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NBA Power Rankings: Suns end season on top, Bucks highest ranked from East

Michael Holley and Michael Smith give the Phoenix Suns their flowers for a dominant regular season and wonder if Devin Booker or Chris Paul are true MVP candidates.

It’s time for our final NBA Power Rankings of the season, and teams are primarily in order of the likelihood to win a title (Memphis is a little higher than I would rank them on that metric, but they earned it). Of course, all title talk starts in the Valley of the Sun.

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1. Suns (63-16, Last Week No. 1). Phoenix has owned the top spot in these NBA power rankings most of the season, and lapped the field running away with the best record in the league and a franchise record for wins. Phoenix finishes the season with the No. 2 offense and No. 2 defense, the best points differential, the best record in the clutch, and an aura that they are the team to beat. We could try to nit-pick this team heading into the playoffs — sometimes Chris Paul teams play so hard all season they don’t have another gear for the playoffs — but that’s a waste of time. The road to the title runs through Phoenix and I’m not sure there is a team in the West that can beat them.

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2. Grizzlies (55-24, LW 3). There are skeptics around every corner with this team heading into the playoffs — is Ja Morant healthy? Can they force turnovers and run in the postseason like they did in the first 82? Can they score enough in the halfcourt? — but after answering every question asked of them during the regular season, maybe they have earned the benefit of the doubt. Whatever happens, this postseason will be a learning experience. Memphis has some postseason awards hardware coming its way: Ja Morant likely wins Most Improved player and will make All-NBA (which team is up for debate, but he makes it), and Taylor Jenkins is in the mix for Coach of the Year.

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3. Bucks (49-30, LW 5). The Bucks finish third in our final NBA Power Rankings not because they totally deserve it — they lost to the Mavs and Clippers in the last week — but because I trust them to come out of the East more than any other team. All the teams at the top of the East have questions to answer, but we have seen Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks overcome their deficiencies in the past, they are the defending champs, and if any team in the East can flip the switch into playoff mode it’s Milwaukee. The Bucks need to flip that switch on defense, they have been middle-of-the-road all season without Brook Lopez, but they have been worse with him back in recent weeks (bottom 10 in the league over the last 7 games). Jrue Holiday has not been the same defender he was a year ago. If the Bucks can flip that switch, a return to the Finals may be on tap.

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4. Heat (52-28, LW 7). Miami’s depth and culture have earned them the No. 1 seed in the East (most likely, they need to win one of their last two games) despite key players missing long stretches all season. Miami has the defense to win it all, and they have the coach and scheme versatility needed in the postseason. However, it all comes down to Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and the half-court offense. On the season, the Heat are 11th in the league in halfcourt offense, which is better than the eye test looks for them when things slow down. The Heat made their run to the Finals in the bubble in part because Butler was dominant in the halfcourt and lifted up the Heat, and they need that guy again. Are Butler and Spoelstra all good after their blowup? Get enough half-court offense and the Heat can win any series.

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5. Celtics (49-30, LW 2). The loss of Robert Williams III to a meniscus injury and surgery clouds predictions on a playoff run for Boston. The Celtics are a league-best 15-4 with a +12.2 net rating since the All-Star break — they are the hottest team in the league — but without Williams the matchups are far more difficult (the Celtics defense has not looked the same with Grant Williams or Daniel Theis replacing the Time Lord). When does Williams come back? Does he look like himself? It’s all cloudy. With Jayson Tatum playing at an MVP level since the first of the year and Marcus Smart on defense this is still a team that can make a deep playoff run, but getting out of the first round or two without Williams is going to be a lot more difficult.

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6. Mavericks (49-30, LW 5). This final ranking might be a little too low for Dallas, which looks like the most dangerous team in the West not named after a celestial body. Luka Doncic is playing the best basketball of his career, and with Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie around him they have shooting and secondary playmaking for teams that overload on Luka. The Mavericks have also quietly put together a top-10 defense. Dallas has not won a playoff series in a decade — since their 2011 title run — and there will be postseason pressure to break that streak and get Doncic a playoff win. A lot of that will come down to matchups.

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7. 76ers (49-30, LW 6). I promise Joel Embiid, everyone in the media likes you, it’s not personal, but in a year with three deserving MVP candidates you likely will not come out on top. I feel sort of the same way about Philadelphia the playoff team: This is an outstanding team that creates some real matchup problems, but is not good enough to win it (or even come out of the East). James Harden is shooting 33.6% from 3 as a Sixers, as a team Philly is 13-6 in games Harden has played. Despite Embiid and Matisse Thybulle, there are places to attack the 76ers defense, which will get them in trouble deeper in the playoffs.

