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NBA Power Rakings: Suns stay on top, barely, with Heat, Grizzlies close

Houston Rockets v Phoenix Suns

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 16: Deandre Ayton #22 and Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns walk off the court after the game against the Houston Rockets on February 16, 2022 at Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

The Suns hold on to the top spot — barely — in these NBA Power Rankings despite CP3 being out, but the Heat are surging and Ja Morant is dunking on anything in his way as the Grizzlies keep playing well. For the first time in a while, the top spot in these rankings is on shaky ground.

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1. Suns (49-12, Last Week No. 1). Phoenix has gone 1-2 since Chris Paul went out with his fractured thumb (which will sideline him most or all of the rest of the regular season), and it was evident how much they missed him in the clutch during the loss to Utah over the weekend. They missed his defense in that game, too. Devin Booker looked good running the point, but now he will miss time after entering COVID health and safety protocols. Cameron Payne is due back from injury, but Monty Williams will not be able to ease his young point guard back into the rotation. Fun Finals rematch Sunday against the also-stumbling Bucks.

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2. Heat (41-21, LW 4). Bam Adebayo has played great defense and averaged 22 points a game with a ridiculous 61.4 true shooting percentage, plus 10.9 rebounds a game in February. He has been the spark behind the Heat’s run of late. Adebayo’s play has Miami as the No. 1 seed in the East, the question with him has long been can he carry over this level of play into the postseason? If he does, the Heat likely book a return trip to the Finals. The strong play of Adebayo and the Heat will be put to the test this week with games against Milwaukee, Brooklyn and Philadelphia.

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3. Grizzlies (43-20, LW 2). Memphis is by far the best offensive rebounding team in the NBA, grabbing 14.1 per game, or look at it this way: They snag 30.2% of their missed shots for a second chance. Steven Adams deservedly gets a lot of credit for that, but it helps he has room to operate because his defender often has to help on a driving Ja Morant or Desmond Bane. It’s one of the things that fuels the Memphis offense (along with turnovers, the Grizzlies are top 10 in the league in creating those), but something much harder to get come the postseason. Morant had the dunk of the year this week on an excellent defensive player in Jakob Poeltl, but watch the video a few times and focus on the crowd reaction. That may be as good as the dunk itself.

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4. Jazz (38-22, LW 6). Utah is on an 8-1 run since they got healthy, and after that included wins against Phoenix and Dallas this last week there have been a lot of “don’t sleep on a healthy Utah” stories/rants floating around the last few days. Gobert’s individual defense on Luka Doncic in that game is the kind of thing that helps a guy win another DPOY trophy. Overall the Jazz defense is ranked 10th in the NBA (the offense remains No. 1), but what is surprising is the numbers don’t get better with their three best defenders — Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley, Royce O’Neal — on the floor together (the defense is 0.9 per 100 possession worse with those three, which is basically flat but not improved like one would expect).

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5. Warriors (43-19, LW 3). Draymond Green is closing in on a return, and it can’t come soon enough for these Warriors. They are not the same without him. Golden State is 10-13 since Green went out, and it’s because their defense slid from best in the league before he was injured to the middle of the pack (15th in the league) over the last 15 games. Plus, Curry is not shooting as well without the secondary playmaking of Green on the court. Green is the kind of player that would not have let the Mavericks go on a 23-1 run and steal a game from the Warriors. Golden State has 5-of-6 coming up on the road, including a rematch with Dallas and two games against surging Denver.

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6. Celtics (37-27, LW 7). Boston winning 12-of-14 has led to plenty of “don’t leave the Celtics out of your East contenders” talk — and there should be. Much of the attention is focused on how well their defense is playing (best in the NBA in February with a 101.4 rating in the month), but the other advantage is Ime Udoka can lean more on his starting five in the postseason, without back-to-backs. The fivesome of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Robert Williams III has a +26.7 net rating. That group is shutting opponents down with an 89.3 defensive rating. The Celtics are a real playoff threat.

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7. 76ers (37-23, LW 8). It’s only been two games against non-elite opponents, but the James Harden and Joel Embiid marriage could not have gotten off to a better start: The 76ers have a +43.1 net rating when those two share the floor. Embiid has been a willing pick setter and role man, and Doc Rivers is doing a good job staggering his two stars. With his speed and shooting, Tyrese Maxey has thrived: Harden, Embiid and Maxey have combined for 176 points in the two games. There are still a lot of questions — defense against teams with elite wings, backup center (DeAndre Jordan is not the answer) — but so far they look as good as anyone else in the East. They are legit contenders.

