The Phoenix Suns are keeping their heads above water despite Chris Paul and Devin Booker being out, and that keeps them atop these NBA power rankings. However, the Celtics and 76ers are coming fast and could crack the top two… just not this week.
1. Suns (52-13, Last Week No. 1). Phoenix is keeping its head above water without Chris Paul and, of late, Devin Booker (who returns Wednesday). The Suns have gone 4-3 since the All-Star break with a +3.9 net rating, which is not bad considering the circumstances. As it has been all season with this team, Phoenix is leaning on its depth and balance, with different players stepping up nightly. Deandre Ayton had 21 points and 19 boards against the Magic Tuesday. Cameron Johnson has had his big nights, too, shooting 58.5% from 3 since CP3 went out, and that includes a 38-point game against the Knicks, complete game-winner (and yes he called bank).
— NBA (@NBA) March 5, 2022
2. Heat (44-22, LW 2). The Heat are going to earn the No. 1 seed in the East. Winners of 7-of-8, including games over the Nets and 76ers, Miami has a three-game cushion on top of the conference and has nine of their next 10 games at home (the only road trip is to Philadelphia on March 21). The question is can they take advantage of home court come the playoffs? They need a better clutch offense to do so. Miami is 19-12 in clutch games this season with the fourth-best clutch defense in the league, but the offense is 27th and it showed in the loss to the Bucks, who went on a 21-6 run late because Miami struggled to generate good halfcourt looks. That is the potential Achilles heel for the Heat.
3. Celtics (39-27, LW 6). Time to start talking about Boston as one of the contenders in the East: 13-2 in their last 15 with a +15.2 net rating (both best in the league) and the NBA’s best defense. Questions about the Celtics’ offense have been answered with Jayson Tatum reaching a new level of not just scorer — although he dropped 54 on the Nets over the weekend and was the best player on the floor — but also as a playmaker setting up teammates. This is a team that understands its roles, and Ime Udoka has built something that appears sustainable — can they keep that going under the pressure of the playoffs? Or will Tatum stop making quick decisions that keep teammates involved and start to pound the ball into the floor like Harden/Kobe? If he keeps playing like he is now, Boston has a chance.
4. 76ers (40-24, LW 7).Philadelphia is 5-0 in games James Harden plays, and only one team (Cleveland) kept the margin of victory in single digits. (Harden did take the game off against the one team that could have dented that record in Miami, but it was a back-to-back.) Everyone in Philly is focused on — and security has been increased for — Ben Simmons‘ return to the city on Thursday night. Of course, he will be sitting on the bench, not be on the court passing up open jumpers, but that’s not going to quiet Philly fans. Better tests for this team next week with Denver, Cleveland, and Dallas.
5. Grizzlies (45-22, LW 3). Memphis has looked a little more vulnerable the past couple of weeks, going 4-4 in their last eight, but with Golden State looking worse, Memphis still seems destined for the No. 2 seed out West (the Warriors have a much tougher schedule the rest of the way). Part of the reason for this is a Jaren Jackson Jr. mini-slump — he has been in foul trouble a few games, taking his critical defense off the floor, and he’s shooting just 25% from 3 in his last five games. Sunday starts a four-game road trip, but the Grizzlies are in a relatively soft part of the schedule and need to rack up some wins.
6. Mavericks (40-25, LW 7). Sometimes it’s all about fit in the NBA, and Spencer Dinwiddie fits in Dallas. Since coming to Texas as part of the Kristaps Porzingis trade (and the Wizards kicking him on the way out the door), the veteran point guard has averaged 18.3 points and 4.5 assists a game, shooting 54.7% overall and 44.7% from 3. In his role as a third ball handler Dinwiddie is getting to the rim more (where he’s finishing 70% of his shots) and being more selective from 3. He even has earned the trust of Luka Doncic, who has let Dinwiddie take over the offense for stretches. Dinwiddie’s offense makes Dallas a more dangerous playoff team.
7. Nuggets (40-25, LW 9). Who needs Nikola Jokic? Well, Denver, the team is 16.6 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. But when a tired Jokic took a night off against Houston, DeMarcus Cousins stepped right in with 31 points in 24 minutes and the Nuggets didn’t miss a beat. Jokic bounced back from that night off with 46 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists, 4 blocks and 3 steals in an OT win against the Pelicans. Denver sits as the No. 6 seed in the West and should be able to hang on to that and avoid the play-in, the Nuggets are 2.5 games up on the No. 7 seed Timberwolves. Denver has a slightly tougher schedule the rest of the way, but should be able to hang on to a top-six spot (especially once Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. return).
