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NBA Sour Rankings: When do we panic?

NBA Sour Rankings: When do we panic?

The NBA is hitting a period of inner turmoil. 

Stars don't like the idea of an All-Star game -- yet the league is moving ahead and prioritizing the business of basketball over safety. It's a puzzling look for a governing body that is traditionally viewed as one of the more progressive sports leagues in America. The Sour Rankings focus on individual teams, but we should note that the NBA as a whole doesn't have a great image right now.

We're also at about the quarterly mark of this abbreviated 72-game season. But only four teams are more than five games below .500, making it difficult to assess results versus expectations. This week, four teams within three games of equilibrium sit in the Sour Patch. When do those teams start to panic with so much parity league-wide?

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 (19-5)

There's just no other way around it -- Utah, through a quarter of the season, has been the best basketball team. You can measure by record (tops in the NBA), offensive and defensive ratings (top five in both), or whatever you want. Utah is absolutely on fire, and has re-upped with a four-game winning streak to start February. 

Did you know that Royce O'Neale is averaging 32 minutes per game, good for second on the team? The 27-year-old has started all 23 games he has played in and is shooting a career-high 44.3 percent from long range. O'Neale earned his keep initially for defense; he's now a valuable asset on both ends. He's also taken a grand total of two mid-range shots this season.

(Last week: 27)

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29. Los Angeles Lakers (19-6)

The wins didn't come easy this week for the Lakers. They needed overtime periods to take down the Pistons and Thunder. But Los Angeles got the job done, and also beat the Denver Nuggets to improve to 19-6 on the year. 

Dennis Schroder has become a key cog for this team after the Lakers traded for him in the offseason. During the past five games he has asserted himself as the third scoring option behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Schroder is also averaging 5.4 assists against just 1.8 turnovers per game during the team's current five-game winning streak.

(Last week: 29)

28. Los Angeles Clippers (17-8)

At 1-3 on the week, the Clippers lost hold of the top spot in an increasingly competitive Western Conference race. All three defeats to the Nets, Celtics and Kings came by a possession or less, and they did cruise through Cleveland in a 121-99 rout. No major causes for concern this week, other than Paul George's foot.

Interestingly, LAC was reportedly interested in Derrick Rose before he was traded to New York. This news makes it seem like the franchise wants another veteran scorer -- despite already posting the second-best offensive rating in the league. I'm not sure how Rose would've helped, given his inconsistent efficiency and poor results on defense.

(Last week: 30)

27. Milwaukee Bucks (16-8)

Two teams have separated themselves from the amoeba of the Eastern Conference standings. Milwaukee has won its last five games, including all four this week, and sits a game back from top-seeded Philly. The Bucks have generally cruised along this season, having never lost more than two games in a row.

We've talked about him before, but Bobby Portis has really found his spot in Milwaukee. The 25-year-old is shooting an impressive 54 percent from the field and 47 percent from deep. Our Spencer Davies wrote about how Portis has become the team's spark plug, and he's doing wonders for the top-ranked offense in the league.

(Last week: 26)

26. Philadelphia 76ers (17-7)

The top-ranked team in the Eastern Conference played the hand it was dealt this week. Philly beat an up-and-coming Hornets team and a shorthanded Nets squad, but lost to the Trail Blazers without Ben Simmons. The Sixers are still alone with Milwaukee in the standings, and Simmons appears to be healthy for the coming week.

One interesting lineup tidbit for you: in a pretty small sample size (31 minutes), the unit with Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Shake Milton, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid has a whopping plus-50.1 net rating per 100 possessions. That three-guard lineup adds some creation and playmaking with Milton in for Danny Green, and I'd be interested to see it more often.

(Last week: 28)

25. Brooklyn Nets (14-11)

Brooklyn wins the award for most bizarre week in the Association. The entire Kevin Durant debacle, as previously mentioned, is confusing and frustrating on a number of levels. Kyrie Irving is also day-to-day with a finger injury, which kept him out of a bad loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. 

