With just one game remaining for most teams, the NBA season is only starting to heat up. Sixteen of the league’s best teams will go on in pursuit of an NBA title, while the remaining squads prepare for free agency and the draft.
Power rankings are fairly straightforward at this point in the year. All but one playoff spot has been filled, and the 15 teams already guaranteed a postseason appearance have proved to be the best teams in the league this season. Despite that fact, one playoff squad remains outside the top 16 in our late-season power rankings.
The top of the list holds few surprises, however. The Miami Heat have been truly dominant this season, and they enter the playoffs the prohibitive favorites to take the NBA title for the second straight year.
While the rest of the top five contains extremely talented squads, each has some question marks with the playoffs on the horizon. The San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks are all battling injuries that could spell an early playoff exit. As we have seen so many times before, depth (or lack of it) can make or break a team’s playoff chances.
Let’s take a look at the full power rankings for the end of the regular season and highlight a couple of teams that could be especially dangerous when the playoffs begin.
1. Miami Heat
Back-to-back championship runs are rare, but Miami has the team to do it. With the best regular-season record in the league and a well-rested roster, the Heat are in prime position to march through the playoffs and into the Finals. Expect Miami to trounce Milwaukee in less than six games in the first round.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
There’s nothing to suggest Oklahoma City can’t cruise into the finals. With a 9.4-point scoring differential and a road record almost as impressive as their home mark, the Thunder have the makings of a destructive playoff squad with championship aspirations.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Age was always going to be an issue for the Spurs. They were fortunate to avoid injuries early in the year, but the end of the season hasn’t been so kind. Still, is there really a good reason to doubt Tim Duncan and Co.?
4. Denver Nuggets
It took Denver an entire season to earn the respect it deserves. With the No. 3 seed nearly locked up, the Nuggets won’t be taken lightly in the playoffs. Golden State shouldn’t feel good about its potential first-round pairing.
5. New York Knicks
Has anyone been more impressive than Carmelo Anthony in recent weeks? The probable NBA scoring champion hasn’t scored less than 25 points in any game in the last two weeks, and that stretch includes three games of 40-plus points. With continued contributions from J.R. Smith, the Knicks won’t be easy to slow down in the playoffs.
6. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have come on at the perfect time in the season, notching five wins in the last two weeks. As long as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can stay healthy, the potential matchup between Los Angeles and Memphis will be one of the premier first-round series to watch.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
As well as the Clippers have been playing (particularly against the Grizzlies), Memphis isn’t in an ideal spot. Neither Denver nor Los Angeles will be easy teams to take down in a seven-game series.
8. Indiana Pacers
Strong defensive squads are always dangerous in the playoffs, and there may not be a better one right now than the Indiana Pacers. Second in points allowed (90.5) and first in rebounds per game (45.9), the Pacers won’t be faced with any overwhelming matchups in the early going.
9. Brooklyn Nets
The Nets have been enigmatic this season. They have the talent to be extremely dangerous in the playoffs, but they haven’t consistently displayed the elite level of play to expect anything more than a second-round exit.
10. Houston Rockets
James Harden’s impressive play this season is the only indication that the Rockets can be a threat in the playoffs. Houston is simply too young and inexperienced to get past San Antonio in a seven-game series. Just don’t expect the same story next year. Houston is a team with a very bright future.
11. Golden State Warriors
I keep trying to find a reason to count out Golden State in the playoffs (apart from a potential matchup with Denver), but Stephen Curry is making that awfully difficult. Between his phenomenal season and solid contributions from David Lee and Klay Thompson throughout the season, I’ll hold off making judgements about the Warriors’ playoff chances for now.
12. Chicago Bulls
You’d need extra fingers to count all the times Chicago has been written off this year. Despite the doubters, the Bulls have continued to battle for their playoff positioning and are looking at no worse than the No. 6 seed in the East. Additionally, the drama of a potential Derrick Rose return has subsided, and Chicago can now focus on playing basketball.
13. Los Angeles Lakers
The roller coaster that is Los Angeles’ season now continues without Kobe Bryant, but the Lakers seem to have found a new sense of purpose since his injury. Dwight Howard is the team’s life jacket, and he has risen to the occasion thus far. The only question is how long he can hold up under the pressure.
