While the Bucks and Lakers hold on to their top two spots, the Rockets and Clippers are climbing fast and look like threats (at least in the West).
1. Bucks (52-9, Last Week No. 1). Brook Lopez is going to get some down-ballot Defensive Player of the Year votes — and he deserves them. Lopez has contested more shots than anyone in the NBA this season — 1,133 shot contests (82% of those are twos), which is 182 more than the next person on the list (Rudy Gobert). Lopez has played the best defense of his career and is a key reason the Bucks have the top-ranked defense in the NBA. That defense will get a good test Friday night when the Bucks travel to Los Angeles to face the Lakers.
2. Lakers (47-13, LW No. 2). The Lakers add 4.1 points per 100 possessions because of their transition play, tied for most in the league (with Toronto, stats via Cleaning The Glass). The Lakers are a force when they get out and run, however, that is muted somewhat because they have a middle-of-the-pack transition defense. The Lakers are an elite halfcourt defense but the Bucks will test their transition defense Friday night (no team tries to run as much as Milwaukee). Then comes a Sunday showcase game against the healthy and hot Clippers.
3. Rockets (39-21, LW 4). In November, Russell Westbrook took 28.3% of his shots from three and 36.4% at the rim, and he struggled with his shot. In his last 10 games, just 9.4% of his shots are threes while more than half (50.6%) of his shots came at the rim — and Westbrook is thriving. The Rockets have gotten him chances to play downhill and attack closer to the rim, using him in snug pick-and-rolls and tighter spaces with their small ball lineups. It has worked brilliantly. This is one of the best stretches of basketball in Westbrook’s career.
4. Clippers (42-19, LW 8). Finally healthy and fully loaded, the Clippers have won five in a row and looked like a force of nature the past week. As in, best team in the NBA kind of force of nature. Their offense has been the best in the NBA over the past five games since everyone got in the lineup, and the defense has locked teams down (fifth-best in the league in the last five, although that got a little skewed by Shake Milton’s hot hand). Speaking of defense: Montrezl Harrell leads the NBA in charges drawn this season with 30. Doc Rivers said in the Clippers system they see a charge drawn the same way as a blocked shot and Harrell has taken that to heart.
5. Celtics (41-19, LW 5). Kemba Walker returned Tuesday night and had 21 points on 23 minutes, but a minutes limit had him on the bench down the stretch as the Celtics blew a 17-point fourth quarter lead and fell to the Nets in Boston’s worst loss of the season. Also not on the court at the end of that was was Jayson Tatum, due to illness, but the numbers are in from Tatum’s breakout February: 30.7 points a game on a 63.7 true shooting percentage, plus 7.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists a night.
6. Raptors (43-18, LW 3). Toronto just can’t get healthy — right as Norman Powell returns, Fred Van Vleet and Serge Ibaka head to the bench injured (joining Marc Gasol, who has been out since January). Toronto is up one game in the loss column over Boston for the two seed in the East, and their schedules are basically even in terms of difficulty the rest of the way. Toronto needs to get healthy and get some wins.
7. Nuggets (41-20, LW 7). Denver had an impressive defensive start to the season, but the blowout loss to the Clippers last Friday night was a reminder how much they have faded on that end of the court — the Nuggets are 20th in the league in defense over their last 10 games. This may be the biggest question the Nuggets face heading into the postseason: Can they get enough stops when it matters. Denver has 22 games to get their defensive groove back from November.
8. Mavericks (37-25, LW 10). As should have been expected coming off an ACL injury, it took a while for Kristaps Porzingis to get his legs back under him. In November he averaged 15.8 points per game on 38.7 percent shooting overall and he made 2.1 threes a game. Fast forward to February where he averaged 25.2 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting and 3.7 made threes a game (on 39.8 percent shooting from deep). Fans and some pundits were impatient, but Porzingis looks like the cornerstone Dallas thought he would be.
9. Heat (39-22, LW 12). Back in November, Miami had a defensive rating of 105, eighth-best in the NBA. Since then, the Heat defense has gotten a little worse each month, culminating in a February defensive rating of 113.7, a bottom 10 in the league ranking (hat tip to our old friend Rob Mahoney of The Ringer for pointing that out). Miami’s defense was spectacular for a night in the upset of Milwaukee this week, and the team is on a three-game winning streak. The defense will get tested by Zion and New Orleans on Friday night.
