NBA Power Rankings Week 12: The Grizzlies Have Caught Fire

At the start of the 2019-20 season, expectations were modest for the Memphis Grizzlies and it was easy to see why. Though the Grizzlies drew encouraging reviews for their offseason performance, the organization was in full rebuild mode and handing the keys to a rookie point guard in Ja Morant. As such, Memphis entered the campaign projected, both by Las Vegas and statistical models, as one of the worst teams in the NBA.

In the early going, those projections appeared to be on-point, with the Grizzlies opening 6-16 with bottom ten marks on both offense and defense. Since then, however, Memphis has morphed into one of the best stories in the NBA, reeling off a 12-6 record that includes its current five-game winning streak. During that stretch of time, the Grizzlies are outscoring opponents by 3.7 points per 100 possessions and, while the sample size is small, Memphis has performed like a top ten team. Much of that uptick is keyed by an elite-level offense, scoring 114.5 points per 100 possessions in the last 18 games, and Morant is at the center of it all.

The No. 2 pick is the clear Rookie of the Year favorite at the midway point, averaging 17.8 points and 6.9 assists per game and operating with impressive efficiency. Morant has exceeded any rational expectation and he is, quite clearly, the most important piece for Memphis at the moment. Still, he isn’t alone in performing at a high level, with fellow lottery pick Jaren Jackson Jr. averaging 18.1 points (to lead the team) and shooting 42 percent from three-point distance. The Grizzlies are also receiving strong supporting performances from Jonas Valanciunas, Dillon Brooks, rookie Brandon Clarke and others, leaving real optimism for the future.

It has to be noted that the Grizzlies face one of the five most difficult schedules in the NBA the rest of the season. With that as the backdrop, FiveThirtyEight still sees Memphis as a significant long shot to actually reach the postseason, even as the Grizzlies currently sit in the No. 8 slot. Even if Taylor Jenkins’ team can’t maintain this suddenly lofty performance, however, Memphis appears to be well ahead of schedule and on pace for a win total in the mid-to-high 30’s.

Where do the Grizzlies rank in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s take a glance.

1. Milwaukee Bucks (35-6, Last week — 1st)

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Through exactly half of the regular season, the Bucks are on a 70-win pace. Yes, you’re reading that right. Milwaukee has to be in the top spot until they start losing.

2. Los Angeles Lakers (33-7, Last week — 2nd)

The Lakers are in the middle of a big-time run, winning nine straight games. Los Angeles is also running away from the pack in the West, building a 5.5-game lead on the field, and I’m not sure anyone could’ve expected anything more from LeBron, AD, and company.

3. Utah Jazz (27-12, Last week — 3rd)

There is a little bit of schedule noise in Utah’s active, nine-game winning streak. It’s still a nine-game winning streak and, even if it ends on Tuesday in Brooklyn, the Jazz have to be feeling much better about themselves than they were in November.

4. Houston Rockets (26-12, Last week — 8th)

Houston ran into a buzzsaw in Russell Westbrook’s return to Oklahoma City and suffered a lopsided defeat as a result. Aside from that game, the Rockets look pretty impressive behind Westbrook and James Harden.

5. Boston Celtics (27-11, Last week — 6th)

The Celtics recently had a disappointing stretch with three straight losses, but there were some extenuating circumstances with player availability. Boston also bounced back with two straight wins to alleviate some of the potential concern.

6. Denver Nuggets (27-12, Last week — 4th)

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Denver did topple the Clippers over the weekend and that provides a higher floor for their ranking. The Nuggets did lose (at home) to the Cavs, which means they need to fall a bit.

7. L.A. Clippers (27-13, Last week — 7th)

When Kawhi Leonard plays, the Clippers are basically what everyone assumed they would be. When he doesn’t, they aren’t. It may not be quite that simple, but it’s probably close.

8. Miami Heat (27-12, Last week — 5th)

On the whole, the Heat are over-performing when compared to expectations. Recently, though, Miami is struggling with a 3-4 record in the last seven games. We’ll see where this settles, but erring on the side of optimism is warranted.

9. Indiana Pacers (25-15, Last week — 13th)

As discussed last week, it’s been a little shaky for Indy in recent days, with a 5-6 overall record in the last 11 games. The Pacers did pick up a strong win over the Sixers on Monday night, and that is a nice data point.

10. Oklahoma City Thunder (23-17, Last week — 12th)

The Thunder got blasted by the Lakers at home and that was a bizarre result given who wasn’t playing for Los Angeles. Other than that, it’s been a really good stretch for OKC, including an unbelievable 20-20-10 performance from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on Monday night.

11. Dallas Mavericks (24-15, Last week — 10th)

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Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t played yet in 2020 and the Mavericks aren’t playing their best basketball. Dallas just went 3-3 on an extended homestand and, even with a break from a schedule perspective on Tuesday against the lowly Warriors, there is a bit of a lull happening.