A 1-2 week with the noted curveballs isn't bad, and that win over the Clippers on national television is a big statement for this newly-conjured Big Three. Against a strong LAC defense, the trio put up a combined 90 points on 33-of-51 shooting. So far this superweapon of an offense is overriding any defensive concerns on the table.

(Last week: 25)

24. Phoenix Suns (14-9)

The Suns breezed through easier opponents this week in Detroit and Cleveland, then defended home court against a tougher Boston team to move to 14-9. Phoenix sits fourth in the Western Conference standings just before their quarter mark, and should really feel good about their place in the league given the league-wide parity. 

Interestingly, Cameron Payne has been one of the biggest on/off winners for the Suns so far (granted he's missed a chunk of these games of late). Phoenix is 14.7 points better per 100 possessions when Payne is on the court. The former lottery pick has been efficient around the rim and beyond the arc, and his speed poses a natural matchup problem for backup guards. Payne has had a pretty wild journey for a first round pick, but he's found stability in Phoenix. Let's hope his injury heals up fast.

(Last week: 22)

23. San Antonio Spurs (14-10)

Statement week for the Spurs, who picked up three increasingly impressive wins over the Wolves, Rockets and Warriors. All three were the sort of classic, gritty Spurs game we've grown accustomed to in the Gregg Popovich era, which is a sign that the pieces are really clicking.

Interestingly, the Spurs' starting lineup is getting outscored by 15 points per 100 possessions, despite the solid record. But the four-man bench unit, plus Dejounte Murray, is unreal: they're outscoring opponents by a whopping 30.3 points per 100 possessions in 82 minutes together. That lineup includes Murray, Rudy Gay, Jakob Poeltl, Patty Mills and rookie Devin Vassell. 

(Last week: 18)

22. Charlotte Hornets (12-13)

Even a 2-2 week feels great at this point for the Hornets. They lost a close matchup with Philly and a bad one with Utah, but detonated on Washington and Houston. As I've said all season, the most important storyline by far is the development of LaMelo Ball -- and he's getting better every single game.

This week, Ball put up: 24.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game on 46 percent shooting from the field and 52 percent shooting on threes. Sure, he's still struggling with turnovers and defensive fundamentals. But Ball looks a lot more polished as a scorer than most expected from him as a rookie, and he's singlehandedly changing Charlotte's long-term outlook. 

(Last week: 21)

21. Denver Nuggets (12-11)

The Nuggets had a pretty imposing slate this past week, and they struggled, dropping all three contests to the Lakers, Kings and Bucks. Denver has the 24th-ranked defense in the NBA and has held one opponent under 110 points since January 19. But fans have got to be excited because Nikola Jokic is the clear MVP through about a quarter of the season.

Jokic answered a 47-point game from last week with just a bonkers 50-point, 12-assist onslaught this week. He has been the best individual player in 2020-21, and it shouldn't even be a contest. Now we should start thinking about where Jokic's per-game stat line (27.5 PTS, 11.5 REB, 8.5 AST, 56.5 FG%, 40.0 3P%) ranks among the best seasons from a center in NBA history.

(Last week: 24)

Tier 2: We're Fine Over Here

20. Boston Celtics (12-10)

The Celtics spent this week on a road trip out West, hitting San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles and Phoenix. They went 2-2, defeating the Warriors and Clippers but faltering against the Kings and Suns. Jaylen Brown has missed the last two games with a sore knee, making that win over LAC the real standout game of the week.

Robert Williams needs more minutes. The third-year center is becoming a real weapon around the paint, and he's made a stunning 72.6 percent of his field goals this season. Williams hasn't gotten a consistent shake; he played 15 or more minutes twice this week, and then played just 10:01 against Phoenix and 8:29 versus the Warriors. Brad Stevens should really be solidifying Williams' role and get him into a rhythm regarding playing time.

