Welcome to the fifth 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. Milwaukee Bucks (30-5)
2. Los Angeles Clippers (24-11)
3. Los Angeles Lakers (26-7)
4. Boston Celtics (23-8)
5. Miami Heat (24-9)
The rise of Heat center Bam Adebayo from fun prospect to possible All-Star has presented president Pat Riley with team-building options. The addition of Jimmy Butler over the summer seemed like a step toward recruiting the next superstar to Miami in 2021 free agency, but the Heat already have a second star on the roster and are a whole lot closer to contention than most imagined at this point.
There was some discussion about Miami trading for Chris Paul, the past-his-prime point guard who shares a maniacal desire to win with Butler but is owed roughly $100 million through 2022. Butler is 30 years old, and he said around this time last year that he has no intention of playing past the age of 35.
The window was narrow. Except, the Heat — once a collection of oversized contracts you might trade in a win-now gamble for an aging star — are now replete with young building blocks. In addition to Adebayo, still-developing rotation guys Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson are all on their rookie deals, and the injured Justise Winslow is on an affordable second contract. The lot of them make less than $25 million combined through at least 2021, when Adebayo and Nunn can become restricted free agents and Winslow can opt out. Paul’s deal would strangle their salary cap past then.
The balance Riley must consider is building for both the now and the future with this group, and it is one that Boston Celtics rival Danny Ainge has been trying to walk for years now. Ainge spent some capital chasing Kyrie Irving to disastrous results, but his wealth of draft picks allowed for that mistake.
Miami has its future first-round picks tied up in protections, but the Heat could package one or more of their young core with expiring contracts to chase deals that might expedite their path to contention. Free agents to be Goran Dragic and Meyers Leonard make a combined $30.5 million this season, and another $41.9 million owed to Kelly Olynyk, James Johnson and Dion Waiters comes off the books in 2021. Dragic, Leonard and Olynyk have been helpful this season, but none are essential for the future.
The question is who represents an upgrade both now and for the future. Who would be worth giving up Winslow, Herro and/or Nunn, along with Dragic’s expiring contract, and what could you get for them? Golden State and Brooklyn are interesting targets. Would either prefer an injection of young role-playing talent over higher-usage guys like D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie to better support their superstars next year? Does either elevate the Heat’s ceiling, or is Riley better off letting this group grow together until cap space opens in 2021? Two years is a long time to wait when you are this close.
6. Denver Nuggets (23-10)
7. Philadelphia 76ers (23-13)
8. Toronto Raptors (23-11)
9. Dallas Mavericks (21-12)
10. Utah Jazz (21-12)
This season was not going the way the Jazz envisioned. Their premier offseason addition, 32-year-old Mike Conley, has twice pulled his hamstring and played well below expectations when healthy. Joe Ingles struggled in his transition to a reserve role, and his bench mates were atrocious to the point that free-agent acquisitions Ed Davis and Jeff Green became respectively unplayable and expendable.
Returning stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, as well as summer signing Bojan Bogdanovic, did well to keep Utah afloat as a sixth seed in a surprisingly shallow Western Conference. But the burden was too much. What has been an elite defense for years under coach Quin Snyder had dropped out of the top 10, despite Gobert again performing at a Defensive Player of the Year level, and their middling offense had fallen to 24th, despite Mitchell and Bogdanovic averaging a combined 46 points per game.
So, Utah’s front office pulled the trigger on a pair of fringe moves, swapping oft-injured former No. 5 overall pick Dante Exum for Jordan Clarkson and waiving Green in favor of G League standout Rayjon Tucker, all in hopes of jumpstarting the bench behind a stout starting five. As Jazz vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey informed reporters last week, via The Salt Lake Tribune’s Eric Walden, “We just got to a point where we had seen enough that this current mix just wasn’t working.”
Are Clarkson and Tucker the answer? Clarkson has largely been a volume scorer for terrible teams, often inefficiently and at the expense of defensive effort. Tucker has a ton of upside as a high-energy wing, but he is unproven at the NBA level. And I’m not sure any of it matters if Conley doesn’t get right.
The Jazz have used a respite in what was a difficult schedule to find some rhythm. They have won seven of their last eight games, almost entirely against sub-.500 teams (save for a solid post-Christmas win over the Clippers). In that span, they have ranked second in offensive rating and sixth on defense.
Clarkson has provided a boost, but Ingles has been the X factor, averaging 17.6 points (on 56/55/92 splits), 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists over that span. His splits as a starter are so much better than as a reserve, to the point you wonder if Utah is better off with a lineup that is now working. Given Conley’s ability and skill set, that should not be the case — and it can’t be if the Jazz have any hope of landing a home playoff seed and joining a list of serious contenders they saw as peers at season’s start.
