This week’s NBA Power Rankings come a day behind schedule due to unanticipated hindrances in the Helin household. However, nothing changes as the Bucks and Celtics remain on top, with Denver still the team to beat in the West even with Kevin Durant making his return.
1. Bucks (45-17, Last week No. 1). Winners of 16 in a row and the foundation of the streak remains the defense (best in the NBA over that stretch). They also have an insane 11.4 net rating for those 16 games. Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t miss any time with the sprained wrist — unless you count the All-Star Game as time, and nobody should — and only one game with the knee injury, which keeps the offense flowing (just 13th in the league during the streak, but good enough). Extending the streak means more than the big showdown with the 76ers on Saturday, they have another game against a Magic team playing better of late (5-5 in their last 10), sleep on games and they can be upset, and the Celtics remain on their heels.
2. Celtics (45-18, LW 2). Boston got to roll out its preferred starting lineup — Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Robert Williams III — for a whopping two games after the All-Star break (wins over the Pacers and 76ers) before Brown was out against the Knicks. It speaks to the depth and versatility of this team that they are in the mix for the best record in the league despite the disruptions — and that depth provides the versatility that will make them such a dangerous playoff team. A challenging week with the Nets, Knicks and at the Cavaliers on the schedule.
3. Nuggets (44-19, LW 5). Nikola Jokić may be the frontrunner for MVP but despite some recent polling don’t think he is not running away with the award — however his Nuggets are running away with the West. Denver has a 5 game lead over the Grizzlies and are four up in the loss column with 19 games to play. Back to the MVP race, that top seed one of the things — along with averaging a triple-double and his continuing insane on/off numbers — that Jokić needed to overcome the doubts of some voters about his candidacy for a third-straight MVP. Interesting showdown with the Grizzlies on Friday, a potential Western Conference Finals showdown.
4. 76ers (40-21, LW 3). While Jokić may be the frontrunner, Joel Embiid has a very strong MVP case — 33 points and 10.4 rebounds a game, plus elite defense. He won’t play that many fewer games and minutes than Jokić this season. Beyond an MVP candidate, if you’re looking for reasons to be positive about this team heading toward the playoffs, look at their +11.9 net rating (and 20-13 record) in clutch games this season, the fifth-best net rating in the league (despite recent close losses to the Celtics and Heat). Tough tests ahead this week with the Mavericks and Bucks, both games on the road (part of a five-game trip).
5. Grizzlies (38-23, LW 6). The Grizzlies have won three in a row, all comfortable wins, which is why they are back in the top five of these NBA Power Rankings. However, of concern come the playoffs is their -12.2 net rating in clutch games, 25th in the league. That number is about more than an offense that can become stagnant in a slowed-down, half-court setting; the Grizzlies’ defense has been bottom 10 in those clutch minutes as well. How the Grizzlies do in tight games over the season’s final weeks is something to watch. Tough tests on the road this week at Denver, then both Los Angeles teams.
6. Knicks (37-27, LW 10). Winners of seven in a row, including a quality win at home against the Celtics on Monday night — New York seems headed for at least the five seed in the East, and the four seed is not out of the question (they are just 1.5 games back of the Cavaliers). Whoever hosts, a first-round showdown with Cleveland seems the direction things are pointing. Jalen Brunson remains hot, averaging 27.1 points a game on 53.8% shooting over his last 10 games, hitting 43.4% from 3 and dishing out 5.9 assists a night. Big road showdowns over the weekend against the Heat and then the Celtics again.
7. Cavaliers (39-26, LW 4). Cleveland is the team with the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, which is a huge advantage in holding off the Knicks and keeping the No. 4 seed. The Cavaliers are 1-3 coming out of the All-Star break, although it’s a good sign they played the Celtics tight on Wednesday night thanks to 44 points from Donovan Mitchell (the Cavs play those Celtics again Monday, this time at home). They also have a couple of games against the Heat coming up, but the schedule does start to soften up in 10 days and could keep the Cavs home for the first round of the playoffs (likely against the Knicks).
8. Kings (36-25, LW 8). Mike Brown appears to be the man to beat for the Coach of the Year award, having steered this Kings roster to the three seed in the West — this is a team destined to host a first-round series in the playoffs. That is, unless they stumble down the stretch — and they do have the toughest remaining schedule in the conference (based on opponent winning percentage). That said, they still have a 4.5-game cushion over the fifth-seeded Warriors and should be able to hold them off the rest of the way. Also on postseason award watch, De'Aaron Fox appears the frontrunner for the new Clutch Player award handed out by the league. Rematch of that high-scoring, 2OT game Friday night against the Clippers.
9. Suns (34-29, LW 11). Kevin Durant made his Suns debut Wednesday and it couldn’t have gone much smoother — 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting (against what’s left of the Hornets, but still). Durant’s presence seemed to get Devin Booker better matchups, turned Chris Paul into more of a floor general and distributor than a shooter (which is a good thing), and it provides opportunities for Deandre Ayton. Just one game, but a good start. Fun test Sunday against the Mavericks.
