It’s Week 6, the time when we cross the halfway mark of the season for the first half (on Wednesday) and when we will have played 25 percent of the full, 1,080-game, 2020-21 schedule. Unless some more games are postponed, that will be Friday.
Generally, the quarter pole is where teams will make a true decision of where they are standing. But this season, things are clearly different. Owing to the coronavirus, not only have there been postponements and lengthy absences, but this is the first season under the current play-in rules.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Previous Ranking: 1
The Lakers let one get away on Monday against the Warriors (they led by 14 points in the fourth quarter). But on Thursday they kept on (after almost losing an 11-point, fourth-quarter lead) in Milwaukee, holding the No. 1 offense of the League to one of the season’s least productive games. Really, in the restricted area, the Bucks outscored the Lakers, 54-18, but L.A. Kentavian Caldwell-Pope and LeBron James combined to fire 13-for-20 from beyond the arc at +30.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Previous Ranking: 3
Thanks to a seven-game winning streak and that opening-night victory over the Lakers, the Clippers are in first place in the West, earning them a head-to-head tiebreaker. Paul George eventually cooled off on Sunday (shooting just 4-for-13), but Kawhi Leonard was equally fine, scoring 29.1 points over the streak on a successful field goal percentage of 64% (plus 97% on the line). He’s not putting all that much into the net yet, but he’s made the most of his trips to the rim, making 29 straight shots in the restricted area (which is just ridiculous) before missing a spin pass on Sunday in the fourth quarter.
3. Utah Jazz
Previous Ranking: 6
The Jazz have the first eight-game winning streak of the season in the league, with seven of the eight double-digit wins. On Saturday, they led the Warriors by 40 and placed in the top three at both ends of the floor over the course of the streak. In 129 minutes over eight games, Utah’s starting lineup has outscored its opponents by more than 38 points per 100 possessions.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Previous Ranking: 9
The Sixers are close to #FullSquad (Mike Scott has missed the last four games with a knee issue), with Seth Curry returning from a seven-game absence over the weekend. They’re 12-2 (with five straight wins) with Joel Embiid and now 9-0 when they’ve had their full starting lineup. Embiid was listed as questionable with a back issue for their game in Detroit on Saturday, but he played and gave the Pistons 33 and 14 after totaling 80 points and 21 boards in two wins over the Celtics.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
Previous Ranking: 2
There are two teams that have not defeated either of the 13 teams that have a record of winning at the moment. The Magic (0-5) and the Bucks (0-4), who were outscored 102-60 from 3-point range (shooting 20-for-65) over the Nets and Lakers defeats last week, are the two winless teams against the top 13.
6. Denver Nuggets
Previous Ranking: 12
Jamal Murray is struggling with an elbow problem and over the last five games has shot 8-for-34 (24 percent) from 3-point range. But he hit the 3 that the Nuggets needed to send a second straight game to overtime in Phoenix (after getting away with a trip). It was an offensive affair on Friday (120 combined points per 100 possessions), while it was a defensive battle on Saturday (101 per 100) and the Nuggets took both of them. They’ve been 8-3 since their 1-4 start, with just three narrow losses to Dallas, Brooklyn and Utah. This week, they’ll face two of those teams again.
7. Boston Celtics
Previous Ranking: 4
The Celtics got a strong win over the Cavs on Sunday despite the absence of Payton Pritchard, scoring 141 points on 108 possessions against what had been the second-ranked defense of the league. They’re good that Kemba Walker made his comeback last week before he lost Pritchard to an MCL sprain. On Sunday, Walker scored a season-high 21 points in less than 24 minutes, only to be topped by 33 in 19:14 by Jaylen Brown. The Celtics’ two-center lineup reunited to neutralize the All-Star campaign of Andre Drummond, but it couldn’t hinder the coast-to-coast, through-the-legs-from-the-back fast break of JaVale McGee. (Sending this paragraph back to mid-December and seeing the reactions would be fun.)
8. Brooklyn Nets
Previous Ranking: 7
With Brooklyn having barely scored a point per possession during their first 13 games, the Cavs entered their two-game series. Then against the Nets, Cleveland’s two most productive games of the season, they scored 124.2 per 100 over 106 minutes. In overtime on Wednesday, there was no stopping Collin Sexton, but there were some harsh instances of poor effort earlier in the game that might have stopped it from reaching that point. In nine straight games, with only Sacramento and New Orleans ranking worse defensively during that stretch, the Nets have allowed more than 110 points per 100 possessions.
