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NBA Power Rankings: Looking ahead to the stretch run of season

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Not much change in the rankings this week as teams only played a game, two max, due to the All-Star break. If the NBA season were a horse race, the horses would be entering the top of the stretch for the final run, so we’ll look ahead in these rankings to what the teams have for them going forward.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (44-13, Last Week No. 1). They have been on top of the standings and these power rankings for weeks, and they project to have 62-63 wins at the end of the season, neck-and-neck with the Warriors (GSW has the easier remaining schedule). The question is can Houston beat Golden State in a playoff series? Statistically maybe, fivethirtyeight.com gives the Rockets a higher chance of making the Finals than the Warriors, but I’m not sold. I love the Rockets’ team, but they have to prove they can defend, make plays in the cauldron of the playoffs with opponents drilling down on matchups.

 
Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (41-16, LW 3). Winners of seven in a row, they have been the hottest team in the East and project to win the conference with 60-62 wins. This may be the greatest Raptors regular season team ever. Much like Houston, the question is will the improved defense (4th in the NBA on the season) and more egalitarian offense carry over to the playoffs? I want to believe, but when games get tight their offense reverts more to isolations again, and that’s defendable and could be trouble vs. Boston and Cleveland. Still, this team is a legit playoff threat.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (44-14 LW 2). Is anyone really worried about the future prospects of the Warriors this postseason? Why? Sure, their defense has been pedestrian of late — 13th in the NBA over their past 15 games — but that is more about focus than anything. The Warriors needed a mental break. Steve Kerr goes to Hawaii, Stephen Curry hangs with his family, and Draymond Green does whatever Draymond Green does, then they come back focused and still the team to beat. If their defense struggles the final 24 games, then we’ll talk.

 
4. Timberwolves (36-25, LW 5). This is the highest-ranked team where people around the league seriously question if they can get out of the first round (especially if they matchup with Oklahoma City, which seems the most likely outcome). The Timberwolves’ offense has been elite of late, but the defense continues to struggle — 29th in there NBA over the past 15 games — and how the young players handle the intensity of the postseason — and how they handle Thibodeau in the playoffs — remains a question.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (40-19, LW 4). Boston should bounce back from the recent run losing 4-of-5, their elite defense is bottom 10 in the last five games and with some rest that will change. Boston is on pace for 51-52 wins on the season, and that likely is enough to hold off Cleveland for the two seed, but catching Toronto will be hard. That will set up a Cavs vs. Celtics second round playoff matchup, Kyrie Irving vs. LeBron James. Does Boston have enough offense to win that series without Gordon Hayward back?

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (35-24, LW 7). Playing basically all season without Kawhi Leonard (he has missed 50 of 59 games), the Spurs are still on pace for a 47-48 win season. Impressive, but also the first time the Spurs will not have won at least 50 games in a (non-lockout) season since 1996. The Spurs are tied with the Timberwolves for the 3/4 seed, but San Antonio has the toughest schedule in the West the rest of the way.

 
Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (33-24, LW 8). The Wizards have won 7-of-9 without John Wall (out another month after knee surgery) and are the four seed in the East, on their way to a projected 46-47 win season. However, they are just 3.5 games up on the eight seed Miami, and Washington has the toughest schedule in the East the rest of the way. They need to find some more wins without Wall or risk losing home court in the first round and having some much tougher road (this is why good teams need to take care of business all season vs. weaker opponents).

Bucks small icon 8. Bucks (32-25 LW 6). One of the hardest teams to evaluate going forward. In part because Jabari Parker is still playing his way back into shape and the rotation (but he is shooting very efficiently). In part because since Joe Prunty took over as coach they are 9-4 with the second-best defense in the NBA, but they did it against a very soft part of the schedule. Denver put up 134 on them in last game before the break. With 7-of-8 coming up against teams in the playoffs (and the one not being Detroit, on the bubble) we should get a better read.

 
Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (30-28, LW 9). Donovan Mitchell broke out as a star during the All-Star weekend, which is good for him. The Jazz have won 11 in a row, they have the easiest schedule of any of the teams in the West fighting for a playoff spot, and they are on pace for about 45-46 wins (which likely would have them as the six seed). Fivethirtyeight.com has them at an 87 percent chance to make the postseason, which is impressive for a team that lost its best player in free agency the summer before.

