Associated Press

NBA Power Rankings: Familiar faces from Bay Area back on top

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A familiar face is back on top of the power rankings, the Golden State Warriors, who flipped the switch in a couple of key games (Houston, Oklahoma City) to remind us of their status as the team to beat. The Bucks only slide down one spot.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (48-22, last week No. 4). Steve Kerr called last week’s loss to the Suns “a wake up call” for Golden State, and the team responded with wins against Houston and Oklahoma City, holding each of them to less than 40% shooting. All without Durant. Andrew Bogut is back and in his debut showed he can give the Warriors a few quality minutes behind DeMarcus Cousins (once Boogie gets back from his mild ankle injury) and that’s all they need from the Australian.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (53-18, LW 1). Malcolm Brogdon is going to be out for a while, likely into the first round of the playoffs (at least), and the loss to Philadelphia on Sunday showed how much the Bucks will miss him. Brogdon is both a threat to shoot the three (he’s shooting 42.6% from deep but takes fewer than four per game) and his straight line drives to the rim to create shots. The loss to the Sixers may be an anomaly but it was the realization of the worst playoff fears for the Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo went off for 52 (a chunk of that late) but the other Bucks shot 31% from three and didn’t step up under pressure. That can’t happen in the postseason.

 
Nuggets small icon 3. Nuggets (47-22, LW 5). The Nuggets still have a shot at the best record in the West (they are just half-a-game back of the Warriors and are tied in the loss column) but they are going to have to get some tough wins on the road to do it — 6 of Denver’s next 8 games are on the road, and the teams left on its schedule have a much higher winning percentage than who Golden State faces (the teams play each other April 2). However, the win in Boston shows the Nuggets can get the needed wins. They just need more plays like this Nikola Jokic game-winner against Dallas.

 
Sixers small icon 4. 76ers (46-25, LW 6). Philadelphia is 6-1 when their dream five start the game. That lineup is besting teams by 17.2 points per 100 possessions when on the court together, dominating on both ends. However, the key in the postseason will be finding lineups with bench players that work while starters rest (and are staggered in with the bench). Against the Bucks Sunday the fivesome of Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, Mike Scott, T.J. McConnell, and Boban Marjanovic was +12 in just under 11 minutes. The Sixers need more of that.

 
Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (45-26, LW 2). Houston has won games where it shot poorly recently (except against the Warriors) because the team is finally defending well again — the Rockets have a defensive rating of 107.7 in their last 15 games, eighth best in the league in that stretch. The Rockets need those wins to hang on to the three seed, Portland is just 1.5 games back and seeds 3-8 in the West are separated by just 3.5 games. Winners of 11-of-12, the Rockets have 4-of-5 coming up on the road, but only two of those games are against playoff teams.

 
Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (50-21, LW 3). Toronto is 12.5 points per 100 possessions worse when Kyle Lowry sits and the Raptors offense falls apart (the offense scores less than a point per possession when Jeremy Lin is on the court). It was evident in the loss to Detroit, but the Raptors thought Lowry would only be out two games until Michell Robinson fell on his ankle Monday, now he’s out for a while longer, although it doesn’t look to be a severe ankle injury. Toronto could use him in the upcoming home-and-home against Oklahoma City. The Raptors remain pretty much locked in as the two seed in the East, injury or no.

 
Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (43-28, LW 7). Boston GM Danny Ainge called his team “inconsistent” right now, and that’s pretty spot on. They have won 5-of-7 including thrashing the Warriors, but losses to the Clippers and Nuggets raised questions about how far they can really go. Another concern is the struggles of the starting lineup in recent weeks. With plans to rest Al Horford a few games as well as other starters down the stretch (with an eye toward having them fresh for the playoffs), will Boston make up the half game it is behind Indiana and get home court in the first round?

 
Spurs small icon 8. Spurs (42-29, LW 11). After that dreadful rodeo road trip, we kind of wrote the Spurs off, but that’s always a mistake. San Antonio has won nine in a row and the Spurs have a shot at home court in the first round of the playoffs (San Antonio is the five seed, just 1.5 games back of Portland and home court). In the last 9 games the Spurs have a +9.1 net rating. While the offense has been good during the streak (top 10) it is the defense — which has struggled much of the season — returning to elite status that has made the big difference (103.1 defensive net rating in those 9 games, third best in the league).

 
Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (43-27, LW 9). Not having C.J. McCollum for at least a week — and likely longer, McCollum told NBC Sports he’s taking it week by week but he doesn’t have a timeline — will make it challenging for Portland to hang on to the four seed and home court in the first round. San Antonio, OKC, Utah, and the LA Clippers are all within two games of the Blazers. Portland leaned heavily on its starting five to win games, now it needs more out of Jake Layman and Rodney Hood to win enough to keep home court.

 
Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (41-29, LW 13). Winners of four in a row and with the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, as long as the Jazz take care of business they will climb higher than the seven seed, and home court is not out of the question (although it’s a long shot at two games back with 11 to play). The Jazz are doing it with their old formula: They have the best defense in the NBA over the last 10 games and held a few teams to less than a point per possession, then they are getting just enough offense from Donovan Mitchell and company. But that pedestrian offense remains the thing holding them back.

