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NBA Powerless Rankings: January Edition

As always, a lot has changed since the last installment of the Powerless Rankings. We’ve reached the halfway point in the regular season, meaning many teams have shifted one eye toward the offseason already. There’s still much work to be done on the day-to-day level. And many days before mid-April arrives. But the picture is becoming clearer. With that being said, the middle of the pack is as deep as ever and the NBA is flush with as much talent as ever. Some teams appear pretty powerless, but things are rarely as good or bad as they seem.

14. Philadelphia 76ers (19-19)

Entering the NBA London affair against the Boston Celtics, the Sixers sit on the outside looking in at the playoff pool. Indiana (21-19) has won consecutive contests in the wake of Victor Oladipo’s return and the Pistons (21-18) followed up last Friday’s embarrassing loss in Philadelphia with a win against the Rockets the very next night (before losing to New Orleans on Monday). Philly fans will be closely following those seventh and eighth-placed teams in the East (Indy and Detroit) all year long, but the playoffs (if they get there) should be considered a cherry on top of what has already been an impressive showing in 2017-18. Markelle Fultz’s imminent return should help the team put things in perspective, as it’s far more important for him to find his footing and place on this team than it is for the Sixers to force their way into the playoffs. Like the Jazz, the Pacers have done an excellent job of nailing their mid-first-round picks. Meanwhile the Pistons haven’t done as well, as evidenced by their selecting Luke Kennard over Donovan Mitchell at 12th overall last summer. Stan Van Gundy may help coax Detroit into the playoffs this season while the Sixers watch from home, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a neutral voice who values Andre Drummond and Tobias Harris over Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. For what it’s worth, I still think the Sixers will earn a spot in the playoffs.

13. Utah Jazz (16-24)

Forgive me for not seriously worrying about a team that snags Donovan Mitchell in the late-lottery and Rudy Gobert in the late first round. And the Jazz find gems everywhere: including Joe Ingles, a solid, selfless rotation player on a reasonable deal. There simply aren’t any horrible contracts to speak of for Utah. But there are plenty of questions: What does the future hold for Derrick Favors? The Jazz have two backup centers on the roster in Epke Udoh and rookie Tony Bradley, and the Gobert-Favors frontcourt pairing eats up more spacing than having Ricky Rubio at point guard. Do the Jazz really want to shell out for Favors this summer? What about Rodney Hood, who is having his best season but has been outshined by Mitchell? What price are the Jazz willing to pay to retain Favors and/or Hood? Are Rubio’s days basically numbered? There are a lot of questions that need to be answered heading into the summer, but the presence of Mitchell and Gobert offers more than enough hope for Jazz fans to stay interested.

12. New York Knicks (19-21)

Kristaps Porzingis will keep the Knicks toward the top of this list no matter how fatigued he becomes. Frank Ntilikina isn’t going to be force-fed minutes as a rookie, but he very much looks like a player that will develop into a starter. He’s already a defensive menace in the making. The surprises have all been pleasant: Tim Hardaway was living up to his contract pre-injury and should return soon. Courtney Lee is having a career year. Ditto Enes Kanter. After playing 34 games over the last two seasons, Jarrett Jack is back to full strength at the age of 34. And Michael Beasley is winning the world over one bucket at a time. New York is due for a regression in the second half of the season, but I fully expected the Knicks to lose 50 games this year.

11. Brooklyn Nets (15-25)

Caris LeVert. Spencer Dinwiddie. Jarrett Allen. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Does anyone doubt that Brooklyn will find a solid rotation player with the Raptors’ first round pick? Or pick one up off the scrap heap? Does anyone doubt their ability to seize on the chance to snag another first-round pick or undervalued prospect when they become available? With DeMarre Carroll to dangle and the market lacking enough wings to go around, we’ll see what the Nets can cook up at the trade deadline. My overwhelming excitement for Brooklyn has a lot to do with where they were before Sean Marks took over as GM. But remember: this is the last year that the Nets are without their own first round pick. One final speed bump, then it’s full steam ahead.

