Utah has looked dominant winning six in a row, which vaults them back on top of NBC Sports’ NBA Power Rankings this week. Denver is up to fifth and feels like a team worth watching.
1. Jazz (35-11, Last Week No. 5). During its current six-game win streak, the Jazz have the best defense in the NBA, the second-best offense, and a +23 net rating (although it has come against a soft part of the schedule, including beating Brooklyn but without any of its three stars). Donovan Mitchell has been a force during the streak, averaging 29.5 points a game. The Jazz continue to make a hard push for home court in the playoffs, and with good reason — Utah is 20-0 this season at Vivint Arena.
2. Nets (32-15, LW 1). Brooklyn’s addition of LaMarcus Aldridge brought cries from some casual fans who thought the Nets were building an unfair superteam, but the reality is Aldridge has a role but to fill but is not a franchise-changing player at this point. He’s a backup stretch five, and if he is taking minutes away from the athletic and emerging Nicolas Claxton the Nets do not get better (especially defensively). James Harden says he is the MVP, and he has played like it in Brooklyn, but how much will voters hold the ugly arrival in training camp and disruption in Houston against him?
3. Suns (32-14 LW 4). There are moments of concerning signs in Phoenix — some rough games for the usually solid bench, a cold shooting streak from three — but with defense and some grit the Suns keep right on winning (six of their last seven). This week the schedule stays relatively soft, but some tests loom on the horizon. They really miss what Jae Crowder brought in Boston, and Phoenix is reaping the rewards of his steady hand, defense, and clutch play — like this dagger.
Jae Crowder, CLUTCH 🥶 pic.twitter.com/mAFokfn8oC
— NBA TV (@NBATV) March 31, 2021
4. Clippers (32-17, LW 7). The Clippers are not indiscriminate bombers from three — 39.7% of their shots are from beyond the arc, right in the middle of the league — but they prioritize the corner three, where they take 11.4% of their total shots (second in the league to Utah). The Clippers also hit their threes, shooting a ridiculous 41.7% of their threes as a team and 47.8% on corner threes. When those shots fall, they are hard to beat. Los Angeles had won six in a row and was playing like a contender again, then reminded us of all the questions we have about them in blowing a lead to an Orlando team that traded its best offensive players.
5. Nuggets (29-18 LW 6). Trading for Aaron Gordon made the Nuggets the big winner at the trade deadline. He brings some needed athleticism and verticality to the offense, but come the playoffs his bigger role will be as an athletic wing defender Denver can assign to LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and the big wings in the West. It’s just been a couple of games so far, but it’s quickly evident how Gordon fits in with the Nuggets and brings them something they lacked.
AIR GORDON has landed in the Mile High City 😤 pic.twitter.com/TRcsA5Oqiy
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) March 31, 2021
6. 76ers (32-15 LW 3). Philadelphia has gone 6-3 since Joel Embiid went out injured, and 3-2 on a tough road trip without him. It’s an impressive run — fueled by strong play from Tobias Harris — that has kept the 76ers on top of the East (tied with Brooklyn as of this writing). Philly added quality depth and a veteran floor general in George Hill at the deadline (who also will provide good perimeter defense). Everything is looking up for the 76ers — except for Dwight Howard, who was ejected in back to back games in Los Angeles
7. Bucks (29-17, LW 2). After winning eight straight, Milwaukee has lost three in a row (although ignore the loss to the Knicks when the Bucks sat all their stars). The losses to the Celtics and Clippers showed how the Bucks remain vulnerable to good three-point shooting teams, a weakness that has carried over from past seasons and a concern heading into the playoffs. Monday’s loss against the Clippers also was the start of 9-of-10 on the road. The addition of Jeff Teague on the buyout market may not provide a lot of help at the guard spots, but Teague is someone coach Mike Budenholzer is comfortable with going back to Atlanta.
8. Trail Blazers (28-18, LW 9). Jusuf Nurkic is back after a 10-week absence and the question is, can he lift up the Trail Blazers dreadful, 29th in the league defense? If Portland has any serious playoff aspirations, that is the end of the court that needs to improve. The Portland offense is humming with CJ McCollum back for a couple of weeks, Nurkic back and bringing his big man passing skills to the mix, and newcomer Norman Powell scored 22 in his Trail Blazer debut, and he has shot the ball well through a couple of games in Portland. The team just needs some stops.
9. Lakers (30-17, LW 8). Los Angeles picked up two critical wins against Cleveland and Orlando — critical because they are the soft spots in a backloaded, difficult Lakers schedule they are currently facing without LeBron James and Anthony Davis (L.A. plays the Bucks Wednesday then has seven in a row on the road). Adding Andre Drummond off the buyout market will help the Lakers in the short term, they can run some offense through him, and he can defend the paint and grab boards. How he fits into the Lakers culture and his role in the postseason will be the bigger tests.