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8. Mavericks (37-25, LW 9). How confident is Luka Doncic right now? At the end of the win over the Lakers, he was hunting LeBron James on switches and scoring over him. The end of that game spoke to something else about the Mavericks’ run of late: Dallas has become one of the best clutch teams in the NBA. From Tim MacMahon of ESPN: On Feb. 3, the Mavs had the worst clutch net rating in the league at -34.5 (in games within five points in the final five minutes), but since then the team has gone 7-2 in clutch games with a +42 net rating. Also, we can watch this Luka Doncic putback dunk over Dwight Howard all day long.

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9. Nuggets (36-25, LW 13). Denver has won six in a row and who cares if that came during a soft spot in the schedule, a win is a win (they did beat Golden State and Toronto on the road in that stretch). The Nuggets should be able to hold on to the No. 6 seed (or climb higher) and avoid the play-in. The real question the rest of the season is when will Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray return? Likely before the playoffs according to reports, but in enough time to really get their feet under them, feel more like 90% of themselves, and build some chemistry with the rest of the team? A fully healthy Nuggets team is a threat in the West, but can they get all the way there in time?

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10. Bucks (37-25, LW 5). Since the calendar flipped to 2022, the Bucks are 13-12 with a +3.5 net rating that is 10th best in the NBA. Not terrible, but not looking like a contender getting healthy and ramping up for the playoffs. (For comparison, in the 2021 part of this season, Milwaukee was 24-13 with a +5 net rating.) The offense has remained top five in the league, but the challenge has been on the defensive end — the side of the ball that carried the Bucks to a title last season — where they have been middle-of-the-pack. Is this just a matter of the defending champs flipping a switch? This week, we will find out when they play the Heat, Bulls, and Suns as their next three games.

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11. Bulls (39-23, LW 11). Chicago, sitting second in the East, gets mentioned among the contenders in that wide-open conference, but they are going to have a lot to prove come the postseason. One thing is that they remain the luckiest team in the NBA, outplaying their 13th-ranked +1.9 point differential by 4.4 games. Meaning, the Bulls should have a 35-27 record based on point differential, which would have them battling to stay out of the play-in (stats via Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time). Also, their 18th ranked defense is a concern, although that should improve once Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso get healthy and return to the rotation in the coming weeks.

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12. Cavaliers (36-25, LW 10). Injuries have hit the Cleveland backcourt hard: All-Star Darius Garland is out with a bone bruise on his back (no timeline for his return), Caris LeVert is out 1-2 weeks with a foot sprain, and they brought in Rajon Rondo for depth and now he has a toe injury sidelining him. Cleveland has lost 4-of-5 (1-2 since the All-Star break) and has slid down to the No. 5 seed in the East, just two games up on No. 7 Toronto and being in the play-in (and the Cavs host the Raptors on Sunday). This is still an unbelievable success of a season for the Cavaliers, and Evan Mobley is on his way to Rookie of the Year honors, but the final month of the season could be a bumpy ride.

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13. Raptors (34-27, LW 12). After an ugly couple of games out of the All-Star break, Toronto got healthy playing the very shorthanded Nets. In those two games, rookie Scottie Barnes was a beast, scoring 46 total points, pulling down 26 rebounds, and shooting 20-of-27. Barnes is not likely to catch Evan Mobley for Rookie of the Year, but he will push the Cavaliers big man if he has more games like this. Toronto is two games back of Mobley and his Cavaliers in a push to get a top-six seed and avoid the play-in, and Toronto faces Cleveland on Sunday, in what is the first of 8-of-9 on the road for the Raptors. How they do on that trip will determine if they avoid the play-in.

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14. Timberwolves (34-29, LW 14). Minnesota has won 3-of-4 out of the break including over the Grizzlies and Suns, which has helped them look secure in the No. 7 seed. They have picked up those wins despite Anthony Edwards being in a shooting slump. Edwards has averaged 10.4 points per game on 29.1% shooting over his last five games, and while it looked like he might break out against the Cavaliers (17 points on 13 shots) he sat out against the Warriors due to left patella tendinopathy. Hopefully he gets right because his first postseason trip seems to be on the horizon, with the Timberwolves looking locked into the No. 7 seed (three games behind the Nuggets or 3.5 on the Mavericks and avoiding the play-in).

