The Orlando Magic were 27-32 at the All-Star break this time last season, sitting at No. 10 in the standings. The back end of the Eastern Conference was a jumbled mess, with the No. 7 seed and the Magic separated by just two games.
Markelle Fultz was the only player they acquired at the deadline, making a deal with the 76ers in exchange for Jonathon Simmons and a draft pick.
Over the next two-ish months, Orlando went 15-8, leaping over the Heat, the Hornets and the Pistons to secure the No. 7 seed.
On the opposite side of the country, the Sacramento Kings were 30-27, boasting a record that left them just two games outside of the playoff picture.
Looking to build upon their early season success and surge into the playoffs, the Kings moved forward on one of the biggest moves of the 2019 deadline, adding veteran Harrison Barnes to their corps for the rest of the season.
But instead of improving, the Kings trended in the other direction, finishing at 39-43 and missing out on the playoffs by a nine-game margin.
All of this is to say that change can still occur after the trade deadline (or in the Kings’ case, it might not), though much of the playoff picture is largely established at this point in the year. However, shifting is common within the top eight teams of each conference, and there’s an interesting scenario unfolding toward the bottom of the playoff race in the West.
Here are the power rankings as we enter the All-Star break, indicating how the remainder of the season may unfold for various squads.
How The Mighty Have Fallen
30. Golden State Warriors
29. Cleveland Cavaliers
28. New York Knicks
27. Detroit Pistons
26. Charlotte Hornets
Andrew Wiggins will be an exciting presence in the city as Steve Kerr begins the effort to transform him into the high-ceiling presence he was drafted to be. D’Angelo Russell didn’t seem to fit the puzzle, and 2020-21 will be an exciting season in the Bay Area. They’ll just have to ride out the rest of this abysmal year first.
Andre Drummond is a player who would have been an exciting acquisition for several teams, but his bulky contract doesn’t quite make sense for the Cavaliers. He didn’t seem all too happy when he was first shipped off to Cleveland in return for an underwhelming package, but he has since seemed to acclimate to his new home swiftly. Though there is some excitement for the future, the rest of this season figures to be a mess for the Cavs. Drummond and Tristan Thompson were able to bully the Atlanta Hawks down low, which may be the only way this team can put together some wins.
Things couldn’t get much worse for the Knicks after the latest drama which involved a PR mishap from Steve Stoute, who was hired to help the team’s image exactly one day before, well, damaging the team’s image. Knicks fans aren’t happy with this team, be it off the court or on it, where the Knicks are 17-38 and traded away arguably their best player in Marcus Morris. The good thing is that this team is in a major position to make some splashes in the near future
The Pistons got something in return for Andre Drummond, but it really wasn’t much and continues to blur the long-term image of this franchise. That said, the play of Christian Wood has been exciting in a small sample size, and Reggie Jackson’s return from injury has indicated that he’s able to play at full speed the rest of the way.
Devonte’ Graham gives fans something to watch every night, including a recent 28 point, eight assist effort in a win. However, the Hornets have just three wins in their last 16 games, and it’s worth noting that those three wins came against the Pistons, the Knicks and the Timberwolves. Youth is the story for this budding team.
T-Wolves in Midst of Disappointing Season
25. Minnesota Timberwolves
24. Atlanta Hawks
23. Chicago Bulls
22. Washington Wizards
21. Sacramento Kings
The pieces are in place for the Timberwolves to build a solid franchise for years to come with the big acquisition of D’Angelo Russell. But the experiment had a rocky start, as Minnesota surrendered 137 points in the duo’s debut together (albeit against a very good Raptors team). Malik Beasley is looking like a real gem in this deal, averaging 22 points in his first three games up north.
The trio of Trae Young, John Collins and Clint Capela is an undeniably exciting and talented core. Will they be able to make a legitimate run at the eighth seed after a 15-41 start? Probably not. But will they be able to compete with a much higher level of opponent going forward? Absolutely. Capela’s impact will be felt when he’s able to suit up after the team took a beating from the Cavaliers.
A six-game losing streak right before the break has slowed some of the momentum that the Bulls had, but with Otto Porter and Wendell Carter likely to return soon after the break and Lauri Markkanen not far behind them, this team has hope entering the second half. Zach LaVine’s scoring outbursts mean this team can stay competitive in any game.
