In this week’s NBA Power Rankings, Poku is having a season, Russell Westbrook is kind and the Hornets are just fine without LaMelo Ball.
Our new look NBA Power Rankings are back, a non-traditional structure for a non-traditional era of professional basketball. The world is no longer just about wins and losses and teams are no longer the primary crucible of basketball power. So each week we’ll be dissecting how basketball power is presently distributed — between players, teams, friendships, diss tracks, aesthetic design choices, across leagues and whatever else has a temporary toehold in this ever-changing landscape.
Who has the power in this week’s NBA Power Rankings?
The Thunder knew Aleksej Pokusevski was a project, a uniquely talented and uniquely raw 19-year-old something or other. Normally I’d insert a positional descriptor there but Poku doesn’t really fit anything at this point and I’m not sure he ever will. What he has been though, is increasingly productive. A foot injury and a run in the G League bubble had him out of the Thunder lineup for 17 games across February and March. In the 11 games since returning to the lineup, he’s been averaging 11.3 points, 6.8 points and 2.8 assists per game. He’s still missing a lot of shots and committing a lot of turnovers but he’s also (at 7-feet) doing things like this:
Poku is coming.
The Brand New Nuggets
In the two games since Aaron Gordon joined the team, the Nuggets have had Gordon, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. on the floor together for 43 minutes and 86 possessions. In that span, they have outscored opponents (the Hawks and 76ers) by a total of 34 points which equates to plus-39.5 points per 100 possessions. It’s a very small sample against two teams that aren’t exactly elite offenses but it’s as good an early result as the Nuggets could have hoped for, particularly on the defensive end where they’ve allowed just 94.2 points per 100 possessions. Denver has used 59 four-man player combinations for at least 40 minutes this season and just eight have posted a better defensive efficiency mark.
Gordon is still growing into his role but he’s doing everything the Nuggets need at they have to feel extremely positive about their playoff chances with this new group.
The non-LaMelo Hornets
LaMelo Ball was a shot of energy, life and creativity for the Charlotte Hornets this season and his broken wrist was an incredible downer. Even with the caveat that he wasn’t assured of missing the rest of the season, it seemed like it was pushing the pause button for Charlotte. Entering a holding pattern until his return waiting to pick up the fun and momentum next season.
But it seems like they decided not to wait.
The Hornets have four of five since Ball’s injury, with wins over both the Heat and Spurs. They’re not just holding onto a playoff berth, they’re staying a half-game ahead of the Knicks for the No. 4 seed in the East. So even without the Rookie of the Year and their no-look passing spirit animal, they have a good chance of landing homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
In his absence, the rest of the Hornet’s shooters and creators have continued to carve up opposing defenses. Ove the past five games, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Malik Monk and Devonte’ Graham are all shooting better than 40 percent on 3-pointers, making 44.9 percent combined. Graham, Hayward and Rozier are also all averaging at least 4.0 assists per game, sharing the ball and helping each other find opportunities to attack.
The Hornets’ pleasant surprise this season was never just about LaMelo Ball and everything they’re building in his absence will just pay more dividends when he’s back on the floor.
Utah’s sneaky sneaky
Once the Utah Jazz stopped winning every single game, they faded a bit from the national conversation. Their regular season began to slip from historic outlier to merely very good. They didn’t command quite as much attention to the question of whether or not they really could win it all. Well, I regret to inform you that we were all watching the Lakers for injury updates and scrolling trade rumors, the Jazz have gone back on their bullshit.
They’ve won six-in-a-row and eight of their 10 games since the All-Star break, with five coming by double-digits. They haven’t exactly been playing the league’s best during this stretch but among their wins is a 20-point thumping of the Brooklyn Nets. Their point differential is still first in the league with a margin separating them from the No. 2 Phoenix Suns that’s roughly the same as the one that separates the Suns from the No. 8 Nets. Their SRS (strength-of-schedule adjusted point differential) is back in the top-15 in NBA history and, according to 538’s NBA prediction model, their title odds are twice that of the Los Angeles Lakers.
If you started dozing off on the Utah Jazz, it’s time to wake up again.
The kindness of Russell Westbrook
Let it never be said that Russell Westbrook is not filled with kindness. After putting Bismack Biyombo on a vicious poster, he made sure to check in and make sure Biyombo was okay.