Who are the contenders and pretenders?
By: Caleb Holfolth
NBA Power Rankings
With only one month left until the NBA regular season who are pretenders and contenders?
This NBA season has been nothing short of a rollercoaster. With significant injuries around the league, some surprise teams this year, and teams who have disappointed there is still uncertainty about the current hierarchy in basketball. These power rankings are not meant to be the end all be all but to instead give context to the current state of the NBA and look forward to this summer’s playoffs.
Note: All team’s records, stats, and player stats are per April 22nd at 3 pm. Since this article has been posted there has been a slate of games that may change these numbers to a minimal extent.
Atlanta Hawks (32-27, Last 10: 7-3)
The most recent victims of the New York Knicks winning streak the Atlanta Hawks currently sit as the five-seed in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks have been solid over the past two weeks, but they just lost Trae Young to an ankle sprain suffered against the Knicks. Although he will recover and be back on the court soon, Young led the team in both points and assists and his absence makes the Hawks season cloudy as they are not too far away from the Play in spots. While not nearly the same the Hawks can use Lou Williams who they acquired midseason to attempt and fill the void Young will leave.
Atlanta sneaks into the top ten power rankings because of their recent record since Nate McMillon took over as head coach (20-7). Atlanta is an impressive young team that is making the jump from the lottery to a playoff team. Atlanta is on the right track, but they are still far from contending for a championship. With solid young pieces like Trae Young, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, and John Collins improving each season the future is bright for the Hawks even if they are not on the top-level yet.
This makes sense to almost anyone who watches basketball. Trae Young is a basketball star in the making but the Hawks are lacking the star power necessary to contend for a championship.
Boston Celtics (31-27, Last 10: 8-2)
The Boston Celtics are on fire in April. Before that? Boston was an average team who largely was disappointing. Dealing with COVID and several injuries the Celtics have rarely been at full strength this season. Jayson Tatum has continued to be on the verge of stardom and Jaylen Brown has made the jump to that level as well. With two stars on their team, you would expect Boston to be better than just four games over .500. Boston has struggled this season to get any consistency outside of Brown and Tatum which has turned games you would expect Boston to win into losses. In April, Jayson Tatum has been on fire shooting 50/40/90 averaging 29 points per game.
The Celtics are starting to look like the team we expected them to be, and I would expect them to rise these rankings. The recent acquisitions of Evan Fournier and Jabari Parker are strong contributions to the bench that was statistically one of the worst in the entire league. With the midseason additions, Tatum finally looking like the star we all thought he was, and Jaylen Brown making a jump that could see him finish second or third in Most Improved Player voting the Boston Celtics are certainly trending upward.
The Celtics are built to be capable of winning a playoff series or two. However, they do not have the type of high-end talent that is needed to win a championship. While this could be masked with an elite bench and role players Boston does not have that leaving them short of being a serious contender.
New York Knicks (33-27, Last 10: 8-2)
The New York Knicks are the hottest team in the NBA. Yes, you read that right. The Knicks have won eight straight games and if New York City was not already buzzing with the Nets having three massive superstars it certainly is off the walls right now. The Knicks have the identity of their coach Tom Thibodeau who very well could be the Coach of the Year in the NBA. Combine Thibodeau’s defense and high effort identity with the favorite for Most Improved Player of the Year Julius Randle and the Knicks are all the sudden a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. The surprise performance of Immanuel Quickly and second-year jump by RJ Barrett have given the Nets a really good young core to play alongside All-Star Julius Randle. Randle is averaging 24 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 6 assists per game which are numbers that New York has not seen since Carmelo Anthony averaged 27 points in the 2013-2014 season.
While the Knicks do not play pretty, they know how to grind out wins. The Knicks have the whole NBA talking about them with this run and I would not expect them to start losing a lot either. Thibodeau has done a fantastic job with a roster that is certainly below average.
It seems like the whole NBA would agree with LeBron James when he says that the league is better when the Knicks win. The Knicks have a firm hold on the eighth spot in these rankings because they are the clear 4th best team in the Eastern Conference at the moment.
Nobody should expect the Knicks to be anything but a contender. They will certainly contend and push a first-round series to six or seven games because of their defense and work ethic they lack the necessary offensive weapons to win more than one series.
Milwaukee Bucks (35-22, Last 10: 5-5)
The Milwaukee Bucks are led by last year’s MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and coach Mike Budenholzer who has made some changes this season. The Bucks have started to give teams several different defensive looks per game. The addition of Bryn Forbes, Bobby Portis, PJ Tucker, and Jeff Teague has given the Bucks more depth turning the bench from a weakness into a strength. The Bucks are ranked seventh because they have struggled to put together full games against strong teams and had a rough previous ten games. Four of Buck’s last five losses have all come from teams who are lower than five seeds in their respective conferences. While Giannis Antetokounmpo missed some of those games the Bucks looked weak without their star.