Bradley Beal has struggled from beyond the arc, but has really ascended into a star player in this league. Considered by many to be an All-Star snub, he’s nearing 30 points per contest and is surrounded by a group of young talent, including Thomas Bryant (returning soon), Moritz Wagner and rookie Rui Hachimura. John Wall’s future is the most important aspect of this team’s long-term success, but it’s largely a mystery.
Injuries have kept the Kings’ lineup from playing at its full potential, but the young core of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield has led Sacramento to a 6-4 record over the team’s last 10. However, those victories should be taken with a grain of salt, as the win against the Clippers came without Kawhi Leonard, and the victory over the Heat didn’t feature Jimmy Butler nor Tyler Herro.
Morant, Grizzles in Thick of Playoff Race
20. San Antonio Spurs
19. Orlando Magic
18. Phoenix Suns
17. Brooklyn Nets
16. Memphis Grizzlies
The Spurs are what the Spurs are. Pretty much everyone has been healthy the whole year, but the duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan just haven’t provided enough results to push this team over the edge. Dejounte Murray’s “breakout” year has shown flashes, but Derrick White and Patty Mills have been equally as effective in different scenarios.
The Magic have flirted with a legitimate playoff run but fall flat far too often. Who is Aaron Gordon? Who is Markelle Fultz? Can you truly build a team around Nikola Vucevic? The only player who doesn’t have too many question marks around him is Jonathan Isaac, who had been an absolute terror all season long before going down to injury. The eighth seed currently belongs to Orlando, but the hold they have on it isn’t all too strong. Luckily, there isn’t much competition behind them.
Devin Booker will indeed get All-Star recognition after an initial snub, taking the spot of Damian Lillard. He’s continuing his dominant scoring ways, averaging 26.4 points per game while shooting a very respectable 36% from deep. The starting five, given its youth and versatility, is really exciting to watch. Ricky Rubio has elevated his game to a different level this season, and Deandre Ayton has the makings of a stud.
The Nets are very content with how things are going, choosing to remain completely quiet at the trade deadline and keep the roster as is currently constituted. If you can beat a team currently on a 15-game winning streak, you can’t be in too bad of a position, right? A shocking win over the Raptors without Kyrie Irving showcased the talent of Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen.
Andre Iguodala is finally out of town, lightening any of the tension that was still on the shoulders of the young, exciting and boisterous core of this Grizzlies team. Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson have played as well as anyone could have expected, and the surprising performances of Brandon Clarke and Dillon Brooks have allowed this team to leap from bottom-of-the-barrel preseason expectations into a likely playoff appearance. However, they need to be careful: some dangerous teams are hot on their tail.
It’s Zion’s World and We’re Just Living in It
15. New Orleans Pelicans
14. Indiana Pacers
13. Portland Trail Blazers
12. Oklahoma City Thunder
11. Dallas Mavericks
One word: Zion. Pure and utter dominance. The rookie has been as much of a game-changing force as everyone expected him to be. His stat lines are even more impressive when you consider his minutes were limited in the beginning. If his debut wasn’t enough, his most recent game should be: dropping 31 points in a blowout victory over Hassan Whiteside and the Blazers is no small task. Brandon Ingram has stepped up to become a clear All-Star, and keeping Jrue Holiday in town during all of the deadline noise shows how much confidence the Pelicans have going forward.
Victor Oladipo still needs some time to shake the cobwebs out, but the smart play and great leadership from Malcolm Brogdon has meshed perfectly with the low-post prowess of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. The team is extremely efficient, with the third-best FG% in the league, and limits their turnovers to a bottom-five rate.
Though it’s been a disappointing season all in all, you can’t discount experience and history when evaluating a team’s chances down the stretch. Damian Lillard evolved into some sort of mutant at the end of January, turning in five performances of 45+ points in six games. The trio of Lillard, McCollum and Whiteside can win any game and is primed to make a late-season run to capture a playoff seed.
With four players averaging over 17 points and a devastating defensive duo of Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel on the interior, the Thunder surprisingly put together all the pieces to create a playoff-bound squad. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been every bit the scorer they’ve needed him to be, with a consistency that should not go under-appreciated for such a young player.
28.9 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 8.7 assists is usually good enough for MVP honors. And though it’s not likely that Doncic will be able to follow up his Rookie of the Year award with a new piece of hardware this season, his presence alone is enough to make this team a contender in each and every game. Adding Willie Cauley-Stein and Hornets’ buyout Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the middle of the season means that the team is gunning for a serious run this year.
