DimeMag

NBA Power Rankings Week 14: The Nuggets Are Trending Up

The Denver Nuggets overhauled their roster in advance of the 2021 trade deadline. The biggest investment was the package sent to the Orlando Magic to acquire Aaron Gordon, bolstering the team’s forward rotation, but Denver also added JaVale McGee and avoided real short-term pain in pushing some of their chips into the middle with the 2020-21 season in mind. Even before those moves, however, the Nuggets were showing signs of their 2019-20 form, and that could be scary for the rest of the Western Conference.

Denver is 11-3 in the last 14 games, jumping into a tie for the No. 5 spot in the West after a relatively slow start. Over that 14-game sample, the Nuggets lead the NBA in offensive rating, scoring 120.1 points per 100 possessions, and Denver boasts a +8.5 net rating since late February. Much of that can be traced to the continued absurdity that is Nikola Jokic’s 2020-21 performance.

For the season, Jokic is averaging 26.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 8.5 assists per game, earning legitimate MVP buzz and posting a 65 percent true shooting. He currently ranks in the top eight in scoring, rebounding, and assists and, while his efficiency is already stellar — Jokic is connecting on 59 percent of his shots and 45 percent of his threes in the last 14 games. Beyond his individual numbers, the Nuggets are 9.6 points per 100 possessions better when he plays (+7.9) than when he sits (-1.7), and the case for “most valuable” is pretty easy to make with the way Denver is playing.

Jokic does need more help beyond Jamal Murray, though, and that was signaled in full at the deadline. Gordon may not be a superstar in the way that his dunk contest pedigree may leave some to believe, but he is a good two-way forward who unlocks a great deal for Denver on paper. He is a potentially electric off-ball option on the offensive end and, with Jokic’s passing at the forefront, Gordon’s cutting should be quite useful. On the other end, he has the size and athleticism to defend the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in playoff settings, and that is a hole the Nuggets needed to fill in the absence of Jerami Grant.

The fit between Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. may not be flawless on paper given that, in a vacuum, one could argue both are best-suited at the power forward spot. However, Gordon is more of a 4 on offense and a 3 on defense, while the opposite is true of Porter. From there, Porter’s shooting allows lineup flexibility and offense, and Gordon can take some of the defensive heat away from the budding standout in Porter. Gordon also takes some pressure off veterans like JaMychal Green and Paul Millsap, with McGee bringing a dynamic as a rim-runner on offensive and rim protector on defense that could be useful in certain matchups.

It is perhaps fair to wonder if the Nuggets are well-positioned to become Western Conference finalists for the third year in a row, especially in a world in which the Lakers are at full strength. After all, the Clippers look to be in fine shape despite last season’s loss to Denver, the Suns are playing at a very high level, and the Jazz are currently the best team in the NBA from a win-loss standpoint. Still, Mike Malone’s team looks much better on paper than it did just a few weeks ago, and that roster uptick is pretty appetizing when combined with the way the Nuggets are playing in March.

Where does Denver land in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let us find out.

1. Utah Jazz (35-11, Last week — 5th)

Following a bit of a dry spell, the Jazz have won six in a row, including a thorough annihilation of the Cavs on Monday. The schedule in that stretch was not at all difficult, but they are still the team with the best profile overall. Power rankings are often a “what have you done for me lately?” exercise, and Utah is back in the good graces after this run.

2. Brooklyn Nets (32-15, Last week — 1st)

This is a weird one. Yes, the Nets lost to the Jazz by 30 this week. That happened, and it is a datapoint that matters. Brooklyn also didn’t have a single member of its three-man core on the floor, so that game doesn’t mean much. Utah has the better resume overall, but the Nets are still 18-3 in the last 21 games.

3. L.A. Clippers (32-16, Last week — 6th)

L.A. is tied with Utah for the NBA’s longest winning streak (six) and they are scoring 1.26 points per possession during that run. The Clippers are also shooting an insane 41.9 percent from three for the season, and any concerns about a 5-8 stretch from mid-February to mid-March seem to be gone.

4. Philadelphia 76ers (32-14, Last week — 3rd)

For the season, Philadelphia is a respectable 8-7 without Joel Embiid. That is even better lately, though, with a 6-2 mark since Embiid went down. That probably isn’t sustainable, but it’s been impressive to see the 76ers bank wins.

5. Phoenix Suns (31-14, Last week — 4th)

Phoenix takes a small dip after a weird loss to Orlando this week, but they have been remarkably solid. They are a top-tier team on both ends with few weaknesses, and the Suns have an insane +16 net rating when Dario Saric (!?) plays this season. The schedule also opens up this week with three home games and a quick road trip to Houston.