The Bucks struggles in the playoffs last season and while it seems they have made some pretty solid upgrades to the bench the Bucks still have the same weaknesses. The Bucks thrive on going fast and, on the break, because it opens things up for Giannis to create scoring opportunities for himself while also opening up the floor for others. However, when other teams are capable of slowing the Bucks down, they become an average team who struggles to score in half-court sets. While Giannis is a former MVP his limitations in the half-court and the lack of a natural creator in the starting lineup the Bucks have weaknesses that make it hard to justify putting them in the top five of power rankings or as a serious contender.
The Bucks have some serious talent and skill. Despite that, of any top teams, the Bucks have one of the worst weaknesses. It is nearly impossible to mask the inability to score in half-court sets. The Bucks thrive in the open and on the break but if there are teams that either is strong defensively or can dictate the pace against the Bucks their ability to score becomes average.
Los Angeles Lakers (35-23, Last 10: 5-5)
While many have the Lakers plummeting down their power rankings, they have not given many a reason for that. We know that the Lakers have two top-five players in the league waiting to return from injury and over that span, the Lakers are 7-9 with notable wins over the Jazz and Nets. The Lakers have dropped games but only games that they are expected to lose when Lebron and Anthony Davis do not play. The Lakers are a top-three team in the league when healthy and there are not many arguments to refute that. Without their stars, they are average which moves them down the rankings slightly however with both starts looking to return to the court soon everyone knows where the Lakers below. The Lakers bench has gotten valuable minutes with Lebron and Davis out and coach Frank Vogel should now have more than enough evaluation to create the best possible lineup come playoff time.
Anthony Davis does plan to return on April 22nd on a minute’s restriction and his ability to elevate the play of others will only do good for this team. Many fans and analysts have gotten on Anthony Davis for poor performance earlier in this season. While some of that may be warranted Anthony Davis is still one of the best players in the NBA and his return to the lineup will make a huge difference for a Lakers team that has held their own in the absence of Davis and LeBron.
While this does rely on health, assuming that Davis and Lebron are healthy they should be competing for a Championship. There are some very good teams in the West but when healthy the Lakers are the favorite out of that conference. As every basketball fan knows the Lakers are Contenders when healthy. Scratch that. With only Lebron, the Laker’s expectation is making the Western Conference Finals. Add in Anthony Davis then this team should contend for a championship.
Utah Jazz (44-15, Last 10: 6-4)
The Utah Jazz are a very talented and deep regular-season team. Rudy Gobert is one of the best traditional centers in the NBA and the Jazz have about six players who could start alongside Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell every night. A very good defensive team that also has scoring options all over the court the Jazz are coasting through the regular season. This would lead to wondering why they are placed fifth in the rankings when they currently hold the best record in the NBA. While just like it’s been said with other teams in these rankings, they lack high-end star power. Just like Trae Young of the Hawks Donovan Mitchell is a budding superstar.
However, the Jazz are still not seen as legit players when it comes to a Championship. Their two best players being picked last in the All-Star draft just shows how much players who play against this team do not respect them. While they are one heck of a regular-season team the Jazz are not scaring many top ends, teams come playoff time. That is no disrespect to the players they have on their team or to head coach Quin Snyder, the team is just not built for playoff success. Players like Rudy Gobert are super valuable during the regular season however in the playoffs the game is completely different and players as one-dimensional as Gobert struggle to make a strong impact. While the Jazz have the depth and defense to at least win a series in the West they have strong limitations just like the Milwaukee Bucks and those limitations make it hard for them to succeed.
The Jazz are just too limited to compete with a team that holds stars like Lebron James and Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, or Chris Paul and Devin Booker. For that reason, the Jazz are contenders and the 4th best team in the West when opposing teams are healthy.
Phoenix Suns (42-16, Last 10: 8-2)
The Phoenix Suns are hotter than they have been all year. Head Coach Monty Williams has started to get the Suns to roll at the perfect time for playoffs. Guards Devin Booker and Chris Paul have built a very strong connection and man the best backcourt in the league west of the Mississippi River. What makes the Suns so good is the plethora of three and D wings on the roster. Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Jae Crowder, and Dario Saric are all averaging over nine points per game and outside of Saric (34.5%), they are all shooting at least 38% from three.
One of the best backcourts, a really good and deep group of three and D wings, and a rim protector who is a high-level rebounder in Deandre Ayton, and the Suns have built the modern NBA team from the ground up. The Suns have finally made that jump with Devin Booker have been one of the hottest teams since the all-star break. The Suns are 4-1 against the top four seeded teams in the East, hold the best road record in the league at 17-7, and are 14-3 in their last 17 games. The Suns are legit and here to stay for good.
