The Bucks and Lakers are running away with their conferences, and with that hold on to the top spots in this week’s power rankings. The question is can anyone knock them off come the playoffs?
1. Bucks (50-8, Last Week No. 1). The calendar hasn’t even flipped over to March yet and the Bucks have 50 wins and have officially secured a playoff spot already. They have been that dominant in the East, and they looked every bit the inevitable favorite to come out of that conference in crushing the Sixers on Saturday, then beating Toronto on the road Tuesday, on the second night of a back-to-back. The Bucks are now 6-2 this season against teams winning at least 65% of their games (stat via Tom Ziller).
2. Lakers (44-12, LW No. 3). Picking up Markieff Morris on the buyout market not only gives the Lakers another solid rotation player, it gives them a floor-spacing four to play in lineups with Anthony Davis at center (which remain their best lineups, the Lakers were +14 against Boston with AD at the five). With a 5-game cushion in the West, Los Angeles should find a way to reduce LeBron’s minutes and get him some rest in the next month, before the grind of the playoffs start.
3. Raptors (42-16, LW 2). Toronto has lost just twice in their last 19 games. The first came to Brooklyn in the game before the All-Star break, which they treated like the last day of school before vacation. That happens. However, the loss to the Bucks at home on Tuesday was more disturbing. It came on a night Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry struggled, exposing issues with this team. If Lowry and Pascal Siakam are not hot this team struggles to create good looks — and hit them — against a quality defense. Also, Kyle Lowry, this simply isn’t ever going to work.
— Shaqtin' a Fool (@shaqtin) February 26, 2020
4. Rockets (37-20, LW 9). Small ball is working. Since the Rockets added Robert Covington they are 5-1 with a +12.9 net rating when he is on the court. The best news for Rockets fans dreaming of a deep playoff run is that the team’s defense has been solid in those six games, 13th in the league over that stretch. With James Harden and this version of Russell Westbrook (playing to his strengths, not jacking up threes) the Rockets will score plenty, but if they get stops this team becomes dangerous.
5. Celtics (39-17, LW 4). Kemba Walker is out and this team barely misses a beat because Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are playing so well. Tatum continued the leap forward this season that made him an All-Star when playing the Lakers last Sunday, scoring 41 and forcing Los Angeles to throw doubles at him and get the ball out of his hands. Combine that with an aggressive, switchable defense and maybe Boston is the one team in the East with any shot at Milwaukee.
6. Thunder (36-22, LW 11). Oklahoma City has some of the best lineups in the league. Their three-guard lineup — Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — has a net rating of +29.7 and dominates on both ends when out there together. Round that group out with Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams and the Thunder have a +30.5 net rating. That’s a long list of guys with some playoff experience, too — the Thunder are going to be a tough out for whichever team lands them in the first round.
7. Nuggets (40-18, LW 5). Denver is finally healthy and with that, when you look at their roster led by a motivated (and thinner) Nikola Jokic, you see this team has the potential to be a threat to the Lakers and Clippers. A lot needs to go right for that to happen. They need Gary Harris to play better. They need to prove they can defend and execute on the biggest of stages. They need to keep the second seed. All that said, the potential is there. Denver picked up a couple of soft wins once healthy (Timberwolves and Pistons), but there’s a good test coming against a (probably) full-healthy Clippers squad on Friday night (then Toronto next).
8. Clippers (38-19, LW 6). Monday night was the first game the Clippers had their fully healthy new roster in place, with Marcus Morris starting and all the core guys there — and they crushed the Grizzlies. It was a reminder of how good this team can be: They are 15-5 this season in games Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley all play. Injuries have forced Doc Rivers to use a league-high 28 different starting lineups this season, but if this core can stay healthy for a month, get time on the court together and build chemistry, nothing stands in their way.
9. 76ers (36-22, LW 10). Ben Simmons is out for at least two weeks — and likely longer, maybe much longer — with a pinched nerve in his lower back. It’s concerning because we don’t know what is causing the issue in the first place, and these kinds of injuries can linger. Losing the All-Star is a huge blow down the stretch for a Philadelphia team trying to catch Miami and get home court in the first round of the playoffs. Joel Embiid is back to being a beast, playing like the best center in the game, but the Sixers still need some outside to go with that inside.