9. Portland Trail Blazers
Previous Ranking: 10
Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. combined to shoot 27 percent from 3-point range (they’re 3-for-27 over the last three games) and while the Blazers allowed just 107.7 points per 100 possessions on the floor together in their 319 minutes, Portland only ranks 28th defensively. So it’s fair to say that the two biggest changes to the roster have not had the desired impact. Yet in the Western Conference at 9-6, this team sits in fourth place.
10. Memphis Grizzlies
Previous Ranking: 15
During the winning streak, Tyus Jones’ minutes were much higher than they were previously (the Grizzlies were outscored by 18 points per 100 possessions with him on the court through Jan. 7), and he did not see any sort of hiccup after heading back to the bench with Ja Morant’s return. On Monday, with Jones and Morant on the floor together, the Grizzlies closed their victory over Phoenix with Jones tying the game with a wild runner over Deandre Ayton. For the go-ahead 3, Morant then fed Grayson Allen, put the Grizz up three again with a beautiful left scoop around Ayton, and drew a charge on Chris Paul.
11. Phoenix Suns
Previous Ranking: 5
In late-game frustration, the Suns potentially lead the league, with six of their seven defeats having been within three points in the fourth quarter’s final minute. Last week’s near misses included Devin Booker’s missed dunk during a late, 11-2 Memphis run on Monday, Chris Paul’s go-ahead jumper that rimmed out on Friday, and Abdel Nader’s 1-for-3 line trip before Saturday’s Jamal Murray’s game-tying 3. These two overtime losses in the span of 27 hours could come back to bite Phoenix with the Nuggets winning the season series, 2-1, particularly because Booker’s hamstring strain (which held him out on Saturday) was suffered in overtime after the Suns gave away a 14-point lead.
12. Indiana Pacers
Previous Ranking: 8
Three of their last four games were lost by the Pacers, with the victory coming in the final seconds of overtime against an Orlando team that lost eight of their last nine. This team generates a high number of shots at the basket; in the restricted area, Indiana opponents have taken 36 percent of their shots, the highest opponent rate in the league. And their rim defense was nonexistent in two games without Myles Turner, allowing the Clippers and Mavs to score 104 combined restricted-area points. Over the weekend, the Magic and Raptors accounted for just 62, with Turner returning and blocking nine shots. But on Friday, the Magic created a season-high 17 3-pointers and on Sunday, OG Anunoby scored a season-high 30 points.
13. Dallas Mavericks
Previous Ranking: 11
Without Josh Richardson and Dorian Finney-Smith, the Mavs’ defense survived its first two games, presumably because those games were against the Magic and Hornets. Over the last 10 days, however, it has fallen from second to 15th, allowing more than 116 points per 100 possessions over their last six games. They gave up more shots at the rim and saw a major decrease in the turnover rate of opponents, from 15.6 per 100 possessions over their first 10 games to just 11.7 over the last six. It can be a problem to ask Kristaps Porzingis to defend in space (examples one, two).
14. Golden State Warriors
Previous Ranking: 14
The starting lineup of the Warriors continues to genuinely fight. In 46 minutes last week, it was outscored by 43 points, allowing 142 points on 102 defensive possessions. It’s curious that the Dubs were better off the floor with Stephen Curry (-1.4 points per 100 possessions) than they were on the floor with him (-4.6 per 100). With the other four starters on the court, Curry shot a decent 14-for-39 (36 percent) from 3-point range in 161 total minutes, but the other four guys shot 15-for-68 (22 percent) from deep in those same minutes.
15. San Antonio Spurs
Previous Ranking: 14
Mid-range shots account for only 20% of field goal attempts by the Spurs, down from 32% five years ago. But they also lead the league for a third straight season in overall mid-range attempts. And over the last two weeks, they’ve taken more than half of their shots from between the paint and the 3-point line. After a tough start to the season, LaMarcus Aldridge has started to find a groove, and he’s only one of four Spurs who have shot better than 55 percent on 17 or more mid-range attempts over the last seven games.
