NBA Sour Rankings: How to understand the spectrum of mediocrity

NBA Sour Rankings: How to understand the spectrum of mediocrity

I found a really neat graphic in the maelstrom of NBA Twitter this week, courtesy of Owen Phillips:

This graph details, in some ways, how many obstacles NBA teams have had to hurdle this season. The general trend seems to be that squads with moving parts in the starting lineup -- due to COVID, injuries or trades -- have disappointed, while those with more continuity have thrived. It helps paint a picture of a weird landscape where most teams are in this gigantic middle tier.

Not all mediocre teams are created equal. For example, The Boston Celtics sit at 13-13, the Toronto Raptors are 12-15 and the defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat are 11-16. But there's much less doom and gloom surrounding the Heat because of what they've gone through this year than Boston, and much less doom and gloom with the Celtics than the Raptors. Contextual differences exist, and that's what the Sour Rankings are all about.

If you're new to the Sour Rankings, here's a refresher. Contrary to typical Power Rankings, this listicle celebrates all that is going wrong for your favorite team. We've ranked the NBA teams from least to most sour. Three tiers organize the league: Sweet Success (be happy!), We're Fine Over Here (self-explanatory!) and the Sour Patch (be sad and angry!).

The central question is ultimately this: How good should you feel about the direction of each franchise? Some teams value wins this season, while others are looking down the road at long-term pieces.

Do not expect this to be a simple worst-to-best Power Rankings. The Sour Rankings shine a spotlight on indefensible decisions, Hollywood headlines and heart-stopping bad luck. A losing team with exciting young players, for example, will earn credit, while a title contender riddled with problems will fall.

Tier 1: Sweet Success

30. Utah Jazz (23-5)

Every week is more impressive for the Utah Jazz. Now on an eight-game winning streak, they most recently cruised through four East contenders in Boston, Milwaukee, Miami and Philadelphia. Utah has a top-4 offense and defense, and since we've praised so many guys already, I'm not even sure where to start.

Jordan Clarkson deserves some more praise for being one of the offensive sparks this team has missed off the bench for years. He dropped 40 points in that hard-fought win over Philly and is the second-leading scorer on the team. Clarkson should be in prime Sixth Man of the Year position, as the award typically covets pure scorers who light it up off the bench.

(Last week: 30)

29. Los Angeles Clippers (21-8)

The Clippers had a pedestrian opening to February, but got right back after it with four wins this week. They don't even have Kawhi Leonard or Paul George right now, who are both nursing injuries, minor in the case of the former and precautious for the latter. That didn't stop LAC from downing the Cavaliers and Heat.

Marcus Morris is second in the NBA in three-point percentage at a ludicrous 50.5 percent clip. He scored 30 points against Miami, while fellow temporary starter Lou Williams had 30 the night before. Up next is a loaded slate with two games against Utah and another versus Brooklyn. If LAC can come out with a winning record, things really look good.

(Last week: 28)

28. Philadelphia 76ers (18-10)

Ben Simmons scored 42 points on Monday night, and despite losing to the Utah Jazz, his outburst is a sign that Simmons can get his own when Philadelphia uses him in creative ways. The Sixers went 0-3 against three quality opponents in the Blazers, Suns and Jazz. Still atop the East, those competitive games are a fine outcome given Joel Embiid was out in that last contest.

As currently scheduled, Philly plays one more contest against a team over .500 this season. There's a real chance for the Sixers to lay down a gap on the Bucks and Nets entering the All-Star break. As long as Simmons and Embiid stay healthy, expect smooth sailing through the end of the month.

(Last week: 26)

27. Los Angeles Lakers (21-7)

Anthony Davis reaggravated an Achilles injury, and it sounds like he could be out for an extended period as the league approaches the All-Star break. While the Lakers certainly have the talent to forge ahead without their star big man, Davis has a history of injuries, and you hope this latest one is not foreshadowing problems down the stretch.

Despite getting smacked around by the Nuggets on Sunday, the Lakers still finished 2-1 this week with wins over the Grizzlies and Thunder. They have the top defensive rating in the entire league (105.1). LeBron James continues to defy all known patterns of human aging. Outside of the AD news, things are good.

