NBA Power Rankings: Bucks remain in first as top spots hold steady
Not a lot of change at the top of these NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings, with the Bucks holding down the top spot (although the Celtics, without four starters, were the more impressive team in that game). Denver at fifth remains the highest-seeded team out of the West, but watch out for the Suns.
1. Bucks (40-17, Last week No. 1). Jae Crowder isn’t going to make his debut until after the All-Star break, but that hasn’t slowed the Bucks who have won 11 straight (including a victory Tuesday night over a shorthanded Celtics squad). While defense is fueling this latest run, Giannis Antetokounmpo has increased his usage rate during this stretch and is averaging 37.2 points per game during the streak. Jrue Holiday has also stepped up his role, and Khris Middleton is getting his groove back. Milwaukee feels like a team finding its stride at the right time.
2. Celtics (41-17, LW 2). Coaches love to say there are no moral victories in the NBA, but Tuesday night felt like one for the Celtics: No Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown or Al Horford or Marcus Smart, yet they pushed the Bucks to OT. It was a loss that cemented the very deep Celtics as the team to beat in the NBA this season. Mike Muscala is averaging 13.3 points per game since coming over to the Celtics, shooting 39.1% from 3, and playing 25.3 minutes per night. Boston doesn’t want to see Muscala having to play those kinds of minutes in the postseason, but if he can help get Horford and Robert Williams III to the playoffs healthy, then it was a quality pickup.
3. 76ers (37-19, LW 3). While it’s tempting to say the 76ers are just three games back of the Celtics and grabbing the No.1 seed in the East is not out of the question, Philly also has the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, making it a long shot they climb the ladder. We tend to think of Giannis Antetokounmpo as the player who lives at the free throw line (13.3 free throw attempts a game), but Joel Embiid is second in the league, getting to the line 11.6 times a contest. Embiid is shooting 85.7% from the stripe this season, which has become a big part of his offensive game.
4. Cavaliers (38-22, LW 4). The second hottest team in the NBA and winners of seven in a row (with a big test against the 76ers the last game before the All-Star break. With the Nets fading back, the Cavaliers likely comfortably hold on to a top-four seed in the East, meaning they host a first-round playoff series. The Cavs are also just one game back of the 76ers (before Wednesday’s game) and have a much easier schedule the rest of the way, jumping back into the top three in the East is not out of the question over the final third of the season. Donovan Mitchell should enjoy the spotlight of being an All-Star starter this weekend, he’s more than earned it.
5. Nuggets (40-18, LW 5). Phoenix got all the headlines at the trade deadline and deserves to be mentioned as a team that could come out of the West — but they will have to go through Denver to do it. The Nuggets should hold on to the No.1 seed in the conference and they have everything needed to contend when healthy. The Nuggets are 20-0 this season when Nikola Jokić registers a triple-double, which is part of his MVP case this season. It’s also why in the postseason teams will focus on slowing the two-time MVP down and making anyone else beat them — the pressure will ramp up on Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon in the rest to make plays.
6. Grizzlies (34-22, LW 6). Despite what the always-confident Ja Morant says about his team, the Grizzlies have not scared anyone of late (dropping 9-of-12). This ranking feels just a little too high for the way they are playing right now. It’s good to see Jaren Jackson Jr. get the All-Star Game recognition he deserves, but can he try not to foul out of that game? He also needs to stop the bad penalties before the postseason, when Memphis will need him on the court more than the 27.1 minutes per game he is averaging this season (injuries contribute to that number being down, but part of it is him having to sit seemingly every game due to foul trouble.
7. Heat (32-26, LW 8). The Nets sliding down the standings in the East is a good thing for the Heat (and Knicks), who seem much more likely to secure a top-six seed and avoid the play-in now. That’s why Wednesday night’s game against the Nets matters, the Heat can’t afford to mentally leave on their All-Star break vacations a day early, this is the kind of game the Heat need to take care of business (as they did last week against the Pacers, Rockets and Magic). Bam Adebayo is deservedly headed to Utah as an All-Star, Tyler Herro will shoot 3-pointers on Saturday night, and you can be sure Jimmy Butler is perfectly happy to have a couple of extra days off on a warm beach this weekend rather than in another All-Star Game.
