The top two teams in the NBA are clear and aren’t really going to change through the end of the season barring some unforeseen disaster. But who is the third best team? I thought it was Cleveland, but they have dropped four of five. The Thunder have dropped three of four. Toronto, a team that starts Luis Scola? I have the Clippers there this week, but I’m not a big believer in them either. At the bottom of the rankings the Sixers are in a familiar spot.
1. Warriors (53-5, last week No. 1). They have already clinched a playoff spot and now need to go 20-4 the rest of the way to beat the Bulls’ 72 win record (and they have 17 games at home, where they are undefeated this season). Sorry Chicago, but the Warriors are going to break the record. Stephen Curry could miss a game or more after his ankle got rolled against the Thunder.
2. Spurs (50-9, LW 2). Kawhi Leoard is back, and with him in the starting lineup the Spurs’ defense is back as well. Which should scare teams. I thought Ray McCallum was going to work out in San Antonio (they picked him up this summer), but he was cut loose over the weekend to make way for veteran Andre Miller.
3. Clippers (38-20, LW 5). They are playing .500 ball over their last six games, but that’s better than the couple teams just below them in these rankings. The Clipper defense continues to impress. Jeff Green has been exactly what was expected: inconsistent, but still an upgrade over Lance Stephenson. Tough showdown against OKC on Wednesday at Staples.
4. Cavaliers (41-17, LW 3). They have dropped three of four, and look like a team still searching for answers. Particularly on defense, where they have struggled since Tyronn Lue took over. They are just two games up on Toronto for the top seed in the East (after a loss to Toronto this week) but them finding their defense will matter a lot more than home court.
5. Thunder (41-18 LW 4). They have lost four of five, but the punch in the gut by Stephen Curry and Golden State Saturday night was the most painful of those. The Thunder don’t want to hear it, but they earned a moral victory in that game — do they stand a better chance to beat the Warriors than the Spurs? Brutal back-to-back Wednesday at Clippers then Thursday at Warriors.
6. Raptors (39-19, LW 6). They picked up a huge win over Cleveland on Friday behind Kyle Lowry and they are now within two games of Cleveland for the top seed (and the Raptors have the tiebreaker). But with Lowry resting Sunday the rest of the Raptors took a mental vacation in Detroit, a win they could have used. They remain the biggest threat to the Cavaliers in the East.
7. Celtics (35-25, LW 7). They have won 10 in a row at home, which when you consider it looks more and more likely they will have a first-round playoff series starting at the Garden means the Celtics in the second round seems more and more likely. Heavy home schedule coming up (except a tough showdown with the Cavs this week on the road).
8. Hawks (33-27, LW 12). Big wins over the weekend, knocking off the Bulls and Hornets at home, and they are doing it thanks to a lock-down defense that is the best in the NBA over the last 10 games (three points per 100 possessions better than the second-place Clippers).
9. Trail Blazers (32-28, LW 10). They finished 9-2 in February. With good reason we’ve talked a lot about Damian Lillard’s strong play since not making the All-Star team, but the Blazers have had a Top 10 defense in their last 10 games as well.
10. Heat (33-26, LW 8). Joe Johnson jumped right into the starting lineup for the Heat on Sunday, and he should give them improved three-point shooting that they need. Miami may go on a little run, they are entering a soft part of the schedule (including a home-and-home against the Sixers this week).
11. Grizzlies (34-24, LW 9). They are 10-games above .500 and have a six-game cushion from falling out of the playoffs, that should be enough to keep them in the postseason without Marc Gasol. Should. But their schedule starts to really get difficult the last month of the season.
12. Hornets (30-28, LW 13). They are in a virtual tie with Chicago and Detroit for the final two playoff slots in the East (charging Washington is just two games back). Which is why the 10-of-12 at home stretch starting this week for Charlotte is key — this is when they need separation from that pack. Keep playing defense like they have and they will get it.
13. Mavericks (32-28, LW 15). . They are entertaining to watch because this team puts up a lot of points and gives up a lot of points — Mavs games are old-fashioned shootouts. David Lee is getting what he wanted, he’s part of the rotation and playing minutes, and he fits with the rest of the Dallas team — he’s shown he can still score but not defend.