6. Denver Nuggets (28-18, Last week — 8th)

Tuesday was supposed to be a Jokic vs. Embiid battle in Denver, but that will have to wait. The Nuggets do visit the Clippers in a nationally televised clash on Thursday, and that should be intriguing.

7. Milwaukee Bucks (29-17, Last week — 2nd)

No team has been streakier than the Bucks in recent weeks. Since the start of February, Milwaukee’s entire profile can be described by streaks in either direction. It began with five straight wins, then was followed by five straight losses. The Bucks then won 13 out of 14 games from late February to late March, only to lose the last three contests. We know the Bucks are good, but this is a little bit weird.

8. Los Angeles Lakers (30-17, Last week — 10th)

The Lakers shouldn’t really need to celebrate home wins over Cleveland and Orlando, but right now, they should. Los Angeles beating anyone without both LeBron and AD is noteworthy, and the victories still count in the standings.

9. Portland Trail Blazers (28-18, Last week — 11th)

Portland is a more than acceptable 7-4 since the All-Star break, but they are really testing the margins. On one hand, the Blazers are No. 2 in offense during that stretch, scoring more than 1.19 points per possession. On the other, Portland is the league’s worst defensive team by a wide margin in the last 11 games, giving up 120.6 points per 100 possessions. It’s really hard to keep winning more than you lose if you can’t get stops, but they’re doing it.

10. Dallas Mavericks (24-21, Last week — 7th)

The Mavericks lost two games this week, but Luka Doncic missed both with injury. Given how important he is to their overall approach, those contests are basically useless from an evaluation standpoint, and Doncic returned in a blowout win over OKC on Monday.

11. Sacramento Kings (22-25, Last week — 22nd)

With the entire middle of the league struggling right now, the Kings are rewarded with a huge jump. They have the third-longest active winning streak in the league at five in a row, and Sacramento is somehow only one game out of the play-in in the West. They still can’t get stops, but it hasn’t mattered much lately.

12. Atlanta Hawks (23-23, Last week — 9th)

After a season-shifting eight-game winning streak, the Hawks have lost three of four. That isn’t the end of the world on a West Coast road trip, though, and they are in a very solid position. Moreover, they are as healthy as they’ve been all season and the team’s remaining schedule is relatively soft.

13. Memphis Grizzlies (22-22, Last week — 13th)

Memphis is simply okay. Their .500 record tells that story, as does a +0.6 net rating that does place the Grizzlies at No. 12 in the league. One troubling trend is Ja Morant’s three-point shooting, though, with the budding star shooting just 23.4 percent from long distance this season.

14. New Orleans Pelicans (21-25, Last week — 18th)

The Pels are 4-1 in the last five games and Zion Williamson is a destroyer of worlds. New Orleans is still outside the playoff mix and, through that lens, it seems like Williamson isn’t getting quite enough attention for what he’s doing. Still, the Pelicans are out-scoring their opponents for the season with Zion on the floor, and he’s scored 20 points or more in 24 straight games. During that stretch, Williamson is shooting 64.9 percent from the field. He’s just impossible to defend.

15. Boston Celtics (23-24, Last week — 14th)

The Celtics are 11th in net rating, out-scoring their opponents for the season, but it hasn’t translated to win-loss results. The latest example was a home loss to New Orleans on Monday. Obviously, Evan Fournier isn’t going to miss every shot he takes in a Celtics uniform, but Boston just isn’t winning enough to make anyone happy.

16. Miami Heat (23-24, Last week — 17th)

Miami is intensely bizarre. They opened 11-17, then won 11 of 12 games. After that barrage, the Heat lost six in a row before winning at MSG on Monday. They did make some intriguing changes at the deadline to help their roster, but a team in “win now” mode with a 23-24 record and a negative point differential is also strange.

17. San Antonio Spurs (23-21, Last week — 12th)

San Antonio’s overall profile still looks just fine, but they’ve been shaky lately. The Spurs have lost five of six, including a pretty ugly performance in a 17-point home loss to Sacramento on Monday. Having a nine-game homestand is nice, but it’s better if you win more of those games than you lose.

18. Charlotte Hornets (23-22, Last week — 19th)

It is late March and Terry Rozier is still averaging 20.5 points per game and shooting 41.6 percent from three. With LaMelo Ball out of action, Rozier is even more important, and his renaissance has been key for the Hornets in rising to the level of a legitimate playoff-level team.

