NBA Power Rankings: The cluttered Eastern Conference


NBA Power Rankings: The cluttered Eastern Conference

Close playoff races down the stretch are commonplace in the NBA, a league where more than half the teams make the postseason.

Such is the case in the Western Conference, where the No. 6 Dallas Mavericks are just three games ahead of the No. 9 Utah Jazz, with the Trail Blazers and Rockets currently holding the final two playoff spots. The Warriors' historic run hasn't deterred the Spurs from competing for homecourt advantage, and they're still just 3.5 games back of the Splash Brothers and will play each other three times still.

But in the Eastern Conference things are even tighter. Consider that a mere two games separate the fourth-seeded Miami Heat and the ninth-seeded Detroit Pistons. One stretch of hot play could be the difference between having homecourt in the first round of a playoff series and missing the postseason altogether. Even the Wizards are two games back of the No. 8 Bulls. There will be plenty of seed-shifting in the East from now until early April. Toronto has also moved within two games of the Cavaliers, who have lost three of four.

On to the rankings:

Previous power rankings: Preseason | Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6 | Week 7 | Week 8 | Week 9 | Week 10 | Week 11 | Week 12 | Week 13 | Week 14 | Week 15 | Week 16 | Week 17

Rank (LW) Team
Record Comment
1 (1) 53-5 Stephen Curry's magical, historical, unfathomable season added another chapter Saturday against the Thunder. His game-winner from 35 feet, his 12th triple of the night, was on another level. He's the MVP and it's not close.
(3) 50-9 A 7-1 Rodeo Road Trip was the latest statement to the Warriors (and the rest of the league) that the West is still up for grabs. Tim Duncan became the fifth player in NBA history with 3,000 blocks on Saturday night. 
(4) 41-18 Kevin Durant went from hero to zero in a 14-second span Saturday night in the loss to the Warriors. Still, that was more proof that the Thunder are Golden State's biggest threat in the West. KD and Russ will be a steep challenge if they meet.
4 (5) 39-19 Not only did Kyle Lowry drop a career-high 43 points and hit the game-winner in the Raptors' win over the Cavs on Friday. He also limited Kyrie Irving to 10 points. Toronto could make the East real interesting in late May.
5 (2) 41-17 The Cavs are just 11-6 under Tyronn Lue, and they've lost three of their last four. They've got Indiana, Washington and Boston at home this week. A 3-0 week would help ease some concerns.
6 (6) 38-20 Chris Paul had one of the best individual lines of the year Friday against the Kings: 40 points, 8 rebounds, 13 assists, 2 steals, 13-20 FG, 4-9 3FG, 10-10 FT. And +14 in a 10-point road victory.
7 (7) 35-25 The C's haven't lost at home since Jan. 6, a span of 10 games. And now they get eight of their next 12 in Boston. Interested to see if they can catch the top two dogs in the East/stave off Miami for the No. 3 seed.
8 (8) 33-26 Joe Johnson scored 12 points in his first game with the Heat. Miami isn't short on wings, but Johnson gives them an efficient scorer and apt defender, as well as someone with valuable playoff experience.
9 (11) 32-28 Damian Lillard and Co. are 17-4 since Jan. 10, the third best record in the NBA behind Golden State (19-3) and San Antonio (18-3). That's good company, and Dame doesn't look like he's slowing down anytime soon.
10 (14) 33-27 Picking up two conference wins (CHI, CHA) was crucial to end the week with a brutal March schedule upcoming. They're on the road for five straight, beginning with Golden State on Tuesday and ending in Toronto next Thursday.
11 (9) 31-28 The Pacers have lost three of four, and will now play six of seven on the road, beginning Monday in Cleveland. Oh, and their one home game in that span? When the Spurs come to town a week from today. Bis stretch for Frank Vogel's group.
12 (10) 34-24 They're still No. 5 in the West and aren't in any real danger of missing the postseason. But being on the wrong end of the Suns snapping their 13-game losing streak is ugly no matter how you slice it.
13 (12) 30-28 They finish a difficult six-game road trip with a 4-2 record and now get 10 of their next 12 at home, where they tout a 19-9 record (third best in the East). That's a good sign for their playoff chances.
14 (16) 32-28 Chandler Parsons was a one-man wrecking crew Sunday night against the Wolves, going for 29 points, six rebounds and four assists in just 27 minutes. Dallas has won three of four.