 
Clippers small icon 11. Clippers (42-30, LW 10). Doc Rivers is deservedly going to get a lot of Coach of the Year votes, and Steve Ballmer and the Clippers understand when you have something good you don’t let it go, so he locked Rivers up (no Lakers in Rivers’ future). The Clippers have been a well-run basketball operation for a few years now and extending Rivers fits with that. Another something that works in L.A.? Lou Williams. He has made a strong Sixth Man of the Year push and shots like this help.

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (44-28, LW 12). The Pacers keep playing great defense to stay in games, then getting spurts of offense that spark dramatic comeback wins. Any fan of basketball has to admire the grit and tenacity with which this team plays. Nothing speaks to the fight in these Pacers like coming from 19 down against the Thunder, setting up the Wesley Matthews game winner.

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (42-29, LW 8). Oklahoma City has lost three in a row — because their offense has gone missing, having the second-worst net rating in the league during the last 10 games — and is now tied with San Antonio for the 5/6 seed in the West, with the 7/8 seeds (Jazz, Clippers) both just half a game back. Why should those four bunched-up teams concern Thunder fans? Because OKC has the toughest remaining schedule of any West playoff team (starting with a home-and-home against Toronto starting on Wednesday) and the Thunder could fall farther down the standings in the West.

 
Heat small icon 14. Heat (34-36, LW 17). They have won 7-of-9 against a tough schedule, including beating the Pistons and Hornets in the past week. The wins have come in bunches with Bam Adebayo starting and Hasaan Whiteside coming in with energy off the bench, that rotation has helped the Heat defense. All those wins has kept Miami 1.5 games clear of Orlando for the final playoff slot in the East, but the Heat are on the road this week (and the Magic have a very soft schedule the rest of the way).

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (36-34, LW 15). Would the real Detroit Pistons please stand up? Please stand up? Is it the team that got blown out by the Nets and Heat, and Monday lost to the Cavaliers? Or, is it the team that beat Raptors twice this month (Dwane Casey revenge games)? The Pistons are inconsistent because Reggie Jackson has been off his game (Blake Griffin has struggled with his shot of late, too). That loss Monday in Cleveland was the first of a five-game road trip for Detroit.

 
Nets small icon 16. Nets (37-36, LW 14). The Nets have gone 1-3 to start a seven-game road trip (although the win was a dramatic comeback against the Kings that could turn the trip around). The blame for the stumbles falls on the team’s offense, third worst in the NBA over the last 10 games. Specifically, it falls on their guards — D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and company have gone cold of late — at least until Russell in the fourth quarter against the Kings Tuesday. The Nets have slid down to the seven seed and are just three games away from falling out of the playoffs entirely. Add to that they have the toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way and Brooklyn needs to find some wins to stay in the dance.

 
Kings small icon 17. Kings (34-36, LW 16). Sacramento’s long-shot bid to make a run to the playoffs took a punch to the gut Tuesday night with the worst loss of the team’s season: blowing a 25-point fourth quarter lead to the Nets. Sacramento’s playoff dreams were put on their death by a recent 1-3 road trip where all the losses were in games the Kings were within five points in the final five minutes but couldn’t close it out. The Kings’ goal now should be to finish the season 8-4 and be above .500 for the campaign for the first time since 2006 (or at least 7-5 and get to .500).

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (33-38, LW 19). The Magic have the softest schedule of any team fighting for a playoff spot in the East, but that only helps if the team wins games — Orlando is 3-4 in its last seven with losses to Cleveland, Memphis, and Washington. The Magic are still just 1.5 games back of the heat and have won the first two of a five-game homestand, but that has to be just the start. Orlando needs more out of Terrence Ross and the bench to make this run.

 
19. Timberwolves (32-39, LW 18). Minnesota is turning heads with the amazing play of Karl-Anthony Towns sparking an offensive resurgence, but the team is 3-7 in its last 10 because it has the worst defense in the NBA by far in that stretch, a defensive net rating of 121.2. On the bright side, rookie forward Keita Bates-Diop is looking like he could be a rotation player.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (31-42, LW 20). Elfrid Payton has had a triple-double in five straight games. The only other players in NBA history to do that? Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, and Michael Jordan. That’s elite company. Of course, the Pelicans lost the first four of those, in part because they are one of the worst clutch teams in the NBA (15-26 in games within five points in the final five minutes). Which is why the win over Dallas in OT Monday was a nice change of pace.

 
Wizards small icon 21. Wizards (30-41, LW 23). Bradley Beal has thrived without John Wall next to him and, barring a collapse, will be just the 12th guard in NBA history to average 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. Beal is averaging 29.9 points per game since the All-Star break and had a pair of 40-point games last weekend. Beal could make the All-NBA team, which shows how impressive he’s been in spite of the team’s struggles.

 
Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (31-39, LW 21). Charlotte’s playoff chances are not dead yet, but the prognosis is not good. Sunday’s loss to Miami, where Charlotte scored just 75 points, likely did them in. The Hornets are three games back of he Heat with 12 to play and likely need to go at least 8-4, maybe 9-3, the rest of the way to get an invite to the dance. Not impossible, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

 
Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (28-42, LW 22). Given some extra run since coming over in the Marc Gaol trade, Jonas Valanciunas has reminded teams he can get them some points. Valanciunas has averaged 17.9 points on 58.2% shooting plus is grabbing 8 rebounds a game since joining the Grizzlies. He has a player option on his contract for next season for $17.6 million and it seems likely he will pick that up (unless he’s looking for a longer deal with more security, which is not likely out there). Expect his name to come up in trade talks, but wherever he plays next season he has value.

