NBA Power Rankings Week 8: A False Start In New Orleans

The 2019-20 season was supposed to be a step forward for the New Orleans Pelicans. David Griffin overhauled the roster after winning the No. 1 overall pick and the rights to Zion Williamson, straddling the line in intelligent fashion between building for the future and attempting to compete immediately. However, an injury to Williamson seemingly derailed everything in New Orleans and, after 27 games, the Pelicans own an unsightly 6-21 record.

That win-loss mark arrives on the heels of an active 12-game losing streak and what Pelicans fans are hoping is rock bottom for the campaign. New Orleans has a woeful 118.2 defensive rating during that stretch and, while the team has been competitive on some nights, a run of 12 consecutive defeats speaks for itself. Context is important in that the Pelicans were favored (at least in Vegas) on only two occasions during that run and, in those games, the result was in doubt in the final minutes. Beyond that, New Orleans has faced an utter gauntlet of a schedule to this point, both in the 12-game losing streak and the full season overall. In fact, the Pelicans’ slate measures as the most difficult in the NBA.

The team’s record is more defensible with that information at the forefront, especially when realizing that they’ve received nothing from Williamson and only 11 games of limited action from starting center Derrick Favors. At some point, Williamson will be back (albeit in potentially limited fashion) and the team’s brutal schedule will soften to the tune of the easiest (projected) outlook in the NBA for the final 55 contests. Still, the hole dug by the Pelicans is virtually impossible to get out of when attempting to foresee a playoff push, meaning that the organization has further incentive to be very careful with Williamson and lean heavily on young players for the rest of the season.

In the aggregate, very few players have performed well when compared to a baseline projection, headlined by Brandon Ingram and rookie Jaxson Hayes. With that in mind, it is likely that some will regress to the mean in a positive way and, with the schedule quirks on the table, the Pelicans should reel off some victories at some point. For now, though, everything has gone wrong for New Orleans and it is almost inconceivable that the team would have a 6-21 record after the seemingly justified hype of the offseason.

Where do the Pelicans rank in a mid-December edition of our DIME power rankings? Let’s find out.

1. Los Angeles Lakers (24-3, Last week — 2nd)

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The Lakers have the longest winning streak in the NBA (seven games) and they are perfect away from Staples Center this season. It wasn’t as if Los Angeles was dominant in winning its last game over Atlanta, but they’ve done enough and are operating at an elite level on both ends of the floor. It turns out it is good to have LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

2. Milwaukee Bucks (24-4, Last week — 1st)

It seems unfair that Milwaukee would drop out of the top spot after one loss, especially after zooming to the league’s longest winning streak this season. That’s what happens when the Lakers are 24-3 but, in truth, the Bucks losing at home to the Luka-less Mavericks wasn’t the best data point. Still, no one should worry about Milwaukee. This is a great basketball team.

3. L.A. Clippers (20-8, Last week — 3rd)

Losing to the Bulls isn’t great under any circumstances, but the Clippers have some excuses for that particular result. L.A. was playing its third game in four nights (to end a six-game road trip) and Doc Rivers’ team took the floor without Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and JaMychal Green. Needless to say, the Clippers are fine, even if there is a big drop-off — at least in resume — from the top two.

4. Philadelphia 76ers (20-8, Last week — 5th)

Philly’s last result was an ugly one with a 20-point loss to Brooklyn. Joel Embiid didn’t play in that game, though, and the Sixers are still 13-3 in their last 16 contests. That is enough to outlast some of the jumbled mess behind them.

5. Denver Nuggets (17-8, Last week — 10th)

There was nothing ground-breaking about Denver’s performance this week. They lost a close game in Philly, then came home and beat teams they were supposed to beat the Pepsi Center. Sometimes, you just have to compile victories.

6. Indiana Pacers (18-9, Last week — 11th)

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Between last week and this week, Indiana technically had the best performance. The Pacers posted a +12.4 net rating on the way to a 3-0 record. That did include wins over Atlanta and Charlotte that won’t move the needle, but the significant showing came in a win over Boston.

7. Miami Heat (19-8, Last week — 6th)

The Heat had a strange week. They had a tight loss to the Lakers that wouldn’t dock them, beat the Mavericks on the road in a great performance, but then lost to the Grizzlies. We’ll split the difference and drop them one spot.

8. Dallas Mavericks (18-8, Last week — 7th)

Dallas lands behind Miami because of the head-to-head this week but, more than anything, the story of the day in Dallas is the status of Luka Doncic. He will reportedly miss a “couple weeks” with an ankle injury and, even with the first game being a stunning win over Milwaukee, the Mavericks can’t be expected to maintain their current level without Doncic.

9. Boston Celtics (17-7, Last week — 4th)

In a bizarre schedule quirk, the Celtics haven’t played since Thursday. Boston’s last two results were losses but, considering they came against Indiana (on the road) and Philly, it’s far from a disaster.

10. Toronto Raptors (18-8, Last week — 9th)

It would’ve been better if the Raptors were a little bit more competitive when the Clippers came to town last week. Toronto is still just fine, though, and that was evident with breezy wins over Brooklyn and Cleveland.

11. Houston Rockets (18-9, Last week — 8th)

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This is the end of a tier, essentially, and the Rockets land here based on their last two games. Houston did come back to beat San Antonio on Monday, but they needed a wild comeback to do it. Before that, they lost at home to a struggling Pistons team. The margins are small at the top.