10. Mavericks (32-31, LW 9). They are 1-4 so far with Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving in the lineup. As expected, the Mavs offense is top three in the league over that stretch, but it’s not able to cover up the bottom-10 defense. That was obvious in the blown 27-point lead against the Lakers, when LeBron James and Anthony Davis got to their spots without much resistance and made buckets. Also evident in that game, the Mavs have been awful in the clutch despite the pedigree of Dončić and Irving. They have some time to figure out the chemistry on this team, and Maxi Kleber‘s return soon should help the defense a little, but the Mavs are just going to have to outscore people to win.
11. Heat (33-30, LW 7). For all the talk of injuries and holes in the lineup, the biggest reason the Heat have fallen off this season is they inexplicably just can’t shoot 3s. Last season they shot 37.9% from deep on 35.8 attempts a game, this season it’s 33.2% on essentially the same volume (34.9 attempts per game). It’s across the board: Tyler Herro fell from 39.9% to 36.8%, Max Strus from 41% to 33.5%, Caleb Martin 41.3% to 36.3%, Gabe Vincent 36.8% to 31.8%, and Duncan Robinson went from 37.2% to out of the rotation shooting 32.5%. They need those shots, big week ahead with games against the Knicks and two against the Hawks.
12. Warriors (32-30, LW 14). The Warriors have impressively gone 5-4 (winning three straight) without Stephen Curry, and that is with Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green missing time in there as well. It has pushed them up to the fifth seed in the West as teams around them tumble. According to reports, Curry is nearing his return, but no date has been set (publicly, at least). Everyone is waiting for these Warriors to flip the switch — they particularly need to on the defensive end — and if it’s going to happen it better happen soon after whenever Curry returns because there isn’t a lot of time to build chemistry.
13. Clippers (33-31, LW 13). They are 0-3 since the addition of Russell Westbrook, but he is not the problem — he’s not perfect, but he’s averaging 16 points on efficient shooting and dishing out 9.3 assists a game since coming to Los Angeles. However, his presence at the point changes the pace and style of the Clippers’ offense and that has shown up in turnovers and losses (plus, he does not help their defense much). With 18 games to go it’s hard to tell who these Clippers are, it’s the same questions we have had about their identity all season. Things don’t get easier with the Warriors, Kings and Grizzlies next up this week.
14. Nets (34-28, LW 12). Losers of four in a row and 8-of-10, unsurprisingly the wheels have come off since the Irving and Durant trades (and despite a roster filled with solid role players). The Nets need to find some chemistry and their footing fast if they are going to hold off the Heat (or maybe the Hawks) for the No. 6 seed and avoid the play-in. If you’re looking for a bright spot, it’s the play of Mikal Bridges, who is averaging 23.8 points and 5.2 rebounds a game since coming to Brooklyn. The Nets have 6-of-7 coming up on the road (starting Friday in Boston).
15. Raptors (31-32, LW 18). The Raptors are 5-2 since the arrival of Jakob Poeltl, with the defense improving behind him finally giving the team a solid rim protector (he had six blocks against the Magic next week). However, the offense has fallen off and the team has a negative net rating over that span because of it. The Raptors need some wins to hold on to a postseason spot and try to climb up into at least the top eight, but they will have to do it on the road for the next five games, including two in Washington against the Wizards.
16. Hawks (31-31, LW 17). Quin Snyder lost his first game as Hawks head coach (to the Wizards), but Atlanta had a couple of days off, which allows Snyder time to practice and make some tweaks to offensive sets or defensive plans, although there is only so much he will have time to do before next training camp. Eventually there will be hard decisions to be made about Trae Young and where/how he fits in the Hawks’ long-term plans, however, the challenge directly in front of Atlanta is to hold on to a top-eight seed (making it easier to get out of the play-in) despite having the third toughest schedule in the East the rest of the way. Big games in Miami Saturday and Monday that will have seeding implications.
17. Timberwolves (32-32, LW 15). Watching this team in person — even during a win over the Clippers Tuesday — it was hard to see what the identity of this team is, what the plan is. Part of that may be due to the extended absence of Karl-Anthony Towns (and no, they are not planning to trade him, even if other teams are calling), but even so it’s hard to see the master plan. Mike Conley at the point does appear a better fit than D'Angelo Russell. The Timberwolves should be able to hold on to a top-eight seed in the West, but a win Friday over the Lakers would be a big boost along those lines.
18. Jazz (31-32, LW 20). Talen Horton-Tucker is getting his shot, he will be the starting point guard and primary playmaker for the Jazz the rest of the season. Horton-Tucker has always had an athletic burst and can score for himself, but can he take over a more classic playmaker role (the one Mike Conley filled for this team before he was traded). Even after another round of trades, the Jazz both remain in the play-in as of today (nine seed) and they are competitive and not just falling away behind the Lakers and Trail Blazers. If those teams are going to make the postseason, they are going to have to earn it.