 
Cavaliers small icon 10. Cavaliers (34-22 LW 10). Just how good are the Cavaliers now? How real are the changes? We will find out, but one thing was clear All-Star weekend, LeBron James and the Cavs players are energized again. “Just clearing out… I shouldn’t say that, just getting new faces and getting new energy in the locker room has been big for us,” Love told NBC Sports (adding he is about a month away from returning. “Even in the last two games, you can just see the energy is different, you can see guys are really competing on both ends of the floor.”

 
Sixers small icon 11. 76ers (30-25, LW 13). Philly won five in a row in a homestand right before the break (moving them three games into the playoffs ahead of the 9 seed Pistons). Now the real test comes, 9-of-12 on the road, and while the Sixers have been solid away from the Wells Fargo Center (12-15 this season) their defense has not been quite as good. The good news is the Sixers have the easiest schedule the rest of the way in the East, even with the road games they should be able to hang onto a playoff slot, fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 97% chance of doing so.

 
Nuggets small icon 12. Nuggets (32-26, LW 12). Winners of 6-of-7 heading into the break (including beating the Thunder, Warriors, and Spurs), the Nuggets are on pace for 44-45 wins, which will land them in the playoffs at around the 6-7 seed. The concerning factor: They have won those games despite playing terrible defense in that stretch (third worst in the NBA in those last 7 games) and that could catch up with them.

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (33-26 LW 11).. The Thunder are a playoff team, but how much damage can they do once there remains a big question. The issue is their defense was one of the best in the league until Andre Roberson went down, and they are 19th in the NBA since then — the team needs to find a fifth player coaches can trust to start and close games. Their improved offensive efficiency — based on better shot quality — can cover the defense in the regular season, but the playoffs are a different animal.

 
Pacers small icon 14. Pacers (33-25, LW 14). Winners of three in a row and 9-of-12 heading into the All-Star break, they are on pace for around 45 wins and a playoff slot — an impressive season for a team most picked preseason to be jockeying for lottery position right now. The main reason is Victor Oladipo, the Pacers are +14.8 per 100 possessions when he is on the court. Soft schedule this week, but then things get tough for the Pacers much of the rest of the way.

 
Clippers small icon 15. Clippers (30-26 LW 15). Now we get to the interesting part of the West: If Denver and Utah finish with 45ish wins and are in the postseason, it leaves the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Pelicans all fighting for one playoff slot. All three are projected with almost the same wins (42-44), and it’s going to come down to the little things (and some luck). The bad news for the Clippers? They have one of the toughest schedules in the NBA the rest of the way, more difficult than any of the teams they are fighting for a playoff slot.

 
Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (32-26, LW 16). One of the three teams (with Clippers and Pelicans) really on the bubble for the playoffs in the West, but the good news for Portland is they have the easiest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams. Portland picked up a quality win against the Warriors right before the break because Damian Lillard went off, but the Trail Blazers need to find their defense again, they are bottom 10 in the NBA since Jan. 1.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (31-26, LW 17). Anthony Davis has been playing like an MVP candidate since DeMarcus Cousins went down (31.3 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.1 blocks per game, knocking down 42.4% from three), and more surprisingly Emeka Okafor has been solid for them getting rebounds and blocking shots inside. Still the Pelicans are just 4-5 without their center and have a challenging schedule the rest of the way out. If the Pelicans do not get in (even with the injury) don’t be shocked if Alvin Gentry is not back next season.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (28-29, LW 19). When they got Blake Griffin the idea was to make the playoffs this season, but the Pistons need to make up the 1.5 games on Miami to do that (Philly’s soft schedule will make them hard to catch). The challenge, they have 15-of-25 games on the road left this season and Detroit is 9-17 away from the “pizza! pizza!” arena this season. The problem is on the road their defense has been 4.2 points per 100 worse, if the Pistons don’t figure that out fast they can set tee times for mid-April because their season will be over.

