NBA Power Rankings 2021: One Christmas Day gift for each team in the league

Christmas has us feeling in a generous mood.

To celebrate the holiday, we’re handing out Christmas Day gifts to all 30 NBA teams in this week’s Power Rankings, from the looming return of a certain five-time All-Star to the emergence of a rookie not named Cade Cunningham, Scottie Barnes or Evan Mobley.

As a reminder, these power rankings are a reflection of where teams stand up to this point in the season and not a projection of where they may land later in the season.

Got it? Great. Let’s get to it.

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NBA Power Rankings 2021

(NBA Getty Images)

1. Phoenix Suns

Previous rank: 2

Overall W-L: 26-5

Christmas Gift: Chris Paul’s longevity. We talk a lot about how incredible it is that LeBron James is still playing at the level he is. What about CP3? His scoring is down this season, but his 9.9 assists per game lead the league, and he continues to be in the MVP conversation. Almost two decades removed from being drafted, he shouldn’t be able to do the things he’s still doing.

— Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles)

2. Golden State Warriors

Previous rank: 1

Overall W-L: 26-6

Christmas Gift: Klay Thompson’s return. It doesn’t look like he’ll be returning on Christmas Day like everyone was hoping for, but Thompson’s return appears to be around the corner. The Warriors are already destroying teams without Thompson. He might not be the exact same player he was before injuries, but even 70 percent of that player can take this team to another level.

— Rafferty

MORE: Six iconic moments to get hyped about Thompson’s return

3. Brooklyn Nets

Previous rank: 3

Overall W-L: 21-9

Christmas Gift: James Harden finding his scoring punch. While Kyrie Irving is set to come back in a limited capacity, the Nets still need more supplementary offense alongside Kevin Durant, whose MVP-level play is keeping them at the top of the East. Harden got off to a slow start this season off the back of a hamstring injury and the new officiating rules, having his worst career shooting season and leading the league in turnovers, but if the Nets are going to be a title contender, Steve Nash has to find a way to get the best out of Harden.

— Benyam Kidane (@BenyamKidane)

MORE: Kyrie Irving for Ben Simmons? Why Nets-76ers deal would (and wouldn’t) work

4. Utah Jazz

Previous rank: 6

Overall W-L: 22-9

Christmas Gift: Killer instinct. The Jazz are among the best teams in the league, having won nearly 70 percent of their games. However, given their performance in past seasons, the Jazz will only silence their critics with playoff success. So far, although their net rating and point differential is nearly the league’s best, they have a 7-8 record in clutch games (under five points in final five minutes).

— Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694)

5. Chicago Bulls

Previous rank: 4

Overall W-L: 19-10

Christmas Gift: DeMar DeRozan turning into an MVP candidate. DeRozan went from making three straight All-Star appearances to not being named an All-Star for three straight seasons to being a legitimate MVP candidate. Talk about a turnaround. After flying under the radar in San Antonio, it’s been nice to see DeRozan get his flowers this season.

— Rafferty

MORE: One key stat driving DeRozan’s MVP case

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6. Milwaukee Bucks

Previous rank: 8

Overall W-L: 21-13

Christmas Gift: Continued health for Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton. Milwaukee has a 13-2 record when its Big Three have played together. They were hit hard by injury earlier in the season but looked to have found some momentum now. The Bucks are going to require ultimate health if they have any chance of repeating as champions. 

— Nick Metallinos (@NickMetallinos)

7. Miami Heat

Previous rank: 5

Overall W-L: 20-13

Christmas Gift: Clutch time offense. The Heat average just 88.6 points per 100 possessions in the clutch, good for 29th in the league. Miami is being outscored by 19.9 points per 100 in the clutch to this point in the season. Getting healthy again will help, but can Pat Riley add another go-to scorer to the squad?

— Metallinos

8. Cleveland Cavaliers

Previous rank: 20

Overall W-L: 19-13

Christmas Gift: A Collin Sexton trade. On paper, trading away a 22-year-old lottery pick who is a proven bucket-getter sounds extreme, but the growth the Cavs have shown this season led by Darius Garland and Ricky Rubio in the backcourt has made them a real playoff threat. With Sexton sidelined for the season, getting a wing scorer in return would make them an even more serious threat in the East. It could be too soon to try and make the leap, but the Cavs have shown enough to at least consider swinging for the fences this season.

— Kidane

9. Memphis Grizzlies

Previous rank: 19

Overall W-L: 19-14

Christmas Gift: A much-improved defense. Prior to Ja Morant’s injury, the Grizzlies ranked dead last in defensive efficiency. In the 12 games he missed, they ranked… No. 1. It helps that they beat the Thunder by an NBA record 73 points during that stretch, but if Morant gets back to his pre-injury form and the Grizzlies continue to defend at a high level, watch out.