19. Pelicans (31-32, LW 16). The Pelicans have gone 8-18 since Zion Williamson went out and — even with the return of Brandon Ingram — have looked like a team falling out of even the play-in (Wednesday’s win over Portland felt like a mild reversal of that trend). It doesn’t help now that Jose Alvarado (right shin stress fracture) and Larry Nance (sprained ankle) are missing time. Tough week ahead with the Warriors, Kings and Mavericks on the schedule.
20. Lakers 30-33, LW 24). No LeBron James for a couple of weeks due to a foot injury (no surgery, fortunately) has dampened the hype around this team’s play right out of the All-Star break. Still, the play-in is within reach — fivethirtyeight.com projects them as the nine seed at 41-41 — and the win against OKC without LeBron or Davis helped. Los Angeles is home for 10-of-12 and can make up some ground, and this Friday’s game against the Timberwolves takes on added importance in this chase.
21. Trail Blazers (29-33, LW 21). Damian Lillard is trying to will this team into the postseason and if that means dropping a career-high 71 points – tied for the most in the NBA this season – with 13 3-pointers, he’ll do it. That insane night from Lillard earned the Trail Blazers a win that snapped a two-game win streak at the expense of the stumbling Rockets. The Trail Blazers now head out on the road for six and need some wins to stay in the play-in mix.
22. Bulls (29-34, LW 22). There’s a case to be made these Bulls are better than their record indicates (and better than this ranking), mostly based around the fact they have the point differential of a 33-win team. It’s also been under-discussed how the Bulls have the fifth best defense in the NBA this season despite not having Lonzo Ball at the point all season — give coach Billy Donovan credit for that. The Bulls remain just one game out of the play-in and can get into the postseason if they go on a run, but it won’t be easy to start this week with the Suns and Nuggets two of their next three games.
23. Thunder (28-34, LW 19). The Thunder have dropped five in a row, the last four with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander out due to what the team has called an abdominal strain. They have now slid to 13th in the West and it’s hard to see them making up the needed ground fast enough to get into the play-in, which is disappointing. It’s going to be espeically difficult to start a run this week with two games against the Jazz, then the Warriors and the Suns to follow.
24. Wizards (29-32, LW 23). The Wizards are hanging on to the No. 10 seed in the East (it’s where fivethirtyeight.com projects them to finish), but after a win over Atlanta recently — and with three more meetings coming up — they have their eyes on climbing up to the No. 8 seed. Kristaps Porzingins returning to the lineup after a two-game absence (left knee soreness) will help with that. Tough week ahead with two against the Raptors then they face the Bucks, all on the road.
25. Magic 26-37, LW 25). Could the Magic make the playoffs? It’s a long shot, but they need to get on a hot streak (and they have the fourth toughest schedule in the East the rest of the way). Orlando is four games out of the final play-in spot, and they need to string together wins starting this week when they have a game against the bucks and one against Lillard and the Trail Blazers. The Magic need more plays like Wendell Carter Jr.‘s tip in of Paolo Banchero‘s missed layup at the buzzer to beat the Pistons.
26. Pacers (28-35, LW 26). Indiana is still within a couple of games of the last play-in spot and this is a team with an All-Star (and, in my book, All-NBA) player in Tyrese Haliburton, who keeps racking up assists. That is to say, there’s a chance, especially after beating Dallas on Tuesday. If they are going to make a run the upcoming games against the Spurs and Bulls are a chance to build some momentum and climb up in the standings.
27. Hornets (20-44, LW 27). They had won five in a row, but news that LaMelo Ball fractured his ankle and is done for the rest of the season has put a damper on any postseason dreams in Charlotte. They seemed locked into having the fourth worst record in the league this season, which would give them just under a 25% chance of landing one of the top two picks in the draft (those are two prized picks, Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson).
28. Pistons (15-48, LW 28). James Wiseman is getting a chance to prove himself in Detroit, and while he dropped 23 on the Hornets his efficiency has dropped with the expanded role in Detroit. If he’s looking like just a role player, it’s unlikely the Pistons would want to bring him back, they are deep along the front line already. The Pistons have lost six straight and face teams fighting for postseason in the Cavaliers, Trail Blazers and Wizards this week.
29. Rockets (13-49, LW 29). Losers of 10 in a row, the buzz continues about James Harden wanting to return to Houston in the offseason. There was a lot of speculation about it during All-Star weekend, and there are personal reasons as to why Harden would welcome a return to the Rockets. The interest appears to be mutual, but Philly can offer more money and a chance to contend. It will come down to what Harden prioritizes when this offseason hits.
30. Spurs (15-47, LW 30). The Spurs 16-game losing streak is over thanks to the Utah Jazz — all that losing is just not good for the mindset of young players or the psyche of their soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach. Mark the calendars for a battle for the bottom of these rankings — a home-and-home against Houston is on the schedule this week.