10. Mavericks (35-23, LW 12). Luka Doncic is back from his sprained ankle (his second this season), and Dallas has comfortably won all three games he played in that stretch (the one loss, to Atlanta, was when he and Kristaps Prozingis sat on a back-to-back). The chemistry between Doncic and Porzingis is picking up, they combined for 60 points in a win against Sacramento and 57 against the Magic. Also, Mark Cuban will soon get a healthy fine for his Twitter rant against the referees after the Atlanta loss, adding to the $1.6 million he has paid in fines since becoming the owner of the team (the money goes to NBA charities, for the record).
11. Jazz (36-21, LW 8). Losers of three in a row (with Boston coming up next), Utah is 4-7 in its last 11 games — with the fifth worst defense in the NBA in that stretch. Utah is not putting together 48 good minutes, letting rough offensive stretches impact their defense (or, sometimes, bad defense impacts the offense). Utah has slid down to the fifth seed and out of having home court in the first round of the playoffs in the West. They have the talent to turn this thing around, but time is running out.
12. Heat (36-21, LW 7). Miami has gone 2-4 since the trade that brought them Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder, with the struggles coming on both ends of the court. Overall the Heat are 2-6 in their last eight games, with five of those losses coming on the road. They are in danger of falling out of having home court in the first round of the playoffs (Miami seems headed to face Philadelphia in that first round, and only one game separates them in the loss column). The Heat have five games in a row and 8-of-10 at home, this is their chance to turn things around.
13. Pacers (34-24, LW 13). Victor Oladipo sat out the past two games after tweaking his back, it doesn’t sound like he will be out long but it’s something to watch. Indiana is 3-7 since his return and in that time the defense has been solid but the offense has been bottom five in the league. Things are about to get tougher, on Saturday the Pacers start a run of 6-of-7 on the road (with the one home game being the Celtics).
14. Pelicans (25-33, LW 17). Zion Williamson remains must-watch — he has scored at least 25 points in five straight games, and has broken the 20-point barrier in nine straight. That has led to a lot of “Can he catch Ja Morant for Rookie of the Year?” talk. Pelicans fans, do not get your hopes up — availability is the best ability and Morant has missed just five games, plus he is putting up very impressive numbers in his own right as the primary shot creator on a team (currently) in the playoffs. The only hope Zion has is for the Pelicans to bump the Grizzlies out of the playoffs, and even that may not be enough.
15. Nets (26-30, LW 16). Kyrie Irving is out for the season thanks to shoulder surgery, but the Nets are a .500 team (18-18) without him this season. With the Nets comfortably locked into a playoff slot (six games up on ninth seed Washington) Brooklyn can get back to the Spencer Dinwiddie-led balanced attack that makes the Nets a tough team to beat nightly. Their next four games are on the road.
16. Magic (25-32, LW 18). If Orlando is going to climb out of the eight seed and avoid Milwaukee in the first round of the playoffs, now is the time — they enter a soft patch of the schedule the next few weeks and can string together some wins. That has already started. Orlando has turned around its recent rough patch winning three of four, and the trio of Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, and Nikola Vucevic should keep the Magic comfortably in the playoffs.
17. Grizzlies (28-29, LW 14). No coach does the “we just want to get better every day” coach speak than the Grizzlies Taylor Jenkins. However, it seems to be working. Back in November, Memphis had a defensive rating of 113.8, fifth-worst in the NBA. In February, that is down to a 106.4 net rating, fourth-best in the NBA. That has not led to wins because the offense has been bottom five in the league the past five games. Memphis needs some wins to hold off Portland and New Orleans for the final playoff spot in the West.
18. Kings (23-33, LW 19). It’s too little too late to end the league’s longest playoff drought, but Sacramento has won 6-of-8, and are doing it without bigs Marvin Bagley III and Richaun Holmes (injures). De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Heild (the latter coming off the bench) are carrying the offense, both averaging more than 20 points a game during the streak. Suddenly the Kings look like the exciting, athletic, attacking team we’d hoped to see all season long.