— Rafferty

10. LA Clippers

Previous rank: 11

Overall W-L: 17-15

Christmas Gift: Health. Given that the team will most likely be without Kawhi Leonard for a majority of the season, they need the rest of their roster at full strength to maximize their depth. When they were healthy, the Clippers managed to win seventh straight in early November. However, it’s been up and down since.

— Matange

(NBA Getty Images)

11. Philadelphia 76ers

Previous rank: 14

Overall W-L: 16-16

Christmas Gift: A Ben Simmons trade. With Dec. 15 in the rearview and the February trade deadline approaching, the standoff between Simmons and the 76ers has to end. Joel Embiid is having a prime season that the 76ers can’t afford to waste and with reports of a deal with the Kings centered around a combination of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Tyrese Haliburton gaining momentum, Philly has to blink first for its own sake.

— Kidane

MORE: What if Ben Simmons didn’t pass on dunk vs. Hawks in 2021 NBA playoffs?

12. Boston Celtics

Previous rank: 12

Overall W-L: 16-16

Christmas Gift: Jaylen Brown finding his groove. It’s been an up and down season to date for Brown, but he’s looked more like himself lately, averaging 26.8 points over his last four games. Brown playing at an All-Star level again won’t solve all of Boston’s issues, but it will solve some of them.

— Rafferty

MORE: Should the Celtics trade Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown?

13. Denver Nuggets

Previous rank: 9

Overall W-L: 15-16

Christmas Gift: The return of Jamal Murray. The dynamic point guard hasn’t played all season after suffering a torn ACL and while head coach Michael Malone recently said he is still “a ways away” from returning to the court, getting him back in the lineup would dramatically change their outlook for the season. With Nikola Jokic balling at an MVP level, the Nuggets are still just a .500 team. If Murray can come back ahead of the postseason, the Nuggets’ chances of a deep playoff run look much more likely.

— Kidane

14. Minnesota Timberwolves

Previous rank: 22

Overall W-L: 15-17

Christmas Gift: Defensive consistency. In the month of November, the Timberwolves were a top 10 defensive team in the league. In December, they’ve fallen to a middle-of-the-pack defensive unit. Health and safety protocols have impacted Minnesota, as it has for the majority of the league, but if the Timberwolves can keep improving defensively, they’ll be able to get back to the postseason.

— Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay)

MORE: Karl-Anthony Towns says he’s the “greatest big man shooter of all time”

15. Los Angeles Lakers

Previous rank: 15

Overall W-L: 16-17

Christmas Gift: Patience. They say it’s a virtue and the NBA world hasn’t really had it with the Lakers. The team was always going to take a while to jell. The team was always going to go through growing pains. We’re 32 games into an 82 game season — the Lakers and their fans need patience.

— Gay

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16. Washington Wizards

Previous rank: 7

Overall W-L: 17-15

Christmas Gift: Balance on offense. After a pleasant 10-3 start to the season, it’s been downhill for the Wizards, who have only won seven of their last 18 games. During their hot start, there was still hope for improvement given Bradley Beal’s early struggles.

— Matange

17. Dallas Mavericks

Previous rank: 10

Overall W-L: 15-16

Christmas Gift: Luka Doncic’s good health and conditioning. Over the past few weeks, the Slovenian superstar’s conditioning has been a topic of discussion in Dallas. According to ESPN reports, for a second consecutive year, he reported to training camp at 260 pounds despite being listed at 230 pounds. The advanced stats do portray a rough picture of Doncic’s impact on the team, especially defensively. 

— Matange

18. Charlotte Hornets

Previous rank: 16

Overall W-L: 17-17

Christmas Gift: A player with deep playoff experience. The Hornets currently sit in ninth in the East and have the league’s fifth-youngest roster this season. They’ve been through some ups and downs, as to be expected with a young core, coupled with COVID-related absences all season. The group needs an extra veteran presence that can help keep an even keel and provide guidance to the group as they look to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015-16. 

— Metallinos

19. Toronto Raptors

Previous rank: 21

Overall W-L: 14-15

Christmas Gift: Kawhi Leonard. Is that an option? All jokes aside, the Raptors already got their Christmas gift early in Scottie Barnes, so this team just needs another lottery surprise. Last season, the Raptors got a couple of lucky bounces in the lottery and ended up with a potential franchise player. What if it happens again? This team doesn’t look to be playoff-bound, but if they’re able to nail another lottery pick, they’ll have the pieces in place for sustained success for many, many years.

— Gay

20. Atlanta Hawks

Previous rank: 18

Overall W-L: 15-16

Christmas Gift: Consistency. What a weird season it’s been so far for the Hawks. In their first 13 games, they went 4-9. They then won seven games in a row, only to lose six of their last 10. Injuries and players entering health and safety protocols might have something to do with their struggles as of late, but this team is too talented to continue being this up and down.