 
Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (31-40, LW 24). Los Angeles has clearly let go of the rope on the rest of this season — they are bottom 10 in the league in both offense and defense in their last 10 games, with an -8.1 net rating over that stretch. That’s why the focus in Los Angeles has already shifted to the off-the-court moves from the team this summer, starting with who the next head coach will be. That’s not decided, the only thing we know is it will not be Doc Rivers. By the way, LeBron James can still do this.

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (24-48, LW 25). Despite the losses piling up and Hawks fans watching NCAA Tournament games this weekend on scouting expeditions, the Hawks remain one of the most entertaining teams to watch down the stretch. Trae Young is shooting from anywhere in the building and is electric to watch, John Collins is going to be a stud, but maybe the most fun part is 42-year Vince Carter still making plays and being a part of the action.

 
Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (28-42, LW 26). Luka Doncic is going to win Rookie of the Year and continues to impress, but his game has slipped a little as the long season has ground him down. It has been most evident his high 13.4 turnover ratio in his last 10 games (his assist ratio is still at 20%). Congrats to Dirk Nowitzki for passing Wilt Chamberlain for sixth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (20-52, LW 28). Chicago has played poorly of late, even for them. On one end their defense has been one of the worst in the NBA, while on the other end Lauri Markkanen has gone into a scoring slump. The only time that changed was the one game the Bulls could have stood to lose, their defense showed up in a win over the Suns, meaning the Bulls almost certainly will enter the draft lottery in the No. 4 slot.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (17-55, LW 27). The Suns picked up a key loss Monday in Chicago. Going into that game the Suns had the third worst record in the NBA but had won 6-of-10, while the Bulls were the fourth worst record. If the Suns won that game the Bulls would have had a real shot at one of the three worst records in the league, with each of those teams getting a 14% chance of Zion Williamson, er, the top pick in the draft at the lottery. The Bulls won and now are three games better than the Suns and will not make that up, meaning the Bulls will have a 12.5% shot at Zion. Not a huge difference, but when you’re talking about a franchise player every little bit helps.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (18-53, LW 29). Maybe Monday is the Cavaliers’ night. This past Monday Cleveland beat playoff-bound Detroit, the Monday before that they beat Toronto, but they lost the three games in between those contests. Collin Sexton has come on as a scorer lately, having scored at least 23 points in six straight games as he starts to feel more comfortable with the NBA three (and that means fewer midranges).

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (14-57, LW 30). Knicks fans, don’t just watch Duke and drool at the possibilities in the NBA draft, don’t forget to check out Ja Morant from Murray State, the kind of scoring point guard New York might want. Also, D’Andre Hunter from Virginia is the kind of defensive wing who can get out in transition and hit threes who would look good with the Knicks next season. Jarrett Culver of Texas Tech also would be a good fit.

NBA Power Rankings: Houston rockets up to second spot with nine-game win streak

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Houston has Rocketed up to No. 2 in the rankings (see what I did there?) and right now look like the biggest threat to Golden State. They haven’t knocked the Bucks out of the top spot, at least not yet.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (51-17, last week No. 1). The defense has slipped since the All-Star break — 110.1 net rating, 16th in the league — but the Bucks are still 8-3 in that stretch because their offense has gotten even better. Everyone in Milwaukee is looking ahead, the Bucks in the Giannis Antetokounmpo era have never won a playoff series, that will change in the first round this year. But the second round… on paper this team is a contender but will Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe perform on the biggest stages. Good benchmark Sunday vs. Philly.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (42-25, LW 6). Winners of nine in a row, the Rockets look like the second-best team in the NBA again. A team that may be a threat to the Warriors (as much as anyone). Not just because Chris Paul is playing well (although he is playing closer to last year’s version), or because Clint Capela is healthy and running the floor hard again, but because they are defending well for the first time this season. Since the All-Star break, Houston has a defensive net rating of 106.4, seventh best in the NBA (better than Utah in that stretch). Can they sustain it? If so, the Warriors will be looking over their shoulders.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (48-20, LW 2). Toronto didn’t pick up Marc Gasol expecting an eventual Serge Ibaka suspension, but it helps with Ibaka missing three games after throwing hands with Marquese Chriss. This is not a team making a strong playoff push (5-4 since the All-Star break) but it’s hard to read them because Kawhi Leonard has gotten a lot of rest and because their playoff position has been essentially set (the No. 2 seed) removing urgency in games. One thing to bet on, Pascal Siakam is going to win Most Improved Player.

Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (45-21, LW 3). For one game, against Denver on the night the Nuggets could have tied the Warriors with a win, we saw what the fully-functional Death Star can do. It was awe inspiring. Then the Warriors turned around and lost to the Suns. Expect to see Kevin Durant (ankle) and other key players rest down the stretch, and expect more erratic performances, but does anyone doubt they can play like the Death Star team four times in any seven game series?

