NBA Power Rankings: Lakers, Buck and the sources of basketball power

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.


Cleveland Cavaliers

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.


Sacramento Kings

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.


Minnesota Timberwolves

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.


Detroit Pistons

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.


Houston Rockets

Power Source: The limitless wealth, power and machismo of Tillman Fertitta

What could go wrong?


Atlanta Hawks

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.


Orlando Magic

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.


Charlotte Hornets

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.


Washington Wizards

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.


Chicago Bulls

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.


Memphis Grizzlies

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.


Indiana Pacers

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.


Utah Jazz

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.


Phoenix Suns

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.


Brooklyn Nets

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.


Philadelphia 76ers

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.


Dallas Mavericks

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.


Toronto Raptors

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.


Denver Nuggets

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.


Miami Heat

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.


Boston Celtics

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.


Milwaukee Bucks

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.

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