading Houston Rockets as of Wednesday morning. True to their MO, they’ve done it the same way as usual: steady-if-not-unspectacular contributions from their key guys (LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan), internal development of their role players (Derrick White), and a commitment to defense (they’re among the top three teams in numerous stat categories since early December).
9. Philadelphia 76ers (Last Month: 8th) — Their 4-2 start to 2019 might help quell the turbulent waters in Philadelphia, but with more losses like those against the lowly Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks will only cause the always-cantankerous Jimmy Butler to start creating waves again. Such a time could come sooner rather than later if things start to get difficult on the 76ers forthcoming part of the schedule, which — as ESPN.com’s Tim Bontemps points out — includes 12 opponents with winning records in Philadelphia’s next 13 games. No matter how Brett Brown and the rest of the 76ers’ brass tries to frame it, the only thing worse than a midseason struggle is a midseason struggle in which players begin to air their “dirty laundry — something Butler has no hesitation in doing.
10. Boston Celtics (Last Month: 6th) — Wednesday evening’s win against Toronto should’ve been much more of a “feel good” situation than it felt. Leave it to Kyrie Irving to come out with the passive-aggressive press conference where he announced that he talked to LeBron James about leadership… meaning he talked to James about how he was a punk kid before, get insight into how to handle dealing with a bunch of punk kids around him now. That’s what it’s come to in Boston: hailing Jayson Tatum as a future multi-time All-Star to “subtweeting” him through the media. So much for that 17-9 record since Black Friday.
11. Portland Trail Blazers (Last Month: 11th) – While the seemingly endless debate over whether the Portland TrailBlazers should break up their backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum has quieted down recently (helped by the fact that the TrailBlazers are among the top four or five teams in the Western Conference), the team could find themselves a bit more motivated to make such a deal if they fall short of expectations yet again, considering center Jusuf Nurkic now looks like someone who could be this team’s reliable second option. Since November 1st, Nurkic is averaging 15.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game and is legitimately being considered for early All-NBA conversations at the center position.
12. Utah Jazz (Last Month: 18th) – Utah’s 6-2 start to 2019 propelled them back into the top eight of the Western Conference standings, despite guys like Ricky Rubio and Dante Exum missing time recently. Donovan Mitchell has perked up since his horrible funk in December, when he shot 38.1% from the field and under 30% from three, ripping off five-straight games with 26 or more points. But while Mitchell gets the headlines because of his stellar rookie season and his scoring prowess, it’s Utah’s Rudy Gobert who’s making the plays that don’t always show up in the box score… although a closer look would reveal that Gobert is averaging a career-best 14.8 points and 2.1 assists per game, while currently tied for his career high in rebounds (12.8 per game)
13. Los Angeles Clippers (Last Month: 10th) — Rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been the topic of much discussion among those who follow the Los Angeles Clippers, and unfortunately, it’s not in a positive light. After being named a starter just nine games into the regular season, and leading the Clippers to a 10-2 record after being placed in the starting lineup, Gilgeous-Alexander hasn’t been the same guy since the start of December. After averaging just under 28 minutes per game and averaging 10.6 points and just over 3 rebounds and 3 assists per game through the end of November, Gilgeous-Alexander’s totals dropped down to 8.4 points, 2.6 assists, and 2 rebounds per game, in 23.4 minutes of playing time. But, the numbers don’t paint the whole picture; everyone, including Gilgeous-Alexander, acknowledges that he’s in something of a funk. And when you start thinking about those things, it only tends to exacerbate the funk.
14. Sacramento Kings (Last Month: 12th) — Sitting less than one game back from the top eight teams in the Western Conference, the Sacramento Kings might not make a trade that will “break the internet,” but they almost certainly look like buyers trying to add one last piece that will help them end their 12-year drought of postseason appearances. Among the names that have been recently floated out there as trade possibilities include Enes Kanter of the New York Knicks (to help improve a Kings team that ranks in the bottom half of the league in rebounding) and Jeremy Lin of the Atlanta Hawks (to provide some backcourt depth behind De’Aaron Fox).
15. Miami Heat (Last Month: 23rd) – How you feel about the Miami Heat is entirely a matter of perspective. A glass-half-full person will point to the fact that the team has a respectable 13-7 record since the beginning of December, with enigmatic forward Justise Winslow averaging 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in that span. The glass-half-empty person will point to the fact that, thanks to Miami’s 8-13 start before the aforementioned run, the Heat are just a game over .500, and only two games ahead of the Charlotte Hornets in the Southeast Division standings. The glass-half-full individual would counter with the fact that Miami allows the 4th-fewest points per game in the NBA and the second-fewest points per game in the Eastern Conference (105.6). And the glass-half-empty individual’s rebuttal would be the fact that Miami’s 106.7 points per game puts them among the seven lowest-scoring teams in the Association.