16. Toronto Raptors
Previous Ranking: 17
For the Raptors, things are going so well that Nick Nurse has trusted his starting center (Aron Baynes) in four straight games to play more than 10 minutes. Five of their last six were won by the Raptors, going 4-1 on a homestand and then having just their second road win of the season by beating the Pacers without Kyle Lowry (who missed the last two games) and Sunday’s Pascal Siakam. Expert poacher Fred VanVleet took Malcolm Brogdon’s ball and Chris Boucher, always-active, blocked what looked like Domantas Sabonis’ safe bucket to seal the win.
17. Atlanta Hawks
Previous Ranking: 22
Clint Capela wasn’t really thought of as a “addition” to the Hawks this offseason since they traded for him last February. But last season, he never played for them because of injury and, with Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari struggling with injuries, Capela was the most famous new face on the team that saw the largest leap in point differential per 100 possessions in the league. Capela averaged 14.2 points and 14.5 rebounds (ranked second in rebounding percentage) and posted the league’s first points-rebounds-blocks triple-double in nearly three years in Minnesota on Friday.
Previous Ranking: 23
Collin Sexton (chosen with one of the picks from the last monster trade of the Nets) returned from a five-game absence to ruin Brooklyn’s big three’s debut, scoring 22 of his career-high 42 points in Wednesday’s two overtimes. With a mere 25 points and nine assists (with only one turnover) two nights later, he followed it up to guide the Cavs to a two-game sweep. Sexton scores 25.5 points on an efficient field goal percentage of 57 percent amid a quiet night in Boston on Sunday, shooting better from the outside, finishing better inside, and having seen a boost in the free throw rate.
19. New York Knicks
Previous Ranking: 21
The successful field goal percentage of RJ Barrett (44.5 percent) is the same as last season and ranks 160th among 171 players with at least 100 field goal attempts, largely because he shot so poorly (10-for-54) over the first 3 1/2 weeks of the season from 3-point range. But over the last six weeks, he’s 8-for-18 from beyond the arc and he’s seen changes in his mid-range field goal percentage (from 27% to 38%) and his free throw percentage (from 61 percent to 76 percent ). So there are signs of improvement with his shooting and Barrett scored a career-high 28 points in the Knicks’ big win at Golden State on Thursday (with one bucket as a roll man).
20. Miami Heat
Previous Ranking: 18
The Heat outscored their opponents in the first quarter by 12.7 points per 100 possessions last season, the highest mark for any player in any quarter. This season, only the Thunder (a spectacular -26.0 per 100) in the opening 12 minutes is worse than the Heat (-18.3). At the end of the first quarter, Miami trailed in six of its last seven games and in three of its last four by 11 or more points. The Heat returned from a 19-point deficit to beat the Pistons on Monday and erased almost all of Saturday’s 18-point deficit in Brooklyn, but the career-high 41 points for Bam Adebayo were not enough, because they couldn’t stop Kyrie Irving down the stretch.
21. Chicago Bulls
Previous Ranking: 26
In each of their three games last week, the Bulls missed a starter (Patrick Williams or Wendell Carter Jr.), so their bench rotation was a little different. But in wins over the Rockets and Hornets, their bench was always terrific. They closed the Houston game with Thaddeus Young playing on the frontline alongside Lauri Markkanen and then put the Charlotte game away alongside Otto Porter Jr. with Young playing center. They have outscored their opponents by 6.7 points per 100 possessions in 301 total minutes with at least two of their three veteran backups, Porter, Young and Garrett Temple, on the court.
22. Houston Rockets
Previous Ranking: 24
The comeback of DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t perfect. Cousins took almost half of his 3-point shots, where he just shot 28%. Among 144 players with at least 35 restricted-area attempts, his 34 percent in the restricted area is the worst rating. Cousins shot 3-for-27 in the Rockets’ first three games last week, and in his 63 minutes on the court, Houston was outscored by 25 points per 100 possessions.