14. Boston Celtics
The Celtics and Knicks are sure to put on an exciting first-round series—but that’s the only positive spin for Boston. Without Rajon Rondo, besting the surging Knicks will be a monumental task, especially with Anthony playing his best basketball of the season.
15. Atlanta Hawks
The fact that Atlanta made it this far is a victory in and of itself. Given the Hawks’ playoff positioning and a pairing with Brooklyn in the first round, the wins may not stop there. Just don’t expect a deep playoff run should they get past the Nets in the opening frame.
16. Utah Jazz
Utah picked a great time to start playing its best basketball of the season. Unfortunately, it may not be enough. The Jazz are a game back of the Lakers with one to play, and their 8-2 record in the last 10 games may have been too little, too late.
17. Dallas Mavericks
The second non-playoff squad in the rankings, Dallas couldn’t quite hit its stride early enough to crack the top eight in the West. Mark Cuban made the right decision by not blowing things up at the trade deadline, but that doesn’t make things any easier with the playoffs out of reach.
18. Milwaukee Bucks
Despite a playoff spot, Milwaukee may as well pack it up and prepare for the offseason. The Bucks aren’t playing particular well as it is, and they face a well-rested Miami squad in the first round. Milwaukee will have to wait a little longer for that elusive playoff series victory.
19. Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia’s hopes were high heading into the season, but they had no way of anticipating Andrew Bynum missing the entire year. Even without Bynum, the 76ers showed enough potential to be a strong squad next season. They just have some work to do this offseason to make that happen.
20. Minnesota Timberwolves
The story remains the same in Minnesota. Injuries and an inconsistent rebuilding model keep the Timberwolves floating below the cut line, with the playoffs well out of reach. Fortunately, Ricky Rubio is playing like the star Minnesota had hoped he would be, and Kevin Love should be back as healthy as ever next season.
21. Portland Trail Blazers
It was hard not dropping Portland near the bottom of the power rankings this time around. The Trail Blazers have dropped 11 straight after showing a lot of promise for much of the season. While they were never that close to playoff contention, it would have been nice to see the Trail Blazers close out the season on a good note, especially with a group of young talent in place for the coming seasons.
22. Washington Wizards
Did anyone actually expect John Wall to come back as strong as he did? With the star point guard in the fold next season (and hopefully long-term), the Wizards at least have a chance to make a playoff push in the near future. The East shouldn’t be any more challenging next year, and the Wizards will be a team to watch.
23. Toronto Raptors
Lack of continuity was a big hindrance for the Raptors this season, but things should go much more smoothly with a strong core in place and an offseason to prepare for 2013-14. Despite a roster shake-up and some inconsistency issues in the middle of the season, Toronto still didn’t miss the playoffs by that much.
24. Detroit Pistons
Detroit’s offseason focus should revolve around finding a couple of perimeter scorers to open things up. The Pistons are extremely young, but they have enough good young talent to make next year’s Eastern Conference playoff race a lot more interesting.
25. Sacramento Kings
It’s hard to find a silver lining for the Kings this year. Between a season lacking any real direction and the prospects of a potential move, Sacramento fans don’t have much to be happy about.
26. Phoenix Suns
The only thing that could have brightened a dismal season in Phoenix would have been an extra pick courtesy of the Lakers. Instead, the Suns are just another well-below-.500 team with a ton of work to do this offseason. Expect some big moves to reshape this roster before next season.
27. Cleveland Cavaliers
The losses of Anderson Varejao, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters (at different points in the season) showed just how far the Cavs are from being a true contender. When healthy, Cleveland’s roster is packed with potential, but it’s going to take some serious work to get into contention going forward.
28. New Orleans Hornets
Which team has the best chance of upending Miami should it make the NBA finals?
New Orleans is the perfect example of a team with plenty of potential and big questions about how to put it all together. Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon are enough reason to be hopeful, though. The Pelicans should be a much better team next season.
29. Orlando Magic
Orlando’s season wasn’t all bad. Losing Dwight Howard was obviously going to be a big stumbling block, but the Magic are now in a position to start fresh and truly rebuild. There’s enough young talent on their roster to at least keep the door open to the possibility of a much better season in 2013-14.
30. Charlotte Bobcats
If Charlotte fans are looking for a bright spot, another top draft pick will have to suffice. Fortunately, there will be plenty of talent at the top of the lottery this year, and the Bobcats will have another chance to grab a superstar in the making. At some point it all has to come together, right?