It seems appropriate to head into the All-Star break with the Warriors on top of the Power Rankings, but it feels like slots 2-7 could be shuffled in any order any week and it wouldn’t be wrong, those teams are all essentially even. Programming note: Since the league is off for a week around the All-Star break and there are just a handful of games between now and next Wednesday, the NBC NBA Power Rankings will take a week off, then return in two weeks.
1. Warriors (41-15, last week No. 2). Any discussion about Golden State understandably focuses on their stars — this Sunday will be the fourth straight year Golden State has three or more All-Stars, the last team to do that was the Celtics way back when JFK was president in 1960-63. However, the addition of DeMarcus Cousins to the starting lineup has meant a boost for the second unit with the play of Kevon Looney, who brings some athleticism around the rim to the team. Everything is clicking for the Warriors, who have won five in a row and 16-of-17.
2. Bucks (42-14, LW 1). Teams that suffer their worst loss of the season — as Milwaukee did against Saturday against Orlando — don’t hang on to the top spot in the power rankings, but don’t read too much into that one game. The loss was because Giannis Antetokounmpo was off for the night, and the rest of the team took it off, too. The pickup of Nikola Mirotic fits in perfectly with Mike Budenholzers’ system in Milwaukee — the Bucks shoot more threes than any team in the East but are middle of the pack in accuracy, they need what Mirotic brings to the table. They will get that once he gets healthy and gets in the lineup. Which could be Wednesday night against Indiana (he’s close), if not certainly after the All-Star break.
3. Raptors (42-16, LW 5). Nick Nurse and the Raptors are still figuring it all out, but Marc Gasol with the second unit in Toronto shows a lot of promise. Kawhi Leonard’s game-winner against Brooklyn dominated the highlights (with good reason, check it out below) but the Raptors starting five with Serge Ibaka in the paint was -4 in that game. However, some of the lineups with Marc Gasol at the elbow/midpost as the offensive fulcrum surrounded by athletes and shooters — Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby — had strong runs that helped get the Raptors the win and showed real promise. The kind of promise that will be hard to match up with in the postseason. The Jeremy Lin pickup should help mitigate the loss of Fred VanVleet for a few weeks (thumb injury).
4. Thunder (37-19, LW 6). Paul George is putting together a season that is going to get him MVP votes — Damian Lillard said he deserved the award after the Thunder beat the Blazers Monday night — but what also has fueled OKC’s 11-of-12 win streak is three-point shooting. The Thunder are hitting 44.1% of their 31.3 attempts a night from beyond the arc in the last dozen games, the best percentage in the NBA during that stretch. For comparison, the Thunder are a 35% team from three on the season (on basically the same number of attempts). Jerami Grant is knocking down everything and is a big part of that.
5. Celtics (35-21, LW 3). Gordon Hayward is getting his legs back, he is attacking the rim and closing out shots there much more often, and his legs are under his jumper. In his last 10 games he has taken 46.5 percent of his shots in the paint, and overall he’s averaging 11.8 points per game on 50% shooting overall and 42.3% from three. That includes 26 points against the Sixers in a statement win Tuesday night. The Celtics needed that win to shake off the two ugly losses against the Los Angeles teams, but against an Eastern foe (and without Kyrie Irving) the Celtics looked like the team we expected to lead the East this season.
6. 76ers (36-20, LW 7). The addition of Tobias Harris to the starting lineup in Philadelphia with Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, and Joel Embiid has worked very well so far. Through three games, that fivesome is +21 in 53 minutes, and that includes a 14-7 run against Denver late in that game that helped Philadelphia seal a win. However, as the loss to the Celtics Tuesday showed, the question will be the bench behind those five can bring (even with Brett Brown staggering his stars some). In the last three games, the Sixers are +6 total with lineups that are not the starters (and the bench units were -7 against Boston).
7. Nuggets (38-18, LW 4). Denver dropped three in a row on the road, not coincidentally the three games that Paul Millsap was out. Their defense falls apart without him to do the dirty work and little things. He returned against Miami at home, Denver wins. The Nuggets may be the one team most settled into a playoff slot in the otherwise crowded West. It’s hard to imagine they will make up 2.5 games on Golden State for the top seed, but they have a five-game cushion over the five seed (Rockets). Denver is going to have home court in the first round, the team just wants to stay in the 2/3 seed slots (and avoid the other side of the bracket where they would meet Golden State in the second round).
8. Pacers (38-19, LW 12). This team is not giving up its plans for having home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs without a fight as the Pacers have rattled off six straight wins (against some soft competition, but still). Give coach Nate McMillan a lot of credit. The buyout market pickup of Wesley Matthews is a good one, he is kind of a Victor Oladipo-lite who can fill some of those same roles and fits with the balanced attack that has made the Pacers such a tough team to beat this season (and that lack of a weak link will make them a playoff threat as well, Indiana will not be an easy out).