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (44-22, LW 4). Isaiah Thomas has struggled to fit in off the bench so far, which is why coach Mike Malone is shrinking his role and minutes (IT got a DNP-CD on Tuesday). Through nine games he’s averaging 8.6 points a night but is shooting 27.3% from three (where he takes 44% of his shot attempts), and even when he gets to the rim he’s only finishing 50% of his attempts. Monte Morris bounced back with a good game against the Warriors and coach Mike Malone will need to lean on him and not IT when the playoffs start.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (43-25, LW 5). Joel Embiid’s return Sunday had Philadelphia looking like a team that could come out of the East again — he had 33 and 12 in a key win over the Pacers, he anchored their defense and bullied the Pacers in the paint on offense. The Sixers need that Embiid to be a real threat. Big test Sunday at Milwaukee, a chance for both teams to make a statement they are contenders for the East crown.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (41-27, LW 11). They went a strong 3-1 on a West Coast road trip and looked like the team we expected coming into the season (don’t read into the loss to the Clippers, last games of a trip get mailed in sometimes). Much like it has been recently in the regular season, Boston’s chances in the playoffs will swing with how Gordon Hayward plays — when he scores in double digits off the bench, the Celtics become a much more dangerous team.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (41-26, LW 8). Russell Westbrook’s interaction with a fan in Utah got the NBA community finally talking about an issue that needed to be in the spotlight — there are too many fans crossing the line of what is said to players, and there is little the players can do about it. Westbrook got fined for it, but my guess is he’s good with that if it sparked a real discussion (which it did). The Thunder went 2-2 on their recent road trip and things do not get easier now, they have their next six games against playoff teams.

Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (41-26, LW 7). Coach Terry Stotts shot down a question about the playoffs, saying he is not thinking about matchups or seeding yet, but Portland wants to climb up to the four seed and have home court in the first round (they are tied with Oklahoma City for that spot as of this writing). Portland is 25-9 at home this season and 16-17 on the road — if they are going to advance pat the first round playing at home would be a big boost.

Clippers small icon 10. Clippers (39-30, LW 12). Wins over Boston and Oklahoma City recently show why this Clipper team is going to be a tough out in the playoffs. Spend time around the Clippers and you sense a confidence amongst this team despite all the roster changes this season — they like each other, they joke around in the locker room, and on the floor they know who they are and they play hard. Lou Williams is making a push for Sixth Man of the Year with his play of late, but the loss to Portland shows just how much Danilo Gallinari’s shooting and ability to create looks matters to this team (he rested that game).

Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (39-29, LW 13). Winners of six in a row (they needed that after a brutal rodeo road trip) and the streak has solidified their playoff position. The Spurs have done it with good defense — 105.1 net rating in this stretch, sixth best in the NBA — and enough offense from DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge to make it all work (they combined for 61 Tuesday night to beat the Mavs).

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (43-25, LW 9). The Pacers need to play better (they have lost 6-of-9) if they are going to hold on to home court in the first round. The Pacers are tied with Philly for the 3/4 seed with Boston just two games back, but Indy has a brutal schedule coming up — Oklahoma City at home Thursday then 6-of-7 on the road including the Nuggets, Clippers, Warriors, Thunder again, then Celtics. It’s going to be tough to find wins in there.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (37-29, LW 10). With the softest remaining schedule in the NBA, it should have been time for Utah to make its push up the Western standings and maybe even get home court in the first round. Instead, they have lost 3-of-4 (including to Memphis and New Orleans). More concerning, Julius Randle and Jonas Valanciunas have punished the Jazz in the paint. Utah is still in the playoffs as the eight seed, but their lack of focus against teams they should beat is going to have them starting the playoffs on the road.

Nets small icon 14. Nets (36-33, LW 15). Winners of four in a row, the last one against Detroit to keep them ahead of the Pistons and in the six seed. Spencer Dinwiddie had 19 against Detroit, continuing his run of good play — he is going to get some Sixth Man of the Year votes. But now the Pacers have seven in a row on the road and every one of their remaining games this season except one (Lakers) is against a team over .500.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (34-32, LW 14). Detroit has leaned a little too much on fourth-quarter comebacks lately, but they had won 8-of-9 before the loss to the Nets Monday. Still, because of the Nets’ schedule, expect the Pistons to finish the season as the six seed in the East. Give coach Dwane Casey credit for pulling this team together in his first season in Detroit, finding an offense that works, and getting this team into the postseason.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (33-33, LW 16). The Kings have had the most surprising season in the NBA, and that will mean Coach of the Year votes for Dave Joerger and Most Improved Player votes for De’Aaron Fox. Both well deserved (although neither are likely to win the award). However, the surprising season is not going to end with a playoff berth, the Kings are four out with 16 games to play. The key this offseason is to stick with the building plan and not to become impatient and make win-now moves.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (31-35, LW 21). Miami’s new starting lineup — Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo, Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, and Kelly Olynyk — has led the team to win 4-of-5 and hang on to the final playoff slot in the East. In the seven games they have started (91 total minutes) that lineup is +7.1 per 100 possessions, with a high powered offense leading the way. Miami has a tougher schedule than Orlando (one game back) and Charlotte (1.5 back) the rest of the way and will need more out of that lineup if the Heat are going to get an invite to the postseason dance.

18. Timberwolves (32-36, LW 20). Karl-Anthony Towns continues to be on a tear — in his last 10 games he’s averaging 32.9 points per game on 59.6 percent shooting overall, 48.3 percent from three (on 5.8 attempts a game), plus grabbing 12.8 boards a night. Is that going to be enough to get him an All-NBA center spot in a crowded field (Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis) — if he does it’s worth a cool $32 million on his rookie contract extension that kicks in next season (thanks to the Rose rule).

