The All-Star break is over, and we've officially entered the home stretch of the 2021-22 NBA season.
Teams around the league only have 20-25 games left to solidify playoff position, push for the play-in or go all-in on the tank. So, now feels like the perfect time to do a couple of things:
- Reset the power rankings; and
- Give you someone to watch from each team.
On the former, recent play won't be totally ignored, but these rankings are based more on a "totality of the season" approach than earlier iterations.
Regarding the latter, every team in the league, whether tanking or cruising toward contention, has at least one exciting, dominant, intriguing (insert your own adjective here) player to track the rest of the way.
The NBA is as talent-rich as it has ever been, and the remainder of this campaign will surely give us plenty of must-see action.
30. Detroit Pistons
Previous Rank: 30
Net Rating: -10.0
The Detroit Pistons are an on-court disaster, and they have been for the overwhelming majority of this season. But most fans surely anticipated that going in.
In a rebuilding season like this, it's all about seeing those little flashes of hope here and there. Cade Cunningham has provided plenty.
With his size (6'6") and ability to play with pace, Cunningham can see the floor, engineer possessions and make reads in a way you don't usually see from a player until he has a couple of years of experience.
Once he figures out how to shoot consistently (and a 37.5 three-point percentage over his last 15 games suggests that can happen), it's hard to imagine many limits to his ceiling.
29. Houston Rockets
Previous Rank: 27
Net Rating: -9.4
His performance in the dunk contest was a dud. And a dreadful minus-4.9 box plus/minus (BPM "...is a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference) suggests Green simply wasn't ready for the NBA.
But few rookies are in their first few months, and as tanking teams around the league drop the pretense of trying to win from here to the end of the season, the Houston Rockets will likely give Green and other young players even more opportunities for on-court growth.
That'll certainly lead to bumps in the road, but watching Green's fluid, high-flying athleticism in action will be worth it.
28. Orlando Magic
Previous Rank: 29
Net Rating: -8.6
Franz Wagner has unquestionably been the best rookie on the Orlando Magic, but the higher draft pick, Jalen Suggs, has made his presence known since returning from injury.
Over those 18 games, he's topped 20 points twice and eclipsed seven assists on seven occasions.
Though his shooting remains terribly inefficient, his awareness and athleticism on the other end have made him a clear plus on defense. Orlando allows 110.7 points per 100 possessions with Suggs on the floor, compared to 115.7 when he's off.
27. Indiana Pacers
Previous Rank: 25
Net Rating: -2.7
It's only been four games, but Tyrese Haliburton's production for the Indiana Pacers is making a lot of the early takes on that trade feel warranted.
He's putting up 20.8 points, 11.0 assists and 3.5 threes while shooting 45.2 percent from three.
That almost certainly won't continue for the remainder of the season, but we've seen enough from Haliburton to know that he can be the kind of pace-controlling, mistake-limiting point guard who can raise the floor of just about any roster.
26. Oklahoma City Thunder
Previous Rank: 26
Net Rating: -6.6
The Oklahoma City Thunder have only been all-in on a Trust the Process-like rebuild for two or three years, but they already have multiple players—Luguentz Dort, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey—who look like they could be part of a good team's rotation.
Giddey, specifically, looks like the kind of team-first playmaker who can lift everyone around him. His eyes are always up, he's rarely rushed by defenders and his pinpoint accuracy on cross-court passes is something most veterans don't have.
He's had a triple-double in each of his last three games and is averaging 18.7 points, 11.0 rebounds and 10.7 assists over this stretch.
25. Portland Trail Blazers
Previous Rank: 28
Net Rating: -4.2
It's fair to wonder whether Anfernee Simons and Damian Lillard are a good pairing going forward. They just ended a years-long experiment with two small guards by trading CJ McCollum.
But that concern doesn't have to be addressed right now. For the moment, we can just enjoy the scoring run Simons is on.
Since Lillard left the rotation with an injury for good, Simons is averaging 23.6 points, 6.1 assists and 4.4 threes while shooting 41.8 percent from three.
24. Sacramento Kings
Previous Rank: 24
Net Rating: -4.9
Really, the focus of this slide could fall on Domantas Sabonis or De'Aaron Fox. Ultimately, the Sacramento Kings' shot at long-term success largely depends on how those two coexist. For this season, though, the onus is on Sabonis.
Sacramento bet big on the Lithuanian center. That bet included one of the game's more intriguing young prospects, Tyrese Haliburton, and it won't feel like it paid off if the Kings fall short of the play-in tournament.
To get there, Sabonis (who's averaged 19.2 points, 12.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists since the start of the 2019-20 season) will have to be dominant.
