Welcome to the second 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 (7-3)
2. Los Angeles Lakers (8-2)
3. Boston Celtics (8-1)
Inside TD Garden’s visitors’ locker room after the Celtics defeated the Mavericks on Monday, the subject of Jaylen Brown arose in the corner where the Mavs’ Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee sat. Brown had just shredded the Mavs for 25 points, almost half of which came before the defense settled. The discussion turned from frustration to admiration when through shaking heads they agreed that Brown has become increasingly difficult to stop, especially with a full head of steam.
“When I get the ball in transition, I see a green light,” said Brown, who has been the NBA’s most efficient transition scoring regular this season, just ahead of Celtics teammate Jayson Tatum, per Synergy Sports Technology. “I think that my strength and athleticism put a lot of pressure on the defense, and if they collapse, I’ve got to be patient enough to make the right reads. Just continuing to be aggressive and putting pressure on the defense is what we’re trying to do.”
That Brown’s four-year, $107 million contract extension received so much criticism took the Celtics by some surprise, if only because they knew he was more polished than the player who had already accomplished more than almost anyone in his draft class. With so few high-end 2020 free agents, a team like Brown’s hometown Atlanta Hawks would surely be waiting on the other end of this season with a max contract offer if he performed the way the Celtics expected.
Brown’s heightened comfort level on offense is immediately apparent. It all stems from improved handle and increased opportunity in the absences of All-Star orchestrators Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. The Celtics are trusting Brown with almost 50 percent more frontcourt touches a game this season, and in turn he is operating as a pick-and-roll ball-handler almost four times more often, all as his efficiency in that respect has jumped from the NBA’s 56th percentile to its 91st.
Count ascendant Mavericks megastar Luka Doncic among those who have taken notice.
“He deserved the contract he got,” said the Slovenian. “He’s a great two-way player. He can play really good defense and really good offense, so I think he’s a great [signing] by the Celtics.”
Should these trends continue, Brown’s All-Star candidacy will only gain momentum as the Celtics increasingly rely on him to replace some of the additional playmaking void left by Gordon Hayward, whose own All-Star candidacy was just interrupted by a broken left hand that will cost him the next six weeks. This as the Celtics also hope Tatum solves the aberration that is his league-worst shooting percentage among high-volume shooters in the restricted area, bumping his scoring average over 20 points per game and establishing his All-Star candidacy.
For those counting, that is three All-Star-caliber wings around All-NBA point guard Kemba Walker, which is the formula for an 8-1 start when you have yet to solve the center position.
4. Utah Jazz (8-3)
5. Milwaukee Bucks (7-3)
6. Philadelphia 76ers (7-3)
7. Denver Nuggets (7-3)
8. Toronto Raptors (7-3)
9. Miami Heat (7-3)
10. Houston Rockets (7-3)
11. Dallas Mavericks (6-4)
Listen to Luka Doncic toggle between English and Slovenian while he holds court with reporters after another near triple-double — his face wrapped in a beard, his arm in tattoos and his quad in a massive bag of ice — it is easy to forget he is still just 20 years old. If his game as an early MVP candidate has not yet convinced you he is beyond his years, his grasp of it certainly will.
“You don’t have control of the game until you win,” he says after engineering a second-half comeback, only to see a short-lived lead dissolve in the final minutes of a loss to the Celtics.
Against a top-five defense designed to stop him, Doncic scored 14 of his 34 points against Boston in the third quarter, even unleashing a Jordan-esque shrug after draining two straight step-backs from well beyond the 3-point line. Doncic, who added nine assists against one turnover and six boards, coyly says of the shrug later, “It was a tough shot. I was just like, ‘OK?’”
He holds his audience in his palm. Doncic’s presence fills the locker room in that superstar way you can sense when you have seen enough postgame scrums. Even Mark Cuban wanders through unheralded as cameras await Doncic’s every word, and the nascent legend meets the mundane questions with an appropriate hint of humor. What might the Mavericks have done differently to leave Boston with a win? Doncic responds: “Kemba could’ve missed some shots.”
After taking Jayson Tatum off the dribble, Doncic has a tough time putting into words how he broke down a longer, more athletic defensive wing, found the footwork to get a step on him and used his sneaky strength to keep him on his hip all the way to the basket. Finally, Doncic finds the four words that capture what every great player innately holds within: “Just read the game.”
Doncic has already drawn comparisons to James Harden, and his veteran teammates can see it. “Being able to make plays and being able to shoot that 3-ball effortlessly, especially off the step-back,” says Courtney Lee, “yeah, you could compare that, for sure. He’s crafty.” Adds Seth Curry, “They’re similar, very similar. He’s got the ball a lot at the top of the floor, using ball screens, making tough shots and getting to the free-throw line a lot. He’s a big point guard.”
Lee left Houston the same summer Harden arrived, but the 12-year veteran has played opposite every great playmaker of the past decade, starting with a 2009 Finals showdown with Kobe Bryant at the end of his rookie season. And what Doncic is doing at age 20 has no comparison.
“S---, not really,” Lee said when asked if Doncic reminds him of anyone. “He’s a rare breed, man, just how he impacts the game, his playmaking and his scoring ability. Credit to when he was overseas playing. He’s been a pro for a while. But, no, I can’t compare anybody to him.”
The obvious but unspeakable comp is LeBron James after both shared the same spotlight in an overtime triple-double showdown, and while Lee was unwilling to connect those dots so early in Doncic’s career, Curry at least entertained the subject in terms of their command of the offense.
