N.B.A. Midseason Power Rankings: The Clippers Have Room to Improve

Halfway through what was ambitiously billed as a wide-open season featuring more potential champions than usual in the N.B.A., three teams have separated themselves.

The Milwaukee Bucks and the co-tenants of the Staples Center in Los Angeles — LeBron James’s Lakers and Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers — are in a tier of their own at the top. That’s the more realistic way to look at the league after it passed the 615-game mark on Thursday on a regular-season schedule that features 1,230.

To fully sort out the N.B.A.’s 1-to-30 landscape, as is customary here at this juncture, I have reconvened what is known as the Committee (of One) to assemble a team-by-team progress report in the form of N.B.A. Power Rankings.

What used to be a weekly endeavor for me is only a once-a-season undertaking every January now. But the committee’s mission is the same as it has been since it was founded for the 2002-3 season.

The aim is to produce a more up-to-date and detailed assessment than the standings do, measuring what is happening in the present against each team’s big-picture outlook — with dollops of subjectivity and whimsy thrown in.

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Statistics were current through Friday’s games.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

So much for the notion that this team can’t prove anything to its critics until the postseason. Milwaukee has managed to stay uber-focused anyway, riding its No. 2 offense and No. 1 defense to establish a 70-win pace and, more important, hush much of the speculation about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s future. The Bucks are an obvious No. 1, while a better-than-ever Antetokounmpo closes in on a second consecutive Most Valuable Player Award despite playing only 30.8 minutes per game.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

Apart from a four-game losing streak in December and some Kyle Kuzma trade speculation, Lakerland has largely been devoid of drama for as long as the committee can remember. The worry, of course, is that the Lakers are relying too heavily on two players, but LeBron James and Anthony Davis look every ounce the dream pairing they appeared to be on paper — while Frank Vogel has stepped into a coaching caldron as gracefully as he could have hoped.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers are one of just five teams that rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (alongside Milwaukee, Boston, Utah and the Lakers) despite the fact that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have together played in just 18 games (14-4). As sluggish as the Clippers have looked since their impressive second-half comeback against the Lakers on Christmas, their considerable room for improvement before the playoffs begin on April 18 makes them scary.

4. Denver Nuggets

The committee has been pushing for the ever-deliberate Nuggets to liven up a sleepy trade season by trying to swing a splashy deal for a difference-maker like New Orleans guard Jrue Holiday. The counter to such requests: Denver believes Michael Porter Jr., who finally appears healthy enough to take on a regular role, may provide the jolt the Nuggets need to threaten the Lakers and Clippers — even with Nikola Jokic gradually emerging from his slow start.

5. Toronto Raptors

The N.B.A.’s defending champions rank among this season’s leaders in games lost to injury. Toronto also happens to be on a 54-win pace despite its injury issues and the departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Los Angeles, which have only enhanced the reputations of Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Coach Nick Nurse. Although the Raptors would surely take it as disrespect in the wake of their title run, Canada’s team is on this season’s list of pleasant surprise teams.

6. Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have overcome the disappointment of a humbling seventh-place finish with U.S.A. Basketball at the FIBA World Cup in China last summer to play their way into All-Star contention. And Kemba Walker has allowed Boston to smoothly move on from the messy end of the Kyrie Irving era. In few corners, though, are the Celtics considered a legitimate title threat. Thus, it’ll be interesting to watch how (Trader) Danny Ainge proceeds.

7. Miami Heat

Jimmy Butler and the Heat were right: He has been a perfect fit on South Beach. Butler, who described himself in an October interview as “a little extra at times,” has given Miami a true foundational player alongside the surprise All-Star candidate Bam Adebayo. The Heat still have roster holes — and some of their success owes to a fortuitous 6-0 record in overtime games — but they’re making a bid for the East’s No. 2 seed that no one saw coming.

8. Utah Jazz

The Jazz are 10-1 since trading for Jordan Clarkson and have picked up the pace after a 12-10 start largely because Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have been playing at an All-Star level. The problem: Mike Conley (hamstring) missed 19 of 20 games before returning Saturday against the Sacramento Kings and was struggling to adapt to his new surroundings when he did play. Is Salt Lake City, specifically the Jazz offense, big enough for Conley and Joe Ingles? Utah’s postseason success may ride on the answer.

9. Indiana Pacers

Nate McMillan must figure prominently in any coach of the year discussion for helping steer the Pacers into a 53-win pace without Victor Oladipo, his All-Star guard, who is finally scheduled to return on Jan. 29 after needing more than a year to recover from a torn quad tendon in his right knee. Indiana should get at least one All-Star — Malcolm Brogdon or Domantas Sabonis — as a reward for being so good without Oladipo.