(Last week: 29)

26. Phoenix Suns (17-9)

We've talked a lot about the breakout Suns, and Chris Paul, and Mikal Bridges, and the team's defensive leaps. But it's worth circling back to one of the game's elite shot-makers in Devin Booker, especially after his monster week. 

Booker averaged 31 points per game this week in three wins -- two coming against the Bucks and Sixers. On the month of February, he's putting up 27.4 points per game while the Suns have gone 7-1. Phoenix is the second-hottest team in basketball behind only the Jazz, and Booker has really taken the mantle of a comfortable lead option.

(Last week: 24)

25. Milwaukee Bucks (16-11)

After a five-game winning streak, Milwaukee actually lost all three games this week. But it was a pretty tough schedule, with two fair-enough defeats to Phoenix and Utah followed by an inexcusable loss to OKC. But this is where we talk about that spectrum of mediocrity; Milwaukee is still second in the East, its pieces are clicking by and large, and the team still boasts a second-ranked offensive rating.

Jrue Holiday has not played the past four game as he continues to follow the league's health and safety protocols. Mike Budenholzer has slotted Bryn Forbes into the starting lineup, and Forbes has scored some points, but he just doesn't affect the game beyond shooting in a remotely similar way. It'd be intriguing to see another ball-handler, like D.J. Augustin, in the starting five until Holiday returns.

(Last week: 27)

24. Brooklyn Nets (17-12)

Kevin Durant missed Monday’s contest and will be out again on Tuesday with a hamstring injury. But his absence hasn’t stopped the Nets, who went 3-1 this week and rolled through the Sacramento Kings without their best player. James Harden and Kyrie Irving have meshed well in limited action together so far.

Interestingly enough, Brooklyn did get DeAndre Jordan back this week, but still opted to play without a traditional center. The Nets started Jeff Green instead of Jordan on Monday, although Jordan played four more minutes. Perhaps this was just to get the 32-year-old big man up to speed, but it’s worth monitoring how Steve Nash approaches the rotation in the next few games.

(Last week: 25)

23. San Antonio Spurs (16-11)

San Antonio took advantage of a light schedule, losing to Golden State but winning two games against the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets this week. The Spurs don't have LaMarcus Aldridge, as the forward remains without a timetable due to a hip injury. But Jakob Poeltl has stepped up and played some really solid basketball in Aldridge's absence.

The former ninth overall pick in the 2016 draft has started the last six games. In that 5-1 span, Poeltl has averaged 10.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game and is a plus-55 for the Spurs. He's had an extreme positive impact over that small sample size.

(Last week: 23)

22. Denver Nuggets (15-11)

Big statement week for the Denver Nuggets, who went a perfect 3-0 and took down the Los Angeles Lakers in a nationally-televised Sunday night matchup. They didn't have Gary Harris or Will Barton for that contest, but still impressed in the 122-105 victory.

Want another rookie to watch? How about No. 22 overall pick Zeke Nnaji. The former Arizona Wildcat received his first significant action off the bench in two games this week, shooting a combined 10-of-14 from the field and 8-of-11 from deep. That jump shot was a big swing skill for many draft evaluators. Nnaji already looks worlds better shooting the ball than he did at Arizona, which bodes well for his NBA future.

(Last week: 21)

21. Charlotte Hornets (13-15)

There's no shame in losing to the Grizzlies and Spurs if you're Charlotte, and the Hornets still won against the bottom-feeding Timberwolves. Head coach James Borrego has been put in a tough spot, with three players (including PJ Washington) in health and safety protocols and Gordon Hayward battling a back injury. In the last two games, the Hornets have only sent out eight guys.

One of those is Terry Rozier, who looks much more like the exciting scoring guard that Charlotte paid handsomely in the 2019 offseason. He's one of 12 players with multiple 40-point games this season after pouring 41 on the Wolves in the win. Rozier is also shooting over 44 percent from downtown -- far and away a career best.

(Last week: 22)

Tier 2: We're Fine Over Here

20. Portland Trail Blazers (16-10)

Portland packed a four-game winning streak into this week, including some quality wins over the 76ers and Mavericks. In the hotly-contested Western Conference, the Blazers have quietly moved up to fifth and distanced themselves from some of the jockeying towards the middle of the standings.

