NBA Power Rankings: Bucks hold on to top spot but 76ers jump up to second
The Bucks stay on top but the 76ers climb to second as the Nuggets slide and the East again dominates the top of these NBA Power Rankings.
1. Bucks (50-19, Last week No. 1). The Bucks are 16-2 since Feb. 1 and have outscored opponents by 9 points per game on average since the All-Star break — they have been the best team in the league. Not only has that given them a 3-game cushion for the best record in the league, but it has also fired up Giannis Antetokounmpo’s MVP candidacy. That candidacy lagged earlier in the season when Khris Middleton (now back in the starting lineup) and Jrue Holiday missed time and Antetokounmpo had to take on a different role, but with the team finding its groove Antetokounmpo is back playing to his strengths and is an unstoppable force. He may or may not win a third MVP, but he will finish top three. Soft schedule this week for the Bucks, which should help them secure the top seed overall in the league.
2. 76ers (46-22, LW 5). The 76ers have won six in a row and 7-of-10, but they have done it in spite of a defense that is ranked 27th in the league over those last six games. MVP candidate Joel Embiid is carrying the offense (and getting blocks where he can), but the defensive concerns about a backcourt leaning on James Harden and Tyrese Maxey have come to fruition (the defense hasn’t been great on the wing, either). Philly is one game back of Boston for the No.2 seed in the East, but the Sixers have the second toughest schedule in the East the rest of the way, including 6-of-7 coming up on the road.
3. Celtics (48-22, LW 4). The loss in Houston was a shock to the system, but the concerns are bigger than that with Boston having dropped 5-of-9 and looking pedestrian on both sides of the court during that stretch. It’s concerning with the Bucks and Sixers playing much better ball over that stretch. Injuries have played a part in recent Celtics’ stumbles, with Robert Williams missing time and Marcus Smart back on the court but not looking 100%, but it is not the entire answer. The Celtics are 2-2 on their six-game road trip and they need wins to hold off a hot 76ers team aiming for the No.2 seed.
4. Cavaliers (44-28, LW 6). One thing we have seen over the recent month that could be a good thing long-term in Cleveland is the improvement of Isaac Okoro on the offensive end. He is not putting up massive stat lines — 9.2 points per game over his last five games — but he is shooting 57.1% from 3 in that stretch (2.8 attempts a game) and 56.7% overall. More importantly, he’s playing smart, taking the corner 3 when it is there, but also attacking closeouts and making smart cuts. Two interesting games coming up against the Nets in Brooklyn.
5. Nuggets (46-23, LW 2). Losers of four in a row and they are looking passive — and MVP candidate Nikola Jokić is looking passive. He had a couple of games where he took fewer shots, but it’s also been evident on defense with him calling and playing more drop coverage rather than being up at the point of attack. The Nuggets still have a 4.5 game lead in the West and feel like a team that has just taken their foot off the gas, but that’s not what Mike Malone will want to see this time of year. The Nuggets are in the midst of a five-game road trip with the Pistons, Knicks and Nets up next.
6. Kings (41-27, LW 7). Everyone had a laugh when Kings fan Sean Chew rolled out of a California Classic Summer League win screaming his team would get to 40 wins this season. Who’s laughing now? Saturday night, with De’Aaron Fox leading another comeback win (this time against the stumbling Mavericks), the Kings got to 40 wins. Fivethirtheight.com projects the Kings to finish with 47 wins (although that feels a little low) and be the three seed (but with the Grizzlies stumbling the two seed is in play). Finally, a stat courtesy of our friend Matt Moore of the Action Network: The Kings are the only team in the West with a road record above .500.
7. Grizzlies (41-27, LW 9). Ja Morant was given an eight-game retroactive suspension — he can come back in theory on Monday against Dallas but will be out longer than that — and had one genuine moment in his interview with ESPN’s Jalen Rose, saying “I didn’t realize what I had to lose.” He has lost more than $650K with the suspension, lost a Powerade ad, and now could miss making an All-NBA team, impacting the size of his contract extension. Hopefully the time he reflected has helped him find the right path forward. The Grizzlies are home for 7-of-8, Morant likely returns in that window, and the Grizzlies need wins to hold on to the No. 2 seed.
8. Knicks (41-30, LW 3). It’s not a coincidence that the Knicks’ three-game losing streak (which was snapped Sunday against the Lakers) came when Jalen Brunson is out. Consider it the 47,356th reminder what a steadying hand the point guard has been for this offense and team. With a 3-game cushion, the Knicks should be able to hold off the Heat and stay in the top six in the East, especially if they keep playing the way they are right now. Interesting test Saturday against the suddenly slumping Nuggets.
9. Warriors (36-34, LW 11). The Warriors are on an eight-game winning streak at home and a nine-game losing streak on the road, but there has been enough home games lately that they have climbed into the top six in the West. For those who believe these Warriors still have a title run in them this season, this video is what you need to watch on a loop — Stephen Curry taking over the final two minutes of regulation and OT to lift the Warriors to a win over the Bucks (shorthanded Bucks without their MVP candidate, but still).
