The Toronto Raptors have been the clear best team in the East for a little while now, but the win over the Rockets last week bumps them up to the top of NBC’s NBA Power Rankings. And yes, the Raptors are legit and could win the East.
The Warriors couple of losses drop them to third, and the Portland Trail Blazers are up to fifth with their win streak. At the bottom, there is not a lot of movement because in the great tankapaloza everyone is losing (except the Bulls).
1. Raptors (50-17, Last Week No. 3). Winners of nine in a row including beating the Rockets (in a game that should have been televised nationally). The Raptors knocked off the Rockets with the things that make them a legitimate threat to come out of the East. They defended well, taking away shots inside and not fouling James Harden (much) on drives, and on offense they moved the ball and didn’t settle, getting good looks. The Raptors are for real and deserve to be the favorites in the East.
2. Rockets (53-14, LW 1). Winners of 19-of-20 (they didn’t take and make enough threes in Toronto (a healthy Ryan Anderson would have helped in that matchup), but this team is still on target to get the two things it wants: the No. 1 seed and James Harden the MVP. The question becomes at what point does Mike D’Antoni start thinking about rest for guys? James Harden likely needs to play in 70-72 games to secure the MVP, which means at least 11 more of the 15 remaining for Houston, but he has hit a playoff wall before D’Antoni should be thinking about getting him a night or three off.
3. Warriors (51-16 LW 2). They lost a couple in a row without Stephen Curry, a reminder that his play and gravity to draw defenders out of position is what the Warriors’ offense was built around. When Curry is on the court the Warriors offense is 14.1 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits (without him the GSW offense tends to be about league average, although there is a lot of noise in that stat). The Warriors are still in the hunt for the best record in the NBA not because they want it but because they have a much softer schedule the rest of the way than the Rockets.
4. Celtics (46-21, LW 4). Boston is pretty locked into the two seed in the East, which means Brad Stevens can focus on getting his very banged up team healthy: Kyrie Irving (knee, likely out a couple of games) and Jaylen Brown (concussion) will be back but need to get right; Marcus Smart is out with a right thumb injury (shooting hand) that may or may not require surgery and his status is up in the air. Daniel Theis (knee surgery) and Gordon Hayward are out for the season (no, he’s not coming back). Boston still has a shot to make the Finals (fivethirtyeightt.com gives them an 11% chance) but they need to be back to their “whole is more than the sum of their parts” ways and that means guys as close to 100% as possible.
5. Trail Blazers (41-26, LW 7). Winners of 10 in a row — which includes a couple wins over the Warriors — and there are a lot of reasons for the streak. Damian Lillard is clutch and on fire. Portland’s defense continues to be one of the top five in the league (best in the NBA over the last 10). But the team’s bench play is getting overlooked — Evan Turner is getting buckets, rookie Zach Collins has grown into a reliable scorer who can defend some in the paint, and Ed Davis is just rock solid. The Trail Blazers should be able to hold on to the three seed in the West.
6. Thunder (41-29 LW 12).. They have won four in a row and OKC is doing it the way they won early in the season — elite defense (top 10 since the All-Star break) and enough offense courtesy Russell Westbrook to make it work. The Thunder are currently the four seed in the West but have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA, they have a lot of work to do to hang on to a favorable first-round matchup (as much as that exists in the West).
7. Pacers (40-28, LW 6). Darren Collison is back, providing needed depth and stability at the point (with Cory Joseph, who has remained the starter).However, the biggest boost of late has been great play from Myles Turner, who has averaged 15.4 points per game and shot 44% from three in his last five games
(and 50% from three in his last 10). Turner is one of the league’s best pick-and-pop bigs. Indiana slid ahead of Cleveland for the No. 3 seed in the East, but the Pacers have the toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, holding on to home court will not be easy.
8. Timberwolves (40-29, LW 8). I’d tell you what I think of the Derrick Rose signing, but he doesn’t need my f****** validation. Minnesota has gone 4-3 since the Jimmy Butler injury — including a win over the shorthanded Warriors — and been pedestrian, middle-of-the-pack on both ends of the court in that stretch. This team needs to do a better job feeding Karl-Anthony Towns with Butler out, in his last five games Towns is getting about the same number of shot attempts as with Butler (although more of them are inside, close to the basket, and he’s drawing more fouls). Lean on KAT, he’s a bubble All-NBA player.