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8. Warriors (50-29, LW 12). The theory of the Warriors — Stephen Curry hitting 3s and warping opposing defenses, Draymond Green quarterbacking Golden State’s defense, plenty of shooting and quality role players everywhere (and Klay Thompson capable of more than that) — makes them the biggest threat to the Suns in the West. But can Golden State come close to living up to that potential this postseason? When will Stephen Curry return from his ankle issue and how healthy will he be? How is Draymond Green’s back? (That has looked better in recent games.) Are Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole and the rest of the role players ready for the big stage? It’s a lot of questions, but ace the test and the Warriors can beat anyone.

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9. Raptors (46-33, LW 11). Toronto is the definitive “I don’t want to see them in the first round” team. People from other top teams talk about how hard the Raptors are hard to play against — long, athletic, they throw funky zones out on defense at times, and they force a lot of turnovers. Behind Pascal Siakam, the Raptors can put up plenty of points as well. They have looked good in matchups with other top teams as well, whoever lands Toronto in the first round is in for a tough one. Scottie Barnes is a lot closer to winning Rookie of the Year than a lot of fans realize — he has scored more per game than Evan Mobley, is more efficient, and plays quality defense.

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10. Nuggets (47-33, LW 10). That impressive record is why Nikola Jokic is likely to win back-to-back MVPs — he had to carry more of a load than Embiid and Antetokounmpo to get his team to about the same number of wins. Jokic improved his offensive numbers from his MVP season, and his defense has also has gotten better. Jokic and his passing/ability to lift up his teammates is what makes Denver a tough first-round matchup for any team (they likely face Golden State or Dallas). However, without Jamal Murray (Denver keeps leaving that door open, but it’s asking a lot) and Michael Porter Jr. the Jokic magic may run out.

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11. Jazz (47-32, LW 8). Going into this season, everyone inside and outside of Utah knew this would be a make-it-or-break-it playoffs for the Jazz. The way they have stumbled into the postseason is not inspiring confidence. On paper the Jazz still look like a threat: Donovan Mitchell steps up his game in the playoffs (averaged 34.8 points a game last year), Rudy Gobert is still an elite defensive anchor, Mike Conley is a proven veteran at the point, and the Jazz have good role players. In practice, this is not a team that plays for one another, is on the same page on offense, and it’s like they sense that big change is coming this offseason and are frozen. There’s a chance they flip the switch, but they haven’t looked for that switch much during the second half of the season.

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12. Timberwolves (45-35, LW 9). Minnesota sits as the No. 7 seed in the West, and while it may not be fair (considering how far ahead they are of the No. 8 Clippers) they are going to have to win one extra game to earn their way into the playoffs. Minnesota has to win just one of two games to get in, that seems likely. Karl-Anthony Towns All-NBA level play pushed Minnesota back into the postseason, and with a quality starting five they will be a tough out. Minnesota’s defense has improved this season, but the best teams have picked them apart and that may be their playoff fate, but at least they are back in the postseason.

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13. Nets (41-38, LW 14). The ultimate team nobody wants to face in the playoffs will first have to get out of the play-in before they can think playoff upset. It will be much easier for Brooklyn to do that if they can win out their final three games and hold on to the No. 8 seed. With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (not to mention Patty Mills, Cam Thomas and the rest) the Nets have the firepower to win any one game, but can they play enough defense to win 4-out-of-7? That loss Saturday to Atlanta feels like it could be a Nets playoff preview: Durant scored 55, but Trae Young scored nine in the final minute and the Hawks won. The Nets can’t win enough shootouts to get a ring.

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14. Hawks (41-38 LW 17). Trae young loves the spotlight and steps up his game on the biggest stages — he will put up big numbers in the play-in (and maybe playoffs), and he has some quality offensive talent around him. Atlanta has the third-ranked offense in the NBA this season and they have firepower everywhere. However, they have the 26th ranked defense, which will doom them in a series — you can’t win a shootout every night in the playoffs. The Hawks have gone on a little run with John Collins out (foot injury) but they need him back to make any kind of a serious playoff push.