8. Kings (32-25, LW 9). De’Aaron Fox getting named to the All-Star Game is deserving, he and Domantas Sabonis deserved to be in Salt Lake City representing the best story in the NBA this season — the Kings are going to make the playoffs. Fox has celebrated the announcement with four consecutive 30+ point games, including 36 in a big win against Dallas (in the Dončić and Irving debut). With all the changes in the West come the trade deadline, if the Kings want to advance beyond just making the playoffs, Mike Brown and company are going to have to find more defense — they are ranked 23rd in the NBA on that side of the ball and too many teams now can exploit that in a playoff series.
9. Mavericks (31-28, LW 10). Dallas has started 0-2 with both Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving in the lineup, but that is not about the duo and more about the other weaknesses on the roster. The chemistry is still being worked out, Irving and Dončić are still playing next to each other and not off each other, they are still figuring out the spacing (as evidenced in the final play against the Timberwolves), but the Mavericks are scoring — a 122.1 offensive rating in those two games (way up from 115.6 for the season). The problem is the 125.4 defensive rating in those two games — Dallas can’t get a stop. That’s the end of the floor where Jason Kidd has work to do.
10. Knicks (32-27, LW 14). Monday’s win over Brooklyn is a sign of things to come, the Nets will slide down the standings and Knicks have a path to move into the top six and avoid the play-in by taking advantage. Josh Hart has proven a brilliant pickup at the trade deadline, he’s the kind of “does everything well” role player who can thrive anywhere. While Julius Randle will deservingly spend his weekend in Salt Lake City as an All-Star, it feels odd not to have Jalen Brunson making the cut as well — he has been the MVP and steadying force of this Knicks team, he is the reason they are headed to the playoffs.
11. Suns (32-27, LW 11). Devin Booker returned and looked sharp in the win over the Kings, scoring 32 points and running the offense for stretches. Kevin Durant will make his Suns debut sometime after the All-Star break, but Phoenix is wisely not putting a timeline on that. Watching the Suns’ offense click against the Kings, then envisioning Kevin Durant in it, one question came to mind: How comfortable are players such as Booker and Deandre Ayton going to be with sacrificing parts of their game for the betterment of the team? (I do not doubt that Chris Paul is good with that.) Winning a ring requires stars to sacrifice (think Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade with LeBron James in Miami), guys not willing to do that can undermine a team. Ayton may see the big picture, but it’s something worth watching.
12. Nets (33-24, LW 7). It’s going to be a long and unique road back for the Nets. With the trades of Durant and Irving they started to replenish their supply of draft picks, and they brought back a lot of quality role players — that’s enough to form a solid foundation. The Nets don’t control their own picks through 2027 (Houston has them due to the James Harden trade) so tanking doesn’t make sense, this is going to be a rebuild on the fly. But if Sean Marks, along with coach Jacque Vaughn, can re-establish a team-first, hardworking culture — part of what drew Durant and Irving in the first place — this is a city that can draw top talent. They have done it once. They are still a solid postseason team, but expect the Nets to slide down into the play-in range over the season’s final third.
13. Clippers (32-28, LW 12). The win over the Curry-less Warriors Tuesday showed the spark that newcomers Eric Gordon, Bones Hyland and Mason Plumlee can bring to the team. The Clippers may be without the true point guard Tyronn Lue and Kawhi Leonard wanted, but the supporting cast around the Clippers stars is better after the trade deadline. The question remains, will that be enough? The Clippers are the poster child for players missing games and load management, and with that they have not built chemistry or good habits needed to compete at the highest levels. Can they do that over the final third of the season? On our end, we’re skeptical, but the talent is unquestionably there.