10. Memphis Grizzlies (12-27)

Can they convince Mike Conley to take the rest of the season off? Should they just shut down Marc Gasol after the All-Star break? Conley seems insistent that he’ll play again in 2017-18. If healthy, Gasol probably won’t be on board with that. No, I’m not about to suggest that Memphis trade one or both of their stars. I’m about to suggest that this troublesome campaign (read: all the losing) might be a blessing in disguise. Riding a seven-season playoff streak, the Grizzlies could find themselves with an opportunity to replenish a fountain of youth mostly gone dry. Dillon Brooks was a good grab in the latter portion of the draft, but a club starting a rookie second-rounder wasn’t going to seriously compete in the postseason. Now the Grizzlies

8. Phoenix Suns (16-26)

Devin Booker is a boss. Marquese Chriss is starting to come around. Dragan Bender still oozes potential. And T.J. Warren is doing a decent DeMar DeRozan impression. Sure, Phoenix might be costing themselves precious odds at a top draft pick, as they’ve been surprisingly competitive since Eric Bledsoe was traded (and despite Booker’s injury absence). Falling back into the mid-lottery area wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the Suns though, especially if it meant adding a 3-and-D wing prospect with the palpable potential of Villanova’s Mikal Bridges. The only cause for concern: rookie Josh Jackson has struggled. Still, he’s coming off his best performance of the season this past Sunday, during which he posted 17 points on three-of-six from beyond the arc to go with 10 boards, five dimes and a block in a 114-100 win over the Thunder.

9. Los Angeles Clippers (18-21)

The Clippers have hung tough, but nevertheless face an uphill climb toward the playoffs. Blake Griffin’s impressive play following a prompt return from a knee injury was met by a concussion last weekend. Lou Williams looks like he’s having lucid dreams on the basketball court. DeAndre Jordan remains rock solid. However, the Memphis Grizzlies, who fell flat on their faces after Mike Conley went down, might be in a better position to compete next year than Clippers. Sad but true: the Clippers have cost themselves a high draft pick in pursuit of a playoff spot that FiveThirtyEight projects is only 36 percent likely. Furthermore, given the plethora of injuries, that number might even be generous.

7. Atlanta Hawks (10-30)

While most birds fly south for the winter, these Hawks are hibernating. Taurean Prince is a promising young wing. Atlanta’s freak athlete rookie, John Collins, has a lot of work to do on defense. Dennis Schröder, who turns 25 next September, might not fit the timeline to contention. Kent Bazemore, who turns 29 this summer, definitely doesn’t. The way I see it, Atlanta only has one guaranteed building block (Prince). So why are they more powerful than so many teams despite a league-worst 10-30 record? The tank is being executed to perfection. A top-four pick appears to be on the horizon. There’s still half a season to be played, but the Hawks have established themselves as clear frontrunners to finish with the league’s worst record. For a franchise coming off 10 consecutive playoff appearances, Atlanta might be able to restock its cupboard with an elite prospect awfully fast. Hawks fans should be thrilled if they can land one of Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Mohamed Bamba, or DeAndre Ayton.

6. Dallas Mavericks (14-28)

Dennis Smith has been the lone bright spot for the Mavericks, unless you count J.J. Barea’s brilliance off the bench. Nerlens Noel will be leaving this summer, a rock barely turned over. It’s pretty hard to believe that Phoenix has more wins. Rick Carlisle will play for wins, and this team is not going to quit in what could be Dirk Nowitzki’s last season. However, they might need a top-four pick as badly as anyone on this list. I don’t see Marvin Bagley or Michael Porter being good fits next to Harrison Barnes. Carlisle loves running multiple point guards, and the Mavs will certainly need help in the splashing department if Dirk hangs up his sneaks. They’ve needed a center since Tyson Chandler left for New York. So realistically all four of the top prospects on my board (Bamba, Ayton, Young, Doncic) would be warmly welcomed. But LeBron isn’t walking through that door. (At least I doubt he is.)

5. Charlotte Hornets (15-23)

Should Charlotte trade Kemba Walker? Can they attach Nicolas Batum? Any takers for Dwight Howard? Or should they hold out hope that they can recover from a slow start to the season and sneak into the playoffs? I have my doubts about whether moving Walker is the answer, especially if there is no deal in sight for Batum and Howard. If the Hornets knew they could get out from under those three and commit to a complete and total tank, it’d be a gamble worth mulling. But whether it’s even possible that such a thing could be orchestrated without the Hornets bringing back a bunch of garbage contracts is fairly doubtful. It would likely take an aggressive owner who tends to shoot for the moon and stars every summer rather than keep a slow, steady course.

Maybe Mark Cuban, whose Mavericks are melting on defense, doesn’t want to suffer through an arduous rebuild. I’ll preface this by saying it would never happen: but would Cuban be interested in Walker, Howard and Batum? Who says no here?

