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NBA Power Rankings Week 15: The Wizards are climbing fast, and they are legit


The very top of the rankings remains stable, but the Wizards are climbing fast — and this isn’t a hot streak, they are healthy and legit. Also rising fast is Miami, where Eric Spoelstra could put himself in the mix for magician, er, coach of the second half of the season.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (41-7, Last Week No. 1). They are 14-2 in the last 16 games and still have the No. 1 ranked offense and defense in the NBA. Stephen Curry has stepped back onto center stage, averaging 28.6 points, 6.6 assists per game in the last five. The next big question for Steve Kerr? If he deploys his four All-Stars in one lineup as promised — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green — then who is the fifth player? And will Green try to recruit him?

Spurs small icon 2. Spurs (36-11, LW 2). San Antonio when focused is very good, see the win over Toronto this week (and Cleveland last week) as examples, but then they drop two in a row to the Pelicans and Mavericks (the Spurs have lost two in a row just four times in the past two seasons). The losses are not going to drop them in these rankings (in part because the best teams behind them have stumbled as well), but they are 4.5 games back of the Warriors now and will not catch them.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (35-16, LW 3). James Harden is just ridiculous, scoring 51 points against the Sixers Friday to notch his second 50-point triple double of the season, the first player ever to that. They have gone 4-5 in their last nine, but now have 8 of 10 at home and seven of those games are against teams below .500, look for them to get right.

Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (32-14, LW 4). I feel like I should hashtag every story lately about Cleveland with #eliteteamproblems. Could they use another playmaker/backup point guard to match up with the Warriors? Sure. It also will help when J.R. Smith returns. Did they have a mid-season swoon? Yes, but so what? This team is still the clear class of the East and is on a path to return to the Finals. However, in the short term five of their next six are on the road.

Wizards small icon 5. Wizards (27-20, LW 10). This team is for real. They are 8-2 with the second-best net rating in the NBA over their last 10 games (Golden State) — and that includes knocking off Boston last week. More than that they are doing it over time, the Wizards are 21-9 since Dec. 1. They maybe the five seed, but they are just two games back of the two-seed Celtics and in that mix. Expect the wins to keep coming with the Knicks, Lakers, and Pelicans at home this week.

Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (29-18, LW 8). While Celtics fans — and Danny Ainge — are on the hunt for the next big trade, this team has slid into second place in the Eastern Conference. They can cement that standing by beating the Raptors Wednesday night at the Garden in an interesting showdown — lose that game and the Raptors have the tiebreaker between the teams. Boston has four at home this week before spending most of the rest of the month on the road.

Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (30-19, LW 8). They faced three West playoff teams last week (as of today) — Thunder, Grizzlies, Nuggets — and lost all of them. Utah has dropped five in a row against West playoff teams. That said, as the Clippers stumble without Chris Paul the Jazz are primed to grab the four seed and hold it (Utah is just half a game back), giving them home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Hawks small icon 8. Hawks (28-20 LW 6). The Hawks don’t win the easy way, they had the dramatic comeback win against the Bulls and the 4OT game against the Knicks last week. However, they also had ugly losses to the Clippers (without CP3 or Griffin) and falling by 26 to the Wizards. Atlanta has the net rating of a .500 team and to me it feels like the Hawks are performing over their heads, meaning the likely regress to the mean at some point.

Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (28-20, LW 11). We will see if they can sustain this ranking without Enes Kanter, he was playing well for them off the bench before taking his frustrations out on a chair and fracturing his arm. Look for more run for Joffrey Lauvergne. OKC has gone 7-7 through a rough January schedule (with one game left in the month, vs. San Antonio) and then the schedule eases a little. Westbrook has 24 triple-doubles this season but his efficiency has slipped — he’s shooting 38.7 percent overall and 29.2 percent in his last 10 games.

