Nobody seems to want the top spot in our NBA Power Rankings — put a team there, they seem to lose 3-of-4. It’s a curse. With players out due to injuries and rest, everyone at the top keeps stumbling and losing games, but the Nets move up with a couple of big wins in the past week.
1. Nets (42-20, Last Week No. 7). Steve Nash has a legitimate Coach of the Year case: His team is 42-20 and in first place in the East, with a +4.5 net rating and the best offense in the NBA. All that despite injuries forcing constant lineup adjustments and Nash having to reach deep into his bench (Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving have played just seven games together). Nash’s calm and cool style is exactly what the Nets needed in a coach’s demeanor. Durant stepped back on the court after his thigh contusion and dropped 33 on a good Suns team, looking like he never missed a step. His versatility makes the Nets’ offense unstoppable.
2. Suns (43-18 LW 4). Phoenix went an impressive 3-2 on a tough East Coast road trip and now sits just one game back of stumbling Utah for the best record in the West (and the NBA). Not that coming home means the schedule gets easier, next up for the Suns are the Clippers (Wednesday) and then the Jazz on Friday. If Chris Paul and company are going to earn the top seed in the West — and put some fear in other West teams heading into the playoffs — they need to take at least one, if not both, of those games.
3. Clippers (43-20, LW 2). With Kawhi Leonard (sore right foot), Patrick Beverley (fractured left hand), and Serge Ibaka (back) all out of the lineup, one could expect the Clippers to stumble a little. One would be wrong. Los Angeles is 6-2 over the past couple of weeks with a +7 net rating and a top-10 offense and defense despite the injuries. Reggie Jackson and Terrance Mann have earned minutes even when Beverley returns and the lineups tighten up for the postseason, and it will be tough to take Ivica Zubac out of the starting lineup even when Ibaka returns (the Clippers are keeping DeMarcus Cousins around for the postseason, too).
4. Jazz (44-17, LW 3). The Jazz are three-point bombers — they take more threes a game than any team in NBA history (43.5) and hit 38.8% of them (fourth highest team percentage in the league this season). But the Jazz offense is more than that. John Schuhmann at NBA.com noted in a Tweet the Jazz still win 60.9% of games when shooting below league average from three (worse than 36.7%); Utah is 14-9 in those games, best in the NBA. Utah fans are freaking out a little after two ugly losses to the Timberwolves, but a couple of losses in the dog days of the season and without Donovan Mitchell are no cause for panic. It happens.
Was randomly curious about this, but didn't use it in Power Rankings – Team's record when it shoots the league average or better from 3 vs. when it doesn't.
The Warriors have the biggest differential. pic.twitter.com/DjjSilPEv3
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) April 26, 2021
5. Nuggets (40-21 LW 5). With Jamal Murray and Monte Morris out — and now Will Barton joining them in street clothes — a lot more has fallen on PJ Dozier and Facundo Campazzo, and so far they have been up to the task. Both play well off Nikola Jokic. There was some head-scratching among fans when the Nuggets signed Campazzo, but it has proven to be both a good and necessary pickup in a season where every team has battled injuries. The Nuggets are 6-1 since the Murray injury.
6. Bucks (38-23, LW 6). If Milwaukee is going to make a push for the No. 1 seed in the East, it will need to take both games from Brooklyn in a set that starts Sunday. Then again, the Bucks took two games from the 76ers in the past week, but surrounded that with losses to the Grizzlies, Suns, and Hawks — the Bucks can’t let up against other teams and get that top seed. Bobby Portis has started to find a groove for the Bucks off the bench and it showed with a 23-point game against Philly — Milwaukee could use more of that.
7. 76ers (40-21 LW 1). The Sixers were losers of four in a row — including two to Milwaukee — before righting the ship against tanking Oklahoma City. Be careful reading too much into those four losses; Ben Simmons missed all four games, Tobias Harris two, and Joel Embiid one — this is not peak 76ers. Watch this team and the big playoff question remains: When Joel Embiid gets doubled, can the rest of the 76ers make them pay? Embiid has been MVP-level this season, but the Sixers have been inconsistent when Embiid has been limited, and that will be opponents’ postseason focus.