(Last week: 16)

19. Indiana Pacers (12-12)

There's no shame in a 1-3 week for the Pacers, who split a series with the Milwaukee Bucks and lost competitive games to the Pelicans an Jazz. In a toast to the league's parity, the 12-12 Pacers actually slot in fifth in the Eastern Conference standings -- slightly above where most expect them to finish. 

Jeremy Lamb has moved into the starting lineup during the past seven games. The shooting guard has played efficiently in five of those contests, with two duds standing out. Remove those games, and Lamb has shot 22-of-37 from the field and 14-of-20 from distance. He's not a firecracker as a scorer, but Lamb is providing a nice punch to a middling offense.

(Last week: 20)

18. Portland Trail Blazers (12-10)

A 110-99 loss to the Knicks looks bad, but Portland had a good week overall and went 2-1 with some key players out. In addition to CJ McCollum's extended absence, Damian Lillard also missed the matchup against Philly -- arguably one of the more impressive wins for Portland this season.

The Blazers beat a Ben Simmons-less Sixers team 121-105 without their starting backcourt. Gary Trent Jr. pulled together a 24-point outing (albeit on 23 shots) and Enes Kanter managed 17 points and 18 rebounds. Rookie C.J. Elleby (15 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks) also looked great in limited action.

(Last week: 15)

17. Oklahoma City Thunder (10-13)

It's simply amazing how much fun this Thunder team is to watch. They destroyed Houston to open the week, split two close games with Minnesota and loss gallantly to the Lakers in overtime, so OKC is still making little progress in the standings. But they had yet another flash of promise this week in Kenrich Williams.

The 26-year-old Williams always had some Draft Twitter fans out there, and he turned some high-minute opportunities into real production this week. Williams averaged 11.3 points, 6.8 rebounds per game, and shot a filthy 19-for-30 from the field (5-9 3PT). Great stuff from the third-year pro.

(Last week: 14)

16. Houston Rockets (11-12)

Christian Wood went down with an ankle injury and is to be evaluated on a weekly basis. That hurts for Houston, which relies pretty heavily on its leading scorer (!) to set the tone inside. The Rockets went 1-3 this week and had some tough losses to the Thunder, Spurs and Hornets.

But impressively, Houston has pulled together the second-best defensive rating in basketball. That's led by undrafted rookie Ja'Sean Tate, who gains a new cluster of fans every time he gets on the court. Victor Oladipo and P.J. Tucker have helped turn the defense around as well. 

(Last week: 17)

15. Sacramento Kings (12-11)

Wow. What an absolute run from the Kings this week, who downed all three of Boston, Denver and LAC in a gauntlet schedule. This was a streak I did not see coming at all, and in the larger standings picture, Sacramento now sits right in the thick of the playoff hunt.

De'Aaron Fox took home Player of the Week honors with averages of 31 points and 8.8 assists per night while knocking down 55 percent of his shots. According to The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor, the point guard is shooting 61 percent on stepback threes this season -- likely due for regression, but also a major positive for a guy with traditionally inconsistent efficiency from deep.

(Last week: 5)

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14. Toronto Raptors (11-13)

I'll sell these rumors that the Raptors might move on from Kyle Lowry. Toronto parting with the heart of its franchise and a passionate leader seems implausible when Lowry has been nothing but rock-solid since arriving in Toronto. 

With a 3-1 week, the Raptors have quickly shaken off their rough start. Fred VanVleet continues to rip any remaining doubters to shreds via 54-point and 32-point bombs in two wins. He has crossed the 20 PPG scoring mark and has multiple steals in six of his last seven contests.

(Last week: 12)

13. Memphis Grizzlies (9-10)

After steaming to 9-6, the Grizzlies experienced a hard crash back to Earth. They got dragged through the mud by Indiana, Houston, New Orleans and Toronto, with only one single-digit loss to New Orleans looking remotely competitive. Brandon Clarke and De'Anthony Melton are now on the shelf with injuries as well.

But Memphis is still making solid decisions, starting with Desmond Bane. The rookie guard earned his first career start against Toronto. He's currently fourth in the Association with a 48 percent clip from downtown, and is the only qualifying rookie ranked in the top 15.