8. Bucks (41-25, LW 10). The Bucks who look like they could win it all showed up for the end of a win against the Heat over the weekend, going on a 21-6 run and shutting down the Miami offense in the clutch to get the win. The Bucks offense has been best in the NBA since the All-Star break, but the defense locking teams down is the issue. For the season Milwaukee is tied for 10th in the league, and since the All-Star break it’s 13th — that’s not good enough for a team thinking title. They need to tighten it up on that end, but the Bucks have felt like champs coasting through the regular season all along waiting for things to get serious. Despite that, they still sit as the No. 3 seed in the East and are just one game back of the Sixers at No. 2.
9. Jazz (40-24, LW 4). Are the Jazz title contenders? It’s a little strange to say this, but only if their defense is up to the task — and it hasn’t been of late. Since the All-Star break, the Jazz are 26th in the league in defensive rating. Part of that was Monday night, when Luka Doncic carved them up with the pick-and-roll, exposing the lack of quality perimeter defenders on the Jazz roster. Rudy Gobert is still in the mix for Defensive Player of the Year — a wide-open season for that category, BTW — but one man can only cover up so many holes. Utah has 5-of-6 at home and a relatively soft part of the schedule coming up, this is a chance to get the defense back on track, lock in some wins, grabbing ahold of the at No. 4 seed and home court in the first round.
10. Warriors (44-22, LW 5). Draymond Green said he is targeting a return on Monday, and that can’t be soon enough for the Warriors, who are 3-8 in their last 11 with a bottom 10 defense in the league over that stretch. Green had been in the early Defensive Player of the Year conversation and Golden State had the best defense in the league before his back issue flared up. Stephen Curry could also use Green’s playmaking back on the court, the Warriors’ offensive engine has been inconsistent with Green out. Before Green’s return next week the Warriors have a couple of showcase games: A rematch with Denver (who beat them on Monday) and then the Bucks on Saturday.
11. Timberwolves (37-29, LW 14). After a slow start, Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves have turned it around to become an offensive force this season — second in the NBA since the All-Star break and third best over their last 15 games. Give credit to D'Angelo Russell, who has found his sweet spot at the point and understands running an offense better than at any time in his career. That end of the floor has carried the Wolves — and likely will carry them into the playoffs. Winners of five in a row (including sweeping a couple of back-to-backs), Minnesota still has hope of the No. 6 seed and avoiding the play-in games. They’ll need a little help to make up 2.5 games they are back of Denver, but if they keep winning, it’s not out of the question.
12. Cavaliers (38-27, LW 12). Darius Garland continues to put up numbers — 41 on Tuesday night against the Pacers — and Evan Mobley continues to be the Rookie of the Year frontrunner impacting both ends of the court (22 points against the Pacers, including the game-tying putback in the final minute — but the Cavaliers are 3-4 since the All-Star break with an offense and defense ranked 20th or worse in the league over that stretch. Losing All-Star center Jarrett Allen to a fractured finger is not helping matters (there is no timeline for his return, but hopefully before the playoffs). The Raptors are just 3.5 games back and if the Cavaliers want to avoid the play-in they need to find a few more wins down the stretch (the one over those Raptors on Sunday was huge for holding onto their seed).
13. Bulls (39-26, LW 11). This stat (via Stat Muse) is the one that should keep Bulls fans up at night as they gear up for the playoffs: Chicago is a combined 0-14 against the top three seeds in each conference. The includes losses this past week to the 76ers and Bucks, part of the Bulls’ five-game losing streak that has seen them fall to fourth in the East (with the surging Celtics half a game back). Chicago has 9-of-11 coming up on the road, where they are below .500 on the season (and much worse of late), and the defense continues to miss Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso (the D is 27th ranked in the league over their last six games). Righting this ship will not be easy.
