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NBA Power Rankings: Celtics finish season on top, Bucks a close second

Kurt Helin and Corey Robinson debate what "most valuable" really means in the NBA, as Helin describes why he's struggling to decide on his Most Valuable Player along with Defensive Player of the Year.

In our final NBA Power Rankings of the season, Boston moves into the top spot after a convincing win over the Bucks last week. Philly remains in third place, and any one of those teams could come out of the East.

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1. Celtics (54-25, Last week No. 2). The Celtics finish this season on top of these NBA Power Rankings and as my pick to win it all this year (despite the loss to Philly on Tuesday, which was without Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams III). The one thing that can derail this team is Robert Williams III not being healthy enough to play significant postseason minutes. They will need him if they end up facing the playoff gauntlet of Miami (the No.7 seed heading into the play-in), then Philadelphia, then Milwaukee. Boston is not the same defense, not the same rebounding team without Williams. Tatum will finish fourth in MVP voting this season, and look for Malcolm Brogdon to win Sixth Man of the Year. Whether Brown makes an All-NBA team (as a forward?) could determine whether he signs an extension with Boston this summer.

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2. Bucks (57-22, LW 1). The Milwaukee Bucks are going to finish with the best record in the NBA, and most importantly that gives them a much easier path through the Eastern Conference (the No.2 seed Celtics likely have to face the dangerous Heat, then the 76ers, just to get to the conference finals, where the Bucks hope and expect to find themselves. Milwaukee has a legit shot at another banner. If a voter’s criteria is the best player on the best team, Giannis Antetokounmpo should be MVP. He also had to carry a larger load this season with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday missing time, putting more on the Greek Freak’s shoulders. Brook Lopez also deserves a long look for Defensive Player of the Year.

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3. 76ers (52-27, LW 6). Joel Embiid made his MVP statement with the 52-point, dominant outing against the Celtics, but that win left a lot of other questions about the 76ers’ playoff viability. The rest of the team shot 35.9% against Boston, and while that may be a one-off it speaks to concerns about consistent scoring around them. Then there is the defense at guard with James Harden and Tyrese Maxey getting big minutes, the Celtics were without Brown yet the trio they did play (Smart, White, Brogdon) combined for 61 points. Philly has to be better to get past Boston in the second round, but they know what the bar is they have to clear.

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4. Cavaliers (50-30, LW 5). Cleveland will be a popular media pick to be upset in the first round by the gritty Knicks, but I’m not on that bandwagon. First, the Cavaliers enter the playoffs with the best defense in the NBA this season (and still top-10 after the All-Star break), although the Cavaliers need a healthy and peak Jarrett Allen to anchor that end of the court. They also enter that series with the best player on the court — Donovan Mitchell has played at an All-NBA level all season and has picked it up in the last week with four straight 40+ point games. Mitchell has a history of big playoff performances and I think we will see more this season — he will be a problem for the Knicks and maybe for the Bucks in the second round.

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5. Grizzlies (50-29, LW 4). Memphis gets overlooked, but it has a legitimate chance to come out of the West and reach the NBA Finals. A couple of things need to go their way for that to happen, starting with a healthy Steven Adams — they need his rebounding, his physicality in the paint, and his willingness to do the dirty work. Second, the Grizzlies need to show a maturity under pressure that has not been a consistent part of their makeup to this point — players cannot lose their cool, pick up unnecessary techs, and they need to stay out of foul trouble (we’re looking at you, Jaren Jackson Jr.). But Memphis winning the West can happen, especially with Ja Morant doing things like this.

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6. Nuggets (52-27, LW 3). The Nuggets go into the playoffs as the No.1 seed in the West, but with Nikola Jokić missing time recently, then an ugly loss to Houston on Tuesday, it’s challenging to have faith in a deep playoff run out of the Nuggets. However, give them a week off to get healthy and an eager Jamal Murray — assuming he can return to his bubble form — this is as formidable as any team in the West. The standings shake out so that the Nuggets likely see Kevin Durant and the Suns in the second round, Denver will have to have its stuff together by then (and likely in the first round, there will be no easy path out of this conference). Jokić is in the mix for another MVP and is deserving, but this recent slide has not helped his cause, recency bias is a strong pull on people.

