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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.

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

Suns star Devin Booker vs. Heat
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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

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Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.