Magic small icon 19. Magic (31-37, LW 17). Playoff teams take care of business against lesser opponents, which is why the Magic are in danger of missing the postseason after their big push to get back in it. Orlando has lost 3-of-4 including the the Cavaliers and Grizzlies. The Magic struggle in tight games, which is part of the problem. I’d say they have a soft section of the schedule ahead, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Orlando. They just need wins.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (30-40, LW 18). Jrue Holiday being out is a big blow, he has been playing at a near All-NBA level and off the court has become more of the face of the franchise (after the Anthony Davis situation). Rookie guard Frank Jackson has stepped up with some strong games in Holiday’s absence, which is about all there is to root for if you’re a Pelicans fan.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (30-37, LW 19). The vultures are circling. Needing to make a playoff push the Hornets have instead lost 7-of-9, and now the rumors about Kemba Walker being unhappy and wanting out are growing louder (I had heard from sources right after the trade deadline he was frustrated the team didn’t make a move. Charlotte plays Miami in Sunday, one of the teams they are battling with for the last playoff slot in the East, they need that win.

Grizzlies small icon 22. Grizzlies (28-40, LW 24). Memphis’ first-round pick this year is top 8 protected, and considering it’s a softer draft (and the Grizzlies are just starting their rebuild) they wouldn’t mind letting Boston have it this year (and keeping it in the future). That means winning more now, and the Grizzlies have done just that, with victories in 5-of-7 (thanks to the best defense in the league in that stretch, a 100.3 net rating). Currently, they have the seventh-worst record in the league (85.8% chance they keep the pick) but keep winning and the odds Boston gets it climb fast.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (28-39, LW 23). Washington’s playoff chances are not dead — it is 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot (Miami) but they have a 10% chance of making up that ground and getting in, according to fivethirtyeight.com. That makes Wednesday’s game against Orlando and Friday against Charlotte critical — all three of those teams are in the same playoff chase, a couple of wins there and the Wizards chances get much more realistic. Lose both and they can book the hotel in Cabo for mid-April.

Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (31-36, LW 22). Luke Walton is going to take the fall for this Lakers’ season, which is not completely fair because the roster he was given to work with by management was flawed and needed perfect health and some breaks to make the playoffs. That didn’t happen (Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are shut down for the season now). The question becomes, where do the Lakers get their next coach? Who can they get that LeBron James will respect and buy into? There is not an obvious upgrade just sitting on the open market, but this will be the first big test for management in a summer it has to nail.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (23-45, LW 25). Here’s what should have Atlanta fans pumped about the future: In their last 10 games, the Hawks are +5.9 points per 100 when Trae Young and John Collins are on the court together. That pair is the cornerstone of the future for the Hawks, and it’s looking promising. In the loss to the Nets last weekend, Young had his first triple-double and Collins added 33 points and 20 rebounds in the game. The Hawks are going to take a step forward next season, just watch.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-40, LW 26). The long season seems to be catching up with Luka Doncic. In his last five games he’s still averaging 20.4 points per game, but he’s shooting just 27.8% from three and 37.5% overall. Against San Antonio Tuesday he had his worst game of the season, 5-of-18 shooting, 1-of-7 from three, and even 1-of-9 from the free throw line. What you had to like is the frustrated Doncic went in and worked on his game immediately after that showing, vowing it would not happen again.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (16-52, LW 29). The Suns are not taking for Zion — they have won 5-of-7 and that includes beating the Warriors and the Bucks. The biggest key is that Kelly Oubre has been a fit, and averaged 18.9 points a game since put in the starting lineup, providing another shot creation and scoring option for Phoenix.

Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (19-50, LW 27). What has Zach LaVine done to step up his game this season? Get to the rim. Before his injury (his three seasons in Minnesota) LaVine took 33% to 35% of his shots at the rim, but this season that is up to 49% (stats via Cleaning the Glass). He can get to the rim whenever he wants and is finishing a solid 61% of those shots. He’s taking fewer midrangers also and has found a steady stroke from three (although he should get and take more corner threes, he’s deadly there).

Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (17-51, LW 28). Collin Sexton was not the instant star some of the other guys in the last draft have been, but he has steadily improved throughout the season. Last week he broke Kyrie Irving’s franchise record for triple-doubles as a rookie. He’s got work to do, particularly on the defensive end, but he’s taking steps in the right direction.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-55, LW 30). Zion Williamson will return from injury to play in the ACC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament for Duke. While have been fans and pundits calling for him to shut it down, it speaks to his makeup and desire that he wants to play and wants to win with his teammates, not just sit back and wait until he gets paid. With him, and particularly how Zion improves their defense, the Blue Devils have a real shot to win it all. What… you want to talk about the Knicks? Come on.

Pat Riley: Heat will pursue two max players in 2020

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In the 1995-96 season, the Heat traded for Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway.

In 2004, the Heat traded for Shaquille O’Neal.

In 2010, the Heat signed LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Will Miami makes its next star splash in 2020?

Near-star Josh Richardson is locked into a relatively cheap contract for two more years. Bam Adebayo has two more seasons on his relatively low-paying rookie-scale deal. Justise Winslow, who’s maybe finding his groove, is guaranteed two more seasons on his rookie-scale extension.

That core could appeal to free agents in 2020, when Hassan Whiteside‘s, Ryan Anderson‘s and Goran Dragic‘s contracts expire.