10. Mavericks (24-21, LW 10). Dallas’ offense — ranked 11th in the NBA for the season — has been dramatically better in recent weeks, 5.4 per 100 possessions better in their last seven games. What’s interesting is they are doing it without easy buckets in transition: The Mavericks start 12.2% of their possessions in transition, second lowest percentage in the NBA (Knicks). That’s not really a surprise for a Rick Carlisle coached team. Dallas is 1-1 to start a run of 6-of-7 on the road (with the home game being Utah).
11. Knicks (24-23, LW 13). The loss of Mitchell Robinson to a foot injury and surgery is a blow, particularly on the defensive end of the court where Robinson had been solid off the bench. No Robinson means more Nerlens Noel, which is good for New York’s offense, and behind him expect to see veteran Taj Gibson. Obi Toppin’s run continues to be limited. Immanuel Quickley is back to coming off the bench after three games as a starter, Tom Thibodeau trusts Elfrid Payton more with the offense.
12. Grizzlies (22-22 LW 15). Great news this week that Jaren Jackson Jr. — part of the long-term core with Ja Morant — is on pace to return in late April, get some games under his belt, and be available for the postseason if Memphis can hold on to a spot. The other player the Grizzlies hoped would be part of that cure, Justise Winslow, has struggled since returning from injury: 7.1 points a game, 12.2% shooting from three (career 32%), and an ugly 37.2 true shooting percentage. He also is missing time with a sore right thigh.
13. Hawks (23-24 LW 11). John Collins was not traded at the deadline in part because the Hawks want to make a playoff push and Collins is one of the team’s best players (don’t be shocked to see a sign-and-trade this offseason). The new coach bounce has worn off in Atlanta and the team is 2-4 on its current road swing through the Western Conference, with the team’s defense being the issue (27th in the NBA in that stretch). The Hawks are tied for the 6/7/8 spots in the East with Boston and Miami and need to get some stops and find some wins to avoid the play-in games.
14. Celtics (23-24, LW 16). Despite his rough debut game, trading for Evan Fournier was an upgrade in Boston — every team could use more shooting. Trading away Daniel Theis was a bigger risk, putting a lot more on the plates of Luke Kornet and Robert Williams III. These trades will look a lot better if the Celtics can string together some wins during the six straight home games coming up — in a tightly-packed middle of the East just a few wins can vault Boston up the standings.
15. Spurs (23-21, LW 12). With LaMarcus Aldridge gone and the signing of Gorgui Dieng off the buyout market, the Spurs upgraded their backup center spot for their style of play. Dieng will provide more defense than Aldridge can at this point in his career (but not the floor spacing). The Spurs starting five — Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl — has a +0.8 net rating, which may not be thrilling but is 13.3 better than the most heavily used starting lineup with Aldridge in it.
16. Hornets (24-22, LW 18). LaMelo Ball was getting the headlines — and rightfully so, he is still the Rookie of the Year favorite — but the Hornets are not a one-man show, they have won 4-of-5 since losing Ball to a fractured right wrist. Charlotte currently sits as the No. 4 seed in the East, and while there is a tight grouping in the middle of that conference, that the Hornets are on top speaks to an impressive season from James Borego’s group.
17. Warriors (23-24, LW 14). Despite Draymond Green’s passing and Andrew Wiggins/Kelly Oubre giving the team some level of secondary shot creation, the Warriors’ offense is still the Stephen Curry show — Golden State’s offensive rating is 10.3 better when Curry is on the court. That’s not all that strange, even when Kevin Durant was in Golden State it was Curry’s gravity that made the offense sing. The Warriors didn’t trade Oubre at the deadline, and part of the reason was to make the postseason, but now they need wins: Golden State sits in the final play-in spot but the hot Kings are just one game back, the Pelicans 1.5.
18. Pelicans (21-25, LW 19). Zion Williamson‘s growth during his second season — he was a 6’1″ point guard when he entered high school, before the growth spurts, and that mindset and skills are on display now — has been one of the brightest spots of this season. He has scored 20+ points in 24 straight games, shooting better than 65% in that stretch. J.J. Redick didn’t feel he was treated fairly when he requested a trade this season, but he is now out the door and in Dallas.
19. Kings (22-25, LW 22). Sacramento left a lot of pundits scratching their head at the deadline, wondering why they were not more aggressive as sellers. However, behind De’Aaron Fox and strong clutch play as a team, the Kings have won five games in a row and sit just one game back of the Warriors for the final play-in spot — and ownership in Sacramento wants to make a postseason push. As for evidence of the Kings’ clutch play, watch Harrison Barnes hit a game-winning three off a length-of-the-court pass.
HARRISON BARNES JUST DID THAT 🤯 pic.twitter.com/xzajv0CELT
— Kings on NBCS (@NBCSKings) March 28, 2021
20. Heat (23-24 LW 17). Miami made itself better at the trade deadline, landing Victor Oladipo and Nemanja Bjelica while giving up just one rotation player. This may not have been the level of player Heat fans were hoping for (Kyle Lowry), and how much better the Heat got is up for debate, but they are better. Miami’s win in New York Monday (without Oladipo and just five minutes for Bjelica) ended an ugly six-game losing streak that the Heat below .500 again and stuck in the middle of a crowded East. Can the newcomers give enough lift to get Miami up the standings and out of the play-in range?