8. Knicks (34-28, LW 11). Over their last 10 games — the nine-game winning streak plus the loss to the Suns that ended it — the Knicks have the second-best offense in the NBA, with an offensive rating of 120.1 (using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers, which filter out garbage time). That’s a huge leap for an offense that has been just good enough much of the season. Julius Randle is the hub of that attack, but RJ Barrett and Reggie Bullock have been creating and hitting big shots as things come together. New York sits as the four seed in the East, but a brutal six-game West Coast road swing starts on Sunday and includes Denver, Phoenix, and both Los Angeles teams. Holding on to the four seed through that will be a challenge.
9. Mavericks (34-27, LW 14). Dallas sweeping a two-game set against the Lakers and winning 4-of-5 overall has moved them within striking distance of Los Angeles — two games back as of this writing — for the five seed in the West. Dallas has one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league, adding to the hope they could climb another spot in the standings in the final 10 games. Kristaps Porzingis remains out with his ankle injury, but Luka Doncic is racking up triple-doubles — and technical fouls. Doncic has 13 technicals on the season, just three short of triggering an automatic one-game suspension.
10. Lakers (36-25, LW 8). Anthony Davis is back — he had 18 points, eight rebounds, and hit some key shots against the Magic — and the buzz is LeBron James will join him soon. Los Angeles needs LeBron’s return as the hub of the offense because its elite defense has struggled of late — in the last six games, the Lakers have a defensive rating that is 24th in the league and 8.7 per 100 worse than their season average. Part of the struggle is teams have been shooting much better from three against the Lakers of late (something that can fluctuate randomly during the season). It’s likely a fluke, but the Lakers need their defense back, too.
11. Hawks (34-28 LW 10). Atlanta has gone 2-1 so far with Trae Young sidelined due to an ankle sprain, but they will need to get by a while longer (most players with a Grade 2 sprain miss nearly three weeks and eight games). Bogdan Bogdanovic has helped carry the load with Young sidelined and has been red hot in April: 21.9 points, 4.5 rebonds and 4.3 assists a game, shooting 48.5% from three and with a 63.3 true shooting percentage.
12. Celtics (32-30, LW 9). They won 7-of-8 including beating the Suns, Kemba Walker looked healthy and finally in a groove, and Boston was starting to resemble the dangerous playoff team they have been on paper — and then Boston lost games to Charlotte and tanking Oklahoma City (which had lost 14 in a row before beating the Celtics). This team remains an enigma. Boston was without three starters (Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Robert Williams), but the loss shows how little Brad Stevens can trust his bench. More concerning is how often this team just comes out flat and uninspired (don’t throw that all at Brad Stevens, the players are professionals getting well paid, he shouldn’t need to use college rah-rah speeches to fire them up).
13. Grizzlies (31-29 LW 12). Memphis took both games of a two-game set against Portland, leaving the Grizzlies just one game out of the seven seed in the West. After those wins, Ja Morant said the Grizzlies don’t get the respect they have earned this season. He’s not wrong. The Grizzlies are two games above .500, playing some of their best basketball of the season as they get healthy (Jaren Jackson Jr. is finding his legs), and only two guys in their rotation are older than age 25. This is a young team on the rise and one that should be favorited to advance out of the play-in games to the playoffs proper.
14. Warriors (31-31, LW 16). Golden State may have been the hottest team in the NBA — at least until Dallas thrashed it on Tuesday night. Before the 30-point loss to the Mavs, the Warriors had gone 8-3 in their previous 11 with a top-five offense and defense during that stretch and a +9.9 net rating (second in the NBA, stats via Cleaning the Glass). Not that it mattered much. All those wins did not move the Warriors up the standings, they still sit as the 10 seed headed to the play-in games, but they have some security with the Pelicans 3.5 games back.