10. Thunder (37-24, LW 6). Dennis Schroder is one of the leading candidates for Sixth Man of the Year, averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting 38 percent from three. It helps that he is part of the powerful three-guard lineup with Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander that has drawn a lot of attention, and it helps that the Clippers’ two stars will split the vote, but Schroder deserves to be at the front of that race. Reality hit the Thunder hard the last two games when the Bucks — in a 47-point blowout — and the Clippers handled them with relative ease.
11. Pacers (37-24, LW 13). While Jeremy Lamb’s torn ACL is painful news, Indiana has continued to roll of late, having won four in a row and 6-of-7. Part of the spark there is Victor Oladipo looking a little better each game (he had 19 points against Cleveland), at least until a right knee flare up has him out at least a game and maybe more. The Pacers have won two in a row to start 5-of-6 on the road, but things get tougher with the Bucks, Mavs, and 76ers coming up.
12. 76ers (37-25, LW 9). Philadelphia made a Christmas Day statement beating Milwaukee 121-109, improving to 23-10. Since that they are 14-15 with a -2.1 net rating, the defense has been solid but held back by a 24th-ranked offense (Shake Milton can only bail them out so much). That’s not getting better in the short term with Joel Embiid still out, and Ben Simmons is going to be out “a while” due to his lower back nerve issue, according to coach Brett Brown. The Sixers have slid back to sixth in the East, but the top priority is getting healthy before the playoffs.
13. Jazz (38-22, LW 11). The Jazz have the worst defense in the NBA since the All-Star break. That is some small sample size theater of just six games, but dead last is not good. Donovan Mitchell was single-handedly trying to cover that up scoring 30+ points in four straight games (until that streak ended Monday because he didn’t need to do that to beat the Cavs), but the Jazz need to get the defense fixed. A month ago I would have said Rudy Gobert is on his way to another DPOY award, but he and the Jazz have not looked great defensively of late and that door is now open for others to walk through.
14. Grizzlies (30-31, LW 17). Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Grizzlies a 13% chance of making the playoffs, that despite their three-game lead for the eight seed with 21 games to play (give or take, depending on the team). That’s because four teams — the Kings, Trail Blazers, Spurs, and Pelicans — are within four games of the Grizzlies, and every one of them has an easier schedule than Memphis. That’s why the Grizzlies upset of the Lakers was so critical, it was an unexpected win. It likely takes about 40 wins to get the last playoff spot, which means the Grizzlies need to go 10-11 the rest of the way. Do that and there’s no question Ja Morant is the Rookie of the Year (there probably isn’t anyway).
15. Pelicans (26-35, LW 14). There are a lot of fans around the league (and in executive offices at ESPN/TNT) who want the Pelicans to grab the eight seed and face the Lakers in the first round, which is why a loss like Tuesday’s to a struggling Minnesota team is a big setback. Now New Orleans has 5-of-6 on the road and against some quality teams such as the Mavericks and Clippers. That soft schedule everyone talks about with the Pels is the final dozen games or so of the season but they have to stay afloat until then to have a chance.
16. Magic (27-34, LW 16). Steve Clifford finds ways to make sure his team can compete, and throw in Aaron Gordon’s first career triple-double (against Minnesota) and this team looks like it can avoid Milwaukee in the first round. There is a 99% chance the Magic make the playoffs for the second straight year (according to fivethirtyeight.com) but that doesn’t negate the “what kind of team are they trying to build?” questions that the team will face this summer.
17. Nets (27-33, LW 15). Tuesday night’s comeback win against the Heat — sparked by Caris LeVert’s 51 — was the best win of the season for Brooklyn. That took some of the sting out of a recent four-game losing streak where the Nets had a chance to win three of those games late and fell short. Brooklyn is stumbling toward the finish line this season, but its eyes were always on next season anyway.
18. Kings (25-37, LW 18). Sacramento is surging, having won 6-of-7 to move within three games of the Grizzlies and ending the longest playoff drought in the NBA. The Kings have a top-10 offense and defense, leading to a +6.2 net rating, since the All-Star break. Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Kings a 15% chance of making the postseason, which is a lot better than things looked a couple of weeks ago.
19. Trail Blazers (27-35, LW 19). Damian Lillard is set to return to the lineup on Wednesday night after missing six games with a strained groin (only six because it happened just before the All-Star break). Portland went 2-4 in those games but remained within the striking distance of the Grizzlies and the playoffs if they got hot — now Lillard needs to light this fire (fivethirtyeight.com gives Portland a 19% chance of making the playoffs and taking on the Lakers in the first round).