14. Warriors (29-29, LW 13). The Warriors are 2-3 so far since Stephen Curry went down with his leg injury, and while he hopes to return soon after the All-Star Game there is no official timeline. Draymond Green went off on the bigger issue for the Warriors this season, the 21st-ranked defense that is not coming together. “It’s not just gonna come. Do I think we’re capable of doing it? Yes, but I don’t think it’s coming. You can go get it, but it’s not just coming... It’s a will to want to defend, and you’re not [dealing with a championship] hungover at .500 60 games into the season.”
15. Timberwolves (31-29, LW 16). Karl-Anthony Towns is expected to be out until the final 10-15 games of the season, according to a new report, which would be just enough time to work him back into the rotation and try to find a little chemistry with Rudy Gobert that was missing earlier in the season. Mike Conley at the point should help with that, he is more of a distributor and not looking to shoot the way D’Angelo Russell was. Conley is also better off the ball, which is good because Minnesota should be turning the keys to the offense over to Anthony Edwards more often.
16. Pelicans (30-28, LW 15). Zion Williamson will be out “weeks” after the All-Star break after a setback in his hamstring injury recovery. Still, there are reasons to be optimistic the Pelicans can climb back into the top six in the West and avoid the play-in: Brandon Ingram is back and the offense is clicking for him, CJ McCollum should return from his thumb injury soon, and the Pelicans have the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way. All of that together should be a playoff combination.
17. Hawks (29-29, LW 17). The trade bringing Atlanta Saddiq Bey was finally approved and he will be a good addition to an already overstocked frontline for the Hawks. But Bey could be a keeper. Among the many surprising things about this disappointingly .500 team is that the defense has not been the problem, or at least not as much of one. Atlanta is near the middle of the pack on defense, 19th, but they have won games in recent years with Trae Young leading an exploding offense. They are average on that end (14th in the NBA), which may cost Nate McMillan his job after the season.
18. Raptors (28-31, LW 18). The Raptors have won 5-of-6 heading into the All-Star break, making them ninth in the East. Toronto remains the most unlucky team in the league this season — they have 28 wins to 31 losses, but their point differential says those numbers should be reversed. If it were, they would be in the mix with the Knicks and Heat for the 5 and 6 seeds, and avoiding the play-in. That sense that they are better than their record indicates is one reason the Raptors decided to stand pat at the trade deadline. The one concern the rest of the way, the Raptors have the third toughest schedule in the East for the remainder of the season.
19. Thunder (27-29, LW 19). Can the upstart Thunder climb into the top 10 and make the postseason over the final stretch of the season? As of this writing they sit 1.5 games out of the final play-in spot (held by stumbling Utah) and OKC has the second-easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way. Which is to say, it is possible the Thunder can make the play-in ahead of schedule this season, behind the play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey. Gilgeous-Alexander will be in Salt Lake City and getting his props — he might be the most underrated player in the NBA right now, but that is about to change. Fast. He’s got the respect of his peers and coaches, which is why he is an All-Star this season.
20. Jazz (29-30, LW 20). Interesting question for the Jazz that likely gets resolved over the All-Star break: Will they reach a buyout with Russell Westbrook and make him a free agent, or will he simply sit out the rest of this season and collect checks (like John Wall in Houston)? While the Thunder might prefer the buyout path, if there is no landing spot for Westbrook — and while there have been rumors of some talk with the Bulls and Clippers, the buzz is growing teams are not that interested — Westbrook isn’t going to take a discount. This weekend is all about Lauri Markkanen and the Jazz celebrating the organization, its basketball history (Karl Malone will be there as an All-Star Game judge) and the state of Utah. It should be a good show.
21. Trail Blazers (28-30, LW 21). If you’re looking for a silver lining, Cam Reddish scored 18 against the Wizards and looked pretty good for the Trail Blazers on Tuesday night. Then the clouds roll in — Portland lost that game when they need wins, and now head out on the road after the All-Star break for 8-of-10, and they need to pick up wins in there to keep their postseason hopes alive. Another cloud, the NBA investigating the Blazers’ injury reporting practices as part of the Gary Payton II trade — maybe nothing comes of it, but this is still a cloud over the organization.