Speaking of high-volume scoring, Damian Lillard is second behind only Bradley Beal with 15 games with 30 points or more this season. Against the Mavericks, Lillard had another signature Dame Time moment with the game-winning triple in a 121-118 shootout. The MVP discussion rages on in NBA fan circles. If the Blazers can keep things up and vault closer to the top of the West, perhaps Lillard forces himself into that discussion.

(Last week: 18)

19. Indiana Pacers (14-14)

A 2-2 week for Indiana includes a loss to the Nets and an overtime defeat versus the Bulls, but two other wins against the Pistons and Hawks. The Pacers are an even 14-14 with the 15th-ranked offense and 10th-ranked defense in hoops, which is kind of the classic middling Pacers stance we're used to. 

Nate Bjorkgren's lineup decisions have been interesting. Jeremy Lamb is the leading three-point shooter in the league at 50.9 percent, but he was pulled from the starting five in favor of Doug McDermott (in fairness, also a sharpshooter) after the Nets loss. When McDermott went out with an injury, T.J. McConnell got the start. Now, Lamb has his flaws as essentially a score-only guard, but it's perplexing why an up-and-down Pacer offense wouldn't benefit from his presence.

18. Oklahoma City Thunder (11-15)

Every week I expect to drop OKC to the Sour Patch, and every week the team comes back respectable. The Thunder took on a brutal slate and made it look good with a one-point loss to the Lakers, a two-point loss to the Nuggets and a win over the Milwaukee Bucks. The win is even more impressive when you note how OKC did not have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. As we do with the Thunder almost every week, let's take note of a surprise performer who could have some value.

Justin Jackson had two efficient outings this week, including a 22-point game in the aformentioned win in which he made all four three-point attempts. Jackson has fallen off most fans' radars since being the No. 15 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. He's not really a prospect (already age-25), but Jackson's role as a floor-stretcher and sound passer can help a young team like OKC. 

(Last week: 17)

17. Memphis Grizzlies (11-11)

After getting pulverized with four consecutive losses, Memphis rebounded with a nice 2-1 week to hit .500 on the season. The absences have turned from COVID-related to strict injuries; Desmond Bane joined De'Anthony Melton and a host of others on the shelf Sunday.

That doesn't help a team with the fewest games completed so far. Memphis is loading up for the home stretch of this first half. It starts with two sets of back-to-backs this week. Three of those games are against very beatable teams, with the fourth contest this coming Sunday versus the Suns. Things could snowball quickly again if Memphis can't find its footing early in the week.

(Last week: 13)

16. New York Knicks (14-15)

A Julius Randle All-Star bid was not on my 2020-21 NBA bingo card. But we're at the point where Randle is a legitimate candidate after he went off for 44 points in a win over the Hawks on Monday. He's averaging 23.1 points, 11.0 boards and 5.6 assists while shooting over 40 percent from long range -- simply an All-Star stat line.

I still have my reservations about the Knicks, and specifically, the way Tom Thibodeau runs them. But I can't argue with 14-15 when a number of key long-term pieces are playing well. Even Obi Toppin is finally getting rotation minutes. The Knicks are beating the teams they should beat, and that's a good place to start for a developing franchise.

(Last week: 8)

15. Miami Heat (11-16)

In that aforementioned graphic, the Heat are clearly the team that has been most gutted by injuries and COVID protocols. Miami went 2-2 this week with tough losses to the Jazz and Clippers. While Goran Dragic and Avery Bradley remain out, most of the pieces are finally coming back together.

The starting lineup of Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler, Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo is a plus-19.4 points per 100 possessions. But due to injuries, they've only been together for 94 minutes this season. Of all the teams who have gotten off to slow starts, I'm most confident in Miami turning things around.

(Last week: 10)

14. Sacramento Kings (12-15)

Sacramento did lose all four games this past week. But the squad had an imposing calendar with games against the Sixers, Grizzlies and Nets. I can live with how the Kings lost those games, given that they battle some minor injuries and had prospects play well.

I'm going to hijack this blurb and talk about my favorite young player in Sacramento's pipeline: Robert Woodard II. The 2020 second round pick is currently lighting it up in the NBA G League for the 4-0 Austin Spurs to the tune of 19.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game with a 40 percent clip from beyond the arc. Woodard was one of my favorite underrated prospects in the class, and I really hope Sacramento takes notice of what he's doing in the G League bubble. 