9. Rockets (33-23, LW 9). Iman Shumpert, and to a lesser extent James Ennis (go Long Beach State!) could be critical to any playoff run Houston makes. The offense isn’t the question, not with James Harden’s streak of 30+ point games at 30 and counting. The often-discussed challenge is on the defensive end, where the Rockets have been bottom 10 all season, and that has continued through the last 10 games. Shumpert had a resurgence in Sacramento few saw coming, and Ennis is long and athletic. The Rockets need them to step up and disrupt some quality scorers down the stretch and into the postseason.
10. Jazz (32-25, LW 11). Utah may not have landed Mike Conley at the trade deadline (he will still be available this summer), but they did add some depth at the position with Raul Neto and returning to action. Utah now is off through the All-Star break — but Rudy Gobert should have been in Charlotte. Last Saturday Gobert matchup up against Spurs All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and owned the battle dropping 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting, plus grabbing 13 boards and blocking a couple shots, while holding Aldridge to 15 points on 16 shots. Gobert took the snub personally.
11. Trail Blazers (33-23, LW 8). It’s only been three games (and Portland lost two of them), but Rodney Hood has looked good as a trade deadline pickup, averaging 10.3 points per game on 68.4% shooting and hitting 55.6% from three. Obviously, he’s not going to keep shooting at that pace, but he is providing an additional scoring threat and that’s what Portland was counting on. I also like the trade deadline roll of the dice on Skal Labissiere, I feel like there’s a solid player in there if they develop him.
12. Kings (30-26, LW 14). Harrison Barnes has looked like a guy still trying to figure out his fit — and his teammates are doing the same — after a couple of lackluster games. Some practice time over the All-Star break should help with that, and expect coach Dave Joerger to raid Rick Carlisle’s playbook for some of the things Barnes liked in Dallas (and he took over a lot of the old Nowitzki sets). As of this writing, the Kings are the eighth seed in the West and have the final playoff spot, percentage points ahead of the Clippers (it’s a virtual tie). LeBron and the Lakers loom 2.5 games back, but the Kings are also just 1.5 back of the 6/7 seed Spurs and Jazz.
13. Clippers (31-27, LW 13). Los Angeles went 3-3 on its Grammys road trip, but in each of the wins the team trailed by 20+ points and came back to steal the win. While the conventional wisdom is trading Tobias Harris was a sign the Clippers planned to give up their playoff chase, the trade of Avery Bradley for Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green is the opposite — Bradley had not been great for Los Angeles and the team picked up a couple of quality rotation players. While they may still miss the playoffs, this team will be competitive and will not roll over.
14. Spurs (33-24, LW 10). The Spurs were thrown off the bucking bull to start the Rodeo road trip, dropping four in a row until they barely beat the Grizzlies on Tuesday (the road trip has three more games on it through the East after the All-Star break). The problem in San Antonio continues to be the defense, it is bottom 10 on the season and worse of late — in the last 10 games the Spurs have allowed 118.8 points per 100 possessions, second worst in the NBA over that stretch. The defense isn’t going to magically improve over the All-Star break, the Spurs are going to have to score their way into the postseason.
15. Nets (29-29, LW 15). D’Angelo Russell will be the first Nets All-Star since Joe Johnson when he steps on the court Sunday, a nice bit of redemption for a guy Magic Johnson said was not a leader as he pushed Russell out the door (to cover the Timofey Mozgov contract, but that ended up a high price for LA). What the Nets need is Russell to help them turn things around on the court fast — the Nets have lost 5-of-6, have fallen back to .500, and no longer look like a playoff lock (they are just 2.5 games up on the nine-seed Heat).
16. Pistons (26-29, 22). The Pistons have won four in a row and 5-of-6 to push back into the playoff picture (the Pistons are currently the eight seed in the East, one game up on Miami and 1.5 on surging Orlando). The reason for the good play of late isn’t anything exotic — Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson have played well together and off each other during this streak. That’s the big three in Detroit and as they go the team goes.
17. Hornets (27-29, LW 16). Kemba Walker deserves his turn in the spotlight this weekend as the hometown starter for the Hornets when the All-Star Game comes to Charlotte. It was surprising to see the Hornets — fighting to both make the playoffs and impress Walker so he stays as a free agent next summer — stand pat at the trade deadline. They were in the mix but missed out on Marc Gasol, and could make nothing else work. There are rumors Walker was unhappy with the lack of activity, we’ll see if that translates to anything come July.
18. Mavericks (26-30, LW 20). Just to add to the legend of Luka Doncic: In the final three minutes of games within three points this season, Doncic 16-of-29 shooting (55.2 percent) including 5-of-11 (45.5 percent) from three. He is already clutch. While he’s not in the main All-Star game Saturday (the fans would have voted him in as a starter) he’s the favorite to be the Rising Stars MVP on Friday, then will be in the Skills Competition on All-Star Saturday. The NBA is going to hype him up as much as they can.
19. Magic (26-32, LW 23). Orlando is back in the playoff picture after winning four in a row and 6-of-7 — the Magic are just 1.5 games out of the final playoff slot in the East. In those last seven games the Magic have won with defense, locking teams up and holding them to a point per possession (which has led to a +11.6 net rating in those games. What does that kind of defense look like? Watch Jonathan Isaac block John Collins three times on one possession.