12. Utah Jazz (15-11, Last week — 14th)

No one knows what to make of Utah, but the Jazz have won three of four. It was a quiet week with only two games, but this is a team that just needs to figure things out, so maybe extended practice time isn’t the worst thing.

13. Brooklyn Nets (14-12, Last week — 12th)

Let’s talk about Spencer Dinwiddie. The Nets have remained more than just afloat without Kyrie Irving and a lot of the credit goes to the veteran guard. Dinwiddie is averaging 23.9 points and 7.4 points assists in the last 15 games and, plainly, you could make an All-Star case for him.

14. Oklahoma City Thunder (12-14, Last week — 13th)

After a dismal 5-10 start, the Thunder are playing like a slightly above-average team. They are 7-4 with a positive net rating in the last 11 contests and there shouldn’t be any grand punishment for losing (narrow) games to Sacramento and Denver on the road this week.

15. Orlando Magic (12-14, Last week — 16th)

Orlando had three games this week. They lost the two contests (against the Lakers and Rockets) that they were supposed to lose. Then, they beat the team (New Orleans) they were supposed to beat. Ho-hum.

16. Sacramento Kings (12-14, Last week — 17th)

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Break up the Kings! Sacramento has won four of five, including wins over Dallas and Houston, to vault into a tie for the No. 7 seed in the West. The Kings are somehow 9-8 without De’Aaron Fox and this is an underrated story line in the league right now. They’re not fading away and Fox is expected to return this week.

17. Portland Trail Blazers (11-16, Last week — 20th)

It almost didn’t happen but Portland’s one-point win over Phoenix on Monday was a big one. They’re trying desperately to hang on to life in the West playoff picture, but the wins aren’t exactly piling up.

18. Charlotte Hornets (12-17, Last week — 26th)

Charlotte’s week didn’t end well, with a 22-point loss against a Pacers team that is just flat-out better than they are. Before that, though, the Hornets won three straight and I don’t think most people would’ve projected a 12-17 mark for this team after 29 games. Credit to James Borrego.

19. Phoenix Suns (11-15, Last week — 18th)

It’s been an unfortunate 15-game run for the Suns, with only a 4-11 record. Wildly, Phoenix’s net rating was only -2.5 during that time, illustrating that things aren’t as bad as they seem, and the Suns are still only one game out of the playoff picture out West.

20. Memphis Grizzlies (10-17, Last week — 23rd)

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more encouraging five-game stretch than what Memphis just put together. They went 4-1 and the only loss came to the juggernaut Bucks. The Grizzlies top it off with an impressive win over Miami and the young guys look great, headlined by Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke.

21. Detroit Pistons (11-16, Last week — 15th)

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The Pistons can’t lose by 14 points at home to the Wizards, even if Andre Drummond isn’t playing. Them’s the rules.

22. San Antonio Spurs (10-16, Last week — 19th)

If you want to be positive about the Spurs, you can find a way to do it. They are 4-3 in the last seven and, for all intents and purposes, San Antonio should’ve won on Monday in Houston. They didn’t win that game, though, and the Spurs have a recent home loss to Cleveland and an absolute drubbing in Detroit. Throw up your hands.

23. Washington Wizards (8-17, Last week — 22nd)

Breaking: The Wizards are good at offense and bad at defense. The full gauntlet was on display in a 14-point win over Detroit on Monday but, prior to that, Washington lost four straight and seven of eight. It feels weird that they are this high but, as you’ll see, the bottom seven is quite something.

24. Chicago Bulls (10-19, Last week — 24th)

The Bulls are such a weird mess. They toppled the Kawhi-less Clippers on Saturday but that win was sandwiched between two puzzling defeats. The first was a 73-point performance at home against Charlotte (woof) and the second was a seemingly harmless road loss in OKC. The problem is that Chicago led that game by 26 points and imploded. It’s not great.

25. Minnesota Timberwolves (10-15, Last week — 21st)

The Wolves have lost seven games in a row. That isn’t good any circumstance but, with a closer look, it is worth pointing out that Minnesota had only one “bad” loss during that run. However, this is now a team with a bottom-10 net rating and a seven-game losing streak is a seven-game losing streak.

26. New York Knicks (6-21, Last week — 30th)

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Because New York picked up back-to-back wins on the road this week, they “win” the battle for the No. 26 spot and sit atop a four-way tie of teams with the same dismal record. The Knicks will have to hold serve against the Hawks at MSG on Tuesday to prove us right but, honestly, this entire bottom five is a mess.

27. Atlanta Hawks (6-21, Last week — 25th)

Since mid-November, the Hawks have two wins and they came against the Warriors and Hornets. Trae Young should be a lock for the All-Star team but this is a team that badly needs John Collins back on the floor.

28. Cleveland Cavaliers (6-21, Last week — 28th)

John Beilein’s team did pick up a road win (over San Antonio) this week and that is noteworthy. The Cavs are also 2-16 in their last 18 games and this may be too high.

29. Golden State Warriors (5-23, Last week — 29th)

It’s hard to parse through the morass at the bottom of the league right now. In the end, we’ll lean toward the Warriors having the NBA’s worst record, even with some peripherals that point to other teams as being (slightly) worse.

30. New Orleans Pelicans (6-21, Last week — 27th)

The Pelicans (probably) aren’t the worst team in the league and they certainly don’t have the worst roster when everyone is healthy. They’ve still “earned” this one with 12 straight losses.