10. Suns (37-32, LW 8). The Suns are 1-3 in the games Kevin Durant has missed with his fluke sprained ankle, which has put them at risk of losing the No.4 seed to the surging Clippers (the losses also killed any dream of catching the Grizzlies for the No.3 seed). The real key is getting Devin Booker and company going, eventually getting Durant back, and racking up enough wins to hold on to a top-six seed in the West and avoid the play-in (top four remains the ultimate goal). Interesting test against the Thunder Sunday, they are good when SGA plays.
11. Heat (38-33, LW 12). If close games and high-pressure situations during the regular season prepare a team for the playoffs, the Heat may be the most ready team in the NBA. Fifty of the Heat’s 70 games have been considered clutch (inside five points in the final five minutes), which is insane. Miami is 28-22 in those games with a +11.3 net rating. Jimmy Butler’s 16 second-half points against the Jazz in the 28th of those clutch wins is a reminder of what a great clutch player he is. Winnable games on the docket this week with the Bulls and Pistons, but Miami has to bring the focus every night (for a change) to hang on to the No.7 seed.
12. Clippers (37-33, LW 16). Winners of four in a row and — as it has been all season — when healthy they look like a threat. Leonard is starting to look like his peak self, his ability to get to his midrange spots and hit is as good as anyone in the league. When Leonard and Paul George are both on the floor, the Clippers have a +7.4 net rating (add Russell Westbrook to that duo and it drops to -4.3, but that’s a topic for another day). The Clips are closing in on the stumbling Suns for the No. 4 seed and have winnable games coming up with the Magic, Blazers and Thunder.
13. Nets (39-30, LW 13). Still looking for a little more depth at center, the Nets have moved on from Nerlens Noel and have signed Moses Brown (who had his moments with the Clippers). Brooklyn went 4-3 on a recent run of road games (including a big comeback win against Boston and topping Denver) and with that are in a good position to hold off Miami and keep a top-six seed in the East avoiding the play-in. That said, they have a tough game with the Kings, Nuggets and Cavaliers this week (and a showdown with those Heat the following week).
14. Mavericks (35-35, LW 10). While there is no official timeline, both Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving could return to the lineup this week — and Dallas needs them. The rest of the Mavericks broke the team’s three-game losing streak, but it took overtime against the tanktastic Spurs on Wednesday to do it. Dallas is in a tie for the 7/8 seeds with Minnesota, and the Mavs need to rack up wins to hold off the Thunder and Lakers just behind them. Critical game Friday night against those Lakers, followed by the Grizzlies on Monday.
15. Timberwolves (35-35, LW 14). Karl-Anthony Towns is expected to return in the coming weeks, before the postseason starts, but fitting him back into a team starting to find a style without him will be a challenge. The Timberwolves are hanging in the West play-in, tied for 7/8 with the Mavericks, and they are doing it with a defense that is top 10 in the league over their last 10 games. However, they have a bottom 10 offense in those same 10 games — Towns could pump up the offense, but it’s going to feel like starting the season over again. The Timberwolves have three games on the road this week against the East: the Bulls, Raptors and Knicks.
16. Hawks (34-35, LW 15). Atlanta is 3-5 since the coaching change to Quin Snyder and it’s been a case of “meet the new Hawks, same as the old Hawks.” Not only has the offense not changed much, but this since the All-Star break this team has had the statistical markings of last year’s Hawks: Third in offense and 26th in defense. Atlanta needs to find enough D to win some games and hold off the Raptors for the eighth seed (and a much easier path through the play-in). The Hawks have winnable games this week with the road Warriors, then the Spurs and Pistons.
17. Thunder (34-35, LW 20). The Thunder are 4-0 in the last four games Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has played, and they are 1-5 in the six he has missed — he means that much to this team and its offense. If Gilgeous-Alexander can stay healthy, this team has a real shot at the postseason (they currently sit ninth in the West). Things don’t get easier for OKC with games at the Raptors, then the Suns and two games against the Clippers.
18. Lakers 34-36, LW 18). The Lakers are 5-4 without LeBron James (foot injury), and Tuesday’s blowout win over the Pelicans was a big step in the race to get a spot in the postseason. As evidenced by the win over the Pelicans — or the loss to the Knicks when he was just “good” or the loss to the Rockets when he was out — the Lakers need elite Anthony Davis to compete and get into the postseason. He has to be the team’s true No.1 option. Speaking of LeBron, he is out of the walking boot and doing some on-court work towards a return, but it is expected it will be close to the playoffs (or in them) before he returns. Winnable games this week (Mavericks, Magic) that the Lakers need to pick up in a tight race. The Lakers have one of the league’s easiest schedules the rest of the way.
19. Raptors (33-36, LW 19). The Raptors are 7-6 since the trade deadline and adding Jakob Poeltl, and they have been solid defensively over those 13 games but have struggled on the offensive end. The biggest concern is keeping Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet healthy and on the court — both are in the top four in minutes played per game this season. The Raptors had lost 4-of-5 on the road before coming up to an upset win over Dallas, and now they face some desperate West teams in the Thunder and Timberwolves.
