The Clippers don’t want to be “the other Los Angeles team” any longer and have played like it of late, winning six in a row and jumping over the Suns to the top of our NBA Power Rankings. But can they finally be consistent?
1. Clippers (38-18, Last Week No. 5). Winners of six in a row and they went 7-2 on a long homestand, all despite a fluctuating lineup: Serge Ibaka remains out with back issues, Patrick Beverley will miss a month with hand surgery, and Kawhi Leonard is in and out of the lineup. Los Angeles is doing that with efficient three-point shooting, they are hitting 42.1% from three this season on more than 34.4 attempts per game, putting them ahead of the 2016 Warriors in team shooting percentage with more than 30 threes a game (41.6%). Also, it helps that Paul George is having a hot streak and showing no ill effects from his toe issue. Just ask Isaiah Stewart.
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) April 12, 2021
2. Suns (39-15 LW 2). Winners of 9-of-10, with their only loss to that team above them in these rankings (but on the second night of a back-to-back, so don’t read too much into it). Chris Paul deserves the praise for lifting this team up, but don’t sleep on the leap Deandre Ayton has made this season — he had 18 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocks in his last game against Rudy Gobert, then Tuesday night against Bam Adebayo and the Heat Ayton had 19 points and 13 rebounds. He has become a key anchor for the future of this franchise.
3. Jazz (41-14, LW 1). Cold shooting from three cost the Jazz in recent losses to the Suns and Mavericks, but it was the loss to the Wizards that was more shocking: Utah’s defense took the night off against Beal and Westbrook, and Utah’s home winning streak ended at 24. Utah still has a 1.5 game cushion over the Suns for the top seed and one of the easiest schedules remaining in the NBA. They should hold on to the top spot. Two high-profile games against the Lakers coming up, but with L.A. shorthanded, the Jazz need to pick up wins there.
4. 76ers (37-17 LW 6). Philadelphia is in position to take command of the top seed in the East — and avoid facing Brooklyn or Milwaukee in the second round, forcing them to face each other — and that starts with a showdown against shorthanded Brooklyn on Wednesday night (if the Nets were healthy this game would be a much bigger deal). This week also sees the Clippers, then Stephen Curry and the Warriors, come to town. The good news for Sixers fans is that as the schedule gets into late April and May, it gets a lot softer. Joel Embiid‘s dominant performance against Dallas revived his MVP talk, but he’s already missed 18 games, will likely miss a handful more down the stretch (even if healthy), and that will prove too much time off for voters.
5. Nets (37-17, LW 3). Kevin Durant has looked impressive in his three games since returning from a hamstring issue, averaging 23.3 points on 64.9% shooting while playing with a minutes limit. Brooklyn keeps winning despite James Harden remaining out with a sore hamstring and Kyrie Irving being away from the team for personal reasons, but with just 18 games left it’s fair to ask if this core will get enough time together on the court before the playoffs. The Nets defense is 10th in the league over its last 7 games (a good sign for Brooklyn fans), and Wednesday night look for Steve Nash to throw a lot of looks at Joel Embiid to see what works best, then file those notes away for a potential playoff showdown.
6. Nuggets (34-20 LW 4). The loss of Jamal Murray for the season — and a large chunk of next season — is a punch to the gut. Denver looked like a legitimate contender in my books for the eight games after acquiring Aaron Gordon, but this sets them back. In the short term expect more Monte Morris — and expect Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. to take more shots — but without the two-man game of Murray and Nikola Jokic, this team is good but not the same level of threat. The injury forces the front office to deal with long-term building questions about paying Gordon and MPJ without necessarily seeing what this fully-functioning team looks like in the playoffs.
7. Bucks (33-20, LW 7). Milwaukee has gone 2-3 with Giannis Antetokounmpo out injured in its last 5, which has knocked the Bucks back a little and seems to have them headed for the three seed in the East (which likely means the tall task of facing the 76ers or Nets in the second round, then the other one in the conference finals). Having missed 7 of the Bucks last 12 games is not helping Antetokounmpo’s MVP case down the stretch, either. Despite their record without their MVP, the Bucks have played fairly well in this stretch, they just haven’t been able to close out games.
8. Lakers (34-21, LW 9). Los Angeles has gone an impressive 6-7 with both LeBron James and Anthony Davis out of the rotation, a situation that is likely to continue for at least another week. The Lakers have done it with a top-three defense in the league still covering up for the offensive struggles without their stars. The schedule is not going to make holding on to the five seed any easier with a hot Boston team up next followed by two against Utah and two against Dallas — the Lakers don’t want to fall to seventh and be in the play-in mix (even if it means a shot at the Suns in the first round, rather than the Clippers).
9. Celtics (29-26, LW 13). Boston struggled in the clutch much of the season — the reason they have 29 wins and not 31 or 32 as their point differential would suggest — but that has changed of late, for example Jayson Tatum sticking the dagger in Portland with a late three Tuesday night. Before that were clutch minutes wins against the Knicks and Timberwolves (and while the win against Denver wasn’t clutch, the 31-3 run to pull away was impressive). Boston has won four in a row, 6-of-7, and while they sit as the seven seed they are red hot and just a game out of fourth in the East. Tatum may have them coming together at the right time.