20. Spurs (26-34, LW 21). Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Spurs just a 3% chance to come out of the pack and make the playoffs, maybe what they need is to have Tim Duncan as acting coach for more games, he is undefeated after all. Part of the reason for the pessimism around the Spurs chances is they have lost big man Jokob Poeltl for a few weeks to a month due to a right MCL sprain.
21. Wizards (22-38, LW 22). Bradley Beal is starting to get the James Harden treatment late in games, with teams throwing early double-teams at him to get the ball out of his hands and dare anyone else on the roster to beat them. The reason is obvious: Beal is red hot, averaging 36.2 points per game in February. Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Wizards a 10% chance of making the playoffs, but to get there they are going to need some help from Brooklyn (or Orland) coming back to the pack.
22. Suns (24-38, LW 20). The Suns have lost Kelly Oubre Jr., likely for the season, following surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, and after that the Suns have lost four in a row. That has all but killed the dreams of climbing up into the playoffs in Phoenix. One of those losses was at home to the Warriors (with both Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton on the court), the kind of loss teams in a tight playoff race cannot afford.
23. Pistons (20-42, LW 24). Great note from James Edwards III over at the Athletic: Tony Snell is 28-of-28 at the free throw line this season, only the second player in league history to have more than 25 attempts in a season without a miss. If he can get over 30 attempts without a miss, he will set a new NBA record for the most free throws in a season without a miss. Hopefully all the attention on this streak doesn’t jinx it.
24. Bulls (21-40, LW 23). Coby White continues to be red hot (even though his 30+ point a game streak ended) and it’s possible Lauri Markkanen will be back soon from his pelvis injury. None of that, however, as Bulls fans as pumped as the rumors there could be front office changes this summer. Gar Forman appears to be on the way out, but it looks like John Paxson will remain on as president. How much power the new GM has — and what it means for coach Jim Boylen’s future — will be something to watch.
25. Knicks (19-42, LW 28). The Knicks have had a couple of nice, promising wins this week: They beat the Bulls behind Mitchell Robinson‘s 23 points and 10 rebounds; then R.J. Barrett went off for 27 in an upset win against Houston. Unfortunately, nobody is talking about that because Knicks management got in a public pissing match with Spike Lee that the Knicks could not win. The Knicks need to keep their heads down and fix the on-court product, but they’ve needed to do that for years and here we are.
26. Hornets (21-40, LW 25). Devonte' Graham still has his moments, like the nine points in the fourth quarter against Toronto to spark an upset win last Friday, but the consistency of his game is not there. Charlotte remains one of the luckiest teams in the NBA this season, with the net rating of a 17-win team, but they have snuck out some close ones to boost that total.
27. Hawks (19-44, LW 26). Clint Capela has been approved for contact, but is at least two weeks away from stepping on the court — Atlanta still wants to see that this season, to jump start the Trae Young/Capela chemistry. In their last five games the Hawks have the third worst defense in the league, yet play at the fourth fastest pace, which means a lot of opponent points. Atlanta is 2-3 in those games.
28. Timberwolves (18-42, LW 29). They have turbocharged the offense since the All-Star break, playing at a nearly 108 possessions a game pace. In those games, 17.5% of their plays have started in transition, up from a middle-of-the-pack 14.3% for the season. The Timberwolves also have the second worst defense in the league since the break, meaning with the pace they are giving up a lot of points.
29. Cavaliers (17-44, LW 27). J.B. Bickerstaff started with a 3-1 record as the Cavaliers coach, but three straight losses have changed that dynamic (although they were competitive in a couple of those). Cleveland is going to have a high pick in a guard-heavy draft coming up this June, and after watching the Darius Garland/Collin Sexton backcourt for a season, this franchise has to take the best guy on the board regardless of position. There is no Luka or Zion on this roster, the Cavs need talent regardless of position.
30. Warriors (14-48 LW 30). Stephen Curry should return to the court this week, and even with the rust that adds a reason to watch this team play. Steve Kerr and the Warriors staff need to start assessing how Curry fits with Andrew Wiggins, and also with Eric Paschall (who could set some picks, roll, and possibly have some chemistry with Curry). The Warriors aren’t giving up the odds of a high pick with a couple more wins, and just having Curry back on the court will be good for the psyche of the team.