16. Los Angeles Lakers (Last Month: 9th) – Having gone 6-9 since the middle of December, thanks in large part to LeBron James not having played a game since the Los Angeles Lakers’ big win in Golden State on Christmas day, there are parts of the maniacal Laker fan base who believe that the team should be tanking and trying to secure a position to draft Zion Williamson from Duke University despite the fact that the Lakers are still among the top eight teams in the Western Conference. Hysteria aside, James’ sabbatical isn’t exactly unprecedented, even if this one was facilitated by an injured groin. It’s worth telling the purple and gold faithful to relax, even if it’s ultimately futile.
17. Brooklyn Nets (Last Month: 24th) – After Caris LeVert went down with a gruesome, season-ending injury in mid-November, it felt like the Brooklyn Nets would be spending yet another season in the NBA’s basement, especially after an ugly 2-9 stretch immediately after LeVert’s injury. But starting with their home win over the Toronto Raptors on December 7th, the Nets have gone 14-5, and actually, find themselves right in the thick of the (very early) Eastern Conference playoff race. Guard D’Angelo Russell has stepped into the team’s “Alpha Dog” role in the absence of LeVert, averaging 19.7 points and 7.3 assists in that 19-game span, and (finally) looking like a guy worthy of the #2 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
18. Minnesota Timberwolves (Last Month: 20th) – Since December 1st, only a few weeks after trading away Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins has averaged 20 points per game, and looking much more like the guy who was the most coveted player in the 2014 NBA Draft. Of course, the one knock he can’t quite shake is whether he can put up those types of stats on a winning team: the Minnesota Timberwolves are 10-12 in that span. After the organization dumped both Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau, there aren’t many players left to point fingers at if Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns produce statistics that amount to empty calories.
19. Dallas Mavericks (Last Month: 14th) — Adrian Wojnarowski dropped one of his signature ‘Woj Bombs’ earlier this week, when he confirmed the reports that Dallas is “escalating discussions” around trading away Dennis Smith Jr, just one season after drafting Smith and seeing him make the NBA’s All-Rookie Second Team last year. You can’t really fault them for their rationale, seeing as how the Mavericks are Luka Dončić’s team, and it’s going to be all about surrounding him with the right parts for the foreseeable future.
20. New Orleans Pelicans (Last Month: 16th) — No team will be watched closer than the New Orleans Pelicans between now and the NBA’s February 7th trade deadline. It’s not entirely out of the question to say that what the Pelicans do just a few weeks from now will have a substantial impact on whether this franchise has a chance to retain the services of Anthony Davis. The advanced analytics are not favorable to a scenario where Davis feels the team took a step forward after advancing to the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs, as the Pelicans are projected to be on the outside this year’s playoffs. The question is whether New Orleans sacrifices future assets to build a team around Davis now, and/or potentially risk losing those assets to use in the scenario where Davis forces his way out of the Big Easy.
21. Washington Wizards (Last Month: 25th) — The Washington Wizards have gone 5-4 since John Wall was declared done for the season due to a heel injury. While that win total might isn’t worth throwing a parade over, consider that more than a quarter of this team’s current win total (18) has come without Wall in the lineup. It’s been whispered — increasingly loudly — in recent years, and now it’s starting to become a reality: the Wizards might very well be better off without the services of Wall, both now and in the future. The problem is, with his “supermax” extension set to kick in after this season, Wall could very well have the least palatable contract in the entire NBA.
22. Orlando Magic (Last Month: 22nd) — Orlando snapped their four-game skid this past weekend, with a couple of quality wins against the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets (even after Jared Harden dropped 38 points against Orlando in the latter game). That put Orlando at 19-24, which despite the way that record looks, is only one game out of the top eight of the Eastern Conference. There’s some thought emanating out of central Florida that Orlando could try and make a big push for that last playoff spot by making a move to address the glaring hole in their backcourt (Dennis Smith Jr. has suddenly become very popular among the remaining few fans of the Magic).