14. Clippers (34-33, LW 15). The Clippers’ strong identity and team play in beating the Lakers last week (and the other three times those teams played this season) tells you maybe the Lakers shouldn’t have low-balled Tyronn Lue when looking for a coach a few years back. The Clippers are happy the team down the hall did so, however. “I’ve been on, now, a couple of teams, and this is the only team where, from top to bottom, everyone wants everyone to succeed,” Isaiah Hartenstein said after that win. “I think that’s special with this team.”
15. Raptors (34-30, LW 13). Rather than surging into the top six in the East after the All-Star break, the Raptors are 2-5 with a -5.8 net rating in those games and the 27th ranked offense in the league. Part of that is OG Anunoby being out with a finger injury and Fred VanVleet missing time with a knee injury, the Raptors need to get healthy before the playoffs. If you’re looking for a silver lining in all of this, Malachi Flynn has been on a hot streak after being forced into a larger role. That loss to Cleveland on Sunday was the first of 8-of-9 on the road for Toronto.
16. Hawks (31-33 LW 16). Atlanta shouldn’t need more motivation: They sit as the No. 10 seed in the East, meaning as of today they would need to win two games to get out of the play-in. However, the Hawks are just one game out of the No. 8 seed, where one win in either of two games gets them into the playoffs. Atlanta has won 5-of-8, but the overtime loss to Detroit on Monday is a reminder Atlanta is not a very good clutch team. The Hawks have a -15.6 net rating in the clutch (27th in the league) and their offense can stall out if Trae Young isn’t hitting everything. Atlanta needs some secondary scoring in the clutch to move up in the standings over the final weeks.
18. Nets (33-33, LW 17). It’s easy to pick apart the Nets: They have lost of 6-of-8, are 1-2 since Kevin Durant returned from injury, they have the 29th ranked defense in the league over their last seven games, Ben Simmons is weeks away, and they are just 6-11 with Kyrie Irving in uniform this season. But then Irving goes out and drops 50, as he did on the Hornets Tuesday night, and you are reminded of the potential of this roster. Whether they can reach anything near that ceiling this season — especially four times in a seven-game series — is seriously up for debate, but on any given night the Nets’ talent can still overwhelm (and tease their fans).
17. Hornets (32-34, LW 18). If Charlotte is going to make a push up the standings and lock in their spot in the play-in, now is the time — six of their next eight are at home. Looking for a spark of energy, the Hornets signed fan favorite Isaiah Thomas to a 10-day contract. “”He’s a pro, he’s a vet. He’s been there before, and he looked the part,” coach James Borrego said after the Hornets beat the Cavaliers this week. “You can just see his basketball IQ, his savviness. He knows how to play. And I thought he was a big spark for us here tonight.”
19. Pelicans (27-38, LW 19). The Pelicans are 4-2 since the All-Star break and have grabbed ahold of the No. 10 seed in the West (and likely will pass the Lakers for ninth before it is all over). While CJ McCollum gets a lot of credit for that, the real secret has been the Pelicans having the second-best defense in the NBA over those six games — they are getting stops to stay in games. Willie Green will not win Coach of the Year with this record, but he has done a fantastic job laying a foundation with this team going forward. Oh, and I guess Zion Williamson is around the team again, for whatever that is worth.
20. Spurs (25-40, LW 20). In the coming days, Gregg Popovich will break Don Nelson’s record and become the winningest regular season coach in NBA history. Pop will not want to talk about it, because he’s Pop, but that is an accomplishment worth celebrating. It speaks not just to longevity, but to his adaptability with different rosters, and his ability to develop and mold players not taken No. 1 (although it does help to have Tim Duncan). Popovich has done some of his best teaching with a young Spurs team that is improving this season, and reports are he is enjoying it so much he may well be back next season.
21. Wizards (29-34, LW 21). Kristaps Porzingis was exactly what the Wizards hoped in his debut: 25 points, 3-4 from 3, a couple of blocked shots. He looked like the kind of player who would fit well next to Bradley Beal, if KP can stay healthy. That’s always been the issue. Porzingis looked good in Dallas when he played, that just wasn’t often enough for the Mavericks to feel like they were moving forward. Maybe things will be different in Washington. One thought on the semi-ridiculous idea of John Wall returning to the Wizards: They do need a point guard for next year. Not a score first guy, but a true floor general. Finding one is easier said than done, but it has to be an offseason priority.