10. Dallas Mavericks

The (theoretical) rules of stardom say we can’t call Luka Doncic a true superstar until we see him in the playoffs. The reality is that Doncic, in his second season, has consistently been one of the league’s six best players alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard. The 20-year-old has revitalized the Mavericks, who have done the same for the Knicks castoff Tim Hardaway Jr. while trying to nurse Kristaps Porzingis back to top form.

11. Houston Rockets

Admit it: James Harden and Russell Westbrook, as collaborators for the league’s No. 2 offense, have meshed better than expected in their reunion on the Rockets. That hasn’t been enough, mind you, to prevent the sort of regression that Rockets fans feared was coming after the Chris Paul-for-Westbrook deal. Houston’s problems are depth, defense and age — with little for an ever-aggressive front office to peddle in search of trade upgrades.

12. Philadelphia 76ers

Remember when we were all so curious about which team would finish No. 3 in the East because Milwaukee and Philadelphia seemed so certain to occupy the top two spots? The Sixers’ road woes (7-14 before Saturday’s game against the Knicks) and lack of dependable perimeter shooting have consigned Joel Embiid and Co. to an underwhelming sixth seed. That has spawned a much more unflattering question: Will the Sixers even have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs?

13. Oklahoma City Thunder

In a season filled with surprise teams, the Thunder are right up there with Miami, Indiana, Dallas and Memphis. With Chris Paul proving he remains an elite player and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander quickly moving toward that level, Oklahoma City’s season is reminiscent of its 47-35 campaign in 2016-17 after losing Kevin Durant in free agency. Maybe the Thunder will trade Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari or Dennis Schroeder. Or maybe they won’t and will instead gear up for an unexpected playoff run.

14. Memphis Grizzlies

I said so the other day on Twitter and it bears repeating: Not a soul predicted, when Memphis allowed Andre Iguodala to wait at home while it tries to trade him to a contender, that the Grizzlies themselves would join the playoff race. Huge credit goes to Ja Morant, the runaway favorite for the Rookie of the Year Award, and Grizzlies Coach Taylor Jenkins, Morant’s fellow rookie, for considerably speeding up this historically plodding, Grit n’ Grind-minded team.

15. San Antonio Spurs

Just when it seemed safe to finally write off the Spurs, one playoff berth short of a record 23rd in a row, San Antonio turned its season around by persuading LaMarcus Aldridge to embrace the 3-pointer. The resultant uptick in Aldridge’s game, as well as in that of DeMar DeRozan, suddenly has the Spurs looking capable of rising out of the deepest plague of mediocrity to infect the Western Conference in more than 20 years and seizing the No. 8 seed.

16. Orlando Magic

It was inevitable that the Magic would have to deal with some injuries after enjoying near-flawless health last season, but the forgiving nature of the Eastern Conference beyond its top six should allow them to reach the playoffs again. The committee’s primary interest here continues to be the Markelle Fultz comeback; Orlando Coach Steve Clifford told us in mid-November that Fultz would be “at another level” after 30 more games. He appears to have nailed that prediction.

17. New Orleans Pelicans

Nothing illuminates the uncharacteristic shallowness in the West than the Pelicans’ ability to maintain playoff hope after a 6-22 start in which they were hit with the double whammy of a lengthy string of injuries and a difficult early schedule. Yet New Orleans suddenly becomes a must-watch team on Wednesday, when Zion Williamson is expected to make his regular-season debut after a knee injury that sidelined him for 13 weeks.

18. Nets

Misguided talk about how the Nets didn’t really miss Kyrie Irving faded by the end of their 26-game stretch without him. Going 13-13 was certainly passable, but the Nets lost seven of eight before Irving’s Jan. 12 return. With Kevin Durant still expected to miss the entire season after tearing his Achilles’ tendon last June, Nets officials know they have to keep Irving and Caris LeVert healthy alongside Spencer Dinwiddie to nab a second successive playoff berth.

19. Phoenix Suns

The Suns’ 7-4 start proved to be a desert mirage. The newcomers Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes and Coach Monty Williams have injected some savvy and stability after Phoenix’s nine consecutive seasons out of the playoffs, but the Suns clearly need more (and a lot more from Deandre Ayton) to end that drought. Things could get worse before they get better, too, with a road-heavy remaining schedule and a talent-laden West impeding Devin Booker’s quest for his first All-Star nod.