15 (20) 31-29 An East-best four-game win streak has included victories over the Cavaliers and Raptors. Tobias Harris has averaged 16.3 points on 51 percent shooting in that span. He's making Stan Van Gundy look smart.
16 (15) 30-28 Doug McDermott has stepped up in a big way with Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler missing time. The sharpshooter is averaging 19.6 points on 50 percent shooting from deep in his last five games.
17 (17) 28-30  A pair of 20-point, 10-assist games against the Sixers and Cavaliers (both W's) was a good start to Washington's biggest stretch of the year. They're two games behind Charlotte, Chicago and Detroit for a playoff spot.
18 (13) 28-30 Losers in five of seven after winning a season-best seven straight, the battle for a playoff spot gets more difficult with five of six on the road, including five against current playoff teams.
19 (18) 23-35  Thursday's win over the Thunder was seriously impressive. But 11 of their 17 March opponents have winning records. That includes Golden State, San Antonio twice, Portland, Toronto, Indiana and the Clippers. Bunches of L's coming.
20 (19) 29-30 James Harden's performance Friday in Portland was superb, scoring 46 points as Houston overcame a 21-point deficit to earn a victory. The bad news is that the massive win salvaged a 1-2 week. They're clinging to the No. 8 seed.
21 (21) 24-33 DeMarcus Cousins is making a strong case for a spot on the All-NBA First Team. Since the calendar flipped to 2016 he's averaged 30.2 points, 12.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists, plus a block, steal and 3-pointer per game.
22 (23) 23-36 Danilo Gallinari's most recent ankle sprain will give youngsters Gary Harris, Will Barton and Emmanuel Mudiay more touches to progress before the end of the year.
23 (22) 24-35 Giannis Antetokounmpo logged his first career-triple double (27 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) on Tuesday against the Lakers. It was Milwaukee's fourth win in their last give games, though they've dropped two straight since.
24 (26) 25-36 Phil Jackson should probably do less nonsensical tweeting about Stephen Curry and do more worrying about his team that's lost 14 of 17.
25 (24) 26-32 In six games since Tobias Harris was dealt to Detroit, snubbed dunk contest champion Aaron Gordon has averaged 14.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.0 steals in 31.3 minutes per game for Orlando.
26 (25) 19-41 We didn't get the KAT-Brow matchup Saturday night in New Orleans. But Towns went for 30-15, Andrew Wiggins dropped 20 and Zach LaVine added 25 in a solid road win. The young guns are getting better up north.
27 (28) 17-42 A .500 record in their last 10 games, their first two-game winning streak since Dec. 10 and taking another step toward rebuilding in waiving Joe Johnson? A nice solid week for Sean Marks and the Nets.
28 (27) 8-51 Opponents have averaged 118.9 points during Philly's seven-game losing streak. Barring some unexpected hot stretch of play they'll have the most Lottery balls in the Ben Simmons sweepstakes.
29 (29) 11-49 Year 20 has been good to D'Angelo Russell. Since his birthday on Tuesday, the No. 2 overall pick has averaged 22.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists in two games. Still, the Lakers have lost eight straight.
30 (30) 15-44 They haven't won on the road in nearly three months (Dec. 7 in Chicago) and will play eight of their next 10 games away from Phoenix. Incredibly, we still haven't seen rock bottom. They're 3-28 in their last 31 games.

It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch


It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

And here you thought the Bulls wouldn't be competing for anything down the stretch. Yes, the Bulls will miss the postseason for a second consecutive season, and the post-Jimmy Butler rebuild is off and running with a Lottery selection (and potentially two) on the horizon.

And now the race for the top spot in the NBA Draft Lottery is on, with 23 to 27 games left in the regular season and a whopping seven teams within 1.5 games of each other for the worst record in the league. The Bulls are currently sitting 8th in the reverse standings at 20-37, 3.0 games behind the league-worst Suns and Hawks. And in what's largely considered a seven-man draft, Fred Hoiberg and the boys have some work to do to improve their chances of moving into the top-5 or top-3 of the draft.