14. Pacers (31-28, LW 11). They have lost three out of four, are just half a game ahead of the nine seed (and falling out of the playoffs), and they have a tough four-game road trip this week that includes Cleveland, Charlotte, and Washington. The Pacers need to find some consistent offense, Rodney Stuckey return should provide some of that (but hasn’t).
15. Pistons (31-29, LW 18). They have won four in a row and remain right in the middle of the mix for one of the last playoff spots in the East. Tobias Harris in the starting lineup with Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, and Andre Drummond has been a strong lineup, but the Pistons need more out of the bench.
16. Rockets (29-30, LW 17). They remain the eight seed in the East as we enter the week, thanks in large part to a come-from-behind win against a hot Portland team over the weekend. James Harden is carrying this team on offense, and that’s the way it will have to be the rest of the season if they are going to hold on to that playoff slot.
17. Wizards (28-30, LW 19). They are a couple games out of the playoffs and can’t string together many wins, but if you want a ray of hope for their playoff chances here you go: The Wizards have the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way. This week they have the Cavaliers (likely with LeBron this time) and Indiana, and they need to win at least one of those.
18. Jazz (28-30, LW 14). The loss to the Nets this week makes you wonder if this team can climb back into the eight seed and hold it. Heavy road schedule the next three weeks will determine their fate, and this week is tough at Boston, Toronto, Memphis, and New Orleans.
19. Bulls (30-28, LW 16).No Derrick Rose, no Jimmy Butler, no consistent offense. But that’s not the real problem — 13 straight opponents have scored more than 100 points against Chicago. Even if they make that playoffs that defense gets them swept aside quickly.
20. Magic (26-32, LW 23). It’s hard to imagine them making up he four games needed to get back into the playoffs in the East, particularly when the Magic can’t get consistent stops. Which you know eats at Scott Skiles.
21. Bucks (24-35, LW 22). Unlike a lot of teams at the bottom of these rankings, there is a good reason to watch the Bucks right now — Giannis Antetokounmpo playing point guard. It’s working. He is good playmaker setting up teammates, and their offense is more than three points per 100 possessions better when he is the playmaker.
22. Pelicans (23-35, LW 21). Anthony Davis showed what he can do in a win over the Thunder, and Eric Gordon returned scoring 31 in his first game back after five weeks. But that is all moot because this team cannot get consistent stops, the defense just undercuts them every time you think they can make a run up the standings.
23. Kings (24-33, LW 24). Watch for more frustrated DeMarcus Cousins as the Kings water a tough stretch of the schedule (Thunder, Grizzlies, Mavericks, and Spurs this week) and likely will struggle. It feels like this team is just treading water until the summer, when coaching and roster changes will shake things up. Again.
24. Timberwolves (19-41,LW 26). As they should, the Timberwolves are upping the minutes for their young core down the stretch. They bought out Andre Miller (now with the Spurs) and Kevin Martin may join him. Their offense is clicking with all that youth, it’s the other end of the court where they struggle.
25. Nuggets (23-36, LW 20). They are the team that fans of playoff teams see on the schedule and think “easy win” but will learn the hard way have been playing much better lately. However, no Danilo Gallinari for some time with an ankle injury is a setback.
26. Knicks (25-36, LW 25). Kurt Rambis is coaching to win — more specifically, to save his job – and that has meant heavy minutes for Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks are 6.5 games out of the playoffs, that’s not happening, no reason to run Carmelo into the ground now.
27. Nets (17-42, LW 27). Break up the Nets, they have won two games in a row. Bojan Bodganovic is starting in place of Joe Johnson and is trying to show other teams he can knock down threes (which has been a good thing for the lowly Nets offense).
28. Suns (15-44, LW 30). Earl Watson got his first coaching victory thanks to the Suns beating the stumbling Grizzlies last week. That could be it for a while, the schedule isn’t kind, including four on the road this week with stops in Miami and Charlotte.
29. Lakers (11-49, LW 29). They have lost eight in a row, and the team with the worst defense in the NBA is playing its worst defense of the season during this stretch. But the Kobe Bryant show rolls on, and that’s what Laker management prioritized.
30. 76ers (8-51, LW 28). Losers of eight in a row and it’s not pretty. Brett Brown is in experimentation mode and Jerry Colangelo is spinning that it’s “inappropriate” to draw conclusions about the Sixers right now. Time for Sixers fans to start planning their lottery parties.