— Rafferty

(NBA Getty Images)

21. New York Knicks

Previous rank: 13

Overall W-L: 14-18

Christmas Gift: Julius Randle’s confidence. Coming off an All-Star season and a four-year extension, Randle just hasn’t been the same player for the Knicks this season, with his numbers way down across the board. He was the biggest reason why the Knicks made it to the playoffs in 2020-21. If he can rediscover his shooting touch, defense and cut down his turnovers, the Knicks will look like a whole different team. 

— Kidane

22. Indiana Pacers

Previous rank: 23

Overall W-L: 14-19

Christmas Gift: Direction. The Pacers are 13th in the East. They finished ninth last season. Their owner, Herb Simon, likes the team and doesn’t want to rebuild, but also admits that teams in these situations should make changes to the roster. Indiana has some moveable assets, but until the Pacers figure out what exactly it is they want to do, they’ll be stuck right about where they are now. 

— Metallinos

23. Portland Trail Blazers

Previous rank: 17

Overall W-L: 13-19

Christmas Gift: Stability. It seems like change is constant in the Pacific Northwest, between injuries, slumps, systemic adjustments by rookie coaches and front office turmoil. The Blazers could do with some stability moving forward. The franchise needs a clear, concise plan to help navigate out these choppy waters. 

— Metallinos

24. San Antonio Spurs

Previous rank: 26

Overall W-L: 13-18

Christmas Gift: Dejounte Murray’s star development. Not enough has been made of how much Murray has improved to this point of his career. He quickly established himself as an elite perimeter defender, but he’s added to his offensive game each and every season, to the point where he’s knocking on the door of being a 20-point per game scorer and nightly triple-double threat. He’s going to deserve some real All-Star consideration this season at the rate he’s going.

— Rafferty

25. Sacramento Kings

Previous rank: 24

Overall W-L: 13-20

Christmas Gift: Stability and direction. Nick mentioned stability for Portland and direction for Indiana, but Sacramento needs both. The Kings need stability in the front office, the coaching staff and subsequently the roster. With Tyrese Haliburton’s recent play at point, De’Aaron Fox’s name has been thrown in the trade rumors. The franchise must clear the air and remain committed to whoever they envision as the cornerstones of their rebuild.

— Matange

(NBA Getty Images)

26. Oklahoma City Thunder

Previous rank: 25

Overall W-L: 11-20

Christmas Gift: 3-point shots to drop. The Thunder rank dead last in the league in 3-point percentage and too often their halfcourt offense is let down by their perimeter shooting. A lot of pick-and-roll plays or Josh Giddey passes end up in misses. While that’s to be expected of a young team, OKC has shown it can mix it up with the best teams on any given night. If they start to punish teams from deep, the Thunder become a whole different problem. 

— Kidane

27. New Orleans Pelicans

Previous rank: 29

Overall W-L: 12-21

Christmas Gift: Zion Williamson. Having already been sidelined for 33 games this season and expected to be out for another four-to-six weeks more, we’ve heard more about Zion off-court than we have on. The Pels need the Zion that averaged 27 points per game on 61.1 percent shooting in 2020-21, not the Zion that has missed more games than he’s played. 

— Metallinos

MORE: Injury timeline, return date, latest updates on Zion

28. Houston Rockets

Previous rank: 30

Overall W-L: 10-23

Christmas Gift: Positive returns on Jalen Green. That’s not to say that the Rockets haven’t seen or received anything positive from the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, but there’s certainly more to be desired in the defense and efficiency department. During the team’s seven-game winning streak, he was inactive for six of those games.

— Matange

29. Orlando Magic

Previous rank: 28

Overall W-L: 7-26

Christmas Gift: Franz Wagner’s all-around game. In a 31-point loss to the Bucks on Nov. 22, Wagner went scoreless for the first time in his career. Since then, he’s averaged 18.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.1 steals while showing off some impressive defensive chops. Cade Cunningham, Scottie Barnes and Evan Mobley have dominated the Rookie of the Year race so far, but don’t sleep on Wagner.

— Rafferty

30. Detroit Pistons

Previous rank: 27

Overall W-L: 5-26

Christmas Gift: Optimism. Remember when some people were worried about Cunningham? Well, he put his star potential on full display at the start of December, averaging 21.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.9 steals on .442/.438/.833 shooting splits over a seven-game stretch. He followed it up with a couple of rough scoring games, but he dished out 10 assists in one and flirted with a triple-double in the other. Bad as the Pistons are right now, Cunningham gives them a lot of hope for the future.

— Rafferty