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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Richard: NBA power rankings after trade deadline

With the NBA regular season now over halfway complete and the trade deadline passed,  the league’s hierarchy of teams has been largely established, and the list of teams poised to make a run at the Larry O’Brien Trophy has dwindled. It is worth noting the teams below have not necessarily had the best seasons thus far, but instead are the teams I believe have the best shot of winning a championship. With that said, here are my top five power rankings to this point. 

1. Los Angeles Clippers:

After single handedly taking down what seemed like the entire NBA last postseason, Kawhi Leonard will look to achieve the coveted repeat, only this time around he will be joined by one of the best two way players in the league in Paul George. Following a slow start (by their lofty expectations), the Clippers have won 30 of their last 40 games. Lou Williams is the league’s best sixth man, and Montrezl Harrell might be next in line. At the helm is Doc Rivers, a legendary coach with a championship under his belt. If that isn't enough, this roster pushed the full strength Golden State Warriors to a six game series without Paul George or Kawhi Leonard. Defense will be their strong suit, though they still trot out three unstoppable scorers on the other end. If their two stars can stay healthy, it will be an uphill battle for any opponent trying to knock them off.

2. Los Angeles Lakers:

Year 17 LeBron James has shown few signs of decay thus far to the tune of 25 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds per game. He is joined by perhaps the most talented player currently in the league, Anthony Davis. The Lakers hold a three game lead over the Clippers for the No. 1 seed in the West, though if both teams finish as the top seeds, order will not matter. Los Angeles is a Lakers town, and if two face off in a Conference Final, the Lakers will dominate the crowd advantage in Staples Center. The roster is loaded with deep playoff experience with Rondo, McGee, Howard and Cook all having been a part of NBA Finals to add to LeBron, perhaps the greatest active mentor in the league. Given the inconsistency of Kyle Kuzma, the Lakers have no definitive third scoring option, so a title run will require consistently dominant performances by James and Davis, akin to the 2016 Cavaliers title where Kyrie Irving and James were the dominant duo.

3. Milwaukee Bucks:

The Greek Freak is a problem for any opponent. To give you an idea, his performance of 23 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists per game on 45% shooting in last year’s conference finals was considered a “choke” by many NBA fans. This year, Giannis Antetokounmpo is yet again demonstrating astronomical levels of play. The team’s arsenal of shooters (Kyle Korver, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, among others) is vital for their success as opposing defenses will attempt to clog the lane and force Giannis to either drive and dish or become a perimeter player. Giannis must perform better come playoff time, and Middleton must chip in as a legitimate second option for Milwaukee to be a perennial title contender.

4. Philadelphia 76ers:

The combination of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Al Horford and Josh Richardson may be the most talented assembly of four players on any current NBA roster. The length on this team is immense, making them incredibly formidable on the defensive end, something especially important in the slowed down version of playoff basketball. That formula helped propel the Raptors to a surprising championship in 2019. Embiid and Simmons are still largely unproven in their third year of partnership, and anything short of a title appearance may force 76ers’ GM Elton Brand to break the two apart. Simmons must establish a jump shot, or Embiid will have to ditch the three and establish a more dominant post presence offensively. Additionally, Richardson and/or Horford will have to contribute in the third option role to the level of Klay Thompson during the 2017 and 2018 Warriors championships.

5. Boston Celtics:

The transition from Irving to Kemba Walker at the helm of this Celtics team has been seamless, as the Celtics (35-15) currently hold the third seed in the East. Jayson Tatum is having a breakthrough year, averaging 22 points and 7 rebounds as the Celtics primary isolation scorer. With Jaylen Brown, Gordan Hayward and Marcus Smart, the Celtics have a multitude of two-way wing players with a great deal of playoff experience. Just two years ago, this roster (without Walker or Hayward) pushed the LeBron-led Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. The problem for this Celtics team is size; Daniel Theis fills the role of starting center at only 6’8”. Off the bench, Enes Kanter is an adept scorer, but is notorious for being a defensive liability. Given the prospect of facing Embiid or Giannis in the postseason, this lack of formidable size could ultimately be their undoing. Last season, the Bucks knocked off the Celtics convincingly in 5 games, with Giannis averaging 28 points per game. A deep playoff push will require Tatum to ascend to another level as the primary option offensively, while also receiving exceptional contributions at the center position.