(Last week: 23)

12. New Orleans Pelicans (10-12)

Like the Kings, New Orleans had a resurgent week with three quality wins. The Pelicans took down the Suns, Pacers and Grizzlies. While they're still near the back of a crowded Western Conference, New Orleans feels more competitive than they looked two weeks ago. 

Franchise centerpiece Zion Williamson has seen his playmaking kick up during the revived run. He has tallied five or more assists in five of his last six games. Turnovers are also increasing, but not to alarming levels, and the six assists against zero turnovers Williamson posted against Phoenix are serious positive signs.

(Last week: 6)

11. Cleveland Cavaliers (10-15)

Based on recent matchups, Cleveland might be the coldest team in the NBA. But they had a juggernaut of a schedule this past week, with one game against the Clippers, two against the Bucks and a third against the Suns. They all ended in bad losses. Spencer Davies detailed the changes that have to happen for young teams in an up-and-down season.

Larry Nance injured his finger and will miss 4-6 weeks. That's a devastating blow to Cleveland's frontcourt, which rolled with Jarrett Allen and Andre Drummond in the starting lineup against the Suns. His missing defensive versatility craters the Cavs this week, since the schedule doesn't get much easier with games against Denver and Portland up next.

(Last week: 19)

Tier 3: The Sour Patch

10. Miami Heat (9-14)

Miami is in the middle of a pair of two-game series. The Heat split the first one this week against Washington and won the first matchup against the Knicks (they play again Tuesday). The Heat are still in the Sour Patch because of their lagging place in the conference's playoff race. But it's not time to panic; recent performances suggest the team is getting back on track.

The Heat allowed no more than 103 points in any game this past week. This is good; Washington and New York are pretty weak offenses, and a well-coached squad led by Jimmy Butler should feast. At the same time, the offense is still spinning its tires. One of the most peculiar stats of the season might be that Butler has attempted just 14 threes in 11 games -- and missed every single one.

(Last week: 9)

9. Atlanta Hawks (11-12)

The Hawks should also not panic. They're 11-12 and very much in the playoff race despite plowing through a multitude of injuries through the early stretch of the season. Unfortunately, De'Andre Hunter is out for multiple weeks, dealing a serious blow to a defense that has managed to hold itself together as a league-average team.

Next week is an important test, with three beatable but good teams on the calendar in Dallas, San Antonio and Indiana. If we come back to next week's rankings and the Hawks are .500 or better, the image of this team drastically changes. But we'll have to see how the defense manages with Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish continuing to take Hunter's responsibilites.

(Last week: 11)

8. New York Knicks (11-14)

Tom Thibodeau's comical predictability strikes again! Derrick Rose is back in New York and back with Thibs, and his return comes via a trade that makes absolutely zero sense for the Knicks.

To start with, Rose is not a starting-caliber point guard and most definitely will not move the needle if -- help us all -- Thibodeau is bent on making the playoffs at all costs. Then there's the package: Dennis Smith Jr. and a 2021 second-round pick. Not expensive, but the opposite of the direction New York should be heading as a team with a suddenly interesting young core. It's just mind-blowing that no one in the NBA discourse is surprised at all by this move.

(Last week: 13)

7. Dallas Mavericks (11-14)

Sure, the Mavs went 3-1 this week and got themselves back in the Western Conference dogfight. But how good can you feel about the wins -- against Golden State, Minnesota and Atlanta -- and the way they were won?

The Mavs' defense is atrocious. They average 21.8 fouls per game, which is third-most in basketball. They have the 26th-ranked defensive rating and have given up at least 115 points in 10 of their last 11 games. Luka Doncic seems to have found a rhythm offensively, which bodes well for a turnaround. But the defense is seriously limiting right now.

(Last week: 7)

6. Chicago Bulls (9-14)

Despite a pretty easy schedule, the Bulls still can't get anything going. They lost close games with the Knicks, Magic and Wizards, though they avenged one loss with a 118-92 thumping of Orlando. There's some genuinely good stuff happening in Chicago -- led by Patrick Williams -- but nothing especially eye-popping, which doesn't ward off the stench of losing.