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7. Knicks (46-33, LW 8). New York is locked in as the No.5 seed in the East and is destined to meet a very good Cavaliers team in the first round. Offer that to any Knicks fan (or member of their front office) before the season and they would have jumped at it — this has been an impressive season behind Jalen Brunson and a resurgent Julius Randle (Randle is more likely to make All-NBA, just because there’s less depth at the forward spot this season). Immanuel Quickley is in the mix for Sixth Man of the Year with his play of late, although he likely finishes second (to the Celtics’ Brogdon). The Knicks have a chance against the Cavaliers, but they will need a healthy Randle hitting contested shots to make it happen.

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8. Suns (44-35, LW 9). Winners of six in a row and they have yet to lose with Kevin Durant suited up, making them the trendy pick to come out of the West despite questions about their depth and chemistry (at most Durant will have played 10 games with this team before the playoffs start). If the Suns are going to make it out of the East, Chris Paul will have to hit big shots, and Josh Okogie and Torrey Craig will have to step up on both ends of the court. Phoenix is basically locked in as the four seed, which would mean a second-round matchup with the Nuggets if the seeds follow form (Phoenix will have a tough first-round matchup with whoever finishes fifth in the West).

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9. Kings (48-31, LW 7). The Kings are the best story in the NBA this season, not just making the playoffs for the first time since 2006 but doing so as the No.3 seed and arguably the most consistent team in the conference. It will be trendy to pick against them in the first round of the playoffs because of their 25th-ranked defense, but their elite offense is enough to win a couple of rounds (and in this West, maybe more). Mike Brown will deservedly run away with Coach of the Year and Domantas Sabonis likely makes All-NBA as a center, but it will be tough for De’Aaron Fox to make the team because of the depth at guard. Fox will win the first-ever clutch performance award.

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10. Warriors (42-38, LW 11). If you believe in the Warriors as title contenders, you believe in the muscle memory of the playoffs — the Warriors have not consistently looked like a contender this season and are 18th in the league in defense. However, they didn’t look like a lock to come out of the West last season until everything clicked into place in the playoffs. Can they repeat that kind of postseason run with their core six players back? Steve Kerr said this is not the Warriors’ “Last Dance,” but with GM Bob Myers without a contract beyond this season and Draymond Green with a player option (and a new CBA complicating things for big-spending teams), it’s fair to ask if we will see these core Warriors together again.

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11. Lakers 41-38, LW 18). Winners of 7-of-8 and with the third-best defense in the NBA since the All-Star break, the remade Lakers — around a resurgent and healthy Anthony Davis and LeBron James — have to be considered legitimate threats to come out of the West. The question with the Lakers in the playoffs isn’t if their peak is good enough to come out of the conference, it’s can they sustain that level of play for a couple of months? This is a team with a small margin of error and a history of health questions, it’s easy to say the Lakers can win any series they are in, but can they win three grueling series in a row? That may be a big ask, but LeBron has had the answers before.

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12. Nets (43-36, LW 14). It wasn’t easy, but Brooklyn appears likely to hang on to the No.6 seed and avoid the play-in despite the in-season shakeups trading away Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant (the Nets’ magic number is two to secure sixth, but the play the Pistons and Magic next). The reason this team didn’t bottom out — they traded for solid players such as Mikal Bridges and Spencer Dinwiddie (the Nets don’t control most of their own future draft picks due to the James Harden trade, so there is no value in tanking) — is the same reason they can be a tough out in the playoffs. This team has a solid, deep group of defenders and shooters, they can switch screens and it will not be easy for the 76ers (if that proves to be the opponent) to find a weakness to attack.

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13. Heat (42-37, LW 15). Miami is the team everyone at the top of the East would like to avoid in the first round — playoff Jimmy Butler is a real thing, Bam Adebayo is an elite defensive big man, and Erik Spoelstra may be the best tactician in the league. Miami will be a tough out. The Heat should advance out of the play-in, but can they pull off an upset in the first round of the real playoffs? They will need some help (especially with the Celtics the likely first-round opponent), but if Tyler Herro and Kyrie Irving have strong outings and Max Strus and company can knock down some 3s, this is a dangerous team.