23. Washington Wizards
Previous Rank: 23
Net Rating: -2.6
The Dallas Mavericks can certainly sell the Kristaps Porzingis trade as a move toward roster flexibility going forward. There's probably some truth to that, but it's hard to look at that package and think that the Mavericks didn't just give up on the big man (or at least his fit next to Luka Doncic).
For the rest of the season, Porzingis now has a chance to prove that he still has star upside for a roster devoid of many other scoring options.
With Bradley Beal out for the rest of the season with a wrist injury, Porzingis should get plenty of shots. He also isn't likely to be relegated to "stand in the corner and space the floor" duty, as he often was in Dallas.
If he can score in a variety of ways and stay healthy, KP can shift the narrative surrounding him.
22. New York Knicks
Previous Rank: 20
Net Rating: -2.0
As they continue to spiral toward the lottery, the New York Knicks are reportedly shutting Kemba Walker down for the season…again.
If this is the organization signaling that it's going to steer more minutes and opportunities for the younger players, it's probably a good thing. And one who could assume some of that playmaking responsibility is RJ Barrett.
Over the course of his career, the Knicks are 17-13 when Barrett hands out at least five assists.
21. San Antonio Spurs
Previous Rank: 22
Net Rating: +0.4
As you can see, the San Antonio Spurs' point differential suggests they should have a much better record. But things just fall apart for them without All-Star point guard Dejounte Murray.
When he's on the floor, San Antonio is plus-2.4 points per 100 possessions. It's minus-6.0 without him.
That massive impact is derived from a multifaceted game that produces 19.9 points, 9.3 assists, 8.3 rebounds and a league-leading 2.0 steals. In a pre-Russell Westbrook world, those numbers would be eye-popping.
20. New Orleans Pelicans
Previous Rank: 21
Net Rating: -2.9
The volume on the Zion Williamson drama was cranked up when ESPN's JJ Redick lit into him on First Take, where he said, among other things, that Zion is a "detached teammate."
On the court, though, things are looking good. In five games with the New Orleans Pelicans, newly acquired CJ McCollum is averaging 28.4 points, 5.4 assists and 3.4 threes while shooting 42.5 percent from three.
If he continues to perform at or near that level for the rest of the season, New Orleans should stay within striking distance of a play-in spot.
A Zion return feels less likely with each update, but the addition of his dynamic interior scoring to McCollum's perimeter game would make the Pelicans a nightmarish draw for teams trying to make the eight-team postseason.
19. Los Angeles Lakers
Previous Rank: 19
Net Rating: -1.4
An already tumultuous season went full-scale chaotic over the All-Star break when LeBron James told The Athletic's Jason Lloyd that the "door's not closed" on a return to the Cleveland Cavaliers and that he plans on playing his final season with his son Bronny, who is draft-eligible in 2024.
And oh, reports that James' agency is frustrated with Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka didn't help, either.
Now, it almost feels like the entire organization is on borrowed time, especially Russell Westbrook, whose continued presence in L.A. may be the source of that frustration.
How will Westbrook play after news of his non-trade to the Houston Rockets (for John Wall) came out? Will he have a late-season surge like he did with the Rockets and Washington Wizards? Or, will the Lakers' collapse continue as he fails to fit alongside LeBron and Anthony Davis?
18. Charlotte Hornets
Previous Rank: 17
Net Rating: -0.8
LaMelo Ball made the Charlotte Hornets a #LeaguePassAlert team from the moment he joined the squad last season, and he remains appointment-viewing to this day.
No other player in the NBA is willing to try what Ball is as a passer. Want to see a full-court, Pistol Pete Maravich-style underhand dime? He can do it. Want to see perfectly placed lobs to Miles Bridges? You'll get that on plenty of nights. Perfect reads and dishes out of the pick-and-roll are in his repertoire too.
If the rest of his supporting cast can stay healthy and keep up with him on the break, Charlotte will remain one of the highest-paced, most exciting watches in the league.
17. Los Angeles Clippers
Previous Rank: 18
Net Rating: -0.9
There's still plenty of uncertainty around Paul George's shoulder injury. He's set for an MRI on Friday, but there's no guarantee that'll give us definitive answers.
So, as the Los Angeles Clippers await his return (or news that he's done for the year), newcomer Norman Powell can continue to establish himself as a key cog alongside George and Kawhi Leonard next season.
This season, he's averaging a career-high 18.8 points while shooting 40.7 percent from three. His ability to space the floor (and get up threes in volume) should make him an ideal complementary piece for two high-end slashers in 2022-23.
16. Brooklyn Nets
Previous Rank: 16
Net Rating: +0.2
The player to watch is obvious on this one. After missing every pre-All-Star game for the Philadelphia 76ers, Ben Simmons is now the third member of a trio that includes Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
As well as he played for stretches with Joel Embiid over the years, it's hard to imagine a much better fit for Simmons.