23. Charlotte Hornets
Previous Ranking: 19
Some funky stuff the Hornets are doing defensively. In a three-minute stretch in the third quarter against Chicago on Friday, they got backcourt turnovers from both a 1-2-2 press and a 2-2-1 press. They have employed an amorphous zone in the half-court that will turn into a man-to-man in the middle of a possession. At times, they will give up some wide-open shots and their opponents have taken 78 percent of their shots from the restricted area or 3-point range, the league’s highest opponent average. But defensively, the Hornets rank 11th, having seen the league’s fourth largest decrease in points allowed from last season per 100 possessions, so it’s working to some degree.
24. Oklahoma City Thunder
Previous Ranking: 20
In the second of two straight meetings on Sunday, the Thunder stuck around with the Clippers, but lost five of their last six matches, needing a miraculous comeback against the Bulls to pick up one victory. OKC had more than 20 points in four straight games before falling behind by only 17 on Sunday. For this five-game stretch, Al Horford was out, and over those 12 days, the Thunder’s starting lineup with Isaiah Roby in Horford’s place was outscored by more than 20 points per 100 possessions in 99 minutes. A short-roll dime for a Luguentz Dort layup, a Eurostep around Nikola Jokic into a wrong-foot runner out of glass, Roby had a few intriguing moments.
25. New Orleans Pelicans
Previous Ranking: 16
On their road trip, the Pelicans went 1-5, with just a narrow victory over the Kings. They’re home on their first-half schedule for 15 of the final 21 matches, but home-court advantage doesn’t mean much this season and at the Smoothie King Center, the Pels have lost their last three. Over the last three weeks, they are 1-8, with the league’s 29th-ranked defense.
26. Orlando Magic
Previous Ranking: 25
The Magic have lost eight of their last nine games once 6-2 (compulsory reminder) with the only victory coming at the buzzer against the 4-11 Wolves. Evan Fournier’s return from a nine-game absence has given their offense (108.1 points scored over the last three games per 100 possessions) a slight boost. He is the one triple-threat on this team, capable of patiently shaking a strong defender or reading a bad one. Without him and down two on Monday in the final minute in New York, the Magic put the ball in Aaron Gordon’s hands and the outcome was cringe-worthy.
27. Sacramento Kings
Previous Ranking: 29
The offense of the Knicks has been kept under a point per possession eight times already this season, when the opponent cares not to run, it helps a bad transition defense, and there were possessions where on Friday the Kings got lucky. Marvin Bagley III left Julius Randle open beyond the arc after 18 seconds of solid support and rotation to cover a Mitchell Robinson roll that Harrison Barnes had already accounted for. But the resulting, wide-open 3 missed Randle. Even, it’s a huge move forward for the Kings to keep every team under a point per possession. Mistakes were made, but in their 103-94 win, the effort was mostly there, and rookie Tyrese Haliburton came up with a couple of major defensive plays.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves
Previous Ranking: 30
The Wolves are the only team on both ends of the floor that ranks in the lower five. Bad defense is not surprising, but with D’Angelo Russell on the court, it has been brutal (119.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). There was a possession before Cole Anthony’s game-winner on Wednesday, where Russell was top-locking Evan Fournier and used more effort to call for assistance when Fournier cut to the basket than he would have needed to just follow Fournier and avoid the ensuing layup. And in the final minute, Russell (switched the screen), Josh Okogie (returned to his man after initially protecting the roll) and Naz Reid had a miscommunication.
29. Detroit Pistons
Previous Ranking: 27
Jahlil Okafor turned to a Clint Capela ball screen for Kevin Huerter with a minute and a half left and the score tied in overtime in Atlanta on Wednesday. Blake Griffin saw that Wayne Ellington was left in the paint to guard Capela, so he called for a “scram” switch, sliding down to take Capela, with Ellington on the perimeter swapping out to John Collins. It was a smart, selfless game and it was well-communicated; you hear Griffin talking about any defensive possession for which he is on the floor if you have the volume up on Pistons games.
30. Washington Wizards
Previous Ranking: 28
The Wizards’ first game started off well in 13 days. On their first three possessions, they scored eight points, held the Spurs to just 11 on their first 16, and had a 10-point lead late in the first period. Alas, still missing a bunch of bodies, the bench of the Wizards was no match for that of the Spurs, the lead quickly vanished, and one of the league’s worst defensive teams finally resumed being the Wizards ‘. On 50 second-half possessions, San Antonio scored 73 points to win and go down.