20. Pelicans (33-36, LW 23). If the Pelicans are going to get into the play-in — with or without Zion Williamson — they need to win at least three out of their next four: Two games at Houston, followed by hosting the Spurs and Hornets (four teams in tank mode). It’s a critical stretch, but the Pelicans didn’t look ready for it when getting blown out by a LeBron-less Lakers team Tuesday. Brandon Ingram is back on the court and he needs to find his groove and carry this team’s offense. And do it fast.
21. Jazz (33-36, LW 22). In Utah, the fans are doing the math to see how far their team can fall and how good a draft pick they could potentially land (the eighth-worst record is most likely). But in the locker room this is a team half-a-game out of the play-in that is not going to just roll over. The bad news for those in the locker room (and the good news for fans that want a tank) is the Jazz have the toughest remaining schedule in the league — this week that includes the Celtics and Kings. Jazz fans can watch Walker Kessler in those games and dream of who the team might put next to him.
22. Wizards (32-37, LW 21). Washington has won just two games in their last seven, and both were against the Pistons — not a good sign for a team trying to hold off the Bulls and get the final play-in spot in the East. Bradley Beal scored 36 points in that Tuesday win against the Pistons and it’s his potential for a big night — and that of Kristaps Porzingis — that makes the other teams in the play-in a bit nervous about facing the Wizards in a win-or-go-home scenario. However, things are not getting easy for Washington with the Cavaliers and Kings up next.
23. Bulls (31-37, LW 24). When Patrick Beverley signed with the Bulls he told Zach LaVine to stop passing so much (that was Beverley’s job) and to start shooting. Since that day LaVine has averaged 31.2 points per game on 62% shooting. That’s good news for some fantasy teams out there and also good news for the Bulls, who are 5-3 in those games. The Bulls are the 11 seed and have the fourth toughest schedule in the East the rest of the way, which includes the Heat and 76ers in the next week.
24. Trail Blazers (31-38, LW 19). Remember how coach Terry Stotts was shown the door because the team didn’t play defense (and the front office swore it wasn’t the roster)? A couple of years later with a new coach and a revamped roster, and the Blazers are 27th in the league in defense (and dead last in the league over the past eight games). They can’t blame it on CJ McCollum anymore. Portland sits 2.5 games out of the last play-in spot and needs to rack up wins, which will not be easy this weeks with the Celtics and Clippers on the schedule.
25. Pacers (31-38, LW 26). Tyrese Haliburton has missed the last two games, and while the Pacers won the first of those (against the Pistons) they are 3-12 on the season when he is out (he is questionable Thursday against the Bucks). Haliburton is in a crowded mix for an All-NBA guard spot despite the struggles of the Pacers, he has been that good this season averaging 20.8 points and 10.4 assists a game. Tough couple of games coming up against the Bucks and 76ers.
26. Magic 28-41, LW 25). Paolo Banchero is a lock to win Rookie of the Year — and deservedly so — but he has some places he needs to improve his game over the coming years. Shooting 28.7% on 3-pointers is one, but that’s part of a general need to be a more efficient scorer (his 52.8 true shooting percentage is below league average). Shooting is something the Magic need almost across the board, they have a lot of cap space money to spend this summer and look for them to go after guards who can space the floor for them (and take some shot creation responsibility off Banchero’s shoulders).
27. Hornets (22-49, LW 27). The Hornets may not be winning many games, but this is still a Steve Clifford team — they have the fifth-best defense in the league over their last 15 games. They aren’t winning because without LaMelo Ball and his creativity this offense can be hard to watch. Charlotte hosts Philadelphia and Indiana this week to close out a five-game homestand.
28. Rockets (17-52, LW 28). Break up the Rockets, they have won two in a row, knocking off the Celtics and the shorthanded but desperate Lakers. They are winning with a balanced, team attack — nobody scored more than 30 in either game (Jalen Green had 28 against the Celtics, Kevin Porter Jr. had 27 against the Lakers). That kind of growth is a good sign a team on the rise. Next up for Houston are two games against New Orleans.
29. Spurs (18-51, LW 29). The Spurs are going to miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season, which is not unheard of for a rebuilding team but is unheard of for a Spurs franchise that was the very model of consistency during the Tim Duncan years (although, it helps when you have Tim Duncan). San Antonio has won 2-of-4 and has gotten strong play of late from rookie Jeremy Sochan, who was a top-10 pick out of Baylor but has exceeded expectations this season.
30. Pistons (16-54, LW 30). A split of two games against the Pacers gave the Pistons their first win since before Valentine’s Day, but the upcoming schedule — Denver, Miami, Atlanta — does not give a lot of reason to hope another win is on the horizon. It’s good to see Jalen Duren back on the court.
[twitter-follow screen_name=‘basketballtalk’ show_count='yes’ text_color='00ccff’]