 
Heat small icon 19. Heat (30-28, LW 18). Goran Dragic was finally an All-Star, so Miami has that. The Heat continue to play seemingly every game close (within 5 points in the final 5 minutes) and while they dominated those games earlier in the season the math has caught up to them of late having lost 7-of-8. Dwyane Wade provided a boost at first, but is shooting just 32.1% overall and 20% from three since coming back to Miami, the Heat are going to need more from him down the stretch.

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (24-33, LW 21). General manager Rich Cho is out as GM after building a roster that lacks a second playmaker, is not defending well, and is capped out going forward. Expect the Tar Heel Mafia to be in full force with Michael Jordan picking the new GM for a Carolina team — former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak is mentioned. He was a good company man for a long time in LA, but at the end was seen as behind the times, not sure I want him on the day-to-day side of this (maybe as a president overseeing a GM).

 
Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (23-34 LW 20). Lonzo Ball is expected to return to the Lakers’ lineup now and that gives Luke Walton and company to develop and play guys down the stretch. Los Angeles is going to finish with 34-35 wins (probably) and going into the season that was about the projection: Play the young guys, expect inconsistency, watch them grow and develop, don’t worry too much about wins, and clear out some cap space. The Lakers did all that. It’s just an impatient fan base that wants more from the team this summer.

 
Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (20-37 LW 22).. This is where the real race to the bottom of the standings — and the top of the lottery — starts. Just three games separate the Bulls (currently the No. 8 slot in the draft) from the Suns (the No. 1 slot). The Bulls are still trying to integrate Zach LaVine back into the rotation and he’s doing some good things (shooting 37.1% from three) but he is struggling to consistently find good shots. Still a lot of work to do with him and this roster.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (18-39, LW 23). A lot of questions as the Magic careen toward the lottery for the sixth straight season: Is Frank Vogel going to be back as coach? (A lot of buzz around the league his seat is very hot.) Are the Magic going to be willing to pay what it takes to keep Aaron Gordon? (He’s a restricted free agent and several teams are lining up to make a run at him, it could get pricy.) Expect a lot of changes this summer around Orlando.

 
Mavericks small icon 24. Mavericks (18-40 LW 24). Are we watching the final 24 games of Dirk Nowitzki’s Hall of Fame career? If so, we need to savor it. One other big to watch in Dallas: Nerlens Noel. He is expected to be back in the coming weeks, the Mavs need to take a look at him. The sexual harassment workplace scandal on the business side is a very dark cloud over this organization, and it’s going to have some serious repercussions around the league as the NBA has promoted itself as a progressive institution and this is a blow to that image.

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (18-41, LW 27). Atlanta has lost four-of-five and is tied for the worst record overall in the NBA — and they have a very tough remaining schedule. Meaning Atlanta is going to get the chance to draft high come June (depending on the lottery) and put someone good next to John Collins. Mike Budenholzer needs to give Collins a lot of run down the stretch, he has the highest PER of anyone in this rookie class but at this point he needs touches and the chance to learn some lessons (likely a few hard ones).

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (18-38, LW 25). They are on a seven-game losing streak, can Chandler Parsons break them out of it? The oft-injured forward is back in the rotation now and he and Marc Gasol could win this team some games down the stretch (which is not what they should want to do as a franchise, but here we are). It’s going to be an interesting offseason, starting with who is hired as the coach for a franchise that should start a rebuild but ownership (where in the world is Robert Pera?) apparently does not want to.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (23-36, LW 26). Losers of eight in a row, they have been outscored by 15.8 per 100 in that stretch, and with Kristaps Porzingis out for the season (and the first half of the next one) the only question is where they finish in the lottery. Well, that and if Jeff Hornacek is back next season? And if they can reach a buyout with Joakim Noah? The Knicks’ solid early play this season, back when New York had playoff dreams, is costing them lottery positioning now.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (18-39, LW 28). The Kings had three guys in the Rising Stars Challenge — including the MVP — but now the question is how much can any of them help an NBA team? De’Aarron Fox and Justin Jackson need to get a lot of time together on the court, and all these guys need to develop. The Kings are on the way to the lottery for the 10th straight season and they need to do better, more consistent job in that draft, and developing talent, to break out of this rut.

