Updated Western Conference Power Rankings, Post-Tony Parker Injury
Tony Parker's projected one-month absence from the San Antonio Spurs lineup has shuffled up the Western Conference power rankings, but his ankle injury isn't the only wild card teams out West have been dealt.
The Denver Nuggets have continued their surge, happy to have a few games at home after a road-heavy early slate. And the Oklahoma City Thunder sent a message with a tough road win over another elite team in the West.
Throw in the precipitous drop suffered by the Golden State Warriors and the latest signs of life from Kobe Bryant and the L.A. Lakers, and there's some real fluidity to the conference's hierarchy. With only a few weeks before the postseason, nothing seems certain.
Well, that's not entirely true; the Sacramento Kings are still the worst team in the West. Amid so many recent shakeups, at least something seems stable.
15. Sacramento Kings
Well, the Sacramento Kings have the conference's worst record, biggest negative point differential and almost no idea where they'll be playing their home games next season.
Other than that, things are humming along royally in Sac-Town.
There are far too many crippling issues to list in this space, but one of the biggest has been the Kings' atrocious defensive numbers this year. Despite plenty of size, youth and athleticism, Sacramento currently sports the NBA's worst defensive efficiency rating.
The 109.3 points per 100 possessions the Kings surrender means one of two things: Either Keith Smart can't communicate defensive principles to his players, or said players aren't interested in listening.
Either way, something's clearly wrong.
Get used to the cellar, Kings; you're going to be there for a long, long time.
14. Phoenix Suns
The only real threat to the Kings in the dysfunction department is the Phoenix Suns. Coach Lindsey Hunter's appointment to the head coaching chair came amid some controversy to begin with, and little has gone smoothly since he took over.
Hunter can't seem to settle on sensible rotations, Michael Beasley continues to do Michael Beasley things and the organization's biggest selling point is that it can trot out a pair of identical twins as a forward tandem.
Oh, and perhaps the biggest issue is that the team simply lacks top-end talent.
Goran Dragic is a nice player, but there's really not enough skill around him for that to matter. Until the Suns sort out their coaching situation and commit to a viable rebuilding plan, they're going to be right down at the bottom of the conference alongside the Kings.
At least the two teams, clearly a notch below everyone else in the West, can keep each other company in the basement.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves
Derrick Williams has started to look like a player over the past couple of weeks, averaging 17.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game in his last 10 contests. But aside from his emergence and the impressive production of Ricky Rubio, the Minnesota Timberwolves have little cause for hope.
Perhaps Kevin Love's return next year and a bit of improved injury luck overall will help the Wolves reach the potential many thought they'd achieve this season.
At this point, though, they're just playing out the string.
12. New Orleans Hornets
If you squint a little bit, it's starting to look like all of the pieces are in place for the New Orleans Hornets.
Anthony Davis appears to be every bit of the rebounder and interior presence he was when the Hornets grabbed him with the No. 1 pick, and there are some nice complementary players around him. If Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Greivis Vasquez all continue to grow and play well together, New Orleans could be in for a big leap next season.
Of course, it's also possible that Gordon finally forces his way off of the Hornets and Vasquez's big season is a "good stats, bad team" mirage.
Still, the Hornets have far more hope than the three teams beneath them.
11. Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard hasn't maintained his excellent early play, largely because he's had to shoulder such a huge load without any bench help whatsoever.
J.J. Hickson has continued to get his numbers in a contract year, and LaMarcus Aldridge's sweet stroke still looks good. But until there's something resembling a supporting cast around the focal points in Portland, the Blazers won't come close to threatening the postseason.
Losers of eight of their past 10 games, it looks like what little momentum Portland had established before the All-Star break is totally gone.
10. Dallas Mavericks
Let's be honest; the Dallas Mavericks were never playing for this year. With a bevy of one-year deals and no true stars alongside Dirk Nowitzki, it's been clear for some time that Mark Cuban's club is positioning itself financially for an offseason run at some free agents this summer.
It's nice that Dallas has strung together a few more wins of late, but with a significant span between it and the bottom tier of the West's playoff teams, there's really not a lot to take from the Mavs' improved play in February.
They're looking forward to starting over next year with a new cast around Nowitzki. Hopefully the .500 beards will be gone by then, too.
9. L.A. Lakers
Stop me if you've heard this one before, but it appears that the L.A. Lakers are showing signs of life. Usually, that sort of proclamation is followed by a quick three-game skid, but maybe the Lakers are really ready to make that final playoff push.
Until they're firmly entrenched in the No. 8 spot in the West, it's just too much of a stretch to rank them any higher than ninth, though.
With Kobe Bryant somehow showing no signs of wear in the tail end of his 17th season, there's a real chance that L.A. sneaks into the postseason. But everyone's been burned by anointing them too soon this season.