KD and Kyrie are two high-usage, high-efficiency scorers who will give Simmons reliable targets on the outside. And if he's willing to buy in to a Bruce Brown-like role when off the ball, Simmons will feast on gimmes around the rim when defenses are zeroed in on the star shotmakers.
15. Atlanta Hawks
Previous Rank: 15
Net Rating: +0.5
His team has underwhelmed for most of the season, but Trae Young has absolutely been one of the game's best and most dynamic offensive players.
For the second time in his career, Young is on pace for averages of 27 points, nine assists and three threes. James Harden is the only other player in league history who's done it once.
If the Atlanta Hawks are going to solidify a spot in the playoffs, Young's heroics are going to have to continue.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves
Previous Rank: 14
Net Rating: +1.6
Anthony Edwards is the hyper-athletic, exciting and newer talent, but the Minnesota Timberwolves' prospects are still tied closer to the self-proclaimed best shooting big man of all time, Karl-Anthony Towns.
He's eclipsed a single-game BPM of 13 on eight occasions, and Minnesota is 7-1 in those contests. When he plays at the peak of his powers, the T'Wolves are tough to beat.
Just his mere presence makes them at least competitive. They're plus-4.1 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and minus-1.1 when he's off.
13. Toronto Raptors
Previous Rank: 13
Net Rating: +1.7
At this point, it feels like we kind of know what we're going to get out of a resurgent Pascal Siakam, All-Star Fred VanVleet, sharpshooting Gary Trent Jr. and combo forward OG Anunoby.
Scottie Barnes provides a bit more mystery, and his development could go a long way toward determining how far the Toronto Raptors can go.
So far this season, Toronto is 7-3 when he scores at least 20 points. His budding playmaking could add an element of unpredictability to the Raptors offense.
12. Denver Nuggets
Previous Rank: 11
Net Rating: +2.1
Nikola Jokic is having the best statistical season of anyone in the NBA. He's one of the most dynamic passers of all time, a brutally efficient post scorer and an underrated presence on defense. He should be the obvious choice.
But it's become clear over the course of the season that he can't lift the Denver Nuggets to title contention by himself. Though Aaron Gordon has been consistently good, the rest of the supporting cast has struggled in roles they weren't really signed for.
That makes the soon-to-come return of Jamal Murray the thing to watch for with Denver. It may take him some time to get up to speed, but even if Murray is 90 percent of his pre-injury self by the time the playoffs roll around, the Nuggets will be more than a tough out.
11. Chicago Bulls
Previous Rank: 9
Net Rating: +2.0
It probably can't be overstated how wild this season from DeMar DeRozan has been.
His 28.1 points per game are tied for the 11th-highest average of all time for a player in an age-32 (or older) season.
Over his last eight, he's putting up an outrageous 37.6 points on 58.3 percent shooting.
You can still feel the absence of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, particularly on defense, but DeRozan's Michael Jordan-like scoring run for the Chicago Bulls has kept them winning.
10. Utah Jazz
Previous Rank: 12
Net Rating: +6.9
Given the continuity the Utah Jazz have maintained in recent years, there really isn't much left to learn about this team from regular-season games. They've reached the "prove it in the playoffs" point the Milwaukee Bucks hit before last year's playoffs.
There are still 24 games to go, though, and after a dreadful 4-12 January, Donovan Mitchell and Co. could use that remaining time to try to reestablish themselves as a title contender.
Mitchell, specifically, should be a big part of that. Since returning from a concussion, he is averaging 27.3 points, 5.5 assists and 4.2 threes while shooting 43.1 percent from deep. When he hits at least 40 percent of his three-point attempts, Utah is 17-3.
9. Cleveland Cavaliers
Previous Rank: 7
Net Rating: +4.2
There are plenty of exciting young players to hone in on from the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the close of what feels like a Rookie of the Year campaign for Evan Mobley gets the nod.
For much of this season, his versatile defense has understandably generated much of the attention headed his way. But he showed off plenty of offensive skill, particularly as a shooter, for a national audience at All-Star Weekend.
Mobley's touch extends out to the three-point line (though his percentage there doesn't show it yet), and his vision makes him a nice fit alongside another ball-moving star like Darius Garland.
At times, it still feels like the Cavs are on a Cinderella run that has to end soon, but there's plenty to enjoy watching before it does.
8. Dallas Mavericks
Previous Rank: 8
Net Rating: +3.6
It may be too late to truly crash the MVP party, but Luka Doncic is at least heading toward the front door. A few more weeks like his last few, and he'll be knocking on it.