Heat:

Heat president Pat Riley, in an interview with Jason Jackson:

We’re chasing a playoff spot when we’re young. And then we’re going to be chasing some players that can come in. If we can get one or two players to come in with this group, this young group, then I think the sky’s the limit for this team in the next couple years.

We’ve done this four times now, had a good group of players, young players, and then either through free agency or through trade brought the superstar in.

In 2020, we’ll have a lot of room. We’ll also have the possibility to have enough room to go after two max contracts. And we’re going to do that. So, we’re planning that 2020 will be the room year.

We’re very fluid. We’re very on top of it. And we are a destination place, Jax. The tax, the sun, the beautiful city. It’s a very progressive city, diverse city. So, we are a destination place. And we’re going to be moving in that direction.

That’s quite ambitious. But Riley has executed grand plans before. That will only embolden him to pursue this one.

It won’t be easy.

Miami projects to have just $34 million of cap space in 2020. A single max salary that summer projects to be $30 million-$41 million, depending on the player’s experience.

James Johnson ($16,047,100) and Kelly Olynyk ($13,598,243) have player options for the 2020-21 season. It’s difficult to see a 33-year-old Johnson or 29-year-old Olynyk declining those options. The Heat also owe Dion Waiters $12,650,000 that season.

Of course, there’s plenty of time to unload contracts. If this is Riley’s vision, keep an eye on those three players between now and next year’s trade deadline. Miami could also move its next two first-round picks to unload salary.

But even if the Heat clear double-max cap room, whom would the spend it on?

Anthony Davis is the big prize in 2020 free agency. After that, it’s slim pickings.

Most of this year’s All-Stars are already under contract for 2020-21. Several more – Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton, Kemba Walker, D'Angelo Russell and Nikola Vucevic – will be free agents this summer. While some could sign a one-year or 1+1 contract to return to free agency next summer, I wouldn’t bet on that. Dwyane Wade will be retired by then and is already in Miami. Dirk Nowitzki will also likely retire by then, but even if he doesn’t, he’s neither leaving the Mavericks nor commanding a substantial salary.

That leaves Ben Simmons, Kyle Lowry and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Simmons will be eligible for a contract extension this offseason. Even if he doesn’t sign one, he’ll be restricted in 2020. It’s nearly impossible to see him getting away in free agency that year.

Lowry will be 34. The Heat showed interest in him before, but that was five years ago. As he leaves his prime, he won’t draw nearly as much attention.

Aldridge will become a 2020 free agent only if waived. His $24 million salary for 2020-21 is $7 million guaranteed. But if his team would rather pay him $7 million to leave than $24 million to stay, that’d say something about his value.

Other players will emerge. This is far from set in stone. But a little more than a year out, the 2020 free-agent class looks very weak.

Is that really the year the Heat want to splurge?

Riley has already once admitted he regretted saying he planned to go whale hunting. I wonder whether his 2020 plan will eventually inspire a similar evaluation.

NBA Power Rankings: Greek Freak knocking down threes helps Bucks back to top spot

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Milwaukee is back on top and look like a real threat in the playoffs, although the East remains a fascinating chase. It’s Golden State then everyone else in the West.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (46-14, last week No. 2). Don’t tell anyone, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is hitting his threes lately. In his last 15 games, the Greek Freak is shooting 39.5% from three on 2.9 attempts per game. The defensive strategy on the Bucks in the playoffs will be to lay 15 feet off Antetokounmpo and dare him to shoot, if he can take and make enough of those just to keep the defense honest, it’s a game changer. Of course, if the Bucks need a big three at the end of a game — say, against the Celtics — they would want Khris Middleton to take it.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (43-17, LW 1). The much-hyped starting five of the Warriors — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins — has struggled. In its last 8 games together, the lineup has a net rating of -15.1 per 100 possessions, and they have been bad on both ends of the court. The result is the Warriors having to dig out of holes seemingly every game. In his last five games, DeMarcus Cousins is averaging 14.6 points per game but on just 40.3 percent shooting overall and 20 percent from three. If you’re looking for chinks in the armor, Golden State has some.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (45-17, LW 3). Toronto appears locked into the two seed in the East (2.5 games back of the Bucks, 4.5 up on the Pacers), giving Nick Nurse a chance to experiment with lineups around Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin, to see where they best fit. Toronto made a statement by blowing out the Celtics on Tuesday night, showing off their combination of length, shooting, and versatility. Toronto looked every bit the title contender in the win. The kind of team Kawhi Leonard might want to stick around for.

 
Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (41-18, LW 7). Denver has found its defense again — in the last five games, they have allowed less than a point per possession (97.7 per 100), the best in the league over that stretch. That’s a good sign for the postseason — so is the fact Nuggets also are a matchup nightmare for the Thunder. In their three meetings this season OKC has led the games for 12 minutes total, Denver for 85 minutes. There have been questions about how far the untested Nuggets can go in the postseason, but in the win Tuesday night over the Thunder they looked like the second best team in the West.

 
Thunder small icon 5. Thunder (38-21, LW 4). This is better Thunder team than a year ago heading into the playoffs — Russell Westbrook has found his shooting stroke of late, Paul George looks like an MVP candidate, and there is no Carmelo Anthony. Of concern, however, is the fact Denver seems to have their number, which would be an issue in the playoffs The Thunder are the current three seed in the West but have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the NBA, and Portland is only one game back — slip to the four seed and even if they beat Houston/Utah in the first round they are on the Warriors’ side of the bracket for the second round.