If and when they climb over the Houston Rockets, they'll warrant an improved spot. But they won't earn one until then.
8. Golden State Warriors
Don't be fooled by the No. 6 seed next to the Golden State Warriors in the standings, they're in a tailspin right now.
Losers of four straight, Golden State has essentially stopped defending, given up on the boards and lost any semblance of offensive continuity. Stephen Curry's offensive outburst over the last week has been as much a symptom of his own skill as it has the team's total lack of rhythm.
With Andrew Bogut sidelined (again) for the foreseeable future, the Warriors will be lucky to hang on to their tenuous grasp on a playoff spot. And if they can't get things straightened out during an upcoming homestand, watch out.
Things could really spiral out of control then.
7. Utah Jazz
With Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap ailing, the Utah Jazz have managed to play near .500 ball in recent weeks. That's all fine, but in order to avoid some slippage in the season's stretch run, they're going to have to pick things up a bit.
Enes Kanter had a monster 20-20 game against the Charlotte Bobcats, and the injuries to Jefferson and Millsap don't figure to linger, so there's a pretty good chance the Jazz will finish strong.
They'll have to do that to fend off challenges from the Lakers and Houston Rockets.
6. Houston Rockets
Everybody's favorite run-and-gun team has had some bad luck lately, with a buzzer-beating three by Monta Ellis last week coming first to mind.
Nonetheless, the Rockets have steadily improved their peripheral numbers, bumping their differential up to plus-2.9 points per game and looking very tough to beat at home.
Having traded just about all of the players in their power forward rotation, the Rockets are going to have to either rely on the unproven talents of Donatas Motiejunas at the 4 or play small. If they opt for the latter down the stretch, expect the high scores and huge three-point attempt numbers to rise even higher.
If Houston can get some shots to fall, it'll pose a serious threat to move up these rankings before the season ends. As it is, the Rockets are in good shape right now.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
Don't be fooled by the Memphis Grizzlies' recent eight-game winning streak (which ended when the Grizz fell to the Miami Heat on March 1); Memphis beat only two playoff teams in that stretch.
Scoring is a massive problem for this team, but excellent defense tends to compensate for that shortcoming. Against weaker opponents, the Grizzlies simply rely on stifling D to generate points in transition. But that doesn't work against superior competition.
The Grizzlies aren't going to fall off just yet, with five easy games coming up on their schedule. But when mid-March rolls around, look out; the playoff opponents come fast and furious. Expect Memphis to drop below their current No. 4 seed in the West before the postseason starts.
4. Denver Nuggets
The team many pundits predicted would approach 60 wins this year won't quite reach that plateau, but thanks to a mile-high home-court advantage, the Denver Nuggets are looking like a team capable of securing a top-four slot in the West.
Ty Lawson downed the Oklahoma City Thunder with a gutsy buzzer-beater on March 1, and the Nuggets have won six of their last 10 games.
With a home-heavy schedule to close the season, watch for the Nuggets to continue their recent rise.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Perched firmly atop the Western Conference standings and cruising on the road to another 60-win season, the San Antonio Spurs looked poised to chase their fifth NBA title this year. But when Tony Parker sprained his left ankle on March 1, everything changed.
Parker will miss about four weeks of time, but that's not the real issue for the Spurs. The biggest concern is that Parker won't be at 100 percent for the postseason.
San Antonio thrives on execution and a very specific offensive system, much of which depends on Parker's ability to put pressure on the defense by penetrating. Without him flying all over the court, the Spurs have to rely even more heavily on Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to create looks for their cast of role-playing shooters.
That's a cumbersome load to place on two guys whose combined age is over 70.
The Spurs have slipped from the top spot for now, and if Parker can't come back at full strength, they're not likely to reclaim it.
2. L.A. Clippers
With the Spurs coming down a peg, the L.A. Clippers had a chance to make a move on the top spot in our power rankings.
Despite winning four straight and eight of their last 10, the Clips just couldn't defend their home court against the faster, meaner and apparently more determined Oklahoma City Thunder on March 3.
L.A.'s winning streak ended, and so did any real chance it had of sending a message to the rest of the conference.
The Clippers are going to have to settle for second best, a position they've grown accustomed to over the years as a second-class citizen to the Lakers in L.A.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder assumed the throne in the West by taking a hard-fought game against the Clippers in L.A. on March 3.
Kevin Durant poured in 35 points and Russell Westbrook played a relatively controlled game on the way to 29 points, 10 assists and six rebounds.
Coming into the matchup, it would have been possible to argue that L.A. and OKC were in a virtual dead heat for supremacy in a post-Parker-injury Western Conference, but now it's clear that the Thunder are a cut above the Clips.