Yes, the Bulls were sellers at the deadline, dealing leading scorer Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans. And they lost eight of their last 10 games before the All-Star Break while promising extended minutes for players like Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio and even Cameron Payne. All those signs point to a franchise with a full and clear understanding that losses right now mean much bigger wins in June. But it's not as easy as it sounds. The Bulls aren't the only team looking to secure losses, and those other teams may have easier paths of doing so. Here's why.

For starters, not all these clumped-together records were built equally. Yes, the wins and losses all count the same at the end of the day, but if we're projecting how each team may finish the Bulls are certainly poised to play better than the teams around them. In fact, the Bulls are still playing .500 basketball (17-17) since their infamous 3-20 start. Unsurprisingly all seven teams ahead of the Bulls have worse records, as do the New York Knicks (11-24 since Dec. 8), who are just two games behind the Bulls, have lost eight straight and are without All-Star Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL). Remember, there are teams chasing the Bulls, too.

The Bulls have a seven-game win streak to their name and won 10 games in December; of the teams with worse records than the Bulls, only the Mavericks have a seven-win month this season.

And let's remember, too, the Bulls have gone 17-17 while missing Zach LaVine in 20 of those, Kris Dunn in 11 others and Lauri Markkanen in three. Those three are all healthy now (LaVine likely won't play in back-to-backs, but the Bulls have just three of those sets left) and while they have an ugly -18.8 net rating in four games, the Bulls are 2-2 with all three on the floor and have losses against the top-seeded Raptors and defending champion Warriors. It's safe to assume Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen will all benefit and improve from playing with one another. And while Nikola Mirotic was a large part of the Bulls' success (they went 14-11 with him in the lineup), the trade has opened up more minutes for Bobby Portis, who's quietly averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds since the Mirotic trade. No, Portis isn't Mirotic, but the dropoff isn't all that significant, especially when considering the defensive end.

What's this all mean? That the Bulls have the best top-end talent of any team in these tank standings, and arguably the most talented overall roster. It sounds laughable, but we're not comparing them to the Rockets and Celtics. Perhaps Orlando's core of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic (when healthy) comes close, but the Magic also just sold their starting point guard Elfrid Payton for pennies on the dollar. They're clearly in tank mode, and the rest of that roster is a nightmare. Dallas has some nice pieces, but also plenty of shutdown candidates as the season nears its end.

And that's another angle to this. The Bulls really don't have any players who may rest late in the season. Then again, phantom injuries could arise and LaVine might sit down the stretch for precautionary purposes. But Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, the team's elder statesmen at 29 and 28, respectively, aren't exactly tipping the scale between wins and losses. As long as LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen, Portis and Denzel Valentine are seeing 28+ minutes, the Bulls are going to be in good position. Teams like Atlanta and Sacramento are already resting veterans, and Memphis could do the same with Marc Gasol if the Lottery balls depend on it. It's a good thing the Bulls don't have this luxury, as they're leaning on their young talent, but it also means the team isn't going to get much worse.

The biggest hurdle for the Bulls, however, is going to be their remaining schedule. Marvin Bagley fans might want to stop reading. Only four teams in the NBA will face an easier remaining schedule than the Bulls, and none are ahead of them in the race for the top pick. The 76ers, Hornets, Warriors and Heat have easier schedules, and then it's the Bulls, with a remaining SOS of .474. Here's how that compares to the seven teams the Bulls are looking up at in the tank standings:

So the Bulls have an easier schedule than any team in front of them, and the Knicks. And looking at the Bulls' remaining schedule (far right column), it's clear that the three games against the Nets (which includes what should be a fun home-and-home in the season's final week) and two games against the Grizzlies will loom large. It also wouldn't surprise anyone if the Bulls picked up random victories over teams like Boston (March 5), Cleveland (March 17), Milwaukee (March 23) or Houston (March 27). They have a way of playing up to their opponents (see: Minnesota).

