In this week’s NBA Power Rankings, Nikola Vucevic is grinding, Zach LaVine made his case and the Warriors have serious NBA Draft dreams.
Our new look NBA Power Rankings are back, a non-traditional structure for a non-traditional era of professional basketball. The world is no longer just about wins and losses and teams are no longer the primary crucible of basketball power. So each week we’ll be dissecting how basketball power is presently distributed — between players, teams, friendships, diss tracks, aesthetic design choices, across leagues and whatever else has a temporary toehold in this ever-changing landscape.
Who has the power in this week’s NBA Power Rankings?
Nikola Vucevic grinding away
The Orlando Magic certainly could have folded. Jonathan Isaac was lost before the season began. Then Markelle Fultz went down. A six-game losing streak was briefly interrupted, then morphing into a stretch of 16 losses in 20 games. They could have pushed their focus to the trade market, looked to flip Nikola Vucevic or Aaron Gordon for future assets, onto a team headed in the other direction.
Those trades might still be coming but for now, the Magic are somehow keeping their head above water. They’ve won four of their last five and are, somewhat remarkably, just a game-and-a-half out of the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier have both been scorching hot from the outside (23-of-44, 52.2 percent) over the past five games but, as always, Vucevic has been the rock.
Over this five-game stretch, which includes a 40-point game and a 30-point triple-double, he’s averaging 27.7 points, 14.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. The elite efficiency hasn’t quite been there, but that’s more the Vucevic style anyway. Scraping and fighting for everything, winning ugly if that’s what the situation demands.
Staying in the playoff race could hold off any trades and, selfishly, I hope Vucevic gets to finish the next two years on his contract in Orlando. Assuming reasonable health and production, even accounting for age-related decline, Vucevic could cement his place in Magic history as soon as next season. He needs just 1346 to pass Dwight Howard and become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. He trails Howard by 1844 rebounds (about three years worth) and could conceivably land as high as fifth on the all-time assist list, passing Hedo Turkoglu and Nick Anderson.
The steady consistency of Vucevic is remarkable in its own right, its what’s carried the Magic for nearly a decade and it would be great to see him get a chance to do it just a little bit longer.
The Aleksej Pokusevski circus
Let your mind do the circus music in the background while you watch this one. Doo-doo-doodle-loodle-lood-lood-doo-doo-doo.
Whoever Trae Young guards
The game-winning dunk is ultra-rare but anything is possible when Trae Young is defending at the point of attack. His Tuesday night against the Cavaliers, he missed a floater that could have iced the game and then spun deftly out of Lamar Stevens’ way, leaving a clear lane to the basket.
To say Young’s defense has become problematic is likely an understatement. Young ranks 469th out of 471 players in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus and no amount of strategic cross-matching has been able to hide him. According to the NBA’s matchup stats, the players the Young has spent the most possessions guarding this season have been Joe Harris, Devonte’ Graham, Elfrid Payton, Darius Garland, Josh Okogie and Delon Wright. That’s not exactly a murderer’s row of high-volume scorers but their teams have averaged 143.2 points per 100 possessions when they’re defended by Young.
Joe Harris is the player Trae Young has spent the most time defending this season — a total of just over 51 possessions. On those possessions, Harris has scored 21 points (a rate of 40.7 per 100 possessions, about the same as Damian Lillard across the entire season). The Nets’ offense, collectively, has scored at a rate of 170.5 points per 100 possessions.
If Trae Young’s defense can make Joe Harris look like Damian Lillard, then it could probably make Nik Stauskas like Joe Harris. If you’re a fringe NBA player looking to carve out a career, figure out how to get that Trae Young matchup.
Zach LaVine’s All-Star credentials
There’s always something to quibble about with NBA All-Star selections but the threshold has to be set somewhere. There are plenty of players in the East who were “snubbed” but it should obscure the fact that Zach LaVine has been really, really good this season. He’s averaging a career-high 28.6 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 64.8, blowing away his previous career-high of 57.4. He’s on pace to join an exclusive club (just 12 players in the last five seasons) of players with a usage rate above 30 and a true shooting percentage above 60, and his true-shooting percentage would be among the best for players who have managed that feat.
He’s become one of the most consistent pull-up shooters both inside and outside the arc. Thanks to improved finishing around the basket, he’s averaging .705 points per drive, behind only Giannis, Zion, Kyrie and Bradley Beal among players averaging at least 10 drives per game. Oh, and if he’d hit just six more of his 162 free-throw attempts he’d be on pace for a 50/40/90 season.
His defense is still … well … umm … look at those shooting percentages again!
Again, other players had legitimate cases as well, but that shouldn’t take anything away from LaVine’s.
Warriors’ NBA Draft dreams
The Timberwolves currently have the worst record in the league (7-25) a slow-motion disaster that has myriad implications for the Warriors. Golden State has the rights to the Timberwolves’ 2021 first-round pick this season but it has top-3 protection. It’s a tight needle for Golden State’s fantasies to thread. This draft class looks extremely loaded at the top end and the Warriors would likely prefer the pick transfer this season, ideally at No. 4, rather than go into next season hoping that everything that broke wrong for the Timberwolves does so again. But the Timberwolves continuing to hold one of the three worst records in the league increases the odds that the pick falls in a protected range.
Given all that, it’s probably to the Warriors’ benefit that the Timberwolves made a coaching change this week. A slight bump in the standings would increase the odds of the pick transferring to Golden State this season and give the Warriors a chance to land someone like Jonathan Kuminga or Jalen Green. Even if they’re trading the pick it’s more valuable the more likely it is to be transferred this year. It’s all upside and ping-pong balls right now but the Warriors have to be rooting for Chris Finch to help the Wolves pick up a win or two (but not too many).