15. Spurs (31-29, LW 17). The Spurs have won 5-of-6 and most of the credit for that run goes to the team’s defense, which is top five in the league over that stretch. Jakob Poeltl is rightfully going to get some Defensive Player of the Year consideration (he’s not going to win it, but he could end up on some ballots). It’s not going to be easy for San Antonio to hold on to the nine seed in the West over the final dozen games — it has the toughest remaining schedule in the league (including two each against Utah and Phoenix).
16. Heat (32-30 LW 15). Miami’s inconsistency this season can be tied to this: When Jimmy Butler is on the court, the Heat outscore opponents by 4.2 per 100 possessions, when he is sitting they get outscored by 5.9 — a 10.1 per 100 swing. To take it a step further, Miami is +3.5 when Butler and Bam Adebayo are both on the court, but -10.8 if both sit — the Heat role players have not stepped up this season like they did in the bubble. Miami has won 4-of-6 and needs to make a push to earn the six seed in the East (they are tied for it with Boston right now) and avoid the play-in games.
17. Trail Blazers (33-28, LW 13). Portland had been one of the “luckier” teams in the league this season, outperforming their point differential and terrible defense thanks to Damian Lillard being the league’s best clutch player. That has caught up with Portland of late; it had lost 7-of-8 before a win against the Pacers Tuesday stopped the bleeding. But things don’t get easier with the next five on the road, and this week Memphis, Brooklyn, and Boston are on the docket. Portland has slid back into the play-in games and has some tough roster-building questions to answer heading into the offseason.
18. Wizards (27-34 LW 20). Despite an overtime loss to the Spurs to snap an eight-game winning streak, the Wizards have been on a roll and look like a play-in team in the East. One key has been a thrown-together three guard lineup with Raul Neto, Russell Westbrook, and Bradley Beal — whether that group works long-term or in a playoff series is up for debate, but it has worked now. The other thing that is working is Daniel Gafford at center, he’s played in a dozen games since coming over from Chicago at the trade deadline and has fit well with Westbrook — Washington is 10-2 with Gafford in the lineup.
19. Pacers (29-32, LW 19). With Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, and Goga Bitadze all out injured, the breakout star keeping the Pacers in the play-in games is… Oshae Brissett? Yes, Oshae Brissett. The Pacers picked up wins last week against a soft part of the schedule and Brissett had 23 points and 12 rebounds against the Thunder, then 11 and 11 against the Pistons, plus he’s playing good defense. Brissett is a ball of energy out there. With a three-game cushion over 11-seed Chicago, the Pacers seem destined for the play-in games.
20. Hornets (30-31, LW 18). James Borego decided to shake things up and go small, sitting Cody Zeller last week and putting P.J. Washington in at center — and it worked with wins against Cleveland and enigmatic Boston. Combine that with LaMelo Ball nearing a return from his wrist injury, and Miles Bridges showing he can hit threes and not just dunk, and Charlotte looks like a team that will hold on to its play-in spot and is a threat to advance to the playoffs proper out of those games.
21. Raptors (26-36, LW 21). Finally almost healthy, with Khem Birch providing great energy and glue at the center spot, Toronto has won 5-of-7. That’s the good news. The bad news is the Raptors are 1.5 games back of a hot Wizards team for the final play-in slot and Toronto has the hardest remaining schedule of any team in the East. It’s hard to imagine the Raptors making up that ground and getting into the play-in games. Then comes the offseason and some hard Kyle Lowry/roster building questions (not to mention the Masai Ujiri decision).
22. Pelicans (27-34, LW 23). For the Pelicans to make up 3.5 games on the Warriors with 10 to play, a lot of things have to go right — starting with sweeping the two-game set against Golden State that starts Monday. Before that, the Pelicans face the Nuggets, Thunder, and Timberwolves and need to keep getting some stops — the Pelicans defense has been better of late, top 10 in the league over the last seven games. But the team won just two of those. David Griffin has work to do this offseason: If New Orleans keeps Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram together, what kind of defense can they build around the duo that will be at least average (and let what should be an elite offense win games).