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15. Hornets (40-39, LW 13). Any team with LaMelo Ball on it is capable of winning a couple of games and getting out of the play-in tournament. They also just got Gordon Hayward back on the court, and he is the kind of player that can be tough for defenses to match up with in the postseason. There has been growth from Charlotte this season, but the team has struggled against the top teams in the league all season and that likely means trouble in the play-in and playoffs when only the best teams are left. Charlotte was in this same play-in position a year ago and got run out of the building by the Pacers, this year expect them to be far more competitive.

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16. Bulls (45-34, LW 15). Is this final ranking too low for a Bulls team with the firepower of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic? Maybe. But without Lonzo Ball it’s hard to trust their defense (22nd in the league over their last 7 games, it’s not getting better), and then there is that 1-12 record against the top teams in the East. The rebuilding of the Bulls’ roster has been impressive and turned them into an interesting and good team, but they need depth, defense, and a big leap forward from Patrick Williams to think of playing in the sandbox with the big boys next season.

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17. Clippers (39-40, LW 20). With Paul George back in the rotation (don’t bet on Kawhi Leonard at this point), this Clippers team becomes a much tougher out in the playoffs. Los Angeles will have to come out of the play-in, but with the No. 8 seed they only need to win one of two games, and considering how solid and smart this team played before PG13 returned, that seems likely. The Clippers are even an upset threat (just ask the Jazz), but they are a jump-shooting team and they can get streaky (both in a good and bad way). Never count the Clippers out, they have five 20+ point comebacks this season, but that will be a lot tougher to pull off in the postseason when players are more focused.

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18. Cavaliers (43-37, LW 16). It’s all about health with the Cavaliers: If Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley can get right for the playoffs, this is a top-10 defensive team, with real length and size, plus Darius Garland creating offense. That team has the talent to win a game and get out of the play-in (it will be a shock if they get back up to No. 6). However, if those two bigs are not at 100%, the Cavaliers’ slide will continue right out of the postseason. Whatever happens in the next week, this season has been a huge step forward for the Cavs, but there are big questions to answer this summer, starting with whether to bring back Colin Sexton.

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19. Spurs (34-45, LW 19). San Antonio is going to have to win two games to get out of the play-in, but the Spurs have had success this season against the Pelicans (3-1) and Clippers (2-1). San Antonio is a young team and getting out of the play-in and into a series would be a jump up that learning curve, even if it only lasted four games. That will not be the topic after the Spurs are eliminated however, the questions will all be about “will Gregg Popovich return?” Now that he is the all-time wins leader, does he want to go through the grind again? While the reports have been he is leaning towards coming back, Popovich has more than earned the right to make that call for himself and on his own timeline. This season showed that Pop is still a teacher and can help young stars grow.

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20. Pelicans (35-44, LW 18). With Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum, New Orleans has the firepower to win a couple of play-in games — they are 9-6 in games both played, and they have a +5.2 net rating when both are on the court. The fact we are talking about the play-in for a team that started 1-12 and had to deal with the “what’s up with Zion Williamson?” saga all season is impressive, and speaks to the job Willie Green has done (he’s not going to make top 3 in a very deep Coach of the Year race, but Green deserves a shoutout). If Zion is on the court next season, this team gets very interesting.

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21. Knicks (35-44, LW 21). Tom Thibodeau will be back as coach, but who else will join him? RJ Barrett had a breakout year as a shot creator and scorer on the wing and looks like the franchise cornerstone New York hoped it drafted. Immanuel Quickley is a keeper. Mitchell Robinson can be a defensive anchor. Obi Toppin’s potential is clear, can Thibodeau help him grow closer to that ceiling. Whether or not Julius Randle is back — and whether he really wants to be back (despite what he said publicly) — is the big question. Changes are coming in New York, and there is genuine pressure on Leon Rose to get it right this summer (James Dolan is still the owner, so the fear of rapid change always looms).

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22. Wizards (35-44, LW 23). No team started as fast — 13-7 in their first 20 games — and fell as hard and as fast as the Wizards this season. Bradley Beal is a free agent and the vultures — in the form of other GMs — are circling, but Beal hinted he wanted to return and there are about $250 million reasons for him to do so. Another reason to return is to see how he pairs with Kristaps Porzingis, and with Kyle Kuzma and other solid role players on the roster the Wizards can be a playoff team next season. If everyone can stay healthy and Beal can find his shot again (he struggled this season due to injury, his .539 true shooting percentage is below league average).