 
Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (40-21, LW 8). So much for the Pacers falling back without Victor Oladipo: They are 8-2 in their last 10 with a +11.1 net rating, mostly because their defense has been elite during the stretch. Nobody is a bigger Pacers fan the rest of the way than the Raptors, because if Indiana holds on to the three seed the path for the two seed (almost certainly Toronto) to the conference finals is much easier.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (39-22, LW 6). The Sixers have gone 2-1 without Joel Embiid since the All-Star break (sore knee), but they have not looked like the same team without their best player and anchor in the middle. Philly will be without him (and Boban) against Oklahoma City Thursday. That is followed by a big test against Golden State on Saturday — if Embiid is not back for that game it feels like the red flag on his health flies a little higher. They need Embiid back to help this team gel before the playoffs.

 
Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (37-23, LW 11). How much they can play him in the postseason is a different question, but in the regular season adding Enes Kanter to back up Jusuf Nurkic has led to an advantage in the paint and on the glass so far for Portland. Combined through three games they have averaged 37 points and 17.7 rebounds a game. Portland has started 3-0 on a 7-game road trip through the East, but Boston and Toronto are up next.

 
Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (37-24, LW 5). They have lost three in a row out of the All-Star break, including to Milwaukee and getting blown out by Toronto. More concerning, the Celtics have a bottom-10 defense in the NBA through their last 10 games — that was supposed to be their calling card, supposed to be Brad Steven’s strength, and the Celtics have not been good of late (they are fifth in the NBA defensively for the season). It’s hard to figure out where this team ranks in the pecking order of the East, but the last couple of games have not been promising.

 
Rockets small icon 10. Rockets (35-25, LW 9). James Harden’s 30+ points a game scoring streak ended the way it was always going to — against a team where he didn’t need to put up crazy numbers for them to win (he still had 28). If the Rockets are going to return to being the second best team in the West two things need to happen the rest of the way: Chris Paul needs to keep playing like he did against Golden State (23 points, 17 assists) and their defense needs to improve to at least league average levels if not better. Just a couple of things to watch.

 
Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (33-26, LW 10). We don’t question Utah’s ability to defend (even if they have been up and down of late on that end), but the offense… actually has been good recently. In their last 10 games, they have averaged 114.6 points per 100 possessions, sixth best in the NBA over that stretch and better than the Thunder or Bucks. Donovan Mitchell is attacking, and anyone who continues to think Rudy Gobert is just a defender needs to sit down and watch more Utah basketball — he has good hands and can score around the rim.

 
Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (34-28, LW 13). The Clippers are the 7 seed in the West, on pace to finish with 44 wins and they have a 74% chance of making the playoffs (according to fivethirtyeight.com). Doc Rivers is doing that with unconventional lineups — starting Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac, two recent additions, and counting on Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell off the bench to carry the day. And it’s working — but there are big tests in their playoff chase this week with games against the Kings and Lakers, two of the teams chasing Los Angeles.

 
Nets small icon 13. Nets (32-30, LW 15). After stumbling back into a fight for a playoff spot, the Nets seem to have righted the ship, winning 3-of-4 and they now have a four-game cushion over the nine-seed Magic. They’re going to be a playoff team. That said they have the fourth-hardest remaining schedule in the NBA (second in the East) and that could leave them open to getting passed by surging Detroit for the six seed. They need more of the D’Angelo Russell we saw against Charlotte, where he scored the team’s final 12 points to secure the win.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (29-30, 16). Welcome to the playoffs Detroit — winners of 7-of-8 with the best offense in the NBA during that stretch (120 points per 100), the Pistons are the seven seed in the East. And, they have an easier schedule the rest of the way than anyone they are competing with for one of the final spots other than Orlando. They key has been Reggie Jackson, who in his last 10 games is averaging 19.2 points per game, shooting 44.8 percent from three, is dishing out 5.7 assists a night, and is +9.4 points per game. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond will do their thing, but this team needs Jackson to be great to thrive.

 
Kings small icon 15. Kings (31-29, LW 12). Rookie Marvin Bagley has steadily improved all season starting to really find his groove, he had good games against the Warriors, Thunder, and Timberwolves combining for 72 points and 35 rebounds in those contests. The Kings dropped 3-of-4 on a tough road trip and things do not get easier now with the Bucks and then the Clippers, one of the teams they are trying to catch for the final playoff slots in the West.

 
Spurs small icon 16. Spurs (33-29, LW 14). A couple weeks ago the talk was about the Clippers slipping back and getting passed for a playoff spot by the Kings or Lakers, but now the Spurs look like the vulnerable team. San Antonio went 1-7 on the Rodeo road trip and now sit as the eight seed, just one game up on Sacramento. FiveThirtyEight gives the Spurs an 81% chance of making the playoffs, but that seems high unless the Spurs start to defend a lot better. The Spurs are home again but with the Pistons, Thunder, and Nuggets coming to town there are not easy wins on the horizon.

 
17. Timberwolves (29-31, LW 21). Karl-Anthony Towns’ streak of 303 consecutive games played ended because of a car accident that left him in the league’s concussion protocol. The funniest thing this week was Ja Rule putting a curse on the Timberwolves, saying KAT was going to leave — that would be the same guy whose five-year max extension kicks in next season. If he’s going anywhere it’s not for a while, Minnesota is building around him. Now, if Ja Rule wants to curse Andrew Wiggins out of town that would be welcome among Wolves fans.

