Four of the top five teams in this week’s power rankings and seven of the top 10 are from the West, which has proven the much deeper conference this season.
1. Jazz (38-12, Last Week No. 1). Casual fans will say that defense/Donovan Mitchell/Rudy Gobert are behind Utah’s run to the top of the standings (and these NBA power rankings). They’re not totally wrong, but the reality is it’s the 3-ball that propelled the Jazz the NBA’s best record. Utah is averaging 43 attempts from three a game — the most per game in NBA history, topping the 2017-18 Houston team — and is hitting 39.5% of them. That’s 17 made threes a game on average, blowing out the previous record of 15.3 per game by those same Rockets.
2. Suns (35-14 LW 3). Chris Paul has pushed Phoenix up to second in the West (and second in these NBA Power Rankings), which has led to speculation around the league about whether the Suns can keep him after this season. John Hollinger wrote about this at The Athletic: a couple of years ago, it was assumed CP3 would pick up his $44 million option for next season, but with the value he has proven in Phoenix (and OKC before that), a team like Dallas or Miami might be willing to offer three-years and $100 million or more. Would Paul opt-out of his current contract for the security of more years and guaranteed money? Would Suns owner Robert Sarver pony up to match that? It could be an interesting offseason in Phoenix.
3. Nets (35-16, LW 2). Kevin Durant is back… just as James Harden goes out for at least 10 days with a hamstring strain of his own. The Nets big three have played just seven games together and it’s a legitimate concern that they have not had enough time on the court to build chemistry, both amongst themselves and with the role players. Speaking of role players, Sunday against the Bulls both Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge got the start, but both sat the fourth quarter, DeAndre Jordan never touched the floor, Nicolas Claxton was an afterthought (8 minutes), and it was Jeff Green at center lineups that Steve Nash trusted. Sunday, it was Green and Aldridge primarily in the clutch, with some Bruce Brown.
4. Nuggets (32-18 LW 5). It’s some small sample size theater, but the Nuggets’ new starting lineup — Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic — has a +32.7 net rating so far. It is simply blowing teams out of the water. Gordon and Porter give the Nuggets athletic wing defenders (that Nuggets lineup surrenders less than a point per possession), and now there are a lot of players who can run dangerous dribble hand-offs with Jokic or make cuts off the weak side. It’s too early to say anything definitive, but the new Nuggets pass both the eye test and the numbers test. This team looks like a contender.
5. Clippers (34-18, LW 4). The Clippers have a top-six offense and defense over their past eight games, winning six of them. Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins are in the rotation and getting minutes. Tuesday night, the Clippers got both Paul George (still bothered by his toe issue) and Patrick Beverley back from injuries, and they helped LA easily handling Portland — there are games like that one where the Clippers look every bit the contender. Then they lose to tanking Orlando despite Kawhi Leonard being in the lineup. It’s hard to trust this Clippers squad, but healthy and playing well, don’t overlook them as contenders.
6. 76ers (35-16 LW 6). Joel Embiid is back in the rotation after missing 10 games — and Philadelphia went 7-3 in those games with a +7.6 net rating. Tobias Harris stepped up as a playmaker, and role players such as Shake Milton had their best stretch of the season. Still, Tuesday night’s win over the Celtics showed why Embiid is at the heart of any deep playoff run for the 76ers — none of the other top teams in the East has an answer for him. Embiid gets buckets, boards, gets to the foul line and anchors the defense, and when he’s doing all that at an MVP level the 76ers are tough to beat.
7. Bucks (32-18, LW 7). Milwaukee is paying Jrue Holiday at least $130 million over the next four years, and probably more — they have locked themselves into the core of Holiday, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Khris Middleton. Lineups with all three of them on the court have a net rating of +12 this season (stats via Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time). Still, is that core three good enough to win it all? Do the Bucks have the right players around them to challenge Brooklyn and Philadelphia atop the East? If not, the GM can’t move the players, which could mean Coach Bud’s seat getting hot.
8. Mavericks (28-21, LW 10). Winners of five in a row, including knocking off Utah, has Dallas suddenly within striking distance of the six seed in the West and avoiding the play-in games (the Mavs are 1.5 games back of the six seed Blazers, and the five-seed Lakers are stumbling). This run is fueled by Luka Doncic — and his insane step-back three — playing at the MVP level expected of him all season, but more importantly, Dallas has the sixth-best defense in the NBA over its last eight games. When the Mavs get stops they are a threat to beat anyone.