23. Charlotte Hornets (Last Month: 21) – Tony Parker playing against his former teammates, when the San Antonio Spurs visited Charlotte this past Monday, made for great media storylines, and the Hornets’ 108-93 win made for a welcome respite from a horrid 2-5 start to 2019 (they lost those five games by an average of 21.6 points). Metaphorically speaking, head coach James Borrego has struggled trying to implement a new way of cooking, without necessarily having the right ingredients to use. Charlotte is among the top 10 teams in the NBA in points scored per game (112), but they’re also among the top 11 teams in points allowed per game (111.8).
24. Memphis Grizzlies (Last Month: 13th) — Well, it was fun while it lasted. The Memphis Grizzlies’ 15-9 record through December 7th has been replaced with their current 4-15 stretch since then, including their current — and ugly — 2-8 stretch since Christmas Day. That hasn’t stopped Memphis from being one of the most talked-about teams in the NBA, however, as stalwart center Marc Gasol potentially being available via trade has become the worst-kept secret in the NBA. The big question is, whether they can get something they’re satisfied within return for Gasol, given the dropoff in his stats as of late (he averaged 18.3 points and 9.7 rebounds through the end of November, and 12.7 points and 7.5 rebounds ever since).
25. Detroit Pistons (Last Month: 17th) — Blake Griffin putting up a season-best 44 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals in his return to the Staples Center to play the Los Angeles Clippers was another fun “reunion” story that also helped overshadow another Eastern Conference team’s funk (even if the real highlight of the game was Griffin running right past Clippers’ owner Steve Balmer, with Griffin openly spurning Balmer after the latter promised the former he’d be a “Clipper for life.”) The Detroit Pistons’ current tailspin encompasses a 3-8 record since Christmas day, Less than four weeks ago, the Pistons had a winning record, but halfway through January, they’re now sitting six games under .500.
26. Atlanta Hawks (Last Month: 30th) — The Atlanta Hawks’ 3-4 start to 2019 encompasses three wins against top 15 ranked teams of this list, including scoring 129 points in Philadelphia and 142 points at home against Oklahoma City. That’s helped them get out of the quagmire that is the four teams in the NBA with the lowest win totals. The problem is, Atlanta is still the team with the 5th-fewest wins in the NBA right now, thanks in large part to allowing a league-high 117.8 points per game to opponents.
27. Phoenix Suns (Last Month: 29th) – With the worst record in the Western Conference (by a sizable margin), it’s gotten to the point in Arizona where the local newspapers are already running previews for the 2019 NBA Draft, listing out the available options for the Phoenix Suns (especially in the backcourt), given that they’ll almost certainly have a very early selection. The Suns remain in constant search for a playmaker who can revitalize an offense that’s currently ranked 25th in the NBA in points per game, especially as people begin associating Devin Booker with being a “good stats, bad team”- type of player.
28. Chicago Bulls (Last Month: 28th) – As of January 12th, the Chicago Bulls have gone 5-13 since firing Fred Hoiberg, and are among the bottom three teams in the NBA in offensive rating, assist percentage, and turnover percentage under Jim Boylen. They’re also among the bottom three teams in pace per game, which is one of the main reasons that while forward Lauri Markkanen’s numbers might be slightly up from his rookie season stats, he still looks stymied and misused in Boylen’s slower, iso-heavy system. Naturally, the embattled (to put it nicely) and completely obtuse (to put it more accurately) Bulls’ front office handed Boylen an extension through the 2019-2020 season.
29. New York Knicks (Last Month: 26th) — It’s a simple calculus for the New York Knicks. Since December 1st, they have a 2-17 record. After beating the Milwaukee Bucks at home on December 1st, the Knicks fell faster than a skydiver with no parachute. It’s not a total disaster for the Knicks, however. They’re making headway in the reclamation project that is Mario Hezonja, the 2016 NBA Draft lottery selection who’s averaged 12.4 points and 5.2 rebounds in 24.4 minutes per game since January 1st. Rookie Kevin Knox is increasingly becoming the focal point of the Knicks’ offense and appears to be up for the challenge. And most importantly, Kristaps Porzingis’ rehabilitation is reportedly going well, too.
30. Cleveland Cavaliers (Last Month: 27th) – Trotting out a starting lineup comprising Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, Cedi Osman, and Collin Sexton has gone about as well as you think it would have for the Cleveland Cavaliers. After going into Indiana and pulling off the upset against the Pacers on December 18th, the Cavaliers lost 12 straight games, and are currently 1-13 since then. But wait, it gets better: Sexton, the team’s top pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, is currently ranked 466th in the NBA in defensive rating, and Osman — once considered one of the more promising young players the Cavs had — is ranked 476th. How many people even realize the NBA had 476 players step foot on the floor this year?