This was an NBA week of extreme play. In the past eight days of play, five teams went undefeated. Three other squads failed to register a win. There was certainly no shortage of potential candidates for Week 20’s lists of risers and fallers.
So with about one month remaining in the NBA season, let’s examine the recent changes in the league’s landscape.
In addition to teams that made the lists, the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns could have been risers. The Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers were also considered for the fallers section.
NBA Week 20 Risers
Detroit Pistons (33-31, No. 6 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 4-0)
The Pistons had a fantastic week. Among their highlights were a 36-point blowout victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, an overtime win against the Toronto Raptors and a 21-point comeback win over the Chicago Bulls.
Everything is coming together simultaneously for the Pistons, it seems. This was a squad that was extremely dependent on Blake Griffin for most of the season, but the Pistons’ success as of late has definitely been a team effort.
Former All-Star center Andre Drummond has finally found his efficiency this season, Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith have been a nice tag-team duo at point guard and second-year shooter Luke Kennard is red-hot. Kennard averaged 20 points per game in the Pistons’ 4-0 week, turning the ball over only three times in total and compiling an insane true-shooting percentage of 77.5
Houston Rockets (40-25, No. 3 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 3-0)
After three high-quality victories against the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers, the Rockets’ win streak now stands at seven. Houston was 11-14 and the 14th seed in the Western Conference in December, but the squad has gone 29-11 since then to make an impressive jump to the third seed.
James Harden remains neck-and-neck with the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo for the MVP award. It’s a shame both of them can’t win the award. However, it’s not just Harden doing all the work as the Rockets’ team defense has also been a major factor in their run. Their defensive rating has improved from 25th in the league to seventh since the All-Star break, mostly thanks to getting back Clint Capela and Chris Paul.
Down the stretch, let’s see if the Rockets are able to find ways to keep Harden’s offensive responsibilities under control. He has been amazing this season with extremely high minutes and offensive usage, but he needs to stay fresh for the postseason.
Los Angeles Clippers (38-29, No. 7 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 4-0)
Most NBA observers, including me, assumed the Clippers’ trade deadline moves were a means to build for the future. They shipped away Tobias Harris, arguably their best player, and were going to focus more on their youth for the rest of the season.
The franchise had incentive to go for a lottery spot. The Clippers’ 2019 first-round draft pick only belongs to them if they miss the playoffs. However, Los Angeles has clearly established that it is a playoff team. The Clippers are 9-4 since the trade deadline and are 4.5 games ahead of the ninth-place team in the Western Conference, the Sacramento Kings.
The future is bright for the Clippers. They are well-coached by Doc Rivers and have Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari to lead the offense and younger guys like Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Ivica Zubac playing very well in smaller roles.
NBA Week 20 Fallers
Dallas Mavericks (27-38, No. 13 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 0-4)
For the Mavericks, it’s not a big deal that they’re not sniffing the playoffs this year. Dallas is clearly focused on the future, which starts next season when Kristaps Porzingis (hopefully) comes back healthy to start his Mavs career.
What is concerning is that players not named Luka Doncic are failing to pull their weight. The Rookie of the Year favorite continues to flirt with 20-point triple-doubles almost every night, but the rest of the team is not doing very many good things.
When Doncic and Porzingis are healthy, they can carry the offensive load in terms of shot creation. What they need from their teammates is three-point shooting and solid defense, basically.
However, in the Mavs’ current four-game losing streak, Doncic’s teammates are shooting 27.1 percent from three-point range. The team as a whole also has had the league’s second-worst defensive rating in the past week.
Los Angeles Lakers (30-35, No. 11 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 0-4)
The Lakers’ season is essentially over. The team is 6.5 games out of a playoff spot, it has lost 14 of its last 19 games and the team recently announced that LeBron James’ minute load will be decreased. James also won’t be playing in back-to-back games for the rest of the season.
James’ injury on Christmas was really the beginning of the end for the Lakers. The team struggled on offense but actually came together quite nicely on defense during his absence. Upon James’ return, though, the Lakers lost their identity on that end. The ankle injury to Lonzo Ball is certainly a factor there, but James’ lackluster defensive effort has also been a problem.
The team has no chemistry right now, and there are a lot of questions about the future of the Lakers franchise. Bringing in LeBron was supposed to help the team mentor its young players and attract big-name free agents. It seems like James has no influence with the youngsters, and what about Los Angeles’ team culture is going to entice potential newcomers?
New York Knicks (13-52, No. 15 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 0-3)
Last week the Knicks appeared on the risers list for winning three out of five games following an 18-game losing streak. This week, New York is back to playing like the worst team in the league.
On offense, the Knicks just don’t have quality initiators. Emmanuel Mudiay, Dennis Smith Jr., and Kevin Knox are getting big shares of the team’s usage, but all three are extremely inefficient. Their most efficient guys, namely Mitchell Robinson, DeAndre Jordan and Noah Vonleh, are all players who can’t create their own shot.
The goal for the Knicks this season is to find players who can be supporting players for a potential Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving pairing that could arrive this summer. So far, not many of the young guys have clearly stepped up. Robinson is the only obvious choice to stay on the team for the future, though Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier could also be decent options.