NBA Power Rankings: Are the Bulls Legit Title Contenders? – Sports Illustrated

Happy New Year, all, a year we hope will see us get back to normalcy in the NBA – if for no other reason than roughly half of all NBA players have entered and exited the NBA’s health and safety protocols already this season. The league has set all kinds of roster records, from number of players appearing in at least one game to the number of players appearing on a roster as the Omicron variant ripped through the NBA. Will ’22 see things settle down. Here’s hoping. In the meantime, the latest power rankings—COVID edition.
(Note: SI’s NBA staff is ranking every team from best to worst all season long, taking into account how each squad is currently playing.)
Current record: 28-7
Previous ranking: 1
​​Andrew Wiggins … All-Star? That’s a case Stephen Curry made last week, and it’s not that far-fetched. The Warriors have been rolling this season, with Wiggins—averaging 19 points, connecting on 43.4% of his threes and playing a key role on the NBA’s top rated defense—a big reason why. Steve Kerr called Wiggins one of the best two-way players in the game. He may be right.
Current record: 28-8
Previous ranking: 2
The Suns scuffled to a 2-2 week, though Deandre Ayton’s likely return this week should help Phoenix bounce back. Meanwhile, what has gotten into Jalen Smith? Smith, whose third-year option was not exercised by the Suns in the offseason, has averaged 16.5 points and 10 rebounds the last four games. Controllable talent is a coveted commodity; the Suns may regret not locking in this one.
Current record: 24-10
Previous ranking: 5
Are the Bulls title contenders? It’s officially time to ask with Chicago overtaking (for now) Brooklyn atop the Eastern Conference standings last week. A reason to believe: DeMar DeRozan, who added another accomplishment to a stunning season by becoming the first player since 1997 to make back-to-back game winners. A reason to be leery: Chicago’s defense, a surprise early in the season, has slipped to 11th.
Current record: 26-10
Previous ranking: 3
The Jazz lost two players—reserves Trent Forrest and Juwan Morgan—to COVID protocols last season and none this year. That’s not luck, folks. Utah has treated COVID like an opponent since the NBA returned in 2020. Meanwhile Rudy Gobert (deep breath) leads the NBA in win shares, defensive win shares, offensive rating and rebounds, all while connecting on an absurd 71.6% of his attempts.
Current record: 25-13
Previous ranking: 4
Just what the Bucks need—more help. Milwaukee welcomed Donte DiVincenzo back on Christmas, and while he’s struggled early—DiVincenzo is just 4-17 from the floor in his first three games—it’s likely a question of when, not if, DiVincenzo regains the form that saw him become a 27-minute per game player in the Bucks rotation last season. Milwaukee, meanwhile, is 19-5 after limping to a 6-8 start.
Current record: 23-11
Previous ranking: 6
He’s back. Kyrie Irving, who will return Wednesday, when the Nets travel to Indiana, changes everything in Brooklyn. A refresher: In 202 minutes together last season, the Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden Nets posted an offensive rating of 119.6; in 130 playoff minutes, that number was an absurd 135.4.
Current record: 23-14
Previous ranking: 8
Remember the whispers that perhaps the Grizz were better without Ja Morant? Me neither. Morant averaged 34.6 points in wins over the Suns, Lakers and Spurs last week, burying Phoenix with a game winner. Say it loud, for those in the back—and the weirdly angry Grizzlies fan in the front row: Memphis is not better without Ja Morant.
Current record: 23-14
Previous ranking: 9
Hardship signee Kyle Guy dropped 17 points in his Heat debut, rookie Ӧmer Yurtseven has pulled down double-digit rebounds in the last seven games and the COVID (and injury) ravaged Heat keep finding ways to win. January should be a revealing month: Miami will play 11 of 15 games against ’21 playoff teams, including five on the road, where the Heat are just 11-10.
