NBA Power Rankings: Suns, Heat remain on top, put Grizzlies as contenders, too

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The very top of the NBA Power Rankings remain the same at the very top with the Suns and Heat in the top two spots, but below them is it time to move Memphis into true contender status in our minds?

Suns small icon 1. Suns (55-14, Last Week No. 1). Too often overlooked this season: Phoenix has the second-best defense in the NBA. Filter out garbage time from a couple of blowouts (as Cleaning the Glass does) and they have the best defense in the league over the last seven games. While they have quality individual defenders — Mikal Bridges gets the toughest perimeter assignment nightly, and he may get some DPOY votes because of it — the credit for this success should go to both the front office and Monty Williams. The front office gets flowers putting together a roster without many obvious defensive weak spots, and Williams for designing and getting full buy-in on a disruptive system that throws opposing offenses off-balance. It can win them a lot of playoff games.

Heat small icon 2. Heat (46-24, LW 2). Miami is still in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 record in the East, with a two-game lead over surging Milwaukee with 13 games to play, and the Heat have an easier schedule the rest of the way. However, last week saw two losses when Jimmy Butler was out and in those games combined the Heat scored less than a point per possession — and Butler sprained his ankle and had to leave Tuesday night’s win. Three games into his return, Victor Oladipo is still getting his feet under him (25% from 3) but is playing solid basketball, giving Erik Spoelstra more lineup options come the playoffs.

Grizzlies small icon 3. Grizzlies (48-22, LW 5). It’s time to stop overlooking this Memphis team as contenders. A lot of pundits (*raises hand*) dismiss the Grizzlies out of hand with the “they’re too young, they will learn the hard way about playoff basketball,” however, these Grizzlies have earned more consideration than that. Playoff wins will require more halfcourt offense than forced turnovers and transition (the easy buckets dry up against the best teams, and Memphis’ fifth-ranked offense is 23rd in halfcourt efficiency) but they are capable of doing it. Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Grizzlies a 12% chance of making the Finals and a 5% chance of winning it all, both fourth-best in the West. That seems about right, some things will need to break Memphis’ way, but it’s possible.

Mavericks small icon 4. Mavericks (42-26, LW 6). With wins over Boston on Sunday and Utah the previous Monday, it’s time to ask what Dallas’ playoff ceiling is? Luka Doncic is playing the best ball of his young career (which is saying something), he controls the flow of the game and now has more shooting and shot creation around him with Jalen Brunson, Spencer Dinwiddie, plus Dorian Finney-Smith among others. Dallas can score on anyone, and they have the sixth-ranked defense in the NBA. Right now, the Mavs appear headed for a 4/5 first-round series with Utah, one that is a good matchup for Dallas but far from a pushover. Win that and it’s likely the Suns, which may be too much to ask of these Mavs. Dallas is 2-0 so far on its five-game East Coast road trip, but the next two against Brooklyn and Philadelphia will be more challenging.

Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (40-28, LW 3). Boston has the starting five and the elite defense, ad strong two-way wing play (something more valuable in the postseason) to be title contenders. What happened in their loss to Dallas over the weekend was the bench let them down, particularly Derrick White and Grant Williams. Depth will be a question come the postseason in a deep East. Boston is the No. 5 seed in the middle of a crowded top of the East (3.5 games separate 2 through 6) and they have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA, one that is road heavy. If Boston wants to climb the standings and host a playoff series, they will need big road wins like in the Golden State and Denver games this week. The Celtics also will need more of this from Jaylen Brown.

Bucks small icon 6. Bucks (43-26, LW 8). Milwaukee has won 7-of-8 with some big name wins in there (Jazz, Suns, Heat), but it continues to do it more with offense than defense. Over those eight games, the Bucks have the second-best offense in the NBA but the 12th ranked defense (behind even Philly, who starts Harden). The return of Brook Lopez to the lineup should help that, he has been back a couple of games and once things settle in he should anchor a top-10 defense again. The Bucks have that defense in them, they just haven’t been healthy and built the good habits this season. Yet. You know the Bucks’ struggles defensively this season are making Mike Budenholzer pull out what’s left of his hair.