10. Mavericks (29-24, LW 8). Mark Cuban and Luka Doncic don’t like the play-in tournament, mostly because Dallas now sits as the seven seed in the West and could be headed to said games. Putting aside the fact Cuban voted for the play-in to get the money, Dallas could have avoided this with more consistent play during the season — they beat the Jazz last week and two nights later lost to the Rockets. The Mavs have lost 3-of-4 and their offense has been slumping in recent weeks, despite the fact Doncic can do this:
— NBA (@NBA) April 12, 2021
11. Hawks (30-25 LW 11). Atlanta is 16-5 under coach Nate McMillan. Part of that is the team has just been healthier, but another part is their under him their defense is improved to league average levels, which is enough for their powerful offense to rack up wins. The Hawks have won three in a row with Trae Young on the bench, in part because a finally healthy Bogdan Bogdanovic has stepped up and is giving them a consistent 20+ points a night.
12. Grizzlies (27-25 LW 12). Memphis’ offense has come together in the past few weeks —fourth best in the NBA over the last eight games — and that has gotten them enough wins to jump up to the eighth seed in the West. The Grizzlies look like a playoff team with Ja Morant leading an explosive offense and the undervalued Jonas Valanciunas being a physical force in the paint on both ends of the court (he’s averaging 18.5 points and 14.6 rebounds per game since the All-Star break).
13. Heat (28-26 LW 14). Victor Oladipo — already off to a rough start through his first four games in Miami, averaging 12 points a game on 37.2% shooting — is not with the team on its current road trip because of a knee injury. He will miss four games at least, and maybe more. The Heat are generally playing well with our without him, winning 6-of-8 with a top-10 defense in that stretch. The Heat have vaulted out of the play-in range up to the No. 5 seed in the East during this stretch thanks to a top 10 defense — Miami is starting to look like itself again.
14. Trail Blazers (31-23, LW 10). Portland has dropped 4-of-5, but it’s who they lost to that seems to signal where they stand in the West: the Clippers and Jazz beat them (as did the Heat and Celtics). Portland is impressive, Damian Lillard deserves the MVP talk, CJ McCollum and Norman Powell are playing well, and Jusuf Nurkic helps their defense – they will be a tough playoff out come the postseason. But they seem a notch or two below the best in the West. Defense remains the main reason, and it leaves Portland’s front office with questions to answer this offseason.
15. Knicks (28-27, LW 15). RJ Barrett has made a leap this season and the Knicks are coming along for the ride. It’s not the 17.4 points a game (just three more than a year ago), it’s the efficiency: He’s shooting 37.8% from three (up from 32% last season), his free throw shooting is up to 73.5% (61.4%), his assist rate is up, and his true shooting is up closer to league average (53.5, up from a dreadful 47.9). He needs a more consistent floater range shot and to get the corner three percentage even higher, but Barrett can get buckets. The Knicks have held their own, winning three in a row despite being in some close games.
16. Spurs (26-26, LW 16). A couple of wins over Dallas and what’s left of the Orlando roster put an end to the run of losses where San Antonio dropped 10 of 12. The Spurs starters have continued to play well and outscore opponents, but the crush of their tightly-packed second-half schedule seems to be wearing on the bench units, which can’t hold on to leads. Things do not get easier from here — San Antonio has the second toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, and this week that includes an important back-to-back against Portland and Phoenix.
17. Hornets (27-26, LW 17). Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Like when shorthanded Charlotte caught Milwaukee on a night all five Bucks starters were out, leading to a Hornets’ win. A few other things have helped keep the Hornets in the play-off mix despite LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward being out, including a couple of solid weeks from Terry Rozier. Then there is Miles Bridges, who is averaging more than 21 points a game over the last four — and he had a dunk of the year candidate over Clint Capela.
— NBA (@NBA) April 11, 2021
18. Pelicans (25-29, LW 18). Making the play-in games is within reach for the Pelicans, who sit as the 11 seed in the West just one game back of the Warriors for the final play-in spot. The Pelicans have a shot at climbing into that spot because Zion Williamson continues to grow game by game — in the last 10 games he’s scoring 31.3 points a game on 62% shooting while dishing out 4.3 assists a night. He is already one of the more unstoppable offensive players in the league, in just his second season, and his skill set seems to expand game-to-game.
19. Pacers (25-28, LW 19). It took a while to get his legs under him and his form back, but Caris LeVert is playing his best basketball — 26 against the Clippers on 18 shots, 34 against the Grizzlies on 20 shots. Despite nagging injuries that have forced Nate Bjorkgren to juggle lineups night-to-night, the Pacers had won three in a row before running into the Clippers Tuesday. The good news for Indiana as it tries to climb up from ninth in the East — but just three games back of the four seed — it has an easier schedule the rest of the way than any other team in that mix (outside of Miami).