Current record: 21-16
Previous ranking: 7
The Cavs responded quickly to Ricky Rubio’s season ending knee injury by filling his spot with Rajon Rondo. Whether Rondo, at 35, can defend at anywhere close to Rubio’s level will be key. Meanwhile – is anyone noticing what’s going on with Kevin Love? Love dropped 20 points and eight rebounds in a ’22-opening win over Indiana on Sunday and is piecing together his most efficient offensive season, his first as a full-time reserve. There will be chatter about trading Love to a contender. He might already be on one.
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports
Current record: 18-16
Previous ranking: 10
Nikola Jokić against the Clippers last Sunday: 26 points, 22 rebounds. Jokić against the Warriors last Tuesday: 22 points, 19 rebounds. Jokić against the Rockets on Saturday: 24 points, 11 rebounds. Three games, three wins and coupled with a historically high player efficiency rating we are really starting to run out of reasons why Jokić shouldn’t be MVP.
Current record: 19-16
Previous ranking: 14
An elite defender the Sixers need to squeeze more offense out of? No, Ben Simmons isn’t back in Philly, but Matisse Thybulle is beginning to present some of the same issues. Thybulle is as good as it gets on perimeter defense but his three-point shooting has sunk to below 30% while opponents routinely drift off him in the halfcourt. The Sixers have encouraged Thybulle to be more aggressive off the dribble and hunt offensive rebounds, hoping to squeeze just a little production—or at least the threat of it—out of a player who has quickly emerged as a sticky defender.
Current record: 19-18
Previous ranking: 15
The Buzz’s 31-point loss to Phoenix on Sunday didn’t just snap a three-game winning streak, it ended a solid—and rare—stretch of decent defense that saw Denver, Houston and Indiana held to 108 points or less. Charlotte can’t manufacture a rim protector (paging Mitch Kupchak) but the Hornets—bottom third in the NBA in opponent points in the paint, dead last in opponent second chance points—need to rebound better and find a way to keep teams from feasting around the rim.
Current record: 19-18
Previous ranking: 12
Marcus Morris’s four-year, $64 million contract raised eyebrows in 2020, but where would the Clippers be without him? Morris had an All-Star-ish month of December, averaging 20 points and connecting on 40% of his threes. The Clippers, meanwhile, finished a 2-1 road trip with a win over Brooklyn (sans Morris) that kept the Paul George-less team in the thick of the playoff mix.
Current record: 18-19
Previous ranking: 13
So who are the Celtics? Are they the team that submitted a historically awful three-point shooting night against the Clippers? Are they the team that locked down the Suns? Or are they somewhere in between, like the team that dropkicked the ball around for 3 ½ quarters against the Magic before erasing a 14-point deficit over the final four minutes to pull out a win in overtime. This upcoming stretch will be revealing: With Jayson Tatum set to return, Boston will play five straight against teams with sub. 500 records.
Current record: 16-17
Previous ranking: 23
Sunday’s win over the Knicks was just the fourth game Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes have played together and it offered a glimpse of just how good defensively the long, switchy Raptors can be. How active is the Toronto D? VanVleet (108) and Gary Trent Jr. rank in in the top three in the NBA in total deflections. As a team the Raptors lead the league in deflections per game and rank third in steals this season.
Current record: 19-19
Previous ranking: 20
Wins are wins, but squeezing out victories over the Rockets and Timberwolves last week won’t have anyone screaming the Lakers are back. L.A. needs Kendrick Nunn to return, both for his production … and perhaps to generate interest from other teams to trade for him.
Current record: 18-18
Previous ranking: 11
Are we officially on Bradley Beal watch? Beal had a pair of solid games last week after clearing COVID protocols but the Wizards 4-7 record in December has cooled any early season optimism and there has to be some unease in Washington’s front office about Beal’s statistical nosedive this season. The Wiz have winnable games against Charlotte, Houston and Orlando this week, but if Washington continues to struggle, the chatter around Beal, a free agent this summer, will only pick up.
Current record: 18-18
Previous ranking: 16
Luka Dončić’s return on Sunday restored some sense of normalcy to Dallas, which has been battered by the NBA’s COVID protocols lately. A recent victim was Isaiah Thomas, the now well-traveled guard who scored six points in his Mavs debut last week … and joined the protocol list soon after.