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15. Clippers (33-31, LW 17). The gritty, resilient Clippers just keep on finding ways to win, and if form holds into the play-in it could set up the first real clash of Los Angeles with something on the line. The Clippers are currently the No. 8 seed in the West and appear pretty locked into that or No. 7 (they are 1.5 games back of the Timberwolves). The Lakers look like the No. 9 or 10 seed. Which sets up this scenario: If the Clippers lose their first play-in game to the Timberwolves, and the Lakers won their first play-in game against the Pelicans (or whoever), then the Clippers would host the Lakers in a one-game showdown for the right to move on to the playoffs (and face the Suns). The Lakers/Clippers rivalry has always been a little tepid because they never met in the postseason, but that could finally change.

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16. Hawks (29-32 LW 16). After the Hawks lost to the Celtics Tuesday, Bogdan Bogdanovic laid it on the line about the team. Here are his quotes, via Chris Kirschner of The Athletic: “We lost that identity on how to win games... We executed bad. We didn’t find a way to win the game.” And on his frustration with the inconsistent level of play from the Hawks: “I don’t know why it’s going up and down. Like why is it going from the greatest game we just had against Toronto to the worst game maybe in the season? I don’t know.”

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17. Nets (32-31, LW 15). The cavalry is coming… eventually. Kevin Durant is expected to return later this week. At some point New York will drop its next level of vaccine mandates and Kyrie Irving will play home games. Ben Simmons will join the team in the coming weeks (but not for the March 10 game in Philly). Until that cavalry arrives, this is a hard team to watch, particularly their home games, even with the additions of Goran Dragic and Seth Curry. On the road they picked up a quality win last weekend when Irving went off on the Bucks. They will need more of that with a brutal schedule coming up: at Toronto (no Irving), Miami, at Boston, at Charlotte, at Philadelphia.

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18. Hornets (30-33, LW 18). Charlotte slumped into the All-Star break having lost 9-of-10 and looking like a team that needed some time off. They got it and out of the break picked up a quality win against the Raptors. Things were back on track... no, they weren’t. An OT loss to the feisty Pistons than a back-to-back loss to the Bucks has the Hornets clinging to the No. 9 seed and the play-in. Charlotte did sign Isaiah Thomas to a 10-day contract, which should provide a bolt of energy and excitement around a team that needs it — he will play hard.

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19. Pelicans (25-36, LW 21). New Orleans is 3-4 since the CJ McCollum trade, but that sells short how well they have been playing — they have a +4.6 net rating in those games and the sixth-best offense in the league in that time. McCollum is averaging 28 points and 5.6 assists a game sparking a team that routed the Lakers on Sunday and looks like they can get past Portland and into the play-in tournament this season. McCollum even squashed the controversy around him not speaking to Zion Williamson (at least somewhat, there is still not a lot of Zion love in New Orleans).

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20. Spurs (24-38, LW 20). Could the Spurs make up the 3.5 games and catch the Lakers and Trail Blazers to leap into the play-in games? (That logic assumes the Pelicans do get in.) It’s possible if San Antonio can start getting stops — they have the 29th ranked defense in the league over the last five games (and it’s bottom 10 in the league for the season). The Spurs went a respectable 4-4 on the Rodeo Road Trip and now have 8-of-9 at home against a relatively soft schedule — including the Lakers next Monday. That could be a bellwether game in the case for the final play-in spots.

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21. Wizards (28-33, LW 24). You know Washington management wants to make the play-in no matter what — meaning even though Bradley Beal is out for the season and nobody is sure when Kristaps Porzingis will make his debut (he is officially day-to-day). The Wizards sit as the No. 11 seed, but just one game back of both the Hawks are the Hornets for those final two spots. Washington has an easier schedule remaining than either of the teams they are chasing. Rui Hachimura remains red hot from 3, hitting 72.7% over his last 10 games, he needs to shoot more than 2.2 attempts from there a night.

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22. Lakers (27-34, LW 19). The Lakers backed bounced back with a quality effort Tuesday night despite losing to the Mavericks, a sign of life that was needed after they looked like their spirit was broken in a loss to the Pelicans Sunday. What was worrisome about the Pelicans game was not the defeat, but rather the poor body language and lack of emotion around the team — watch the video below of Malik Monk making a stellar defensive play. Now watch the Laker bench reaction. Or lack of reaction. That says a lot. The Lakers sit as the No. 9 seed in the West, they have the toughest schedule remaining in the conference, and they have gone 0-3 since Anthony Davis went down injured.

