NBA Power Rankings: Jimmy Butler’s will and Playoff Rondo

In this week’s NBA Power Rankings, Jimmy Butler shows off his force of will and Playoff Rondo makes a surprise appearance.

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?

5

Marcus Smart, body-snatcher

The Raptors have collectively struggled on offense and Pascal Siakam has taken most of the heat. Even though it pains me to do so, I feel like it’s also worth waving vaguely at Fred VanVleet who has attempted 67 3-pointers through the first six games, making just 20 (29.9 percent). This is clearly because of some sort of body-snatching magic performed by Marcus Smart, who has made 43.1 percent of his 51 attempts from beyond the arc, including 8-of-19 off the dribble.

It’s been a huge difference-maker for the Celtics and now that he’s worked out the kinks in his technique, he’ll clearly be stealing Tyler Herro’s essence in the Eastern Conference Finals.

4

Nick nurse, master of misdirection

The epic Game 6 between the Raptors and Celtics turned in a dozen 50-50 plays. Jayson Tatum’s crucial turnover with under 45 seconds left in regulation was a little bit different though. Tatum slung the ball toward an open teammate in the corner, except that teammate was actually Raptors’ coach Nick Nurse standing a bit to close to the action (he was actually on the floor if you look closely).

Fans of the Celtics and generally rigid sportsmanship were livid that the referees didn’t take any action. Some even implied that physical repercussions were in order for Nurse.

Tatum took responsibility for the bad pass after the game, and who among us hasn’t thrown an errant pass in a pick-up game, losing track of who was on what team? Nurse was wearing a gray outfit which is, chromatically speaking, very different from a green Celtics uniform. Still, it worked and, intentional or not, you have to hand it to him.

Addendum for Boston fans:  you do not, under any circumstances, “gotta hand it to them”

3

Giannis Fever Dreams

Giannis Antetokounmpo was quick to affirm his commitment to Milwaukee after their second-round flameout at the hands of the Miami Heat. But, as Sean Highkin pointed out, these kinds of affirmations tend to be enduringly flexible. Giannis says he’s ready to run through a brick wall with the Bucks but things change and nothing about his statements is going to slow down the fevered dreaming by fanbases around the NBA and the buffet of wild speculation sports media (this site included) continues to serve up.

If you like half-formed transaction ideas and trade machine tinkering, the next few months provide an epic blank canvas to work on. If you’re the fan of a non-Milwaukee team with Greek-fueled title aspirations, you can keep churning out those Giannis jersey photoshops like a digital security blanket. Giannis is done playing basketball for now and for the next few months his hypothetical futures will assume the power formerly held by his dominant present.

2

Playoff Rondo

Playoff Rondo is something. Specifically, he’s 13.0 points, 7.3 assists and 2.7 steals per game, a 40 percent 3-point shooter, and a plus-25 point differential in the 84 minutes he’d been on the floor. His return his coincided with some of the best basketball the Lakers have played yet in the bubble and yet, I’m not convinced that this isn’t a Loch Ness situation.

The existence of National TV Rondo has been confirmed, as a statistically significant trend. The existence of Playoff Rondo has not been similarly confirmed. Injuries disrupted his postseason runs with Dallas and Chicago, but over the preview three postseasons, his record is just 7-6. It’s a bit like a dark shape on a blurry photograph. Is he a swan? An elaborate prank? A floating log or a blotch on the lens? Or is he actually some mythical beast?

For now, it’s fun to pretend.

1

Jimmy Butler

Of all the attributes that compel sports fans, willpower may be the most visceral. It’s what drives all underdog stories, epic upsets and improbable comebacks. It’s accessible, something that feels just out of reach for the gym class heroes and weekend warriors watching along at home. We can’t all dunk or casually drain 30-footers but we can all control our own effort. That’s why it’s so existentially satisfying to see the power of “just wanting it more than the other guy” manifest at the highest level.

Jimmy Butler has made a career out of willpower. He’s incredibly smart and incredibly skilled but his hunger has always elevated all of that, while antagonizing a seemingly endless parade of teammate and coaches. Of course, some of it is performative schtick in Butler’s case — things didn’t go badly in his last three stops just because he “wanted it” more than the Bulls or Karl-Anthony Towns, or because Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons couldn’t match his desire. And the true power of willpower is mostly about perception — desire along doesn’t guarantee greatness or we’d all be NBA All-Stars.

But what Butler is doing now is powerful legend-building. The Heat beat the Bucks and Pacers with skill, talent and execution. But the passion of Butler is what breathed life into all of it. Right now they look unstoppable, and they look unstoppable because Jimmy Butler has willed it to be so.

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