“Honestly, he’s kind of controlling the team like LeBron,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “He’s got the ball a lot, making plays all over the floor, manipulating the whole offense and doing a lot of other stuff — rebounding the ball and pushing it — so that’s the kind of impact he has on the game.”
12. Phoenix Suns (6-4)
13. San Antonio Spurs (5-5)
14. Indiana Pacers (7-4)
15. Minnesota Timberwolves (6-4)
Is it possible that Andrew Wiggins might not be a lost cause?
After four straight games with at least 25 points and five assists, Wiggins is now averaging career highs across the board through 10 games. His 47/34/73 shooting splits are respectable for a player who spent his first five seasons establishing a reputation for being wildly inefficient.
It feels like we have seen stretches like this from Wiggins before, that this might be just another tease of the talent we all expected when he was drafted first overall in 2014 — before he let us down again. Here’s the thing, though: Wiggins had never averaged 25 points and five assists in any four-game stretch over his 406 previous outings. There is a chance he is figuring this out.
Wolves coach Ryan Saunders put the weight of this season on Wiggins’ shoulders, telling reporters, “For us to be a good basketball team, and to really be sustainably successful, we need Andrew to take a big leap,” and through 10 games he has responded, at least offensively.
Wiggins is finishing almost twice as many pick-and-roll possessions this season at a slightly more efficient (albeit still average) rate than last, and he is also creating a couple more shots per game for his teammates. It helps when Karl-Anthony Towns is your primary pick-and-roll partner, and it would help further if the seven most commonly used floor spacers around them were not shooting a combined 29 percent from deep. The runway is long for Wiggins, as usual.
There is still cause for concern. Minnesota’s net rating is dead zero, which right now is good enough for the eighth-best mark in the West, but they are three points per 100 possessions worse with Wiggins on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. He is ninth on the roster in that regard, and that is almost entirely attributable to his defense. Minnesota goes from the equivalent of a bottom-10 defensive outfit with Wiggins on the floor (109.5 points per 100 possessions allowed) to what would easily be a league-best unit with him on the bench (91.8 points per 100 allowed).
This was always the biggest concern for Wiggins, or at least it seemed to be for Jimmy Butler: Even if Wiggins achieved respectability on offense with increased efficiency and proper usage, would he put in the work to achieve similar success on defense and impact games when the shots are not falling? That test will come when the schedule gets tougher in the weeks ahead.
16. Portland Trail Blazers (4-7)
17. Brooklyn Nets (4-6)
18. Oklahoma City Thunder (4-7)
19. Cleveland Cavaliers (4-6)
20. Atlanta Hawks (4-6)
21. Orlando Magic (3-7)
22. Chicago Bulls (4-7)
23. Sacramento Kings (4-6)
Sacramento’s fall from grace has come quicker than its climb, which I guess should not surprise anyone, considering it took more than a decade for the Kings to even come close to sniffing the playoffs again. The injury bug that has bitten the league in its first 10 games has hit the Kings harder than anyone, if only because there are few franchises less equipped to fight an epidemic.
Marvin Bagley is still weeks from returning after fracturing his right thumb in a season-opening loss to the Suns, and the severe ankle sprain De’Aaron Fox suffered in Monday’s practice could keep him out of the lineup until the calendar turns to 2020. Without their two USA Basketball summer standouts, the Kings have lost their identity as the league’s must-watch young team.
To be fair, that label lost its stick even when Fox was healthy. The Kings fired Dave Joerger, the first coach to win 39 games in Sacramento since Rick Adelman, to hire Luke Walton, a Steve Kerr disciple who inexplicably eliminated everything that made this team so fun last season.
After leading the league in transition scoring in 2018-19, the Kings dialed back from the NBA’s third-fastest pace last season to 28th in the early going this time around, and their offense has suffered as a result. If that was a philosophical change, it absolutely cannot coincide with less ball movement in the halfcourt setting, and yet Sacramento has dipped from nearly achieving Kerr’s nirvana of 300 passes per game last season to 225 this year, the fewest in the league.
These Kings were never great defensively, but the recipe they found to stay in games by running teams ragged on the offensive end has been discarded. It has not helped that the veterans general manager Vlade Divac brought in to supplement his young roster — Trevor Ariza, Cory Joseph and Dewayne Dedmon — have looked cooked, slowing them even further.
All of a sudden, a franchise on the rise is stuck in the mud, and the front office is at a crossroads so soon after its most encouraging season in 15 years. They committed $175 million to Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield over the summer, and even slight dips in their production raise more questions about whether those deals — both fair on their own merit — will hinder Divac’s ability to help elevate Fox and Bagley from fun challengers to serious threats in the years to come.
The injuries only further complicate matters. This season was something of an audition for promising wing Bogdan Bogdanovic, who reportedly turned down his own four-year, $51 million extension in hopes of securing a more lucrative offer in 2020 restricted free agency. The Kings are in danger of falling far enough behind to justify another big contract for one more core member of a team in regression, especially with extensions also looming for Fox and Bagley.
Barring a major move, this is their team moving forward, and that has not been good enough, healthy or not, especially with the way Walton has them playing. But when have you ever trusted Sacramento’s front office to properly shake up the roster? The fun was fleeting for the Kings.
24. Detroit Pistons (4-8)
25. Charlotte Hornets (4-6)
26. New Orleans Pelicans (2-8)
27. Washington Wizards (2-6)
28. Memphis Grizzlies (3-7)
29. Golden State Warriors (2-9)
30. New York Knicks (2-9)
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