NBA Power Rankings: Celtics the team to beat at halfway point, Nuggets cruising, Clippers rising but Lakers, Warriors goners
Denver have the championship pedigree but Boston are undoubtedly the team to beat in the race for the 2023-24 NBA trophy.
The Nuggets are cruising in third spot in the Western Conference but the Celtics are the hottest team in the league at the halfway mark of the season.
And it’s not just a case of regular-season dominance for Boston, which has sometimes been the case in the past few seasons, as they have then fallen short in the playoffs.
This new-look side, boosted by the off-season roster changes to bring in Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis, has the all-round strength to go all the way with Jayson Tatum elevating his game into the MVP conversation.
Denver gave them a reminder of what it will take to knock them off if they meet in the playoffs by beating them 102-100 on Saturday to hand the Celtics their first loss of the season at home after 20 straight wins.
Tier one – legit contenders (humming along)
1 Boston Celtics (32-10): Equal second in defence and fourth best on offence, the Celtics have no apparent weaknesses and their entire starting five – Tatum, Porzingis, Holiday, Jaylen Brown and Derrick White are playing at an All-Star level.
2 Denver Nuggets (29-14): Jamal Murray’s continuing his trend of not standing out in the regular season and last year’s playoff ace looks like he will again miss out on a maiden All-Star berth.. Nikola Jokic is doing just enough to keep winning as he keeps an eye on the post-season as his top priority. Murray scored 35 as Jokic added 34 in their victory at Boston in a sign of what to expect when these guys get serious after the first 82 games are out of the way.
3 Philadelphia 76ers (26-13): Joel Embiid’s missed time and that will probably cost him a chance of back-to-back MVPs but he is putting up some Kareem Abdul-Jabbar numbers when he’s on the court. He won the midweek duel with Jokic with 41 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds in the 126-121 win in Philly. Tyrese Maxey has plateaued a little and the big question is whether Daryl Morey will go for a star with a mid-season trade or keep his powder dry to make a splash in free agency at season’s end.
4 Milwaukee Bucks (28-13): Damian Lillard is hitting game-winners and his two-man game with Giannis Antetokounmpo is developing but still yet to dominate like it should. They have the second half of their season to hit their stride but stealing the top seed in the East from Boston will be tough.
5 LA Clippers (26-14): James Harden’s bounced back after a sluggish start and Kawhi Leonard’s playing nearly every game to rewind the clock to his 2019 Raptors form. With Paul George completing one of the most potent Big Threes in the NBA, the chemistry is flowing at the Clippers after early concerns about the Harden experiment.
6 Minnesota Timberwolves (30-11): They have proved they are not going to be an early-season flash in the pan. Karl-Anthony Towns has settled into his secondary role behind Anthony Edwards with Rudy Gobert anchoring their vastly improved defence and they’ve shown that this new breed of Wolves can mix it with the big dogs.
7 Miami Heat (24-17): You could say the Heat should be higher on the standings if they want to prove they’re title contenders but that hasn’t stopped them the past couple of years. Bam Adebayo has led the way while Jimmy Butler has been injured. This team should snare home-court advantage in the East, especially if they can add an available shooter like Terry Rozier or an unlikely best-case scenario in Donovan Mitchell via trade.
Tier two – fringe contenders (need changes to be a hope)
8 Oklahoma City Thunder (27-13): The Thunder are ahead of schedule in their rebuild and they have the option, if they use up some of their draft capital, of bringing in another veteran in the front court to help rookie centre Chet Holmgren. All-NBA guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander may not win the MVP this year but he is starting to rival Tatum and Luka Doncic as the next player to make that leap.
9 Dallas Mavericks (24-18): Even with Luka Doncic missing time, the Mavs have been firing with Kyrie Irving turning back the clock with a string of starring performances. Dante Exum has been a handy pickup and if they can somehow bring in another All-Star talent by the deadline, they could vault into the title conversation.
10 Phoenix Suns (22-18): Bradley Beal’s spotty availability has meant his Big Three union with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker has yet to deliver the wins that Phoenix expected. Booker banged in 52 points in Saturday’s win over a Pelicans team on the second night of a back-to-back so while the result is encouraging, many more like that are needed. They’re only just hanging onto borderline contender status. The Suns could regain their mojo if their star trio can stay healthy but they have been one of the big disappointments of 2023-24.
Tier three – playoff hopes (but won’t go any further)
11 Sacramento Kings (23-17): De’Aaron Fox has taken a slight step back from last season’s breakout year and while Domantas Sabonis is steady, they lack a third option to make a deep playoff run.
12 New Orleans Pelicans (25-17): This is a deep roster and while Brandon Ingram is having a great offensive year, Zion Williamson is not matching him. If Zion can hit peak form, the Pelicans will be in the playoffs but if he gets injured yet again or tails off, they could end up in the play-in.