 
Nets small icon 29. Nets (19-40, LW 29). They have lost seven in a row, and it’s not because of injury or they stopped trying — this is by far the most fun “bad” team to watch in the league, if only every team played this hard — it’s just they are not talented. GM Sean Marks is making smart moves to rebuild Brooklyn, but it is going to be a long, long process.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (18-41, LW 30). Losers of seven in a row and 12-of-13, they are on pace for another high lottery pick to go with Devin Booker, Josh Jackson and the rest of the young core. The first question is who will be coaching them next season — Jay Triano has done a good job with this roster (despite the losses, this team is not well put together), but will he get a chance. They need a coach who can bring in a culture of player development if they go get anyone.

Spencer Dinwiddie wins All-Star Skills Contest

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LOS ANGELES — Anyone who knew the Spencer Dinwiddie story knew not to count him out when he looked down.

That was true when at Colorado he had played his way into the first round of the draft, maybe the 2014 lottery, until an ACL injury derailed him. He had to battle back from a devastating injury, push his way back through the then D-League to the NBA, and wait for his chance. When he got it this season in Brooklyn (after the Jeremy Lin injury) he grabbed it and has had a quality NBA season for the Nets.

So when Dinwiddie was behind the Kings’ Buddy Hield in the first round of the All-Star Saturday Night Skills Contest, he needed a little help. Dinwiddie got it when Hield missed his first three (you have to close out the race with a made three), Dinwiddie caught up and drained his on a pull-up jumper.

Forget the fact Dinwiddie is shooting 28.5 percent on pull-up threes this season, he did the same thing to Jamal Murray in the semi-finals.

Dinwiddie boat raced Bulls’ rookie Lauri Markkanen in the finals when the big man struggled with the passing skill and got so far behind it was over.

“It’s big for me to even be at All-Star Weekend considering the road that’s been in my career, very up and down, Dinwiddie said. “Obviously being in the G-League both on assignment and as a G-League player, thank you to the Brooklyn Nets for giving me this opportunity to play and be here.

Then it all really feels and seems full circle because I got to come home and do it in front of my family.”

Dinwiddie was born in Los Angeles and played his high school ball at Taft High School in Woodland Hills (in LA’s San Fernando Valley). He went against the likes of Jrue Holiday and DeMarre Carroll, and he learned some hard lessons there.

It’s all paying off now for Dinwiddie, who has proven he belongs in the NBA.

And that he’s got skills.

Bogdan Bogdanovic wins MVP in World Team’s Rising Stars rout (video)

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LOS ANGELES – A moderator opened the floor for questions at Bogdan Bogdanovic‘s press conference.

“Can I say the first question?” Bogdanovic said. “Is there anyone from Serbia here?”

Crickets.

None of the assembled shared Bogdanovic’s native country, but he had support from all around the globe on the court.

Bogdanovic won Rising Stars MVP, leading a balanced World Team to a 155-124 win over the U.S. Team on Friday. It was the second-most-lopsided score in the event’s history, topped only by the sophomores beating rookies by 41 in 2008.

Hot early from deep when the game was more competitive, Bogdanovic finished with 26 points and six assists. His Kings teammate, Buddy Hield, led the World Team with 29 points.

They topped another Sacramento teammate, De'Aaron Fox, on the U.S. Team.

“I told him I would score on him,” Bogdanovic said. “So, I should bet as well, but we didn’t bet. So, I didn’t get some extra money.”

Said Hield: “Bogi likes the big stage. We both embrace it.”

Celtics wing Jaylen Brown scored a game-high 35 points, and Kyle Kuzma added 20 for the U.S.

But Jamal Murray (21 points), Dario Saric (18 points), Lauri Markkanen (15 points), Domantas Sabonis (13 points), Ben Simmons (11 points) and Dillon Brooks (11 points) bolstered a too-deep World team.

Three reasons to be excited about NBA All-Star Weekend

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Usually, this spot is our three things to know from the night before in the NBA, but for one day we’re changing our focus onto something to look forward to — three things to be excited about for the All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles.

1. Dunks and threes — All-Star Saturday night is better than the big game itself. We all know this is true, can we just admit it. Sure, the actual All-Star Game on Sunday has all the biggest names (of non-injured players) in one place, but it’s not basketball. Not in any sense we recognize. It’s an exhibition played with less defensive effort than the average pickup game at the Y. We get to see dunks and slick passes, but it feels hollow.