Jimmy Butler, Heat Thriving in 2019-20
10. Houston Rockets
9. Philadelphia 76ers
8. Utah Jazz
7. Miami Heat
6. Boston Celtics
This may be the team to watch in the second half. However they handle the big man (or lack thereof) situation, this team finds ways to win. James Harden and Russell Westbrook combined for 78 points in the team’s most recent game, a victory over the Boston Celtics. P.J. Tucker will certainly have his work cut out for him as a 6’5” -- yes, 6’5” -- center, but the Rockets will also be able to turn to the buyout market for any big men who may become available if they come at a minimum price or if the front office decides to use the bi-annual exception.
When a team’s best player tells the home crowd to ‘shut the [expletive] up’, things might appear to be dicey. But that same player just put up 26 points in a terrific team victory against the Los Angeles Clippers, and Sixers fans should feel confident that Joel Embiid is here to stay. This team can beat anyone, but it also feels like it can lose to anyone. Adding Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson to the lineup provides the team with much-needed shooting support down the stretch.
The Jazz’s last three wins have come against the Rockets (courtesy of a Bojan Bogdanovic buzzer beater), the Mavericks and the Heat (without Mike Conley): three very formidable opponents that allowed the Jazz to demonstrate that they’re a dangerous foe come the postseason. Rudy Gobert is distancing himself from all other Defensive Player of the Year candidates, and there aren’t many holes.
There are times when the Heat have looked like the best team in basketball, behind outstanding play from perennial All-Star Jimmy Butler and breakout talent Bam Adebayo. Much of the help has come from unexpected sources, including undrafted rookie Kendrick Nunn and sharpshooter Duncan Robinson. The Heat are simultaneously in the running for this year after adding Andre Iguodala and preparing for the future after cutting ties with Justise Winslow and James Johnson.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Okay, so that may not be the reason the Celtics didn’t acquire a big man (namely Clint Capela) at the deadline, but it doesn’t mean that Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter aren’t enough to keep this team as competitive as any. Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown are all scoring over 20 points per game, Gordon Hayward carries a ton of experience with him, and good luck finding a more dogged competitor than Marcus Smart.
Bucks Are NBA Finals Favorites
5. Denver Nuggets
4. Los Angeles Clippers
3. Toronto Raptors
2. Los Angeles Lakers
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Everyone that was worried about Nikola Jokic’s early season struggles should probably have put those worries aside a long time ago. The Nuggets haven’t had back-to-back losses since early December, and have trounced competitive teams like the Blazers (+28), the Clippers (+10) and the Bucks (+12). Michael Porter Jr. has played inspiring basketball as of late, and he lessens the blow of Malik Beasley’s departure.
Kawhi Leonard isn’t realistically an MVP candidate this season -- Basketball Reference ranks him at No. 8 in the running using their NBA MVP tracker -- but he certainly should be warranting more consideration. He has single-handedly kept them in games, and the team’s record would be a whole lot better if he wasn’t resting as frequently. With such a deep bench and the addition of Marcus Morris, there’s an argument to be made that the Clippers are the top team in the league.
Speaking of MVP candidates, Pascal Siakem’s ascension has been remarkable. As has Fred VanVleet’s. As have the performances of OG Anunoby, and even lesser guys like Terence Davis and Matt Thomas. Really, it seems the credit should be going to Nick Nurse, who is doing more than expected to reinforce his deservedness of the 2020 NBA Coach of the Year award. Pulling off a 15-game winning streak requires that the players and the coaches work together at an extremely impressive level, and there’s no reason to expect that this team can’t keep overachieving.
There was a troublesome statistic recently that showed just how much LeBron James means to the success of this team. Even Anthony Davis struggled to lead this team to victory when LeBron was off the floor. Luckily, the game plan for the Lakers should be simple down the stretch and in the playoffs: keep LeBron on the floor as much as possible. It just doesn’t seem possible that he continues to reach new heights even at age 35, but his league-leading 10.8 assists per game is truly something to marvel at.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 30 points per game while averaging 30.9 minutes per contest. Of all 30 PPG scorers in NBA history, only two have recorded a higher points per 36 minutes figure than Giannis is this season. And it’s not like the Bucks are utilizing load management on Giannis. They’re just so good more often than not that they don’t need the Greek Freak to play the whole time. Take for example, a game in early January, where Giannis scored 37 points in 21 minutes and was subbed out because the lead was so huge that it would frankly be a waste of time to keep him in any longer. That is how good the Bucks are.