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14. Clippers (41-38, LW 10). With Paul George in the fold, the Clippers are as big a threat as any team in the West — Los Angeles is 24-14 in games both he and Kawhi Leonard play. The questions are: 1) Can they avoid the play-in? 2) Can they advance to the second round without George? That will require a monster effort from Leonard — he has played at that level of late — and consistency from their depth of role players, which has been more up and down. The Clippers (like the Heat, Warriors and others) have shown flashes of championship potential this season but only in short bursts. Can they finally string together those games? Huge showdown with the Lakers Wednesday night.

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15. Pelicans (40-39, LW 16). Zion Williamson is playing some non-contact 3-on-3, which is both encouraging and a long way from playing full-contact 5-on-5. Maybe he could return during the playoffs, but can the Pelicans stay afloat long enough for that to happen? This is a top-10 defensive team for the season and they are far more dangerous with Brandon Ingram playing at an elite level, which is why they are 7-2 in their last nine. New Orleans will need a big playoff series out of CJ McCollum as well because they lack depth in scoring and playmaking, especially with Zion out of the lineup. Can the Pelicans score enough to win when playoff teams clamp down on Ingram?

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16. Raptors (40-39, LW 12). Since adding Jakob Poeltl, the Raptors are 14-9 and have the fourth-best defense in the league — they needed that solid paint protector that much. What has held Toronto back all season is shooting — they have the fourth-worst true shooting percentage in the league for the season, and that is the third worst since the All-Star break. They don’t shoot the 3 well and generally do not take enough advantage of their scoring opportunities. Despite his strong reputation as a tactician, there is a sense it may be time for the Raptors to move on from Nick Nurse as coach and get a different voice in the room. An early exit from the playoffs could add to that.

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17. Timberwolves (40-40, LW 13). Since the All-Star break there have been stretches this team looks like a threat in the West, with the two-pronged offensive attack of Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards leading the way (and a steadier hand at the point in Mike Conley) and enough defense to get the job done. However, the Timberwolves have been inconsistent all season, and that continued even after KAT returned from injury, as evidenced by the recent three-game losing streak (which they snapped with a quality win over the Nets Tuesday). Minnesota looks destined for the play-in, but can they climb to the 7/8 seeds and make their path out much easier? Getting two wins, including a second on the road, can be a big ask.

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18. Hawks (40-39, LW 19). Arguably the most disappointing team in the NBA this season — especially compared to internal preseason expectations — which is why there has been a front-office shakeup and a coaching change during the season. Under Quin Snyder the Atlanta offense has played better, but the defense has been bottom five in the league and it’s tough to predict any kind of a playoff run if they can’t get stops. That said, the win over the Bulls on Tuesday paves the way for Atlanta to be a 7/8 seed and only need one win to get out of the play-in, and if so they get their postseason shot. Trae Young in the playoffs is always entertaining (for fans, less so for the opposing coach).

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19. Thunder (38-42, LW 17). Maybe the biggest surprise of the season (certainly the biggest outside Sacramento), the Thunder appear destined for the play-in (two games up on Dallas with three to play). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will make an All-NBA team (and likely get some fifth-place MVP votes), Jalen Williams has stepped up as a rookie and Josh Giddey has grown as a playmaker. They will be a tough out in the play-in games. Add Chet Holmgren and another high draft pick to that group next season and the Thunder will be difficult to ignore. First up comes the play-in games.

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20. Bulls (38-41, LW 21). Chicago’s offense has been much better since the All-Star break — and Patrick Beverley would like to take credit for that because he says he told Zach LaVine to shoot more. The Bulls are headed to the play-in and with that offense and the perimeter defense of Beverley and Alex Caruso, it’s not crazy to think they could advance out of it all and into the playoffs. Chicago thought they would be better than this and have some off-season roster shaping to do, but making the play-in is at least a start.

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21. Mavericks (37-42, LW 20). Owner Mark Cuban took the blame for not putting together a roster that could defend better than this one (23rd in the league), which has been at the core of all their problems. Not having secondary shot creation next to Luka Dončić is an issue, too, and Kyrie Irving wasn’t a natural fit that solved their problem (Irving and Dončić played next to each other, not with or off of one another). Dallas likely misses the play-in but expect them to re-sign Irving this offseason (it’s likely the best move for both of them) then try to retool the roster around their two stars. Jason Kidd will be back as coach. It’s on the front office to find defense and shooting during the summer.