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23. Knicks (25-36, LW 22). Bright spots are hard to find for a Knicks team that is unlikely to make even the play-in, especially considering the (from some corners unrealistic) expectations the team came into the season with. One bright spot was RJ Barrett dropping 46 on the Miami Heat on Sunday, getting to the line 22 times as part of that. New York didn’t win that game, but Barrett’s effort kept it close and gives hope he can build on that as this team gets ready to reshape its roster this offseason.

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24. Pacers (21-42, LW 26). Indiana has someone worth watching in rookie Isaiah Jackson, who has played well when forced into a bigger role because Myles Turner remains out with a sprained ankle. Jackson has battled his own sprained ankle and other injuries this season — plus he was buried behind the Turner/Sabonis front line for a while — but when he’s played the athletic big man out of Kentucky has shown promise. He recently had 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting against the Thunder and 11 points on 5-of-6 against the Celtics. He’s still got a ways to go, but Jackson could be a late first-round find for the Pacers.

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25. Trail Blazers (25-36, LW 23). Jusuf Nurkic is out for at least a month (and likely the season) with plantar fasciitis, and with that the momentum of a four-game winning streak before the All-Star break and the likelihood of holding onto a play-in slot were lost. (If one were cynical, one would suggest management pushed for this to help their tanking along, but we would never say the quiet part out loud like that.) The Trail Blazers are the No. 10 seed as this is written, but they have 9-of-10 on the road coming up, starting with the Suns on Wednesday night, and include games against the Timberwolves, Jazz, and Nets. Of they return home from this trip still in 10th it will be a shock.

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26. Kings (23-40, LW 25). The Kings have started to run a lot of their halfcourt offense through Domantas Sabonis, getting him the ball at the elbow and letting him pass to shooters/cutters or take it himself. Sabonis played that role a lot in Indiana in years past, but less this season under Rick Carlisle. (Read whatever you want into the Kings not using De’Aaron Fox as much in the halfcourt.) The Kings are 3-4 since the Sabonis trade with an offense that is three points per 100 possessions improved. For the optimists in Sacramento, this could be the Kings laying the groundwork for next season.

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27. Magic 15-47, LW 28). It was just good to see Markelle Fultz back on the court this week. After the disaster that was his time in Philadelphia, Fultz had done the work in Orland and turned himself into a solid NBA point guard, and then his ACL snapped. It was back into rehab, but Fultz had 10 points in his debut and hopefully is back for a while. At another position, Orlando may have something in its Wendell Carter Jr./Mo Bamba front line. Add Jonathan Isaac to that once he gets healthy and things are interesting.

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28. Pistons (15-27, LW 30). Detroit is 2-2 since the All-Star break and part of that is the improving play of Cade Cunningham — he’s not going to win it, but he has played his way onto a lot of Rookie of the Year ballots of late. He has averaged 20.2 points, 7 rebounds, and 5.6 assists a night in his last five games. The turnovers are still a little high and his shooting needs to improve, but when he’s making plays like this you can see the potential starting to bust through.

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29. Thunder (19-42, LW 27). Good to see Shai Gilgeous-Alexander back at the point after he missed 10 games. However, him being out has provided space for Tre Mann to start to grow — he is another young Thunder ball handler showing potential. Mann dropped 22 on the Suns. Josh Giddey is a lock first-team All-Rookie player this season and will be battling the No. 1 pick Cunningham for the third spot on Rookie of the Year ballots this season (Mobley and Barnes will get spots on most of them). There’s some genuine young talent at the guard spot in OKC.

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30. Rockets (15-47, LW 29). Losers of 10 in a row, and that is the second time this season the Rockets have had a double-digit losing streak. Not ideal, but Houston went into this season willing to take its lumps to let Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green, Alperen Şengün and the rest of a young core learn on the job. It’s fair to ask this late in the season if Christian Wood and Eric Gordon should keep playing this may minutes. Dennis Schroder is the exception, they kept him around to help stabilize the backcourt a little and he is looking to put up numbers toward his next contract (gut he’s not doing that so well, 10.8 points a game on 33.3% shooting as a Rocket).

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