Welcome to the ninth 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 Lakers (49-14)
2. Milwaukee Bucks (53-12)
3. Los Angeles Clippers (44-20)
I’ve been waiting all season for the Clippers to arrive, and they were finally on their way when the Lakers stopped them in their tracks. They had handled six straight, including five playoff-bound opponents, entering Sunday’s nationally televised tilt with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Co.
So, how much should we read into a 112-103 loss? The Clippers came into the game 2-0 against their rivals, although the two presumptive title favorites had not faced each other since Christmas (and opening night before that). They led at the half and were within six with five minutes to play. It is safe to draw as many conclusions from that loss as it is to take anything from their two victories.
By far the most underrated aspect of this series is that the Lakers will hold home court in every game of the series. That is obviously unprecedented for a potential conference finals matchup. Sunday’s meeting was technically a home game for the Clippers, and the crowd was in the purple and gold’s favor. It could be worse in the playoffs, when the Lakers’ faithful will be thirsty for more.
What we know now is the recipe that has made the Lakers the likely No. 1 seed — a smothering defense, the Davis mismatch, and James in complete control down the stretch — can work in this matchup. The Clippers are the league’s deepest team and the roster best equipped to play any style, but the Lakers have two top-five players and really only need one other player to pop. Avery Bradley did on Sunday. Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will all have their turns. The question is whether that third guy shows up more often than not in a seven-game series.
It should be of concern that the Lakers targeted Lou Williams on defense. They scored 30 points on 23 shots opposite the three-time Sixth Man of the Year. If Williams is not playable in big moments against the Lakers, that would be a blow to the Clippers’ offense. They are marginally better with him on the floor this season, but he has the potential to blow games open, and his pick-and-roll partnership with Montrezl Harrell is among the most dangerous in the league. The Clippers have the personnel to counter defensively, but coach Doc Rivers will have to be quick to recognize the need.
That Williams, Marcus Morris, Ivica Zubac, Patrick Beverley and Landry Shamet combined for 15 points on 30 shots should actually be some comfort. It was Morris’ worst offensive game of the season and on the short list for the rest of the supporting cast. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George matched James and Davis point for point. If every meeting going forward comes down to the role players, bet on the Clippers in a rout. They are still my title favorites, even if they have yet to arrive.
4. Toronto Raptors (46-18)
5. Boston Celtics (43-21)
6. Denver Nuggets (43-21)
7. Houston Rockets (40-24)
8. Utah Jazz (41-23)
9. Miami Heat (41-23)
10. Indiana Pacers (39-26)
11. Oklahoma City Thunder (40-24)
The Thunder are headed for 50 wins and sit a game out of a home playoff seed, better than any season with Russell Westbrook and no Kevin Durant — even better than with Westbrook and Paul George last season. What does that say about all parties involved in the 2019 Western Conference shuffle that sent Chris Paul to OKC, Westbrook to the Rockets, and George to the Clippers?
Westbrook was the 2017 MVP and George finished third last season, but is Paul having a greater impact on the Thunder’s success than either ever did? It is impossible to measure leadership, but we should all be able to admit that Paul makes his teammates better in a way the other two just do not. His production is nowhere near Westbrook’s or George’s, but maybe that’s the point.
Under Paul’s wing, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder have flourished. The veteran’s steady hand has also made the Thunder the best clutch team in the league by a wide margin. Two-thirds of their games have come down to the end, and Oklahoma City is outscoring opponents by 29.1 points per 100 possessions when the margin is within five points in the final five minutes.
And none of it matters all that much. The Thunder have lost in the first round in each of the three previous seasons since Durant left. If the season ended today, they would travel to Utah for a first-round series with the Jazz, who took Westbrook and George out in the opening round two seasons ago. Five games currently separate the second and seventh seeds in the West, so OKC could see any number of teams in the first two rounds. The Rockets and the Clippers would obviously be delicious matchups. That Paul is still in position to vanquish either is a testament to his greatness.
12. Dallas Mavericks (39-27)
13. Philadelphia 76ers (38-26)
14. Sacramento Kings (28-36)
15. Memphis Grizzlies (32-33)
16. New Orleans Pelicans (28-36)
17. Portland Trail Blazers (29-37)
18. San Antonio Spurs (27-36)
19. Phoenix Suns (26-39)
Where to from here? The Suns own a near-zero net rating, playing closer to .500 ball than their 33-win pace indicates, and the worst of their schedule is still ahead. The final season in a lost decade. There is one All-Star and another potential one to show for their futility, but are Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton a pairing on a path to contention? They are but 23 and 21 years old, respectively.