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22. Magic 34-45, LW 24). Paolo Banchero is going to win Rookie of the Year, and it is deserved (even if his numbers faded some as the season went along — a lot was asked of him). The other reason for optimism: After a dreadful 5-20 start the Magic went 29-25 and they have played solid defense. Franz Wagner will be back and part of whatever is being built, and he plays well off Banchero. Markelle Fultz had a good season as well. The Magic will have a lottery draft pick and money to spend in free agency, they are evolving toward being a very interesting team.

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23. Jazz (36-43, LW 23). The Jazz surprised everyone starting 10-4 and being 19-16 at Christmas — Will Hardy deserves credit for getting the most out of this foster. However, they have fallen off a cliff since and are headed to the lottery (which was always the plan, based on the trades they made at the deadline, sending out Mike Conley, Jared Vanderbilt and others). Lauri Markkanen may win Most Improved Player, he appears to be the frontrunner.

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24. Wizards (34-45, LW 22). There were things to like: those cherry blossom uniforms, for one. Also, Kriztaps Porzingis was largely healthy and meshed well with Bradley Beal. Kyle Kuzma stepped up and made a leap — just in time to be a free agent this summer (the Wizards plan to pay up and keep him). Washington was better defensively than a year ago, but were still just 20th in the league. If the Wizards will run it back as intended with the Beal/Kuzma/Porzingis core, they need a better supporting cast. And to hit their draft pick this time (Johnny Davis was the pick last year).

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25. Pacers (34-45, LW 25). The Pacers looked like a playoff team up until the mid-January night when Tyrese Haliburton was injured. Indiana is 6-17 in the games Haliburton missed (they are .500 with him) and it speaks to the need to add scoring and depth around him and Myles Turner (who had a strong season and signed an extension to stay in Indiana). Bennedict Mathurin had a strong rookie campaign (he will make an All-Rookie team) and should be part of whatever is being built in Indy.

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26. Trail Blazers (33-46, LW 27). Missing the playoffs in a season that Damian Lillard played at an All-NBA level has raised eyebrows around the league, but Lillard is not asking out. Instead, look for the Trail Blazers’ first instinct to be to swing big this offseason (they have draft picks and good young players such as Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons they could throw in a trade for a star), but they need size (particularly in the backcourt), defense and more shooting. It’s a lot to upgrade. When everyone sits down and looks at a path forward, what do they see?

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27. Hornets (26-54, LW 26). A disappointing season that started last summer when Miles Bridges got into legal trouble around that (rightfully) led to him missing this entire season. Throw in some LaMelo Ball ankle injuries (he only played 36 games) and the Hornets just couldn’t get any traction on this season — they are last in the league in offensive rating. On the right side, Steve Clifford got them defending, Ball will be back and the offense will pick up, they will add a lottery-pick player, and there’s real reason to be optimistic the Hornets can take a step forward next season. Especially under new ownership.

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28. Rockets (20-60, LW 29). Expect bold moves out of Houston this offseason — they have good young talent ready to make a leap and an organization tired of losing and missing the playoffs. There have been plenty of James Harden returns rumors flying around the league this season, but if it’s not him it could be other top free agents as the Rockets have cap space and are looking to spend. Jabari Smith Jr. improved as the season went on (14.3 points per game after the All-Star break), Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. continue to show great flashes, Alpren Şengün took a step forward and will be part of what is being built, they will add another lottery pick, throw in a quality free agent or two and this team could be in the postseason next year.

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29. Spurs (20-59, LW 28). There were bright spots for the Spurs. Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell looked good for stretches that they played. Jeremy Sochan, the No.9 pick from last year’s draft, looked like a player who could be part of what is being built in San Antonio. This is a long rebuilding process for a proud franchise, but one that could get a big boost of the lottery gods smile on them this season.

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30. Pistons (16-63, LW 30). Detroit entered the season with dreams of competing for a play-in spot, but the second that Cade Cunningham went down a dozen games into the season, the calculus changed. However, it will not change next season — they extended Bojan Bogdanovic (and did not trade him), a sign they plan to compete next season. With those two plus the athleticism of Jaden Ivey (who looked better and better as the season went on), Killian Hayes, and a frontcourt with Isaiah Stewart and maybe James Wiseman (at the right price), this team is ready to compete next season — especially with a high lottery pick added to the mix.

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