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15. New Orleans Pelicans (19)
After months of waiting, we have a date: Zion Williamson will return to game action on Jan. 22.
Aside from the raw excitement of a debut we’ve been waiting months to see, Williamson’s play-finishing verve should have positive trickle-down effects. Example: Lonzo Ball has been one of the least efficient pick-and-roll ball-handlers in the NBA this season, but with Williamson rumbling downhill as a roll man, the points per possession on such plays are bound to increase.
Better still, that action won’t have to be New Orleans’ primary weapon on offense. That distinction belongs to budding star Brandon Ingram, who scored a career-high 49 points and was responsible for carrying a Pels team to a thrilling 138-132 overtime win against the Utah Jazz on Thursday.
New Orleans pulled that win off without Jrue Holiday or JJ Redick.
The Pels are 10-5 since the conclusion of their 13-game losing streak, and reinforcements are on the way.
14. Memphis Grizzlies (14)
Suppose that instead of having surgery in October, Zion Williamson never missed time and had played up to expectations. Are we sure he would have had a better first half of his rookie season than Ja Morant?
We’ve hit Morant’s nuclear athleticism and pleasantly surprising perimeter accuracy (more volume, please) in this space several times, but his passing has gotten short shrift. The speed, handle and bounce are, put mildly, conspicuous. They’re undeniable and obvious to the most casual observer.
But the vision and creativity, the anticipation and one-step-ahead reads, all flashed with flair, are supposed to exist in players who need them to survive—not in dudes who hit Mach 5 on the break, change directions on a dime and then drop one of those pieces of currency with no-look gusto.
Morant crushed the Houston Rockets late on Tuesday, hitting 10-of-11 from the field for 26 points and eight assists while defying James Harden‘s invitations to shoot from deep. He hit three of his four tries from beyond the arc, and more than one came in one-on-one matchups with the league’s leading scorer.
This bandwagon is approaching capacity. Better find a seat while you can.
13. Philadelphia 76ers (12)
With Joel Embiid out, the Sixers continue turning to Josh Richardson in fourth quarters. No healthy Sixer averages more field-goal attempts in the final period, and so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he was the guy doing most of the scoring down the stretch of last Monday’s loss to the Indiana Pacers.
He scored 17 of Philly’s 26 fourth-quarter points in that one.
That was the only blemish in a 3-1 week for the Sixers, who got a career-high six made threes (including four in a two-minute stretch of the third quarter) from Furkan Korkmaz in Friday’s 100-89 win over the Bulls.
Philadelphia is now 20-2 at home, and Saturday’s dicey 90-87 escape in New York gave it its first road win since Dec. 23, halting a six-game slide on the road.
The process hasn’t been pretty, but the Sixers’ results without Embiid (5-2 since his injury) are satisfactory.
12. Indiana Pacers (13)
Domantas Sabonis’ sore knee is a concern (When has that old “he can’t do any more damage” rationale ever produced a happy ending?), but broadly, the Pacers are getting healthier. That means their preferred first unit of Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. Warren, Sabonis and Myles Turner is seeing more floor time, a development that could bump the Pacers up the East standings—and these rankings—if it sustains.
The 16 minutes those five shared in last Monday’s 101-95 win over the Sixers were their first in 2020, and though Indy’s starting five didn’t perform so well in that contest (a noisy minus-6.5 net rating), that group has still easily been the Pacers’ most effective quintet among those that see significant minutes.
Of course, everything changes (for the better) once Victor Oladipo returns, which could happen within the next couple of weeks. But we can’t move Indy up just because its best player is nearly back.
Fortunately, we don’t have to. The Pacers have done enough to this point to almost guarantee a finish in the East’s top six, and a hot week could vault them all the way up to the No. 2 seed.
Indiana ran its winning streak to five games Sunday, taking down the Nuggets in Denver behind 18 fourth-quarter points from Doug McDermott. With several other Eastern playoff teams nursing injuries just as Indy gets healthy, a bigger climb may be coming.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder (9)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander became the youngest player to record a 20-rebound triple-double in last Monday’s 117-104 win over the Wolves.
Sure, the rebounds were a little anomalous, as SGA averages “only” 5.8 per game and saw several of his 20 boards simply fall into his hands. But let’s not be a buzzkill about one of the game’s best sophomores—one who’ll almost certainly wind up on the shortlist for Most Improved Player at season’s end.
OKC sandwiched losses to Toronto and Miami between wins over Minnesota and Portland this week, obliging our ranking order by beating two teams situated below and falling to two slotted above. At 4-4 in their last eight games, the Thunder have leveled off a bit, but their overall net rating remains a solid plus-1.5, which ranks 13th in the league.