9. 76ers (36-30, LW 11). Currently the six seed in the East, the Sixers have the softest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way (by far) and should be able to climb up the standings, maybe even getting a round at home (they are currently 2.5 games out of the four seed). The question down the stretch for Brett Brown has to be about how much to rest Joel Embiid — the young big man has never played this many games (55 so far, on pace for 68), and for the team to have a shot in first round of the playoffs Embiid going to have to go 35+ minutes a night. Brown would be wise to get him a few nights off over the final few weeks of the season.
10. Jazz (38-30, LW 16). Rudy Gobert’s defense — and how he has lifted the Jazz since his return — has pushed him into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. The Jazz are 18-2 in their last 20, and in their last 15 have allowed just 95.5 points per 100 possessions. Utah is currently tied for the eight seed in the West but have the easiest schedule of any team fighting for a playoff slot in the conference, fivethirtyeight.com gives them a lofty 93% chance of making the postseason.
11. Pelicans (39-28, LW 5). Anthony Davis missed only one game with a sprained ankle, but the Pelicans have started out 1-2 in a stretch of 8-of-9 at home where they need to pad their record and rack up wins to ensure they make the postseason in a crowded West. It will not be easy to rack up wins this week with a key game against the Spurs on the road Thursday, then a home back-to-back against the Rockets and Celtics over the weekend.
12. Cavaliers (39-28 LW 10). Kevin Love has his cast off, is working out, and should return to the rotation next week, which leaves the Cavaliers with some interesting questions. Do they start Love with Larry Nance Jr.? That brings shooting and athleticism to the front line but doesn’t solve any of the defensive issues. The more likely outcome is Love starts and Nance moves to the bench again, bolstering a struggling unit (especially with Rodney Hood out). The bigger issue after watching this team twice in person this week: They have a long way to go to become anything near a cohesive defensive unit, and they don’t have a lot of time to figure it all out.
13. Clippers (37-29 LW 15). Lou Williams dropped 26 on the Bulls Tuesday, the 24th time this season he has topped 25 points in a game, by far a career high. If there is one postseason award that is locked up, it’s Williams as Sixth Man of the Year. Tuesday’s win over Chicago was the first of 9-of-11 on the road that will be key to the Clippers’ playoff chances. Their next four games are huge — Houston, Oklahoma City, Portland, and Minnesota.
14. Wizards (38-30, LW 13). The Wizards are dangerous in transition, but 30.8% of their shot attempts come out of the pick-and-roll, and they are just average on those scoring 0.95 points per possession (via Synergy Sports). That includes the time with Wall, who is working out but no return is imminent. A tough couple of losses (Miami and Minnesota) lead into big games for them in the East vs. Boston and Pacers (that Indiana game could have big tiebreaker implications).
15. Nuggets (37-31, LW 14).. If Denver misses the postseason, it will be because their defense isn’t good enough, which has led to some ugly losses (like Tuesday to the Lakers). Since the All-Star break, the Nuggets have the best offense in the NBA but the 29th ranked defense (and that is with Paul Millsap back and actually making things better on that end). The Nuggets need a few stops. Denver’s loss to the Lakers Tuesday started a run of 8-of-9 away from home that may well determine the franchise’s playoff fate.
16. Spurs (38-30, LW 9). The Spurs will have a losing record on the road and win less than 50 games in a season for the first time since Tim Duncan joined the team. It’s been a rough year in San Antonio, and it’s not getting easier. The Spurs had lost 9-of-11 before they beat up on the Magic on Tuesday night. The Spurs could use Kawhi Leonard, but it’s unknown when Leonard’s own medical team will clear him to play.
17. Lakers (31-36 LW 19). Technically the Lakers are a below .500 team, but they are the squad teams fighting for a playoff slot least want to see on the schedule — the Lakers have been 20-12 in 2018, and since the All-Star break they have beaten Miami, San Antonio, Cleveland, and Denver. Los Angeles plays at the fastest pace in the NBA, Lonzo Ball creates an energy when on the court, and that transition play throws other teams off and gets L.A. easy buckets.
18. Bucks (36-31 LW 18). Since the All-Star break the Bucks have been a pretty average team (-0.4 net rating), with a slightly worse defense than we saw in the Jason Kidd era and an offense that is just about the same level. The post-coach firing bounce was short lived, the Bucks are who they are. Milwaukee seems destined for the eight seed (and a rematch with Toronto) after going 4-7 during a stretch with 8-of-11 at home.