22. Knicks (27-38, LW 23). New York is the worst clutch team in the NBA this season. That’s not a surprise to anybody who has watched them play recently — they have blown nine games with double-digit leads since the start of 2022 alone. The Knicks score less than a point per possession on offense in the clutch (final five minutes or OT of a game within five points), and have a -23.8 net rating in those minutes. Considering all that, their 13-20 record in the clutch is better than expected. RJ Barrett is more and more comfortable leading the offense, having scored 20+ in five straight games.
23. Lakers (28-36, LW 22). The Lakers are 1-5 since Anthony Davis went out with a sprained foot, and to get that one win required LeBron James to dominate the game and put up a 56 spot (then he missed the next game with a swollen knee). In those six games, the Lakers have a -8.3 net rating, with a bottom 10 offense and defense. Not a pretty picture, but that one win is a reminder why the Lakers are a threat to come out of the play-in and could push some team in the first round — LeBron is still capable of hitting highs few other players can. He just can’t do it alone.
24. Pacers (22-45, LW 24). If you’re looking for a bright spot in this Pacers’ season, know that since coming over at the trade deadline Tyrese Haliburton is averaging 19.2 points and 9.5 assists a game, shooting 41.9% from 3, and playing the best basketball of his career. That said, it hasn’t translated to winning yet and the fit with Malcolm Brogdon, Buddy Hield and everyone else is still a work in progress. Winning may have to wait until next season, but the Pacers hope to get Myles Turner back on the court this season so he can start to develop some chemistry with his new teammates.
25. Kings (24-43, LW 26). Maybe its the trade changing the competition of the backcourt, maybe its playing with a facilitating big man such as Domantas Sabonis, but De'Aaron Fox is on fire. In his last 10 games he is averaging 27.9 points on 52.2% shooting and dishing out 6.5 assists a night. Much of the season he had not looked like the same, explosive Fox who had earned that massive contract extension, but that has changed of late. The Kings have 5-of-6 coming up at home.
26. Trail Blazers (25-39, LW 25). Who has been the worst team in the NBA since the All-Star break? Portland and it’s not even close. The Trail Blazers are 0-5 and have a -29.7 net rating (that’s more than double the second worst net rating, that of the Thunder at 14.5%). It’s all by design as the Trail Blazers have torn the team apart, are hoping for a high draft pick, then they will look to retool the team around Damian Lillard. That said, Portland has the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA and could win enough games to mess up that plan.
27. Pistons (18-47, LW 28). Since coming over from Sacramento in a deadline trade, Mavin Bagley III has looked pretty good. He fits a need in Detroit — inside scoring, especially with Isaiah Stewart missing some time with a bone bruise on his knee — and Bagley is averaging 13.8 points a game on 53.5% shooting. He’s doing it as a post-up threat or catching lobs, plus he pulls down 6.7 rebounds a game in a little more than 24 minutes a night off the bench. Most importantly, he is showing real chemistry with Cade Cunningham already. Bagley is playing well enough the Pistons may bring the free agent back, or another team may step in and take a chance on the former No. 2 pick.
28. Magic 16-50, LW 27). The bright spot in Orlando is it looks like they are building a team that can defend well, a good foundation for future seasons. Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. form a stout front line, the young backcourt of R.J. Hampton, Cole Anthony, and Jalen Suggs is showing potential, and next season they will add Jonathan Isaac to the mix. Also on a positive note, Markelle Fultz continues to play pretty well since coming back from injury: 9.8 points a game and an above-average .572 true shooting percentage.
29. Thunder (20-45, LW 29). While almost nobody was watching, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has torn it up since the All-Star Break: 33.3 points per game on 57.1% shooting overall and 42.9% from 3, plus dishing out 7.7 assists and grabbing 6.3 rebounds a night. It hasn’t translated to wins, but OKC has run into a tough stretch of games (Timberwolves, Jazz, Bucks) and it doesn’t get any easier with a Minnesota rematch than Memphis up as the next two on the schedule.
30. Rockets (16-49, LW 30). Jalen Green has started to turn a corner with his season, averaging 20.3 points a game on 47.5% shooting since the All-Star break (he shot 38.7% before it). Green had thrown down dunks but it took a while to figure out how to fit his incredible athleticism into the NBA game, but he seems to be making progress, which is critical because the Rockets continue to see the No. 2 pick as part of their foundation going forward.