19. Trail Blazers (26-32, LW 15). Damian Lillard remains out with a groin strain suffered the night before the All-Star break, and with that Portland’s chances to climb back into the West playoffs remain on hold. The Blazers have one of the softest remaining schedules in the league, but they have lost 4-of-5 and without Lillard they are not the same threat. Portland has 4-of-5 coming up on the road.
20. Suns (24-34, LW 21). Much of the talk around Deandre Ayton and the Suns is the numbers the young center puts up, but quietly Phoenix has become a good defensive team with him around. The Suns have a defensive rating of 107.1 when he is on the court, which would be top 10 in the league. When Ayton and Booker share the court, the Suns are +6.1 per 100 possessions. The Suns have won 3-of-4, and they now have six in a row coming up at home.
21. Spurs (24-32, LW 20). Don’t leave San Antonio out of your “they could get the eighth seed in the West” discussions, they are only 3.5 games back of struggling Memphis. The Spurs have a heavy home schedule and some softer teams coming up, if San Antonio is going to make a run to extend their playoff streak to 23 years now is when it happens. San Antonio is going to need consistency out of Dejounte Murray to make that run.
22. Wizards (20-36, LW 23). Bradley Beal is going off — two straight 50+ point games — and yet both of those games ended up in the loss column for Washington. That stings. The Wizards are just 3.5 games back of the Magic (four in the loss column) for the final playoff spot in the East, but to get there Washington needs to take advantage of their best player making a push for the All-NBA team.
23. Bulls (20-39, LW 26). Coby White is on fire, scoring 30+ points in three straight games — the last Bull to do that was some guy named Michael Jordan. That, however, has not moved White into the starting lineup (despite Kris Dunn being out for the season injured), which has become the latest knock on coach Jim Boylen. It’s right up there with his bad timeouts at the end of decided games. Will the new front office person hired by the Bulls this summer have the authority to remove the coach? We know John Paxson doesn’t want to.
24. Pistons (19-41, LW 22). Andre Drummond? Gone. Reggie Jackson? Gone. Markieff Morris? Gone. The rebuild is on in Detroit, but for the rest of this season it will be Derrick Rose against the world. The Pistons have lost seven in a row and things are not going to get better in the short term.
25. Hornets (19-38, LW 28). After he shot 1-of-17 in the first two games out of the All-Star break, coach James Borego decided to give Devonte’ Graham some rest on Tuesday night. Graham has come back to earth after his hot start to the season, although he still looks like a rotation player who can be part of Memphis’ future. So does P.J. Washington. After that… Mitch Kupchak has a lot of roster building to do this summer.
26. Hawks (17-42, LW 27). It’s tough to say this team can build for the future as it plays out the string this season because it is doing so without Clint Caplela, the big man they traded for at the deadline who remains out injured. John Collins is playing like a guy who got his job threatened at the deadline, averaging 25 points a game on 63.3 shooting, plus 10.5 rebounds a night in his last 10 games.
27. Cavaliers (16-41, LW 30). Cleveland has the most heavily used five-man lineup in the NBA this season: Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Cedi Osman, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson. That group also has a -9.6 net rating. The Cavaliers have won 3-of-4 and are home for 6-of-7, but the teams coming in are all over .500 playoff teams.
28. Knicks (17-40, LW 24). The Leon Rose era in New York officially begins on Sunday, and he takes over a team with a couple nice young players — RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson — plus seven first-round picks in the next four years. The pieces are there, but can Rose put together an organization that drafts well and develops players, building a foundation to attract elite free agents? Will James Dolan give him the autonomy and time to do it.
29. Timberwolves (16-40, LW 25). Losers of five in a row and 18-of-19, and Karl-Anthony Towns is out weeks with a fractured wrist. There have been flashes from D'Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, but this team is a defensive disaster, which makes it difficult to win any games. Especially without Towns to put up points and cover the mistakes.
30. Warriors (12-45 LW 29). Stephen Curry will make his return to the lineup on Sunday after missing four months with a fractured hand. Expect it to take a few games for him to get his legs back under him, but the Warriors should be better — and a vastly more interesting team to watch — as Curry and Andrew Wiggins start to figure out how to play together.