20. Portland Trail Blazers

The heartwarming vibes generated by Carmelo Anthony’s successful comeback in the Pacific Northwest have been overshadowed by Portland’s precipitous fall to a sub-.500 enigma this season. In training camp, the Blazers talked up their chances of being true contenders after reaching the Western Conference finals last season. Injuries beyond the ongoing absences of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have been a factor, but no team, in truth, has fallen further short of expectations.

21. Minnesota Timberwolves

Karl-Anthony Towns’s 15-game injury absence — ending with his return against Indiana on Friday — gives the Wolves a reasonable excuse for slumping after a 10-8 start. Yet the rush to trade the veteran guard Jeff Teague to Atlanta, along with their reported attempts to resume the pursuit of D’Angelo Russell via trade talks with Golden State, is a strong indication that Minnesota’s new front office team, headed by Gersson Rosas, is itching to change the cast around Towns.

22. Detroit Pistons

Blake Griffin is out indefinitely with continuing knee trouble that recently required yet another surgery. Andre Drummond is being shopped widely before the Feb. 6 trade deadline. And Reggie Jackson (back) still isn’t playing. The ongoing Derrick Rose renaissance and the fun development of the league’s youngest player, Sekou Doumbouya, cannot mask the reality that the Pistons, to their credit, have begun to embrace: It’s time to start over.

23. Chicago Bulls

The N.B.A. world will soon descend upon the Windy City for the league’s 69th All-Star Game. League observers will then resume trying to figure out what the Bulls’ plan is to get back to the playoffs amid what may be a third successive season with fewer than 30 wins. Once the All-Star party leaves town, Chicago will have nothing left to distract us from the curious struggles of Lauri Markkanen and lingering doubts about Jim Boylen’s fit as coach.

24. Sacramento Kings

For all the reasonable rationalizations that can be offered for the Kings’ plight, given their string of injuries (including health setbacks for De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley) and the effects of an energy-sapping October trip to India, no one in Sacramento wants to hear any of that. Not after 13 consecutive nonplayoff seasons that, barring an unlikely second-half surge, will soon be 14. Pressure is undoubtedly mounting on General Manager Vlade Divac’s regime.

25. Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets were supposed to be much worse, but the combination of a soft first-half schedule, their league-leading eight victories in the crapshoot of one-possession games (8-6) — those decided by 3 points or fewer — and a wholly unexpected breakout for the unheralded Devonte’ Graham have enabled them to stay within range of a playoff spot. The reality, though, is that Charlotte took a six-game losing streak into the weekend — and that the top eight teams in the East are most likely set.

26. Knicks

The Knicks stand as the league’s only team to make an in-season coaching change after firing David Fizdale on Dec. 6. The players are indeed playing harder — and winning a bit more frequently — under their interim coach, Mike Miller. Unfortunately, incremental improvement can’t dilute the disappointment of RJ Barrett’s rookie struggles, Kevin Knox’s regression and Mitchell Robinson’s absence from the starting lineup. It has been an even colder winter than feared at Madison Square Garden.

27. Washington Wizards

The Wizards can’t trade their highly coveted shooting guard Bradley Beal until the off-season, and they insist they are unwilling to trade their highly coveted sharpshooter Davis Bertans before the Feb. 6 trade deadline. With the star guard John Wall still recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon, that leaves little to discuss in the nation’s capital from a pro basketball perspective. That is, apart from Beal’s recent outburst in which he suggested he would “keep blowing up” unless Washington starts “changing our culture.”

28. Golden State Warriors

Jarring as it is to see Golden State down this far, after five consecutive trips to the N.B.A. finals, rival teams better enjoy it while they can. Stephen Curry (broken left hand) and Klay Thompson (knee surgery) will rejoin Draymond Green next season, with the Warriors happily focused now on developing prospects like Eric Paschall and Damion Lee while letting the new Chase Center serve as the star attraction — and waiting to see how high they finish in the draft lottery.

29. Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers gave Kevin Love a contract extension that makes him difficult to trade. Then they gave their new coach, John Beilein, an even longer contract that compels them to stick with the former Michigan man even though Beilein has predictably labored to connect with N.B.A. players after making the jump from college to the pros at age 66. There is some young talent here, but it’s difficult to get past the two major conundrums Cleveland faces.

30. Atlanta Hawks

Second-guessing is a daily way of life for teams that passed over Luka Doncic in the 2018 draft. In the Hawks’ case, however, it’s really Cam Reddish’s struggles that make this such a sore subject. For all his defensive deficiencies, Trae Young is in All-Star contention because of his offensive brilliance, even on team that is 10-33 after its loss against Detroit on Saturday. But Atlanta needed to hit on the extra pick it received from Dallas in the Doncic-Young swap. Reddish, to put it kindly, isn’t hitting.

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