19. New York Knicks (24-23, Last week — 20th)

The Knicks put together a 3-1 week, and that is commendable. They also beat the Wizards twice and the Bucks reserves once, so it would be too aggressive to take much from it. If nothing else, New York is still hanging around, and that’s all they need to do.

20. Indiana Pacers (21-24, Last week — 16th)

It was a generally positive week for the Pacers with a 2-1 mark, but the wins also came against the Pistons and the Luka Doncic-less Mavericks. In zooming out, Indiana is 6-10 since mid-February and they are just 9th in the East standings. They should be fine through the lens of the play-in tournament, but that probably wasn’t the intended measuring stick for Indiana.

21. Chicago Bulls (19-26, Last week — 23rd)

We’re doing some creative accounting to have the Bulls here. They’d be lower simply on results. Chicago did add Nikola Vucevic to the fold at the deadline, though, and the 0-2 start with him in the lineup is probably more about the schedule, with road games in San Antonio and San Francisco. The Bulls should be a playoff-level team with their current roster.

22. Golden State Warriors (23-24, Last week — 15th)

The Warriors won on Monday, in large part because Steph Curry played basketball. Golden State is 2-6 without Curry this year but, more importantly, the Warriors have a -6.6 net rating when he’s off the floor. That comes along with a league-worst offense, and it is remarkable how ugly it is when Curry is absent.

23. Washington Wizards (17-28, Last week — 25th)

Washington isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire, but Russell Westbrook is doing stuff. He put together a triple-double in a win over Detroit on Saturday and followed it up with a 35-point, 21-assist, 14-rebound explosion in a win on Monday. It would be fair to question how good the Wizards are, but it’s a good sign that Russ is still capable of that kind of thing.

24. Oklahoma City Thunder (19-27, Last week — 21st)

It wasn’t exactly a secret that the Thunder were not trying desperately to win games but, in case there was any lingering doubt, they put Al Horford on ice this week. Granted, it makes total sense for Oklahoma City to play the kids and look to improve Draft positioning, but they are getting close to an admirable impression of The Process. In the last 15 days, the Thunder have two wins and they came against the Rockets and Wolves.

25. Detroit Pistons (13-33, Last week — 26th)

Detroit was able to beat the suddenly woeful Raptors on Monday, helping to boost their standing. One point of concern, though, is the downturn in efficiency of Jerami Grant. Both Grant and the Pistons were rightfully praised after his torrid start, but in the last 19 games, the veteran forward is shooting just 38.5 percent from the field and 29.2 percent from three-point range. It will be interesting to see where his true baseline lands in the prominent role he takes on with the Pistons.

26. Minnesota Timberwolves (11-36, Last week — 27th)

The Wolves are playing better on the whole, but they are really benefitting from the mishaps of other franchises when it comes to their ranking here. Minnesota still has the worst record in the league and they are 1-5 in the last six games. The only win came over Houston. At the very least, Karl-Anthony Towns seems to be unlocked under Chris Finch, averaging 29.6 points and 11 rebounds per game in the last seven while shooting better than 51 percent from three.

27. Cleveland Cavaliers (17-30, Last week — 24th)

When the Cavs lose, they often lose badly. A 39-point shellacking at the hands of the Jazz on Monday was the latest example, and that isn’t going to help Cleveland’s league-worst net rating (-8.2). They are six games better than the Wolves in the standings, but still have a worse point differential.

28. Orlando Magic (15-31, Last week — 28th)

Good on the Magic for blowing it up. It was time for Orlando to lean into the void, but it wasn’t a guarantee they would actually pull the trigger. It would be easy to argue about whether the Magic got enough in return for Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, and Evan Fournier, but they added to their future chest of assets and ensured a pick near the top of the first round in the process.

29. Houston Rockets (13-33, Last week — 29th)

If you want to be positive, you could say that Houston is a more respectable 2-3 in the last five games. If you want to be more skeptical, you could say that Houston is 2-23 in their last 25 games. A win over Toronto keeps them out of 30th, but that’s not saying much.

30. Toronto Raptors (18-29, Last week — 30th)

The Raptors did win a game this week, and it happened right before the trade deadline with a distinct feeling that Kyle Lowry would be on the move. Of course, that didn’t happen, but Toronto then lost three in a row, including a 14-point loss to the Pistons on Monday. The Raptors certainly aren’t the worst team in the league, but they are 1-12 in the last 13 games. It’s not great.

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