The Suns can make noise this season. While they could be the third-best team in the West when the Lakers are healthy, they certainly can give both LA teams a series. The Suns have moved from just very good pretenders this season to legit contenders. With Chris Paul’s experience and Devin Booker’s very Kobe-like ability to score alongside a very good roster, the Suns are a sleeper team to not only make noise in the playoffs but potentially give a team a series in the Western Conference Finals.
Philadelphia 76ers (39-19, Last 10: 6-4)
The Philadelphia 76ers are one of the most interesting teams on this list. Ben Simmons has been chatting all year and Joel Embiid has a very strong case for the Most Valuable Player Award. While the 76ers have been impressive they have had spurts of struggles due to injuries to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons throughout the year. Top to Bottom the 76ers are legit. With eight players averaging over 9.5 points and players nine and ten not far behind at 7.2 and 6.7 points per game, this is one of the deepest teams in the East. Joel Embiid has been fantastic when he plays, he is averaging 30 points per game while shooting over 50% from the field. Simmons has had just as good of a year on defense making a very strong case to be named Defensive Player of the Year. By Surrounding those players with shooters, the 76ers have created a very good contending team.
You would think that them being the number one seed in the East with a leading MVP candidate would be caused to put them above third on this list. However, with Doc Rivers at coach and Ben Simmons’s inability to shoot it is hard to be confident in this team in an Eastern Conference Finals against a team that may be more talented than them. The 76ers are a very good team but still have limitations.
When you have the potential MVP on your roster and surround him by five shooters who shoot over 38.5% from three and a player who could be named Defensive Player of the Year the 76ers certainly are contenders. While winning a championship is another story the 76ers certainly will contend with the top teams in the NBA this summer. The story is less if the 76ers will contend but whether they will get past the Brooklyn Nets.
Brooklyn Nets (39-20, Last 10: 5-5)
Let’s get this straight immediately. Fully Healthy, the Brooklyn Nets, are the best team in the NBA and would be number one in this power ranking. Unfortunately, health is probably the Net’s biggest weakness.
James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving have only played seven games together. Regardless of that fact, the Nets are still a top team in the east and rarely lose a step as those three players are being inserted and taken out of the lineup weekly and daily. The Nets have three of the best ten players in the NBA and that alone makes them favorites to win the Eastern Conference if all three are healthy. The Nets also have underrated depth behind those three stars. Joe Harris is one of the best shooters in the NBA and can score upwards of 25 points on any night. Blake Griffin, Nic Claxton, Jeff Green, and Bruce Brown are by no means anything less than average NBA players and in some matchups can even be an asset for the Nets. Combine that with the fact that it is being reported that Spencer Dinwiddie could return for the Nets in the playoffs giving them probably the best fourth scoring option in the league and the Nets are the team to beat.
For the Nets, this entire season just comes down to health. Durant, Irving, Harden, and Dinwiddie have all missed at least some time if not significant time this season. If even only three of the four are healthy for the playoffs the Nets are a top team. However, since there still are some questions surrounding some of these injuries the Nets are taking the second spot in this power rankings.
I mean this is obvious right? The Nets do not even need all their starts to contend. Some would call it an embarrassment of riches and some would call it just masterful team building. Regardless Brooklyn is the team to beat and honestly if every player is healthy, they could let their stars rest some nights and still potentially cruise to the finals.
Los Angeles Clippers (42-19, Last 10: 9-1)
The Los Angeles Clippers have been near unstoppable recently. Tied with the Suns going 14-3 in their last 17 games the Clippers have been able to do it with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard each missing some time. The Clippers are shooting 42% from three as a team and are now within one percentage point of the record held by the 1997 Hornets. The Clippers are not only really solid defensively, but they have taken another step forward offensively. Surprisingly, the Clippers have been able to manage to get through injuries and the rest of many players and not let it affect their regular-season record. With Paul George and Kawhi Leonard leading the way, the Clippers have the star power necessary to play at a championship level.
The difference this season is who is surrounding those two players. Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, Serge Ibaka, Demarcus Cousins, Ivica Zubac, Nicolas Batum, Patrick Beverly, Luke Kennard, Terance Mann, Patrick Patterson, and recently acquired Rajon Rondo are a part of perhaps the deepest group of non-stars on a team. With that many players who can play serious playoff minutes and play them at a high level, the Clippers are a hard team to stop. One of the most underrated trades of the season was the Clippers acquiring Rajon Rondo. The term “Playoff Rondo” has been coined in recent years for how Rajon Rondo elevates his play in the playoffs. Rondo has so much experience and his elite ability to create for others on the court was one of the only skills the Clippers lacked. This Clippers team with Rondo does not have many weaknesses. They could have not as much star power as the Nets or the Lakers, but they are a force to be reckoned with.
The Clippers organization often gets a fair share of jokes for being fake contenders or pretenders all the time. However, this season is the one that could be different. The Clippers look like a different animal right now and they aren’t even healthy. If completely healthy the Clippers could unseat the Lakers as Western Conference Champions and compete to win their first-ever NBA Championship.