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23. Lakers (31-48, LW 22). That went about as poorly as possible (and the rest of the league savored watching the Lakers implode). It should be noted again just how amazing LeBron James was at age 37 — 30.3 points a game, 8.2 rebounds, 6.2 assists, shooting 35.9% from 3. He played at an All-NBA level, but he’s not the LeBron who can lift lesser teammates farther than they should go anymore, and this roster was filled with teammates not up to the task. Now comes the housecleaning, which will start with Frank Vogel losing his job as coach, with Russell Westbrook being traded/bought out and waived by this summer. Whether Rob Pelinka is up to the task of rebuilding this roster in one offseason remains to be seen — the Lakers don’t have cap space or many tradable assets — but that’s the job. With LeBron playing like this, the Lakers are still a win-now team.

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24. Kings (29-51, LW 24). Sacramento now owns the record for longest playoff drought at 16 years, something owner Vivek Ranadive desperately wants to break. How? They traded for Domantas Sabonis, who will provide needed inside scoring, but the Kings now need De’Aaron Fox to be the guy of a couple of years ago who disrupted defense with his speed and playmaking at full speed (Fox regressed this season, Sacramento needs him to play up to his contract). Will the Kings think long term with Davion Mitchell and the young core, or will it be more short-term “we have to make the playoffs now” thinking that short circuits things long term?

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25. Pistons (23-56, LW 25). Detroit found a franchise cornerstone in No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham, who led all rookies in scoring at 17.2 points per game, plus showed real playmaking skills. He led the Pistons to a 10-11 record after the All-Star break, a sign this team could be in the play-in/playoff mix next season. Detroit will add another lottery pick to the mix this season (top 8), but the biggest offseason question is will they trade Jerami Grant — there are interested teams, including one in Portland — or will they bring him back to make a postseason push.

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26. Thunder (24-55, LW 28). They entered the season with a franchise cornerstone at guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, now it looks like Josh Giddey can be one as well — in a league where you can’t have enough ball handlers and shot creators, this is a great foundation. Oklahoma City has three first-round draft picks in June (theirs, plus the Clippers’ and Suns’ picks), plus don’t be surprised if the Thunder are involved as a third team in any draft night trades (they have some cap space to take on contracts, but that goes away on July 1 when SGA’s contract extension kicks in).

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27. Pacers (25-55, LW 26). Indiana was the least lucky team in the NBA this season: They had the point differential of a 33-49 team, which still wouldn’t have gotten them in the playoffs, but things would look a little brighter. The trade for Tyrese Haliburton looks like a good one, although the big question is how he pairs with Myles Turner (who missed the second half of the season due to injury). The Pacers will have cap space and one (or maybe two, depending upon if the Cavaliers make the playoffs) first-round picks — this team will be better next season if it can stay healthy. Big offseason question: Do they re-sign T.J. Warren? If so, at what price? He’s an impressive talent but coming off a couple seasons of harsh injuries.

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28. Magic 21-59, LW 29). While everyone on draft night was fawning over the Jalen Suggs pick, it turns out Franz Wagner was the real steal. He has the size and shooting to be an impact wing player, and from Day 1 he played with a confidence rarely seen in a rookie. This is a very interesting team next season, with Wendell Carter Jr. back on a new contract, and hopefully a healthy Jonathan Isaac to help patrol the front line. Add in a likely top-5 pick and the Magic may be building the kind of core that could win a lot of games for years in Orlando.

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29. Rockets (20-60, LW 27). Jalen Green started a little slow adjusting to the speed of the NBA game, but his athleticism is unquestionable and the player at the end of the season was so much better than the one in November. That is a good sign for the future. The Rockets will continue their rebuild with two first-round picks (their own and the Nets) plus look for a trade of Eric Gordon this summer (it didn’t happen at the deadline, but he’s entering the last year of his deal). Maybe, just maybe, we also could see a John Wall trade. It’d be nice to see him get a chance somewhere.

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30. Trail Blazers (27-52, LW 30).Once they traded CJ McCollum and Norman Powell, no team drove the tank harder than Portland, which is 2-18 after the All-Star break. Damian Lillard, 31, seems to be down with rebuilding around him (what they had wasn’t working), but this has to be a fast rebuilding on the fly — and it’s not going to be easy. The Blazers plan to re-sign free agent Anfernee Simons, but he will have options if he wants to look around. Jusuf Nurkic also is a free agent. The Trail Blazers will have their own top-10 draft pick and cap space, but is that going to be enough to turn around a team on Lillard’s timeline?

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