When it comes to discussing the league's worst teams, the Bulls might simply be too good. And their schedule might simply be too bad. That's certainly a good problem to have when considering the franchise's rebuild has gone quicker than most expected, even if it means fewer chances to secure a top-3 pick. Then again, the Bulls did fine selecting 7th overall last season in grabbing Markkanen, so perhaps a top-5 pick isn't necessary. It might not even be an option.

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend


Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler was absent from the scoresheet of the All-Star Game, unless you count a “DNP-Coaches’ Decision” as activity. Whether due to the All-Star festivities of the weekend or even the grinding minutes he plays under Tom Thibodeau, it wasn’t truly surprising to see him want to have a night off of sorts.

But what was mildly surprising was the reflection he displayed on Saturday at All-Star Media Day in reference to his time with the Chicago Bulls. Usually, Butler’s armor is up because of his feelings surrounding his draft-night departure.

“I learned a lot in Chicago,” Butler said. “Just all through the season and life in general. What to do, what not to do and how to adapt to any situation that you’ve been in. I’ve done that to the best of my abilities. I have a ways to go in that.”

It’s clear he’s still grasping the weight of his words as the best player on a team, or at least, the player whose words impact everything around him.

“A people pleaser? No, I just didn’t say much,” Butler said. “Now I just don’t care. I never talked whenever I was in the league at an early age. It really didn’t matter, nothing I did was gonna make or break us when it comes to losing a game. Now it does and I have a lot to say. Half the time it’s not the right time or right way to say it but it’s okay.”

Whether it was the battles with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg or the internal struggles in the Bulls’ locker room through his ascension from bench warmer to rotation player to impact player to now, a legitimate star, he’s modifying his approach—just a tad.

“I’ve never been the best player on my own team. I was in Tomball,” he joked, in reference to his beginnings in small town Texas. “I wasn’t in junior college. At Marquette I wasn’t. I’m probably not now. In Chicago I wasn’t. You just pick up on it, watch others and learn.”

He admitted to writing in a journal and reading self-help books now that he’s in Minnesota. The novel he’s reading now, “Faith, Forward, Future” is authored by Chad Veach, a Los Angeles pastor and the subtitle of the book says “Moving past your disappointments, delays and destructive thinking.”

Whether he started the book following a slow start with the Timberwolves in November, where his nightly numbers looked like one of a high-level role player, he took some self-evaluation before leading the charge since, playing like an MVP candidate with 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 49 percent shooting since the start of December.

“It’s relatively new. Yeah, basketball is still basketball but it’s hard when somebody else is coming in and roles change overnight,” Butler said. “You gotta see where you fit in with the group. At the end of the day you gotta win. I didn’t feel the way I was playing was our best opportunity to win games.”

Bringing along the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, with Towns being a fellow All-Star for the first time, has been a process.

“I’ve never actually had to be a leader,” Butler said. “I just always done what I was supposed to do, didn’t say much and played hard. Now you know, everybody wants to call someone a leader.”

He disputes taking a softer hand, especially as Towns and Wiggins seem to struggle with sustaining concentration at critical moments. The Timberwolves won’t be able to make those mistakes during the playoffs, but he’s being more selective with his words.

“I’m not soft,” he said. “If I see something wrong, I speak on it. If you don’t like it, oh well. You’ll get over it.”

One thing he could take a bird’s eye view of was the aftermath of LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s comments to the “Uninterrupted”, where they were criticized by cable news hosts for speaking out against President Donald Trump.

No stranger to criticism, Butler would likely have the same approach if he dipped his toes into that arena.

“I like it. You got the right to say what you want and you speak on what you think is right,” Butler said. “Good for them. And they are magnified in a very big way. They embrace it and they’re doing the right thing, I’m all for it.”

And if the day comes where he doesn’t stick to sports, Butler’s directness and lack of diplomacy would certainly cause an interesting reaction.

“I don’t care. Whatever I believe in, I believe in,” Butler said. “Everybody else does it. You see everybody on Twitter and the Internet doing it and saying what they want to say. We just have a different job than the person to our left and right.”

Well, not quite a warm and fuzzy Jimmy Butler.