In this week’s NBA Power Rankings, Terrence Ross is tweeting through the feels, Aaron Gordon is here to defend and the 76ers power up with George Hill.
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.
Who has the power in this week’s NBA Power Rankings?
Terrence Ross is the captain now
Terrence Ross live-tweeted his way through the Magic remaking their roster. This is how you social.
Aaron Gordon’s defense
Trading for Aaron Gordon was a long-term play for the Nuggets, something that hopefully opens their championship window a bit wider for years to come. He’s come a long way as a shooter and he’s going to be devastating as a cutter and floater, working in space around Nikola Jokic and his creative passing. But in the short-term, the biggest impact for the Nuggets is having an above-average defender they can throw at the bigger wings they could face in the playoffs this year.
In their matchups against the Clippers and Lakers this season, the Nuggets have had to use JaMychal Green and Zeke Nnaji as their primary LeBron defenders. Against the Clippers, Paul Millsap took primary responsibility for Kawhi Leonard. Obviously, none of those are ideal matchups for the Nuggets and would have presented enormous problems in an extended playoff series. Gordon has a strong defensive impact and he spends a lot of time defending the other team’s primary creator, across several positions.
Before the trade, he had been on the floor for 999.3 defensive possessions for the Magic. Roughly a third of those possessions had seen him matched up with someone from this group of high-end offensive talents, from point guards to power forwards — Jimmy Butler, Luka Doncic, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Jaylen Brown, Julius Randle, Ben Simmons, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Jamal Murray, D’Angelo Russell, Gordon Hayward, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, Jrue Holiday, Bradley Beal and Kyrie Irving.
Whatever the primary matchup, Gordon gives them a defensive option they just didn’t have before and he can do it without really taking anything off the table on offense. The Nuggets didn’t leap a tier but their ability to survive a long playoff series without needing heroic scoring performances from Murray and Jokic every night has certainly improved.
The Myth of Playoff Rondo
It’s honestly unbelievable that people are still talking themselves into Playoff Rondo. Maybe the Clippers needed to trade Lou Williams for chemistry reasons. Maybe they needed to get Rondo to keep Kawhi and George happy. But the basketball reasons for swapping the two, essentially straight-up, are ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
The two are shooting an identical 37.8 from the 3-point line this season but Williams’ comes on roughly three times as many attempts and no one is respecting Rondo as a shooter so any spacing benefits of Rondo’s career-best mark are nil. Williams is shooting better everywhere else, including from the free-throw line (although it’s difficult to tell because Rondo has only attempted two free throws in 402 minutes this year. Rondo generates about 50 percent more assists per 36 minutes than Williams, but with just an equal increase in turnovers as well. Williams is a dramatically negative defender but so is Rondo, to a similar degree according to the estimates of ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus. And it’s been years since Rondo was graded as a net-positive defender.
Maybe the Clippers are just hoping he can do for them what he did for the Lakers last season — miraculously hit 40 percent on a high volume of 3s for a 16-game span, dramatically cut his turnovers and increase his steal rate by 50 percent. But that’s a hypothetical, they know what they can count on from Lou Williams. I guess they just wanted a little mystery.
Brooklyn Without Limits
The Nets could have shopped the out-for-the-season Spencer Dinwiddie to try and land some more depth for this season’s playoff run but nothing materialized at the trade deadline. They did pick up Blake Griffin earlier in the month after he was bought out by the Pistons and he’s looked invigorated in his two games with the Nets, but that addition doesn’t really address any weaknesses — it just builds on strength in the hopes that those weaknesses won’t matter.
But the Nets did get some good news at the trade deadline. Kyle Lowry stayed in Toronto instead of getting traded to another potential contender. The Lakers and Suns didn’t land anyone at all. The Clippers inexplicably traded Lou Williams for Rajon Rondo. Aaron Gordon ended up on the Nuggets instead of the Celtics. The Bucks did nothing and the Heat’s big moves were adding Victor Oladipo and clearing space for a LaMarcus Aldridge signing.
All that is to say, none of the Nets’ competitors (except the 76ers, more on that in a minute) noticeably improved at the deadline and some arguably got worse, especially when you factor in the added public relations weight of missed opportunities. Sometimes the best path is to just stop running and let the coyote going flying past you off the cliff. Meep-meep.
The George Hill-ified 76ers
I will couch the following analysis by admitting that I am a passionate and unabashed George Hill stan. He is skilled, versatile, adaptable, consistently underrated and his addition to the Philadelphia 76ers was, for me, the most interesting move of the trade deadline, by far.
Hill is likely to play a small role for the 76ers. He will, at most, be a tertiary option on most offensive possessions when Philadelphia is fully healthy, and primary defensive assignments on the wing will still go to Ben Simmons or Matisse Thybulle or Danny Green. But he just helps in so many ways, fills so many holes.
Hill has career experience as everything from a microwave bench scorer (Spurs), full-time floor general (Pacers), primary scorer and creator (Pacers the year Paul George was out), and third guard off the bench (Bucks). He’s 34 years old but ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus still estimates him to be one of the best defensive guards in the league, with an impact comparable to Jrue Holiday. He has the size and versatility to defend both 1s and 2s which means he’ll be particularly useful in a hypothetical playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets.
On offense, he can pass, drive and shoot and, most importantly, knows when to do each. He’s hit 39.9 percent of his 3-pointers over the past four seasons but even that number might be selling him short as a floor-spacer. Over the past four seasons, he’s never ranked worse than the 96th percentile in points per possession on spot-up possessions, which includes both catch-and-shoot jumpers and situations where he’s attacking a closeout with a quick drive to the basket. His ability to both help stretch a defense and then shatter it once it’s been bent out of shape is a wrinkle the 76ers don’t get reliably from Green, Seth Curry or their backcourt spacers.
The 76ers were already operating from a position of strength. Add Hill without sacrificing anything else from their playoff rotation, rather than shaking things up more for Kyle Lowry, is a more subtle but potentially much more significant move.