4. Orlando Magic (12-29)

Orlando’s 8-4 start was clearly a sick, tasteless joke. While Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Tobias Harris tear it up for Eastern Conference playoff contenders, the Magic have made Bismack Biyombo one of the highest-paid centers in the league. If it weren’t for Aaron Gordon’s emergence, there would be next to nothing for Orlando fans to celebrate this season. Even if Jonathan Isaac is a two-way stud in the making, there’s very little to like about this roster overall. Sure, Evan Fournier is a fine player. Jonathon Simmons was a solid bargain bin signing. But will the ping-pong balls bounce in Orlando’s favor for the first time since they won the Dwight Howard Hoopla 14 years ago? There may be no team more desperate for a top-three pick than the Magic. The good news is that (for the moment) the farthest they can fall back in the draft is the fifth pick.

3. Chicago Bulls (14-27)

Raise your hand if you expected a three-game winning streak from Chicago this season. Now keep it raised if you also predicted a seven-game winning streak. If your hand is still raised you’re either the most diehard Bulls fan in the world or a liar. Or both.

The spunk of Kris Dunn has been on full display. The heart, hustle and hot shooting of Justin Holiday. The offensive arsenal of rookie Lauri Markkanen. The not-afraid-to-get-down-and-dirty David Nwaba. Even Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis have rebounded from their fiasco. Of course, there are still plenty of questions: When will Zach LaVine return? Will he fit well in between Dunn and Holiday? (I think he might.) And then there’s the Jordan Bell fumble in the background. And what to do with Robin Lopez (and Mirotic)? And the most pressing question is: how many of these core players will be on this roster come 2020?

A contender will be wise enough to pursue a reliable 3-and-D guy like Holiday (who turns 29 in April) in the summer of 2019. For a franchise that dealt Jimmy Butler during the last draft, falling outside of the top four sounds catastrophic. If this squad doesn’t slow it down with the winning, they’ll have to hope Adam Silver has big market bias (or pray to the God of ping-pong balls).

2. Sacramento Kings (13-27)

Sacramento has the worst point differential in the league, yet they currently sport the fifth-worst record. This qualifies as bad luck, though last night’s loss to the lowly Lakers proves the Kings still have a shot to improve their lottery odds by season’s end. Zach Randolph is enjoying a throwback campaign while George Hill is not. Perhaps signing Z-Bo, Hill, and Vince Carter is helping the youngsters grow up and learn, but it would have been so easy for the Kings to sit out of last summer’s free agency.

Then again, maybe this is the year that Sacramento will taste some lottery luck. They haven’t picked higher than fourth since 2009 (Tyreke Evans) and they haven’t selected in the top three since 1991 (Billy Owens). Their three best draft picks in the last decade (DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside, Isaiah Thomas) are all long gone. No matter. I still believe in De’Aaron Fox. Willie Cauley-Stein has made strides. There is not necessarily a shortage of intriguing young talent on the roster. But in the wild Western Conference, which will probably rise up again in all its glory next season, the Kings need so much more to compete. Minnesota is about to pass Sacramento the baton carried by the club facing the longest active playoff drought. 2017-18 will be the 12th miss in a row for the Kings. And there is no end in sight. Especially if Sacramento doesn’t end up with a top-four selection.

1.  Los Angeles Lakers (13-27)

A month ago the Lakers were 10-15 and riding a two-game winning streak. LaVar Ball was busy bothering opposing fanbases. L.A. lost two of the next three games in overtime, but fought admirably against Golden State, Cleveland and New York during that stretch. Ball was starting to ball. Kyle Kuzma was the steal of the latter part of the draft. Brandon Ingram was breaking out. The optimism was palpable. That was then. Fast forward to today and the young club that began the season 5-5 has fallen apart, needing another two-game win streak to reach 13-27.

It’s completely insane, but Lonzo’s father truly believed that L.A. would immediately be playoff contenders. That his son would lead a professional basketball squad that lost 56 games in 2016-17 to a .500 record (or better) in 2017-18. That because Lonzo helped UCLA rebound from a 15-17 campaign to finish 31-5 last year he could work similar magic under the tutelage of Magic, who famously won Finals MVP as a rookie. With no first-round selection in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft, the Lakers will need to land LeBron James, introduce LaVar to some soothing strains of indica, take him to yoga class, or learn to tune him out entirely. The latter of those options might be the best, but good luck with that. I don’t know what to do in terms of dealing with this bizarre situation, but firing Luke Walton is not the answer. Patience is the key for this franchise, and unfortunately Lonzo’s dad doesn’t seem to possess any of that at the moment. Instead, he’s living in la-la land.

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