Current record: 16-20
Previous ranking: 17
Remember that scene at the end of Rounders, when Teddy KGB keeps muttering, in an all-time awful Russian accent, hanging around at Mike McD? That’s how I’m feeling about the ‘Wolves, who have powered through an onslaught of COVID issues to stay competitive – and in the play-in mix. Last week was rough, but Minnesota will have a chance to regain some momentum with a home-and-home with Oklahoma City and a trip to Houston this week.
Current record: 17-20
Previous ranking: 19
Back-to-back losses to Oklahoma City and Toronto highlighted all the Knicks issues. The offense (80 points) couldn’t get going against the Thunder while the defense was shredded for 120 points by the Raptors. A Julius Randle revival in the second half of the season may be the only thing that keeps New York out of the lottery.
Current record: 16-19
Previous ranking: 18
COVID-ravaged Atlanta ended a three-game losing streak with a win over Cleveland and finally has some of its regulars back after a brutal stretch. What’s not getting much better is this Hawks defense, which has fallen into the bottom-five in the NBA. With the NBA’s second best offense, the Hawks don’t have to be elite defensively. But they have to be better.
Current record: 16-22
Previous ranking: 25
Here come the … Kings? Sacramento has won three of its last four, including a solid home win over Miami on Sunday. Now if only De’Aaron Fox—who shot 21.4% from three in December and was 0-4 against Miami—could find his perimeter shot.
Current record: 14-23
Previous ranking: 21
The Pacers have a mediocre offense, a bottom-third of the NBA defense and right now the only intrigue is where their stars (Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner) could be moved to before the trade deadline. But, hey, Lance Stephenson is back!
Current record: 14-21
Previous ranking: 22
Gregg Popovich is now 12 wins away from passing Don Nelson on the NBA’s all-time wins list. That’s about the only intrigue left in the Spurs season.
Current record: 13-23
Previous ranking: 26
The Pelicans have figured out how to finish close games, keeping hopes of a play-in spot alive while New Orleans waits on Zion Williamson’s return. Herbert Jones has emerged as a second-round steal, averaging 20 points in two games last week, including 26 in a win over Cleveland.
Current record: 13-22
Previous ranking: 24
Don’t look too closely at the Blazers upcoming schedule. Portland has home dates with Atlanta, Miami and Cleveland this week before the conference’s worst road team heads out on a six-game trip. Damian Lillard remains banged up and the Blazers have lost four straight. Not good.
Current record: 13-22
Previous ranking: 27
You know the Thunder brass cringed when the ping pong balls dropped them to sixth last spring, but there are some encouraging signs with 19-year old rookie Josh Giddey. Giddey picked up a triple-double against Dallas on Sunday, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to record one. Giddey’s three-point shot is a work in progress, but he’s averaging 11 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists on the season.
Current record: 7-30
Previous ranking: 29
The Magic are awful—choking away a 14-point lead over the final four minutes to a Jayson Tatum-less Celtics team on Sunday was a low point—but let’s focus on the positive, shall we? Franz Wagner is really good. Wagner has firmly entrenched himself in the Rookie of the Year mix. He averaged close to 20 points in December, connecting on 40% of his three’s. Orlando needs to hit on all its picks these days. They did with Wagner.
Current record: 10-27
Previous ranking: 28
Kevin Porter Jr. quit on the team at halftime of an ugly loss to Denver, Christian Wood reportedly did the same and Houston’s late November/early December flirt with relevance has been replaced by another lengthy losing streak. Insert Kevin Bacon/Animal House meme here.
Current record: 6-28
Previous ranking: 30
With the losses piling up, the only question in Detroit is if Jerami Grant will finish the season there. Contenders continue to circle Grant, still out with a thumb injury, with the long, versatile wing seen as a potential difference maker in the playoffs. The Pistons don’t have to trade Grant—he has another year remaining on his contract—but a bidding war before the deadline could make an offer too good to refuse.
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