23. Bulls (26-34, LW 22). Chicago has been able to go 4-3 with Zach LaVine out due to league health and safety protocols, but that has left them a game back of a red-hot Wizards team for the final play-in spot, and the Bulls have a much tougher remaining schedule (including two against both the Nets and Bucks). Coby White and Nikola Vucevic have had strong games of late for Chicago, but what Bulls fans need to watch is the development of Patrick Williams — his progress into hopefully more than simply a nice starter is critical if Chicago is going to be more than a bottom-four of the playoff picture team in the future.
24. Kings (25-36, LW 24). Sacramento will once again finish with a below .500 record, the 15th consecutive year they have finished below even and out of the playoff mix (the last time the Kings finished above .500, Rick Adelman was the coach). That ties the NBA record for longest stretch missing the postseason (with the Donald Sterling Clippers). Sacramento will be without De’Aaron Fox for at least another week while he is in the league’s health and safety protocols, but a few more losses to help the Kings’ lottery odds is not the worst thing.
25. Timberwolves (19-44, LW 26). In the 13 games since D’Angelo Russell returned from knee surgery, the Timberwolves are 7-6 with the 11th best offense in the NBA (but a still dreadful second-to-last defense). Russell is scoring 20 points a game since his return and shooting 44.7% from three. Their record would be even better if they could play the Jazz every night. This is a lot more like what Minnesota expected heading into the season and something to build on going into next season.
26. Pistons (18-43 LW 25). It’s far, far too early to figure out what kind of player Killian Hayes will develop into, but the rookie point guard is showing flashes since his return on April 3 from knee surgery. His shot has a long way to go, but Hayes has averaged six assists a game over his last four. Josh Jackson is averaging 17 points a game with a league-average 56.3 true shooting percentage (and 39.3% from three) over that time. He may have been a smart roll of the dice by the Pistons front office.
27. Cavaliers (21-40, LW 27). Among the few bright spots for the Cavaliers this season has been the development of Darius Garland in his second season — he is averaging 20.8 points and 7.5 assists a game in April with a 60.2 true shooting percentage. After a brutal rookie season, he has been solid to good this season — and he is just 21. Coach JB Bickerstaff said he wants Garland to take more charge of the offense and double the number of threes he takes, that seems like a good next step for the young guard and the Cavaliers.
28. Magic (18-43, LW 28). Let’s let coach Steve Clifford sum up the Magic of late, after last Thursday’s loss to the Pelicans: “We had guys out there worrying about numbers who actually on the stat sheet look okay and were terrible. Terrible. Not bad, terrible. This whole thing is about getting better and making progress, and not about a guy that made one exciting play and was awful the rest of the game.”
29. Rockets (15-47, LW 29). The basketball gods have not smiled on Houston this season, and the latest news is John Wall is done for the season with a hamstring strain. Wall started out the season fast and averaged 20.6 points and 6.9 assists a game overall, but as the grind of the season caught up with him, the quality of his play dropped. Wall joins fellow Rockets D.J. Augustin, Eric Gordon, Sterling Brown, Dante Exum, and David Nwaba as being out due to injuries.
30. Thunder (21-41, LW 30). Oklahoma City has some players that will be part of the future there: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for sure, Luguentz Dort, maybe Darius Bazley, and Aleksej Pokusevski. Heading into the draft — where OKC currently has a 44.3% chance of landing in the top five — the Thunder need to take the most talented, highest ceiling player on the board and not worry about position. No “we don’t need a ball handler like Cade Cunningham because we have Shai” stuff, that’s how you end up passing on Luka because you have De'Aaron Fox. Talent will fit together; the Thunder just need to stockpile it. Also, a nice win against Boston on Tuesday, that one shook Celtics fans.