Warriors small icon 7. Warriors (47-22, LW 10). Steve Kerr may have found his closing lineup: The three-guard combo of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole have a +37.3 net rating so far this season. That is some serious small sample size theater (Thompson hasn’t been back that long) but that trio — with Kevon Looney and Andrew Wiggins — closed out the win over the Nuggets, and it was Poole being left open late and draining a couple of big 3s. Mix in the return of Draymond Green, a lock for the fourth spot in that closing lineup, and the Warriors have a five-some that can close like a championship team.

Jazz small icon 8. Jazz (42-26, LW 9). Mike Conley scored 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting against the Bucks, breaking out of a slump that had followed him for weeks. In his last 10 games, including the Milwaukee contest, Conley averages 9.8 points a game on 32.3% shooting overall and 30.2% on 3-pointers — he has to be better than that in the postseason. He has to be the Conley from the Bucks game. Jazz fans shouldn’t worry much about the rumors of Quin Snyder leaving for San Antonio, however, they should be worried about their depth, which the Bucks exposed. If you want to win a title, Utah, Milwaukee is the bar to clear and the Jazz fell short Monday.

Nuggets small icon 9. Nuggets (41-28, LW 7). At 13 games over .500, you would think Denver is a playoff lock. However, the Nuggets need to pick up a few more wins with the Timberwolves surging and just 1.5 games back (two in the loss column). The answer to one of the two biggest questions about the Nuggets postseason should come in the next week: Jamal Murray is in Grand Rapids working out with a G-League’s Gold, how he responds physically to a couple of practices will set the tone for his return — or not — this season. There has been growing buzz we will not see him or Michael Porter Jr. until next season, but Murray is closer. Nikola Jokic‘s showdown with Joel Embiid didn’t move the MVP needle one way or the other, which means Jokic likely still has a slim lead.

Sixers small icon 10. 76ers (41-26, LW 4). The honeymoon is over. Philadelphia with James Harden and Joel Embiid can win a title, but the offense will have to overwhelm to make up for concerns about the defense — particularly the transition defense — and the bench. Those areas were exposed in losses to the Nets and Nuggets in the past week. The 76er are just a game back of the Bucks for the No. 2 seed, and Philly has the slightly easier remaining schedule, but now we get into the question of what seed you would rather be. The No. 2 seed could well face Brooklyn in the first round (the current No. 8 seed, but likely to win the 7/8 play-in game if healthy), finish third and it’s likely the Cavaliers or Raptors in the first round. Would Philly rather be third? Doc Rivers said Embiid and Harden will get rest down the stretch.

11. Timberwolves (40-30, LW 11). This ranking feels low for how well the Timberwolves have played of late, especially in the wake of Karl-Anthony Towns scoring 32 in a quarter and 60 in a game Monday night. That said, blowing an 18-point lead to the Magic and missing 18-straight 3-pointers in that game can give a person pause. Even if it’s through the play-in, Minnesota is bound for the playoffs — when was the last time you could say that with certainty this late in the season — but we’ll see how good they really are starting this weekend (and they will be without Jaden McDaniels due to a sprained ankle). Here is the Wolves upcoming schedule starting Saturday: Bucks, at Mavericks, Suns, Mavericks, at Celtics, at Raptors, at Nuggets. That’s a gauntlet.

Nets small icon 12. Nets (36-33, LW 17). Kyrie Irving has just three games left with the Nets this regular season (barring a change in NYC vaccination laws). He’s taking full advantage of those games, dropping 60 on the Magic — 41 in the first half — in an unbelievable display of skill. The Nets will not escape the play-in, which will start with a win-and-you’re-in game against the Cavaliers or Raptors, and a win there means seven games with the Bucks or 76ers. After watching the scoring displays of Irving and Durant recently, there could be jockeying at the top of the conference in the final days hoping to avoid Brooklyn in the first round.

Bulls small icon 13. Bulls (41-27, LW 13). Alex Caruso is back and the Chicago defense instantly looked better against Cleveland (not so much the next game against Sacramento, but a lot of things went wrong for the Bulls in that one). The Bulls can’t afford more games like that Kings’ disaster or they will not be hosting a playoff round — the surging Celtics are just half-a-game back in the standings with 13 to play, and Chicago has the toughest renaming schedule in the league, including the Jazz and Suns on the road this week, part of 7-of-8 coming up away from sweet home, Chicago.