12. Philadelphia 76ers (25-16, Last week — 11th)

A stretch of six losses in eight games isn’t good for anyone, much less a title contender. Philly’s two wins (OKC, Boston) were nice but there have been real struggles for Brett Brown’s team, even with the Joel Embiid injury issues.

13. Toronto Raptors (25-14, Last week — 9th)

Pascal Siakam is back and that definitely helps in Toronto. Still, the Raptors just haven’t played that well in the last few weeks. A 4-6 record in the last ten games reflects that.

14. Memphis Grizzlies (18-22, Last week — 16th)

The Grizzlies will probably never be higher than this in the rankings this season, but they’ve earned it.

15. San Antonio Spurs (17-21, Last week — 14th)

San Antonio lost to Memphis by double digits but, sandwiched around that, the Spurs picked up three wins over playoff-bound teams. They’re just hanging in around in the most Spurs-y fashion.

16. New Orleans Pelicans (15-26, Last week — 21st)

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The 6-22 start was excruciating for the Pelicans and, if you simply rely on the standings, this ranking will seem weird. New Orleans is 9-4 in their last 13 games, however, and Zion Williamson is looming.

17. Orlando Magic (19-21, Last week — 15th)

The East is very forgiving, but the Magic appear to be in great shape after some stabilizing wins. Orlando is 6-2 without Jonathan Isaac and, even if that isn’t sustainable, picking up some victories always helps.

18. Brooklyn Nets (18-20, Last week — 19th)

Kyrie Irving returned on Sunday and looked a lot like Kyrie Irving. Considering the slog that was happening in Brooklyn, the importance of that injection of top-end talent can’t be overstated.

19. Phoenix Suns (16-23, Last week — 22nd)

Phoenix just took care of business during a homestand, picking up three victories. Their reward is a very winnable road game in Atlanta on Tuesday evening and, after some hand-wringing at times, the Suns seem to be just fine.

20. Portland Trail Blazers (17-24, Last week — 18th)

No one is happy with a 34-win pace after a trip to the Conference Finals. That is just the plain truth. Portland has been a .500 team (12-12) since late November, though, and that feels more like a reasonable baseline.

21. Minnesota Timberwolves (15-24, Last week — 17th)

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Karl-Anthony Towns has been out for a month and the Wolves are 5-9 without him. That isn’t fully disastrous but, well, they need their best player in the middle of everything.

22. Sacramento Kings (15-25, Last week — 23rd)

It has definitely been a disappointing season for Sacramento and Monday’s loss was a microcosm in some respects. The Kings probably should have beaten the Magic at home, but they simply couldn’t close the door on the way to their 25th loss. This wasn’t supposed to be a team on a 30-win pace.

23. Washington Wizards (13-26, Last week — 20th)

Through nearly half of an NBA season, the Wizards have an all-time bad defense. The Wizards also have a top ten (!) offense and they have become a bit of an internet darling as a result. The team’s overall performance isn’t particularly good, but they are more fun than expected.

24. Chicago Bulls (14-27, Last week — 24th)

It almost feels wrong that the Bulls didn’t fall in the pecking order. Chicago is struggling mightily with seven losses in eight games and, without Wendell Carter Jr. for a while due to injury, the prognosis isn’t exactly beaming either.

25. New York Knicks (11-29, Last week — 27th)

After losing five in a row, the Knicks ended the week on a high note with a home win over the Miami Heat. That result isn’t great for Jimmy Butler and company, but it helps New York’s profile.

26. Cleveland Cavaliers (12-28, Last week — 28th)

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It might seem strange to see Cleveland rise after a blowout loss to the Lakers. I get that. The Cavs were actually in the game at halftime, though, and Cleveland won back to back road games before losing to LeBron and company.

27. Detroit Pistons (14-27, Last week — 26th)

Only the Hawks have been worse over the last 15 games than the Pistons. To make matters worse, Luke Kennard is now going to be absent through the All-Star break and there is a dismal element to this season in Detroit.

28. Charlotte Hornets (15-28, Last week — 25th)

In examining the big picture for Charlotte, a 15-28 record through 43 games is probably a win. The recent results are pretty ugly, though, with five straight losses and 11 in the past 13 appearances.

29. Atlanta Hawks (8-32, Last week — 29th)

Atlanta hasn’t actually done much to stay out of the basement but, as you’ll see, there is a team that has been worse. The Hawks still have the worst record in the league, however, and the weekend was disastrous with losses to Washington and Brooklyn. Nothing is going well for Lloyd Pierce’s team.

30. Golden State Warriors (9-32, Last week — 30th)

The Warriors are winless in 2020. In fact, Golden State has lost eight in a row and the team’s last win came on Dec. 27. That victory actually capped a four-game winning streak but, since then, the Warriors are being outscored by 12 points per 100 possessions and playing at a league-worst level.