(Last week: 15)

13. Dallas Mavericks (13-15)

After scoffing at the Mavs for empty wins last week, they got a couple more against Atlanta and New Orleans this week before coming up one Luka Doncic three-pointer short of a win on primetime Sunday night. They've battled back into the thick of the Western Conference playoff race with a 13-15 record. The defense is still horrendous, but the offense is hanging on enough to win against lesser opponents.

Now, it hasn't been all Luka Doncic, but the 21-year-old has essentially shouldered the Mavericks during this run. He's averaging 37.2 points and 9.4 assists per game during Dallas' current 5-1 stretch. He's also upped his season three-point rate to 33.5 percent, which seems low, but is actually a career high. Odd. 

(Last week: 7)

12. Golden State Warriors (15-13)

I'm still not buying a viable contender in Golden State. To reiterate from last week, they have a 20th-ranked offense with MVP-level Steph Freakin' Curry. And it's not like injuries are really holding the Warriors back -- sure, Kevon Looney and James Wiseman are the two centers on the roster, but they aren't changing the game on offense, and playing small can work with this team.

But here we are 28 games in, and the Warriors continue to beat bad teams, even if they lose against any tough opponents. With so many other teams in disarray, there's just enough winning and Curry magic here for the Warriors to sneak out of the Sour Patch.

(Last week: 5)

11. Boston Celtics (13-13)

The first half of the week, which saw Boston lose to Utah and beat Toronto, was fine. Then came a bad loss to the Detroit Pistons and a worse loss to the Washington Wizards. The Celtics put up a paltry 91 points against one of the league's worst defenses with all of their three best players active. Brad Stevens can't be having that.

I wrote at the top about how Boston is one example of a team that has been affected by lineup inconsistency. Some of that is unlucky injuries and health. Some of it is Brad Stevens constantly adjusting the lineup. Either way, I'm willing to hold out a little longer, since 13-13 is still good for a mid-tier playoff spot in the East right now.

(Last week: 20)

Tier 3: The Sour Patch

10. Detroit Pistons (8-19)

How about the Pistons! In their never-ending quest to upend all of the best teams in the NBA, Detroit beat the Nets and Celtics, as well as the Pelicans, in a 3-1 week. Saddiq Bey earned Player of the Week honors behind a flat-out ridiculous campaign that included a 30-point outburst against the Celtics. Blake Griffin is on the outs and will not play again for the Pistons as they look to move him -- probably best for both sides.

Another surprise in Detroit has been the gradual re-emergence of Josh Jackson off the bench. He's played at least 21 minutes in each of the last eight games and scored an efficient 21 points in the win over the Pelicans. Still just 24 years old, Jackson has endured a winding road in the NBA. But he seems to be carving out a solid niche with the Pistons.

(Last week: 4)

9. Toronto Raptors (12-15)

Fred VanVleet called his frustration with the Raptors' defense "really high" after their 116-112 loss to Minnesota. And he should be frustrated; Toronto has the 17th-best defensive rating after consistently being a leader on that end. Defense has been a pillar of the Raptors' identity over the past few seasons, and they're just not measuring up right now.

Shams Charania reported that Toronto is engaged in talks around Andre Drummond. Adrian Wojnarowski said nothing meaningful has transpired yet. Either way, I don't know how much Drummond helps the Raptors, but at least they're looking to mix things up after a slow start.

(Last week: 14)

8. Chicago Bulls (11-15)

Monday's overtime win against the Pacers might be the first real sign of progress for this Chicago team as a whole. They took on a fundamentally-sound roster and gutted out a win with some solid defense by Chicago Bulls standards. Zach LaVine had his usual 30, but Coby White also came up big down the stretch, and a number of bench players made an impact.

On the whole, the Bulls still have a middling offense and defense. But they're 4-4 in their last eight games and have a number of winnable contests on the slate for next week. If they can continue to look disciplined as a team and split weeks, fans should start to feel better about how the future is lining up.

(Last week: 6)

7. Atlanta Hawks (11-16)

An 0-4 whimper puts some major negative vibes on the Hawks, who are reeling defensively without De'Andre Hunter. They gave up at least 118 points in all four games, and outside of Hunter, who is still out with a knee injury, the roster doesn't offer a sign of life on that end.

