In the first NBA Power Rankings of the 2020-21 season, we look at the source of each team’s basketball power.
Our new look NBA Power Rankings are back, a non-traditional structure for a non-traditional era of professional basketball. The world is no longer just about wins and losses and teams are no longer the primary crucible of basketball power. So each week we’ll be dissecting how basketball power is presently distributed — between players, teams, friendships, diss tracks, aesthetic design choices, across leagues and whatever else has a temporary toehold in this ever-changing landscape.
For our first edition of the 2020-21 season, we’re reacquainting ourselves with all 30 teams, looking briefly at the source of each squad’s basketball power.
Who has the power in this week’s NBA Power Rankings?
New York Knicks
Power Source: Youthful energy
The Knicks aren’t going to win a lot of games this year, and their youthful attention spans are going to drive Thibs nuts. But give Mitch Robinson, R.J. Barrett, Kevin Knox and R.J. Barrett a few pregame juice boxes and enjoy the chaos of them bouncing off the walls until nap time.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Power Source: Possibility
The Thunder draw their power from the negative space around their actual players, the shadowy voids that will eventually be filled with a to-be-determined menagerie of young stars, pulled from their trove of draft picks.
Power Source: A deep well of stubborn conviction
Isaac Okoro has played just 91 preseason minutes but you can already see the potential of his stubborn refusal — to acquiesce open space to an opponent, to be stopped on his drives to the rim, to surrender a single rebound or loose ball. He and Collin Sexton are ready to run through brick walls.
Power Source: Speed
What seemed to be a promising young foundation has begun to drift apart — Mavin Bagley’s falling stock, Buddy Hield’s bruised ego, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Harry Giles off to greener pastures. All that’s left is De’Aaron Fox sprinting away from past and future calamities.
Power Source: An insatiable hunger for buckets
Inside the Minnesota locker room, there are two wolves. One is a transcendent scorer with a shaky defensive track record. The other is a talented young combo guard with promising scoring chops and defense that leaves a lot to be desired. Oh, and I forgot, there’s another wolf too. He’s 19 and just got added to the pack and also likes scoring.
Power Source: Size
If you put the positional abbreviations for all the players on the Pistons’ roster in a row it spells CCCPFPFPFPFSFSFSFSGSGSGSGSGPGPG.
San Antonio Spurs
Power Source: Gregg Popovich
The Spurs draw power from legacy and the strength of their entire organization. It’s a Krang from TMNT situation. The Spurs organization is that big beefcake body and Popovich is the brain pushing all the buttons and levers.
Power Source: The limitless wealth, power and machismo of Tillman Fertitta
What could go wrong?
Power Source: Trae Young’s bravado
For all the ways that Trae Young is not Steph Curry, he still exudes some of that magic. That feeling that anything could happen, any shot could be made, game-winning run pulled from thin air. Right now that hope is feeding the Hawks, but hope is a dangerous thing.
Power Source: Nikola Vucevic
The treadmill of mediocrity is spinning and Vucevic is still on it, running, grinding away, determined to prove his body can outlast the machine.
Power Source: Spaghetti with red sauce mixed with ranch and sugar
If you’re wondering why Terry Rozier’s squirrel-like energy comes from, it’s this homemade delicacy.
Power Source: The white-hot intensity of Russell Westbrook
To borrow a line from Ted Lasso, Westbrook dribbles like he’s mad at the floor. He is their Roy Kent.
Power Source: Not being coached by Jim Boylen anymore
You know that feeling when you take ski boots or ice skates off? And all the blood comes suddenly rushing back into your feet with warmth and sensation? An incredible lightness replaces the pain of constriction. The endorphins kick on and you feel like you could just float away. That’s the Bulls this year.
New Orleans Pelicans
Power Source: Mass times acceleration
Specifically the actual and anticipated mass and acceleration of Zion Williamson.
Power Source: Lubrication
For years, the Grizzlies drew power from gritting and grinding, from the heat and kinetic energy release of friction. No more rough edges. This team all smooth and slick, sliding and riding momentum through empty space.
Power Source: Entropy
Every few years the Pacers muster a flurry of productive team-building and then settle back into a slow and steady slide into disorder. The pace of this cycle appears ready to start accelerating.
Power Source: Small-market energy
The Jazz feel perennially underrated, disrespected as both individuals and as a collective by media, fans and opponents. A desire to prove this worldview powers their basketball engine.
Power Source: An eight-game winning streak
For eight historically isolated games, the Phoenix Suns were unbeatable. They’ll be riding that wave of confidence until it breaks.
Power Source: Vibes
Everything about this team — from a coaching staff built by casting directors from MTV’s The Challenge, to the surrealist synergy of Kyrie and Durant, to the idea of offense as the best defense — speaks to a blinding optimism. They’re just vibin’, waiting for the universe to provide.
Power Source: Bargaining
The 76ers are still in the third stage of grief (bargaining), mourning for a future that seemed just over the horizon, a Hinkian vision of utopia built on efficiency and pristine value adds. A future that will never come to pass.
Portland Trail Blazers
Power Source: Dame Time
Fifty percent of the time, it’s Dame Time … all the time.
Power Source: Luka’s smile
He’s like a skunk who sprays you and then turns around to smile at you, and the smile is so mischievously beautiful that you forget you smell like a dog fart.
Power Source: Sunshine
Do you remember that first warm spring day in college? Everyone comes out of their dorm rooms, pale as a ghost and blissfully devours the sun’s warmth. You can feel the seasonal depression thawing in real time, anything and everything feels possible. Now imagine you spend years playing basketball in Toronto and suddenly get moved to Tampa.
Power Source: “No one believes in us, pt. ∞”
The Nuggets proved themselves in the bubble but people are still going to be pointing at their flaws and wringing their hands about Jerami Grant.
Power Source: Jimmy Butler
That’s it. Just Jimmy Butler. He’s a one-man Arc Reactor.
Golden State Warriors
Power Source: Superiority
Whether or not it’s actually true, feeling like you’re better than everyone else can go a long way.
Power Source: Smarf
Jayson Tatum is this team’s best player. Jaylen Brown may be it’s most useful. Kemba Walker is probably the most important. But Smarf is the funky soul of the Celtics.
Los Angeles Clippers
Power Source: Shame
The “blew a 3-1 lead” jokes are going to be merciless this year. But, with the appropriate amount of heat and pressure, shame can be transmuted into a white-hot rage, the kind the fuels juggernauts.
Los Angeles Lakers
Power Source: Entitlement
Sometimes the universe just seems to bend the knee for certain teams. The Lakers landed LeBron James and then Anthony Davis, and they steamrolled their way to a title. And then they upgraded their roster — Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, Wes Matthews, Marc Gasol. To be fair, if the Lakers defend their title they will absolutely earn it. But acting like it’s already theirs gives them tremendous power.
Power Source: Responsibility
With great power comes great responsibility, and the Bucks feel it. The responsibility to the city and their community, to do right by Giannis Antetokounmpo after his enormous commitment to the team. And to all the other small-market teams, hoping to one day land that transformational star and then find a way to sell him on bliss in flyover country. And Giannis feels it too, the responsibility to do right by his teammates, his fans, his city and his organization. As much as any other team, the Bucks seem to understand that they’re playing for more than just themselves this season.