Raptors small icon 10. Raptors (29-19, LW 7). Finally snapped their five-game losing streak by beating the Bucks, then turned around and lost to Magic on Sunday. If your a Raptors fan looking for bright spots at least DeMar DeRozan seemed to snap out of his slump on Sunday. Key game against Boston this week, win and they secure the tiebreaker with that team. Also, Kyle Lowry on the jumbotron was one of the best moments of the last week.

Grizzlies small icon 11. Grizzlies (28-21, LW 12). This team continues to just kind of float along down the river, going 5-5 in their last 10 with two wins over the Jazz and one against the Raptors, but falling to the Trail Blazers and Bulls in there. This team can beat anybody or lose to anybody on any given night. The Grizzlies are two games into a six-game road trip but the good news is that as that ends the schedule softens up for them for a while.

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (25-22, LW 14).. C.J. Miles has been put in the starting lineup and the Pacers have rattled off three wins in a row (including over Houston), making them look mildly more secure in the playoff chase (four games up on the nine-seed Pistons). The other reason for the hot streak? All-Star Paul George has played phenomenally, he carries this team.

Clippers small icon 13. Clippers (30-18, LW 9). As noted by’s John Schuhmann on twitter, the surprising thing is that with Chris Paul out the Clippers get dramatically worse on defense — in the dozen games he missed this season they have allowed 115.2 points per 100 possessions. It’s a bigger issue than the offense. Oh, and trading for Carmelo Anthony is not going to help their defense. The Clippers have six of their next seven on the road, and the one home game is Golden State on Thursday night.

Nuggets small icon 14. Nuggets (21-25, LW 17). They have the best offense in the NBA over their last 10 games, scoring 116.9 points per 100 possessions. That has propelled them to a 7-3 record in that stretch and has them holding on to the eight seed (by 1.5 games over Portland so far). That offense gets tested this week by the Spurs and Grizzlies. Nikola Jokic wasn’t going to make the cut as an All-Star this season, but next year could be a different story — other teams are starting to have to game plan for him.

Bulls small icon 15. Bulls (24-25, LW 15). Did Sunday’s win over Philadelphia mean Chicago has put all the ugliness of internal squabbling — Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler calling out their younger teammates’ effort, Rajon Rondo calling out Wade and Butler’s leadership, and a team meeting — behind them? We will find out as the Bulls head out on a tough six-game road trip that this week has them in Houston and Oklahoma City.

Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (21-28, LW 20).. Evan Turner is in the starting lineup and Portland has played well with him paired alongside Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Not that it was enough to beat a shorthanded Warriors team on Sunday. Portland needs wins, three games back of the eight seed Nuggets in the loss column. Also, Lillard reached and impressive milestone last week.

Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (23-21, LW 13). They are 4-10 in January and have lost four in a row. Worse yet, they have lost seven in a row on the road and now head out on a tough three-game road trip (Blazers, Warriors, Jazz). Kemba Walker is a deserving All-Star, but the man needs some help if this team is to hold on to (or improve on) the eighth seed, and he’s not getting it.

Sixers small icon 18. 76ers (17-29, LW 18). Joel Embiid, we miss you, get back on the court quickly please (I think he’ll be the first replacement in the East if injury forced someone to drop out of the All-Star game). Sixers fans see the recent run of success, their team only five games out of the playoffs, and have started to dream… sorry, but I think that dream is dead. Although not to the point of it being impossible, which alone is a credit to how far this team has come.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (21-26, LW 16). This team has come apart on the defensive end of the floor, which is why they are on the outside looking in at the playoffs. That starts with Andre Drummond, who should be a better rim protector than he has been this season. We know Reggie Jackson is not being traded for Ricky Rubio, the question is will he be traded for anyone else (probably not at the deadline, but you never know).

Heat small icon 20. Heat (18-30, LW 27). Winners of seven in a row, and that includes knocking off the Warriors and Rockets. Eric Spoelstra is doing it with smoke and mirrors, starting with getting this team to play great defense. Plus the coach is getting some strong backcourt play from Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters.