11. Houston Rockets (23-11)
12. Indiana Pacers (22-12)
13. Oklahoma City Thunder (18-15)
One of the positive developments from the player empowerment era for fans was the fair compensation the Thunder and Pelicans received in return for dealing disgruntled superstars Paul George and Anthony Davis, respectively. In addition to the wealth of draft picks they got to assist their rebuilds, each received a future All-Star in return. Brandon Ingram may well be one this year for New Orleans, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is leaving little doubt that he will be one soon for OKC.
Over the past 12 games, when the Thunder’s nine wins flipped them from sub-.500 likely sellers to seventh-seeded potential buyers at the trade deadline, SGA has averaged 22.6 points on 50/42/83 shooting splits, along with 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists, despite ceding some playmaking duties to Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder. He averaged nearly five assists per 36 minutes in L.A. last season, and you can envision him becoming an efficient 25-5-5 guy in short order with increased responsibility.
The Thunder would no doubt like to find a taker for Paul, but a deal seems unlikely to develop over the next two months. Meanwhile, Danilo Gallinari’s expiring contract could fetch another future draft pick by February, but OKC already has a war chest of those from dealing George and Russell Westbrook.
Maybe the Thunder are content letting Gallinari’s deal expire and getting under the cap this summer. In which case, is it worth trying to seriously play spoiler come end of April? OKC is a small market that prides itself on remaining relevant. They could spend some draft capital to add a playoff piece or two.
Outside of an unforeseen shakeup that returns a star-level player, though, it is hard to imagine OKC leapfrogging any of the West’s top six seeds. That probably means a first-round date with an L.A. team, and the Thunder would be long shots against both. I don’t see the point in trading picks just to be friskier first-round fodder, unless they bring back a building block like Bogdan Bogdanovic from Sacramento. Whatever the Thunder decide, they can see the future through Gilgeous-Alexander.
14. San Antonio Spurs (14-18)
15. Portland Trail Blazers (14-20)
16. Brooklyn Nets (16-16)
17. Orlando Magic (14-19)
18. Phoenix Suns (13-20)
19. Memphis Grizzlies (13-21)
20. Charlotte Hornets (13-23)
21. Chicago Bulls (13-21)
22. Minnesota Timberwolves (12-20)
23. Sacramento Kings (12-22)
24. New Orleans Pelicans (11-23)
25. Detroit Pistons (12-22)
26. Cleveland Cavaliers (10-23)
27. Golden State Warriors (9-26)
28. Washington Wizards (10-22)
We harp on what John’s Wall contract is doing to the Wizards, and I still don’t know if we talk about it enough. He is in the first year of a four-year, $171 million deal, and he will not play until at least October, when he will be a 30-year-old with four major surgeries over the previous four years. He will have played only 73 games since nearly leading the Wizards to the 2017 Eastern Conference finals.
Washington actually has an interesting roster, thanks in large part to new GM Tommy Sheppard. All-Star guard Bradley Beal obviously leads the charge, and he is now signed through at least 2022. The trade for sharpshooting big man Davis Bertans has proven to be a stroke of genius, although his expiring contract and surefire salary spike raises questions about capitalizing on his trade value now. Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant and Mo Wagner round out a promising young crop of versatile bigs.
Isaiah Thomas is a steal at the minimum and would be a perfect spark plug behind a healthy Wall-Beal backcourt, as would fellow low-cost veteran Ish Smith as a fourth guard. (Ironically, the Wizards could never find cheap guard depth when they were East contenders.) This is where things get sad again.
Former GM Ernie Grunfeld’s many mistakes beyond the Wall deal are also still haunting the Wizards. The trade of Kelly Oubre and Austin Rivers for a Trevor Ariza rental and a playoff chase that never materialized looks even worse than it did at the time. Grunfeld also signed Otto Porter Jr. for $100 million, traded him for expiring contracts 18 months later and left with the same nothing he could have had in 2017, only without the cap space they might have had before Wall’s deal kicked in this season.
But, hey, at least Ian Mahinmi’s deal is finally coming off the books.
Sheppard has done well to clean up the mess as best he can, but when the next crop of superstars becomes available in 2021, the Wizards will still owe Wall $44 million against a projected $125 million salary cap. The only way to build a legit team around Beal before he can opt out is to find a taker for Wall, whose deal could be packaged with multiple first-round picks and still not warrant an offer. I can’t even imagine OKC would swap Paul for Wall and more premium picks. (Thanks again, Ernie.)
Beal has been incredible. He deserves better. He may never find it in Washington, and he cannot request a trade until after this season, which is a shame for every playoff team with worthy assets.
29. New York Knicks (9-24)
30. Atlanta Hawks (7-27)
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