13 Los Angeles Lakers (21-21): LeBron James and Anthony Davis are reaching deep into their bag of tricks, coach Darvin Ham is under pressure and they need another playmaker if they can offload D’Angelo Russell. Dejounte Murray is in their sights but prying him away from the Hawks won’t come cheap.
14 New York Knicks (24-17): Getting rid of RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley for OG Anunoby makes sense and the Knicks have been firing since the trade three weeks ago but will they be patient and wait for free agency or make further moves to turn this likely playoff team into one that can make a deep run?
15 Indiana Pacers (23-17): Trading for Pascal Siakam makes sense but giving up three first-round picks is an overpay unless there’s a handshake deal for him to re-sign long term. The Pacers have the cap space to give Siakam the bag so it’s unlikely he will shoot out of Indy in the off-season. When All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton returns from injury soon, the Pacers should rival the Knicks, Cavs and Heat for the fourth seed in the East.
16 Cleveland Cavaliers (24-15): Donovan Mitchell has silenced most of the talk about whether he will remain at the franchise long term by carrying the team on his shoulders while Darius Garland and Evan Mobley have been injured recently.
17 Orlando Magic (22-19): On the improve but need another prospect to pop alongside Paulo Banchero and Franz Wagner or a trade for someone like Zach LaVine or Malcolm Brogdon to go any higher than play-in range. .
18 Golden State Warriors (18-22): They have Draymond Green back from his latest suspension but the old magic is gone in the Bay. Steph Curry is getting frustrated that Andrew Wiggins has reverted back to his Minnesota ineffectiveness and Klay Thompson can no longer be relied upon regularly to carry the load.
19 Chicago Bulls (19-23): Zach LaVine is on the trading block and is back padding his stats to improve his value after an injury lay-off hurt his chances of being moved because the Bulls went on a winning run while he was out.
20 Utah Jazz (22-20): After a slow start to the season, they are on track to overachieve under coach Will Hardy for the second year in a row. Lauri Markkanen is back in the All-Star equation and the Jazz can follow a similar path to OKC and SGA by surrounding him with young talent from their bounty or draft picks.
21 Houston Rockets (19-21): They are slipping down the standings after a hot start and look like they’ll be following the Denver blueprint with Turkish centre Alperen Sengun emerging as their most likely rising star to build their roster around.
22 Atlanta Hawks (17-23): Dejounte Murray is being placed in every draft rumour and has even conceded he wouldn’t mind returning to San Antonio. The Hawks gave up a bunch of picks to the Spurs for Murray and won’t get anywhere near a similar return this time around if he’s traded. Perhaps they’re looking to offload the wrong guard but they will persist with Trae Young (for now) even though his inefficient style and lack of defence doesn’t translate into success.
Tier 4 – Heading for the draft lottery (drastic changes needed)
23 Brooklyn Nets (16-24): Ben Simmons has been out for nearly two months but is managing to put out solid Instagram content about travelling to Paris with the team for the clash with Cleveland. Hopefully he decides he wants to be an NBA star rather than a social media influencer sometime soon.
24 Toronto Raptors (16-25): The Raptors are retooling their roster around Scottie Barnes, who is becoming their go-to guy. They have added Immanuel Quickley, RJ Barrett and Bruce Brown plus picks after Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby were shipped out to Indiana and New York respectively. Not totally bottoming out but not going to be playoff contenders for a year or two.
25 Portland Trail Blazers (11-29): Duop Reath is getting plenty of minutes and showing he can be a role player in the NBA so there’s a reason for Boomers fans to keep an eye on Portland. For everyone else, nothing to see here. Move along.
26 Memphis Grizzlies (15-25): With Ja Morant looked like he could drag them up the ladder when he returned from suspension but his season-ending shoulder surgery quickly put an end to that. With Marcus Smart, Brandon Clarke, Steven Adams and now Desmond Bane sidelined, the Grizzlies’ future looks grisly.
27 Charlotte Hornets (8-30): LaMelo Ball is back after yet another injury lay-off but he has one of the weakest support casts in the NBA. The clock is ticking in Charlotte to turn this franchise around or he will be making a trade demand before they know it.
28 San Antonio Spurs (7-33): Perhaps it’s the Spurs’ plan as part of a gradual progression during the Victor Wembanyama era but they’re all but wasting his rookie season by not suiting up a decent playmaker to set up the rookie phenom.
29 Washington Wizards (7-32): They have traded away plenty of underperforming veterans in the past 12 months. The Wiz should not stop now. If they can get anything in the way of draft picks for anyone on their current roster before the February 8 deadline, they should be accepting all offers.
30 Detroit Pistons (4-37): The decision to sign Monty Williams to what was the richest coaching contract in NBA history in the off-season was perplexing to say the least. Detroit are going to be rebuilding for a few years at least and even if you rate Williams as a coach, despite his relatively modest returns at New Orleans and Phoenix, that deal made no sense at all.