Knicks small icon 21. Knicks (21-28 LW 21). The Knicks have had more drama the past week than a Real Housewives episode, all of it starting because Phil Jackson has come to the realization most Knicks fans did last summer that Kristaps Porzingis is the future, and they should try to move Carmelo Anthony. That said, Anthony has played well of late and doesn’t deserve to be booed (save that for the rest of the roster around him). My guess is that Anthony is not moved at the deadline, unless Jackson is willing to take back a ridiculously poor deal. This summer might be a different story.

Pelicans small icon 22. Pelicans (19-29, LW 22). They beat the Cavaliers and Spurs last week, which helps keep their playoff dreams afloat somewhat (they are 3.5 games back of the eight seed). It helps that nobody in the West seems to want the eight seed, but the Pelicans need to start racking up wins. Which will be difficult heading out on road to Toronto, Detroit, and Washington this week.

Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (17-30, LW 24). Dallas needed shooting in the lineup, they started Seth Curry and have gone 6-3 since then — Curry has averaged 15.1 points per game and is shooting 50 percent from three in his recent starts. With a good draft pick this year, Wesley Matthews staying healthy (he’s played well of late) and Harrison Barnes continuing to grow in his new role, you can see a path back to the playoffs for this team next year. Especially if they can land a couple quality free agents this summer.

Kings small icon 24. Kings (19-28, LW 25). They picked up three road wins last week, but with this streaky team it’s difficult to read much into that. The guy to start watching in Sacramento is Malachi Richardson, the rookie out of Syracuse, who has started to look like a solid NBA wing — the guy the kings hoped Ben McLemore would be. Richardson has bumped McLemore from the rotation.

Bucks small icon 25. Bucks (21-26, LW 19). They have lost eight of nine. A large part of that is Giannis Antetokounmpo — a deserving All-Star starter — but it’s also that this team’s defense isn’t great, particularly out at the arc, and so they never pull away and games tend to be close and dramatic. They sit 1.5 games out of the playoffs but strike me as the team most likely to climb back into the mix once they get Kris Middleton back in February.

timberwolves small icon 26. Timberwolves (18-29, LW 23). They have won eight of their last 10, and with seven of their next nine games at home you can’t count them out of the playoff chase quite yet (they are 3.5 games back of eight seed Denver). Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns have played well, but it is an improved and now solid defense that has them at least still in the playoffs conversation.

Magic small icon 27. Magic (19-30 LW 28). This team’s odd-fitting roster looks even worse with shooters like Evan Fournier and Jodie Meeks out injured. Also, Bismack Biyombo got a homecoming win in Toronto last week. The most interesting news around the team is all the trade interest in Nikola Vucevic, who seems destined to be out the door before the Feb. 23 trade deadline, although don’t we think that every year? Maybe this year it happens, it would help unclog the front court in Orlando.

Suns small icon 28. Suns (15-32, LW 26). The backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Devin Harris is really clicking for the Suns, and Bledsoe was a legitimate candidate to be an All-Star reserve (he was done in by how bad the team has been). Of course, all the nice offensive play is moot when you can’t get a stop, and the Suns are 27th in the NBA in January (and 25th for the season) on the defensive end of the court.

Lakers small icon 29. Lakers (16-34, LW 29). Intending to or not, the Lakers are making a push to keep their pick this season (it is top three protected, otherwise it goes to the Sixers). Thanks to recent runs by Dallas and Philly, the Lakers have the third-worst record in the NBA. The progress seen from the team’s young stars earlier in the season has faded over the team’s recent stretch, for example Brandon Ingram is shooting 8.7 percent over the team’s last three games. The real offseason question in Los Angeles: Does Jim Buss keep his job?

Nets small icon 30. Nets (9-38, LW 30). Teams have scored at least 100 points against them in 23 straight games. Granted, they play at the fastest pace in the league (104 possessions per game) so that has a lot to do with it, but still 23 straight. You want something positive? Um… Caris LeVert might develop into a rotation player. That’s all I got.