9. Lakers (32-19, LW 9). What’s a Lakers’ season without drama. While the one getting headlines is about Andre Drummond starting and Marc Gasol not being thrilled coming off the bench, what should worry Lakers fans more is the possibility of slipping to the seven seed and into the play-in games. The Lakers have a three-game lead over seven seed Dallas with 21 games to play, and Los Angeles has a much tougher schedule the rest of the way. Los Angeles keeps beating the teams it should without its stars, but it needs LeBron James and Anthony Davis back to hold on to that top-six slot.
10. Trail Blazers (30-20, LW 8). Norman Powell is averaging 18 points a game since being traded from the North to the Northwest, shooting 41% from three, and generally being a little more efficient than he was as a Raptor. The new Trail Blazers starting five (with Powell and a returned Jusuf Nurkic) is +22.1 per 100 possessions, but in a very small sample size. Portland has won 5-of-7, but the two losses were to the Bucks and Clippers, a reminder that they have a ways to go to threaten the top teams in the league (Portland is now 3-10 against teams that have a better record than them).
11. Hawks (27-24 LW 13). Atlanta is on a four-game win streak, and in the crowded middle of the East that is enough to vault them up to the four seed for now. What has been most impressive about the streak is they have done it without John Collins, sidelined by a sprained ankle. Bogdan Bogdanovic has played well in this stretch, balancing some up-and-down games from Trae Young, something Atlanta needs because its winning is based on a top offense carrying a pedestrian defense. That offense can’t be all Young all the time.
12. Grizzlies (25-23 LW 12). Memphis is flying under the national radar but has played fantastic basketball of late, going 7-3 in their last 10. The improvement has come on the offensive end, where Ja Morant has led the team to a net rating in their last eight games that is +5.4 over their regular season average. Another part of Memphis’ success lately is De’Anthony Melton’s play off the bench — the team is +11.9 when he is on the court this season.
13. Celtics (25-26, LW 14). Dwyane Wade asked this on TNT after the Celtics’ loss Tuesday to the 76ers, and it’s a legitimate question: “What is the Celtics identity? It’s not defense. They’re not great in transition. They’re not exceptionally great in the halfcourt when it comes to execution of the game, even though they have an amazing coach and players. You gotta have an identity as a team. This team doesn’t have one.” He’s right, but does that fall more on Brad Stevens or the players?
14. Heat (26-25 LW 20). Lose six in a row, win four in a row — no team in the league is as streaky as Miami. Victor Oladipo has gotten off to a slow start through three games in Miami (10 points a game, a dreadful 37.2 true shooting percentage), but the Heat don’t need him to be the ball-dominant shot-creator he has been in previous stops — just fill a role. Play off the ball more, hit some open shots, create when the defense collapses on Jimmy Butler or Bam Adebayo. If he can do that the Heat will re-sign him this summer, but he’s in his tryout now and has to show he can adapt to that role.
15. Knicks (25-26, LW 11). The Knick have dropped 4-of-5, slid back into the play-in games, and the problem during the stretch is their offense, which is bottom five in the league during that stretch. New York continues to play elite defense for Tom Thibodeau, but the Julius Randle show on offense can only carry this team so far. The bigger challenge for the Knicks if they want to climb out of the play-in games they have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the East, and it gets brutal the next couple of weeks.
16. Spurs (24-24, LW 15). What is concerning about the Spurs losing 8-of-10 is who they have lost to of late (Sacramento, Cleveland, shorthanded Charlotte) and that those losses are piling up because San Antonio cannot get stops (28th ranked defense in the NBA over their last eight games). This recent slide came during a nine-game San Antonio homestand and now they head out on the road for 7-of-8. The Spurs are in the play-in in the West as the nine seed as of this writing, but just three games up on New Orleans and falling out of the postseason completely.
17. Hornets (25-24, LW 16). Injuries have ravaged the Hornets season: LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, and Malik Monk are all out right now. It has sucked a lot of the fun out of watching everybody’s League Pass favorites. Charlotte has kept its head above water during its six-game road swing with wins against Washington and Indiana, but it feels like a slide from the five-seed back into the play-in games is almost inevitable.
18. Pelicans (22-28, LW 18). Injuries to Zion Williamson, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram have slowed the postseason push in New Orleans — the Pelicans have lost 3-of-4 and now the schedule turns tougher with Brooklyn and Philadelphia next up. To help fill-in the gaps the Pelicans signed Isaiah Thomas, and in his first game he finished with 10 points and a couple of assists in a solid first outing on an NBA court in 14 months.
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) April 7, 2021
19. Pacers (22-27, LW 21). No Malcolm Brogdon (hip), no Domantas Sabonis (ankle), and of course no T.J. Warren (out for the season with a foot injury) has the Pacers searching for offense and having dropped 3-of-4. Indiana sits solidly in as the nine seed in the East — three games up on 11-seed Toronto, but three games back of six-seed Miami — but they need to get healthy to move up in the standings and secure their position.