Raptors small icon 14. Raptors (38-30, LW 15). Winners of four straight — all on the road, including over the Suns and Nuggets — has Toronto thinking of passing Cleveland, climbing into the No. 6 seed, and avoiding the play-in. There is a strong motivation: That first play-in game would be against the Nets with Durant and Irving (lose that and it’s a one-game win-or-go-home scenario). Since the All-Star break, Scottie Barnes has averaged 19.2 points per game on 57% shooting with 8.5 rebounds a game on top of it — he is playing his best basketball and validating Masai Ujiri’s faith in him last draft.

Cavaliers small icon 15. Cavaliers (39-29, LW 12). Evan Mobley has been forced to play more pure center with Jarrett Allen out (he will not get surgery on his fractured finger and hopes to return for the playoffs) and the rookie has done well. In his last five games, Mobley has averaged 21.6 points a game on 55.6% shooting (37.5% from 3) with 10.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks a game. Cleveland is 3-5 in their last eight and need to find wins to hold off Toronto and avoid the play-in, but that will not be easy with Philadelphia and Denver being the next two games on the schedule.

Hawks small icon 16. Hawks (34-34 LW 16). After winning three straight, Atlanta is .500 for the first time since before Christmas. A key part of that is two of the three games in the Hawks streak have been clutch wins (within 5 points in the final 5 minutes) — winning those games was a hallmark of the Hawks last season, but this season they have a -11.5 net rating in clutch minutes (27th in the NBA) and that has been part of their missing identity. That is returning. Eight of the Hawks’ last 10 games have had clutch minutes and the Hawks are 5-3 in those games with a +12.7 net rating. Keep that kind of play up and maybe they can escape the play-in.

Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (34-35, LW 18). Charlotte looks locked into the No. 10 seed and the final play-in slot in the East. What is the path from there to the playoffs? First beating Atlanta in the 9/10 game — a likely shootout between these offenses, although Charlotte’s defense has been an improved 15th in the league over the last 15 games. Win that, then face the loser of the Brooklyn vs. Toronto/Cleveland game (probably the Raptors or Cavaliers). It’s a tall order. Having Gordon Hayward back and healthy would help, and he is reportedly “starting to ramp things up this week.” A playoff return is possible.

Clippers small icon18. Clippers (36-35, LW 14). The Clippers forming a team identity, accepting roles, playing hard, and being a tough out despite their top two stars being sidelined is one of the most underreported and underappreciated stories of this NBA season. However, looking ahead to next season, how does this Kumbaya team spirit hold up when the pecking order change Reggie Jackson has thrived in his role as a leader and clutch performer, will he be the same guy when the ball is in someone else’s hands in the final minutes? Tyronn Lue has done an amazing job as coach this season, but he’ll have a difficult — and different — task ahead of him next season.

Pelicans small icon 19. Pelicans (28-41, LW 19). New Orleans hopes of hosting a play-in game — the 9/10 matchup against the Lakers — took a hit when Brandon Ingram got injured and CJ McCollum was out at the same time due to COVID protocols. They dropped four straight. Fortunately for New Orleans, Los Angeles is not exactly lighting the world on fire either and so the Pelicans are just one game back with 14 to play, and now McCollum is back in the lineup. So we’re saying there’s a chance, especially since the Lakers have a much tougher remaining schedule (the Pels and Lakers also play each other twice in the final weeks of the season).

Spurs small icon 20. Spurs (26-43, LW 20). Gregg Popovich is officially the winningest regular season coach in NBA history. What was most impressive about the tributes that poured in was that most were not about basketball, but how Pop had made players famous and or at the end of the bench better people. As for Popovich’s replacement: Only he gets to decide when he steps aside, he has earned that right, and whoever is next will be from within the Popovich coaching tree. The Spurs are not changing who they are as an organization the second he steps away.

Knicks small icon 21. Knicks (28-40, LW 22). New York went 3-4 on a recent road trip and there have been positive signs of life with the Knicks (even if it’s too little, too late for a playoff push). RJ Barrett has made a leap in recent weeks and his getting to the rim more is a big part of that, he is attacking and not settling. Unexpected stat of the week, courtesy Fred Katz at The Athletic: Evan Fournier is just 20 3-pointers away from tying John Starks for the Knicks record of most made 3s in a season (217). Fournier is averaging three made shots from beyond the arc a game, so odds are he gets there.

Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (29-39, LW 23). LeBron James has looked frustrated in recent weeks, and it’s easy to see why — unless he puts up a 50 spot like he did in two-out-of-three games recently, the Lakers can’t win. Anthony Davis remains out injured but has started on-court work and says he plans to return this season. Good news for sure, although as LeBron said, Davis’ return does “not the answer to all the questions.” Since the All-Star break, Russell Westbrook averages 16.2 points a game, shooting 40.8% overall and 8.7% from 3. That’s not a typo, 8.7% over his last 10 games from beyond the arc (2.3 attempts a game). The Lakers’ lack of depth is well documented, but it has bothered LeBron more of late.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (29-38, LW 21). Signs your defense may need some serious work: In their last three games a player has scored at least 44 points on the Washington (LeBron James 50, Josh Hart 44, Stephen Curry 47). Next up is Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets. Washington is mathematically alive for the final play-in spot — four games back with 13 to play — but in reality it’s not happening. The focus has to be on keeping Kristaps Porzingis healthy and picturing him paired with a re-signed Bradley Beal next season as the cornerstone of a playoff team.

Pacers small icon 24. Pacers (23-47, LW 24). Rick Carlisle put the ball in the hands of Tyrese Haliburton and the second-year guard has put up numbers since being traded to the Pacers: 18.5 points a game, 9.4 assists, shooting 42.5% from 3. The one area of concern, his turnovers have jumped. Dramatically. His turnover percentage has climbed to to 20% (one in five possessions) and that translates to almost 4 turnovers a game. Haliburton has to clean that up before next season or Carlisle will be forced to take the ball out of the youngster’s hands.

Kings small icon 25. Kings (25-45, LW 25). Remember how a few tried to suggest the trade for Domantas Sabonis was about the Kings making the playoffs this season? Before the trade they had a -4.9 net rating. Since the trade? A -4.7 net rating (and they have gone 4-9, a slightly lower winning percentage than before the deadline). The more things change in Sacramento, the more they stay the same. On the bright side, De’Aaron Fox has played better of late, in part because he found his jump shot.

Blazers small icon 26. Trail Blazers (26-41, LW 26). This ranking may be too high for how Portland has played since the All-Star break: The offense has scored less than a point per possession and they have a -23.2 net rating that is by far the worst in the league. They have gone 1-7 in those games, with that one win being when Josh Hart dominated and out up 44 against the Wizards last weekend. Hart brings a gritty, feisty attitude to the Blazers that’s been lacking for a while.

Magic small icon 27. Magic 18-52, LW 28). Orlando has actually played good defense of late, sixth best in the NBA since the All-Star break, despite the wealth of defensive talent on their injured list. That doesn’t really matter when Kyrie Irving gets going like he did on Tuesday night. The Magic became the first team officially eliminated from the playoffs, although that was always more of a formality than anything else, we knew it was coming.

Pistons small icon 28. Pistons (18-51, LW 27). Cade Cunningham is making a push for Rookie of the Year — and has plenty of supporters on social media — but he’s not likely to catch Evan Mobley in Cleveland, or maybe even Scottie Barnes in Toronto, both of whom didn’t have slow starts to the season. An interesting game for Pistons fans to pay while watching their NCAA bracket go up in smoke (because they always do): Who would be a better fit alongside Cunningham, the unicorn Chet Holmgren of Gonzaga or the more traditional modern big in Jabari Smith down of Auburn?

Thunder small icon 29. Thunder (20-48, LW 29). Despite Shai Gilgeous-Alexander putting up some impressive stats in recent weeks, the Thunder have lost six in a row and 9-of-11 because they have the worst defense in the NBA since the All-Star break, with a 122.7 net rating in those 10 games (and going 2-8). This season was always all about developing players like Josh Giddey while making sure they had another high lottery pick this season. That plan is coming together.

Rockets small icon 30. Rockets (17-51, LW 30). Jalen Green scored a career-high 32 against the Lakers’ “defense” last week, 10 in overtime, another sign of how much his game is growing as the season moves along. He’s not in the running for Rookie of the Year and he’s likely second team All-Rookie (at best), but he’s improving and that’s all the Rockets really can ask for. It’s about player development. We will have to see if Stephen Silas survives the offseason and is coaching the Rockets again next season.