20. Lakers (28-29, LW 17). The Lakers went 2-4 on their Grammys road trip, they are 2-3 in the games LeBron James has played since he returned, and the loss to Atlanta on Tuesday night was a punch to the gut. It’s not rocket science to figure out what has happened, the Lakers’ defense has fallen apart — on the road trip the team surrendered 119.7 points per 100 possessions (for comparison, the Cavs have the worst defense in the NBA for the season allowing 116.3). Missing Lonzo Ball doesn’t help, but this is much larger, much more systemic than that. Los Angeles’ defense earlier in the season was respectable (for a 30-game stretch they allowed less than 105 per 100), but it has devolved, and that could land Luke Walton in hot water after the season.
21. Timberwolves (26-30, LW 18). The Timberwolves opportunity to make a playoff push seems to have gone the way of the Dodo after the team dropped 6-of-8 including every game on a three-game road trip against beatable teams (Memphis, Orlando, and New Orleans). Minnesota has gone 7-9 under Ryan Saunders (who took over for the fired Tom Thibodeau as coach) and the fact this team has not make a playoff push doesn’t seem to speak well of his chances of holding onto this job long term.
22. Heat (25-30, LW 19). The road has not been kind to Miami, which has slid out of a playoff position as the team has gone 1-3 on an ongoing road trip and 6-of-7 overall. Miami realized where it stands and its trade deadline moves were about the bottom line — it saved more than $8 million against the luxury tax for the team. It also opened up the roster a little bit and could lead to more minutes for Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow, we’ll see if they can be consistent and do anything with that extra run.
23. Pelicans (25-33, LW 21). Is it really better for the Pelicans and the league to play a disgruntled Anthony Davis – who had three points on 1-of-9 shooting on Tuesday night against Orlando, then ripped his teammates after the game — than to just sit him. Even if the league fined the Pelicans $100K a game that’s “just” $2.4 million, not an insane sum in the NBA orbit. I don’t blame the Pelicans for not taking the Laker deal at the deadline (I am in the camp that believes it will still be there in July if the Pels want it) but it’s created an awkward situation on that team, where everyone seems to have mentally checked out.
24. Wizards (24-33, LW 24). The Otto Porter trade was about getting off that contract and saving some long-term money, if Bobby Portis works out as a rotation player for Washington longterm all the better. Bradley Beal will spend part of All-Star weekend dodging questions about whether he wants a trade and how much he can’t stand John Wall, but he’ll still get a lot of love from other All-Stars. A few of which would love to have him on their team in the future.
25. Grizzlies (23-35, LW 26). There were a lot of raised eyebrows around the league that Memphis didn’t trade Mike Conley away before the deadline, too, keeping their price so high that Utah and others refused to pull the trigger. Is the market going to be better for him this summer? Memphis goal now is to hang on to their pick in the upcoming draft — it is top 8 protected, and the Grizzlies have the sixth-worst record in the league. Even with the new lottery odds, hold on to this position and there is only a 3.8% chance they fall back far enough to lose the pick this season (which would be fine with Boston, that pick is more valuable as a trade chip).
26. Hawks (19-38, LW 25). If your memories of Trae Young are his struggles at the start of the season, you need to watch him again. In Young’s last 10 games he has averaged 21.8 points per game on 15.6 shots a night, he’s hitting 42 percent from three, and he’s dishing out 8.8 assists per night. We’re also starting to see some real chemistry between him and John Collins. Young is confident, watch him go right at LeBron in the final two minutes of a close game Tuesday — and get the and-1.
27. Bulls (13-44, LW 27). I don’t mind the gamble on Otto Porter at the trade deadline. Sure, the Bulls are going to pay $46.7 million for their starting wings next season (Porter and Zach LaVine, and it goes up the season after that) but this is still a building team and they are not wed to Porter long term. Combine those two with Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., then mix in a point guard (Kris Dunn is fine but there will be better options available) and Chicago will have a respectable roster
28. Cavaliers (12-45, LW 28). I like what Cleveland has done around the trade deadline (and through the season), making moves to add draft picks and get the rebuild going. Kevin Love likely will be up next summer, although with his salary and injury history, finding a team willing to part with much of anything of value will not be easy. The other thing about all those Cavaliers trades this season: It doesn’t make this team easy to watch.
29. Suns (11-47, LW 29). I don’t mind the idea of trading for Tyler Johnson and seeing if he can play next to Devin Booker, a little experiment for the rest of the season. That said, it’s hard to say much positive about a team that has lost 14 games in a row, except that their first two games after the break (Cleveland and Atlanta) give them a chance to snap this streak.
30. Knicks (10-46, LW 30). The Knicks have lost 17 games in a row, but at least Dennis Smith Jr. has become a distraction from that pain. The athletic guard is averaging 17.4 points per game since coming over from Dallas, although he is shooting just 21% from three and has a dreadful 47 true shooting percentage (way below the league average). On the bright side, he and DeAndre Jordan have a little chemistry.