We knew the Warriors would be good this season, we didn’t know they would be THIS good. We knew Gregg Popovich would figure out how to use LaMarcus Aldridge. We knew the Sixers would stink. But all those teams — and the ones in between in these final power rankings of the season — gave us surprises that made this an interesting season. Now the power rankings end and next week we move into the part of the season that makes these rankings moot.
1. Warriors (72-9, last week No. 1). With a likely win over Memphis Wednesday they will set the mark for most wins in an NBA season — it’s a major accomplishment. We should enjoy and savor records such as this. It will be part of this Warriors’ team’s legacy. But was the chase to 73 worth the mental fatigue and pressure, and will that haunt them in the playoffs? If they don’t win the title, the chase will be second guessed. A lot.
2. Spurs (65-15, LW 2). They will finish with the best record in Spurs history, and with that Gregg Popovich would get my vote for Coach of the Year — he re-invented the Spurs with new personnel for roughly the 487th time. I’m not sold any team can defeat Golden State in a seven game series right now, but this is the only team that stands a decent chance. Of course, they need to get past a tough matchup with the Thunder first (in the second round).
3. Cavaliers (56-24, LW 3). They are clearly the team to beat in the East with a lot of talent at the top — hopefully LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving can stay healthy through the playoffs. But with Iman Shumpert and Mo Williams battling knee issues, not to mention challenges along the front line, depth issues make this team vulnerable. Can any team in the East do anything about it is another question.
4. Thunder (54-26 LW 4). They should cruise through the first round and they present a matchup challenge for the Spurs in the second round. The biggest question in July will be heavily impacted by what happens in May — how far do the Thunder get in the playoffs and was that good enough to keep Kevin Durant.
5. Clippers (52-28, LW 7). The best part of the Clippers win on Sunday was the third quarter, when Blake Griffin clearly started to find his groove again in a way he hadn’t since his return from injury. The Clippers have the best net rating in the NBA over the last 10 games, they are playing good defense. But they get Golden State in the second round (barring a major upset) and all the improvements may not be enough. Which will lead to some big decisions this summer.
6. Raptors (54-26, LW 5). It has been the best season in Toronto Raptors history. Again. But since training camp opened everyone knew this Raptors campaign would not be judged on the regular season but how far they go in the playoffs. This team saw players grow and step up (DeMar DeRozan) and integrated new key pieces (DeMarre Carroll), plus their defense improved — if they carry that over to the playoffs they are the second best team in the East. But will they?
7. Hawks (48-32, LW 6). If you’re going to pick the team playing the best basketball in the East over the past month to challenge Cleveland, then you will pick Atlanta. This is a very good defensive team (second best in the East) with some offensive firepower built around Jeff Teague’s steady play. But they have not impressed against the top tier in the regular season.
8. Hornets (46-34, LW 8). One of the statistical criteria for a “contender” is to be in the top 10 in offensive and defensive rating — the Hornets qualify. Kemba Walker was amazing this season, but Nicolas Batum was an underrated key and it’s going to cost a lot to keep him this summer. Charlotte should pay up.
9. Celtics (47-33, LW 9). This team has just been fun to watch — they defend well, guys play hard for Brad Stevens and in return he puts them in great positions to play to their strengths, and they have Isaiah Thomas. That said, the playoffs are going to be a tough haul for this team, especially if they end up on the Cleveland side of the bracket.
10. Heat (47-33, LW 10). The way Miami adapted and responded to play their best basketball after losing Chris Bosh at the All-Star break was one of the best stories of the second half of the season. Matches will matter for this team in the playoffs, and while I know their fans want Cleveland and think they are in LeBron’s head, the longer they can avoid the Cavs the better.
11. Trail Blazers (43-38, LW 13). If you’re looking for the team pundits missed the biggest on — myself included, I thought they’d be near the Lakers record — it is Portland. Neil Olshey and Terry Stotts deserve credit and award votes, but the way C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard improved and led this team was the most amazing part to watch.
12. Mavericks (41-39, LW 15). Another team that before the season looked like they would be on the outside looking in at the playoffs, but with their recent six-game win streak they are likely in. Big showdown against Utah Monday, win that and they lock into the postseason. Dirk Nowitzki seemed rejuvenated this season, which was a joy to watch.
13. Pistons (43-37, LW 12). Stan Van Gundy has built a team that could be a force in the playoffs in a few years, and they fact they are going to get a taste of the playoffs this season will help that process along. The reason they are good is smart pickups and bets like Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris, to pair with Andre Drummond in the paint.
14. Pacers (43-37, LW 14). Small ball came to Indiana and, well, they made the playoff — thanks to a strong defense, just like old times. Seeing Paul George play this well was a highlight of the season, but they have a lot of work to put better talent around him.