20. Warriors (26-28, LW 20). James Wiseman is done for the season after tearing his meniscus, which sets back his development over the final quarter of the season (and will slow his preparations for next season). The Warriors are still a threat to win any night , and still a team worth tuning in to watch, because Stephen Curry is playing at a level that moved him past Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time Warriors scoring list, and will get him on some MVP votes — like when he scored 53, including hitting 10 threes, against the Nuggets on Monday.
21. Bulls (22-31, LW 22). The hope was adding Nikola Vucevic at the trade deadline would make Chicago more consistent and bump the team up the standings, but the Bulls are 3-7 since he entered the lineup. Fortunately, two of those wins were against Indiana and Toronto, keeping Chicago basically locked in as the 10 seed in the East and likely headed to the play-in game. The Bulls are still inconsistent because even over their last eight games their defense is bottom 10 in the league, and it’s that end of the floor that cost them the last three games.
22. Raptors (21-34, LW 21). Gary Trent Jr. has found a groove of late in Toronto — he is averaging 17.4 points per game since coming over at the trade deadline, he hit a game-winner against the Wizards and dropped 44 on the Cavaliers last week. Chris Boucher continues to play well for Toronto also, but Pascal Siakam has not been consistent (and not gotten to the rim consistently), and the backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry hasn’t gotten a lot of time together lately. The Raptors have lost 4-of-5 and it feels less and less likely they will climb up into even the play-in games in the East.
23. Pistons (15-38 LW 24). While Pistons fans understandably may have turned their attention to lottery odds and the upcoming draft, the Pistons on the court and playing some gritty basketball. They went 2-3 on a recent road trip and played the Clippers tough despite Jerami Grant being sidelined. Saddiq Bey had 25 points against the Clippers and the rookie appears to have figured out how to make his game fit an work at the NBA level.
24. Wizards (20-33 LW 25). Washington has kept its play-in dreams alive with a 3-2 road trip so far that includes wins over Utah and Golden State (the six-game trip wraps in Cleveland Wednesday). Those three road wins not so coincidentally came in the three games Bradley Beal played — the Wizards are 5-7 since the All-Star break in the games Beal has been healthy, and he is averaging 34 points a game in that stretch. He’s also their best clutch player, including earning a four-point play to beat Golden State.
25. Kings (22-32, LW 23). Losers of seven in a row, the play-in game is now even out of reach as Sacramento stumbles down the stretch. Sacramento has the worst defense in the league, so unless De'Aaron Fox and the offense are exceptional on a given night, the team has no chance to win, and the offense has been 28th in the league over the seven-game losing streak. Tyrese Haliburton has handled being moved to the bench like a veteran, much as he has handled most stuff this season, and the Kings need to focus on developing him and other young players, not chasing a phantom playoff spot.
26. Cavaliers (19-34, LW 28). Can Darius Garland and Collin Sexton play together and be the backcourt of the future in Cleveland? The Cavaliers have a -7.2 net rating in non-garbage time minutes when both are on the court this season, which is pretty much in line with the team’s overall -8 net rating (and the duo sees a lot of time together against opponents starters and best lineups). The jury is still out on if this combo will work, or if the Cavaliers need to consider trading one of them to get another player that fits better.
27. Timberwolves (14-41, LW 29). The tragic and unnecessary shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright rightfully overshadowed everything with the Timberwolves this week, including forcing the team’s game against the Nets to be postponed a day, then played in the afternoon without fans. Add in this week is the one-year anniversary of the death of Karl-Anthony Towns mother Jackie, and everything basketball has taken a back seat in Minnesota. As it should.
28. Rockets (14-40, LW 30). If you’re looking for a bright spot in Houston, it’s the new starting lineup: John Wall, Kevin Porter Jr., Jae’Sean Tate, Kelly Olynyk, and Christian Wood are +24.8 per 100 possessions so far. Small sample size warnings aside, the Rockets have found something that is working, and that lineup combined with 31 from Wall earned the Rockets a surprising win against the Mavericks. It’s good to see Wood back on the court following his high ankle sprain, but he does not seem 100% and moving the same way he did before yet.
29. Thunder (20-34, LW 26). It’s the Aleksej Pokusevski show in Oklahoma City right now, 7-foot rookie out of Serbia is showing flashes of potential, scoring 25 against Charlotte and 19 against Detroit recently. He’s also showing where he has room to grow (losing focus on defense at points, he needs to get a lot stronger), but when a team is rebuilding as the Thunder are, finding potential gems like Pokusevski and watching them grow is part of the joy. The Thunder have dropped seven in a row.
30. Magic (17-37, LW 27). It’s good to see Cole Anthony back on the court and getting minutes after his injury. The rookie is showing flashes — dishing out 17 assists in his first three games back — but he has a long way to go and needs all the court time he can get to work on development. Mo Bamba and Wendall Carter Jr. are getting plenty of run as the Magic take a long look before deciding what direction to go with their front court in future years. Orlando has lost six in a row and is getting blown out in most of those.