All-Star Saturday, on the other hand, is genuinely competitive. Light-hearted, skills competitions only, but at least genuinely competitive. It’s way more entertaining.

This year’s three-point shooting competition is stacked: Eric Gordon, Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal, Paul George, Kyle Lowry, Devin Booker, Wayne Ellington, and Tobias Harris. Thompson is the obvious favorite, and I’d put my money on Beal, but the thing is any one of these guys could walk away with the big prize. They can all shoot the rock.

Then comes the skills competition, where bigs like Joel Embiid, Al Horford, and Andre Drummond go up against little guards such as Spencer Dinwiddie and Lou Williams — the evolution of the game is on full display.

Then there’s the highlight of the night, the dunk contest — every year I get my hopes up (and most years those hopes get dashed). This one has serious potential. Three guards with mad hops — Victor Oladipo, Dennis Smith Jr., and Donovan Mitchell — and then Larry Nance Jr., who has had a couple of the best in-game dunks of the past two seasons (plus his dad won the Dunk Contest). This should be high-flying and intense.

It will be the best show of the weekend… well, outside the Kendrick Lamar performance across the street. It’s all the stuff around the big game that makes the weekend work.

2. Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo — the NBA’s youth are taking over. The NBA’s old-guard — LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, etc. — will be in Los Angeles and will have the cameras of the world (and plenty of eyeballs focused on them).

But this All-Star Game is about the future — it’s already here and taking over the All-Star Game.

Sunday we will see All-Star first-timers Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns, Victor Oladipo, Bradley Beal and Goran Dragic. Then there are second-timers such Andre Drummond and Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s putting the best and brightest of the next generation out there on the big stage. Joel Embiid on this stage? He’s going to say/Tweet something that will have us talking all weekend. Even if the game and the Dunk Contest fall flat, Embiid alone will be worth the price of admission.

And that’s just the Sunday game — the Rising Stars game on Friday has Ben Simmons, Lauri Markkanen, Jamal Murray, Jayson Tatum, not to mention Smith Jr., Mitchell, and more. Sure, the Rising Stars game has less defense played than the All-Star Game — heck, the stationary defender cutouts used in Saturday’s Skills Competition may play better defense than we see in this game — but there is a raw energy in the USA vs. The World Rising Stars game that is just fun to watch.

3. The new All-Star Game format… it’s got to make the game better. Right? The last couple of years the All-Star Game has been such a dud in terms of effort, defense, and entertainment that the Chris Paul and the players’ union sat down with Adam Silver and the league office to figure out how to make it suck less. They decided to shake up the format.

No East vs. West. It’s Team LeBron versus Team Stephen Curry with teams those guys drafted (unfortunately behind closed doors, but the NBA will hopefully get that part right in the future). The draft already led to some drama — LeBron picking Kyrie Irving to be on his team, plus the reuniting of Durant and Westbrook on a team. James Harden throwing lobs to Joel Embiid. Antetokounmpo driving and dishing to Towns. There is so much potential with this format.

I doubt the addition of the increased payout to the winners ($100,000 per player) is going to motivate them much, and the winning team getting to donate more to charity is a nice touch but likely not doing too much. Rather, the hope is that pride — wanting to play for the guy that drafted you, against teammates and friends — will motivate the players. The dream is that will bring some level of effort and caring lacking in recent years.

We’ll see. I’m not sold. But it certainly can’t be worse.

Nikola Jokic records fastest triple-double in 20 seasons

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The Denver Nuggets have one of the most interesting young cores in the NBA, and Nikola Jokic is right at the heart of it. Along with Will Barton, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris, Jokic is expected to grow as Denver becomes a legitimate playoff threat in the Western Conference.

But even for the quick-passing Jokic, Thursday night was an anomaly.

Playing in Milwaukee, Jokic amazed Bucks fans (much to their lament) by becoming the quickest player to a triple-double in 20 seasons.

Jokic reached his tripled-double with 1:54 left in the second quarter. He finally finished with with 30 points, 17 assists, and 15 rebounds.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets beat the Bucks, 134-123.

Check out the full video of the historic night above.