15. Jazz (40-40, LW 11). The Jazz are just one game ahead of the Rockets for the final playoff spot. Utah controls its own destiny, but it won’t be easy: Huge showdown with the Mavericks Monday, all the ceremony around Kobe’s final game Wednesday (if you think playing in that hyped environment is easy, why don’t you ask OKC about playing the final game in Sacramento Saturday).
16. Wizards (39-41, LW 18). Why didn’t a turn toward small-ball work in Washington this season after some success in the playoffs last year? Because it’s not Randy Wittman’s style (he will be gone this summer)? Because the roster wasn’t built to play that way well? Because guys like Otto Porter didn’t step up while Bradley Beal again couldn’t stay healthy? Probably a little bit of everything.
17. Grizzlies (42-38, LW 20). Injuries — particularly to Marc Gasol and Mike Conley — have this team stumbling over the finish line, and with that they are the team everyone wants to play in the first round. That said, when they had to they beat the also-stumbling Bulls to secure a playoff spot last week, and they put a scare in the Warriors. This summer in Memphis is all about keeping Mike Conley.
18. Rockets (39-41, LW 16). Even at this late date the Rockets roller coaster does not stop — they beat Oklahoma City, followed by losses to Dallas and (worse yet) Phoenix. They need to beat an improved Timberwolves team and the Kings, then hope for some help (they have the tiebreakers over Utah and Dallas). Does this team deserve to make the playoffs? One of the most interesting questions of the summer: How much will Dwight Howard get paid?
19. Bulls (40-40, LW 17). It’s not one thing in Chicago. You can’t hang it all of Fred Holberg, or management for going with him, or on injuries, or on Pau Gasol’s defense, or on chemistry issues that led to a team that was flat too many nights. It was a little bit of everything, and it’s not simple to fix.
20. Magic (34-46, LW 19). The Scott Skiles bump wasn’t enough to get this team to the playoffs, but there were signs that going forward this could be a much better team. The development of Aaron Gordon is at the top of that list. There are questions to answer — is Elfrid Payton the point guard of the future in Orlando? — but with a lot of cap space in a city players like the Magic could be players with free agents this summer.
21. Kings (32-48, LW 22). To a man the Kings said after their win at home Saturday against Oklahoma City — the final game in the old Arco arena —that they are finally finding a groove as a team now that the season is almost over. Part of that is this team is just better with Darren Collison running the show not Rajon Rondo. Expect a new coach this summer, but not a DeMarcus Cousins trade.
22. Timberwolves (28-52,LW 25). That this team came from 17 down to beat the Warriors is just a flash of the potential this team, led by soon-to-be Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns. The big question is will Sam Mitchell be the one coaching this developing team next season. From what I’ve heard, I wouldn’t bet on it.
23. Nuggets (33-48, LW 24). Over the course of a long season coach Mike Malone built a culture that works, and we saw Nikola Jokic emerge and Emmanuel Mudiay grow. There is real potential there. Going to be interesting this summer to see how Denver tries to add young (or veteran?) talent.
24. Knicks (32-49, LW 26). Yes, they missed the playoffs and it wasn’t close, but this Knicks team was considerably better than the one the season before. Kristaps Porzingis gives them someone to build around for the future, but how much talent can they bring in this summer? Will Carmelo Anthony be among that talent or will he waive his no trade clause for the right deal? And who is coaching this team? So many questions for the summer.
25. Bucks (33-47, LW 21). They found an offensive strategy with Giannis Antetokounmpo playing point forward, and they should improve on that end of the ball next season. But the defense that propelled them to the playoffs last season was gone and that is what the Bucks need to get back.
26. Pelicans (30-50, LW 23). When looking at perimeter players this summer — and New Orleans needs to make changes there — the first question needs to be “can this guy defend?” Their perimeter defense was horrible. They still have Anthony Davis, but this team needs a roster that fits with what Alvin Gentry wants to do.
27. Suns (22-58, LW 28). One of the more disappointing teams this season. With the addition of Devin Booker to Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight the backcourt can be okay, but they can’t keep and play both Tyson Chandler and Alex Len (and you don’t trade the young guy). Don’t be shocked if, after a wide search, Earl Watson keeps the coaching job.
28. Nets (21-59, LW 27). I do not envy the job Sean Marks has in front of him, rebuilding a bad roster with few draft assets. This team may need to seriously consider Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young trades this summer to get the assets to build with, but that will mean more short term pain next season. There is no quick fix in Brooklyn.
29. Lakers (16-64, LW 29). The Lakers have some nice young players — D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance, etc. — and they have a 56% chance of keeping their first round draft pick (has to be top 3). Now they just need a coach who has shown he knows how to develop talent. Scott Brooks?
30. 76ers (10-70, LW 30). The Sam Hinkie era is over (it was over the day Jerry Colangelo was hired), but his “process” laid the foundation that Bryan and Jerry Colangelo are going to take advantage of. They have the assets, now lets see if the Sixers can draft well/make smart trades to build on those. Rumors are out there that Brett Brown’s job is in jeopardy — that would be a mistake.