22. Bulls (26-31, LW 22). You can’t blame Bulls fans for throwing up their hands in frustration after the Bulls stood pat at the trade deadline — one of only two teams to make no moves at all — then go out and lose four in a row. The Bulls need some scoring punch, on their recent three-game road trip (all losses) they averaged less than a point per possession. Despite that, DeMar DeRozan will be in Salt Lake City this weekend representing Chicago as an All-Star, an honor he certainly deserves, he remains one of the game’s great midrange shooters.
23. Wizards (27-30, LW 23). Kyle Kuzma returned from injury on Tuesday with 33 points and nine rebounds, and behind him the Wizards picked up a win over the Trail Blazers, giving Washington three wins out of their last four games. The Wizards sit as the No.10 seed in the East going into the All-Star break, trying to hold off Chicago for that final spot in the postseason. Then they head into a big summer where they have lined themselves up to pay big money to Kuzma, who has become a critical part of their future.
24. Lakers 26-32, LW 24). The Lakers got better at the trade deadline and you could see what D’Angelo Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt could bring to the table in a win over the Warriors, but the Lakers are 1-1 since the trade deadline with LeBron James sitting out since he broke the record due to a sore foot (which he played through to get the record). Whether or not he suits up in the All-Star game (or played six minutes to start the game and sits the rest of the way), the Lakers need him back and healthy after the All-Star break to make a run up into the play-in. For all the talk about this team as a potential tough out in the postseason, they must put in the work to get there first.
25. Magic 24-35, LW 26). It’s flying under the radar, but the Magic have been playing pretty good basketball of late: 8-7 in their last 15 with a +0.6 net rating and a top-10 defense. Jonathan Isaac is still trying to find his offense, but it didn’t take him long to find his defensive footing again as he is showing the versatility and lock-down skills on that end of the court that had the Magic excited before his injury. Paolo Bancheo will get a lot of shine in Salt Lake City, highlighting the Rising Stars game on Friday and then participating in the skills competition on Saturday. The future Rookie of the Year deserves all the spotlight he can get.
26. Pacers (25-34, LW 25). Tyrese Haliburton is back on the court but the slide down the standings (and these Power Rankings) continues, with the Pacers having lost five in a row and 16-of-18. Haliburton will be representing in Salt Lake City as an All-Star reserve, a deserved reward for a guy who was one of the better point guards in the league this season before his injury. Maybe the All-Star break is what this team needs to turn everything around and get back into the play-in, but it feels as if the slide continuing is more likely.
27. Hornets (16-43, LW 27). I still don’t really understand what the Hornets were doing at the trade deadline, holding on to aging veterans not part of their future — Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Kelly Oubre — but trading away a young player on the rise in Jalen McDaniels. It’s just hard to see the big-picture plan, outside staying in the Wembanyama sweepstakes and looking for someone to pair with LaMelo Ball (who has played well of late, it’s just not enough with this roster). Happy 60th birthday to Michael Jordan, by the way.
28. Pistons (15-43, LW 28). James Wiseman is expected to make his Pistons debut on Wednesday (against the Celtics), and bringing him in still seems like a smart roll of the dice. He is unquestionably athletic and it’s easy to fall in love with the potential, maybe he just needs the change of scenery and to move off a read-and-react offense to a more traditional pick-and-roll-based one that streamlines his decision tree. They will miss Saddiq Bey, but it was the right decision to move on at this point, best for both sides.
29. Rockets (13-44, LW 29). Kenyon Martin Jr. will get some shine this weekend as part of the All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest — he should excel at that (but our expectations for that event in general are lower). Even without the trip to Salt Lake City Martin should get some love from Rockets fans, he has shown some promise since getting moved into the starting lineup, averaging 14.3 points and 7.4 rebounds a game in that role, and shooting 59.1%.
30. Spurs (14-44, LW 30). Looking for a silver lining and ignoring that 12-game losing streak, there is the 31 points Devonte’ Graham scored against the Pistons, and Zach Collins added 29 in that game (an eventual overtime loss for the Spurs). After the All-Star break I’m hoping we get to see a little more Blake Wesley, who showed potential at Summer league and in flashes for this team during the season.
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