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (28-34, LW 19). Orlando is on the doorstep of the playoffs thanks to an 8-3 run fueled by their defense, the best in the NBA over that stretch (although the loss to the Knicks Tuesday hurt). Not coincidentally, Orlando’s rise started when coach Steve Clifford stopped playing Mo Bamba — he has potential but is not ready — and Jonathan Simmons (since traded). Orlando has an easier schedule than everyone else chasing one of the final playoff spots in the East, they have a real shot.

 
Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (28-32, LW 17). Charlotte has lost 4-of-5 and subbing Miles Bridges in for Jeremy Lamb in the starting lineup after the All-Star break has not changed things. Charlotte sits as the eighth seed in the East as you read this, just one game up on Orlando and 1.5 on Miami, and the Hornets have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the East. It’s why fivethirtyeight.com gives the Hornets just a 40% chance of making the playoffs. Miss the postseason and Kemba Walker’s free agent decision this summer gets more interesting.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (27-35, LW 23). The Pelicans are limiting the minutes of Anthony Davis down the stretch — more interestingly they had some good play without him. The Pelicans beat the Lakers while Davis sat. A fourth-quarter run to make it just a one-point loss (after trailing by 17 earlier) against the 76ers came with Davis on the bench. They are still +7.5 per 100 better with Davis on the court since his return from injury, but the Pelicans are showing they can do some things without their star who doesn’t want to be there. Julius Randle continues to play himself into a big contract this summer.

 
Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (29-31, LW 20). Two ugly losses has led to renewed questions about Luke Walton’s job security (few around the league think he’s back next season) and a passive-aggressive LeBron James seeming current starting lineup with Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, JaVale McGee, Reggie Bullock and James is giving up 116.2 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the Cleveland Cavaliers have the worst defensive rating in the league at 115.9. LeBron’s effort has been at the heart of those defensive issues. Before LeBron (and maybe Magic) goes blaming the young kids for the Lakers not making the playoffs, they may want to look at this chart.

 
Heat small icon 22. Heat (26-33, LW 22). Miami has a lot of nice complimentary players — Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo — but no true star to create good looks and lead them in crunch time. The return of Goran Dragic doesn’t change that. The Heat are only 1.5 games out of the playoffs, but with the Warriors, Rockets, and Nets on the schedule this week it’s going to take some upsets to get them in playoff position.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (26-34, LW 18). Losers of five in a row, they were without Luka Doncic for the fist couple of games after the All-Star break, but he was back against Clippers Monday. Not that it mattered. Classy move by Doc Rivers at the end of Monday’s game to make sure that Dirk Nowitzki got a proper send-off from the Los Angeles fans.

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (24-36, LW 24). Bradley Beal leads the NBA in total minutes played this season, but with the Wizards all but out of the playoff chase you’d think Scott Brooks would start to ease up on him. You’d be wrong. He has played at least 41 minutes in each of the Wizards last four games, all losses. Washington is four back of a playoff slot and fivethirthyeight.com has them with a 7% chance of getting back into the postseason. Time to ease up on Beal.

 
Grizzlies small icon 25. Grizzlies (24-38, LW 25). Memphis wouldn’t mind winning enough — and getting some lottery luck — so that they lose their first-round pick to Boston this season in a down draft. Their actions at the trade deadline just made that hard. With where they stand now, the Grizzlies have a 3.8 percent chance of sending that pick to the Celtics, and they are not going to win enough the rest of the way to improve those odds much.

 
Bulls small icon 26. Bulls (16-45, LW 27). The Bulls are playing their best basketball of the season, having won 3-of-4 and having the best offense in the NBA in the month of February. When Zach LaVine, Otto Porter and Lauri Markkanen are on the court together this has been a good offensive team, and that gives real hope for the future in the Windy City.

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (20-41, LW 26). Trae Young continues to play well and put up numbers — 30 points against the Pistons, and 36 against the Rockets. But while we focus on his scoring his passing is still creating highlight after highlight and he — along with John Collins — are making the Hawks worth watching.

 
Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (13-48, LW 30). No tanking for Zion here, the Knicks have won 3-of-4 and have done in part thanks to Dennis Smith Jr., but the emergence of Mitchell Robinson has helped as well. The rookie big man had 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks against the solid front line of Orlando Tuesday night. I’m not sure he’s going to be the star some Knicks fans think, but he could be part of the rotation in whatever the Knicks will look like next.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (14-47, LW 28). Kevin Love, back from injury for five games now, looks like he is starting to get his legs back under him as Love scored 32 against Memphis and now has 66 points and 35 rebounds in his last three games. Love looking healthy the rest of the season will increase the odds he gets traded this summer (although those odds are not that high).

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (12-50, LW 29). A surprising win in Miami ended a 17-game losing streak on Monday night, thanks to a balanced attack from their starters, led by Devin Booker with 20. If Suns fans missed the win because all their doing is watching Duke games, you can’t blame them.
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Celtics guard Marcus Smart squares up, blocks Heat center Bam Adebayo’s dunk

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It wasn’t all bad for the Celtics against the Heat last night.

Boston guard Marcus Smart had this amazing block against Miami center Bam Adebayo, a ferocious dunker.

Did I mention Smart is a guard, and Adebayo is a center?