Over his last 20 games, Luka is averaging 30.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, 9.2 assists and 3.0 threes while shooting 35.5 percent from three. Since the Kristaps Porzingis trade (four games), he's putting up a whopping 41.5 points, 12.3 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 5.5 threes.
That move may have had a lot to do with increasing roster flexibility going forward, but it might also unleash a somehow scarier version of Doncic. For years, it's felt like the Dallas Mavericks were walking some kind of tightrope in getting KP involved while still allowing Luka to do what he does. Now, it's almost entirely the latter, and the added freedom is leading to some outlandish production.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
Previous Rank: 5
Net Rating: +1.9
Joel Embiid doesn't have much left to prove in terms of regular-season performance. With 33.8 points per 75 possessions this season, Embiid has pulled his career mark up to 30.0. Michael Jordan is the only player ahead of him on that leaderboard.
The more interesting player to watch for the remainder of the season is Embiid's new teammate, James Harden. Will he be overly deferential, as he was when he joined the Brooklyn Nets last season? Will his ball-dominant style mesh with Embiid's own desire to control possessions inside? Or, will he be forced to adjust?
In theory, having two of the greatest scorers of all time (Harden is seventh on the aforementioned list) on the same roster is great. But basketball isn't played in theory.
6. Boston Celtics
Previous Rank: 10
Net Rating: +5.4
It's surely not surprising that Jayson Tatum has been an integral part of the Boston Celtics' recent surge up the Eastern Conference standings, but it's still worth highlighting.
During their current 11-2 stretch, Tatum is putting up 27.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 3.5 threes.
Most importantly, his effective field-goal percentage during this stretch is a scorching 58.7. It was 47.6 over 43 games before it.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
Previous Rank: 6
Net Rating: +3.2
The Milwaukee Bucks have followed up their 2021 title run with their worst winning percentage since 2017-18, but it's hard to work up a ton of concern.
The Bucks are still plus-13.8 points per 100 possessions (98th percentile) when Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are on the floor. And Giannis, specifically, is still playing like an all-timer.
He may be trailing Jokic in BPM, but that's because he's putting up the highest single-season BPM of all time. In almost any other campaign, Giannis' 11.3 would lead the league (it's currently 12th all time).
4. Miami Heat
Previous Rank: 4
Net Rating: +4.5
It feels like Jimmy Butler has to be one of the least heralded top 10 players in the NBA's recent history. And, according to BPM, he fits that description.
Since the start of the 2019-20 season (and including the playoffs), Butler ranks 10th in the popular catch-all metric. In the 2020 Finals alone, he put up a 10.7 BPM. According to Basketball Reference, anything over 10 should make you "...think peak Jordan or LeBron."
Now, he's in the middle of his third straight campaign with at least 19.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists, and much of the attention for Eastern Conference contenders has been directed elsewhere.
3. Golden State Warriors
Previous Rank: 3
Net Rating: +6.8
There must have been scores of Golden State Warriors fans gleefully watching Stephen Curry hit 16 threes in the All-Star Game and thinking, "Please, let this be the turning point."
After shooting 41.6 percent from three in his first 23 appearances, Curry then hit just 32.3 percent of his attempts from deep over his next 21 games. He was back over 40 percent for his last 10 games before the break, but it still didn't feel like he'd truly busted the slump until Sunday's event.
Of course, that was an exhibition game, and looking for significant takeaways from that is silly. But feel, confidence and a jump shot can be fickle. As we've learned this season, that's true even for the greatest shooter of all time.
Finding whatever zone Curry did on a stage as big as the All-Star Game could give him confidence going forward.
2. Memphis Grizzlies
Previous Rank: 2
Net Rating: +4.5
The Memphis Grizzlies have one of the deepest and most balanced rosters in the NBA. There are plenty of options here, but while the team's point differential is still better when he's off the floor, Ja Morant has to be the answer.
Whenever he's in the game, there's a sense that something spectacular is about to happen. And it often does. Jaw-dropping blocks, high-flying dunks and slithering layups around rim protectors make Morant one of the most watchable players in the league.
The brashness he plays with has seemingly rubbed off on the Grizzlies, who are playing as consistently and confidently as anyone in the league.
1. Phoenix Suns
Previous Rank: 1
Net Rating: +8.1
With Chris Paul set to miss most (perhaps all) of what's left of this regular season, we should get a better look at what Devin Booker has learned as his running mate over the last two seasons.
Based on the 1,200-plus minutes Booker has played without CP3 since the start of 2020-21, the Phoenix Suns should be able to survive this.
Over that stretch, the Suns have a plus-5.3 net rating. And in those situations, Booker is averaging 28.5 points and 5.9 assists per 75 possessions with a 56.2 true shooting percentage.