19. Heat (36-32, LW 17). Since the All-Star break the Heat have gone 6-4, but they have played better than that outscoring teams by 6.4 points per 100 possessions and with a top-10 offense and defense. Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow have formed an impressive wing tandem that defends well on one end and can get buckets on the other. It will be interesting to see if the Heat can reach an extension with Winslow this summer that both sides agree to (probably not, he’s more likely a restricted free agent in 2019).
20. Pistons (30-37, LW 21). Detroit is 7-12 since the Blake Griffin trade, and while Griffin has taken heat for the unimpressive record and the fact the Pistons will miss the postseason, the real problem is the roster construction and injuries. With Reggie Jackson out, the Pistons need Griffin to do all the shot creation as well as getting buckets, and while he can do some of that he has certainly been overtaxed.
21. Hornets (29-39, LW 20). Malik Monk may be the most disappointing rookie this season, but with the Hornets out of the playoffs and Michael Carter-Williams out injured, Monk is getting more run. In his last four games he’s shot 12-of-33 overall and 3-of-18 from three. On the flip side, Dwight Howard has had a run of strong games, and frankly a very solid season.
22. Bulls (23-44 LW 28).. The Bulls have gotten “hot” by their standards of late, having won 3-of-6 — which probably makes Adam Silver happy but frustrates the pro-tanking crowd in Chicago. The Bulls have complied with the NBA’s meddling into their rotations (something the league should not be involved with) by playing Robin Lopez the first quarter of games then sitting him the rest of the time. Because that looks sooooo much better than just having him sit out.
23. Mavericks (22-46 LW 22). The biggest question in every Mavericks’ road stop now — as it was in Madison Square Garden Tuesday — is “will this be Dirk Nowitzki’s last game in this building?” The future Hall of Fame player has made it clear that he wants to play one more season, but will make his decision this summer when he sees how his body feels and if he wants to put in the extra effort to get ready for one more run.
24. Kings (21-47, LW 25). Sacramento is outplaying the league’s other tanking teams — they have three wins in their last 10, beating the Nets, Knicks, and Magic — but struggle against the teams making any kind of playoff push. Bogdan Bogdanovic has set a Kings rookie record with 107 made threes this season, one thing the rebuilding team learned this season is he’s a keeper.
25. Nets (21-47, LW 27). Since the All-Star break D’Angelo Russell has averaged 17.4 points per game, taking about half his shot attempts from three and hitting 41.5 percent of them (including six in a row on Tuesday night). Russell is taking a fair amount of midrangers (19% of his shots on the season) but is knocking them down, however, he is just 9-of-21 at the rim this season. With Russell having more of the offense in his hands, Spencer Dinwiddie has struggled to find a comfort level playing off the ball next to him, he’s taking fewer shots overall and hitting a poor percentage.
26. Magic (20-48, LW 23). Evan Fournier is out with a sprained MCL, and while he is talking of getting back on the court this season I would be surprised if the Magic let him. While they were never going to be a very good team with this roster, injuries have hit them fairly hard this season and is one reason they are in the tanking race to the bottom right now.
27. Hawks (20-48, LW 24). The Hawks 10-season streak of making the playoffs — the longest such streak in the East — is now officially and mathematically dead (although we knew that was coming for a while). Losers of four in a row, they are without Kent Bazemore for the rest of the season, which has put the ball in the hands of Taurean Prince more and he responded with 38 points against the Bulls on Sunday.
28. Knicks (24-44, LW 26). Losers of eight in a row and 16-of-17, and since the All-Star break New York has the worst defense in the NBA — a ridiculous 118.7 points per 100 possessions allowed, 5 per 100 worse than any other team in the league. Since the All-Star break Emmanuel Mudiay is averaging 10.6 points per game on 37.1% shooting overall and 28% from three, and the Knicks are -12.1 per 48 minutes with him on the court. On the flip side, Trey Burke has looked like a guy who can be a backup point guard in this league (something I would not have said a year ago).
29. Suns (19-50, LW 29). The Elfrid Payton experiment continues to flounder — since the All-Star break he is averaging 12.6 points per game on 40.8% shooting, just 7.1% from three, and the Knicks are getting outscored by 13.5 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court. The Suns have lost 6 in a row, 16-of-17, and have a tough stretch of their schedule coming up including the Jazz and Warriors this week.
30. Grizzlies (18-49, LW 30). Memphis’ 18-game losing streak could come to an end this week with games against other tanking teams, Chicago (Thursday) and Brooklyn (Monday). You have to look hard for a silver lining with the Grizzlies, but Dillon Brooks dropped 29 on the Bulls a week ago, which is a good sign for the developing rookie.