The John Collins rumors also persist, which is a weird situation where a gifted offensive forward could be easily cast aside by Atlanta. Collins is averaging 18.1 points and 7.6 rebounds while shooting over 41 percent from three, and has developed great on-court chemistry with Trae Young. But he's also not worth a max rookie extension, which could be the sticking point here. 

(Last week: 9)

6. Washington Wizards (8-17)

Even though Washington went 2-2 this week, those latter two wins felt like tangible growth. Washington has rolled with a new starting lineup recently that includes Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal, Rui Hachimura, Moritz Wagner and Garrison Matthews. It may be just a 19-minute sample size, but that group is a plus-42.7 per 100 possessions, so it's worth sticking with that unit for now.

In the chaos of their start, it's easy to forget that the Wizards are just three games back of the eighth seed. They're by no means out of the playoff race. But this final stretch is going to set the tone for the rest of the season.

(Last week: 3)

5. New Orleans Pelicans (11-15)

The Pelicans had an easy schedule this past week, but bungled the chance to build momentum by going 1-3. As the season wears on, Stan Van Gundy's defense has gone from mediocre, to bad, to terrible. New Orleans now has the third-worst defensive rating in the NBA -- concerning when you have two defense-first guards and a physical center in the starting lineup.

New Orleans gives up the most three-point attempts and the most three-point makes to opponents, who are shooting a blistering 39 percent against them. They don't force many turnovers, and opposing teams can move the ball pretty freely against them. When today's league can run and gun against you without resistance, you're not going to win many games.

(Last week: 12)

4. Houston Rockets (11-16)

What a hard crash back to earth for Houston, who is now on a six-game skid after losing four this week. The Rockets had a winnable slate, too, and still couldn't beat the Pelicans, Knicks or Wizards. The second-ranked defense I raved about last week looked awful for the most part. Victor Oladipo has also joined the injury report as he nurses a foot injury.

Houston has the second-highest three-point attempt rate in basketball. But the team makes those threes at a 34 percent clip -- 27th in the NBA. The Rockets have had some shooters, like Eric Gordon and John Wall, run cold, but they also don't exactly have a cast of snipers. They should be hunting proven shooters on the trade market.

(Last week: 16)

3. Minnesota Timberwolves (7-20)

The Wolves are still bad, and people know that, but this was a decent week of basketball from Minnesota. Karl-Anthony Towns is back and balling, and Anthony Edwards made meaningful steps forward as the top pick in the 2020 draft. A 116-112 win over the Raptors works as a confidence-booster for a young squad like the Wolves.

Even though he's on the bench, Naz Reid continues to impact the game as a stretch five. He's shooting a strong 38 percent from the field and making some pretty good decisions with the ball as well. Our Spencer Davies wrote an awesome feature on Reid's background, and it's a cool look at how modern NBA bigs look at their own games.

(Last week: 2)

2. Cleveland Cavaliers (10-19)

It's been a nightmarish two weeks for the Cavs, who have now lost eight straight and feel much closer to disarray than they did at any point prior this season. We'll focus on the Andre Dummond situation. According to multiple reports, the center will not suit up again for Cleveland as the franchise looks to move him. This seemed inevitable given Drummond's choppy play and Cleveland's gluttony of bigs.

But what to expect in a return? Our Spencer Davies dug deep into that. Remember, Drummond originally got to Cleveland via trade for two reserves and a second round pick. Now he's on a large, expiring contract, with the Cavs holding little leverage. Whatever return comes back, it's doubtful the fans will be very excited about it.

(Last week: 11)

1. Orlando Magic (10-18)

In fairness to the Magic, they had a tough schedule last week and beat the one team near their level in Sacramento. But just to remind you, the team was 6-2 to start the season and has gone 4-16 since. Cole Anthony and James Ennis missed Sunday's games with injures, dealing two more blows to the team's depth. Seven rotation players have hit the injury report as of Sunday.

In a 109-90 loss to Phoenix, the Magic played eight guys, with a starting lineup of Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, Michael Carter-Williams, Dwayne Bacon and Gary Clark. At least Mo Bamba finally got in for 23 minutes of action. 

(Last week: 1)

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