20. Warriors (24-27, LW 17). When Stephen Curry is on the court, the Warriors have a 113.9 offensive rating, just slightly above league average. When Curry is off the court, that falls to 102.6, the worst offense in the NBA by far. Draymond Green provides some playmaking, Kelly Oubre and Andrew Wiggins provide something, but it still requires things like Curry dropping 41 to beat the Bucks (who were without Antetokounmpo).
21. Raptors (20-31, LW 24). Toronto should be better than this — they have the point differential of a team around .500, not one needing some wins and some help to get into the play-in games in the East. There have been injury and COVID-19 issues that have shaken Toronto’s season, but the biggest issue is this is not a good team in the clutch — they have dropped 10 clutch games in a row (within five points in the final five minutes). Toronto now heads into a key stretch of games (Chicago, at Cleveland, at New York) if it is going to find its way into the postseason.
22. Bulls (21-28, LW 22). Nikola Vucevic has put up numbers since coming to the Bulls — 22.7 points and 11 rebounds a game, shooting 35.7% from three — but they did not translate to winning as Chicago dropped its first four with him in the lineup. Now the Bulls have won their last two, including beating Brooklyn, and now are out on the road for four more as they make a postseason push. Zach LaVine and Vucevic have started to look like what the Bulls’ front office hoped for in recent wins, but Lauri Markkanen at the three is proving an odd fit.
23. Kings (22-29, LW 19). As frustrating as things have gotten in Sacramento — the Kings have lost four in a row and have an uphill climb just to make the play-in games — it’s worth remembering how good Tyrese Haliburton has been as a rookie. He’s averaging 13.1 points and 5.1 assists per game, but what has surprised is how good his shooting has been (41.8% from three) and what a solid pick-and-roll ball-handler he already is. The Kings have their backcourt with Haliburton and De'Aaron Fox, now it’s just a matter of building everything around them.
24. Pistons (14-36 LW 25). For a team trying to figure out what it has for the future and trying to build, getting Killian Hayes back from a three-month injury is huge. The Pistons have also learned of late that Hamidou Diallo seems a good fit for them (a very efficient 12.8 points per game since coming over from Oklahoma City), but that has come while Jerami Grant has hit a rough patch with his game. The Pistons have a brutal schedule the next couple of weeks.
25. Wizards (17-32 LW 23). Rookie Deni Avdija has proved to be much more project than polished this season, looking like a guy in need of development and not the more NBA-ready guy he was projected to be. Avdija is averaging 6.3 points and 4.8 rebounds a game, and is shooting 31.4% from three. He still has plenty of time to develop, but he fits into the long line of players in Washington who has not lived up to his promise.
26. Thunder (20-30, LW 26). The Thunder have dropped 6-of-7, which is not a surprise with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missing time due to injuries and Al Horford shut down for the season. That said, give first-year coach Mark Daigneault some credit for getting his young team to play hard and compete every night, but despite the frustrations of some Thunder fans they are in tank mode.
27. Magic (17-33, LW 29). Orlando is not exactly tanking because they are getting some solid play out of their big men. Chuma Okeke is playing 30 minutes a night and has scored at least 14 points in 6-out-of-7 games. Wendell Carter Jr. started out at the back of the line in Orlando but has pushed his way into the starting lineup in recent games and is averaging 15 points and 9.4 assists a game since coming over from the Bulls at the deadline.
28. Cavaliers (18-32, LW 27). Cleveland’s offense has been terrible all season (29th in the league) but it has gotten worse of late — 4.1 per 100 possessions worse over their last seven games (the Cavs are 2-5 in those games). Cleveland has given rookie Isaac Okoro heavy minutes all season and it is starting to pay off more — he’s been solid and improving on defense, but he’s had a couple of solid offensive games lately that should give fans hope.
29. Timberwolves (13-38, LW 28). Karl-Anthony Towns says he is not chasing stats anymore, he is chasing wins — but the man has put up monster stat lines of late. He is averaging 30.7 points and 14.3 rebounds a game in April, with an above average 59.4 true shooting percentage. It’s not his scoring, it’s his defense and other aspects of his game that will lift the Timberwolves up. Anthony Edwards continues to make strides for the Timberwolves, even though he has a long ways to go to start impacting winning.
30. Rockets (13-37, LW 30). The one bright spot for Houston this season is the play of rookie Jae’Sean Tate, who has started 38 games, is averaging 10.9 points a game, plays strong defense, and is on his way to making the NBA All-Rookie team. Injuries to John Wall, Eric Gordon, David Nwaba, and Dante Exum have left the Rockets backcourt shorthanded, and they just waived Ben McLemore (who is now with the Lakers).