21. Pacers (21-24, LW 21). Caris LeVert is scoring 15 points a game and is showing flashes of his old self following surgery, but he is still shooting just 37.3% overall since returning. Myles Turner keeps making his Defensive Player of the Year, case, he now has a dozen games this season with at least five blocks. Key gamer the Pacers Wednesday night against the Heat, they are 2/3 of the teams tied for 6/7/8 in the East.
22. Bulls (19-26, LW 20). Chicago’s offense has fallen apart since the All-Star break. Chicago is 3-8 since the break, scoring almost 10 fewer points a game, they are 28th in the NBA in offensive rating in that time (105.4), and they are bottom 10 in the league in three-point shooting percentage and true shooting percentage (they were top 10 in those categories before the break). The Bulls are hoping that the trade for Nikola Vucevic will awaken the offense and get it rolling again, but the team is 0-2 since he entered the lineup.
23. Wizards (17-29 LW 24). Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double for the season now — 21.8 points, 10.1 rebounds, 10.5 assists a night — and his 21-assist triple double on Monday night gave him the franchise record at 16, a goal he was able to reach in just 38 games (which speaks to Westbrook’s skill and the Wizards history). All those triple-doubles have not translated to wins as the Wizards are 3-8 since the All-Star break, which is a little unlucky because their defense is top 10 in the league over the last seven games.
24. Raptors (18-28, LW 25). Toronto chose to hang on to Kyle Lowry at the trade deadline, not getting the blow-us-away offer they wanted. That should mean a playoff push for the Raptors but the team has lost 12-of-13 with the second-worst defense in the NBA over that stretch. Toronto currently sits as the 11 seed, two games back of Chicago for the final play-in slot, and it has the toughest remaining schedule in the East. It’s going to be difficult to get back in the mix.
25. Pistons (12-33 LW 26). Rookie Saddiq Bey has been finding his footing as the season has gone on. Back in January averaged 7.3 points a game with a below average true shooting percentage, but as he grew comfortable in the league and coach Dwane Casey trusted him more, his averages have gone up — in March he is averaging 13.7 points a game with a 57 true shooting percentage (right at the league average) and he’s hitting 39.5% from three. At the deadline, a rumor floated around that the Kings offered former No. 2 pick Marvin Bagley III for Bey, and the Pistons wisely shot that down. Detroit has something in the rookie out of Villanova.
26. Thunder (19-27, LW 23). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is out indefinitely due to plantar fasciitis; the man that would have been his backup, George Hill, was traded, and now comes word Al Horford is going to sit the rest of the season for the Thunder. OKC has the eighth-worst record in the league heading into the final months and the focus is now on the youth and building for the future — and if their lottery odds get a little better during that stretch, then so be it. Just don’t call it tanking, everyone hates that word.
27. Cavaliers (17-30, LW 28). If you’re looking for the bright side in Cleveland, the way Isaac Okoro defended All-Star Zach LaVine in the Cavs’ win over the Bulls is good cause — that is the kind of lockdown defender the Cavaliers hoped they were drafting. The Cavaliers traded JaVale McGee at the deadline — the center spot is all yours, Jarrett Allen — and the amazing part of that deal was the Cavs got more draft capital back for McGee than they gave up to get Drummond a year before.
28. Timberwolves (11-36, LW 27). It’s no secret Minnesota is looking for an elite four to put next to Karl-Anthony Towns, but they couldn’t find one at the trade deadline (they had been rumored to be in the Aaron Gordon mix). Maybe they make a run at John Collins in the offseason (although Collins, Towns, and D'Angelo Russell on the court together sounds like a defensive disaster). The Timberwolves have dropped 5-of-6 and there is plenty of blame to go around, the team is bottom five this season in offense and defense.
29. Magic (15-32, LW 29). Despite trading away Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, and Nikola Vucevic at the deadline, the Magic were winners — they got back draft assets and are starting on the path to a real rebuild. Orlando had been stuck in the middle chasing a bottom playoff seed for too long; it was definitely time to clear the decks and rebuild. That is going to mean a lot of losses the rest of the way, but outscoring the Clippers 17-3 to close out the game Tuesday and get the win showed the grit we expect from a Steve Clifford team.
30. Rockets (13-33, LW 30). Mike D’Antoni may be gone to Brooklyn, but Houston is still willing to launch from three, taking 45.6% of their shot attempts from beyond the arc (the fourth-highest percentage in the league). The problem is they hit a league-worst 33% of those shots. Victor Oladipo averaged 7.7 threes a game but hits 32% of them, John Wall takes 6.1 a night on average but hits 31.8%. Houston has the toughest schedule remaining of any NBA team — the television networks wanted Houston on in big matchups late in the season when they had Harden (that has all changed, obviously).