Lauri Markkanen is now out 2-4 weeks with a shoulder sprain. There's still plenty of time before the March 25 trade deadline, but the front office should be contemplating trades for its veteran pieces. Guys like Garrett Temple, Thaddeus Young and Otto Porter have some value; Young in particular should be a coveted rotation player for a contender. Lonzo Ball might be a target; could Young and some extras get a deal done?

(Last week: 8)

5. Golden State Warriors (12-12)

Stephen Curry is playing like an MVP candidate and the Warriors are still losing games. After losing to the Celtics, splitting with the Mavs and losing again to the Spurs, Golden State is again showing that it can't get the job done against competitive teams -- even with Curry being Curry.

This offense is ranked 17th in points per 100 possessions with Wardell Stephen Curry running the show. That's an incrimination on every other player -- Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green included -- as well as Steve Kerr and the staff. Perhaps this is harsh given the current frontcourt injuries to Kevon Looney, Eric Paschall and James Wiseman. But right now, it doesn't feel like their presence would change things.

(Last week: 10)

4. Detroit Pistons (5-18)

Off basketball games alone, it's probably time to put the Pistons at the top of the Sour Rankings. But the front office earns some credit here by making the right decisions when trading Derrick Rose. It feels like the Pistons could have gotten more back for Rose, but Dennis Smith and a second-round pick in a good draft are two worthwhile fliers.

Saddiq Bey and Sekou Doumbouya joined the starting five in a double-overtime loss to the Lakers, and Josh Jackson exploded off the bench for 28 points in that same game. If Detroit is finally getting the message to play its young guys, perhaps I'll lay off them for a little while. 

(Last week: 2)

3. Washington Wizards (6-15)

The Wizards managed to fit five games in a week, and went 2-3 with wins over the Heat and Bulls. That's nice from a winning perspective. Given that Washington squeaked by in those contests without a whole lot of positives, I don't know how much changes, but maybe the Wizards are shaking off a crazy COVID-impacted start.

After being waived by the Raptors and scooped up by Washington, Alex Len has started the last two contests at center. He only played eight minutes in the 22-point loss to Charlotte, but Len did convert all five of his field goals en route to 13 points in 21 minutes against the Bulls. With precious little depth at center, the Wizards don't have much of a choice but to trust the former fifth overall pick.

(Last week: 3)

2. Minnesota Timberwolves (6-18)

It's still dark in Minnesota. But the Wolves get out of the top spot in the Sour Rankings because they played four close games against some decent opponents (albeit going 1-3 in those games). Top pick Anthony Edwards has put up some better performances recently, and 21-year-old Naz Reid is cementing himself as a legit valuable piece for the franchise.

Malik Beasley is also popping off. The 24-year-old put up 30 points, nine rebounds and six assists in a five-point loss to Dallas. He's become a surefire scorer versus a pure shooter, and the Wolves (as well as other trade-hungry teams) should take note of Beasley's potential bargain of a four-year deal.

But then there are the off-court concerns. Beasley was sentenced to 120 days in jail after being arrested for a bizarre gun-related incident in September. He can serve the time after the NBA season, but that's an obvious red flag for teams around the league and a worrisome note regarding Beasley's mental health.

(Last week: 1)

1. Orlando Magic (9-15)

The sack of sadness in Orlando keeps chugging along. The Magic scooped up a 123-119 win against the Bulls and then promptly got demolished. The offense is ranked 27th in the NBA, and it's taking 43-point, 19-rebound efforts from Nikola Vucevic to secure wins. 

Orlando has a gross 49.1 percent effective field goal percentage, good for worst in the league. They also added Evan Fournier and Michael Carter-Williams to the injury report. Add in that Mo Bamba still does not get playing time in favor of an ineffective Khem Birch, and there's not much to feel hopeful about for this season.

(Last week: 4)

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