The ceiling for each feels a tier or two lower than the best of their generation. There are a handful of under-25 pairings you would probably take over Booker and Ayton right now. Is that good enough? They are still better positioned for the future than a host of teams on a road to destruction. For now.
At some point you stop building for the future and play for the now. Phoenix tried to take a step in that direction this past summer, sacrificing draft picks and future cap space for some semblance of an NBA roster. Rookie Suns general manager James Jones dealt for Dario Saric and Aron Baynes, signed Ricky Rubio and re-upped Kelly Oubre Jr. He swapped coaches, too, and the result will fall somewhere around the West’s third-worst record, up from dead last, but still well short of viability.
Much of the core remains under contract for next season, for better or worse. Jones can approach max cap space if he sheds all the weight — declining player options, renouncing restricted free agents and letting the unrestricted ones walk — but the 2020 market is short on talent, particularly at positions of need, and Phoenix has not been a destination of late despite its attractive location.
So, Jones will face some tough decisions. Does he chase more support this summer? The trades for restricted free agents Saric and Jevon Carter cost him a horde of assets, but doubling down on them risks burning more future capital — precious 2021 salary cap space, to be specific. Similar marginal upgrades could cost Jones just as much, if not more, without making next year’s team much better.
Counting on the continued development of Booker and Ayton sounds good in theory, but the list of teams that merely developed into contenders without a First Team All-NBA talent is practically nil. In an ideal world, the Suns would be just good enough next season to garner some attention, the scrappy underdog allure that brought the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers a bounty. It would be nice if Rubio’s contract were not standing in the way of potential double-max cap space.
There is risk in that, too, outside of banking on the promise of a free-agent bonanza. Another middling season brings Phoenix one year closer to the end of Ayton’s rookie contract and the looming possibility that another playoff absence could push Booker to request a trade. All of which presents Jones with another tough decision: What might Ayton’s trade value be going forward?
20. Orlando Magic (30-35)
21. Brooklyn Nets (30-34)
22. Washington Wizards (24-40)
23. Charlotte Hornets (22-42)
24. Golden State Warriors (15-50)
25. Atlanta Hawks (20-46)
From the surface, the Hawks look to be building to an end. Trae Young is an All-Star in his second season. John Collins could be one some day. There three next most productive players are all 22 and under, two of whom are rookie top-10 picks. Another one will join them come June, and they added a 24-year-old center with playoff experience for a mid-first-round pick at the trade deadline.
Based solely on traditional positions, they should fit — Young, two bigs and some wings, all with some pedigree. But the reality is this blueprint is far from being built, and the pieces may never fit.
Young is the poster child for what is building below the surface in Atlanta. He looks great on paper, in practice and for the Instagram, but the results are far from perfect. At age 21, Young is on pace to become just the fifth player ever to average 29 points and nine assists per game, joining Tiny Archibald and three former MVPs — Oscar Robertson, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. The point guard’s offensive real plus-minus this season puts him in a top five with arguably the four most worthy MVP candidates — Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Luka Doncic.
Everyone on those lists was or is a playoff mainstay, save for Archibald. Tiny made the playoffs but once and maxed out at 44 wins as the best player on his team. It wasn’t until his usage dipped to a reserve level on the early 1980s Celtics that he ever won anything. Like Archibald, Young is a defensive liability whose production comes from being the focal piece of an unspectacular offense.
On the defensive real plus-minus scale, Young ranks dead last among 502 NBA players this season, minimizing his other-worldly offensive production. Can Collins and Clint Capela ever anchor a defense good enough to limit Young’s liability (to say nothing of the odd offensive fit for the two bigs)? And can Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter ever reach their full potential in an offense dominated by Young? These are questions Atlanta must answer before locking all their building blocks into big money, and Collins comes first as an extension-eligible player this summer.
26. Minnesota Timberwolves (19-45)
27. New York Knicks (20-45)
28. Chicago Bulls (22-43)
29. Cleveland Cavaliers (19-46)
30. Detroit Pistons (20-45)
– – – – – – –
More from Yahoo Sports: