We’re getting to the stretch run of a chaotic NBA season.
We passed up the third-quarter mark for every team during the past week, meaning we just have one quarter of the season left before the postseason process begins. That gives teams roughly 15-18 games left to make their final push for seeding in their respective conferences, slots in the play-in tournament or the dreaded march toward securing as many lottery balls as possible for draft pick maximization.
Things have changed pretty dramatically for teams thanks to the trade market. Things have changed significantly from the buyout market. Injuries have shaped the madness, as have health and safety protocols when it comes to player availability and the cloud that hangs over the win-loss record. After the first quarter of the season, I handed out grades and rankings to each team. At the midway point in the season, I handed out grades and rankings to each team. So what am I doing at the three-quarter mark of the season?
That’s right! Handing out grades and rankings for the final stretch run of the 2020-21 season.
Here’s how the Power Rankings work:
• It’s up to my discretion how the rankings shake out each week. For some teams, they’ll be hit in the short-term. Others will be given the benefit for the long-term.
• I do not believe in the transitive property with these teams. If Team X beats Team Y and Team Y beat Team Z, it doesn’t mean that Team X is automatically better than Team Z.
• If I have a team ahead of another team, there’s no reason to ask why they’re ranked above the team you like. The answer is pretty simple: I think that team is set up better for success.
• Leave a fun, snarky comment toward me, a team or a player and it will likely get picked by Wosny Lambre for our Power Rankings podcast, for subscribers only, which has Wos reading the best comments each week. Or it might even make The Restricted Area, our new NBA show on The Athletic’s YouTube channel.
• Only 15 teams will be deemed worthy of a GIF or video each week. That’s to help cut down on eating up your data and computer’s processor.
• This is supposed to be fun so let’s have fun with it.
The Power Rankings heading into Week 18 of the 2020-21 regular season begin now!
1. Philadelphia 76ers (↑Previously 6th), 39-17, +5.2 net rating
Weekly slate: Win at Mavs, Win over Nets, Win over Clippers
Previous first-quarter grade/ranking: A- | Ranked 4th
Previous first-half grade/ranking: A | Ranked 4th
Three-quarter grade: A
The Philadelphia 76ers have weathered the storm of Joel Embiid missing a big chunk of games, they’ve carved out the second-best defensive rating in the NBA and they’re just good enough offensively to make it work. The Sixers have held strong on the road, after the disaster we saw with this team away from Wells Fargo Center. They have the best record in the East and have been battling Brooklyn for months for it. It feels like the Sixers have finally put it all together, but we’ll judge that more in the postseason.
Goal for final stretch: With Embiid healthy and thriving, see if you can get that middle-of-the-road offensive rating up toward the top eight. Over a 10.0 points per 100 possession difference when Embiid is on the floor than off.
Why are they ranked here? Four straight wins for Philly, and the Sixers have won 11 of their last 15 games. The team is rolling.
2. Phoenix Suns (↓Previously 3rd), 40-16, +6.7 net rating
Weekly slate: Win over Rockets, Win over Heat, Win over Kings, Loss to Spurs
Previous first-quarter grade/ranking: B | Ranked 8th
Previous first-half grade/ranking: A | Ranked 2nd
Three-quarter grade: A
Once again, it’s impossible to not be thoroughly impressed with the season of the Phoenix Suns. They’re battling for the best record in the NBA. They’re pretty much locked into home-court advantage in the first round at least. It will take some work to take that away in the second round, as well. Chris Paul’s leadership in the first year joining a team has once again proven to be highly impactful. Devin Booker is playing excellent basketball on both ends of the floor, and Monty Williams can trust all of these role players.
Goal for final stretch: Try to just get some easier 3-point attempts for Booker. We know he’s a better shooter than 34.9 percent from deep.
Why are they ranked here? Probably would have had the top spot this week, but the loss to San Antonio knocked them down a notch.
3. Denver Nuggets (↓Previously 1st), 36-20, +5.5 net rating
Weekly slate: Loss at Warriors, Win over Heat, Win at Rockets
Previous first-quarter grade/ranking: B | Ranked 5th
Previous first-half grade/ranking: B | Ranked 8th
Three-quarter grade: A
Through the first three quarters of the regular season, the Denver Nuggets have managed to answer a lot of questions about themselves. They’ve endured the tough part of their schedule, remained competitive most nights, won a bunch of games on the shoulders of their MVP Nikola Jokic, made a trade for Aaron Gordon to bolster their chances and then feasted on a relaxed portion of the schedule. Everything was headed in the right direction for them putting their hats in the contender Royal Rumble ring. Then Jamal Murray tore his ACL this past week and everything became a bit murkier again, but the season has been a success.
Goal for final stretch: Transferring Murray’s responsibilities evenly to Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris. I know Facundo Campazzo seems like the option for them, but MPJ scoring and Morris helping with attack off these actions in the backcourt can give Denver a lot.
Why are they ranked here? Loss to Golden State wasn’t terrible, but them losing Murray knocks them down a bit. We’ve got to see how they continue to adjust to this loss.