Report: Becky Hammon staying with Spurs, not coaching Colorado State men’s team

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Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon was a candidate to coach the men’s team at Colorado State, her alma mater. That would have made her the first woman to coach a Division I men’s team.

Alas, it won’t happen.

Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports:

It’s unclear whether Hammon was ever actually offered the job.

She’s still on the right track for a head-coaching job somewhere. Most importantly, by all accounts, she’s doing good work in San Antonio. There’s also more attention on her career because of her pioneering status, and that will appeal to some teams.

This dalliance with Colorado State raises her profile even further and shows just how close she is.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: James Harden ‘best offensive player I’ve ever seen’

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James Harden torched a solid Trail Blazers defense for 42 points on 13-of-25 shooting, including 5-of-7 on 3-pointers, and seven assists.

That prompted his coach to heap praise on the runaway MVP.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Harden. “They’re running guys to him and he just steps a little further back and makes a 3. The way he can pass and see the floor, get layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner — he has so many weapons, and now he’s shooting those step-back 3s.

“It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”

At first, that sounds like hyperbole from a biased source. But Harden might actually the best offensive player ever. (D’Antoni has been around for all the major contenders.)

Michael Jordan gets overlooked because he was also excellent defensively. Ditto LeBron James to a lesser extent. Another contender: Stephen Curry, whose Warriors might file away D’Antoni’s assessment for if they meet Houston in the playoffs. (The Rockets provide plenty of motivational fodder.)

The list of contenders definitely skews toward the present. Players have gotten progressively more skilled, especially the generation that grew up with the 3-point arc and didn’t suddenly have to adjust to it.

And Harden might be the cream of the crop. He’s an incredible shooter with very deep range off the dribble or spotting up, and he can drive with the best of them. Yes, foul-drawing is a skill. Harden’s combination of scoring volume and efficiency is unprecedented. He’s also an impressive passer, a skill fully unleashed by D’Antoni making Harden a point guard.

I think I’d lean toward Curry, who’s an even better shooter and screener. But it’s very close, and Harden keeps raising his level. Curry probably peaked two years ago (though he obviously remains elite). I definitely wouldn’t dismiss anyone who picks Harden as biased or misguided.

Cavaliers star LeBron James: Raptors ‘in a better place than we are right now’

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It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.

The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.

The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.

They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.

LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of

“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.

Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas were injured for long stretches, and Thomas and several others were traded. Coach Tyronn Lue is on a leave of absence.

But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.

LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.

Tonight likely won’t be a referendum, though. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. are out for the Cavaliers. That roster instability still exists.

If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.

Report: Optimism remains for Kawhi Leonard returning this season

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly planned to return for last Thursday’s Spurs-Pelicans game – but didn’t.

A couple games later, and Leonard remains out. Will he actually play again this season?

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Leonard resumed working out in San Antonio on Feb. 27 and is feeling “much better,” according to the source. Eleven games remain in the regular season, but there remains optimism he will return this season, the source said.

Sources told ESPN that Leonard’s target date to return from the quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him out for all but nine games this season has always been “mid-March.”

It’s March 21. We’re nearing the end of what anyone would consider mid-March.

A month ago, Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich said time was running out for Leonard to return and acclimate to the lineup. But Popovich has sounded more open lately to Leonard – whose own doctors must still clear him – returning whenever the forward is ready.

San Antonio (41-31, tied for fifth in the West) has probably done enough without Leonard to make the playoffs. The Spurs have a 3.0-game buffer over the Nuggets and 3.5-game buffer over the Clippers for playoff position.

But San Antonio would become far more dangerous in the playoffs – a threat to any team, including the Rockets and Warriors – if Leonard returns to full strength.

First, he must just get back on the court at all, and maybe that’ll happen sooner than later. The way this injury has gone, though, it’s hard to believe anything until we see it.